Greg Wilson Talks Manchester Nightlife - Legend Nightclub: A Brief History

DJ Greg Wilson harks back to the heart of the original jazz-funk scene in Manchester, and the club where it all started – Legend

Feature by Greg Wilson | 03 Jul 2015

No matter where I am in the world, people will ask me about The Haçienda – it’s a magical name for so many. They’ll say, “Wow! The Haçienda must have been really something…" and always seem surprised when I tell them that it wasn’t so great, for a variety of reasons, back in '83 when I was there. The best Manchester club by a long shot at that point in time was Legend, and what a club it was.

Legend (or ‘Legends’ as it was known by many) was phenomenal. There’s nothing comparable nowadays, they just don’t make them like that anymore. My debut night was August 12th 1981, and I’d play every Wednesday up until the end of 1983 when I retired as a DJ. In that time Legend became one of the places to be in Manchester.

It wasn’t like that to start with, though. There were only about 80 people there on that first night, almost all of whom were black kids who were seriously into their music and dancing.

I had a lot to live up to. The night, originally launched when the club opened almost a year earlier, had previously been successful with Nicky Flavell and then John Grant at the helm. John Grant was one of the big names on the jazz-funk scene up North back then, right up there with Colin Curtis and Mike Shaft, who hosted the Piccadilly Radio soul show, TCOB (Taking Care of Business). When John Grant defected to host a joint blues and soul show on Piccadilly Radio, the bulk of his 300-strong audience left with him.

Something had to be done, so, given the success of my Tuesday sessions at Wigan Pier (owned by the same company), I was given a crack at halting the slide before it was too late and all was lost. It was very much last chance saloon for the Wednesday at Legend.

I knew I had my work cut out if this wasn’t to be a short-lived experience. Although there were so few people in the club, what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality. I was instantly aware that those who had turned out were serious music heads. During those first few weeks, I played a selection of mainly US imports, with a few UK jazz-funk releases thrown in for good measure.

Tracks included the likes of Archie Bell's Any Time Is Right (US 12”), Bob James's Sign of the Times (US LP), Central Line's Walking into Sunshine (UK 12”), Denroy Morgan's I’ll Do Anything for You (US 12”), Donald Byrd's Love Has Come Around (US 12”), Inversions' Loco-Moto (UK 12”), Level 42's Turn It On (UK 12”), Morrissey Mullen's Slipstream (UK LP), Rahmlee's Think (US LP), Richie Cole's New York Afternoon (US LP) and Roy Ayers' Land of Milk and Honey (US LP).

I generally found tracks like this in places like Spin Inn in Manchester. Along with a couple of shops in London, this was the UK's leading import stockist and they distributed to other shops in the region, which meant they had the latest music first. Spin Inn was central to the scene in the North, the hub around which everything revolved.

Unlike in other clubs, the crowd weren’t really interested in the microphone patter, which was the DJ norm back then in the UK. For them it was all about the music, so with this in mind I made what would turn out to be a pivotal decision.

I resolved to change my approach more towards mixing the records that I played, taking advantage of the fact that Legend had three Technics SL-1200s (the first I’d ever seen in this country). A state-of-the-art venue like Legend demanded a radical new approach to musical presentation and, if we were to turn the tide, it was vital that we not only promoted the club as the superior venue that it undoubtedly was, but that I also set myself apart from all the other DJs on the jazz-funk scene.

It was following this that I became known as ‘a mixing DJ’ – this was at a time when no other DJs on the scene in the North were placing the emphasis on mixing. Word began to spread and the queues began to grow for that Wednesday night slot. Popular as it was with the crowds, nobody could have loved it more than me. Every Wednesday circa '82/'83, I was in DJ heaven. There was a real sense of being right at the cutting-edge, that what was happening in this building was really special.

The social conditions of the time, and the fact that the audience was largely made up of a new generation of British black people who refused to take the abuse and prejudice that their parents’ generation had been subjected to, gave the night an intensity I've never experienced elsewhere. This was the place where people could release the pressure of their daily existence by letting it all out on the dancefloor. It was a cathartic environment for many people.

Of course, as with any high-energy environment, there were occasional flare-ups between different people, generally from different areas and as a result of dance challenges. Before breakdancing arrived on the scene, there was a whole thing around the jazz fusion style of dancing, with crews from different cities battling against each other.

As for the aesthetics, even the environment was out of this world. It had a space-age metallic décor (15,000 steel cans were spot-welded together at different levels to form its unique silver ceiling) and the lasers bouncing off all these metallic surfaces was really quite something.

The sound system was the best I’d ever heard in a club anywhere at that time, the sub-bass (another unique feature back then) would practically punch you in the chest! The lighting was even more impressive than Wigan Pier, which was an achievement in itself. Like the Pier, it was one of the precious few clubs in the UK to place the emphasis firmly on its sound and lighting and, as such, the DJ and light jock were regarded as the company's most valued employees.

By May '82, there were queues right up Princess Street every week, with people travelling in from all over the North and the Midlands, and even as far as London – if you didn’t get there early you might not get in at all!

When I left in '83, Legend continued as the primary place to get your fill of the best black/dance music throughout the 1980s, with DJs like Stu Allan, Colin Curtis, Mike Shaft and Chad Jackson all having residencies at one point or another. The famous London acid-house party Spectrum also held their Manchester events at Legend at the height of the rave era and the Happy Mondays recorded their videos to both Wrote for Luck and WFL in the club at the tail-end of the 80s (not in The Haçienda, as many people assume).

In the 1990s, Legend became 5th Avenue. It’s still one of the best-loved clubs in Manchester, although the interior, clientele and atmosphere are remarkably different these days...

Greg Wilson is due to release three records on his new multi-media label, Super Weird Substance, this month. 

He plays Paradise at The Garage, Liverprool, a night 'celebrating a British love affair with NYC's dance culture,' 4 Jul, 10pm