Starting out as an early house music DJ in ’80s Sheffield, Richard Barratt was known as DJ Parrot, and joined forces with Winston Hazel (soon to be of seminal dance group Forgemasters) for their parties at the Jive Turkey: where hip-hop and breaks met soul and disco, and radical, mixed-race crowds of teens and artists came together to sweat it out. It was in his production work, though, that Barratt came into his own – teaming up with Richard H Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire for their Sweet Exorcist project, which became not only the first release proper on the new Warp label, but tied in with the birth of FON Studios and of the bleep techno sound, which drove a new style of electronic dance music in the North of England in the early ’90s.
Splintering away from bleep, Barratt worked under myriad aliases, like charting dance-pop acts like The All Seeing I and The Funky Worm, and with major pop and rock artists like Roísín Murphy and Richard Hawley. Back in the studio as a solo producer, his most recent work as Crooked Man saw him release a new album on James Murphy’s DFA label, where he takes on vocal pop and disco with seasoned flair. In this excerpt from his recent Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio with Lauren Martin, Barratt discusses all of this and more.
The Sheffield Scene
Sheffield in the late ’70s/early ’80s was one of the world’s great industrial cities that was on its way down to its knees. A lot of the heavy industry was starting to fail or be shut down. The government didn’t really like the idea of spending money on loss-making industry, didn’t like the power of the unions. Sheffield and the whole South Yorkshire, really, has a history of non-conformist politics and being quite left-wing. Obviously we were in the target hairs for Mrs. Thatcher and all that.
In terms of nightlife, similarly to most cities and towns in England at that time, there was things going on. It was kind of the post-punk era. There were a lot of young people who mainly survived on benefits. It wasn’t like now, where the government and the DSS [Department of Social Services] would hound you. They pretended to leave you alone. If anything, people felt sorry for you. We kind of got the chance to be working class bohemians… As working class kids that was quite hard to do. 50 years before you couldn’t really do it. Bohemians tended to be like the Bloomsbury Set or what have you – trust funds, coming from wealthy backgrounds. It was hard to be a working class painter or sculptor. Our generation kind of got the chance to ignore gainful employment and just dream a little bit. I think there was a lot of that going on in Sheffield.
Music isn’t quite as tribal or segregated now as it was back then... If you were into one thing, you might want to fight somebody else who’s into something different. You could get into a fight just about the width of your trousers or the length of your collar, never mind your hair. Alongside racism, there was the kind of musical split, and I think that did start to change in the mid-’80s when I was getting involved in music, but not through anything that I did particularly. There became clubs available that didn’t have door policies and played dance music, and I think there was a shift amongst the white crowd to becoming more accepting of the dance music that was happening. Now, obviously there’s a long history of white working class kids being into black American dance music, but most of those kind of clubs and dance halls were very largely white.
Certainly with Northern Soul, you didn’t see many black faces at all on that scene. The jazz/funk thing was slightly different in that the West Indian kids were really into that. Most of my friends that were black weren’t into Northern Soul – they thought it sounded stupid, they thought it sounded like pop music, was old-fashioned. They weren’t interested in it. If there was a club playing more contemporary, modern jazz/funk music, then you did get more of a mixed crowd, but it tended to be mixed in the other way – it might be a largely black crowd with just a few white faces.
[Mona Lisa, the early venue for Jive Turkey,] was a space that hadn’t changed since the ’70s, really. It had lots of flat wallpaper that was in a tatty state, some of it peeling off the walls. A flashing star above a little white, round dancefloor, little DJ booth. Lots of big, pink, translucent plastic. There were a lot of bare breasts and Afros, and I suppose it was a very typical ’70s kitsch that just hadn’t been ripped out and started again. It appealed to us. Certainly to me, because I was in my early 20s. I was too small to remember that stuff in the actual ’70s. It got a seedy glamour attached to it that wasn’t really there… but things from the past get fetishized, don’t they?
There are two things I really hate in music, any kind of music: one is pomposity, and the other is whinging.
There was a dance culture that had come out of the jazz/funk scene and gone into the early electro soul, electro funk that was very big in the north and the Midlands. Although there were regular nights in each town, the big thing was the scene where people would go to a certain venue, from all over... You’d spend all week refining a new dance step, getting yourself ready, just to go there and show off for your town, really. There’d be lots of dance battles, all that stuff going on, but that was very much hidden, I think, to the white alternative crowd. The clubs that would let you in irrespective of the color of your skin, or what you were wearing at that time, were very much still in that post-punk thing. They might play some dance music mixed in with other stuff, but you’d be as likely to hear the Cramps or Bauhaus as you were going to hear D-Train or Man Parrish or what have you.
The really important people in that period in Sheffield were Cabaret Voltaire, who had their own studio, the Western Works. They were so open-minded. If they thought you were doing something interesting, or you might do something interesting, they’d support you, they’d let you into their studio, they’d work with you. To have them there with that facility was fantastic.
A bit later on there was a band called Chakk that, by slightly devious methods, got a huge recording deal. A recording deal, even at that time, was a good deal. Although they never particularly made many records, they did spend the money on starting FON Studios. FON became a bit of a hub of creative people. People in Sheffield at the time, young people in our circle, didn’t have a lot of money. You could get by on not a lot of money – cheap transport, clubs weren’t expensive to get into. I think when we first started the Jive Turkey it was either a pound or £1.50 to get in on a Saturday night. You couldn’t charge a lot because most people were living on benefits, anyway.
I can’t remember if it was ’88 or ’89 when the Sweet Exorcist thing happened. It was just on that cusp of big studios becoming obsolete, certainly in terms of dance music. People were starting to use Atari computers for sequencing; recording was just becoming a lot more simple… Neither me or Richard [H. Kirk] had been particularly technically gifted, or even that interested in technology. “Testone” was the first record that either of us had made using an Atari, so there was a kind of learning curve going on at the time, fighting with this computer that neither of us knew how to use. We’re talking about something pretty simplistic here, compared to the computers and software that people use to build music now. It’s like an abacus or something.
We were there for a week making that song, so you could imagine how dilly-dally we were going. Even then we had to ring Robert [Gordon, Warp Records co-founder] up and get him to come in to do certain things on the computer we just could not figure out how to do. We knew what we wanted it to do, but we couldn’t make it do what we wanted it to do. Even then, we ended up putting the whole thing down in sections on quarter-inch tape, and editing the tape. Having the computer should have negated all that, but we were so stupid that we just went back to the old technology, in the hopes of that working a bit better for us.
I don’t think I’m actually that good at making hit records. Obviously I’m not, or I would’ve had lots of hit records, but certainly the Funky Worm record was such a surprise that we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know that it’d become a hit – it sounded the way it did, that was it. The FON people did have aspirations to be a more crossover-type thing and have big pop records, but nobody really knew how to make pop records. You might fluke one, but then you couldn’t follow it up. Both the Funky Worm follow-ups were terrible, but we’d ended up with a hit record and a major record deal, and we just sat there scratching our heads, wondering what to do.
The trouble with having a hit is then there’s pressure to have another hit, and you get people involved around you who maybe don’t understand the music that you’re into. All they care about is that you’ve had a hit, and they want another hit. You then start trying to write a hit, and it’s a complete and utter waste of time. You end up completely compromised – that was less so with The All Seeing I, because we were a little bit older and a bit more experienced, and realized the best thing we could do was just play about. Fiddle about, and if things came out, if they were a hit, fantastic, and if they weren’t, so what? Just make sure it sounds good, rather than trying to please the record label.
The thing about Dean [Honer] and the other guy in The All Seeing I, Jason Buckle, is that they weren’t really coming from dance music in the way that I was... They knew a lot more about indie music than I did, because I’ve never really been into that. Jason in particular was a massive Morrissey fan, massive Richard Ashcroft fan.
I think that all three of us were into pop music, really. My idea of pop music may, to some people’s ideas, not sound like pop music, or may be extreme. The moments I like are when something that is unusual, or that a lot of people don’t understand, gets in the charts and becomes a hit. That seemed to happen quite a lot when I was a kid. There’s always been manufactured pop music, certainly, and a lot of people that might as well be selling beans, but there’s also that history in the UK of quite strange things becoming popular. Something like The All Seeing I, God knows, but I don’t think we could’ve existed in another country at the time. We were products of our own childhoods and an inquiring set of minds, in terms of what was possible within pop music and what could get in the charts.
“Scum Always Rises to the Top”
In tandem with just about everything on the [Crooked Man] record, “Scum” was written five or six years ago. At the time there was still a major hangover going on from 2007 and the banking crisis. I haven’t got a problem with making political music or having political lyrics or what have you. Back in the late ’70s, there was a big jazz/funk record – I think in America it probably would’ve been regarded as a disco record. It was called “Cream Always Rises To The Top” by Gregg Diamond. I never really paid that much attention to the lyric, and I think I’d always had this picture in my mind that it was like a civil rights kind of message, like “Move On Up” or something like that. I heard it randomly in that post-banking crisis period. I was thinking, actually, this record, it’s about people in discos who would take lots and lots of cocaine and were really, really pleased with themselves. I suppose that was the message of upmarket disco in the late ’70s. It was that “Look at us, we’re so fantastic,” Studio 57, that whole thing. I thought, “Actually, this is celebrating something I’m not really that into.”
[“Scum”] was kind of an answer-back record. A long time ago, if somebody had a hit record, you quite often had an answer-back record, certainly with dance music. Somebody would make a record over a very similar beat that was kind of answering the hit, in the hope that they might get a hit as well.
Something that was annoying me about a lot of the music I was hearing when I first started doing the Crooked Man thing, as well as hearing too many instrumentals and too many of what I can only describe as “boys’ records,” were a lot of singers sounding kind of miserable or trying to sound miserable, as if they were thinking that if this sounded angsty, it would somehow make the music deeper. The charts are still full of it. You can’t switch the radio on without hearing somebody talking like that, like they’re going to break down in tears or something, like it makes the song sound much more meaningful because they sound so full of angst and torture. I really, really dislike that.
I’m kind of with Ian Dury. Ian Dury, I once read, said something about he doesn’t want to hear moaning in music. There’s enough moaning in life anyway without putting the radio on and hearing more moaning. There are two things I really hate in music, any kind of music: one is pomposity, and the other is whinging. That seems the marker of a lot of pop music at the moment. Like, pompous production with somebody whinging on the top of it, and hopefully none of the Crooked Man stuff is like that. I would hope none of it is pompous, and certainly there’s no whinging going on.
Ironically, there’s a song on [the Crooked Man LP] called “Happiness,” which has been the most unforgivingly tedious track to sort out. It went through millions and millions of versions that I would’ve loved to have just thrown in the bin, but the record company, DFA, really, really liked it. Hopefully it still sounds happy – I don’t know, but we weren’t happy when we were making it. Maybe that doesn’t even correspond. I’m sure a lot of the people that sound miserable on modern pop records aren’t really miserable at all, they’re only sounding miserable because it makes them more money. That song should’ve really been called “Unhappiness” because it was so grim to sort it out.