For this final part of the Progressive House series, perhaps I can reflect upon and refer to a completely different perspective to that which has already been covered – a seminal moment in my own existence – and the different layers of importance that moment had at that time, plus for the rest of my living days. I was twenty-one and on a summer holiday from my second year of studying at Nottingham Trent University. Less than two years into my discovery of house music, clubbing and the lifestyle which accompanied it.
While working two jobs over those months in my small home town of Llanelli, Wales that summer in 1996 – a glamorous (for gross need of a better adjective) porter’s job at Marks And Spencer department store by day, plus three nights a week of shifts at a local pub, the Island House. This happened alongside fitness training intensively, five days a week both on my own and throughout pre-season with my boyhood fanatic rugby team, Llanelli RFC, the Scarlets. Before I go any further – I know what you’re thinking – rugby…and DJing? Surely both cannot coexist harmoniously in a lifestyle? Rugby, along with most team sports in those days certainly didn’t carry a reputation for being a liberating sport for gender equality or much other than high levels of testosterone!
Well, it takes all sorts. Only earlier that year, March 1996 – I found myself dancing off my much thinner behind in those days, on a dancefloor next to rugby legend Martin Offiah (Chariots by trade name) at an Allister Whitehead (for whom I was distributing flyers) night in Nottingham after getting quite drunk, watching Wales play Ireland in the afternoon. Legend has it that in those days he was regularly seen on the tiles of northern English house music clubs in Leeds and Manchester with friends such as Heather Small from M People. So, house music and the feeling it gives – takes everyone by surprise at times. More recently, another English champion of the oval ball, James Haskell has been making a name for himself as a DJ. Perhaps this is a new “one-percent” category in the making…but music will still be available for people to create, long after battered and bruised bodies cannot run around bashing each other any more to the same level – as sounds from a speaker system can.
In returning to the epiphanic moment, on the 28th of July, BBC Radio 1 was broadcasting its first ever live DJ performances from Amnesia in Ibiza. Chronologically the set list went; Pete Tong, Sasha, Danny Rampling. Back in the days of “taping” radio shows, I had 2-hour blank Maxell cassettes, upon which I’d record shows, then play them to death if they were good. Standard procedure. As this particular one went, it was probably my most played for many years. Not because of the unbelievably anthemic set from Pete Tong, which pretty much became the precursor set for Dance Anthems CDs for years to come, fully crossing into the musical mainstream; with ninety minutes of tracks like Armand Van Helden’s remix of Tori Amos’ Professional Widow plus CJ Bolland’s Sugar Is Sweeter; Faithless’ Insomnia and Underworld’s Born Slippy. Not as much for that, but for what followed. My first real-time experience of listening to Sasha.
I mentioned earlier the layers of importance this event had. To bring it to the present time, life experiences and growing pains; the track which slapped my soul’s face like Monty Python’s Fish-Slapping Dance sent the slappee into the canal – was Slacker’s “Scared”. The hard-hitting intro, machine-gun-like beats leading into the bassline and the unforgettable breakdown. Not to mention the crowd’s whooping reaction to it, which you could hear clearly on the radio. “I’m twenty-one…tomorrow… and I’m…scared, you know? Everybody is. Pretty uptight.” Just listening to it today, twenty-four years later – more years than I even had at that time, brings goose-bumps.
A beast of a track which would rip up prog-loving dancefloors today and should put more than just a spring into anyone’s step who ever loved it. Yet the legacy of the track’s creator is one point which fits in with this series’ closing title; The Lonely Traveller – the particular mix of Scared played by Sasha in that set. Earlier this year while reading old articles, I came across a real choker which really resounded with me – and explains my point. DJ, producer and owner of Ultraviolet Music label, Paul Thomas wrote for Decoded Magazine about depression within the electronic music industry (https://www.decodedmagazine.com/reality-depression/). Its main points of focus were Adam Walder AKA Funkagenda, but more relevant to this article; Shem McAuley AKA Slacker, whose lonely travels with depression came to a tragic end, eight years ago in 2012 when he took his own life.
For someone like myself who loved McAuley’s music – in fact, was stopped and wowed in my tracks by his music – have also suffered with depression for most of my own life, this was the reminder, for me that the global community of progressive house, live DJing and clubbing colleagues which I have hit upon in the past few articles; the value of this industry especially during this surreal time – is so precious. Most of what has exacerbated my own condition over many years are the lack of being able to be creative and to connect with others and share what I love. When I have – for so many years – either not believed in myself or refused to give myself the chance of expressing myself via anxiety and lack of confidence, told myself that I had to get a “normal job”, it has made me very sad, drained my passion and had poured a cauldron of wasted ideas and creations inside me, rotting away. So that track and its mix-name has some heavyweight meaning behind it, for more than just being a blinding piece of music.
Further to my point, comes the old saying “If you love someone or something – let it go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.” Referring to my interview with Nigel Dawson in the second of the series, something we both agreed upon was that we somewhat fell out of love with the clubbing scene towards the mid-2000s. I had taken a “responsible” (again, for the want of a better adjective) decision to return to study and become a primary school teacher so that my imploding relationship with my ex-girlfriend could stand a chance of survival. Ironically, we split up three days before I began my postgraduate teaching studies. So much for the Plan B to save Plan A. Nevertheless, a few years and some more car crash relationships saw me move around the world. I had forsaken my love of music firstly by living in Qatar. No record shops, no underground music. There must have been a point to it all, somewhere – further along the line.
It took moving to Melbourne and realising that in the midst of feeling miserable as a teacher – that I needed to escape that field. I had already felt a little rebirth in immediately finding record shops, nightclubs and a little of the naughtiness of life again, where I had for four years a religiously confined constitution, only hotel bars and very few cultural options. Little did I know at the time of the progressive house and electronic music factory happening in Melbourne. A few years down the line, I had a full DJ setup again, began playing out and going to club nights again and felt stronger than ever about what had returned to my life. One of my most fittingly memorable moments in Melbourne came a few years ago when I played Funkagenda’s remix of Laurent Garnier – The Man With The Red Face to a bouncing room at one of my Stylus show’s club nights. It goes to show that mental health can be managed, with support and direction.
If you read the first article of the series, James Thewlis and Robert Clark, the instigators of the 21C Progressive House group – have gathered much momentum and support of late and who now boast an immensely proud line-up for their end-of-the-month online streaming event – they have never met in person, but ten thousand miles hasn’t stopped them from orchestrating a movement. Music can be an answer to so much in life and should be harnessed and projected correctly (as opposed to taken advantage) in each and every quantity it appears. Whether that is Progressive House, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Death Metal or EDM (the last one naturally being channelled towards Room 101).
In the past year, whenever anyone has posted a Slacker track or remix on Facebook, it is usually followed by a comment expressing how sadly missed is Shem – these posts coming from the recognised DJs to the passionate fans and clubbers involved in these groups. If there is anything to be taken from the glory – and sadness of his work and loss, it’s the inspiration and proof that getting down to it is the best way.
While the technical knowhow and genius of Shem is something I never thought I had, I have always felt I have something to share. The positive thing about 2020 is that it is not a time of “real jobs”, or a forced nine-to-five working calendar. It is a comforting thought, as a writer and musician that famous authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Twain, Henry Miller and Bram Stoker who have produced some of the world’s most famous literature of the last few centuries – were all in their forties before any of their works were published. If I can suppress my partying and with the current Western age expectation in mind, I could possibly still be publishing and producing music at a hundred and ten. Keith Richards is still alive at nearly eighty. Anything can happen. Doing what you love is so important with only one lifetime.
The journey of the lonely traveller may now be more of a focused and concentrated road ahead with that in mind. While none of us know what’s ahead for the future of live music, tracks are still being made. Buildings – nightclubs and bars lay empty and stagnant, while festivals are planned and arranged for next year with no security for their actual safety or occurrence. Yet as tiresome and frustrating as it has been for the DJs and musicians, many have produced some of their best sets and tracks in years throughout the deadness and inanity of COVID19, via live and high-profile organised streams.
So, travel together we must. Strength in numbers is almost always needed when taking on empty spaces and voids left by live music and mental health insecurities – but apart from viruses, of course. Once this nonsense is all over and it is safe to have almighty, humongous events or even small but bombastic nights – then we can raise our voices to ensure nightclubs and concert halls are open and get a fair chance at being great again. Then we can use the more positive vocal sample from Slacker’s ‘Scared’ to its fullest – “Now dance… until the end.”