WAREHOUSE SONGS & STORIES | Frankie Knuckles & Me

Being a miserable bastard, who just happens to be from the North of England, it was always more likely that I would gravitate towards Detroit Techno, than its happier cousin Chicago House. But the sad news yesterday of the passing of DJ, musician and record producer Frankie Knuckles, aged only 59, cuts across such primitive opposition. In the tributes that have followed the news of his death, the rightly revered Godfather of House is recognised as the ‘pioneer’ he undoubtedly was.

Today, with dance music the underscore of choice to our daily lives, it is easy to forget the once outsider status it held; even easier is to neglect the groundwork done by those early electronic terraformers. The music they produced was as equally a function of disaffection and DIY resolve as had been punk a decade before; just as it had been in 1975, so in 1987, it was the Americans who were ahead of the curve – and, once again, the Brits who were paying attention.

By 1989, I was (mis)-managing a record shop in Central Scotland and quickly falling out of love with C86 tweeness and its subsequent dissembling into piss-poor psychedelia. (Did none of these bands own an actual guitar tuner that worked?) Being a Scottish university town, our biggest sales tended to be pretty much anything by The Smiths and Runrig. [1]

Records were starting to make room in the store for compact discs, but no one was yet proclaiming the death of vinyl. As a chart return shop, we would get regular ‘surprise visits’ from Dean, the plugger from The Cartel, who carried with him a sack of goodies. (If you’ve seen the episode of The Simpsons where Millhouse gets conned into buying thousands of copies of Biclops comic, the person who cons him is based on Dean.) I remember being offered loads of Kylie and Yazz & The Plastic Population records, – the paradox therein of independent music – but there was some great stuff too.

One of these was a 12″ by Frankie Knuckles. Dean was more than a little vague about it. He dressed like one of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and stank of cigarettes, so I’m guessing he was offering the record up as a favour to some other plugger elsewhere. “This one’s more your kind of Acid record. Used to be you could only get it on import,” he said. “Have you got any discos in this town? ‘Cause the gays will cream their pants for it,” he added. [2]

With Dean now leaning against the counter wearing a suitably stoned expression, I dropped the needle onto side A – Your Love – and waited. Over the sound-system came a rickety loop of notes, high-pitched and propulsive. A bassline started that was so thick and insistent, it nearly punched a hole through the speakers. The drums joined in, metronomic in their simplicity, together with a wash of synth strings. Finally a vocal that was part Donna Summer – part stroke victim announced itself. The thing was mesmerising. It was beautiful and, what was more, it was nothing like the Acid record that Dean described. This was something very special indeed. This was confirmed when the record came to an end and I flipped it over. Baby Wants To Ride (with Jamie Principle) was even better. A nervy synth funk workout with a pulsing rhythm. The record spun itself out to a stunned silence in the shop.

I could have sold that record ten times over. [3] As it was, I sold the five copies that Dean had with him then and there. He promised to bring me as many more as he could get his hands on, made his goodbyes and left. The Cartel was to go tits up shortly afterwards…

Frankie Knuckles defined house music every bit as much as Miles Davis defined jazz or Lou Reed defined rock. But most importantly he made some great records that mapped out house music’s capacity to inspire and to empower those touched by it. He spoke for those who felt dispossessed and ended up speaking for everybody. He brought house music out of the American wastelands. He gave it a fresh feeling of dignity and pride. Listen to the records and remember him.

Frankie Knuckles (Francis Nicholls) 1955 – 2014


[1] In fact, I reckon Runrig’s sales probably pissed on those of Moz and the boys from a great height. If you’re not Scottish, you’ve probably never even heard of them. It amused me no end that I had to telephone a small Scottish Highland music distributor to restock their albums. It was probably only sales of Runrig albums that kept the company afloat and I liked to picture the front room of someone’s cottage whenever I rang my order through.

[2] As it happened, there was a disco of sorts. It was called the Rainbow Rocks and it was awful. It made Cinderella Rockerfellas in Leeds look good! I’m not sure if it attracted a particularly gay crowd. The place was a bear-pit that even Yogi Bear would have crossed the road to avoid. In 1991, Orde Miekle DJ-ed there. He dropped Purple Rain into the midst of a techno driven tsunami and for a brief moment it was all there was in the world.

[3] In the film version of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, there is a scene where record shop owner, John Cusack, confidently announces that he is going to sell three copies of the latest Beta Band record. He puts on Dry The Rain. Sure enough, heads begin to nod as the music worms its way into the consciousness of the shop’s clientele and (Hey presto!) kerching – kerching – kerching! Everyone who has ever worked in a record shop recognises this moment of alchemy.

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