It goes without saying this has been a strange year. For many it has been a whole lot worse than “strange”. Painful, shocking, harrowing, tragic, heartbreaking…
For me, Andrew Weatherall’s death on February 17th 2020 opened a hole that I spent most of the year trying to fill. It was the starting gun on a period when nothing seemed certain anymore. Things that had been there forever were suddenly no more.
My immediate thought upon hearing of his death was to turn to my friends on The Flightpath Estate fan page on Facebook. At the time it was a small group of fellow Weatherall obsessives, answering each other’s geeky queries about limited edition white labels of Weatherall remixes from the past 30 years. I could name most of the dozen-or-so regular posters even though I’ve never knowingly met any of them in real life – although who knows if we might have embraced on the dance floor on some enchanted evening.
The flood of editorials that followed Weatherall’s death and all those tribute mixes soon made it clear that we were not just geeky freaks. There were, are, hundreds, nay, thousands out there who share our obsession.
The tributes from those who knew Weatherall personally, were heartfelt and filled with tales of The Guvnor’s kind acts and good humour. And, of course, his influence upon their taste. And not just their musical choices, Weatherall’s book, film and, sometimes, fashion recommendations were also devoured by his friends and loved ones.
While the Flightpath crew were shellshocked and could do little more than post favourite songs, weeping emojis and sometimes share some life-changing memories, a strange thing started to happen.
The Flightpath Estate started to grow. Journalists started to spread the word about the Weatherdrive, a phenomenal labour of love set up by Flightpath moderator and founder Martin Brannagan to share over 800 hours (and counting) of recorded Weatherall DJ sets and radio shows from the past 30 years.
The Estate was not only a honeypot for Weatherall fans, although it certainly was that. As lockdown kicked in, it started to become a meeting place for Weatherall’s associates and colleagues from every stage of his life and career. Soon, I (we) started swapping tales, anecdotes and music with people we considered heroes – from Jagz Kooner of Sabres of Paradise to Keith Tenniswood of Two Lone Swordsmen to Nina Walsh of Woodleigh Research Facility.
Other adventurers popped in from time to time. Hugo Nicholson, who had worked on those legendary Primal Scream productions and remixes in the 1990s, did a Zoom call with us from his Los Angeles home. All he asked was a small donation to Black Lives Matter. David Harrow, who had previously worked with the On-U-Sound crew and teamed up with Weatherall for his Blood Sugar and Deanne Day releases, also tuned in from the West Coast.
Kris Needs, now more known for his journalism but also one half of the often extraordinary Secret Knowledge, sought our counsel for a story he was writing for Record Collector magazine. David Holmes (who many of us in the Estate consider to be something akin to DJ royalty) popped in. So, did some of Andrew’s family members.
And a funny thing happened. Weatherall became Andrew to us all.
Andrew died on Monday February 17th. On Friday 21st he was due to play at Brixton’s Phonox club with A Love From Outer Space partner Sean Johnston.
Incredibly, Sean decided to do the gig. He posted a request on the Estate for high quality WAVs of a couple of classics that we might have hidden on our own personal Weatherdrives. Sean had been tuned into the Estate for a while but it was the first sign that it was becoming something vaguely important to a world outside of a dozen hardcore geeks.
I couldn’t bring myself to go to Phonox. It was too soon. The wound of Andrew passing was too raw. I couldn’t quite believe that Sean soldiered on. I wasn’t quite sure if he was brave or a little crazy. But what followed was little short of extraordinary.
Not only did Sean soldier on, he played a six-hour tribute that could induce tears months later. On the night, a heaving throng of recently heartbroken devotees tore the roof off. It was, said one, “a fiercely beautiful evening”, the equal of anything he had experienced during those halcyon days of 1988-94.
Weatherall tribute nights started popping up in towns and cities across the country. From Belfast to Brighton, music lovers congregated and played his greatest hits and the music that Andrew had taught them.
I went to the Brighton evening. Around 200 of us crammed into a small pub. I bumped into the couple who I had shared a spliff with outside the Hideout club, the last time I had seen Weatherall DJ. A friend came over to say hello – surprised to see me there. Surprised to see me? I had no idea she was a Weatherall devotee. I spoke to one of the DJs and was thrilled when he later agreed to play a small festival I was organising in the summer.
I arrived home stoned and happy, filled with the warm fuzziness that only dancing with like-minded souls can bring. Little did I know, it would be the last time we danced in a public place for… who knows how long?
The online tributes kept flooding in. Andrew’s brother Ian and some childhood friends posted some scrawled track listings of mixtapes he had made before he made his name at Shoom and elsewhere. I converted a few to modern day mixtape format:
And, of course, I made my own tribute mix. It had started as an attempt to collect all his ambient works together but ended up as an ambient dub extravaganza collecting most of my favourite tracks from the deep end of his oevre.
The sharing of inspired works, love and memories increased throughout lockdown and, for the most part, this seemed like a joyous flowering of creativity and shared love. During May, I joined Estate amigo James Fyffe and a his merry band of brothers in sharing a reggae track each day from an artist whose name begins with a different letter of the alphabet.
We did this every day counting down from Z for Tappa Zukie to A for Aswad over 26 days. It became a daily ritual. The joy of discovery was matched by the pleasure gleaned from sharing. When we reached the end, James asked: “What’s next?”
“Techno,” said I and James duly opened up the group to others. What followed was the good, the bad and the ugly of Facebook in microcosm.
As moderator, James soon became overwhelmed with people nagging him about the rules and generally swamping him with enquiries.
The group was promptly closed and a bunch of techno scenesters split to set up the provocatively named ‘REAL TECHNO‘ group. The Facebook algorithms went into overdrive and before long the group had over 7,000 members and was posting exclusive mixes from bona fide techno heavyweights such as Dave Angel, Colin Dale and Darren Emerson.
It was quite a thrill to see it grow, rediscover old favourites and discover some unheard gems. But the group was less personal. I wasn’t part of the in crowd. The conversations became filled with tedious debates about what constituted techno and whether trance was shite and whether breakbeats were allowed. These were the joyless attitudes that tore rave asunder 30 years ago, splintering a cultural phenomenon into a million niche pursuits.
You couldn’t knock the success of REAL TECHNO but I preferred the Reggae A-Z, and, of course, The Flightpath Estate.
The communal online frenzy that started with Andrew’s death reached a climax on midsummer night’s eve.
To kick off the Glade Stage’s virtual Glastonbury, Andrew’s long time friend Andrew Curley gathered sets from a selection of the Guvnor’s closest associates taking in every phase of his career.
Up until that moment, I had failed to grasp the point of the dance community’s efforts to go online. I could not connect with all these sets and broadcasts. They left me cold.
But that night – midsummer’s eve – I sat, I danced and I typed ‘wow, fuck, shit, yeah’ to my Flightpath bredrin well into the early hours. You see, this was my music. These were my people. That’s what had been missing. This was online entertainment I could do.
Curley has curated the the best part of a day’s worth of listening pleasure here. Enjoy it at your leisure.
For me, the David Holmes set, which uses snippets of Andrew’s interviews to produce a documentary come acid-tinged flashback, is particularly poignant.
While Keith Tenniswood’s set of Two Lone Swordsmen classics doubles up as a best of TLS – the compilation that never was, summarising one of the most fruitful and adventurous periods of Andrew’s career.
Listening to the sets and the stories of those closest to him, it became obvious that they were all fans. From Danny Rampling to David Holmes. From Justin Robertson to Sean Johnston. From Keith Tenniswood to Timothy Fairplay to Nina Walsh. From Primal Scream and One Dove through to Confidence Man and Fuck Buttons. They were all just fans. And so was he – a music fan. Just like us.
As lockdown came and went and nightclubs remained closed and festivals failed to open, most musical lives were restricted to online platforms. But more time spent online means less time spent in real life and more time in your own head and more exposure to the darker aspects of social media.
“Friends” started to seem more and more judgemental. Those not sharing their/our views were generally deemed idiots or worse. I get it. People are tired, fed-up, scared, angry, traumatised. Empathy is in short supply. When so many in the government seem barely human it is difficult to hold back. It’s so easy for others to be othered.
When Netflix aired its Social Dilemma documentary in October many of its observations rang true. It soon became clear that fake news was not entirely a right-wing phenomenon. I started to hear rumours that reinforced my own beliefs and prejudices. Most involved potential scandals about Tory politicians that strangely never made it into the news.
While political discourse has become increasingly toxic, the documentary argued it is the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter et al that are driving the rage, lies and polarisation rather than visa versa. Of course, this is a vicious circle that our shameless politicians are only too happy to exploit.
It was time for a break. With my family, I retreated to Eno’s Dunwich Beach in Suffolk and drank in the air, felt the restorative power of the sea, and enjoyed log fires and fresh fish.
My musical life changed too. The machine funk gave way to organic ambience, earthy folk, gentle piano, strings and the sounds of the sea, rivers and rain.
Facebook is mostly behind me now. I feel freer. My mind is less cluttered. I can focus better on work and play. But I can’t leave it behind entirely. The Flightpath Estate still draws me in. It is the only reason for going there. Andrew’s echoes reverberating around the internet.
The most poignant moment was yet to come. Thirty-plus years after meeting Andrew in a block of flats in Battersea, chief Sabrette Nina Walsh, his enduring creative partner, released a beautifully evocative photo essay of her time together with Andrew at Facility 4, their shared studio in South London, the birthplace of their works as Woodleigh Research Facility. A month later she advertised it as available for rental. A terrible finality. A chapter ended.
Before leaving, she managed to squeeze out one more tune. In a year of lovingly crafted tributes, it stands out; a timeless and beautiful dub lament for her favourite DJ that reverberates with echoes of every phase of his musical life.
Who knows what 2021 holds. For Nina, a chapter has very definitely ended. It has for all of us. We will never dance again under Andrew’s sway.
I realise these words might chafe. Lamenting the loss of my favourite DJ, a man I barely knew, at the end of this year of years.
Living in rural Sussex, I have been barely touched by Covid-19 and its consequences. I only know three people to have caught it and they’re all fine. I even, dare I say it, quite enjoyed lockdown – freed from extraneous commitments. But I have lost a friend to cancer. And another – younger than me – is recovering from a stroke. These are not normal things for me.
The cumulative effect feels like something akin to a midlife crisis… kinda… although without the need for a motorbike or a mistress. Perhaps the world is having a midlife crisis. Wishful thinking? It often feels like the end times.
A guiding light has been extinguished. Then the world fell off its hinges. But the music never stops. We will go on dancing. Eventually. Even if we’re dancing through a veil of tears. Is that a song? Profound thought? Pretentious bollocks? I can’t tell. Whatever. We will dance again.
Good night Andrew, Jah bless. Goodbye 2020, good riddance.
PS. One last tribute sneaked in after this blog had been written and it is a very special one. Sabres’ Jagz Kooner and Gary Burns reunited after Andrew’s passing as Stray Harmonix. They delivered this beauty as their debut. One light goes out, another is lit.