"Haçienda the club is not coming back, but the club lives on; the spirit lives on.”
An indispensable player in the acid house revolution of the late 80s and early 90s, Manchester’s Haçienda holds a place in UK history as one of the truly legendary party institutions, having tiptoed the tight line between fame and infamy as it became a regular site for imported dance music, drug culture and hedonistic activity. With the distinctive round building long-since demolished, Andrew Kemp talks to one of the former Haçienda resident DJs, Graeme Park, about how the ‘Madchester’ spirit lives on, the expansion of dance music clubs, and why “the best one of the lot, no question, was The Haçienda".
Park recalls the moment that a 6am encounter with a stranger and his cello gave the Haçienda a new lease of life. "Someone came in for breakfast early, carrying a cello... and we were like ‘we should do a classical concert’”, he laughs, explaining how an after-show beer with fellow Haçienda legend Mike Pickering had given birth to the Haçienda Classical series that has taken the country by storm. "’Yeah, that'd be funny, doing an acid house classical concert’”, they had chuckled. “‘But actually, you know what... maybe we should do that’".
After months of discussion, meetings with Joy Division’s Peter Hook and the Manchester Camerata Orchestra, what had started off as a “daft drunken idea” had become the prelude to a show combining Haçienda classics with a 70 piece orchestra, live percussionists and a choir, soon to head into its eighth instalment with this month’s show at Birmingham’s Rainbow Arena. Offering ravers of the Haçienda heydays the chance to relive their youth, Haçienda Classical brings the same party spirit of the acid house revolution, but with a sophisticated update that fits more easily with the old regulars’ current needs.
Offering a spot for escapism during the realities of the tail-end of Thatcher’s Britain, Haçienda had acted as a shelter from the divided society outside, with the imported electronic dance tracks of Chicago and Detroit providing a perfect backdrop for the generation’s new vice, the smiling face of the ecstasy tablet. “Everyone was taking ecstasy”, Park recollects, “but fast forward to today, they're people with kids and proper jobs; they're not dropping pills every week like they used to, but by coming to dance at the Haçienda Classical show, they're getting a very similar feeling of euphoria.”
Spoken of with reverence, the “Summer of Love, 88-89 acid house generation” found more in the parties than simple hedonism, and for the DJs at the helm, the respect that they command is reciprocated. "If it wasn't for those people we wouldn't be in the position to be doing what we're doing now, so we need to keep them onside, and find a way of keeping them happy", Graeme emphasises, noting that the partygoers of old might well have become “more sensible” with time, but that their fond memories of the Madchester days are far from fading. “In their hearts they're still 22 year old ravers; you still get that sense that it's something that will never leave you... So when you hear a strings section playing the synths of an old acid house record, you can see the smiles for the same euphoric experience, but not chemically induced for once.”
"It's a military exercise for those people because they have to arrange babysitters or maybe take the Monday off work, and understandably they want to come and hear the tunes that they danced to 20 to 25 years ago”, Park acknowledges, but he doesn’t hide the fact that nostalgia-chasing audiences can throw up new problems for the seasoned DJ. “The problem for me and Mike Pickering is if you're DJing loads, it can get really really tedious”, he explains, noting the difficulties of keeping sets fresh when the classics are order of the day. Knocks on the booth door and calls of "’Come on Parky, play this or play that’" were understandable, he said, but had become too frequent at regular Haçienda nights. By switching up the format, however, a solution could be found.
"[With Haçienda Classic] they get to hear house music anthems - so many songs that are just iconic late 80s, early 90s house tunes that they grew up with - but in a whole new way", allowing the Haçienda residents of old to dig out the crowdpleasers without fear of them growing stale. Working with an orchestra necessitates that tracklists are predetermined, but with Pickering working synths and Park feeding acapellas, the shows retain the improvisation that DJing is built upon. “Within the confines of a scored piece of music, Mike and I keep that DJ spontaneity there with our make-it-up-as-we-go-along stuff", Graeme says, explaining how the club concept is continued even when drastic changes to sets are out of the question. “The very nature of a good DJ is being able to be spontaneous and change what you're going to do instantly. Now, with the orchestras, we can't do that, but what we might do is bring parts of that DJ spontaneity into it.”
Following a combination of the conductor’s instructions and a specialist second earpiece with cues for major changes in direction, Park is given the freedom to tailor the shows through hip-hop style turntablism, serving up isolated vocals from the depths of his record collection to deal with the musical differences that occur across different audiences. “In Glasgow certain tunes are bigger than other tunes, and so I will use specific acapellas that the Glasgow crowd just went mental for; equally, before the Brighton show I thought that those acapellas aren't going to be the same in Brighton, but these ones will work because there's a completely different variation on the south coast to the west coast of scotland. It's a challenge.
“But what's most difficult for me is I can get lost in what I'm doing, so I have to have a separate earpiece which has a click track and the cue points, so if I get completely lost in doing something, suddenly in my ear the pitch will change and I'll go ‘S**t! Something's going to happen…’ and I'll stop just in time. Or equally, I might keep looking at the conductor who might give me a little subtle signal with his eyebrow, saying ‘keep that up, Graeme, it sounded f***ing great’, or another subtle hint saying ‘lose that’.
"At all points I have to be aware of the conductor, Tim Crook, right in my eyeline, and the click track and the cue points in my ear, so it's a thrilling experience for a DJ. Before I was DJing I played in various orchestras at school, playing clarinet, so the whole concept is not an alien one for me.”
To Graeme’s delight, whilst the reception from the original Haçienda attendees has been excellent, both the Classical shows and more conventional Haçienda club nights have also proven popular with a generation too young to have ever been to the original.
“The ideal for me is when you've got a real mix of ages, who are just into the vibe of the whole night, and you can play anything and everything; new stuff, old stuff, mix it up; go a bit soulful, go a bit deep, go a bit acid... that to me is the perfect night - you just make it up as you go along”, he states with palpable enthusiasm. Amidst the rush of releases, the expanse of clubs and the ease of access that music has enjoyed courtesy of the internet, Park notes somewhat wistfully the days when “there was nowhere else to go” but the club if you wanted to hear electronic music, suggesting that to some extent, the excessive accessibility of today’s dance music has diluted the quality and creativity of much of the output.
“When I go and choose my toothbrush in Boots, there's too much choice. It's the same with DJs, same with clubs, same with anything”, he jokes, though his point is sincere. Noting his youthful interest in the old obscure jazz and soul of Rare Groove during his early days DJing, Park muses that Summer of Love nostalgia is being embraced by the new generation of clubbers in much the same way. “Acid house is their Rare Groove. They're discovering this sound and realising that that's why house music exists."
(One member of the AMC Choir - photo courtesy of Al De Perez)
In turning these tracks into orchestral-house hybrids, Haçienda Classical pays tribute to the composers of old. "The music we play was made by people with cheap synthesisers and cheap drum machines, trying to copy disco music with machines, so for us turning it into an orchestra is a full reversal process. It is a testament to the skill and the ingenuity of people like Marshall Jefferson, and Joe Smooth, and A Guy Called Gerald, because it sounds incredible."
A new apartment block now stands at the spot where masses would congregate to enter the Haçienda, but for the club’s key figures and former devotees, the legacy cannot be so easily tumbled. “Acid house was a massive kick up the arse to the powers that be, to clubland in general and to the music industry; it was a revolution and people were part of that revolution, and they'll want to keep some of that connection to it.”
For those still invested in dance music, the task now is to not get caught looking back, but to take the lessons of old into the future. "Acknowledge the past, be inspired by the past, be influenced by the past but look forward”, Park tells us. ‘That's exactly what we're doing with this Haçienda Classical."
Words by Andrew Kemp
Photos courtesy of Jack Kirwin unless otherwise specified