Dave Haslam: ‘That time, that music… it changed lives. It makes Manchester what it is’

Dave Haslam was the last DJ to man the decks at the Haçienda. Now, on the release of his memoir, he talks about his greatest days in music, Sonic Youth and Morrissey, and why family life can be a cage

• Read an extract from Dave Haslam’s Sonic Youth Slept on My Floor

Writer and DJ Dave Haslam grew up in Birmingham and moved to Manchester in 1980. He ran his own successful fanzine, Debris, from 1983-87, interviewing many local musicians and artists; he also worked as a booker, ran a record label, and began DJing at the Haçienda in 1986. He went on to establish the highly successful Temperance night there, as well as several other club nights around Manchester, and DJ’d on the Haçienda’s final night, 28 June 1997. Haslam is a respected author of four books. Sonic Youth Slept on My Floor, his memoir, is published on 24 May .

Your book takes in the years before acid house hit Manchester…
Well, I don’t believe in the received wisdom that 1988 was Year Zero, when Bez took a pill and everything exploded into multi‑coloured acid house joy, and before that it was all chip barms and falling at the feet of Morrissey. I wanted to demystify rather than mythologise.

Is it difficult to be associated with an era that happened quite some time ago now?
I’m not wishing it away – being described as “legendary Haçienda DJ” is amazing – but I do feel there are dangers in nostalgia, culturally and on an individual level, as a city and as a country. But then when the Manchester bomb exploded, music seemed to help with how people dealt with what had happened.

It was humbling and validating how things that happened in the early part of the book, like the Stone Roses at Spike Island. All that did add up to something, and became a reservoir which Manchester and Mancunians can draw upon for local pride. Music articulates and represents their city. It is real, that. That time and that music wasn’t just light entertainment, wallpaper… here today, gone tomorrow. It changed lives, it made the city what it is, it gives people strength.

The Haçienda’s main dancefloor, 1989.
The Haçienda’s main dancefloor, 1989. Photograph: Peter J Walsh/PYMCA/Rex/Shutterstock

You called the book Sonic Youth Slept on My Floor, and they did; but later on, when you meet Thurston Moore, he doesn’t remember. What’s the significance of the title?
Well, I realised that the moments I enjoyed the most in all my long involvement in music happened very early on. That time when things just happened, ideas just surfaced, bands started to make waves in the world and I wasn’t feeling like I needed to be more successful, or more rich or more famous, I was just buzzing because I’d just been to see Sonic Youth play and here they were, sat in my living room drinking Red Stripe. And that was enough.

When I met Thurston Moore again, 25 years later, he couldn’t remember any of it, or the interview I did with them in Pizza Hut in Leeds in 1985. But that doesn’t matter: the whole book is about the influences of other people, their ideas and actions on me. I was motivated and inspired by them, and that includes my kids and people who had a negative influence too. And now I get it, too. I had someone come up to me recently who said, “I was at the Locomotive in 1991 and you played I Wanna Be Your Dog.” It took me aback, so in a way I had a Thurston-like response.

There are some lovely everyday details in your book, like when you made Morrissey cauliflower cheese at your flat…
I’m interested in the co-existence of ordinary and extraordinary. Morrissey back then was definitely extraordinary, but it was the ordinariness of the encounter that I remember: his V-neck jumper; how I played New Order and he claimed not to know the track; what we drank at the pub, what we ate. It’s like when I interviewed David Byrne – what I mostly remember is me trying to make him eat chocolate biscuits. People say don’t meet your heroes, but I’ve met a lot of mine, and some have been a bit hard work but most of them really exceeded my expectations and made me fall more in love with them.

What about Morrissey now? How do you feel about him?
In the context of music, the Smiths were so valuable, they made such an impact… But I have no explanations for why Morrissey ended up saying the stuff he does. It is almost as though he’s another person. Everything he was – informed, charming, gentle – he is the opposite now – uninformed, charmless, bitter and twisted. It’s a strange one, especially because he says he hasn’t changed. From my perspective, he has.

You DJ, you interview musicians on stage and you write. Which gives you the most pleasure?
They’re all different kinds of pleasure. I’m still addicted to DJing. The best nights are the chaotic ones, where the music’s too loud and the room’s too full and the crowd’s on the verge of rioting. That’s a great gig. Then there’s sitting on a stage with Nile Rogers, David Byrne, John Lydon, having the opportunity to ask them anything… that’s totally different, I don’t want chaos or riots then. Writing is a very slow buzz: it’s just me sitting in the corner of a cafe-bar, pulling stuff out of the back of my head and getting it down on paper. I can’t imagine not doing one of them.

Dave Haslam DJing in the Haçienda.
Dave Haslam DJing in the Haçienda. Photograph: Copyright: Peterjwalsh.com

Do you understand more of your life now you’ve looked back at it?
Well, there’s a lot of stuff that’s only partly explained, because life can only be partly explained. There’s not pages and pages of self-analysis that I then edited out. I never wrote those pages, I don’t have them: I’ve just got mad jottings, a few theories and a reading list. Someone asked me to explain my relationship with Tracey Thorn, and I said, “I can’t. I can’t explain a lot of my life, because a lot of the time I was just doing what felt right, going on instinct.” There are moments when I’m finding it hard work, where I’m not clear what’s going on. I didn’t want to say that I was cutting a swathe through pop culture like a superstar DJ.

Towards the end of the book, you split up with your wife and move to Paris for a bit. You seem to end up doing there what you did when you were young and first arrived in Manchester, discovering underground clubs, turning up at places just because you like the music…
Ah, yes the Lesbians Saved My Life chapter. That time in Paris was so good for me, rediscovering those parts of me that I’d left behind. When you have kids, and you start building your life and your career there’s a lot of satisfaction to that, but at some point, for me, it had ended up with me building a cage for myself. Leaving it meant that I could actually love the cage and come back to it… I appreciated home more.

Do you still believe that clubbing can change people’s lives?
Of course. You can’t deny that moment on the dancefloor where you’re totally connected with the music and with everyone else there. It’s all about connection, even though people deride it as temporary. Well, lots of things are temporary, like power, and love. But they change how you are and how you feel about other human beings. Those moments on the dancefloor are absolutely life-changing and life-affirming.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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