The dictionary describes a Polymath as “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.” In the Tootal Dictionary it adds “see Eddie Piller”. His résumé includes M.D. and founder of the permanently hip Acid Jazz record label, DJ, broadcaster, writer, club owner, and now organiser of the Modcast events. We caught up with Eddie over a half of stout to learn more about his remarkable career.
How are you, Eddie?
I’ve been very busy the last few weeks. I’ve done two Italian trips; I was DJ-ing with Madness at the weekend, which was really good fun. In Milan, three and a half thousand people, and the band were still just as good. I haven’t seen them since June 1979. I might have seen them once in between but I stopped going to see them because if you weren’t a Skinhead and you went to see Madness, especially if you were a Mod, they would beat you up. So I stopped going.
I know Suggs quite well and he always joked about me being the only Mod at Madness gigs. I saw them four weeks in a row when they had a residency at the Dublin Castle; they took over from The Fixations. Then literally, three months later… that was it. It was worse at The Specials but, you know, Skinheads were everywhere in ’79, and they were awful. Brick Lane was the big National Front hangout around here. You used to see them every Sunday. I hated them… I was arrested nine times for fighting Skinheads. Nine times. And never convicted once. When the chief witness for the prosecution has a swastika tattooed between his eyebrows, the magistrate tends to say, “You’re not guilty”. Whereas the fact that I probably was guilty… anyway, there you go.
In the Eighties you ran Countdown Records. Was that your first record label?
That was my fourth label. I set up my first label in Woodford when I was 18. I released two singles, and one compilation album called The Beat Generation. Then things happened very fast. At the time I had a fanzine I was running with Terry Rawlings, called Extraordinary Sensations. This band from America sent us a demo tape; it was brilliant. I was running a bedroom label and this band was fantastic; I knew we wouldn’t be able to do it justice. So Terry said’ “Let’s take it to Stiff”, and they said, “Actually, this band’s really good”, and they gave us our own label. The band were called The Untouchables, and we had three chart hits with them and a very successful album; I’m even in the video for ‘I Spy For The FBI”. That was a remarkably successful period but then the Mod scene was finished, virtually overnight. By ’84, ’85 it was really on the decline, Countdown got on the end of it in ’86 but I’d already stepped off into the Jazz world.
How long after that did you start Acid Jazz Records?
I started Acid Jazz in ’86, with Gilles Peterson. Stiff Records went bankrupt and consequently took Countdown with them; The Prisoners had just released a fabulous album, In From The Cold, and when Stiff went we lost everything. So, I didn’t have anything to do. I had this idea to get an instrumental Mod band together, like Booker T & The MGs. I persuaded James Taylor to record a couple of demos but he wasn’t really interested, he moved to Sweden and left me with the tape of four tracks. I sent them to John Peel, and John went mad for it. ‘Blow Up’, JTQ; that scene really started to grow. We kind of remade the Mod revival without telling Mods. It was very cool, very fashionable, and gradually what was left of the Mod scene, kind of integrated with Gilles Peterson and Paul Murphy’s Jazz scene, to create this Acid Jazz thing in about ’86.
What was the ambition when you put out those first Galliano and Brand New Heavies releases?
It was a laugh, a joke. We just wanted to put out records by our mates; we thought we’d only release two or three records… Galliano, A Man Called Adam, The Last Poets. And then after ten records, including The Style Council under a different name, Gilles left and went to set up Talkin’ Loud, which was brilliant because it allowed me to do exactly what I wanted to do. As soon as he left I thought, I’d better find some product, so that’s what led me to sign Terry Callier. Gilles and I never agreed on music. Ever. He was very progressive, and I was very populist. I wanted to make Soul Pop records, and he wanted to make Esoteric Jazz records. He didn’t want to sign the Heavies, and he’d gone by the time I signed Jamiroquai. That was everything he didn’t want to do. I was much more of a Soul Boy; he was a Jazzer.
What do you listen out for when someone presents new music to the label?
Until last year I stopped paying any attention to Acid Jazz for about ten years, because I got ill with cancer, and nearly quit. And then Dean Rudland said, “Why don’t you get back into making music again?” So, that was a year ago, so since then I’ve actually started making records again.
I found this beautiful girl singer, who is the best thing I’ve discovered since Jamiroquai, and I don’t care if she has success; I’m sure she would like to. I just want to make great records, and that’s what I’ve always done. Some people like ‘em, other people don’t. I don’t really give a fuck.
Are there any key moments, releases, highlights or lowlights that you can pick out?
Jamiroquai selling forty million records, I mean… what?! He was sleeping on sofas; every major record company in the country turned him down. I was taking him round saying, “Please sign this kid, he’s fucking brilliant”. And everyone was going. “He’s an idiot. Look how he dresses. He can’t dance, he can’t write songs”. So I said, “Alright, I’ll do it myself”. And look what happened; Forty. Million. Records. The biggest selling British artist of the Nineties. So that’s a highlight… signing Terry Callier, Brand New Heavies, three-minute records, just making great Soul music.
And the lowlights?
Losing my club, The Blue Note in Hoxton Square, that was a disaster. Hackney Council took the license away. I lost a million and a half pounds, and it ruined my life.
There’s a Polish Acid Jazz compilation that includes the credit ‘Mother Earth featuring Eddie Piller’. What was that all about?
I used to play alto saxophone, keyboards and percussion. But with Mother Earth, I was present with all their recordings, and I would often play percussion, or something. I don’t know what particular track that was but I just know that album, The People Tree, is the best record I ever made. It’s a brilliant record. Even now it stands up.
Can you recall the first record you bought?
“Young Girl Get Out Of My Life” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, from Broadway Records in Woodford – I think it was called Broadway Records. Very soon, by the age of 13 or 14, I got into Punk Rock. I spent a lot of time buying Punk Rock records. From either Downtown Records in Ilford, or Small Wonder Records in Walthamstow.
Did music feature large in your house as a child?
No. Funnily enough, I only found out my mother did the Small Faces Fan Club in 1978, when my Dad bought her the Small Faces. Big Hits compilation, and he went, “Ooh, your Mum used to do the fan club for that”, and I went, “What!?” That was before I was a Mod, and people say, “Oh, you must have grown up in a Mod household”. In the Sixties, people got to 21, and they had a real life. Whereas with us, we’ve carried on being children, and being Mods, but my Dad was a Mod until the age of 20 then he ran a business. My mother was a housewife from the age of 19 but a housewife with a little job of running the Small Faces Fan Club. But I didn’t know any of that ‘til I was 14, 15 years old.
And did you quiz her at that point?
Not really. I can remember the big conversation, when I turned Mod in late ’78, early ’79, and my Dad was driving me to school when I put a cassette on, in the Granada he had. He said, “What’s this sh…”, well, he didn’t say “shit” because he didn’t swear, but he said, “What’s this rubbish?” And I said, “I’m a Mod, Dad, this is Mod”. He laughed and went, “That ain’t Mod.” I was playing The Kinks, The Jam, the Small Faces, The Who, and he said, “That’s not Mod; Tubby Hayes is Mod, Harold McNair’s Mod, Miles Davis…”. And I said, “Shut up, Grandad, what d’you know?’ And, of course he was absolutely right, but I didn’t realise he was right until at least four or five years later.
Was Punk the moment when the record collecting bug first bit you?
I remember exactly what happened. I was ill; I had chickenpox when I was 14. I missed out on being the lead role in the school Shakespeare play because I had chickenpox. My mother’s friend worked at EMI, she sent round a box of records and it was Queen, Rolling Stones, Elton John, The Yachts for some reason, and then right at the bottom of the box was this 45 on Harvest by The Saints, called “I’m Stranded”. So, I’d gone through all these records, and I thought, “That’s good. That’s good”. Then I heard this record, and I thought, “All that stuff can go in the bin, ‘cause this is what it’s all about”. And it was; The Saints changed my life. Within four years I’d saved up enough to follow them around on tour in Australia, at the age of 18.
I went to Australia many times because there was such a great Mod scene there but I went first to see The Saints. But I met all the Sydney Mods; they had a great Mod scene. It was like our scene but they lived it better. Maybe it’s the weather, I don’t know.
In 2009 you launched your Rare Mod series of records. How deep do you have to dig, and how hard is it to maintain quality?
I think that’s finished now because we have literally run out decent quality. The team was Richard Searle from Corduroy, who works at Acid Jazz, with Damian Jones, a record dealer, and ‘Smiler’ Anderson, the author. They were the three curators, and basically the angle was knock on the door of someone who might have been in a band in the Sixties, track ‘em down. “Have you got any acetates in the attic? Oh, yes we have”. That was it. “Would you like some money? Can we release it on Acid Jazz?” So, I think we did about twelve EPs, two box sets, six albums plus six compilation albums, but by the end of it we’d run out. The best selling one was the Steve Marriott Moments EP, we sold about Ten Thousand copies of that. It featured the U.S. only version of “You Really Got Me”, with their own Blues track called “Money”, then some unreleased stuff as well. But we had the previously unreleased David Bowie thing, with The Riot Squad, we had some unreleased John’s Children with Marc Bolan – it was a really good series.
Your DJ career pre-dates all of this though. How did you get into that?
Ilford from 1980, probably to ’84; it was a working men’s club. It might have been called Bentley’s; it wasn’t on the High Road but parallel with the High Road and further back. We started there on a Monday night, we’d have 50, 60 people. Ray Patriotic and Tony Matthews were my two partners and we said let’s move it to the Regency Suite, which was a proper, purpose built club. The guy there was very dismissive, gave us Monday’s but we were having 350 people on a Monday, so he gave us Friday’s too. We could have Friday’s on condition we kept Monday’s. We were selling it out; we sold out for two or three years. And then Chris Sullivan, from The Wag Club, said, “Mate, you’ve got a good thing going, come and DJ at The Wag”. So that was my real introduction, not just playing records to my mates, Mods in Essex. Playing in the West End at The Wag Club was a very special thing.
Do you remember the first time you were allowed to buy your own clothes?
I remember it very well. I used to work at the Mr Byrite shop in Ilford. After that I worked at their warehouse in Walthamstow, Blackhorse Road. And they sold tonic suits. Cheap. Everyone goes, “Mr Byrite were rubbish”. Mate, they were great gear, better than Mintz & Davis. Everyone goes, “Oh, Mintz & Davis in Romford, that’s where I got my Sta-Prest.” Rubbish! Mr. Byrite was the place to be, and it was cheap; and I got paid and I got a staff discount. And I’ve still got my staff badge in my bedside drawer.
Which brings us to your Tootal addiction. Tell us more.
I have a massive collection; I think I’ve got at least 70, possibly more. For some reason I haven’t been wearing them as much for the last couple of years; I’m only wearing a scarf today because I went on my scooter, and it was a bit chilly but I wore silk scarves everyday, probably for ten years. I have a Thirties brushed silk paisley, which is my favourite. Some are Viyella, or those non-silk fabrics from the early Sixties; some of those patterns, they’re incredible.
I think it’s a tragedy what’s happened to British industry and British fashion. I think it has never recovered from the big break up of ICI, and the closing down of the mills. I know there’s a big move to re-manufacture in Manchester but I do genuinely believe a lot of the skills have been lost to this country. I’m very keen on British manufacturing; there’s not enough of it.
And now you have The Modcast. Essentially you are a self-made Mod Media Mogul.
Not really. I have to thank Sarah Bolshi for the success of Modcast, she pushed me into doing it. Our podcast has been extraordinarily successful but I think we’ve done about 50, and they may have arrived at their natural end. There are people that I’d still to do; I’d do Weller, though he’s a bit shy, funnily enough. I’d do Townshend, who won’t. I’d do Daltrey, who won’t; I’ve asked him twice. I tried to get Roger to talk about Pete Meaden for about five years, and eventually I met him backstage at Paul Weller’s 50th Birthday, and I said, “Right, you can’t get away now”, and he just laughed in my face. These people don’t have to talk to people like me, they’ve already told their story – you can read it anywhere, you can see it on the documentaries. I’d be interested to read Roger’s autobiography though, he wasn’t a fan of Meaden; his only fan was Townshend.
But whilst the podcasts might have reached their natural end, the parties have gone off the scale. We sell out the Modcast Boat Party four or five months in advance; we do three a year. We do a couple of weekenders, in Brighton, Margate or Southend; we always try and do a different place. I cannot believe this thing has become like a family, where the same people come… well, if it’s not the same people it’s the same type of people. You’ll see everybody once a year at least; it’s a fantastic experience and we love it.
For details of forthcoming Modcast events, and to catch up with previous podcasts visit www.themodcast.co.uk
You can find all Acid Jazz releases – including the last few copies of their Rare Mod releases – at www.acidjazz.co.uk
Eddie Piller’s Eclectic Soul Show is on Soho Radio every Thursday at 4.00pm http://www.sohoradiolondon.com/presenters/eddie-piller/
Need more Acid Jazz artists in your life? Check out our recent Q&A with the excellent New Street Adventure here https://goo.gl/SuC37a