“get yourself in” — gary guestlistBack
There will be people around who see Gary Guestlist trimming hair in the window of Cord Barbers on Harper Street, and recognise him as the reason they couldn’t get into Back to Basics.
There will be others who never knew.
“I didn’t knock people back myself,” says Gary. “I’d just have a word with the doorman – not the guy in the blue shirt.”
But there will be many others who will credit Gary for putting them on the right path to some of the best nights of their lives.
“Look mate,” Gary would say, “If you really want to come in, go away, smarten yourself up a bit. Don’t wear those shoes, get a decent haircut, change your attitude. They’d turn up a week later – mate, you look wicked, get yourself in.”
Get yourself in and have a good time. Guestlist isn’t Gary’s proper surname, but after twenty-four years on the door at Back to Basics, he prefers it to his real one. He also knows more about getting in and having a good time than anybody; from the outside, Gary’s job was all about what went on inside.
“I didn’t want anybody in that I wouldn’t want coming to my house if I was having a party,” he says. “It was about protecting the people inside; I wanted everybody who came to have a good time, and if I had to spoil someone else’s night to do that, then so be it.”
It didn’t take long for Basic’s reputation to grow – it was known as Britain’s best club within a year of opening – and for the people being knocked back, or having their night made, to change; but the way Gary dealt with them didn’t change.
“I remember Ryan Giggs came and said he was on the guest list. I’ve never been interested in football but I’d seen him in the papers, and I knew he wasn’t on the list. I’d always look at the start of the night to see who was coming. I acted as if I didn’t know who he was – what’s your name? He says Giggs. Giggs, Giggs, Giggs… no, nothing down. Who put you down? He says Gary Speed. Sorry mate, don’t know him. You’ll have to pay like everybody else.
“He was alright, but I was thinking, Jesus, you’re a footballer, you can afford to pay in. A couple of weeks later I let the entire British Olympic Cycling team in because I was a really keen cyclist. I was chuffed to see them so I let them all in.”
Basics from its earliest nights had a different vibe, an outsider’s edge, that gave Gary something to protect; it was about more than just raving, and unless you wanted more, it probably wasn’t for you.
“It was quite cerebral in the early days,” he says. “We had that outsider element. In the early days we got quite a lot of the Leeds art crowd, and it was like a meeting of minds. You would talk to people – have you read this book, seen that film, heard this record? Still, to this day, the friends I made in those days are my best friends, like brothers and sisters to me.”
If it was for you, you knew, and Gary could tell; when Basics began its revolution of clubbing in 1991, it had on the door someone who knew what made the perfect club, and who knew the rites of passage.
“The first club I ever went to was Wigan Casino in 1979. So I was used to proper clubbing. At Wigan they used to come from all over the country, so you got a real feel for people.”
And you had to step up. Wigan Casino wasn’t a place you could just pop to, especially if, like Gary, you lived miles away in Pontefract. By 1979 ten million people had seen Granada TV’s documentary about the extraordinary soul culture at Wigan that was part of what was being called, and still is, Northern; a revival of four-to-the-floor never heard songs from fifties and sixties America, seven- inch records physically rescued from the actual trash and treasured in northern English nightclubs. The songs were played to death, and the people in those deadly northern mill towns never felt more alive.
The attention hadn’t sent the scene overground. Places like Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca and The Golden Torch in Stoke all had their own rules, their own fashions, their own styles, and their own soul boys and girls who would dance and dance and dance.
“Youth club,” says Gary. “Everyone learned to dance at the youth club. There was always one guy who was amazing, who everyone would watch. I still remember the guy who did it for me, Joey Crossley. I still see him around in fact. He was quite a short guy with these massive soul bags on, and he just did these incredible spins like an ice skater. I had never seen anything like it.
“It was a bit weird, was the Northern Soul thing. I didn’t really know what it was. When I was a youth I was an army cadet, so I didn’t have much of a social life outside that. When I was 14 or 15 I’d spend my weekends in army bases learning to kill people.
“When I started going out to the youth club when I was 15 or 16, I saw a different world. I got it now – that’s why these kids wore these big baggy trousers, these poly felt shirts – it was for doing this dancing.”
The clothes and the dancing were the first glimpse of a different way, and the only way to follow was to go far; from Pontefract, Philadelphia PA was too far, and even Wigan was a hard place to get to. But everywhere kids danced the same, and stepping, the distances would disappear.
“You always had a mentor on the scene. Mine was a guy called Alan Entwistle. Me and my mate used to catch the same bus as him on a morning and we’d look at him; he had all these proper soul badges on his jacket and we were like, he goes to Wigan him. We didn’t even know how you got to Wigan. Eventually we got talking and he said, yeah, I’ll take you.
“Mate,” says Gary, remembering the journey. “We had to get a bus from Pontefract to Dewsbury, and we stopped for a pint in Dewsbury. Then it was the train to Manchester, and it was the train that came from York through Leeds, and it was full of Alan’s mates because he was from York originally. We were on this carriage full of kids going to Wigan with cassette players blasting, dancing in the aisles.
“We queued up for about an hour outside the club; we got the last train from Manchester to Wigan but it didn’t open until 12am. There were 2,000 kids trying to get into this venue. You’d be crushed, you’d be holding your all-nighter bag and your feet would leave the floor as soon as the doors opened. But there was laughing and giggling and no animosity.
“Inside there was a little old lady called Hilda Ward and she took your money. You had to show your membership, that you could only get by cutting out an application form from Blues & Soul magazine and sending if off with 50p. After a couple of days you got your Wigan Casino membership, which I’ve still got.
“The first night is stuck in my mind. You turned to the right and walked up these stairs that took you to the balcony. I remember hearing a record called Bok to Bach by Father’s Angels.
“The intro was playing and it’s cinematic in my mind; there’s a harp introduction bit, and then the beat starts; and I was walking up these stairs and I could hear this harp and I opened up the doors and it was like – bang.
“The heat hit you. It was boiling. People were dancing and it was magical. It was incredible, this vast space. I remember walking across the balcony and looking down at the stage, and to the right of the DJ was this guy dancing and I had never seen dancing like it before or since. I was like – we’re here – we’ve done it – we’ve got here.”
The dancefloor demanded more than the youth club practice had given Gary.
“It was really intimidating. The thing that shocked me most was that when they filmed the documentary for Granada TV, they had turned all the lights on, so I thought it was going to be like that. But it was pitch black.
“There were two UV strip lights and that was all; your eyes had to get adjusted before you could see what you were doing. Everybody wore white socks because the UV would pick them out; you could see everybody’s dandruff and white sweatbands and all these moving highlights of white.
“All the best dancers were down the front. I remember shuffling in at the back somewhere and doing a few steps. Eventually you could make your way to halfway, and watch all the top boys who could do all the moves. It would take months to have the bottle to go up there because these dancers were incredible.
“I was never a good spinner, but I was alright with floorwork, fast footwork and things like that. Eventually I made my way to the front – I did alright.”
The doors to Wigan Casino would open to queues at midnight; they wouldn’t close again until eight in the morning.
“Everybody was in the same boat. Everybody was shattered. You’d ache all over because you’d been dancing all night, and in those days you couldn’t get a bus or train until about 11am.
“We’d go in the cafe next door and sit in there most of the morning feeling like s–t drinking coffee. Some people would go to the swimming baths for a swim and a clean up. You’d feel shocking, you’d think you can’t do this anymore, you’d be thinking, never again. Then by Tuesday – right. Can’t wait ’til Friday!
“It was the most exciting thing. And there was never any violence at Wigan – that was another thing that changed me. The seventies were a really violent time to grow up where I did; I used to go out on a night and there was a lot of fighting. Everyone was just pissed off because everyone was skint. There was a lot of unemployment, it was dirty, there was nowhere to go, nothing to do; people just got pissed and knocked hell out of each other.
“But it never happened at Wigan. I never saw one fight. They didn’t serve booze so people weren’t drunk, which helped. But there was a utopian atmosphere; like, this was how it could be. Everywhere could be like this. That set me off with a point of view about how to have a good time.”
And about proper clubbing. After Wigan, the journey from Northern Soul at the Casino to Chicago House at Back to Basics was not a difficult one.
“After Wigan closed in 1981 I started going to Clifton Hall in Rotherham; that became the new Wigan. Richard Searle was always my favourite DJ and he was introducing modern soul tracks that fitted in with the Northern stuff, so it wasn’t just oldies anymore. When I started hearing early house records, like Magic Jefferson and Frankie Knuckles, it wasn’t that dissimilar to the modern soul stuff I’d been hearing in 1982 or ’83; it was black music from Chicago and New York and Detroit and I was used to that.
“That’s why I fell into the house scene. It was more contemporary, and the clothes were a lot cooler.”
But Northern Soul is still thought of as a cool look now…
“Are people really going to start wearing 40 inch bottomed trousers again? The trousers is the thing. When I first went to Wigan I didn’t wear soul bags anymore because I thought they were daft; it was 1979, not 1975. Come to Leeds wearing soul bags in 1979 and you’d get eggs thrown at you.
“People have the impression with Northern Soul that it’s all about baggy trousers, but by the time I went it had changed; like anything else, fashions changed. In 1979 a lot of people wore football casuals wear, they had wedge haircuts and stretch jeans.
“It was always a fashion conscious crowd. The first person I saw with a pierced nose was at Clifton Hall; I’d never seen any punks with them. It was this bunch of soul boys from Sheffield with pierced noses and I thought they looked ace. Consequently I’ve still got the hole in my nose, but I don’t wear it any more.
“I was looking at a copy of Blues & Soul magazine from 1975, and there’s an advert for t-shirts with zips on them. This is 1975! Before the Sex Pistols, before Malcolm McLaren, before Vivienne Westwood; they were wearing that at Blackpool Mecca in 1975. They were wearing tapered trousers with plastic sandals. These kids were clued; they were really clued up.”
Plastic shoes were still going strong when Basics’ was in its heyday; “I remember John Galliano coming down with this group of fashionistas from London; he was alright, he was pleasant, but he was wearing the worst fucking shoes I have ever seen in my life. They were like plastic loafers from Freeman Hardy Willis. Dave Beer said to me, what are you doing letting him in with those on? I had to explain he was wearing them ironically.”
Gary’s own shoes are at the centre of his life again; rather than second guess the intent behind John Galliano’s shoe choices, he’s putting on his own with intent.
“Northern Soul did lead me into Basics, but it also stopped me from going to Northern Soul venues for twenty-four years because I worked every Saturday. Then this last year rather than every week we were doing once a month, so all of a sudden I had weekends off. And the first couple of weeks were brilliant. I could just watch telly – I didn’t have to rush about, coming home from work, eating something, trying to get a disco nap and then back into Leeds and back on the door.
“That was all right for a couple of weeks but then I was like – what am I going to do? It’s Saturday night. I want to do something. I thought I would really like to go to a Northern Soul night again, or an old soul night, and it’s sort of come full circle. I haven’t left the dance floor; I’m still doing it, even more so now because it’s music that I like rather than house music that I don’t. I really have got sick of house music, completely and utterly.”
Gary Guestlist from Back to Basics is sick of house music?
“Because it’s been blasted into my fucking ears for the last twenty-four years! I had this initial love for it but it didn’t last very long. There are still DJs I like and I’ll go to Basics when they play – people like Andrew Weatherall are amazing, he’s a genius and I really love what he does with music. And I don’t feel like I should say this because I’ve got so many mates who are DJs and make house music. But I’m just not that keen any more. I’ve rediscovered my love of analogue sixties soul music, and that takes up my time now.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 22