Neil Rushton was just 21 when he started promoting Northern Soul events around the Midlands. Alongside friend Bill Baker, he established the Heart of England Soul Club in 1974, putting on Sunday all-dayers in Dudley and Coalville. By 1976, he’d moved them to the Ritz in Manchester, launching an event that featured DJs playing both traditional Northern Soul and what became known as “Modern Soul.” Rushton’s all-dayers, which also took place at the Blackpool Mecca, helped kick-start a golden period for Sunday events, with dancers travelling from all across the UK to attend.
He quit promoting events in the early 1980s, resurfacing in 1987 with Kool Kat Records, a label that specialised in licensing music from imprints in Chicago and Detroit (fittingly, it was also named in honour of a big Motor City soul record by Joe Matthews). The latter link led him to establish a strong relationship with techno pioneers Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson.
He arranged for the trio to visit the UK for the first time and put together the influential Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit compilation for Ten Records in 1988. Rushton later founded Network Records, releasing key early UK techno records by the likes of Altern-8 and Rhythmatic, as well as material licensed from Transmat, KMS and Metroplex.
In this interview from 2000, Rushton talks to Bill Brewster about the Ritz all-dayers, his links with Detroit and bringing the Belleville Three to the UK for the first time.
I wanted to start by asking you a couple of questions about Northern Soul. Tell me about the schisms at the Ritz all-dayers. How true is all the stuff about the arguments [between Northern Soul and Modern Soul fans]?
I don’t agree with that. Keb Darge is someone I really respect, but in that Northern Soul film by Ian Levine, he’s talking about the Ritz as though it’s Rangers against Celtic. The real story is this: It wasn’t the place where the schisms became apparent or developed. It was actually the place where everything met together. What happened was there was one school going on in the Highland Room [at the Blackpool Mecca], another going on at the [Wigan] Casino. There was also something going on at a place that gets completely overlooked, which is the Cleethorpes Winter Garden all-nighter. They were mixing up the Casino thing with the Mecca-type sound.
Silvetti, that kind of thing?
Exactly. What happened was when I had the opportunity to promote the Ritz, there were a lot of new records, things like the French version of “Lady Marmalade,” “Are You Ready For This” and “Control Tower” by the Magic Disco Machine. So that was the interesting thing that was going on.
There were six or seven good new records every week. At the Mecca they’d gone completely one way and at Wigan they were retrenching themselves back in to the ’60s. Cleethorpes, I thought, brought together the best of both. I didn’t want it to be just the ’60s soul that I loved, but I didn’t want it to be just the current stuff, either. I wanted to mix it all together.
The reason why it worked so well wasn’t because the battle lines were drawn, it was actually because it was the first place to combine it. We actually were doing up to 1,700 people [per event] because we were the first venue to take the blinkers off. We understood the prejudices, but rather than get drawn into them we said, “You can have Colin Curtis, or Richard Searling, you could have Ian Levine, you could have Ian Dewhirst.”
As the Northern scene got more and more exploited – that old Wigan vibe – the records were getting worse, the new records were taking over more, so something that could live in harmony for about two years became very, very split. Also the jazz-funk thing was taking over.
Eventually you did have a situation where you had people from Wigan pilled out of their heads from the night before, barbed out at the Ritz, and they’d be picking arguments. But it was never as bad as at the Mecca. At the Mecca you had a guy from Wolverhampton running a banner through the venue saying, “Ian Levine Must Go.” It wasn’t really the main battlefield for it. There were a couple of times when Ian was shouted at, but so what? There was never a fight at those all-dayers.
Later on you became famous for championing Detroit techno in the UK. How did you first come across Derrick May and company?
After I’d done the Northern Soul thing, I’d actually gone back to work as a newspaper reporter. But as the house explosion started to filter through, I was drawn more and more towards [it], buying records every week. A few of us got together and formed what became Network Records, but it was called Kool Kat at that time.
We were starting the label up and the bulk of the new releases were coming from Chicago. But people like Damon D’Cruz at Jack Trax and the majors, like Pete Tong, they’d already got Steve Hurley and Farley and all those guys. So the Chicago thing was already sewn up. I’d always been into Detroit records because of the Northern Soul thing, so when the imports started coming in on Transmat, KMS and Metroplex I was interested. I was probably more interested than the average person. So I rang up the number listed on one of the Transmat releases – “Nude Photo” I think – just before “Strings of Life “came through. I rang up Derrick, asked about releasing records and it all started from there really.
So this story about you coming across them while you were searching for Northern Soul records is not true?
We were looking for Northern Soul records when we went on that first trip, when I did that album for Ten Records.
But you already knew about the records already?
Yeah, well, Derrick had already come over the previous Christmas and stayed at my house. We’d done some deals for him on “Strings Of Life.” We’d released the new version of “Nude Photo” and the Sinister EP and he also remixed T-CUT-F’s “House Reaction” for us, which we then licensed to Ten.
Derrick said there was a wealth of material that I should get involved with, particularly by Kevin [Saunderson]. So we then licensed material from Kevin, including Reese & Santonio’s “The Sound” and “How To Play Our Music.”
As well as that, which was essentially current or back catalogue, I had the idea – because the music was so different from the Chicago sound – that it would be interesting to do a compilation of a whole new wave of music. I went to Mick Clark at Virgin, and said, “I’ve got the connections with these guys, I’ve got an idea for an album and it’s possible that you might get a single from this, but we haven’t got the resources to do it. Would you be interested in financing it?” That’s how the Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit [compilation] came about.
They weren’t using “techno” as a description for the records they were making – it was just a phrase that they used.
Is it true that the working title for it was The New House Sound of Detroit?
When did the word “techno” actually enter into the lexicon?
Well, when I went over to license the album, which was the first time I’d met either Kevin or Juan [Atkins], whereas before Derrick had said “techno” in passing, they were all saying it. But they weren’t using it as a description for the records they were making. It was just a phrase that they used.
As an adjective?
Sort of, yeah. With Stuart Cosgrove, John McCready and myself all over there, we all realised that the working title would be inappropriate because the music was so different and techno was the obvious phrase to jump on to. We didn’t come up with the phrase; it was the Detroit guys themselves, but they hadn’t labelled their records that. That’s the way I remember it.
Do you think all this sci-fi mumbo-jumbo and technological stuff was thought up after the fact, or was it part and parcel of what they were doing?
I don’t know. I’m always a bit sceptical about all of that. One of the things I always thought was the techno stuff had a jazz feel to it – as Carl Craig proved later – and when we were over there we kept saying that. We kept making comparisons to the past. And the other thing people got completely wrong is this image of techno being a new wave of dance music made in super studios. In fact, it was all made on old equipment. There were a lot of paradoxes going on there. I think that Derrick was very articulate and was quick to see what people wanted.
Derrick would make a good advertising copywriter.
Yeah, and McCready, Cosgrove and me weren’t exactly slow in understanding that. There was a certain amount of sophistication as far as that end of it is concerned. It did lend itself to these articles about Detroit being the forgotten city – the inner city being completely empty. So there is a bit of it that can be like [Private Eye magazine’s] Pseud’s Corner. At the time, it was really refreshing because it really was happening without any commercial…
Yeah. They were literally making records, pressing them at Archer’s Pressing Plant – which was a little one-story company – and the guy there was the son of the guy who used to do all the independent Northern Soul classics, so I was seeing all of those comparisons.
There was a lot of theorising going on, but what I liked about it was that it was its own unique scene. The other thing that’s interesting in the way it gets written about is the way people talk about the whole techno thing being embraced by the UK, but that’s not true. When we did that album, I’d go down to Spectrum every Monday and they wouldn’t play the records we were bringing along. If you heard two Detroit records in a six-hour session, then that was it. It wasn’t like everyone was suddenly playing “Triangle of Love.” “Strings of Life” was one of the things that changed it, but “Strings of Life” was an underground record originally.
Well, that broke when the big outdoor raves kicked off, didn’t it?
Yeah. We never actually released “Strings of Life” originally, because Derrick had agreed a deal with Damon D’Cruz at Jack Trax. Damon sold copies of it, but it certainly wasn’t regarded as house music’s answer to “Sex Machine,” it was just a great record. It was revived when the outdoor raves came. We’d take records down there [Spectrum] and we’d take Derrick, and Kevin and Herbie Hancock came along because they were going to produce a Herbie Hancock album, but we never got it sorted. It was more the Haçienda with Mike Pickering and Graeme Park, who knew every record on Metroplex, Transmat and KMS. It wasn’t so much of a London thing.
This interview took place in February 2000. © DJ History.