“All you need is a basement, a flashing light, and some good pills”: Terry Farley on the history of house
All week on FACT, we’re celebrating #RaveWeek. Following a FACT mix and revealing interview from pioneering Detroit techno producer Kevin Saunderson, and the long-awaited sequel to Joe Muggs’ Rubbish Raver memoir, we present a thorough sit-down with legendary UK house player – and, in recent years, scene curator and archivist – Terry Farley.
To start with, Terry Farley seems more interested in talking about his new barnet than house music.
It is a very nice haircut, it has to be said – and clearly exciting to a 55-year-old man who’s only just discovered modern styling products having had a close crop his whole life, ever since the days “when I was about 10, and I used to idolise all the local skinheads who all had amazing clothes that cost more than what my dad wore.” Throughout his adolescence and adulthood, despite his tonsorial inflexibility, he’s heartily participated in and flown the flag for all kinds of British style and subculture – “rockabilly, soulboy, punk, rare groove”.
He’s best known, though, for first being part of the motley crew that brought acid house and Balearic culture to London and its environs in 1987-8, founding the notorious Boys Own organisation with Andrew Weatherall, Cymon Eckel and Steve Mayes – and then for his years as prime representative of the intersection between British hooligan/casual culture and black American house music.
Through Junior Boys Own, Fire Island, Heller & Farley, Roach Motel, the Faith fanzine and parties, and several dozen other aliases and projects, he’s worked tirelessly to remind the international club scene of its roots – watching the rise and fall of superstar DJ culture, and never wavering even at the times when it looked like the original house sound’s time had past. So now, with house-as-such back at the top of clubland’s agenda, who could be better to a) remind a new generation once again where it all came from as he has with his sterling Acid Rain and forthcoming Acid Thunder box sets, and b) cast a wry eye over that new generation’s tastes and foibles?
So firstly, why Acid Thunder?
Well – Acid Rain mainly came about from getting access to the Trax archives, and when we were doing it we couldn’t get any DJ International releases signed off for it because… well, basically because they hate Trax. Even all these years later, the bitterness about all the bad contracts and all the rip-offs goes right through the Chicago house scene. There’s people who got ripped off and are still carrying that with them today – quite often they were only 15, 16 when they made those tracks too, and they won’t have seen a penny since, but they’ll see them end up on international compilations and all sorts. So it’s been a lot of hard work – well, not real hard work, not like you’re going to break a sweat anyway, but what passes for hard work in music [laughs] – to get the rights and try and make sure people get paid right.
Anyway, when the DJ International catalogue came available, the first thought was, great, we’ll have Fast Eddie’s ‘Acid Thunder’ and that can be the title, nice follow up to Acid Rain. In the end, we couldn’t get that track – but the title stuck anyway, heh. On the whole, if you want to categorise it, this is really much less acid, much more deep house. The purists would say that the Trax stuff on Acid Thunder is the Ron Hardy at the Music Box side of Chicago, and this stuff is the Frankie Knuckles, Warehouse side: the sort of European, new wave, Italo-disco-influenced and acid versus the disco edits with a drum machine on. There’s a lot of overlap really, there’s some serious acid and even a bit of Detroit techno on this one, but this is definitely the more deep house side. I’ve been getting a bit of stick on messageboards, actually, saying I’m jumping on a deep house bandwagon… which is hilarious – because something like Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Open Your Eyes’ which is on here is the actual original deep house.
Which brings us on to whether and why this music is relevant now: why DO you think back-to-basics house music has taken over again?
Because it’s kind of primeval, isn’t it? Especially that kickdrum: whatever else might happen in music, whatever other rhythms people might get into, there’s still something so basic and addictive about that voom-voom-voom that it’s natural people come back to it. It’s been thirty years that this music has been going – or longer, if you count it as an extension of disco – it’s been going as long as hip hop, and the fact is it still works. It’s easy to do: all you need is a basement, which is easy to find, a flashing light… and some good pills.
Just this weekend, I went with some friends to see Masters At Work do their Boiler Room set. And, OK, it was in a posh hotel, but it was a basement – I suppose it was a “basement plus”, a basement with fancy fittings and £12 drinks, but actually as we went down the stairs to it that same primal thing kicked in. You hear the voom-voom-voom coming through the door, you can’t even tell what the track is but the kickdrum gets you first, then you see the people coming past you on the stairs smiling and you start getting that sense of anticipation. It’s so basic that it’s not something that can really be a trend or a fashion, it’s just something that’s there and people rediscover every so often.
I mean, music changes, and people might be into grime or breakbeats or whatever and those might all be really creative and what have you, but something about the voom-voom-voom is something they’ll keep coming back to. Also, they discover that the house music culture that’s just a bit more considerate, if you like: it’s somewhere where you won’t get stabbed for stepping on someone’s shoes, where girls can go and dance wearing what they like and not expect to be groped or hassled for ignoring some guy leering at them, where it’s OK for gays and straights and black and white to be mingling without being self-conscious about it – that’s something that’s naturally going to be attractive.
A lot of people look down on the current generation of house ravers though…
… with their Joey Essex hair and Hauraches, yeah [laughs] But that’s how kids are isn’t it? It’s important to have your haircut and your special dance and your slang and the set of records that you all know and whatever. You’ve got to have your sense of belonging. Of course all the old bastards are laughing at them, but in reality within six months of acid house culture being in London we were turning our noses up at lilac Wallabies and dungarees and whatever else the next generation in the scene were wearing. This isn’t really any different.
When Oakenfold and Trevor Fung came back from Ibiza, it was really a ready made package too. If you played house in ’88, it was all the tracks from Chicago from the previous year, maybe ’86 too – there was a ready made record box you could pretty much get in one go. Same with Balearic: Oakenfold, Trevor Fung, Colin Hudd, Johnny Walker were basically playing Alfredo’s playlist from the year before – Finitribe, Woodentops, Code 61, Nitzer Ebb – but of course they covered up the labels so you wouldn’t know what they were. In fact, the first time I ever met Rocky [of Rocky & Diesel / Xpress 2] was in Rough Trade in Ladbroke Grove – I’d actually managed to wring a list of tracks out of Oakenfold and I was out hunting for them.
Of course, normally we were going to the shops that got all the US imports in, but these were weird industrial things and indie records, the sort of tracks that only John Peel would have. These would only be in places like Rough Trade, and in fact even they wouldn’t have sold any copies until suddenly this swarm of weird-looking people come in and grabbed them all. So I spotted this skinny kid bobbing about the record racks looking like some northern soul speedfreak, but with his hair in a little topknot.
This was the thing at this point: you might’ve been out to Ibiza and decided to grow a ponytail but while it was growing out you’d have it tied up in this topknot like some weird pineapple thing. So this pineapple-looking lad bounces over and says, “here, I’ve seen you at Shoom. You’re Terry Farley right? I’m Rocky!” and stuck his hand out, and we ended up comparing notes on what tunes we knew. So, y’know, I remember that if I hear people laughing at the look that the kids have or whatever, because it’s the way people make their own thing, it’s the way they recognise each other.
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And there’s even parts of the new generation stuff that hark back right to the beginning of house – like the shuffling dances, right?
Yeah, you know what, I remember those dances from when I was a kid, like still at school in the early ’70s. They come from the Caribbean I guess, because all the West Indian kids could do them, and they’d probably learned them from their dads, so it went right back. We’d have competitions, and of course you had to have one or two of the West Indian kids on your crew to prove you were authentic [embarrassed chuckle], but there’d be this whole thing of dropping a hankerchief on the floor and you’d do your shuffling moves and you’d have to pick it up with some big flourish, like bending over backwards limbo-style or something. So yes, that’s got history, and it can be quite impressive – although maybe less so when it’s done by someone in jeggings and horrible garish trainers.
I’ve been as guilty as anyone of laughing at incomers to Shoreditch and wherever, but one thing that stopped me in my tracks was seeing Kerri Chandler at XOYO – the crowd was The Only Way Is Essex to the power ten, but actually they were having a brilliant time, clearly seriously into the tunes, and like you say there was a good mix of gay-straight-black-white-whatever…
We can’t have it both ways, that’s the thing. When we started Faith in 1999, it was all prog and trance everywhere else, and if we threw a party we’d be lucky to fill a 400 capacity venue. Hardly anyone else was doing anything…Bill Brewster was doing his thing, then a bit later Ben Watt started Lazy Dog under the Westway, and he even had to make it free on the door – so he managed to get all the posh Notting Hill girls in, and they ended up really enjoying it.
At the same time you had Vertigo at The Cross on a Sunday night aimed mainly at Italians… because at that time there was this big influx of Italians in London. These days lots of people turn their noses up and go, “ohh, Italians all hanging round the clubs on loads of ket” and whatever, but this lot were really glamorous, they were really into their house music, and they all had shop jobs in the West End. So they’d be working at the weekend and have Monday or Tuesday night, so this night on a Sunday would be heaving with them. Then Giles and James of SecretSundaze started their parties over East. I was at the first one with 80 people on the roof of 93 Feet East, and they grew that really nicely into what’s become an iconic London club brand.
But that whole Faith thing – and we based it on northern soul, “keeping the faith”, the patch with the black power fist on it – we felt pretty embattled sometimes. It was all people in their late 20s youngest, up to the Acid house vets in their 40s.
Well, this is when “dad house” was coined, right?
Exactly. And we would’ve loved to get youngsters in. We were playing the odd bit of stuff by Wookie and whoever and going, “look, if you like this, then you’ll like DJ Gregory and Masters at Work”. But no joy…
Were you aware that over in Tottenham and wherever there were young, mostly black audiences actually dancing to Gregory and MAW? The scene that first became UK funky, and seems to now have moved on to this moody kind of tech-house.
Not really. But I know that you now have this really diverse audience coming along to any house night – but sometimes they’ll have a very strange idea of what house is. Not long ago, I had this lad come up to the decks and go, “where’s the house, when are you playing house?” Of course I went, “this IS house” but he went, “no mate, deep house, deep house”. I’m not joking – at that moment I was playing Frankie Knuckles ‘Whistle Song’, and I just laughed. But then I saw him sort of screw his face up at me, and I did go, “look mate, if you’re going to start complaining about music, you might be advised to actually do your homework so you don’t make an idiot of yourself by not knowing what you’re on about.” I probably shouldn’t have done that because you never know when someone’s going to turn moody, or how many mates are with them, but there it was.
I’ve had that a couple of times – “when are you playing house” – and you’re just nonplussed as to what exactly it is that they think they’re asking for. But actually it’s not the kids that are the problem – kids can learn, and they do learn. It’s the 40-50 year olds who are the problem, the ones who went out for three years from ’89 to ’92 or whatever. They had their moment in the sun and they only want to hear those tunes that remind them of that. And that’s not only the tunes from that particular year, but from that particular club, because of course they were all going to different nights with different sounds. Nowadays there’s not enough of them to have their own night, so they all flock together to any old night with a smiley on the flyer, and they’re all pestering me for fucking “Kariya or Bocca Juniors [the very short-lived Balearic band featuring Farley, Andrew Weatherall, Pete Heller and Hugo Nicholson]”. Like I’m playing fucking Bocca Juniors. [sighs]
But overall, it sounds like you reckon the climate is good for what you do…
It is. I really like the ones that are about 500 people or a bit less, good sound, the more mixed up crowd…I mean, who wants to go out dancing surrounded by people who are just like them? And it does feel like we’re into a period of good and bad – I mean, where that’s the category for choosing a record. I’ve always been really partisan, which is silly of course, because after that first burst of being inspired by Alfredo who was all about playing anything from anywhere as long as it sounds good, we all retreated into our own things – which for me and my lot was going to New York to go clubbing, looking down on anything that wasn’t vocal house and garage. But now I look back and see things I missed, like I’ve got into techno now – which I completely derided at the time, but now see for the really great music a lot of it is. And I can play anything, old or new, and the crowds will generally accept it, and that’s really good.
More Rave Week!
– FACT mix 458: Kevin Saunderson
– Inner City and the inside story of ‘Big Fun’
– Joe Muggs is a Rubbish Raver
– Jerome Hill is keeping rave alive
– Mella Dee’s Top 10 Rave Tapes
– Makina: the scene keeping the hardcore flame burning
– The 20 best Happy Hardcore records of all time
– The 20 best rave videos on YouTube
– The A-Z of Rave