Entertainment

British Dance Music Has Lost an Icon in Andrew Weatherall

The DJ, producer and writer was one of the storied few who changed UK clubbing forever.
February 18, 2020, 2:09pm
Andrew Weatherall DJing
Andrew Weatherall in 2009. Photo: Everynight Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Andrew Weatherall was one of those bolts of brilliance occasionally found in the English suburbs.

Born in Windsor in 1963, his work was as diverse as it was determinedly self-directed, encompassing DJing, composition, production and journalism. He achieved a sort of subterranean dominance over the course of his career: setting the direction of British dance music from the 1990s onwards, all the while making it look like a hobby.

The news of his death yesterday, as a result of a pulmonary embolism, marks the passing of one of clubland's defining characters. With a repertoire of facial hair as versatile as his record bag (one of my first tasks as an intern at VICE's THUMP five years ago was to write a bizarre news story about his beard being sold on eBay), a dress sense that ranged from skiffle to shamanic and an earthly interview style offset by a wicked sense of humour, he was always more than a DJ.

Expelled from school and asked, in his words, to "leave the family bosom" as a young man, Weatherall was a self-sufficient artist from the offset. Starting off as a furniture porter, he strung a series of part-time jobs together throughout the 1980s in order to fund record shopping and plug the gaps between DJ sets at small events and house parties. As his record collection grew, so did his reputation. It wasn't long before Danny Rampling had asked him to play at Shoom, placing him at the heart of the UK's embryonic house scene.

Singling Weatherall out as a particularly studious member of the community, DJ Terry Farley asked if he was interested in starting a magazine to document the scene that was rising around them.

Boy's Own, at least in memory, remains a seminal publication. The magazine was inspired by Liverpool football mag The End, and constructed using Pritt Sticks and a typewriter on Weatherall's coffee table. Inside the 40p mag was a piss-takers guide to house – a typo-ridden, scathing celebration of rave that helped set the tone of British club culture, setting it apart from the spirituality of Chicago or the futurism of Detroit. It featured the first ever article written about acid house (by Paul Oakenfold no less), cartoons satirising ravers and over-zealous door policies, and even coined the phrase, "It's all gone Pete Tong."

boy's own

A page from 'Boy's Own'. Image courtesy of Boy's Own.

For his part, Weatherall penned an editorial in character as "the Outsider", a column he hand-wrote and, according to Farley, normally came in late.

The Boy's Own umbrella became a club night and a label (a subsidiary of which, Junior Boy's Own, released an early Chemical Brothers single), but it's in its fanzine form that the purest distillation of the era – and Weatherall's unique role within it – is found. After just 12 issues, he was finished with the project, and it was decided the magazine shouldn't continue without him (Tong described Weatherall as the "dark genius" behind the zine). "He was 27 and said he didn't want to tell 18-year-old kids what to wear and what to do anymore," Farley told VICE in 2015.

In part, the fall of Boy's Own came as a result of Weatherall's increasing demands as a producer. Screamadelica remains his best-known work in this realm. His production defined Primal Scream's third album, and is largely responsible for its place in history as the great translator between rave and the mainstream. For evidence of this look no further than "I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have", a noodling slice of late-80s indie rock that Weatherall spliced with an Emotions vocal sample, transforming it into "Loaded", a record that possesses both the boundless psychedelic eccentricity of the rave era and a groove so ludicrously unforgettable it still works on wedding dancefloors.

It's a magic Weatherall never lost: his take on Flowered Up's "Weekender", Saint Etienne's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", his mix of "Imperfect List" by Big Hard Excellent Fish, THAT My Bloody Valentine remix. He was a producer who could get between the molecules of a song and push them into every corner of the room. He also made music of his own: dub-cum-ambient-meets-techno as part of the group Sabres of Paradise; low-key house in a duo called Two Lone Swordsmen with producer Keith Tenniswood; and more recently hazy vocal-led albums as a solo artist.

Yet it was DJing that sustained the constant rhythm of his creative life, whether playing percussive workouts to sweaty rooms at 5AM, or walking listeners through the furthest-reaches of his record collection during his always pleasurable "Music's Not For Everyone" show on NTS.

In what we now know, heartbreakingly, were the final years of his life, his enthusiasm for the dancefloor in its crudest, most vital form never waned. He saw the club for what it was: profound nonsense. He spoke of his "vampiric" quality: feeding on the energy of teenage dancers as they heard decades-old pieces of music for the first time. He wasn't a vinyl purist any more than he was a music snob. He respected the basic need for transcendence.

He was also reliably droll. Many of the quotes that have been circulating since his death have been concerned with his attitudes towards the music industry, and his decision to circumvent the "superstar" DJ route many of his peers followed. Perhaps the most popular are his thoughts on climbing the "slippery showbiz pole":

"I stood at the bottom of that pole and looked up and thought to myself, 'The view's pretty good. But it's very greasy and there are a lot of bottoms up there that I might have to brush my lips again. So, maybe I'll give it a miss.'"

Perhaps he was part of a generation able to enjoy a now lost version of creative practice less indebted to capital. More likely, his was simply a rare sort of spirit. The artist as a practitioner, not a marketeer. Once one chapter was finished it was onto the next one, whether that meant linocut prints or forming a rockabilly band.

I saw Andrew Weatherall DJ twice last year. Once as part of A Love From Outer Space with Sean Johnston, the second time on his own as part of a late night festival line-up in Bristol.

On the second occasion, lost in a club I should have known better than to get lost in, I stumbled into his set. The room was dense and nocturnal. Weatherall hunched over the decks like an engineer over a steam-engine. Then, through a heavy curtain of red smoke, some endless chugger I'll never know the name of gave way to "Teardrops" by Womack & Womack. For one of those brief eternities, the world grinned. What a magician.

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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.