T-Coy \ Biography
A trio comprising Mike Pickering, Simon Topping and Richie Close, the origins of underground House music project T-Coy can be said to date back as far as 1985. Then still two-thirds of eclectic Factory dance outfit Quando Quango, Pickering and Topping issued breezy instrumental Genius as their fourth single. Featuring skittering piano from Andy Connell of A Certain Ratio and Swing Out Sister, and a bouncy rhythm track inspired by the Cramps, aptly-titled Genius rivals Love Tempo as the best known QQ track, and still sounds as fresh as the proverbial daisy three decades on.
Yet while Genius sparkled, Quando Quango was beginning to lose its lustre after three years of uphill struggle. Issued in November, debut album Pigs + Battleships shifted relatively few units, and tensions within the group reached breaking point. 'We were going nowhere with Quando Quango,' admits Pickering today. 'My relationship with Gonnie was getting more and more awkward. We'd been married, and it just got harder and harder. Massive fights in dressing rooms, that kind of thing. Going up and down the M6 and M1 in Transit vans and playing at a student union, half full. Then the DJ thing started to take off for me, and I thought - you know what, I'm just going to be a DJ for a while.'
A poppy but prophetic final single, Bad Blood, went unreleased, and by the end of 1986 Quando Quango were no more. Pickering focused on his deejay career at The Haçienda, notably Nude Night from 1984 onwards, which featured early Chicago House music after 1986, at which Topping also contributed occasional half hour sets, playing mainly salsa and merengue. After leaving Ratio in 1983 Topping had studied Latin percussion at Johnny Colon's East Harlem Music School in New York, then issued a Latin-esque solo EP titled Prospect Park on Factory Benelux. 'We were quite maverick about everything we did,' recalls Pickering. 'Me and Simon thought, let's just make dance tracks. It's fantastic - you live and die by the track you've made, you're anonymous, you're only as good as your last record. And it seemed to us like a very exciting way to do things.'
Besides playing with Quando Quango and 52nd Street, Simon Topping also guested with Manchester collective Inner Sense Percussion, as well as latin jazz group Apitos. The latter outfit also boasted crack keys player and arranger Richie Close, whose varied session career included countless mainstream pop and rock records, as well as adverts and television soundtracks - Danger Mouse included. With the addition of multi-talented Close the new Topping/Pickering project became T-Coy, an acronym of 'take care of yourself'. The first fruit of this collaboration was Cariño (Spanish for 'darling'), a loose-limbed Latinate shuffle recorded on primitive 8-track in a basement studio in Didsbury. 'It was sort of a blend of Tito Puente and Adonis,' explains Topping. 'Just like we'd tried to fuse different styles in A Certain Ratio, then Quando Quango. As did New Order, with rock and electro.'
'I was always impressed by the New York deejays because they would mix hip-hop and Chicago sounds with Fad Gadget and Quando Quango,' added Pickering, a former chef with a talent for mixing ingredients. 'Cariño was originally just a 10 minute cassette. We didn't have a master tape or anything to put it onto, we actually recorded it onto cassette. We gave it to Stu Allan, who had this Sunday night programme on Piccadilly Radio. He had a top ten and he made it number 1 straight away. He was a fantastic supporter, he'd play the cassette for the whole 10 minutes. We pressed the first white labels off the cassette as well. Meanwhile Pete Hadfield and Keith Blackhurst had managed me for Quando and stuff, and set up Deconstruction Records through RCA. So we went with them rather than Factory. Tony Wilson didn't want to release dance records, and Rob Gretton had already resigned as a director.'
Released in re-recorded form by Deconstruction in June, Cariño made waves nationwide as a specialist club hit, and won over the critics. 'This is right up my street,' enthused Lucy O'Brien in NME, at the same time praising new singles by 52nd Street and Kalima. 'Like blues backbeaters Yargo, T-Coy delve into undiluted dance rhythm. Introduced as "two Manchester luminaries", this duo combine not only Latino bop with a Blue Monday-style synth attack, but also strata of go-go and funk. Cariño is an example of Northern jazz dance unfettered and unaffected by the London-centric superficialities of Soho pizzaz, a pulse of jazz filtered into the 1980s, and a breath of fresh air.'
Simon Reynolds of Melody Maker was also mightily impressed. 'Figured this as par-for-the-course House until the final mental minutes. Wave after wave of Latinate percussion rises up from the depths of the mix, warping the flesh, making you sprout new limbs to dance in unprecedented ways, scooping out the mind like an avocado. No human beings appear on this record.'
Topping begged to differ, informing Manchester fanzine Scam that summer: 'Cariño is House, but there's more to it than just pushing a button. T-Coy has real drums, real percussion and real piano. House is like the new punk. The soul rejects it as being technically unsatisfactory - it's got no soul, it's machines. And the rock world rejects it because they don't go for dance. Anyway, House music isn't for easy listening at home. It's dance music. T-Coy is for having a good time and against being dreary, drippy and boring. You can't dance to guitar bands all night. You can only stomp in circles for so long.'
Cariño should have been a chart hit, but was too far ahead of mainstream trends, and entirely instrumental. 'We deliberately kept our identities low-profile,' admits Topping, 'because we wanted the music to stand on its own. Hence the 'two Manchester luminaries' line. Performing Cariño on The Other Side of Midnight, the Tony Wilson TV show, was about as upfront as we got.' Tellingly, Pump Up the Volume by M/A/R/R/S, which topped the charts in September, featured a catchy sampled vocal hook. As if in response, T-Coy released second single I Like To Listen in November, a more synthetic-sounding dance track than Cariño, and arguably eclipsed by flipsides Catalonia and Da Me Mas ('give me more'), both enlivened by Close's unique piano figures.
'We have to watch out that we don't ape America like rappers here have done,' Pickering told NME in December. 'But then I think House is more of a crossover culture. Chicago has always looked to Europe, and House is less tied to black American slang. The crucial thing is to have your own style and sound. The real copyists are people who put out House mixes, like Supertramp.'
For Pickering (if not for Topping), a key aspect of T-Coy's own style and sound was their Northern origins. 'Manchester does have a big history of dance music,' he told Scam, 'being the centre of Northern soul.' Deejaying at London's Astoria club in 1987, Pickering brought down a selection of early House floor-fillers from Fac 51, only to find himself heckled for playing 'Chicago homo music. That was it - me back was right up in true Mancunian fashion. It was like, "Right, you wankers." I did the whole set.' Two years later the experience still rankled. 'The London deejays missed the boat. They deserve to give us respect as a penance for being two years too late.'
North-south rivalries troubled Topping rather less. 'We could be from anywhere. People who read in a connection are over-complicating the issue. People must have big chips on their shoulders if they think origin matters.' Be that as it may, Pickering's marketing acuity prevailed, and in February 1988 T-Coy headlined a series of live dates billed as the Northern House Review. The short tour, which visited Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Manchester, featured DJ sets by Pickering and Graeme Park, as well as short sets by three other dance acts from the North of England: Hotline, Groove and T-Cut-F. Reviewing the date at The Haçienda on 26 February, NME stringer Phil DC praised T-Coy in particular. 'A timely antidote, this. While it's generally the London boys and girls in the proximity of instant media access who've been broaching the charts, it's the North that's had house injected straight into the vein. T-Coy may have acted out their name, shadowy figures backstage fronted by a keyboard, but God, they were good and they were live. Cariño is already a dancefloor classic and I Like to Listen follows as surely as back follows front. The sucker-punch of culture, the wildcat piano of jack, the shifty shuffle of samba rhythm. Manchester strikes again.'
Matthew Collin, author of dance culture bible Altered State, reported on the same Haçienda date for Record Mirror: 'If T-Coy aren't in the charts like Krush or the Beatmasters, it's because they're too original. Their brand of Latin-flavoured house hypnosis can stand alongside anything from Chicago without looking silly. They also play live - something unknown in house's world of mimed PA's.'
Co-stars Groove were a vehicle for Graeme Park, who quit the Garage in Nottingham to join Pickering as a Haçienda deejay, and like him identified a cultural north-south divide. 'Up here it's true to say that people are, on the whole, less dictated to by fashion, and that's probably the main reason why it took off here long before it did in the South. I've had packed dancefloors with electric atmospheres for ages and I've been playing very similar material.'
Set apart by a gritty sense of integrity, however, the Northern House Review would fulfil its titular destiny by remaining a provincial concern. Despite a wealth of accumulated experience in Ratio, Quando and Apitos, all three members of T-Coy displayed a marked reluctance to take position centre stage, either live or during promotional chores, preferring instead to remain in the shadows and let the music speak for itself. Consequently, artists and deejays such as M/A/R/R/S, Mark Moore, Coldcut and even former Housemartins bassist Norman Cook came to enjoy a higher media profile. A 12" remix of I Like to Listen, issued by Deconstruction to coincide with the tour, did not chart, and T-Coy now found themselves eclipsed by photogenic London-based acts such as Renegade Soundwave, whose savvy sides on Rhythm King referenced the Kray Twins and Cocaine Sex.
Undeterred, Pickering spent much of 1988 putting together a bespoke compilation album for release through Deconstruction, titled North - The Sound of the Dance Underground. Made for just £18,000, using Close's demo studio in Heaton Moor, all but two of the eight tracks featured were produced by T-Coy or Pickering, with Frequency 9 and Megatrip being T-Coy tracks in all but name. Much the same was true of Dream 17, a poppy vocal track co-created with Gerald Simpson (aka A Guy Called Gerald), and sung by Annette Dos Reis, the mother of Topping's then-girlfriend. T-Coy proper contributed I Ain't Nightclubbing and an edited version of Cariño, though not Night Train, a soul-informed track issued as the third T-Coy single issued in August. Indeed but for the inclusion of ED209 (featuring Ratio members Martin Moscrop and Donald Johnston) and the deathless Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, North could have been billed as a T-Coy album, albeit with an Acid rather than a Latin twist.
Somewhat delayed, North finally emerged on CD and double vinyl in December 1988, housed in a suitably garish sleeve by Central Station Design. 'We had the mother of all launches at The Haçienda,' recalls Pickering. 'It was amazing. We had these huge drapes that Central Station painted. It was one of the great moments of Acid House at Fac 51, and the album did quite well -although I've never received a penny from it, because we all did it under pseudonyms.'
A perceptive review by writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie, then a humble NME scribe, is worth quoting in full. 'Manchester is currently claiming to have invented Acid House, but this might be true. Certainly, the dance floors of the North have been throbbing these last three years to the synthetic pulse of House and its various mutant offshoots. North represents a full-colour brochure, offering you the delights of Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield's verdant and luscious underground.'
'Many of the tracks here have long been coterie classics. Voodoo Ray for instance, has been one of the records you couldn't get away from all year. And it still sounds great, an eerie, hallucinogenic, effortlessly physical record. T-Coy's Cariño equally deserves its cult status. But some of the best offerings here are the lesser-known surprises. Annette's Dream 17 is smooth, moving two steps back into earlier House modes. Megatrip's electronic euphoria, a fog of bleeping phosphorescence hung around the technik-funk of Kraftwerk's We Are the Robots. In the same vein the album's closer, Frequency 9's Get On One revels in its own studied, tongue-in-cheek intensity.'
'Essentially, of course, you can't write about Acid (or for that matter any other) House. You can discuss it as a sociological phenomenon, as our august tabloids have done, but dance music defies description. It is there to be consumed, not analysed. Ever tried to write an essay about a party? Acid is not, contrary to intellectuals, this decade's punk rock. It is this year's Northern Soul. Basically an apolitical and hedonistic joyride; by spring, it will be cold in its Northern grave. And by then these dour chaps and chapesses will have invented something else.'
Maconie's prediction proved all too accurate. By the beginning of 1989 Pickering had begun recording with Graeme Park as Dynasty of Two, whose eco single Stop This Thing featured vocals from Rowetta Idah, formerly of Vanilla Sound Corps, and later Happy Mondays. Although 'green House' failed to excite the public, that autumn Ride On Time by Black Box (signed to Deconstruction by Pickering), spent six weeks at the top of the UK singles chart. As a result the sound of the dance underground, and therefore T-Coy, became less of a priority both for Pickering and Deconstruction.
'Dance music saved my life,' vouched Pickering at the time. 'If Quando Quango were releasing records now we'd be really popular in Britain, whereas before we were only popular in America. They just used to take the piss out of us in England. When I went to Ibiza in the summer they were playing loads of tracks from the Quando Quango album and all the English guys were going, "Yeah, really good." All I could think was - why didn't you think it was good years ago? Why did you laugh?'
Instead June 1991 was marked by tears, when Richie Close died of Legionnaire's Disease, contracted during a trip to Spain. T-Coy having petered out, during 1990 Pickering began putting together M People, a commercial pop dance collective somewhat modelled on Soul II Soul. Debut single Colour My Life appeared in May 1991, sung by Heather Small (ex-Hot House), and was followed by the album Northern Soul at the end of the year. Both Topping and Close contributed to early M People gigs and records, and Close can be heard on both Colour My Life and How Can I Love You More, the breakthrough single which crashed into the charts in 1993. By then, however, Topping was long gone.
Two decades later, Cariño is one of a select few tracks of which the former Ratio frontman remains most proud. 'The idiom and instrumentation give some indication of its vintage,' Topping reflects today. 'But Cariño's certainly still stands up, and could be a current club tune - if not a future classic.'
The future's already here.
T-Coy photography by Kevin Cummins, by kind permission