A Brief History of the Very First British House Record
How the 'Lion King' soundtrack composer, a Coronation Street writer, and a Northern Soul legend created the first UK house record.
Ian Levine (photo by Ian Levine)
It's been thirty years since the composer of the Lion King soundtrack, a Coronation Street script writer and a Northern Soul legend created the first UK house record. Egos are big and memories are hazy, but Midnight Sunrise With Nellie 'Mixmaster' Rush Featuring Jackie Rawe's "On The House (Chicago Mix)" brought the Chicago sound to Britain and kicked off the genre as we know it today.
It was June of 1986 and house music was still very much an underground, gay Chicago thing. Ian Levine, a larger than life Northern Soul obsessive and DJ, was a resident at Heaven in London and had just returned from a music buying trip to the States.
"Everyone was talking about house music and my co producer at the time was Hans [Zimmer], who went on to win an Oscar for the Lion King. I came back from the trip and I said to Hans, 'I wanna make a house record to beat everyone else'", says Levine, who went on to write hits such as Take That's A Million Love Songs and Could It Be Magic. "So I came up with the name and I brought everyone else in. It was a bit of a piss take of old house records and an homage at the same time."
Zimmer, who is now an award winning Hollywood composer and probably one of the most well paid musicians on the planet, had just started doing film scores at the time. "I explained what I wanted and I played him a couple of house records," Levine told me. "To someone like him this is painting by numbers, you show him the style you want and off he goes. I went to the studio we shared in Fulham and I sang him the baseline and he played on this huge early analog moog synthesiser that took up the whole wall and put some chords to it."
The baseline Levine is referring to is from an original Chicago classic, Farley "Jackmaster" Funk's still-amazing "Love Can't Turn Around". "Part was his, part was not. I didn't wanna get sued so I did something similar, in the same and put a piano and vocal over the top, with me and Damon [Rochefort] just going 'On the house, on the house my love is free it's on the house' we just chanted the backing vocals and Damon did a very funny rap at the end."
"He insisted I recorded the rap," says Damon Rochefort, who was a 20 year old music journalist at the time and is now a BAFTA nominated scriptwriter for Coronation Street and the man behind the Nomad's (AKA Damon backwards) international No.1 90s hit "Devotion". "It was awful and he wanted to call me Nellie on it. We made this record and it wasn't great but, yes, it was the first UK house record. We ripped off what we'd heard before."
They made the track in the first week of July and it was pressed by the end of the month. By November of that year, house music had started to erupt. Although the big explosion didn't really happen till 1988, when married with ecstasy use it found a home in places like Sheffield, Manchester, the Midlands and pockets of London.
According to Ian Dewhirst, who signed the record and now works for Universal, the record was made in the middle of the swinging 80s, at a time when record execs were flying between London and Chicago, and house music was just coming through. "This was the gay Mafia—mainly Ian and Damon—saying 'we've got to make the first British house record'. They were ahead of the curve, there's no two ways about that. Those guys are a fun fest," he says. "It's difficult to describe the conditions of the 80s, but they were mad. We were all mad. we were on and off planes, living in clubs six nights a week in different stages of toxicity and the one thing that got us through was this amazing house music vibe."
Dewhirst adds: "Some people didn't come out of it that well. When we hit the end of the 80s some of us crashed and burned, some had to reinvent themselves but what we were doing in '86 very much predated that whole kind of 90's euphoria. The second summer of love was '88—we made this record in '86. We were way ahead of the times."
Since then, house has never really gone away, either in the UK or on a global scale. "It's had peaks and troughs, it's been in the mainstream and back out of the charts, but from an underground perspective, it never really goes away," says Bill Brewster, co-author of Last Night a DJ Saved my Life. "House music arrived in the UK and got big very quickly."
Brewster says it's no surprise that Brits like Rochefort and Levine were trying to imitate the American sound. "That's been the story of British dance music for decades, really. There were Motown pastiches coming out in the 60s. We've been trying to do copies of black American music for decades and this was no exception."
The track wasn't a huge hit outside of clubs but it was the start of something special. "It established the idea of British house music," says Brewster. "Since then there's been hundreds of hit house records such as Gat Decor's early prog-house hit "Passion", or "Big Love" by Pete Heller, and later, of course, Disclosure have brought a version of the classic underground sound of Masters At Work, David Morales and Frankie Knuckles into a modern pop context."
But has it stood the test of time? "It's a little too camp for my sensibility," says Dewhirst. "It's very camp and bouncy and it's too pop slanted for my personal taste."
Brewster agrees. "Honestly? I like it but I wouldn't play it in a club."
What about Rochefort, does he still like it? "No. it's terrible," he says.
And how about Levine? "Oh yeah. Considering it's 30 years old it sounds fantastic."
So opinions vary. It wasn't the best house record, but it sure as hell wasn't the worst. It was, though, the start of a movement that's captivated young Brits ever since.