One of the biggest and most important producer's, DJ's and remixer's EVER to hit the music industry opens his heart. A true, true superstar...
Your love of Motown is legendary. How did it all begin?
"Well I was a thirteen year old kid living in Blackpool that just fell in love with music. I basically set out to buy every Motown record ever released. I used to go to this cigarette kiosk in the town centre where this guy called Gary Wilde also sold rare records. Loads of music-heads all shuffling for a look and loads of Mods hanging about. He was selling records for a few pence but the Motown stuff for £5 - thirty years later and people are now spending £15,000 on Frank Wilson records. By the age of fifteen I was going to the US with my mum and dad on holiday to places like Miami and discovering really rare Detroit records in stores. I was in New Orleans in a torturous heat and had this little Discotron with me. I put this JJ Barnes song on and the Motown-type drum kicked in and then this fabulous, glorious Four Tops / Marvin Gaye style vocal started and my life changed for ever..."
You started your career as a Northern Soul DJ at Blackpool Mecca's legendary Highland Room, what were those days like?
"Before I started playing there I was going to The Twisted Wheel in Manchester where Stuart Bremner DJ'd at - it was the first all nighter for Northern Soul. Basically kids who wanted to dance all night off their heads on amphetamines. I couldn't go untl I was 17 and when I did eventually get there I ended up lending my records to the DJs there because my collection was so good. My tunes had the same beats that the DJs were spinning but they were records that nobody over here had discovered yet. 1971 saw my DJing debut in Blackpool. I was so nervous and people still mention how I sounded all squeaky-mouse like announcing records on the microphone. By 1973 I had become very famous on the scene, probably the biggest DJ in the UK at the time to be honest. Radio One's John Peel came up from London and did a one hour interview with me. He came over to my house and we just talked about the music. Records I loved back then and now were tunes like The Charades 'The Key To Happiness' and Bob Relf's 'Blowing My Mind To Pieces". Love them..."
You then started to make your own records..."
"Yes. In 1974 I compiled an album called 'Solid Soul Sensations on Pye Records which got to No. 11 in the charts which I received a Silver Disc for. But it was really difficult for me to find good records with the sound that I loved. So I went to New York and hooked up with an all girl group called The Exciters and I said to them, lets make some records! It was February 1975 (a very cold winter as I remember) and our first studio session produced 'Reaching For The Best' which got to No. 31 in the UK Chart - back then that was huge, we sold 80,000 records. I then headed off to Chicago and signed three complete unknown teenage artists - a postman called L.J Johnson, Barbara Pennington (who sounded like Chaka Khan) and of course Evelyn Thomas. The first two hit the charts straight away and appeared on Top of The Pops, Evelyn didn't make it at first. I brought her out of retirement in 1984 years later and we sold seven million copies with her. 1975 will always have fond memories for me, I opened up the legendary Wigan Casino for instance in that year too..."
The club Angels in Burnley, a place that eventually became a rave palace with the likes of Sasha and Pete Tong DJing at. I even saw boxer Nigel Benn DJing there once with Boy George!
"Funny how things evolve. I started on Sunday nights', it was the first real US style disco in the country and I'd like to think I was the first ever UK born DJ to mix records together over here. American DJ Greg James played at The Embassy in London and he was the first to mix ever, but he was not a Brit. People were queuing around the block to get in on Saturday night's - it was like Studio 54 some nights...just absolute bedlam and so enjoyable."
1979, not a good year for disco then?
"You could say that. America decided disco was dead. There was this very famous incident at The Kominski Football Stadium in Chicago where people brought thousands of disco records along and dumped them in a skip and set them alight - the skip exploded! Frankie Knuckles did a magazine interview recently and mentioned this story. It was just horrible and so upsetting."
Back in the UK, you were headhunted by quite a famous club that was yet to open it's doors..."
"Yes, I was tracked down by Heaven in London. I even went in there and told them how to design some areas. It became the biggest gay club in Europe virtually overnight. The first record I played was Dan Hartman's 'Relight My Fire'. Tuesday night's became a legend - simply the best. However, I had to scour places like Italy and Canada to find great disco records because of the backlash from America. It wasn't easy."
But then things started to change...
"Well a famous record store on Berwick Street in London called Record Shack agreed to give me £2000 to set up a joint label - nothing more nothing less, two grand and that was it. It was just enough to make a record thankfully. A friend of mine called Jean-Philippe Iliesco owned The Trident Studios and he let me use the place for next to nothing at unearthly hours. It meant I could leave Heaven at 4am after DJing and spend four hours there before other recording artists came in. I made a record called 'So Little Time' with vocals by a girl called Miquel Brown - who just so happens to be Sinitta's mum and step-sister of singer Ami Stewart. It sold two million copies and topped the American Billboard Magazine chart. So the relationship with Record Shack continued and we started to release a string of High-Energy singles. Between 1983 and 1985 we had sales of twelve million records. As I mentioned earlier, in 1984 we brought Evelyn out of retirement and had a number one with 'High-Energy', a term the USA were using for this sound. We had a number one hit in every single country across Europe - except the UK where we only got to No. 5. When she appeared on Top Of The Pops, the producer had the final credits rolling over her as she was the last artist on but he decided to let the show continue as she was going down such a storm and over-ran the programme by six minutes. That has never, ever happened since. We didn't release a follow up record because we couldn't find one good enough after this huge record. In 1985 though my partnership with Record Shack ended. We had a disagreement over the band boy band Seventh Avenue and I got thumped in the face by someone who shall rename nameless - that was that and I walked..."
The 80's saw some HUGE success for you working with some great pop artists that decorated bedroom walls everywhere...
"Well I was approached to do some work on the Hazel Dean song 'Searching'. I told them it was all wrong and did my own thing. I wiped off all of the drums, synths - everything and just kept her vocals. Looking back, I suppose it was the first EVER remix someone had ever done. Due to that success everyone was knocking on the door. Anything with a High-Energy beat I was the man in demand. 'It's A Sin' by The Pet Shop Boys, 'Venus' by Bananarama, songs for Erasure, Kim Wilde, Bronski Beat, Tiffany, Dollar - Bucks Fizz even. At The New Music Seminar in New York in 1988 Pete Waterman made a speech and told a packed house of important industry delegates "that if it wasn't for Ian Levine, Stock, Aitken and Waterman would not have had the success we've had". They basically copied my style, but that's the way it goes - people always copy what works. But it was nice to get the recognition from Pete."
And then BOOM! The shit hit the fan Ian...
"Yes, the biggest financial mistake of my life which I'm still paying for today. I organised a Motown Motorcity Re-Union in Detroit. The city was seething because label boss Berry Gordy had taken the label to Los Angeles, people like Michael Jackson was doing his own thing and the folk of Detroit were like, 'hey, this is the home of Motown what's going on?'. So I tried bringing it all together again. A huge concert on the roof of one of the biggest hotels in the city, a concert tour with people like Edwin Starr and the lead singer of The Four Tops Levi Stubbs - big players, in fact over 100 artists. Detroit loved the fact I was trying to do something for them, they thought I was a breath of fresh air which was great. I appeared on over 60 prime time US TV shows. But it was a finacial disaster. I lost a fortune. When I got home, I remember taking my dogs for a walk and sitting on a park bench in London and just crying my eyes out as people were walking by. I had to borrow money from my family, friends - it was a bad time, very dark."
And what happened next?
"A friend gave me a record to work on, we had a hit and suddenly within a year I had nine chart smashes. I then got to work on The Pasadenas and then, Take That came along. I made their first three singles which was fabulous. Funnily enough, their 'Could It Be Magic' hit is basically a Northern Soul styled record. I then virtually worked with every big boy band around including Boyzone. The good times were back."
So what do you think about the music industry today?
"There's no money in the industry today. It's awful, pathetic, it sucks. Without a TV talent show behind you, you have to spend a million quid marketing a record. These shows have killed the dreams and chances of thousands of great singers."
Your argument with YouTube, what's the story here?"
"I am so angry about this situation. They are behaving like the Gestapo. Basically I have 412 of my own videos on my site, it's the 54th most watched music site of all time and has had over 3.5 million hits. I am getting shit from lawyers representing various artists that I have filmed with my own camera and many of which I wrote the songs in the first place - I own the copyrights. I am thinking of just taking the whole lot off, I mean, I am bringing in revenue to YouTube with all these people coming on...simply awful people."
Your record collection was one of the best in the world - where did it all go?
"In 1979 my parents emigrated to the Caribbean - I didn't want to go and I was pretty much homeless for a while. So I sold all my great records except all of the 7"'s which I have about 80,000 of now, but nothing of the quality that I sold."
What DJs over the years have you looked up to?
"Chris Hill is my mentor - end of."
What's the biggest music industry fall out you've had?
"Too many. One that springs to mind though is with Simon Cowell. I was DJing at Heaven and he brought Sinitta along with a copy of her tune 'So Macho' which I thought was awful. He asked me to play it and I said no. A few days later, I was DJing at The Hippodrome on Leicester Square and up he popped with her and asked me to play the record again. I said no, "I am not playing this shit". Whilst I was rummaging through my record box for my next tune he quickly took my next record off the deck and put her's on just as my other record was finishing - leaving me no time to find another one. "There you'll have to play it now" he chuckled. I took it off and smashed it over his head. I wrote a column for The Street music magazine and took the piss out of her record every single week for months. I wrote 'So Macho is the only record ever made that could bring on morning sickness'. You know, he had a sign above his desk in his office that read 'Yes Simon Darling, You Look Beautiful'. He sent a vicious letter saying 'why don't you stick to what you are best at - eating'. He has a sly pop at Louis Walsh on X-Factor every week about a certain issue - well, I'm not saying anything..."
You have over 40 million sales to your name. What a career!
"But I'm still hungry for success. My new 'Northern Soul 2008' is just out and already is No. 1 in Amazon's Music Chart, we had a great launch at The Ion Bar in London with ten artists. I'm also working on a book about my family's history which goes back 200 years. I discovered that my Great Grandfather murdered a Cossac whilst in Russia with his bare hands because he found him torturing a Jewish guy in the street."