Hacienda Classical at Brighton Racecourse: ‘It smacks you between the eyes from the opening bar’

Hacienda Classical with Graeme Park, left, and Mike Pickering. Photo by Jack Kirwin
Hacienda Classical with Graeme Park, left, and Mike Pickering. Photo by Jack Kirwin
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Given their shared nocturnal history, it should be no surprise that the idea for the Hacienda Classical shows first struck Graeme Park and Mike Pickering in the early hours of the morning.

The show, which combined a full orchestra with the tunes from house music’s heyday, debuted last summer to instant acclaim and became the subject of an hour-long documentary broadcast on Channel 4. But the fans wanted more, so Mike and Graeme returned with an all-new show.

The pair DJed in the legendary Manchester nightclub during the house music boom of the 1980s. While Pickering went on to mainstream success with M-People, Graeme remained behind the decks. Pickering was tempted to return to DJing with him on Hacienda revival club nights about a decade ago.

Graeme explains the show’s genesis: ‘The Hacienda closed as a venue in 1997 but it lives on as a brand because of its heritage and legacy. ‘Because of our heritage we found that Hacienda club nights were attracting a new audience and a younger audience who wanted to hear people like me and Mike Pickering DJ. When you’re a DJ you play to the crowd in front of you, so when you’re playing to a younger crowd you start to play more contemporary stuff.

‘But then we found that the original Hacienda clubbers, who are now all well into their 40s, they don’t come out so much because life gets in the way, but when they do they start whinging: “We don’t know these songs, play some proper classics”.

‘We realised if it wasn’t for these people, we wouldn’t be where we are now, so what can we do to keep them happy?

‘Lots of ideas were thrown around and a lot of them were pretty rubbish, to be honest. I think it was about five in the morning in a hotel bar somewhere, the lift door opened and these two people stepped out – one carrying a violin case, one carrying a cello case – one of us said: “That’s what we should do, a classical concert! Haha! That would be funny,” but then we thought it was a great idea. It has been done before - we’re not the first people to mix electronic music with a full orchestra, but we are the first people to take it on tour.

‘Last year’s show was great, but I realised about the fourth or fifth show, I remember thinking this is really good, but we should have done this or that differently.’

With more shows on the cards, they went back to the drawing board: ‘Last year’s show built up slowly, this one smacks you right between the eyes from the opening bar.

‘Last year’s show was pretty obvious tunes all of the way through, this years is two-thirds obvious, but three or four we’ve taken and completely rearranged them so you won’t know what they are until the vocals start. Then about a third of the show is tunes that I can guarantee were only ever played at the Hacienda but they fit in beautifully into the whole picture.

What started off as this crazy drunken idea that was going to be a one-off, we’re now into the second year

Graeme Park

‘When you see people who recognise those songs instantly – you know they were there back in the day.

‘What started off as this crazy drunken idea that was going to be a one-off, we’re now into the second year.

‘When we get to the end of this year, it’s something like 25 shows we’ve done and we’re already getting more for next year.

‘We’ve made a bit more difficult for ourself by picking some more obscure stuff. There’s a certain choreography - not dancing obviously, because they’re sitting down, but it’s more of a performance.’

Working with an orchestra has made it more difficult to keep the element of spontaneity that any good DJ thrives on, but in working closely with Manchester Camerata, Graeme came up with a compromise.

‘To keep that DJ spontaneity, I had to tell the orchestra, which they didn’t like, that I don’t know what I’m going to do until I do it. They said: “What? That flies against everything we stand for!”

‘I’ve been a DJ for 35 years and when I go into a club I have a rough idea of what I want to play and what I’d like to do. But sometimes you realise that’s not going to work, or you’ll be having a great gig, and someone asks if you’ve got this tune? So you play it and that can take you in a totally different direction.’

He and Mike keep certain aspects of the music under their control, like the a capella vocal tracks, sound effects, bass lines and so on.

‘It’s all about the audience and that’s what keeps that ethos and spirit alive.’

‘This year I’ve also got a couple of keyboards, so instead of having a loop on a backing track, I’ll play it live.

‘You try something and it either works beautifully, so you can do it again, or it doesn’t and you move on.’

They also have a fine array of vocalists joining them live – the AMC Gospel Choir, The Happy Mondays’ Rowetta and Yvonne Shelton.

‘Yvonne does an amazing job of singing Black Box’s Ride on Time,’ says Graeme, ‘she sings it live, but if you remember that’s all sampled. She’s managed to learn how to sing it. And the live vocalists have freedom to ad lib a little bit as well.

‘You’ve got these worlds colliding – classical music where everything’s on paper in front of you and the world of electronic music, where you’ve got the freedom to fiddle and mess about.

‘We were a bit worried about that at first, but it works beautifully.’

While Graeme hints that Hacienda Classical could be back for a third year – he says the demand is there, he drops a bit of an exclusive. He and Mike Pickering been working on a remix of a new Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds track.

‘Like me, Mike doesn’t want to be stuck in that rut of playing the same old classics, so we’re staying relevant and getting a whole new audience.

‘We’ve just been back in the studio and remixed Noel Gallagher’s next single which I think is going to go down really well with people who know what we’ve done in the past, and a new audience too.’

‘I won’t say what the track is but it will be appearing soon.’

Brighton Racecourse

Saturday, September 9