DJ, fashionista, taste-maker and writer, Jay Strongman is a name synonymous with the explosion of London’s eclectic and unique nightlife scene in the 80’s and 90’s, the reverberations of which ring through to the present day. Earning the princely sum of £5 for his first ever DJ set, Jay began a musical career that saw him dodging the police across various illegal nightspots, square dancing with Malcom McLaren on opening night at The Mud Club, writing for iconic magazine The Face and becoming the first Western DJ to play a warehouse party in Soviet Russia. His stories evoke the magic and excitement of what many remember as the ‘golden era’ of UK nightlife and fashion: if he wasn’t already an accomplished author we’d certainly tell him he should write a book. With ‘Popcorn Heartbreak’, his compilation of forgotten late 50’s and early 60’s Pop/R&B about to be released on BBE, we caught up with Jay Strongman for tea, biscuits and reminiscing.
First off, please introduce yourself and tell us a little of your history.
I’m Jay Strongman. I grew up in South East England listening to reggae, funk, and David Bowie, Saw the Sex Pistols in 1976 and it changed my life – made me think anything was possible – if you wanted to do something you could do it, be in a band, open a shop, be a DJ. I opened a rockabilly clothing store in ’79, started DJ’ing in 1982, DJ’d on KISS FM for 7 years, became the first Western DJ to play a warehouse party in the Soviet Union, was a writer for the Face Magazine and other publications, author of three books, co-produced several singles and one album, and I’m still currently DJ’ing and writing in my new home of Los Angeles.
Do you remember the first record you bought? when (and what) was it?
The first record I bought was the seven-inch single “Monkey Spanner” by Dave & Ansell Collins in 1971” and I think the first album I bought was “Tighten Up. Vol 1” on Trojan.
When did you start DJing? Do you remember your first ever gig? How did it go?
My first paying DJ gig was in the summer of 1982 at an illegal warehouse party in Earl’s Court, West London called “The Dirtbox”. I was there as a punter when the DJ got drunk and passed out and they asked me if I would take over. I grabbed a taxi home (I lived just a short distance away) picked up my old 1970s funk collection, my rockabilly records and a few hip-hop 12’s and came back and DJ’d from 11 pm until 5 in the morning. The DJ console was an old Citronic Hawaii set-up which meant mixing was virtually out of the question – which was just as well as I didn’t have the slightest idea how to mix. I just put together tunes that seemed to have a similar feel and similar pace and just faded them into each other. I loved doing it, the crowd seemed to like my music selection and my DJ career started that night. And I got £5 for doing it – so I was very happy because I got paid to do something I loved.
You were instrumental in some of London’s most iconic and fondly remembered clubs (Mud Club, Wag, Dirt Box etc). Please talk us through some highlights.
The Dirt Box was on Saturdays and was an illegal warehouse party that moved from venue to venue (as soon as the police shut one venue down they’d find somewhere new) so the music that Rob Milton (the co-promoter and DJ) and I played there was the kind of outlaw music suitable for spaces that might have only a couple of light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, no air conditioning and condensation dripping down the walls. So, I played Hank Williams tunes like “Howling At The Moon”, R&B jivers like “Bloodshot Eyes” by Wyonnie Harris, old ska tracks like “Al Capone” by Prince Buster, new reggae like Eek-A-Mouse’s “A Wa Do Dem”, 60s soul classics like “Sock It To ‘Em, JB” by Rex Garvin, tuff funk tunes such as “Hypertension” by Calendar and “Hot Pants – I’m Coming” by Bobby Byrd, disco tracks like “Galaxy” by War and new hip-hop and electro tunes including “Planet Rock” by Soul Sonic Force and “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. And we’d just throw everything into the mix – Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Bottle” followed by a rockabilly tune followed by Shannon’s “Let The Music Play” and the crowd really went for it.
The Mud started in early 1983 with Malcolm McLaren doing the opening night with a live performance of “Buffalo Girls” and a half-hour square dancing show, the third week we had Afrika Bambaataa drop in to do a one hour set and the place just took off from there. The Mud was run by a very flamboyant gay guy called Philip Salon and he was very strict with his door policy – you had to look “dressed up” to get in which meant the crowd was ultra-fashionable, very young and very trendy. Musically I played 70s funk, some 1950s jivers, the Clash and lots of new funk, hip-hop and electro and as much go-go from Washington D.C. as I could get my hands on. The other long-term resident DJ at the Mud, Mark Moore, played some electro, lots of great disco and some really off-the-wall stuff that would always send the crowd crazy. I think the Mud was also one of the first places in the country to regularly feature Chicago house music – Mark and I were both playing tunes on Chicago labels from mid-1985 onwards. The Mud ran on Friday nights from ’83 until ’89 and was full every single week with 1000 or more kids, straight and gay, who were happy to dance to everything from Trouble Funk to Farley Jackmaster Funk to Abba.
The Wag was aimed at a slightly older crowd than the Mud and was a venue rather than just a one-nighter like the Dirtbox or the Mud. It was open six nights a week and featured jazz nights, funk, disco nights and live bands. I worked there on Thursdays from ’83 for a couple of years and then on and off through the rest of the 80’s and early 1990s. I played less hip-hop and electro there than I did on other nights and played more 70s soul and funk and more ‘60s soul and jazz. The Wag was one of those clubs where everyone went sooner or later and it had a real family atmosphere – everyone got to know the owners, the bouncers and the bar staff and it was a London institution until it sadly closed in the 1990s.
I should probably point out that me and the other new DJs starting out at the time were probably the first generation of club DJs not to talk between all the tracks – we didn’t do any of that “Big shout out to Sue on her 18th birthday”, “this is a brand new one from blah, blah” or any of that stuff. We just played and mixed the music with no chat which was kind of revolutionary at the time.
London in the 80s is a place/era which has become almost mythical. What are your memories of the city at that time?
I think everyone has special memories of the place and era when they were young adults but there was something really special about London in the 1980s. There was a real explosion of creativity throughout the decade – art, music, design, fashion, clubbing, bands, magazines – and most of it seemed to be happening in London. There were so many creative people living there and the rents were still relatively cheap so you had people from all over the UK trying to make a go of it in the big city. It also helped that there was this big collision of youth cultures at the start of the decade – goths, new romantics, punks, skinheads, rockabillies, soul boys, mods – and that fusion of youth cultures helped create a special atmosphere in clubland at the time. Every single night of the week there were bands playing, new club nights opening and there was always this buzz that something really exciting was going on. Other towns in the UK undoubtedly had cool scenes too but London was the focal point because it was so big, so cosmopolitan and was so affluent – there were more shops, more clubs, more live venues, more bars, more art galleries, more warehouse for illegal raves and more young people than anywhere else in the country. There were also plenty of pirate radio stations in London at the time (I was fortunate enough to broadcast on both WBLS and KISS FM) which meant that more people got exposed to cool underground dance music than they did in other places around the country.
You were one of the first UK DJs to travel internationally. What was it like bringing the sound of London to the world? Did people get it?
I was very lucky to be DJing at three of the coolest clubs in London when all the global style media were going crazy for London pop culture. In ’83 I got booked to DJ in Vienna and after that I was travelling abroad every couple of months to DJ in places like Tokyo, Toronto, New York, Rio de Janeiro and all across Europe including the Soviet Union. It also helped that I was reviewing dance tunes for the legendary Face Magazine at the time so promoters abroad got to see my name in print and associated me with the new British club sound. It was great fun DJ’ing in places I would never normally have got to visit, although my playlist of mainly American dance music did confuse some clubbers abroad who thought I was going to be playing nothing but British pop like Duran Duran or the Smiths.
You were also very involved in fashion at the time, please tell us a little about that. Do you feel like the strong bond between music and fashion has become eroded over the years? If so, when and why do you think this happened?
From 1979 until 1984 I co-owned a shop called “Rock-A-Cha” that sold neo-Rockabilly styles to people as diverse as hard-core Rockabilly Rebels from North London to musicians like Theatre of Hate, Paul McCartney and the Stray Cats. From when I initially became aware of youth culture as a kid – first as a wanna-be skinhead wearing Ben Sherman shirts and Levi Sta-Prest, then as a Bowie kid and funk fan wearing plastic scandals and peg pants and through to my punk rock and rockabilly days – I’ve always felt that music and fashion went together in a big way. It used to be a very British thing that what you wore indicated what kind of music you liked – I’m not saying if it was a good thing or a bad thing but it was an integral part of British youth culture from the early Teddy Boys in the 1950s, through to the Mods in the 1960s and so on up to the early days of Acid House. I think the House phenomenon started to erode that link between fashion and music possibly because it became more about the drugs and the whole dance vibe and less about dressing up.
You’re also an accomplished author. Have you always written? Tell us about your books?
I first started writing when the Face Magazine asked me to do a piece about Warehouse parties back in 1983. That got me into journalism and I ended up doing regular pieces on dance music and pop culture for the Face, Record Mirror, NME, i-D Magazine, Mix-Mag and a bunch of other publications. In 2009 I wrote a book about the Tiki revival scene going on in the USA, then in 2011 I edited a book about steampunk called “Steampunk – The Art of Victorian Futurism” and this year I’ve just published my first novel which is a detective story set in 1950s Los Angeles called “Ritual of The Savage” which is a nod to my rockabilly days.
Please describe Popcorn Heartbreak. How did the album come about?
I’ve always loved music that wasn’t easy to pigeon-hole or was easy to categorize and I kept hearing music from the late 1950s to the early 1960s that was exactly that. These tunes weren’t quite rock ‘n roll, weren’t quite gospel, weren’t pure pop and weren’t soul as we know it. I think those years were a time of experimentation and fusion when artists weren’t being forced to conform to sounding like any particular genre. I started collecting tunes from that era but had no idea what to call them but then someone sent me a CD called Popcorn Classics or something like that and I realized that a whole club scene had started in Belgium in the 1970s that played the kind of obscure tracks I liked, and that music had been given a name. I checked out more of the Popcorn compilation hits and found that a lot of them were too poppy or too kitsch for me to really like but I loved the more R&B influenced tunes that I got to hear or tracked down. It seemed a shame to me that these R&B mid-tempo dance tunes weren’t being put together on any one collection so I approached Lee at BBE Music about putting out a compilation and he gave the tunes a listen and was enthusiastic about getting the project going.
I called the album Popcorn Heartbreak because a lot of the songs from that period were aimed at the feet AND at the heart. There were lots of tunes with vocalists singing about lost love, break-ups and being lonely and those singers really put everything they had into those songs. They were really soulful whether they were black or white and there was a humanity and honesty in the delivery that too much modern music seems to have lost. To me it made sense to put them all together in a compilation because there was a common thread that connected them musically and lyrically.
Are there any particular records on the album which have a personal story for you, or were just rare or hard to find? Please tell us about them.
Some of the records were very hard to find, some were still available for just a few quid but all of them appealed to me in their own way. When I was compiling the tracks for the album I made up a CD of all the songs and took it with me on a road trip across the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Out of all the CDs I took on that trip the “Popcorn Heartbreak” one was the one I played most. Songs like “So What” by Roy Rush took on a whole new meaning when you’re listening to it at 2am in the morning and you’re on an empty road with no distractions. The meaning and the sentiments of the lyrics really punched through and the songs, despite their instrumentation, sounded really timeless.
What’s next for Jay Strongman?
I’m currently promoting my novel “Ritual of the Savage” and working on a sequel to it. I’m also getting together some more compilations of different genres that will hopefully come out on BBE including a volume 2 of “Popcorn Heartbreak.
Interview by Will Sumsuch (5 Magazine, Chicago)