Richard Norris 2

RICHARD NORRIS 

From the weird to the Weald: Acid House pioneer lays it all out

“Anyone that knows me knows I’ve got thousands of anecdotes and worked with tons of different people,” Richard Norris, chart-storming musician, festival promoter and record producer, is musing over how he created his new autobiography, Strange Things Are Happening. There are quite a few tales, in a career characterised by curiosity. Alongside hitting the Top Ten with The Grid, witnessing the birth of an era-defining cultural movement, he’s hung out with LSD guru Timothy Leary and collaborated with some of the most enduring names in music. 

“I wanted to use these stories as raw material for a good piece of writing,” says the Lewes resident. “Something which worked as a story. I’ve got quite good recall and spoke to loads of people. You only need one hint of something, and all this stuff comes flooding back. That can be a sound or a picture in your head…”

One major player in this book is the legendary Joe Strummer. Norris tells me the pair got on almost straight away. They met while recording at Peter Gabriel’s studio near Bath, when the former The Clash frontman turned up with a load of people. “It looked like some mad circus had come to town. He asked if anyone knew how to programme a drum machine. From there we spent two years working together.” Norris says there were always strange things happening when you were around Strummer, no doubt assisted by his chaotic lifestyle. “Everything was in the now. He’d suggest driving to Liverpool to see Leftfield when it was only two hours before the gig. It was a very exciting time. A lot of people describe it as his lost period, but he was so busy and enthusiastic about things. He was a joy to work with. We did a lot more living than recording though.”

Strange Things Are Happening - high res cover

The book’s title references his days working for a psychedelic record label, where he started a magazine also called Strange Things Are Happening. “It was really a precursor to things like Uncut and Mojo, in that it had a real mixture of anything cult. There were movies, books, records and a Krazy Kat double page cartoon. We’d write about Barbarella or Iggy Pop… I went to interview Alan Moore and Kathy Acker… There were loads of bands, like Wire and The Go-Betweens. So, it was a blend of the things we liked.”  The title is also shared with an esoteric pop-psych single from the late 60s, by a band called Rings And Things. “That was probably made by a bunch of session musicians. I don’t think they ever did anything else! But, the idea of strange things happening runs throughout the book. There’s always something unexpected around the corner.”

The writing process for Strange Things Are Happening started with a chapter about the near-mythical rock and roll musician Sky Saxon. Best known as the lead singer of 60’s Los Angeles band, The Seeds, he’s typical of the characters Norris has found himself amongst over the years. “You have to try and balance it, so it doesn’t sound like a load of name-drops. I’m not a ‘lead singer’ kind of guy, I’m more in the back-room, so I could take more notice of what was happening. With someone like Saxon, he had a few hits in the 60s and is revered by some as one of the originators of garage psychedelia, but he was pretty much a beatnik vagrant. He was living on people’s floors, and from one bar to the next. But there was something about how he worked, and the absolute ‘music life’. He was playing gigs and getting bands together from the early 60s until the week he died.” Norris set out to reclaim what is considered ‘success’ in music. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not about topping the charts, but instead keeping going and pushing the form onward. “If you’ve got that attitude, then you’ll really see life. You might not be the richest person, but you will have the richest experiences.”

Inevitably, this autobiography turns to the Acid House movement, and the wild times at the fabled Shoom. Held at increasingly larger venues around London during the late 80s and early 90s, this club night had an indelible impact on UK clubland. Founded by Danny Rampling and his wife Jenni, he and Terry Farley pushed the new styles of US music to the UK, alongside odd Euro hits and up-tempo indie, in what became known as the Balearic sound. Shoom also hugely contributed towards Acid House’s trademark style, with baggy clothes, toned-down trainers and the iconic smiley faces everywhere.

“My kind of electronic and acid house story is very different from other people’s. There’s this idea of four DJs bringing back this new music from overseas like conquistadors. It sounds quite dodgy. You know… going abroad, finding one DJ’s records, basically stealing all their selections and bringing them home. It’s not a particularly nice origin story. And it’s not particularly true. Everyone’s acid house story is the origin story… Everyone gets into different things.” In truth, the genre has roots across Europe, along with US cities like Detroit and Chicago. 

Norris just wanted to write down his version of what happened. A story which started ten years before aghast tabloid headlines and the summer of love. “I came from art school, DIY culture and alternative music, and there were records out in the early eighties which sounded like acid house.” His The Grid bandmate, Dave Ball, had already flirted with lots of Acid House aesthetics. As one half of Soft Cell, their song, Memorabilia, featured the archetypal Roland 303 bass synthesiser and lyrical allusions to ecstasy long before they became mainstream.  

“There were different camps within the early Acid House scene. Certainly, in London, a lot of people who came to it were soul boys, or football fans. Others, like Andrew Weatherall and myself, came from alternative music. We’d be into stuff like John Peel, Cabaret Voltaire, Chris & Cosey and Throbbing Gristle. That was tiny minority. The idea of bands like The Residents and The Woodentops wasn’t new to us. But playing music from across lots of genres wasn’t happening much in clubs previously.”

Richard Norris

Many proponents of the Acid House movement extolled its seemingly endless possibilities. This new culture was going to change the world, bringing a new era of love, unity and shared ambition. But, like the hippies before them, that generation are now running the world and finding utopia might not be so close at hand. “In terms of electronic dancefloor, it has really fulfilled its potential. And just keeps on giving. Subcultures spawn other subcultures, and there’s this constant renewal. Which is amazing, compared to genres like mod or gothic, who haven’t really reinvented themselves.” On a personal level, Norris says the scene has gifted a huge sense of community. “There’s thousands of people that I’ve met through Acid House, who I wouldn’t have otherwise. While I’m in touch with maybe three people from school, I’d be on tour and see people who I’ve known for decades through this culture. I don’t know in a broader sense if it did, in terms of changing the world. But it changed my world.”

As the ways we consume entertainment change, different music scenes are still rapidly evolving. And much of it has subsided back into the underground, away from media scrutiny and co-opting by big business. “Club culture definitely exists, especially with things like grime or drill, which are less obviously noticed in the overground press. Drum and Bass is massive as well.” I wonder if those epoch or life defining events even still happen, but Norris tells me he’s enjoyed ‘Acid House’ experiences in places other than a sweaty nightclub or grimy warehouse.

Together with Chris Tomsett, he started the Lewes Psychedelic Festival in 2009. “The third one we did was in this place called Zoo Studios in the Phoenix Quarter, and we had tons of things going on. It felt more like a rave than anything else I’ve been to in years.” He says it’s difficult to sustain something like this as a full-time business, but you can still create a micro-scene with a hired church hall and 50 mates. “All counterculture starts like that. Shoom really was a hundred people. Walking around London, if you spotted a Shoom T-shirt on someone in early ‘88 it was like finding a rare bird. It was very small, but it can only take that amount of people to set something off.”

More recently, he established the East Sussex Psychedelic Film Club with John Higgs and Andy Starke. Bringing the weird and wonderful to the town’s Westgate Chapel, it’s become a place to present some of cinema’s most artistically interesting works. “We sell out within hours because it’s something new and different. There’s a lot of attention to detail. There’s a fanzine for every screening, and we give things away.” Recent events have included a Q+A session with Ben Wheatley to support his historical horror, A Field In England, alongside some more abstract happenings. 

“We showed a film called The Flicker the other week, which is basically half an hour of static and strobing. And that’s it. I did think: ‘Are we going to get away with this?’ But there was a round of applause at the end. So now we can get away with anything!” They’ve just shown something Norris intriguingly describes as ‘the only Japanese haunted house psychedelic film you’ll ever need to see’. He’s recently purchased the soundtrack album, and enthusiastically shows me the sleeve.  “Look at that! The cover is totally round the bend. It’s an amazing film, but not something you can easily find. To put these things up on the big screen is such a joy, because people do love it.”

In truth, it seems Norris has always been a fan of DIY culture, from sating a local thirst for experimental cinema right back to being 14-years-old and pressing up his own 7” singles to sell in Rough Trade’s shop. “Since that day, I’ve been doing that. It’s a mentality. A mixture between punk and art school. It’s going against the grain a little bit. If someone’s doing a thing over there, we’ll do our own thing over here to create something new.”

Lewes, for all it’s pretence to respectability, has long been home to the mystic, radical and gently subversive, much like the more celebrated Hebden Bridge or Glastonbury. “It does have that same thing. I went to college in Liverpool, and one of my flatmates lived in Lewes. So, I used to come down and visit. She had these weird mates. We’d sit in the Gardeners Arms, and they’d be into Viking reenactments and all this mad stuff. I was always like; ‘They’re all mad. What’s it about?’ I’ve always found it intriguing.” Later, he’d found himself heading to the county town after festivals, parking up in his orange VW campervan outside The Snowdrop. “After a while, we thought: ‘Why don’t we just live here?’ So, we became one of the much-maligned ‘down from London’ people. I tell people my family is from here. Because it’s where my daughter was born,” he says with a wry chuckle. Aside from periods back in the capital, he’s lived here for 20 years now. He tells me the relative peace and quiet has given him the space for more creativity.

Despite the complex task of writing a book, and the lure of walking his dog up on the Downs, Norris has still been composing and releasing. Since lockdown, he’s been working on his Music For Healing ambient series, prodigiously releasing at least a soundscape every month for quite a while. “That’s been an amazing experience. Lots of people have written in to say it had helped them with anxiety, grief and bereavement. People have even given birth to it. I don’t know as yet why this kind of music seems to relax people, but anecdotally, there’s hundreds of people writing in.” He says he’s extremely lucky to have his own studio, so can make music every day. He’ll get up and be in there from 8am until lunchtime. “You can get quite a lot done. It becomes about the practice, rather than the result.”

This year potentially brings with it a new record deal for The Grid. They’re also booked to play their first live shows in decades. It seems Norris is at a good creative point. Writing the book has triggered a small reassessment for him, adding new context to the things he’s seen, the work he’s done and the colourful characters upon that journey. “It’s very subtle… the things that you learn. And I’m still learning. And I’m learning a lot from people’s reactions to it. They’re seeing certain patterns that I hadn’t noticed. I feel like I’ve got all those anecdotes out now. As we move towards our first gig in 20 years, I’ve got a clean slate to make more anecdotes.”

Richard Norris’s Strange Things Are Happening is available now, from your finest local booksellers.

www.richardnorrismusic.com 

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