Monkey Musings (all about the history and origins of Whirl-y-Gig)

, Monkey Musings  (all about the history and origins of Whirl-y-Gig)



Stephen Cox (Hippie Kushie Waking Up To Life): Can you tell me something about your early life?

MP: I became a fledgling teenager in 1966 just as the world was turning technicolor, fashion was embracing the flamboyant and music explored the psychedelic. I was still too young to actively participate but the changes taking place became my inspiration. During my twenties, inspiration became aspiration as I searched for direction and meaning. It was on my thirtieth birthday that I was watching the summer solstice sunrise from a haystack in a field bordering the Stonehenge free festival. It was a moment of realisation when my life of contemplation ended and my dreams coalesced into conviction. This was my Hippie Kushie moment and I walked away with new purpose and confidence to put all that reflection into practice. I knew from then on that Whirl-y-Gig was my thing, my way of achieving everything and explaining nothing.

Doc Strange: When was the first event under the Whirly Banner? What can you recall of it?

MP: The very first was held in the summer of 1981 by Ros Madden, for twenty odd people in a pub venue. In the autumn she launched the event in a bigger way under the umbrella of the Association of Humanistic Psychology in a community hall, and it was the second AHP event which I by chance attended, having seen an advert in Self & Society (the AHP’s journal). I had recently discovered drumming and dance for myself and was exploring different clubs and live gigs. Whirl-y-Gig was a bit like  a cross between a very alternative college disco and a hippy dippy gig in a post punk era….perfect!

Kate Magic: How did you start Whirl-Y-Gig, can you give me a little of the pre-88 history?

MP: Whirl-Y-Gig was started by Ros Madden in 1981 as an “AHP” event. The Association of Humanistic Psychology is an umbrella organization for professional practitioners and interested like minded people. Whirl-Y-Gig was a social space for anyone who enjoys dance as a means of self expression.

I went to the second AHP Whirl-Y-Gig and was impressed by the event’s apparent values of inclusiveness and respect for each and every person’s human potential. I immediately became very involved and in 1985 Ros left me in charge of Whirl-Y-Gig’s future welfare. I had by that time built the first Dance Trance Sound System and was DJ at Whirl-Y-Gig (where I was initially assisted by DJ Floyd Freud) and Club Dog (where at first I was the sole DJ).

In 1986 I was joined in life and at Whirl-Y-Gig by Mary the Faery who brought skills in décor design as well as crew and policy management.

Richard & Mary @ WOMAD 1994
Richard & Mary @ Shoreditch Town Hall 1993

By ’88 Whirl-Y-Gig was outgrowing the AHP and we separated amicably. From being a monthly event, Whirl-y-Gig was now becoming more frequent. It was also at this time that Jim arrived introducing an integrated psychedelic lightshow. The special marriage between sound, light and decor was finally established.

Doc Strange: What and where were your first experiences of DJing?

MP: I had helped Ros Madden at Whirl-Y-Gig for three years doing things like management, flyer design, environment and front desk. For those three years our DJ played a mix of slightly left field party sounds including some golden oldies, and Ros Madden would MC two twenty minute sets per night of more traditional irish and other dances. At the end of the third year the DJ failed to turn up and we spontaneously decided to do it ourselves from then on.

I started to DJ as Monkey Pilot at Whirl-Y-Gig, Old Hampstead Town Hall . Initially I shared whirly DJ’ing with a good friend called DJ Floyd Freud. I quickly realised that your DJ sound was greatly influenced by your sound system and so I built my own with the able assistance of a friend called Mark, a Rastafarian who knew a thing or two about such things!

It was based on the multi box systems common on the carnival streets of Notting Hill (an economical source of big bottom end sound) and it was designed to fit in the back of Ferdinand, the Dance Trance Hearse (1962 Vanden Plas Princess Hearse Reborn).This first Dance Trance Sound System was visually tweaked with backdrops featuring the streaks and symbols from the Dance Trance flyer and the traffic light which survives to this day. Inspired by my work with the Youth Service, a parachute was always taken to gigs as essential kit!

Monkey Pilot & Ferdinand (1984)
Monkey Pilot & Ferdinand (1984)
Bob Dog and Monkey Pilot
Bob Dog and Monkey Pilot

At this time, as resident DJ playing different but related sets, I took my sound system to Club Dog (Trance Travel for the Head) and to Club of Mankind events (African and Reggae Sunshine Sounds).

For one year I launched independent Dance Trance events at Old Hampstead Town Hall along side Whirl-Y-Gig. Somehow, the Whirly sound soon embraced elements of all these and more besides. Once Whirly went weekly in 1989, it became my sole personalised DJ identity and spiritual journey…and from this time on, my only regular gig.

Doc Strange: What music influenced you and made you want to be a DJ?

MP: As time passed:

  • Beatles, Kinks, Cream, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Roxy Music
  • Early European Electronica : Can, Neu, Tangerine Dream
  • Early Fusion : Brian Eno, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel
  • Ska/Reggae/Dub : Bob Marley, Lee Perry, Mad Professor
  • African : Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, Ali FarkaToure
  • Whirl-y-Fusion : Astralasia, Banco De Gaia, Joi, Transglobal Underground

Woodzee: Do you make or produce any music of your own?

MP: There was a time when I completed an introductory music technology course with Jose Gross, and subsequently remixed several tracks with Jose and also with Swordfish from Astralasia. It was very exciting to be part of the creative process and looking back I wish I had done more. At that time Whirl-y-Gig was every Saturday night and so my primary focus was discovering and compiling the next set of found music which left little room for originating my own material. Although it was not a conscious decision I concluded that Monkey Pilot was first and foremost a music selector and should concentrate on what he does best, Whirl-y-Gig DJ!

Woodzee: What does the Chinese symbol on the Whirl-Y-Gig flyer mean?

MP: It comes from the I Ching (Book of Changes) and is the symbol of Wind On Water which represents “Disillusion” or the moment when illusion falls away, usually brief and often associated with song and dance. I interpret this as an experience of ordinary ecstasy, for example when we hear that special tune for the first time when we are completely captivated and suspended in the song. Or that moment when our dance just happens at one with the music. I think we seek these experiences, and Whirl-Y-Gig is an environment in which they become possible.

Represents "Disillusion", from the I Ching (Book of Changes)
Represents “Disillusion”, from the I Ching (Book of Changes)

Woodzee: Where did the name Monkey Pilot come from?

MP: Monkey Pilot was the title of a song by the Comsat Angels (from their first and classic album called “Waiting for a Miracle”) and was inspired by the first living creatures sent into space.

I adopted it as a creative device during a cassette compilation exchange relationship with a friend called Natasha V in Berkeley, San Francisco. Prior to adopting it as my DJ name from 1984, I submitted “The Reality Scandal” for publication in Self and Society under the name of Monkey Pilot in late 1981. This first version was rejected as too journalistic for a semi academic AHP journal.  In later form it was finally accepted in 1986 with the title “This Fear Of Gods” and credited to my real name. This essay in many ways laid the foundation of thought that led me to choosing Whirl-Y-Gig as my perfect means of expression and most valid choice of activity for this lifetime.

Doc Strange: What do you especially remember about each Whirly venue?

MP: Whirl-Y-Gig occupied a number of community halls during the early days, and for three months occupied the very atmospheric Almeida Theatre in Islington. During the second year, we stayed for nine months at Notting Hill’s Acklam Hall later known as Subteranea. We settled for the next two years at Old Hampstead Town Hall, but by January 1986 we finally found our first true home in a little known gem called Notre Dame Hall, off Leicester Square. This was where we first experienced major success and for the last of four years we were selling out (550 capacity) on a weekly basis often by 8.45pm (8 until 11.30pm!). As has happened so often in our history, our popularity brought unwanted attention indirectly leading to the church management discovering their license had expired during the recent relaxed years of GLC control. Everything came to an abrupt halt.

Raw Soup broadcast in 1998 on Whirl-Y-Gig at Shoreditch Town Hall
Raw Soup broadcast in 1998 on Whirl-Y-Gig at Shoreditch Town Hall

After three months we gave up hope of Notre Dame Hall reopening any time soon and so we returned to Old Hampstead Town Hall. We started up on a Wednesday night with a fraction of our audience, progressed to Saturday nights and steady recovery. After one year we found Shoreditch Town Hall. Initially this seemed like a large but irresistibly run down space where we were welcomed on a weekly Saturday night basis, from 8pm to midnight.

It was chosen partly by us because we recognized it would allow us to use our recently donated (from the military) 60’ pink parachute as a centre piece. The space seemed so big to us that we initially caved off areas with netting and installed the amazing Space Tumbler. However, by the last two of five years we enjoyed a regular attendance of more than one thousand people every week without exception. We were given storage space on site and it was during this period that we developed our production in a big way investing in the lights and sound system that we still use today. Gareth was the man who wired the new sound system and having delivered it to his first Whirl-y-Gig, stayed and has looked after sound ever since!

However, once again things came to an end with little warning and it was largely down to nervous council officers who had been nursing a license requiring pending building works for many years. Following Shoreditch Town Hall was always going to be difficult, but Hammersmith Town Hall seemed to offer what was needed in the form of a weekly Saturday booking, storage space (up many steps!), 2am license and a small chill out space. The interior was impressive with our total décor cover, but we never grew to love the exterior of the venue which had a very municipal vibe to it. It was a tip off regarding new sympathetic management looking for a club event that led us to the Camden Centre and a return to a monthly booking. This venue lacked storage space but had a larger chill out area, a well proportioned main space and as time went by a license extension until 4am.  It was never easy covering costs at the Camden Centre but it represented a period of success, stability and consolidation as we lived down the passing of the Shoreditch light. It was a change of policy from above that pulled the plug on the manager and us alike and it was over.

After a long search and three months without Whirl-Y-Gig we fell in love with the 291 Gallery. As a converted church it had great atmosphere including a garden and felt a bit like our own Faery Castle. However, an early license and high costs resulted in crippling financial losses. Without a very generous donation from Ray, a wealthy long time whirly fan, Whirl-Y-Gig could have ended there and then.

A move to Jacks represented a major change of direction for us away from the polished wooden dance floors of our past. The venue offered an all night license, a management dedicated exclusively to underground club runners and all at an affordable price. It meant compromises like the end of our BYO alcohol policy (already lost at the 291 Gallery), as well as no more whirly staffed free cloakroom or whirly exclusive security, but it gave us an incredible eight years of stability. In the latter years we achieved capacity audiences, long queues and a return to the sense of excitement achieved during the nineties.

When Jacks closed its doors for good it brought about a hiatus for Whirl-y-Gig. Despite a sell out first gig at Track (The Steelyard) which was Jacks management’s new venue across the river, sudden cancellation of future gigs (because loyalty to us was not a priority) meant that we were looking for a rapid rescue package. Fire in Vauxhall were quick to offer us regular Fridays and our first gig sold out in advance but was shockingly cancelled just before the big day arrived. This decision was later formally regretted by Fire management who put it down to unfair intervention by a ‘venue manager and promoter’ from our recent past. Our worthiness was in question briefly, but the good people at the Scala knew better and gave us two successful gigs. Finally our old friends at the Camden Centre welcomed us back on a monthly basis. It was a grand space and a trip down memory lane but this option was always going to be a challenge financially. Nevertheless, we were shocked and saddened to learn of its closure for redevelopment nearly three years later!

Moving on again, a change of thinking brought us to the doors of Bloc in Hackney Wick, a blank canvas converted warehouse and a management team with a club running history. We had found a space where we felt safe and with a rock solid dance vibe, which made it all the more difficult to learn that Bloc would loose their lease after just two more years. One step forward and two steps sideways took us to Mick’s Garage (next door to Hackney Wick train station) and the future! What we could not have known was that we would have just two gigs before the Corona crisis would close us all down until further notice…!

Woodzee: What would be your ultimate venue to hold Whirl-Y-Gig at?

MP: It was always my dream to take Whirl-Y-Gig to the Roundhouse, as it was the original Roundhouse Implosions which provided the bedrock of inspiration that would ultimately manifest at Whirl-Y-Gig. The Implosions grew out of the UFO and Middle Earth clubs of the late sixties, the first truly psychedelic club events in London. In the semi derelict Roundhouse with internal scaffold amphitheatre surrounded by hippy stalls and hosting a stage for all the best underground bands, the Sunday Implosions established the festival in a club vibe and format. Later, the Roundhouse remained closed for many years, and I dreamed of returning with Whirl-Y-Gig. Now that it has been so beautifully refurbished, I suspect this will remain just a dream but never say never!

Kate Magic: How would you describe the feeling of a perfect night when it all goes right – the venue, the music, the people?

MP: Every night must achieve moments of near perfection in some great way to feel it has happened at all, and the magic of ordinary perfection is that it makes you want to create and experience an even more perfect vision next time!

Kate Magic: At what point did you notice the rave scene in London? How did it affect Whirl-Y-Gig? Did it bring a lot more people in? Did the music you were playing change.

MP: Whirl-Y-Gig had slowly grown through several venues including three months at the then empty and semi-derelict Almeida Theatre in Islington, nine months at Notting Hill’s Acklam Hall, two years at Old Hampstead Town Hall, and by January 1986 we had finally found our first true home at Notre Dame Hall. By 1988, with such a journey already travelled, we did not see the steadily growing numbers of whirl-y-goers as related to anything outside of our own whirly evolution. What was obvious however, was that ‘dance’ was growing rapidly in popular culture, and rave was influencing many social groups and most particularly, from our point of view, the festival and club scene! We already had our own broad musical identity which was inclusive of many different electronic world fusions producing a unique, psychedelic, and completely alternative dance sound.

The arrival of Dub in earlier years, club styles such as House, and then specifically Trance, were all undoubtedly big influences on the whirl-y-mix, just as Break Beat, Drum’n’Bass and Dubstep have been in more recent times. However, Whirl-Y-Gig has always stamped its own identity on these generic forms. The process of inclusion of major new electronic styles has always been continuous and progressive, with ‘moments’ that only in retrospect represent giant leaps. In the grand scheme of things however, the influence of trance and rave culture was undoubtedly monumental. It was particularly relevant to Whirl-Y-Gig because of the positive high energy music, shared ideals of peace, love, respect and freedom, plus common values of DIY independence and interest in broader social and spiritual issues. Whirl-Y-Gig shares these values. We have always designed, owned and managed every aspect of our own production, making sure that each part is harmonious and complementary. Ultimately, it is still difficult to separate the emergence and evolution of dance music from Whirl-Y-Gig’s own evolutionary process, but looking back, 1988 was certainly a time of rapid growth for us. Although we were not initially of the rave scene, we knew we were passionately united and spiritually connected, and remain so today.

Doc Strange: How do you think Whirly has changed over the years?

MP: By staying true to the vision no matter what, refining and making strong, Whirl-Y-Gig has always evolved rather than changed.

Doc Strange: What about the music specifically?

MP: Initially borrowing from many musical influences to create an alternative and varied dance sound, it was soon the electronic styles that embraced those broad influences most completely that rapidly became more recognisably “our” whirl-y-music as we now know it. So in essence it hasn’t changed, but in form it has become much more defined and clearly futuristic…

Woodzee: After all these years DJ’ing where do you store all your music?

MP: For many years we lived in a tiny one bedroom flat, and my vinyl occupied a wall in the living room which was stacked high with record boxes.  Following this, we moved to a small house in which I had a whole room the size of a large box room . I disappear into my “studio” for five or more long and lovely days every month to prepare my (up to) eight hour set. I have a four speaker system at eye and ear level, shelves of vinyl and drawers of CDs all up to the ceiling, and views out of a west facing window across Harrow cricket pitch towards the hills of Pinner and Grimsdyke. I was quick to adopt CDs which appeared more reliable and precise than vinyl but the humidity achieved under the arches at Jacks proved too much for even CDs to endure resulting in painful show stopping 3 second gaps, a problem finally solved by my Media Player. This is like a CDJ controller but drawing material from a computer hard drive, finally solving both reliability and storage issues! In recent years my studio has expanded to incorporate my ‘office’ and views of the Somerset countryside from another west facing window!

Kate Magic: Do you see music as a spiritual force? How do you hold with the idea of the dj as a shaman ie someone who takes you on a spiritual journey? Would you agree that the dancefloor is a modern day church for our agnostic society?

MP: Music is a spiritual force in my personal life. It connects directly with my emotional self and has influence on my day to day ‘spirits’ bringing sense of hope, connectedness and most importantly well-being. As a DJ, and at Whirl-Y-Gig, I am very aware that we are providing an environment where these things become possible for everyone, but only if each individual remains free to engage in their own way. Therefore, every aspect of Whirl-Y-Gig is wherever possible non-intrusive and non-specific to ensure that we do no more than create an opportunity for ordinary ecstasy in which we find positive, peaceful, respectful relationship. I have been described as the worlds first faceless DJ, no microphone and playing apparently with my back to the audience. However, the stage décor, lights and sound system provide all the necessary visual impact required and I play a small part. I am accessible, facing the same way as the audience, and sharing a journey that through music and dance creates a magical and significant trance state. As an artist my DJ sets are an expression of a higher purpose and inevitably a product of my emotional and spiritual self, but the nature and value of the experience is ultimately in the hands of the individual to make their own. In this way there are many parallels between the church and the modern dancefloor, but I think that is exactly what they are, parallels and a fine example of our expanding universe!

Doc Strange: And what of the future – how do you see Whirly developing?

MP: Always seemingly slightly out of step with the norm, I believe Whirl-Y-Gig is as much about the future of clubbing as it’s past. I think Whirl-Y-Gig is finally realising its true strength of form, and as such is embarking on a new and renewed future.

In 2008, we started a local weekly free night called Parlour Party where Mary plays live and hosts the open mic stage and I look after the sound engineering and environment. It was the result of a long held ambition to start our own jam night and we believe it embraces genuine whirly values by putting people on stage and providing space for free expression in a safe and welcoming atmosphere.

In 2013 we launched Whirl-Y-Fayre bringing Whirl-Y-Gig and the Parlour Party together for the first time. Having been regular festival goers for more than forty years and having taken Whirl-Y-Gig to many major UK festivals, the Whirl-Y-Fayre has been a long time coming. Aware of the risks involved we waited until the right site and the right moment became known to us. We hope that the Whirl-Y-Fayre will grow and enjoy a long life, in the end outliving all of us!

Doc Strange: What does Whirly mean to you?

MP: Life, love, family, future….


Richard & Mary @ WOMAD 1994
Richard & Mary @ WOMAD 1994