Interview: Jeff Dexter, the Man Who Made England Twist
From the DJ History archives: Bill Brewster speaks to an early London dancer and DJ
Jeff Dexter is one of the earliest DJs in the UK, bringing the mod mentality to the masses through his work at London’s Middle Earth club. Before that, though, Dexter was a sensation, dancing the Twist in an age when the simple act of swiveling your hips could get you banned from certain clubs. (At the Lyceum, he was “barred for obscenity.”) In this interview with Bill Brewster, presented as part of our ongoing partnership with DJ History, Dexter recalled his unique career in an interview from 1998.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Lambeth Hospital and grew up in the Newington Butts, which is by the Elephant & Castle. I was born in 1946.
When did you get interested in music?
Well, we never really had a record player. But the first record I ever bought was “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. I just thought it was the coolest song, and I bought it in East Street Market from A1 Records stall and I walked home with it under my arms singing it, thinking I was this big country person digging in the mines. This was 1955 or 56, I think. It was a 78. Not many people had record players to play 45s in those days. I had two friends who lived locally who had gramophones so I could go and play it there. We never had one. We had a piano.
How did your interest in music come about?
I studied music. I played the piano, I played the flute, I played the trumpet, I did classical. I had a knack of taking off people from the age of about eight or nine, the pop stars of the day: Johnny Ray, at the local mother’s meeting hall. I was never that interested in pop music, as such. I liked the Goons. I liked military music, as well. I’d go anywhere at that age to see a military band. I liked the uniforms, unlike most of my friends who were suddenly all besotted by these new images. My brother had become an Elvis fan. I wasn’t particularly interested at first, until Buddy Holly. We’d just moved from the Elephant & Castle to the Camberwell Road. That was when I was ten.
When did you come across things like the Lyceum?
Well, I went to youth clubs when I was 13 or 14, and meeting with teenagers down at East Street. I went to a school summer camp when I was 14 down in Godalming, Surrey. And every night the teachers would play records. And although that’s what we did at youth club as well, a couple of the teachers from other schools and a couple of girls from other schools had brought records that I’d never heard. And I was particularly interested in being with the girls, so I think that was my first bite at really getting into dancing. While we were there I struck up a great friendship with these girls. I always had a good relationship with girls because I did dressmaking and tailoring and I was the only boy, so I’d heard about places like the Tottenham Royal, and I had a big brother as well.
The girls said, “Oh, when you come back to London you must come to the Lyceum with us.” “I can’t go to the Lyceum. I’m 14.” And I was 4’ 8 1/2” at the time, and probably looked about 11. How could I get to the Lyceum? I had all the clothes; I had every piece of equipment to look like I was a grown up, but I had this tiny little face and tiny little frame. But I braved it the following Sunday and, when I signed the forms, I said I was 16 and born in the war in 1944.
And they bought it?
Oh yeah, I already had my front on then.
What was it like when you went in there?
It changed my life in about three minutes. I walked in, up the stairs, down through the gallery and the Sunday club, opened at three in the afternoon, and there’d be records during the afternoon, and then records and bands during the evening. I remember walking up to the top and seeing all the cloakrooms. Huge cloakrooms. I’d never seen big cloakrooms like that. I walked down the aisle, through the balcony and into the ballroom space. And the sound in such a big place just blew me away. It was great.
Did it look like it does now?
Yeah, except it had a level dancefloor. But it had a huge, fabulous, multi-coloured dancefloor. Multi-coloured wood. Squares, and gold leaf. And there was Ian “Sammy” Samwell stood on the stage with his perfect barnet and his mohair suit, who I’d already seen in the foyer with his cardboard cut-out and thought, “Who is this guy?” I thought he looked really naff.
Well, he was part of the old school. He was part of what we called the rocker brigade. His hair was slicked back perfectly dark. But there was something about what he was doing on stage, and the records he was playing in the afternoon. Because there were only a few people who would turn up that early, a few girls, who’d get there early to get their dance steps together.
So it wasn’t full?
No. The idea was I’d meet the girls early and we’d run through our jive steps, jiving in twos and threes. Of course, because the place wasn’t full, they were playing records that were new, weren’t necessarily out-and-out dance records, until people started to fill the place up. So that first afternoon, I heard records I’d never heard before. By 6 o’clock I’d heard a few things and I had to go and find out what they were: “What music do you call this mate?” “It’s R&B.”
I’d been watching him while he was playing and he was singing along to every song he played. He knew every word to every song, and I could barely make out the words. “How come you know all the words to the songs?” “I’m a songwriter. I know how they go.” From that moment, we became best friends. I jived my arse off all night with these girls from summer camp.
Was this the night you got into trouble dancing?
No, that was a couple of months later. That was the end of September when I got barred for obscenity, doing the Twist with these two girls. Sammy had been playing “The Twist” for a while.
When was the first time you went?
First week of August 1961.
The Twist came over here in about ’62, didn’t it?
Well, that’s when it exploded, early part of ’62.
When were you first aware of it?
I knew the song. Sammy had been playing two versions of it. Hank Ballard, which was a B-side of another song. Sammy played R&B and country; he had a great love of country rock as well. When we got the Chubby Checker version, after about three weekends and Tuesday nights – there was a record club on Tuesday nights – of hearing this, I went up and talked to him. “Oh, it’s some new dance they say’s happening in America.”
In the mailer on the back of the picture sleeve was a diagram of how to do the Twist in three easy diagrams. Place your feet together and pretend you’re rubbing your bum with a towel, and gyrate. There was this other girl who’d come the previous week and she talked about some dance scene she’d seen in New York. “New York?” It’s a million miles away.
She attempted to do it on the carpet with this other guy. So I put two and two together – what he’d try to describe and what was on the sleeve – and we went and did it. After a while, we got into doing more. Doing very carefully at first because you didn’t want to make an arse of yourself. And we started going through it, and everybody stopped jiving around us and watched. Suddenly we were on. At the end of it, the bouncers came up and removed me from the dancefloor.
Did they give a reason? What did they say?
“Yeah, you might start a fight, doing silly things like that.” Then the manager came over and said: “You can’t do obscene dances like that. Out you go!” And I was ejected.
Were you banned?
They said: “You can’t come in the ballroom any more to do that sort of thing here.” I think the first time I actually talked myself out of getting thrown out, till the next time in the evening when Sammy played the Twist again! Of course we did it again and then I got ejected.
How did the press get hold of this?
There was nothing in the press at the time, but I tried to go back in two weeks later and brave it out. I managed to blag my way in – I’d promised I wouldn’t do it again – but the Twist had finally made it into the paper, there had finally been something about this new dance and it had been picked up by the Arthur Murray School of Dancing, and I think they sent people down to show us how to do it – ha ha ha! – and I got captured on film and it got shown around the cinemas on Pathé newsreels. This thing, this obscenity that I’d been ejected for, became popular and I got offered a job at the Lyceum. As a dancer! Of course, they didn’t know I was still at school and I’d only just turned 15, because I was supposed to be 16 to be there in the first place.
They found out?
Oh, yeah. Well, I had to tell them. But you could leave school at 15 in those days.
And that’s what you did?
Oh, yeah. I dropped my tailoring. I dropped my music studies. The thought of being paid to dance with women was just phenomenal!
We’re doing part of a chapter [for Last Night a DJ Saved My Life] on the impact of the Twist.
The Twist obviously hadn’t really hit anywhere because we knew the record for two months already, it was already a bit passé with us tight-arse Mods. We always wanted the next thing. Even though it hadn’t exploded. Most people hadn’t even attempted to do it, because they were too busy doing their jive.
What kind of clothes were you wearing? Mods grew out of the modern jazz scene and Aldermaston, didn’t it?
It grew of out of the jazz clubs, when all the guys had started coming over in the ’50s wearing their Ivy League clothes which were too small for them, and of course, there was the whole thing about the new Italian fashions, which was the box jacket, which the Americans were adopting after their ’50s look. The generation who were a little older than me were trying emulate those guys. They’d dumped the drapes and brothel creepers and jumped into this boxy jacket thing. The Ivy League was the American version of British school clothes, and then we adapted the European influences.
Were American GIs going to Lyceum?
Not a lot, but there were always Americans there from Ruislip and Hillingdon.
Were there many black GIs?
A few. Not many.
Where were the black kids hanging out?
There was a place near where I lived called Clubland, where there were a few black kids, but they kept a fairly low profile when they mixed with the whites. They were only just beginning to mingle with our lot. We had very few black kids who were our friends. But most of them lived in Brixton at that time.
What stuff were they listening to? Calypso?
Well, down on Atlantic Road, just off the market there, there was a record stall that sold calypso. The black kids that I was meeting were listening to the pop music of the day. At Clubland, there were black boys there and they just wanted to be part of our culture.
How long were you at Lyceum?
November ’61. When I started off working with the band. That’s how I started off dancing in front of the band. And on the dancefloor. The idea was that there were all these other dances coming in...
Like The Bristol Stomp?
That was earlier than the Twist. As the Twist started to explode and there were all of these newspaper articles and television programmes, everyone that had a dance craze of any kind was bringing out a dance record. The idea was any time there was a new dance I had to interpret it in front of 2,000 of my peers and take a lot of flak from them.
Where were you finding out how to do them?
In some cases I’d read Billboard, a tip sheet from Sam Goody’s record shop in New York which Sammy used to get. And of course, the newspapers of the day and reporters on Melody Maker who lived in America and would send reports on what was happening there. And if there was no clear indication, I’d just make it up! I was doing nightclubs and cabaret...
So you danced in other clubs?
In those days it was either ballrooms or nightclubs in the West End and all the big events at the hotels. Whenever there was a party there, someone rich or something, they’d book a band, Cyril Stapleton’s Orchestra, who still had a radio show then.
Was he the Lyceum resident?
He replaced the Johnny Howard Band, who moved up to the Tottenham Royal. Every Mecca ballroom had two bands, they had a big orchestra...
Like Glenn Miller?
Yeah. The swing/dance band, and a trio or quartet or quintet. The other band at the Tottenham Royal was the Dave Clark Five. We had the Mick Mortimer Quartet at the Lyceum.
How did the nights run then, between records and bands? What was the running order?
There’d be records from about three till six, then the quartet would come on and do a half set, then the stage would turn – all the places had revolving stages – the big band would come on, then there’d be half an hour of records and then another short set from the quartet and another set from the band. Then we’d close the evening with records.
I presume the bands were playing the hits of the day?
Yeah, on those nights in particular they’d only play the pop hits of the day, and most of them were the real trashy ones because they thought that’s what the kids wanted. Man. Of course, by that time, with all the influx of black imports and R&B it was a bit different. Cyril Stapleton, I’ll give him his due, was very keen to please the younger audience and wanted to know every new record that came out each week. As soon as anything came that we thought was any good, he’d have the band play it.
Did they use vocalists?
Yeah, they used four vocalists and I became one of them as well. I used to do the doo wop bops, and the odd pop song.
Where did Ian Samwell fit into all of this? What was his background? He was in The Shadows, wasn’t he?
No, he was in The Drifters, which pre-dated The Shadows. It was Cliff Richard and The Drifters. He was the guitar player. And when the hit struck, they found Hank Marvin, he had an electric guitar. He may even have had a Strat back then. And he could play licks like nobody else.
Did Sammy get booted out?
Not booted out so much, moved aside and he concentrated on writing the songs.
So he kept a link with The Shadows?
Yeah, but then they had to change their name because of The Drifters in America. The first night he started at the Lyceum, was the first night I ever went, which just one of those beautiful coincidences. I think he’d done a couple of nights replacing people before... The guy who originally played the records at the Lyceum was actually the electrician! I think Jimmy Savile might have done a couple of things before.
Who owned it?
Mecca. It was still pretty new, the idea of record hops.
Was Jimmy Savile known at that point?
He must have had a name as a disc jockey. Of course the ballroom scene was where most music happened in those days. All that swing band stuff during the wars had introduced people to jives and bunny hops, so people went there to learn about the music and dances.
What about coffee bars and jukeboxes?
I think every coffee bar I went to in those days had a jukebox.
A good one?
Yeah, fairly good one.
Who selected the records that went on to the jukebox?
There were about two or three guys that ran the jukebox syndicate and went around with the records and punched them out to go into the jukeboxes. I think there was only one major company that supplied the jukeboxes with records in those days. Of course, the Soho ones chose exactly what they wanted, though. People like Tom Littlewood, who ran the 2Is, who was in there well early.
Was that so influential?
It was the birthplace of British rock & roll. So they say. Everybody used to go there and take their bongos. Sammy talked in his memoirs of going to the 2Is with his bongos!
Were you buying records during this period?
I didn’t buy records. We had an account at Imhoff’s in New Oxford Street, a Mecca account. After befriending Sammy we would go up twice a week to Imhoff’s and on the release date, read the broadsheet of what was available and take all the records into the booth and listen to one after another.
But Sammy also had lots of friends in America sending him records. And there was one little guy that had a basement in Lisle Street, just off Leicester Square. In those days there were a few Chinese restaurants and all the electrical shops were in that street. In the basement of one of these shops, every Friday a guy would open up in the morning with a box full of freshly imported records.
So they were limited, the imports?
Did Imhoff’s sell imports?
What kind of records was he selling?
He was into R&B in a big way, that was his passion. He would rent this basement on a Friday.
So it was only open on a Friday?
Yeah. He’d open up on Friday morning. It wasn’t like a shop where you could go in and select. It’s just a big box full of fresh imports. He’d tell you what he had and you’d leave with a handful of records. These were the only records we paid for. All the rest Mecca paid for.
How long did you work Mecca as a dancer?
Until ‘66. After about 18 months at the Lyceum with Cyril Stapleton, the manager of the Lyceum was asked to move down to a place called the Orchid Ballroom in Purley, which had just been refurbished and was the biggest ballroom in Europe. Biggest dancefloor. Huge, huge dancefloor. Four different bars, Chicken & Chicks, as they called it. Fish bar. Chicken bar. They had this big ice igloo where they sold ice cream sodas. They had an upstairs bar. And they had a roundabout which was another bar, a revolving bar, all in this wonderful huge building. Now it’s a health club, discotheque, bowling alley.
Mecca were doing very well at the time. The year preceding that they’d also opened a chain of ice rinks called the Silver Blade ice rinks all around the country. Mecca opened this chain during 1962 and, in fact, each one that was opened, Cyril Stapleton’s Band were there for the opening, because they were the hottest band on the circuit. I went to the opening of every Silver Blades ice rink in the country and attempted to dance on the ice!
The Mod scene in London, how did that develop?
Well, places like the Ad Lib weren’t really Mod clubs, as far as Mods were concerned.
What were the places that were regarded as hot?
Le Discothèque in Wardour Street, which was probably the first seedy late night club. And the Flamingo. Late nights at the Flamingo. The Flamingo had more black GIs than anyone else, it also integrated with black London and West London, because it was open late on Friday and Saturday, in fact all night. I worked every night in the ballrooms, and most closed at 11 because of licensing laws. We’d always go to a club afterwards. It might even have been a jazz club.
How late was the Flamingo open?
Well, it was usually closed at 12 except on a Friday and Saturday, when they ran all nighters. I think they started running them in 1962.
Were they unlicensed?
They were Coca Cola bars. But upstairs from the Flamingo, was the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, which was licensed.
Is that where the Wag is now?
Exactly. The Whiskey was very chic. You’d rather go into the dive below it than the Whiskey, but obviously people who drank would try and go to the Whiskey. There were two other dodgy late night bars in basements in Wardour Street, where you could get a drink if you ordered a steak sandwich for a ridiculous amount of money, like four shillings.
Do you know who the DJ was at the Flamingo?
I can’t remember the guy who was there originally, but Sammy and I started to do shows at the Flamingo, from ‘62. Also February ‘62 we opened a weekly record hop at Greenwich Town Hall, on a Wednesday or Thursday. There was a lack of places to go. The Tuesdays and Sundays the place was packed at the Lyceum, and it held 2,000.
The name discotheque never really got used until ‘62 or ‘63, really, the only place that used it was Le Discotheque, that’s because it had poncey French people running it. It was a great place. It had mattresses all over the floor. So you could go and get sweaty on the dancefloor and come off and flop out on a smelly mattress. And who knows what went on there?
What did they play?
The pops of the day and a good selection of black records.
What did you think was the best club, in terms of the cutting edge?
Originally, the Flamingo because it was dark and dingy and it had a great cultural mix; it was filled up with a great cultural cross section. You had the Americans, George Fame and people like him. There were a few hot French clubs in town, too. It’s really strange because there was this sort of underground set of Frenchies who had properties in London. There was this place called La Poubelle.
And the French became obsessed with The Twist, in fact, they even called it the French Twist. And I made a record written by Sammy in early ‘62 called “Twistin’ Like The French Kids Do”!
Where was La Poubelle?
What about Le Kilt?
That also existed. It was very polite French. More middle class. It was where all the au pairs would go to meet rich London men.
What kind of bands did they have at Flamingo? I assume Georgie Fame, but weren’t artists like Little Walter coming over?
That was later, about ‘64. Georgie became really popular about ‘64 when he cut that record Live at the Flamingo, which was produced by Ian Samwell. Sammy was at the cutting edge of all of it.
If you weren’t collecting records, did you pool them with Sammy?
We carried four of those old wire racks with the hot selection of that time. Twice a week we’d sit and edit them. Work out which ones we thought were hot, which ones we thought were dead. Plus the ones we would take to The Flamingo, which was always a harder edge, of course. By then bluebeat had just started to happen as well. I don’t even think it was called bluebeat originally. We started doing a Wednesday record night, then we started doing an all nighter in midweek too (at Flamingo). We were also doing the late late shift after Georgie and the other bands had finished playing. There was always a black jockey there as well.
Do you remember his name?
American or English?
There were never any American GIs that brought their records?
They brought records from the bases. There was a good influx of records coming in from all over by that time. There was also another import shop that had opened by that time, on a Saturday morning, in the Haymarket in the basement of a bookshop.
Do you remember any of the big records you were playing at The Flamingo during this period?
Off the top of my head, I couldn’t, but I could look at some sheet somewhere.
When did you start DJing at Tiles?
It was 1966. The period preceding that we did three-and-a-half years at the Orchid Ballroom in Purley, which was our biggest show. Sammy was main DJ, I was working with him and still singing and dancing with the band. Every record show was completely packed solid. People would come from all over London. And then there were shows at Streatham Locarno. We also played records above the Silver Blades ice rink in Streatham.
There was a club called The Bally Hi which was for the late night license to get people in who had money, an after hours club. There were other clubs like that opening in London, a place called The Crazy Elephant in Jermyn Street. Of course, by that time we had The Scotch and The Ad Lib I guess, by 1964. Those sort of places weren’t open to ordinary punters, they were more clubs where you had to be a member.
Were they music industry hangouts?
Music industry, media.
Not as street as The Flamingo?
No, The Flamingo was well street. Great mixing pot. As was The Scene.
Tell me what you know about The Scene?
I don’t know when it started exactly, probably ‘63 or ‘64. I’d met Guy Stevens a few times. When did they do Island Imports? They started issuing records on Sue.
Where had you met Guy Stevens before?
Hanging out. Imhoff’s. Failing that, Friday mornings in Lisle Street. Guy was a collector. He was obsessed with the label and everything. But he was an obsessive. He’d been an obsessive before, he’d been a rock & roller, he was Jerry Lee Lewis mad as well. He was crazy about Jerry Lee, Little Richard. He already had a collection. They were what I loved, but they were my working tools, but I was never a collector.
What was he like as a person?
He was totally enthusiastic about everything, especially about music and clothes. Most of our conversations were spent talking about clothes and music.
Was he a Mod at that stage?
Yeah, he was a bit more unusual than everybody else. He had a certain artistic flamboyant air about him. He wasn’t that tight-arse Mod. Most Mods were so into posing around, whereas Guy was a bit more rock & roll.
A bit looser?
A bit looser. But he was totally obsessed with his music. There were a few other people around like Guy, too, like Peter Meaden and Tony Calder and Andrew Oldham. Tony Calder was also a Mecca DJ from ‘62. He managed to take the job at the Lyceum off of Sammy. A dodgy move. Even if you filled the place with punters, your job wasn’t safe in those days, and you were probably only being paid nine shillings a set anyway.
But then no one had any sense of what a DJ was worth in those days, though.
Well, everyone thought that anyone can play records, which is... [sighs]
Was Guy there from the off?
As far as I remember, yeah. It was a right dodgy place. Seedy. Low ceiling. Bad decoration. Coca Cola bar. That was it. But you could actually get a hit in your Coca Cola. For some reason, it attracted a lot of the lower elements of musicians. It was also on the corner of Archer Street, and in those days Archer Street was where all the musicians went every Monday and Friday, all the musicians from the union would meet there and all the pluggers and fixers would also meet there and hand out their tickets for the recording jobs.
So, right there on that corner, it had a very strong old music business element to it. That pub on the corner was where they all met. And when all those pop hits were happening, every musician would go there, hoping to get a session.
You said Coca Cola with a hit. Do you mean they were dropping pills in the Coke?
You could go and get a pill off someone, but you could also get a shot of whiskey in as well, if you knew how to get a shot of whiskey in it. The preferred drink of the day was whiskey and coke. If you were a cool face you would never stand in a pub with a pint of beer in your hand. You’d have a coke bottle with a shot of whiskey. I think that partly grew out of the fact that Mecca DJs and musicians weren’t allowed to drink. Of course, everyone did.
How prevalent were drugs in places like The Scene and The Flamingo?
That’s where I first came across marijuana, yeah. It wasn’t as obvious as 1964 when the whole thing started to explode.
What sort of drugs were available?
Mainly Purple Hearts and Black Bombers. Another favoured drug amongst a certain bunch was amyl nitrate, which you could buy over the counter in those days. If you had a bit of speed and a quick sniff of amyl, you could really have a great time dancing. And get higher than a kite. That was before it became a gay drug.
Was there any interaction between gays and straights? It must’ve been very underground and covert then.
It was very underground. There were two or three little pubs where they would go. There were a few who would come into the bars. No one wanted to be openly gay, apart from a few musicians and actors.
How did the Mod thing go into the psychedelia?
1965-66, there’d be a new records arriving from America. People like Donovan, who’d gone from this folky thing was writing strange things, coming back from America wearing different clothes. The Beatles, of course. Certain places you could get LSD. There were all kinds of people in pop culture who hadn’t been mixing before.
Were there any clubs that captured this interaction. What about UFO?
UFO grew out of the London Free School over in Notting Hill Gate, and they were actually community based projects like the black housing project, after the riots. It actually grew out of them trying to do good things for the local community over there.
Didn’t the Notting Hill Carnival grow out of this as well?
Yeah, this woman called Rhaune Laslett had the community services in her house and Hoppy [John Hopkins] and a few people helped her set up that carnival, through the London Free School and out of that developed UFO really.
Who set up UFO?
Hoppy, Jim Hayes, Joe Boyd had come into the frame by that time.
What was the template they used for it, because it was obviously different from the Scene?
They didn’t try and copy anything. They were just making their own little thing. Of course, the Acid Tests were coming over. All the underground poets were arriving.
I’m just trying to establish what the dynamic of all this was, where it came from, etc.
Hoppy was a photographer, and he’d been out photographing demonstrations and protests. He worked for the Melody Maker at that time, as well, and was seeing other things; other bands. Who else was around then? Andrew King, Peter Jenner. Know who they are?
Peter Jenner was a band manager.
Yeah, he managed the Pink Floyd. There’d also been a couple of alternate shows at the Marquee. Mixed-media stuff.
People like the Floyd, poets, lights. Things also happening in Central London Poly in Regents Street, there’d been a couple of alternative events.
When did UFO start?
And you played from the start?
No, I wasn’t part of the original set up at all. Lots of people think I was. There was no DJ as such. There was a guy called Jack Henry Moore who was an American electronics whiz. They had the record player, the amplifiers, the lighting equipment, generators and stuff, and he was a sort of mad boffin and he had TV screens with fuzzy images on them. And he played the records. Just records they had around at the time.
I started to go that winter and I was doing all my shows at Tiles then. When I started to go, I was well received by Mick Farren who was the door person, along with Richard Vickers. And I befriended Jack and I used to bring along all the new records I got every week and tell him which ones were hot for me. And he introduced me to things I was totally unaware of. Really weird American stuff.
So what was the difference between the UFO and elsewhere?
It was totally unstructured. It was a free-for-all. There was no presentation as such, it just happened. For me, coming out of the straight world of ballroom showbiz, this was a brave new world. It was just built around the people who were there.
Did people dance?
People did dance, yeah. It wasn’t like a ballroom or a club where everyone just rushed in and took their coats off. They spent more time talking to each other and dropping acid, reading books. There was a head shop in UFO where you could buy... strange things! Little sparklers, sparky wheels, defraction gradings, funny glasses that made everything look strange.
I would imagine it looked pretty strange anyway...
It did because there were the light shows. So everything was bathed in a wash of colours.
When did you start DJing there?
There was no DJ as such. There was no one that would announce records. Jack had this sort of scaffolding area where he kept all the electronics and stuff and records would just be popped on to the deck. There was no thought of mixing. He also had loads of stuff on tape. It wasn’t just a question of records.
What was on tape?
Electronic music, stuff like the Grateful Dead. And there were bands: Arthur Brown, Soft Machine. It wasn’t really a record club.
So what about Tiles, then?
I had a thing at Tiles called the Jeff Dexter Record And Light Show, which was basically a good crossover of soul, R&B and bluebeat. And new records of the day, the new psychedelic records. This was every Wednesday.
Where was Tiles?
Opposite the 100 Club. It was turned into an aquarium after Tiles. Corner of Chapel Street and Oxford Street. Either Chapel or Dean. The entrance was further along, but Tiles had its own Tiles Street, which was like a mini Carnaby Street. You’d go in the club, the club was a huge open space, and one end was a big coffee bar, and off to the side was Tiles Street, where they sold clothes and paraphernalia. And also a tiny little record shop.
It was an incredible place, Tiles. It was the only place that had its own real PA system. One of the backers of the club was a guy called Jim Marshall, who owned Marshall PA, and there were something like 40 columns of speakers that ran all along the dancefloor. And they had a proper soundsystem and proper amplifiers.
So it was pretty impressive sound-wise?
The sound was lo-fi, it wasn’t hi-fi, but it worked incredibly well. It was the only place where things didn’t break down as well. Marquee never invested in a proper PA system. In Tiles, everything was laid on, all the equipment was installed by Imhoff’s.
Were there vari-speeds on the deck?
No. Direct drive. Garrard was the only one you could buy then. I’ve got a few other pictures of Tiles from when I was in magazines. The only Sunday supplements Tiles featured in were for drug raids. Tiles was raided regularly on its all night sessions. Hundreds of police would come, because it was supposed to be a drug den.
Yeah! Well, kids always took pills to dance on, didn’t they? They came up to London to have a good time, so there were always plenty of pills.
How many all nighters did Tiles run?
On a Saturday?
Yeah. I did the midnight to 6 AM shift. There were a selection of DJs and styles: Clem Dalton, Mike Quinn and Sammy as well. I was still working at Mecca ballrooms. I was doing Hammersmith Palais, Empire Leicester Square. Prior and simultaneously. I got the sack from Mecca. My main gig was still Orchid Ballroom up to the summer of ‘66 – Sammy had gone the year before and I was doing all the shows there. Sammy had gone back into writing and producing. He’d fallen out with the Mecca.
What was the timescale at Tiles?
1966 to ‘67. Well, I went on holiday to Majorca in the summer of ‘66. I was asked to come and open a club called Snoopy’s. I sent a guy called Pete Sanders in my place. There was too much going on here to spend a summer in Spain. In some ways I wish I’d done it, because when I arrived there it was just incredible, because I took with me a bunch of acid. The Animals were there; Tom Jones was there, and in those days Tom was quite acceptable.
What did you find when you got over there?
There was a whole new generation of people who there in Spain at that time. Not only the club entrepreneurs and the bands, but there was this great influx of British going there for their summer holidays. You could go for a week all-inclusive for £35.
So this was the beginnings of the package holiday?
Yeah. The Brits had started opening discotheques there. They’d taken this old mill in the centre of town [Snoopy’s]. There was a whole new set of Brits going to do what was happening in London, in the sun.
Were there other nationalities there, too?
Scandinavians in particular. A few Germans, not so many. Mainly Brits and Scandinavians.
There were a few. There was actually a group who had a hit that summer by crossing over: “Black Is Black” by Los Bravos.
You played at Middle Earth, didn’t you? Was that more your gig than UFO?
Towards the end of UFO. UFO got closed down at Tottenham Court Road and got moved to the Roundhouse by early summer.
Whereabouts in Tottenham Court Road was it?
Almost opposite where the YMCA is. Actually on the next block up. The Blarney Club was an old Irish ballroom. Originally Middle Earth was called the Electric Garden, which tried to do more or less what UFO was doing: bands, poetry.
Was it near Covent Garden?
It was in Covent Garden.
Were you involved in that from the start?
No. I wasn’t there from the start. My main gig at that time was Tiles. I was doing five lunchtimes a week, and three nights.
The lunchtime thing at Tiles. What was that all about?
It was a coffee bar and sandwich at Tiles. The doors opened at 12. Taped music would play until 12:25 and then I’d put on my intro record. 12:30 the curtains would open and there I’d be playing to almost a full lunchtime crowd. And of course there were a bunch of kids who never went to work anyway. And we’d spend the next three hours doing this.
What were you playing?
Dance records. Bluebeat, ska, because we had plenty of ska by then. I played then all the new records of the day. Bit of psychedelic, but very little at Tiles, because the audience was mainly tight-arse, pill-chewing Mod kids. The Late-on Mods.
What do you mean by the Late-on Mods?
Well, the ones that came to it very late... To me Mods died in ‘62, but obviously there was still that funny culture of Carnaby Street and, of course, there were all those new dandy fashions from the end of ‘64 and that had now crept into the mainstream.
You mean the semi-Regency look?
Yeah, it had been around for a few years before but it had gone more mainstream. In fact, by that time, there was a chain of shops called Dandy Fashion.
In the Middle Earth, what was being played?
Well, there, the hot bands of the day. John Peel was also a DJ. And John hated ska and bluebeat and most of those records that I’d lived on. He thought they were awful. I was totally into what he was doing, but he didn’t understand what I was doing. The thing is, people still loved to dance and you really couldn’t dance to a lot of the new psychedelic records that were around. They were horrible to dance to. So to keep people moving I had to mix it up a bit.
The fundamental difference is probably that you came from a club background and he was a radio person.
Yeah. John’s records were strictly for listening to. I played to the audience. Any DJ worth his salt knows how put one record on after another so they seem seamless, and, although that was becoming less important, to me it was still important that once the place was full, I wanted those people to have a good time. I mixed the two together.
What sort of people were coming to Middle Earth?
All the bands of the day, various media people. Middle Earth actually attracted more of the younger punters, people from the suburbs who would have normally gone to other clubs. UFO wasn’t really for the punters so much.
Was it more media-oriented?
Not so much media. Alternative.
Early hippies. Heads.
Yeah, but a lot of them didn’t want to call themselves hippies. I definitely became a hippie. Peace and love was the most important thing to come out of my mouth. And be nice to each other.
That must have affected the music you played.
Yeah. It became much more gentle. Much more open. And not so restricted to having the beats in the right place at the right time.
Do you think that was emphasised by the fact that LSD was replacing speed?
Yeah. People were wandering off in different directions. They were seeing the colours coming out of the speakers! It was also the birth of what became known as idiot dancing.
Which is basically middle class flopping about.
That’s right. Waving your arms around. There wasn’t enough space on the dancefloor to have a real good dance, so you just sort of shake yourself and wave yourself about.
What bands played?
They were the mainstay of the business. Dantalion’s Chariot, The Byrds, Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, The Move, who’d become a psychedelic band by this time. They were brilliant.
How did the Byrds fit into all of that?
They were very psychedelic. Incredibly so. They really psychedelicised the whole folk thing.
When did you give up DJing?
Around about ’73 or ’74.
What had you been doing in the interim?
Running all the shows at the Roundhouse. DJing at all the shows. Doing all the festivals. The whole thing had exploded by the late ’60s. The summer of ‘67 was the Festival of the Flower Children at Woburn Abbey. They had a wildlife park there. The following year there was another festival at Woburn.
I presume by that stage, you weren’t really playing dance records?
Head music, but there were records that crossed right over. Canned Heat, who played boogie. The Lemon Pipers! They had a big hit called “Green Tambourine,” it was bubblegum psychedelic.
What do you mean by bubblegum psychedelic?
Well, the pop market had tried to creep in; The Lemon Pipers were one. People danced to The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival. There were records that you could dance to and I still mixed the two together, although I was becoming less fond of the black records that were creeping up, of Motown and Stax. To me, they’d become plastic. They didn’t hold that element of magic and soul that they’d done before. Buffalo Springfield, who played one of the last Middle Earths.
When was the last?
Well, it moved out of Covent Garden early summer ‘68 and moved to the Roundhouse. Then moved out to a bingo hall just off Ladbroke Grove, which is where it came to an end at the end of ’68. That’s when we opened Implosion. UFO had grown out of a community-based idea but had gone in the direction of becoming a workshop for the agents and bands of the day as opposed to what it intended to do. Middle Earth jumped on the back of that.
So we set up this thing called Implosion, which would do what UFO intended. Anyone who played there would have to play for the community – they would not get a cut of the door no matter who they were. And they’d all get a fixed fee, which was £20. Of the money we made, half went into keeping the Roundhouse alive, and the other half was donated to needy causes.
Things like Release?
Yeah, well Caroline [Coon] was one of the founders of Implosion.
How long did it last?
Beginning of ‘69, till ‘73. People loved it. We didn’t have to put on a major act to fill it, but every major act that came through London wanted to play.
When you were playing at the Mecca clubs, what equipment were you using?
At the Mecca clubs we had two Garrard turntables at most of the venues. They weren’t 301s. They were integrated systems. It was semi-pro gear. Tiles was the only club I worked in that invested in it and took it totally seriously and made it work for the DJ. All the other clubs, they had baby hi-fi equipment. A few of them had 301s or 401s, but most of them had smaller Garrard units.
So The Scene and Flamingo were very primitive?
Very primitive. Guy had two SP-25s [Garrard]. It was an integrated arm and deck.
One last question. Ronan O’Rahilly.
Ronan O’Really! Ronan O’Rahilly. What a wonderful man. Doesn’t remember anything. But he sort of remembers everything in a romantic, nice, sort of Irish way.
Is he still around?
He started The Scene, didn’t he?
I don’t know. Did he?
What do you know about him?
Always around. Great character. Always around on the edge of everything. Always tried to be involved. A joyful man in some ways, and a great groundbreaking person. Launching the pirates. Then attempting to launch pirate TV. He was involved with Fun City.
A festival that happened in 1970, originally intended to raise money for IT, but ended up not making any money at all for anybody. I like him a lot.
This interview was conducted in February 1998 in London. © DJhistory.com