Women like DJ Paulette, Lucy Scher, and Ang Matthews were vital to the Haçienda and nightlife culture at large, but their story is rarely told
“I was on a first date, midweek,” recalls Denise Johnson, the soul singer whose voice came to be associated with the acid house sound of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, and who featured heavily on the records of prominent 90s Manchester bands. “He says, ‘There’s a really good club we can go to.’ I’m in a top mood thinking it’ll be like the soul clubs I was used to going to around that time – Rafters, The Gallery, and Legends. But no. After being attacked by the hanging sheets of the slaughterhouse plastic strips (at the entrance), we were in this space that felt like an aircraft hangar. It was freezing cold, with about four people there. I’m now thinking, ‘What’s this dump he’s brought me to?’”
That nightclub was the Haçienda, a venue that, at its peak, was the most famous dance club in the world, and has since become one of Manchester’s longest lasting cultural legacies. Opened in 1982 in a former yacht showroom, the Haçienda was created to build on the success of the city’s Factory Records, most famous for releasing the music of Joy Division, New Order, and the Happy Mondays. It wasn’t an immediate success with punters or musicians thanks to its stark interior and terrible sound, but it did eventually prove to be pioneering in scope, aesthetic, and musical direction. While a slew of bad decisions meant the venue was never profitable, it succeeded in becoming what its owners wanted it to be – a world class venue for the people of Manchester. Unfortunately, it also became popular with drug dealers and gun-wielding gangs, which eventually led to its demise and closure in 1997.
Today, the Haçienda is most closely associated with the acid house era thanks to its pioneering DJs, such as Mike Pickering, Graeme Park, and Sasha. Its legacy has been immortalised in books like New Order bassist Peter Hook’s The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club, films like Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, and concert series such as ‘Haçienda Classiçal’, where Graeme Park and Mike Pickering play tracks synonymous with the era alongside the Manchester Camerata orchestra. But while the club’s history is often retold, the role that women played in its story – whether in shaping its musical policy or keeping the club going day-to-day – is usually omitted or diminished. Their work during this time made vital inroads into male-dominated areas of the music industry.
Manchester DJ Paulette Constable, who started her career at the Haçienda’s monthly gay night Flesh before forging a DJing career in London, Paris, and Ibiza, hopes to redress some of the imbalance with a forthcoming exhibition, Edit. 03: Homebird, at The Lowry gallery in Salford. It will not only focus on her career in music, but also act as a call to arms for the continuing underrepresentation of women and other minorities in the music industry and historical texts, not least fellow Haçienda alumni like Denise Johnson and Happy Mondays singer Rowetta. “It’s to give that person a voice, that person who, for one reason or another, has been overlooked or underestimated,” says Constable. She’s quick to point out that the situation for women was especially bad when she started out DJing in the late 80s: “It was only from 94 that women started coming through as DJs. Before then, it was all men,” she remembers.
Ang Matthews, who left her hometown of Rhyl to study in Manchester, similarly remembers the era as especially hostile towards women: “I wanted to be an agent, but when I went down for interviews, it was obvious they wanted me for a secretary,” she says. “They hadn’t even considered I could be an agent.” In 1989, she became the Haçienda’s manager and licensee, and was at the club’s helm until it closed, becoming the first woman to manage a club of such size and scale in the UK. Many of her innovative decisions, such as coming up with the idea of a ‘Haçienda Classics’ night, brought in money when the club was struggling for revenue. Predictably, her appointment was met with much scepticism from the club’s male personnel.
“The lesbian social scene was dreadful... bad lighting, bad music, bad booze, and sticky carpets. The Summer of Lesbian Love was the opposite: music, dancers, sex, proud, far from safe, and at the fucking Haçienda!” – Lucy Scher, co-founder of Flesh at the Haçienda
“The doormen couldn’t believe it, and had bets on that I wouldn’t last six weeks,” she says. “They just thought, ‘They have to be joking, employing her.’ They lost their bets, of course.” Not only did Matthews have to contend with the club’s often intoxicated directors, ever pervasive drug dealers, and violent gangs, she also had to contend with an unhelpful and sometimes threatening police force. “When I got stuck in the lift with one of the top officers, he was like, ‘I could do anything to you now. You’re not wearing very much, are you?’” she recalls. “Well, I was working in the middle of a very hot club!”
Like Constable, Kath McDermott also started out DJing at Flesh before becoming resident at Homoelectric. She now works as a producer at BBC Radio 6 Music, and credits Flesh co-founder Lucy Scher with giving much-needed opportunities to women during this time. “Lucy was always saying how there should be lesbians involved, how there should be women involved,” she says. “Paul (Cons, Flesh co-founder and Haçienda entertainment manager) was less inclined, but Lucy felt really passionately about it. But it wasn’t necessarily, ‘You’ve got this job because you’re a woman.’ You had to be good. But it was also about visibility – even visibility on flyers was really important.”
Lucy Scher sadly passed away in August after a battle with cancer, but gave an interview for this article in June while undergoing treatment. She explained how she was first hired by the Haçienda in 1990 after only one visit. She was a recent English Literature graduate helping run the radical feminist bookshop Grass Roots Books at the time, and had no prior promoting experience. Her first event would be a women-only night called The Summer of Lesbian Love. “The lesbian social scene was dreadful,” she said, recalling her motivation for hiring the club, which she described as “magnificent”. “There were a couple of worthy clubs that advertised themselves as ‘safe spaces’, and a couple of more authentic Manchester clubs with bad lighting, bad music, bad booze, and sticky carpets. The Summer of Lesbian Love was the opposite: music, dancers, sex, proud, far from safe, and at the fucking Haçienda! I spent a total of £35 on publicity for the night, and it sold 1000 tickets in advance.”
“It was quite a seismic event,” McDermott recalls. “Lesbians were just starting to kick off all the shackles of old-fashioned feminist sort of stuff and reclaim their sexuality.”
Alison David, lead singer of the band Life’s Addiction, also put on nights around this time with her friend and female bouncer Gemma Smith-Edhouse. “We called it Bacchanalia and tried to create three rooms of music, which wasn’t happening anywhere at the time,” she recalls. David also made national headlines in 1995 by getting married in a 12-hour ceremony at the Haçienda, and similarly remembers the club as a place where sexuality could be explored without fear of persecution. “We had a semi-naked angel leading the wedding procession, and (husband-to-be) Todd (Fath) put on his interactive safe sex show.” But she too singles out Flesh as the night where people could push sexual self-expression to the limit. “Everyone made such an effort to dress up, and it was so liberating,” she says.
“What Flesh did was make people feel that when they came through that door they were safe... I don’t think all the books that have been written about the Haçienda have ever made a big thing about it. But they should have, because it was fucking groundbreaking” – Paulette Constable, the Haçienda’s first female resident DJ
After Scher went into partnership with Paul Cons, their co-produced events became the Haçienda’s most profitable regular night, but Flesh received little attention in the texts that have been produced by Haçienda biographers. “Someone gave me Peter Hook’s How Not to Run a Club and there is a small section on us,” Scher said. “I guess Flesh didn’t work with the narrative arc, as we ran it brilliantly.”
Scher suggested that Flesh may have been omitted because it “wasn’t foremost about the music, and so much of the Haçienda’s reputation and fame was to do with the bands and DJs”, but Paulette Constable isn’t as forgiving. “He listed what was on the Thursday, the Friday, the Saturday, and then when Flesh had a party he mentions DJs Tim Lennox and Luke Howard. When you look at the flyers, you can see the parties where Luke’s played – but my name is on every single one of them! So it’s like, how can you look through and actually make a point of itemising what these nights were and listing who the DJs were and miss a name that is on every fucking flyer?”
More than being angry about her personal omission, Constable feels that many of the Haçienda texts have failed to honour the pioneering work that Flesh did for the LGBTQ+ community. “You could get your head kicked in for being gay in those days,” she says. “What Flesh did was make people feel that when they came through that door they were safe. That was fantastic, and I don’t think all the books that have been written about the Haçienda have ever made a big thing about it. But they should have, because it was fucking groundbreaking. Nobody else had done it before.”
Yvonne Shelton, who was originally a gospel singer, first attended the Haçienda to watch Madonna’s now-infamous first UK performance. She became closely associated with Manchester band Simply Red, and is now Haçienda Classiçal’s Principal Creative Director. She agrees that many of the texts are biased towards a certain narrative, and is especially keen for black musicians to be given more credit, citing DJ Hewan Clarke as particularly underrepresented. But, she also admits, “if they did take as many drugs as they say, if they smoked as much weed, if they drank as much as they did, what are you going to remember? You’re going to remember you, your mates, whoever treated you too badly, and the few things that your psyche and your culture and your age and your gender responds to. And a woman at Flesh night near the tail end of it might not be it.”
Meanwhile, McDermott surmises: “I’m sure that the argument the Haçienda ‘™’ would have in response to this (underrepresentation of Flesh) is that Flesh was an outside promotion, and so for them, maybe Paulette and I aren’t ‘Haçienda DJs’. Now if that’s the case, that’s fine, because I feel like the right kind of people know what the score is. But in terms of a wider a look at how women have been pretty obliterated out of the history of dance culture, yeah, I do get pissed off about that.”
2017’s feature-length documentary Manchester Keeps On Dancing is a prime example. It features Haçienda DJs Greg Wilson, Mike Pickering, Dave Haslam, and Laurent Garnier, among other era-defining names like Marshall Jefferson and Andrew Weatherall, while chronicling what purports to be an ‘exceptionally detailed’ documentation of 30 years of Manchester music. And yet, it only features two women throughout. To add insult to injury, neither of them are associated with Manchester scenes. Alison Surtees, co-founder of Manchester Digital Music Archive (MDMA), says the film’s producers approached the organisation about using their photos in February 2016. When MDMA pointed out the imbalance and suggested McDermott be interviewed, they were told three months later that the producers had run out of time and wouldn’t be able to speak to McDermott or any other women.
Meanwhile, Surtees has been working tirelessly to highlight the achievements of some of the women who are consistently omitted from such retrospectives. In February 2018, she organised photography exhibition Suffragette City, which took place at Manchester’s Refuge and continues online, bringing attention to the forgotten heroes of the Haçienda era as well as the wider Manchester music scene, including sound engineers and music producers like Yvonne Ellis and Mandy Wigby, as well as some of the women interviewed for this article. She’s also keen to highlight the work of women who don’t take due credit for their own achievements. “Lesley Gilbert worked for Factory Records and pretty much ran the office side of it, but she just saw herself as that ‘office person’, not recognising that she was actually the one sorting out all the bookings, getting pressings done, and all of that,” she says. “She said that it wasn’t until a few years in, actually seeing the sales of (New Order song) ‘Blue Monday’, that she kind of looked at it and thought, ‘Well yeah, I was part of this’.”
Surtees feels that for the culture to change, women need to not only recognise the important parts they played in historical moments, but also be more aggressive about taking ownership of their legacy. “We can’t sit and continuously criticise men, and there’s always a lack of resources in the arts, that’s just an ongoing thing,” she says. “So don’t wait for somebody to research you or find out about you – it’s not going to happen. We have to proactively approach this and say, ‘Here’s our story’.”
Still, it’s not surprising that many of the women haven’t spoken out much before. “You don’t want to put anyone’s nose out of joint, you don’t want to stop yourself working, you don’t want to upset anyone,” Constable reasons. “There’s also always the risk of people accusing you of bitterness, or seeking revenge, or that it’s some kind of hard-done-by agenda or victimhood underlying it.” But with Scher’s passing, Constable says that there’s a renewed urgency to return to the Haçienda history, and tell it in its entirety. “I was hoping it would come to light before anything like Lucy’s death happened, but it didn’t,” she says. “Still, I’m not telling the story now to make anyone feel bad. I’m just telling the story because I’m telling the story. Because the female, the gay, the black history simply has not been told yet.”
DJ Paulette’s Edit. 03: Homebird exhibition at The Lowry starts on September 22 and runs until October 14
In memory of Lucy Scher, who lost her battle with cancer in August, aged 53. Donate to Macmillan Cancer Support here.