Mike Atkinson

Interview: Graeme Park.

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on June 2, 2009

Two years ahead of the fabled 1988 Summer Of Love, The Garage on St Mary’s Gate became one of the first clubs – hell, perhaps even the first club – in the country to specialise in house music, (almost) all night long. And its introduction had nothing to do with smiley faces, bandanas, MDMA-drenched Ibizan epiphanies, or any of that distracting flim-flam – and everything to do with the knowledge and enthusiasm of one particular music obsessive.

From late 1983 until the end of the decade, Graeme Park was Nottingham’s most pioneering, most influential and best-loved club DJ, whose residency at The Garage took a generation of clubbers on a journey from early Eighties style-pop to late Eighties garage and techno, via electro, hip-hop, rare groove, DC go-go, Chicago jack tracks, and all points in between. And it all began in one little shop on Bridlesmith Gate…

If it wasn’t for Selectadisc, I’d have never have been a DJ. I ended up in Nottingham more by luck than design, to be honest; I was playing in bands, signing on, and used to frequent Selectadisc: both stores, on Market Street and the smaller one on Bridlesmith Gate. Bridlesmith Gate is the one that I spent more time in; with the main shop, you used to walk past and be a bit frightened to go in. Apart from the fact that it was slightly more friendly, Bridlesmith Gate used to have the second hand department upstairs. In the singles department there was a guy called Mel, and then there was a guy called Jeff, downstairs in the albums part, and they were both very knowledgeable. And because I played in bands, like most 19 or 20-year olds who are really into music, I kind of knew my stuff. I used to buy what I thought were quite cool records, and what they thought were quite cool records.

One day when I was in there, they said, “Somebody’s ill, can you help out? It’s dead simple.” I knew it was dead simple, because I used to work at Saturday job at a record shop in Scotland. I ended up working there part-time. And when Mel left, I was in charge of upstairs, which was brilliant. That was about 1982, 1983. And the thing is, Brian Selby – the original owner – had his office was at Bridlesmith Gate. He’d often pop out to make a cup of tea, and ask what we were playing. So I got to know him really well.

Brian had a record label background – he used to have his own Northern Soul label. He was just really into music, you know? He dabbled with restaurants as well. He had some sort of diner called Zuckermans at the top of Hockley – at one point, he was kind of taking over the whole of the East Midlands.

I loved the fact that I was in charge of buying in the singles, because I had quite eclectic taste. I remember for example Madonna’s first single Holiday, which didn’t really do much. There was a great offer on it from the rep: buy one, get one free. I bought shitloads of them, because I knew it was going to be massive. But of course it wasn’t at first time round, and I got in trouble for buying so many. So by the time that it was a big record, Brian was dead pleased. We sold them all and made lots of money on them.

I also liked being in charge of buying in the second hand stuff. My eclectic collection owes a lot to the fact that people would come in, a bit down on their luck, and get rid of classic rock and pop albums. Stuff like The Doors, and Love, and all that late Sixties stuff that had gone out of fashion. I’d play them in the shop and go; “Wow, I actually get this band; I can understand why this is a classic album.” So I’d buy it for myself.

The other great thing about Market Street was that they had a massive stock of cut-outs, which used to be the name for cheap imports from Europe. Portuguese versions of British-released albums, with the corners cut off them; hence “cut-outs”. Brian could sell those for a lot less than the proper British releases. And people would go, “Well, you know what, for £4.99 you’re getting a cut-out and you’re paying £6.99 for the proper British version.” And they were just the same. Maybe the quality wasn’t as good.

Brian had access to all these warehouses that stocked all this stuff; Jim (Cooke, last manager of Selectadisc) and Brian used to drive around in this Transit van to get stock. One minute you’d be serving people in the shop, the next minute Brian would be running up the stairs. “Come on, we need you to help us unload the van.” You’d go downstairs, and he’d have got boxes and boxes of the new Big Country album that had just come out and was flying off the shelves.

I vividly remember the day that Brian walked in and said “Guess what, I’ve just bought: the Ad Lib club.” And I’m like, “You’ve bought the Ad Lib club? That seedy, dark place, where you can smell the weed coming out of it on reggae nights? Why have you bought the Ad Lib club?” He says, “Because I think Nottingham needs a really cool little club, just like the Wag Club in London. I think I could turn it into this cool club, where they play really cool music.” I said, “Brilliant, but what are you gonna do – close it and do it up?” “No no no. As of tonight” – because it was a Friday night or something – “I’m renaming it The Garage, and I want you all to come down”. “So what about all the regulars?” “Well, they’re not getting in, it’s gonna be a new thing.”

“So who’s gonna be the DJ?” He goes, “Well, I thought tonight, opening night, you’re gonna do it.” And I’m like, “Whoa, hang on a minute – I’m not DJ-ing!” And he says, “Come on – one of the reasons you work here is that you know your stuff, and you play in bands, so it can’t be that hard to DJ.” I was like, “Well, I’m not convinced.” And then he pretty much said that if I didn’t agree to do it then I wouldn’t be working in Selectadisc. I’d only DJed once before. At school. For a laugh. My mate did a disco, and all he played was progressive rock – Deep Purple, Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rush, all that stuff. And nobody was liking it. So I went home, got all my new wave and punk records, and played them. Everyone loved it, but I didn’t think: oh, this DJ-ing lark’s great. I just did it because I knew that this guy was just not happening at the decks.

So there I was, at The Garage, upstairs in this room where the DJ box was behind the bar. Downstairs they had a guy called Martin Nesbitt (the one and only Reverend Car Bootleg – LL), who played gothic, punk, dark stuff. And upstairs there was me playing anything and everything. I was playing current stuff; there was a lot of really great dancey pop stuff around like Orange Juice, The Associates, and of course New Order, Talking Heads, Blondie, all that kind of stuff. And I was playing lots of old Motown, Atlantic and Stax, a bit of old disco, and it worked really well. This was around 1983, long before house music.

Before I knew it, I ended up working there Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. I took to it like a duck to water. People were saying “Oh yeah, you’re really good”. They’d come in the shop and go “Ah, you’re the DJ at The Garage”. It was then that I decided that I was really gonna concentrate on it.

I soon realised that by being a DJ, three nights a week, I was getting 25 quid a night extra, so 75 quid a week. I didn’t have to split that money, because in a band you have to lug all your equipment in your rented van, set it up, do a soundcheck, take it all down, lug it in the van, take it back, and you were lucky to end up with a fiver. Then Brian opened a place in Leicester called The Fan Club, so I used to do a night over there as well. Obviously, working in Selectadisc meant I had access to all the new stuff that came out, while Martin played lots of reggae and things like Sisters Of Mercy and The Cult, which of course Selectadisc sold. So it kinda worked really well.

Round about that time, thanks to the shop, I was introduced to electro: Afrika Bambaataa and The Jonzun Crew and all the early Arthur Baker stuff. I’d play it in the shop, and think: this is great, this is fantastic. But Brian would say, “What’s this stuff you’re playing? I don’t like it. I don’t think we should be selling it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but this is Arthur Baker; he’s working with New Order. Blue Monday, Confusion…massive records.” And Brian was like “I don’t mind you selling New Order, but I don’t think we should be selling this stuff. It’s too…”

Well, reading between the lines, he was saying it was too black. But I played it in The Garage, and it was just brilliant. And then in ’85, all the early Def Jam stuff was coming in, but Brian wasn’t keen on us stocking it. I had to keep working in the shop, and I wanted to play this stuff, but he wouldn’t let me buy it in. So in my lunch hour, I had to go to Arcade Records. And then came Roxanne Shanté, Big Daddy Kane, all the early hip hop stuff. Brian wasn’t keen on me playing it in the club, but obviously it was what people wanted. There were an element of people who were like, “When are you gonna play Once In A Lifetime?” and electro did piss some people off. But for every one person pissed off, you’d get three or four new people who were into what I was doing.

Then in 1986, all the early house stuff started coming in from Chicago and Detroit: J.M. Silk, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Derrick May, Rhythim Is Rhythim, all that stuff. And I thought: fuck me, this is incredible! I had to give up working at the record shop, because by then word had spread about what I was doing at The Garage and The Fan Club and I ended up doing nights in Sheffield and Birmingham. It was impossible to DJ and work in the record shop. But the record shop was still important to me, even though I had to pop down to Arcade to get the house/hip hop/dance stuff. I had – and still have – eclectic tastes, even though I’ve become known for mainly being a house DJ.

I still liked to listen to all kinds of music, and buy it. So I was still going into Selectadisc, where obviously I’d still get staff discount. Virtually all the records I played at the Hacienda came from Selectadisc; I was Djing in Manchester, and had moved to London, but I was still doing The Garage and I would always pop in to Selectadisc on Bridlesmith. In the late Eighties you still had bands like the Blow Monkeys, who I used to love – they embraced club culture and dance music: a poppy, rocky, indie-ish type band who were quite cool, but who had got the 12-inch mixes done. And let’s not forget New Order, who carried on working with club people and making 12-inch mixes.

Unlike many DJs, I haven’t got rid of my vinyl at all. There’s loads of crap that I’ve kept, that I may have to get rid of one day, but I’ve kept all of my vinyl. I’m 45 years old, I’ve been buying records since I was five or six, and the bulk of that collection is from Bridlesmith Gate. But the landscape’s changed now; I lecture part time at a university in Wrexham, on a music production degree, my students are late teens, early twenties, and none of them buy physical product. But I’ve got a couple of mature students who are adamant that they have to buy the CDs. I said, well, what about bands, where do you all hang out, where do you all meet to get your music and stuff, and of course they all buy their music online, and they all make music on their own. They all just sit with their laptops, beavering away. Whereas at Selectadisc, people would go in there to buy something, get into a conversation, and end up being in a band. That stuff just doesn’t happen anymore. I suppose it’s all through Facebook, isn’t it?

I still go to Nottingham from time to time. I still do gigs, and my bank account is still in Nottingham. It was a big part of my life. In your early twenties, you’re working out what you’re going to do – and it was Brian Selby, Selectadisc, and The Garage that carved my path out. It was being a part of that whole thing: playing in bands, and all the parties, and playing the music that Selectadisc was selling… it was great, great times. And it was a great city then, as well.

See also:
Graeme Park at trustthedj.com.
Sleccy’s vinyl countdown – my Guardian article on the closure of Selectadisc.
Graeme Park at The Garage, Nottingham 1988 – three completely fantastic hours of house and hip hop, recorded direct from the club’s mixing desk.

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