With a no-photo policy and strict selective entry, The Wag predated an approach now utilized by arguably the most desired club in the world today – Berghain. But the German techno mecca’s grimy, basic warehouse vibe was not the order of the day back then. With its extroverted, high fashion crowd, decor and set designs, something far fresher, fabulous and theatrical was happening at The Wag. With the rapid and brutal big-money gentrification of Soho, The Wag represents a bygone era for the area where despite a seedy and criminal presence, the congregation of artistic people blossomed. Here DMCWORLD gets a world exclusive with the man behind it all as he releases a stunning box set covering a period from the Wag’s inception of 1982 to 1986 where for the first time ever, the musical legacy of this feted London nightclub and ‘haven for misfits’ is explored over 4 discs with a selection of remastered rare, classic and collectible funk, Latin, disco, hip hop and jazz that filled the famous floor.
Interview by Dan Prince
The late 70s was an intriguing time for music. Can you tell us about your childhood in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales? Was it a happy one…how did your mind begin to find outlets for your creative curiosity?
My childhood was in the sixties and by the late seventies I was coming out of my teens and living in London. I went to America for 4 months in 1978 and came back to attend the Foundation Course at Camberwell School of Art on a grant/scholarship. My childhood was normal enough for South Wales. I guess we were really poor but no more than most in the town. We used to think anyone who had a car, a phone or central heating and hot running water was like King Farouk (one of the world’s richest men in the sixties) but, my mother worked her ass off as a school cleaner and scrimped and saved to give us a nice life so, we never noticed or wanted for that much perhaps because no one else had much either. She did remarkably well on a pittance and, if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am now. She needs to know that. I’m proud to say I have never had a proper job, still have no boss and still do exactly as I please in both work and play. My dad sprayed washing machines in Hoovers on three shifts (day shift from 8 till 5 pm for a week, afternoons for a week and then nights, 10 till 7 for a week), which were mentally, and physically draining so I didn’t see him much- like ships that pass in the night- which didn’t seem to matter that much as I knew no different and my mum was always there. But all was fine and dandy, albeit a bit rambunctious with lots and lots of fighting, underage drinking and teenage sex in public places- as everyone lived with their folks and shared bedrooms with siblings. I shared with my sister who was 4 years younger than me and had to walk through my parent’s bedroom to get to ours. But I was really lucky as, blessed with a very good memory and a love of reading, passed all my exams without trying too hard and got out having been accepted for Camberwell without even showing them my exam results (which pissed me off as I needn’t have bothered and have never been asked for them since). Undeniably though, my outlet for creative curiosity was always art- I painted and drew continuously from the age of three, had very few toys but drew constantly and that means if, I wasn’t out climbing tees and playing football, I was drawing- copying stuff from the TV and comics. I’d go through hundreds of drawing books a year.
What is your earliest musical memory?
By all accounts I used to ape Go Away Little Girl by Bobby Vee with my toy guitar when I was three. Next was listening to my uncle Peter’s Lightning Hopkins LP on his Dansette and then I performed, “If you’re Irish come into the Parlour” at my Catholic Church Hall when I was 6.
One of your early friends in exploring the UK’s nightlife was the much-missed Steve Strange who lived close by to you in South Wales. You used to travel to Bristol, Bournemouth and London to get a fix of Bowie or Roxy. What did you make of Steve back then? What was he like?
Well, we travelled to Newport and Cardiff for Roxy and Bowie as you’d rarely hear them in Merthyr (oh no sir- far too gay) but we did travel to Bristol, Bournemouth and London for funk-, which we also had in Wales but with not so much abundance. To be honest, we went to Bristol and Bournemouth for the girls and not the music although that was part and parcel. As for Steve, he was always up for adventure and to shock. He was made to be a glam punk and perfect for the Blitz scene. In fact he was the scene. To the end he’d call me at 4 am and talk to me for hours telling me about his troubles. I was glad to be there for him. But we’d had virtually the same trajectory up until about 1986, so I understood him more than anyone. We were both from little Welsh towns, both ran successful clubs, both been in bands that did well and on and on. The only difference was he was gay and I’m not but that never ever mattered, as we could still go away together and he would pull geezers and I would try to pull the gals. He was far better at that game than I was but introduced me to some stonking ladies. He was a very, very close friend of mine and I will always miss the mad bastard.
You left the valleys and graduated at St Martins. What was the dream at that point?
There wasn’t one. I really wanted to be a painter and was offered a place on the BA fine art at Camberwell – which was like getting into Cambridge- but the girls on the Camberwell course gals smoked roll ups and had hairy legs while the gals on the St. Martins fashion course were very attractive, very well dressed and I knew a lot of them from Billy’s and other clubs. But still, getting into St Martins was still like getting into Oxford so, me, being an idiot and impulsive, let my penis rule and I made the wrong decision that I still regret. I can’t say that I have a had a day when I haven’t regretted that decision but I doubt there would have been a Wag as, I am sure, had I gone to Camberwell I would have gone flat out into painting and not swan about in clubs. After a little while I switched to Fine Art in St. Martins but it wasn’t Camberwell.
You started putting on your own warehouse parties for the punk/art college/hairdresser types due to the fact that the clubs on London wouldn’t let you in because you were all too outrageously dressed. What was the musical soundtrack of these parties?
Mainly dub, Northern Soul and a lot of 70’s funk with a little bit of early electro and Bowie.
“Afterwards I was going to the Blitz all the time where I was one of the main people, I would guess – if there was an inner circle I was certainly one of them. Somebody offered me a nightclub one night and I thought ‘well why not?” – why were you offered the club?
Simply because our parties were bang on and I was part of the inner circle and because Strangie was a great pal and he was at its centre.
One of your early nights you began was Hell, a funk night. How important was this night for the capital, it was certainly ahead of it’s game…
Very important, as it was the first night for these new groovy non jazz funk types who’d been into punk and electro and The Blitz that played mid seventies funk which hadn’t been played since the mid seventies so it was a quantum shift in attitudes. From futurist synth pop duos to storming 12-piece funk music with horns and percussion, drums, strings. It was diametrically opposed and changed everything almost overnight. Suddenly electro was naff and everything a bit funky or Latin wasn’t.
Do you blame your Welsh rugby player physique for the fact that you never got into the whole New Romantic/shoulder pad look…or was it the music that left you cold back then?!!
Well I am a big chap but I liked a lot of the music and still do- Kraftwerk, The Normal, Gina X etc – but I thought that that look looked pretty silly and not at all stylish – well for me anyway – and some got away with it at the start and did it really well but, most looked a bit daft after a few months. It was because of all that, that I championed big suits and played funk which I always far preferred anyway. But it started long before the Blitz. My pals, Mark Taylor, Mark Stevenson and I because we were so pissed off with the way punk had gone- people spitting and wearing ridiculous clothes – started our own movement called Boys Weekly Rockers (there were three of us) whereby we dressed as our own favourite character from British boys comics (such as The Hotspur and The Valiant) and literature. Mark often favoured Sinbad and a hero from Telemark whereas I was into Davy Crockett, Biggles, Bertie Wooster, Valentino as a gaucho in Four Horseman and Clark Kent. This idea caught on in the Blitz and everyone suddenly looked like “someone.” We did that first in 1977. The two Marks were hugely influential on the London scene but have gone unheralded but those who know know.
The True or False Round…
You and Steve were arrested for once shoplifting?
Well he was caught but I wasn’t. The security guard saw Steve nicking, chased us and I clocked the man. We got away by the skin of our cojones.
You were spat on by a French lady who thought you were a Nazi?
Yes. Because I had a long leather coat on, a monocle, riding boots and jodhpurs. She spoke French so I only understood the word Nazi and ‘Va te faire foutre’ that I knew meant ‘Go fuck yourself’ and ‘putain’ which means fuck I believe. She was most angry.
You took E in Ibiza way before anyone else?
I don’t know if I did that before but I was probably the first English person to do so there as my wife was importing it to the UK and I took it over, for personal recreation, in 1982 which was my first trip there. It was legal in the US than and she was from LA. After that word got around.
You thought nothing of walking around New York’s gang infested Alphabet City off your rocker?
I had no choice as I was on my way home and that was the direct route. I was also dressed in a pink zoot suit by the way.
How important/influential was the 70s club Crackers to you, what role did it play on future nights at The Wag?
It was important in that in 1975 it was a really crowd that were dressed in all manner of styles from 40s to 60’s and the music was underground funk. I liked that and that is what I wanted the Wag to be like in part but not wholly as I wanted the music to a bit more diverse and not so earnest. I can also say that in 1977/8 – when Crackers’ was full of football fan soul boys from the suburbs in tight jeans, perms and leg warmers dancing to jazz funk – it was exactly the polar opposite of what I wanted to do at any time and anywhere. It was a thoroughly revolting scene so I tried hard to avoid that at all costs. I’d get lots of those trying to get in. They never understood why I would not let them into The Wag but simply, I created a place to avoid badly dressed beer boys – whether they had a George Duke record or not – and in my opinion, they were better off watching football and listening to shite, than wasting their hard earned money in The Wag.
“I brought my new wife Patty to London to see the sights. Number one was The Houses of Parliament, number two was Westminster Cathedral and number three was the Wag Club.” – a quote from Keith Richards. Who were some of the famous faces you’d always see propping up the bar or giving it some on the dance floor at that time?
So many that I haven’t the space to write them all. David Bowie came a lot, De Niro always came when he was in London, Strummer was there a lot, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, George Clinton about every credible Brit recording artist there was and every big model like Linda Evangelista, designers like Gaultier, Westwood, Yamamoto, artists like Tracey Emin, Damian Hirst, Keith Haring, Basquiat etc. It’s easier to name who didn’t than who did!
The night TransLantic courtesy of Maurice and Noel Watson was certainly ground breaking? How did all that come about and are the rumours true on their wages?
The guy who ran the night was called Tony Translantic and he was paid 50 % of the door after £100 was taken to pay for the for the 2 security guys. That was the standard deal in those days for a Tuesday in all West End clubs. I have no idea what he paid the brothers Watson as the promoters always paid the DJs and we paid the bar staff, rent, rates, utilities etc etc so, if any DJ has a gripe it should be with the promoters (who are generally their friends) and not me as we’d often give them cab fare when they pulled no one at all. The Wag would always get a good 50 people, even on a wet Tuesday, because of where it was and its name – so promoters had a good start. But this night came about after either Tony or Morris (who had recently lived in New York) asked me to do it and said they were going to play this new music. As I was married to a New Yorker who went to gay clubs like Paradise Garage taking me along, I was back and forth to the US every few months and was hip to this new music myself. So I was into it. To add, Hector and Fat Tony played quite a few tracks that would later be described as House as early as 84 such as ‘On & On’ by Jesse Saunders & Vince Lawrence, Love Can’t Turn Around and Set It Off by Strafe on a Saturday anyway, so was most happy that someone else had found the DJs to play it. Hector travelled to the US to buy records and was given a few House tracks on a cassette as none of them had a record deal yet. Initially I was reluctant at first to turn a weekend night over to House music, as it was simply very gay black music then and I wanted a mixed club and not a gay club. Morris at the time worked with one my closest friends at Chris Brick’s shop Demob in Soho. I grew up with Chris and his business partner Harry Cook in Merthyr and later they were HUGE faces on the Northern Soul scene, so we went back. I gave Tony the night purely because Morris was to DJ and, as far as I know, they were splitting the door money and sometimes the place would be very quite…so it is possible that Morris walked away with little. Club promoting is performance related and is all about numbers and if you can’t pull a crowd you should not be doing the night.
Probably every DJ in London must have played at The Wag one time or another, it must have been a real step up for them. If you could pick 5 DJs from that long list of spinners to play at your birthday party, who’d you pick and why?
And all of the above are included because they played all manner of music, are never predictable and know how to read a crowd.
Tunes that will always remind you of The Wag…
Wack Wack –Young Holt Trio
Sidewinder – Lee Morgan
Hercules – Aaron Neville
Cookies – Brother Soul
Can You Feel It – Todd Terry
Do you think The Wag got as much credit as it deserved for bringing black music to London?
Certainly not. We made it cross over. 80% or more of the UK had never even considered buying ort listening to black music until after we played it.
Let’s talk about the amazing ‘Chris Sullivan presents The Wag’ release. Four delicious albums of glorious music. Why now and how long did it take you to create?
It took 4 years to get together. Initially it was supposed to be released in 2013 which would have been the 30th anniversary of us starting the Wag as a seven nights a week venture. But the tracks I picked were hard to license and so we went on and on until I was happy. I would suggest a bunch and they’d say, “well you can’t have nine of these but this one is available,” and so it went for years. The main reason was that Universal own everything – Blue Note, Riverside, People, Polydor, Island, Virgin to name a few and charge a lot to license so an album of Universal owned tracks would cost a fortune so had to be avoided.
Do you still get people coming up to you reminiscing about The Wag – I have to admit Chris, it was the first London club I ever went to back in the day, god knows how I got in…
Always. And I am sorry to say that they always, without exception, say it was the first London club they got into and are amazed they got in. This is especially irritating when girls say, “I was only 15!” I would say that the bouncers weren’t very effective in that respect. In fact they were absolutely hopeless.
What is your favourite story you love re-telling about those halcyon nights?
There are so many stories. Most involve drink and drugs as that is when truly extraordinary things happen, as it is then that we forget our inhibitions. One completely barking evening stands out which was provoked by the arrival of my old primary school friend Mark Mc.Carthy replete with a large coffee jar full of dried psilocybin mushrooms garnered from the Brecon Beacons which, being more or less free, once imbibed were then distributed throughout the club to all and sundry. It was one of our quieter nights, the brilliant but unknown heavy dub band having pulled not a soul but whose bass heavy reggae perfectly suited the occasion while the rather trippy kaleidoscopic oil lamp light show I’d brought in especially had us gawping like mesmerised rabbits in the headlights. Of course not all handled the occasion as well as us seasoned campaigners. One particularly attractive young lady was on the verge of freaking so I took her to my office to get her head together, which she, in her confused state took as an invitation to copulate and dived on me as soon as I switched the light on but the least said about that the better. Meanwhile downstairs Steve Holloway was so battered he couldn’t focus on the record labels or the Technics decks so played Ecstasy by Barry White about 20 times. The odd thing was that the crowd, most of who were zonked, loved it. I will admit the staff were rather confused especially as I, the man in charge found it the funniest thing since Moses and his burning bush (painful), so was literally in stitches. Of course, one has to go to the latrine from time to time where I found another friend, Derek Delves of the band The Sandals (who had well over imbibed and was certainly over enhanced) sitting on the sink unit crouched on the corner like a pixie. As he was wearing a fur collared jacket he thought he was a wolf and was last seen that night five stories up atop the scaffolding on Soho Square baying at the moon like a wolf. By now my pals Holloway Paul Guntrip had gone home so I went into the all night bars on Chalk Farm Road and bought almost the whole shop. About £100 worth of pastries and pasties. When I arrived at Guntrip’s flat he and Holloway, tripping off their boxes, had dismantled his flatmates bed and thrown it in the skip.
And finally, are you still in touch with any of your Merthyr mates?!!
Of course. Some of my closest friends are those I have known since I was a teenager. I am privileged to have such friends.