Sonic Youth Slept on my Floor – Music and Mayhem in Madchester with Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam
Manchester in the late 80s was the focus of the musical universe. Bands like the Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses were shaking up the industry with their fresh sounds and eye capturing antics. The head church where the followers of this emerging scene went to worship was the Hacienda nightclub, the premier venue for new music and amazing experiences. A man who knows more than most about this time was Dave Haslam, he DJ’d at the fabled cub around 500 times and was deeply entrenched in all the major happenings there. In his new book, Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor, he recounts his life in the industry, starting out as a young fanzine editor in Manchester interviewing and getting to know the likes of Morrissey and Joy Division, then getting his break spinning records for adoring crowds during a truly golden era in the city. We spoke to Dave recently about his incredible life in music.
The MALESTROM: Why was the Hacienda such a special place?
Dave Haslam: It was open for over fifteen years, which is a long time for a club. It went through various incarnations as I describe in the book. Obviously people probably know it best for the end of the 80s, the rave scene and the Madchester era. And at that point it did feel like the centre of the music universe to be honest. Earlier in the 80s it was always very creative but it wasn’t commercially successful in any way. Even at the end it was creative but again not commercially successful, so it was always a great place to be around. The thing was we never knew what was going to happen next, there was a lot of unpredictability about it. It was really great to be around in ’87 and ’88 and watch a whole music revolution begin at a time when it was so new we didn’t really have words to describe the genres we were playing.
For us it was just a matter of trying to make each week better than the week before, we didn’t really have time to think about anything else. Actually that sense of spontaneity and fun is what I remember, just week in, week out, making it as good as we could. I always think it’s lucky for us in a way that we didn’t have an inkling in 88 & 89, that era, that it would be remembered 30 years later. If we had we’d have probably struggled to know what to play because we’d have been so conscious about it. What do you play to make your place in history? Who knows? So all we could do was do something different and do something quality.
TM: One thing mentioned in your book is that you never tried to play anything too obvious that got a lot of radio play. Was it difficult to curate that special eclectic mix when you played?
DH: It wasn’t that difficult because many clubs in Manchester and elsewhere weren’t ambitious, you’d probably hear the same obvious, lowest common denominator records playing. The thing about that era though was it was that it was very tribal, so you could search things out. And you could go to what might call a Goth club and you might hear The Stooges or something, but you’d also hear a lot of stuff that I didn’t get at all. But then I’d go to an electro funk night and I’d hear Don’t Make Me Wait by Peech Boys and you’d be turned onto that. I think what we all did at the Hacienda when it became more of a club space rather than a live music space from 86 onwards, we tried to draw in all those different tribes.
So in terms of what to play, it was a case of I went out a lot and I’d hear what other DJs would play… as I describe in the book it was hard to access a lot of stuff, we relied very heavily on Eastern Block records, Piccadilly Records and other record shops like Spin In. Those places were where any DJ would have to spend hours, literally every week, listening to the new releases. And the staff in those shops, you’d hope, would get on your wavelength and recommend stuff to you. That was kind of like our research, there wasn’t any other way of doing it. I spent more time in record shops than I did in nightclubs, you had to, for me it was all about the special records. Even now I meet people for who particular records that I played at a particular time 25-30 years ago in a club, they still remember them, they associate that song with me playing at either the Hacienda or the Boardwalk where I played a lot in Manchester as well.
TM: That must be a nice feeling when people say that?
DH: I actually met someone the other day in Paris, one of my first gigs there was probably around 1991. I’d never met this guy and I was introduced to him, he said, “you DJ’d at the Locomotive in 1991 and played I Wanna Be Your Dog by The Stooges in the middle of a techno set, it was amazing.” And he’s carried that memory around with him all that time. It was because I’d do something disruptive like that, it could have been another techno night, but by doing what all other Factory related people were encouraged to do which was to be different and push things, then yeah, I was mad enough, or inspired enough to play The Stooges in the middle of a dance music set.
TM: You’ve obviously played all over the world but how different a feeling was it playing the Hacienda? Was it distinctly different from other places?
DH: What was different was we were resident DJs, which is something you don’t get too often now. I played at the Hacienda between 450 to 500 times, and I think I only played alongside a guest DJ on ten occasions. All the rest of the time it was either me for five hours, or me and one of the other resident DJs splitting a five hour set between us, and that was what enabled us to go on a personal journey and take the crowd with us. It was very much about us and the audience, I think we managed to attract and then nurture and keep a really good audience who didn’t want to hear the same records every week, they didn’t want to hear the popular stuff, they trusted us to find the music for their night out. So I think what was special about the club is that we were allowed to build that trust with the audience and that’s what enabled us to do what we did. Nowadays most of the sets that I play are as a guest DJ, as most club experiences are these days, you turn up somewhere either as a DJ or a member of the audience and there’s three or four DJs from out of town each doing an hour and a half. And that’s a very different type of DJing than being a resident playing for five hours.
TM: You say the audience didn’t want to hear the same music over and over but was there a record you knew would get the crowd going?
DH: There were certainly records throughout the 80s and 90s and still that I like to seize upon and play in the hope that people haven’t heard them necessarily before and no other DJs are playing them, so the Colourbox Official World Cup Theme was one, there was a song by Marathon called Movin which was from 1991, a similar record that I would play a lot. DJing is all about the choice of records, especially now as the technology is there to enable a DJ to deliver a playlist in a half decent way. But what actually is the playlist is totally in the hands of the DJ, so he or she needs to know how to pick the tunes but also play them in such an order that it works.
TM: In terms of your experiences at the Hacienda, in the book you detail some slightly hairy moments. What was the strangest or craziest thing you saw in there?
DH: Like you say there are a lot of them in the book. I guess the two polarities were on one occasion a girl came into the DJ box and took her clothes off and on the other end of the scale you have the guy who knocked on the DJ box door and threatened me with a gun, so those are the kind of two extremes. There was a guy called Paul Cons who I talk quite a bit about in the book and he’s someone who probably doesn’t get mentioned as often in Hacienda stories as we know them. He was the man responsible for running the events and marketing the club, he used to get bored of the resident DJs every week because it gave him nothing to do, so he’d book extra stuff like a contortionist. He actually flew a contortionist all the way over from New York just to tie herself up in knots on the Hacienda stage for ten minutes on the Hacienda stage on a Saturday night and then flew her back to New York. He didn’t tell anyone he was doing that it just kind of happened and that was pretty surreal, I quite liked the nights where me and the audience would leave not being quite sure if it had all been a dream or a normal Saturday night out.
TM: One of the early stories in the book was about witnessing the last Joy Division gig. Retrospectively that must have been poignant?
DH: I think the interesting thing in writing the book was how many things I’ve done retrospectively that seem amazing but at the time obviously I didn’t realise how amazing. I didn’t know the Joy Division gig at High Hall in Birmingham would be the last one. I didn’t know that the Hacienda Saturday night on June the 28th was going to be the very last Hacienda night, I didn’t know when Morrissey came round for tea that he was going to become a huge rock star, I quite like that about the book that these things that seem quite mundane and instinctive end up having a value and significance later. In a way that’s why the book’s called Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor, it’s that weird mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary, that a band from America needed somewhere to stay, they stayed with me and went on to become a huge cult, for me that’s how the whole book pans out.
TM: The account of your friend Nathan trying to cop off with Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon is great…
DH: He was one of the people I sent an early version of the book to. He was quite happy with how he was portrayed in the book. I think everyone in the book I have a lot of fondness for. There’s a cast of a hundred characters, many of them are friends of mine, some of them are household names now, some of them aren’t. They’re all people who left their mark on me and inspired me in different ways. Somebody like Nathan who was my mate for a couple of years in the mid 80s, he was managing the Happy Mondays at that point and crossing paths with people like that was a really important part of my life. I think we’re all interesting people, but we’re all floored in some ways. None of us are really in control of our destiny and that’s the unknown people to the ones that turned out to be rock stars.
TM: You mentioned Morrissey before. From what you write about him in the book you both seemed to gel quite well?
DH: Yeah, I met him in 83, just before This Charming Man came out and he came round to my flat, we went out for drinks, he used to phone me up and occasionally he’d take sanctuary in the DJ box if he was on a night out. Actually I liked him a lot, he was very humorous company, very good company and a very quirky young man. I don’t really recognise the Morrissey of today at all. It’s one of the big unsolved mysteries of my life how that lovely young man turned out the way that he has. All you can do with a book is write about how you honestly felt at the time, and although Morrissey isn’t my favourite person at the moment, because I fundamentally disagree with a lot of the stuff that he spouts, the honest thing was the band made a big impact on me, him and Jonny Marr and the others all did. In that era I was a little fanzine boy and all of them were really friendly.
TM: When you were doing interviews for your fanzine Debris was there anyone who was a bit more unreceptive as an interviewee, or did you find most people were all right across the board?
DH: People do say don’t meet your heroes, but I have to say in the early eighties when I was a fanzine editor right through to now when I get the chance to interview David Byrne or John Lydon I can’t really think of any who in fact didn’t exceed my expectations, most of them did. I’ve really enjoyed meeting my heroes; some of them give a better interview than others. There are times when I do stage interviews where maybe the guest isn’t as warm or as chatty than other people, but I don’t really mind that because that’s just the way they are.
TM: Reading your interview with Mark E. Smith, that seemed a bit tricky…
DH: That was a tricky one, when I interviewed Mark, which was probably six or seven times, all I wanted was to get out of the interview without him punching me basically. Not that he was prone to violence, but his default communication, especially with a man, was to be quite antagonistic and aggressive, that’s just how he was. So if he spent an hour taking the piss out of me that was fine, because that was better than an hour of him being really aggressive with me. But he was one of those people when you interviewed him that you had to be completely 100 per cent alert, otherwise he’d kind of eat you up basically.
TM: Who have you looked up to in the business? You mentioned John Peel, who influenced you?
DH: Well I think John Peel and Tony Wilson, I thought of them both as a lot older than me, because when you’re 20 someone who’s 30 or 35 seems like a previous generation, so I did look up to them. Peel I met a few times but only really knew at a distance, but his influence was via the radio show and the way that he opened up my ears to a whole lot of stuff. Tony obviously I had a totally different relationship with because I worked with and for him for so long that we had that we had a slightly problematic relationship, like anyone that worked with someone like that in a very pressurised situation – you don’t DJ at a club like the Hacienda 450 times and not be in situations that are pretty high pressured. So my relationship with Tony as I write about in the book as honestly as I can, was a little bit of a roller coaster. But even when he wasn’t talking to me or bad mouthing me, I was always inspired by him. If you’re in Manchester it’s easier to understand what an impact Factory Records and the Hacienda had on the city than if you’re on the outside. I think if you took the Factory story and the Hacienda story out of Manchester it would leave a massive creative hole and the past, present, future of the city would be completely different. Although there was a lot of people involved in that project, Tony was absolutely key to all that, so he’s someone that I definitely wanted to pay homage to in the writing of the book.
TM: In terms of the gap you mentioned that the Hacienda would leave if it hadn’t happened, it’s not just music – you’re talking culturally, the impact that it had?
DH: Yeah I think the generation who grew up through the 60s and 70s felt that music was one part of the world of ideas and it was a central part to the world of ideas, but it wasn’t the only thing, and the connections between music and fashion, music and politics and music and culture generally were important – you know Tony was a big fan of Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols and he’d seen how music in 1976/77 had really knocked the world off its axis in many ways. You know it changed the music industry, it changed fashion, it changed design, it changed peoples attitudes to their careers and their lives and I think that was one of the reasons why he had such high hopes for the Hacienda, as I say as DJs we were pretty much heads down, sort the music, make the music as amazing as possible whereas he had a much bigger perspective and it was always about, yeah changing the world, but I was fifteen years younger than him I didn’t necessarily think that was possible let alone think it was something me and a small group of people hanging out in a record shop might be able to do.
TM: Tell us a bit about your experiences with the other bands, obviously The Happy Mondays you had a lot of contact with, mainly because their lackeys kept stealing and then ransoming your fax machine – what was it like dealing with them?
DH: Well I mean it’s chaotic really, the Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses for different reasons, I mean they’re the most well known of the bands from that generation. For me I was hooked by that time on watching bands grow and there’s nothing better as music fan than seeing a band at an early stage in their career onstage maybe at that point where they’re still learning how to play, they’ve only just started writing songs, they wear their influences on their sleeve, they haven’t really become who they would later become and to be able to watch them evolve get a record deal and make a video, and be on Top of the Pops and then start filling major venues, it’s just a brilliant thing to witness you know, and it’s nothing really in particular to do with that era or those particular bands, I think whatever era you’re in or whatever bands you follow, that experience of watching a band grow and evolve and just that thrill of being somewhere and suddenly there’s a room full of complete strangers who’ve queued up and paid money to see these people.
To watch that evolution was a real honour really, you know whatever you think of the bands – I mean I think the Happy Mondays were a great live act because they always seemed to be on the verge of collapse, The Stone Roses I think they just actually surfed a wave that they half created and were just, the right band at the right time and the look of them and the potential of them was huge. So they were great bands to be around and I think they very much connected with their audiences as well. I always felt that watching the band grow but also watching their ability to grow with an audience was great.
TM: You DJ’d at some of their legendary gigs like Spike Island, that’ve gone down in music folklore, that even had a film made about it, how was that?
DH: Well it was difficult writing the book coming to some of the events where, as you say, there’s already films been made or books written and there’s no point me just saying what everyone else has said, so I write about very much from my own perspective. I mean Spike Island was a great event to be part of because it felt like the moment a generation had been waiting for, but the gig at Blackpool was probably one of my favourite ever gigs, The Stone Roses at Blackpool which was the year before, I write about from the perspective of DJing. Spike Island, I’d never played to twenty thousand people before and I remember queuing up the first record and actually seeing my hand shaking as I dropped the needle to the record, but at the same time I knew the music would work because it was an audience that I’d seen grow, the Hacienda audience in a lot of ways.
TM: Was that one of those moments where retrospectively it was a seminal moment, but at the time you didn’t quite realise it?
DH: Well I think in the case of Spike Island I didn’t enjoy it mainly because I was working, for me a lot of those events – if I’m a part of something I want my participation to really count and I want to do my job well, so Spike Island for me I was anxious about the records not jumping. They’d built a very unsophisticated little structure of scaffolding for the DJs and I was just bothered it was going to collapse and also what time is the band going to come on? So when you’re DJing you’re trying to build an audience so that when the band come on, everyone is absolutely in the right place, so you’ve got all this stuff in your head that means you’re not really able to take a step back and enjoy it like everyone else. I think that’s one of the strange things about that era – I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I perhaps ought to have been because I was too involved in a way.
TM: You’re obviously still very much involved in the music industry, are there any Manchester bands at the moment that you think could be the next big thing?
DH: Well the thing that I remember about the 80s for example is I never really was looking out for bands that were the next big thing, I was just looking out for bands that floated my boat and some of them went on to be the next big thing and some of them didn’t. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of looking for the next big thing as a way of experiencing music, especially as I tend to like bands in their early years. In the book I talk about Everything Everything as a band who I saw play in front of literally three or four people at a venue called The Roadhouse, and the last time I saw them they filled The Apollo, so in a way their journey has been quite similar to the Happy Mondays. And I got as much of a kick out of that than I did with the Mondays.
TM: Finishing up with the Hacienda, what was it like when it shut? Did it feel like the end of an era?
DH: If I’m honest when it shut down it was probably the right time, I mean I was working there every Saturday, so in some ways I wish it had stayed open so I could continue to earn off it, but fifteen years is a very long time for a club. I think the Hacienda created various moments throughout those fifteen years, but a lot of people had caught up with us – the club was pioneering, we were the blueprint – but by ’97 when we closed just down the road in Liverpool CREAM was just the most amazing super club and actually they were booking great DJs and doing things in a very inspiring way and hats off to them.
The Hacienda by that time, we’d had so much history, everything we’d tried to do people were always relating to what had gone before and that’s kind of quite difficult, if you’re surrounded by people who just want it to be 1989 again and it’s 1997, what can you do? A club like the Hacienda should always keep moving forward, and I think by 1997 we’d kind of hit a bit of a dead end to be honest. I sensed at the time that even for Tony Wilson, he didn’t even fight for the club to stay open, for him I think he realised it had had its moment and done what it was going to do and we should all move on, and certainly, well, that’s what I’ve tried to do.
TM: Do you think we’ll ever see its like again, or is it just a stand-alone thing?
DH: Well I think there’s lots of great nights out, there’s lots of clubs, going back to what we were saying before, it’s only in retrospect that these things can be picked up on. I mean around ’97 when we closed or maybe just a bit before then The Bluenote in London was where Goldie and all his crew were playing the kind of music that even now is probably the most influential music of the last twenty years and they were busy nights, but people at the time weren’t necessarily aware of what was going on and it’s only in retrospect that you pick up on these things. So I’m 100 percent convinced that somewhere, it may not be in Britain, but somewhere there’s a venue or a record label, or a band or DJ that maybe is a bit off the radar right now but in thirty years time is going to be talked about like the Hacienda is.
TM: We always like to finish off by asking for a few words of wisdom you’ve picked up along the years? Does anything spring to mind?
DH: I would always just ask people to trust their instincts, you are who you are and don’t be afraid to express the person deep inside you, that’s really important.
Full of fantastic stories of his time in the industry we highly recommend you get yourselves a copy of Dave’s fantastic new book Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor HERE.