John Rocca started making music in the late 1970s. He`s probably best known as the leader of North London Jazz Funk outfit, Freeez, and for his later solo career. But under a variety of aliases he produced tracks that mapped the city`s changing dance floor moves. From Electro to House to Rave. Finally leaving the industry in the mid-1990s, to pursue his fascination with technology elsewhere.
I`ve written before about how John`s music soundtracked my own life in London. From ice-rink discos to breakdancing to Acid abandon. And its reprisals. I`m extremely grateful that he found the time to answer, at length, my questions about those records. Their background and creation.
Where are you based?
I live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Where is your hometown?
What prompted Freeez to form? How did you all meet?
I met Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick in the record shop where I worked on Petty Coat Lane near Liverpool Street Station in London. At that time I’d never played in a band before. Not in the traditional sense. I’d learnt percussion from a Ghanaian guy called Shaft I met, and so had played a tiny bit of traditional African music. As well as having to earn my percussion equipment by playing for my Mum and Dad who did Flamenco cabaret shows in restaurants. Anyway…. Some how I spoke to Bluey and somehow he mentioned he had this group of musicians he’d assembled, who he played with once a week in Dalston, East London. I must have asked something that resulted in him asking me for a demo tape..… I can’t remember how we got to the subject. Ask Bluey. But I recorded myself playing percussion on, and sung my own lyrics over a Roy Ayers track and passed him the cassette tape…. and, he invited me to join.
That overly large group of odds-and-ends musician folks that Bluey had assembled wasn’t my band. It was Bluey’s. Set up in a damp, grubby basement somewhere in East London, we’d jam away, happily, once a week while above us in an barbers shop, two old blokes carved out afro hair-dos. Down in the cold dingy dungeon, great big fat flies zoomed around us in such slow motion that Paul (Morgan) and I could bat them at each other with our drumsticks. On Thursdays we`d take a break and go up to watch Top of the Pops while the electric afro trimmers buzzed in harmony. “One day… ya’ll be on d’ere” said one of the old geezers in his thick West Indian accent. Who’d have guessed? (laughs).
It was the late seventies when Freeez was eventually conceived…. When I first had the idea to record what would become Keep in Touch. I was then working for a Soul, R&B and Jazz Funk Record importer called Disc Empire, on the Kings Road. I was collecting boxes of the latest US import records from Heathrow Airport – as soon as they had cleared customs, at around dawn – then racing into Central London trying to be the first at all the top DJ shops. So we could sell out before the other vans arrived. They were long but good days, that ended around midnight, at various London railway stations dropping off orders for DJ shops all over England. Back in the basement there was this one particular track we were playing that I really loved. It had a groove that I thought I could sell it if it was on my boss’ van. I put the idea of recording it to Bluey and a select few – of the overly large group of would be musicians – who were not at all positive, but unanimous in suggesting I was nuts and would lose all my money!
Still, not one to be easily deterred, I pulled all my savings together, borrowed some extra cash from my Nan and somehow figured out how it is you make a record….. I booked a flashy West End studio, at the cheap over night rate. For just one night. It was a mad rush to record everyone’s part when I had no experience of producing a record, never mind mixing an A and B side. and get my dad’s car back home in the morning, before he had to go to work. I was nuts. Jean-Paul on guitar, Peter Maas on bass, Paul Morgan on drums, Jason Wright on keyboards, and me on percussion – and organising / producing and who knows what – hammered away until it was light and I loved everything about it! The music, the pressure, managing people and time, the decisions and the creativity of it all. Sometime early on a sunny London morning I emerged with a tape box that said “Freeez: Keep in Touch”. I can still clearly remember that moment. Walking along in the sun, with my brother, Danny, and my girlfriend Tracey, buzzing from no sleep and having done something that had seemed such a dream turned reality. What a Bloody Awesome natural high that was and why would I care whether it was successful or not!
I`d never contemplated, nor wanted fame, just to make a record. I treated that little box like gold when I took it to be mastered, but everything else was on the cheap. Danny designed the record label, Pink Rhythm, and I bought the cheapest plain white 12″ record sleeves I could find. Then, leaning them up against the skirting boards all over my mum’s house, the two of us simply spray painted the word “FREEEZ” using a home made stencil on a thousand of them. The only upmarket touch was to get them shrink wrapped like all the US imports I was selling. The shiny clear plastic adding something special to, and slightly concealing our DIY job. I left the first copy at the Disc Empire shop, to see what happened. For a couple of days it was played to various DJs until someone borrowed it to play on radio. After that the first 1,000 copies hardly touched the back of my boss’s van before being sold. I ordered another 1,000, but before those could even be made, orders had mounted up for 3,000 so I upped the order to 5,000. Things are a bit of a blur after that (laughs). Everything moved really fast, but somehow I ended up signing the record to Pye /Calibre records and it reached #49 in the UK Gallop charts. I`ve no idea how I managed with the contract negotiations all on my own, as I had no experience of those either, but I do remember celebrating that very first contract signing at an Angus Steak House restaurant on Oxford Street, near to the plush record company office. I ordered their best steak. A lonesome nineteen year-old boy who must have looked like a tiny twelve year-old. So when I ordered another one off the menu, cooked exactly the same way with the same side order of posh French fries, the waiters got a bit jumpy and stood around blocking my exit in case I did a runner. It was hysterical.
Freeez, at certain times, included Everton McCalla from Light Of The World, and Bluey from Incognito. Was there a “scene”? If so where was its focus? Where did you going out to listen to music, to dance, at the time? Where were you buying your records?
Around that time my scene was mostly DJ shops. There was no live “scene” that I know of or at least that I went to. But I loved being in the middle of the records. Importing them, checking out the new ones on the turntables, and for those that were big, seeing the pile of discs quickly disappear one after another each time they were played in the shops packed full of eager collectors and DJs. There was definitely a “scene” in the clubs too. For me, it was the all-dayer and weekend discos like Caister.
I`d asked Bluey to stay with Freeez but he turned me down, on the basis the music was not meaningful enough for him. That was probably related to a bad experience he’d had with Light of the World. When one of the members was in an accident. You should ask him about that but there was some considerable time between the inception of Freeez and Bluey’s Incognito as far as I know. Sometimes timing is everything. Perhaps if this had all happened later on he would have said “Yes” and all would have been different (smiles). That said, you can’t easily have two bosses as Pete and I proved repeatedly with our later disagreements. Bluey certainly had his own great ideas and direction. He`s a really nice person, who I liked a lot, and yet I’ve only met him once since then as I recall. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia of all places. He was touring with Incognito a few years back and when the show ended I shouted up to him on the stage from the audience….It was funny and strange, but then lovely. He looked at me for a while, then looked totally surprised but somehow moved. That was nice. I went back stage and we chatted for a while. There was this really warm connection, still there, after all these years.
Where did you find Ingrid (Mansfield-Allman)?
I got out of my Pye / Calibre contract by accidentally doing a lacklustre follow up to Keep In Touch, which they correctly turned down. It wasn’t on purpose, but I got carried away with my first success thinking I knew what I was doing. Probably getting big-headed and thinking things needed to be bigger and more professional. Taking the wrong advice perhaps. Not sticking to my own self and vision I lost the grit and originality of Keep In Touch as well by spending significant amounts of my earnings on session musicians and losing control of the track in a studio beyond my pay grade (smiles). The track Stay was not right at all, and by the time I realised it, the knock-back from Pye was sort of good news, as the best way forward was to start afresh.
So, clear of the Pye contract, all my remaining funds from Keep In Touch were then ploughed in to the Southern Freeez album. This time I took full control. There were already loads of other UK bands emulating Freeez and I wanted to sidestep that competition and take the game up another notch. So the album was top secret. We told no-one. I had to be the first to market. Once I’d written lyrics for what would become the title track, I felt we needed a lead singer. It didn’t even cross my mind that I should sing it. I was fine directing things somewhat hidden away. Managing the band, writing and producing, playing percussion and doing backing vocals and the odd small vocal parts on tracks like Mariposa.
Maybe I was looking for a vocal sound, or the need for a female vocal was fixed somewhere in my mind in my vision for the track. I can’t remember. But I do remember after some desperate looking with no luck at all, it was Paul Morgan who found Ingrid. I think in a Camden Jazz club. Time was ticking and I was getting desperate to have someone who could do the vocals, but back in those days it seems, we couldn’t find anyone vaguely decent. Amazing how today the internet and TV shows are dripping with stunning vocalists…. I’d got to the point where I just needed someone who could sing in tune (laughs. A lot). Paul brought Ingrid round to my house for an audition, and it was her tone that I liked specifically, and thought we could work on everything else. So with time of the essence, we rehearsed the song crammed into my house, and I recorded her singing Southern Freeez probably just a day or so later. I was fussy though, and she was a young amateur. So between those two conflicting realities, the vocals, as simple as they are, took 8 full hours to lay down.
The Top Of The Pops performance of Southern Freeez is a vivid musical memory from my youth. How did it feel to be on TOTP?
We did many TOTPs. A few for Southern Freeez and some for Flying High too. And not least the later IOU and Pop Goes My Love tracks. Its not easy to see all of our performances nowadays though, because the BBC will not air those with TV presenters like Jimmy Saville…. But I do remember a particular moment at one of the live recordings, when I was looking into the camera as the red light came on – signifying it was now “On” – and so was I. I was “On”…. and….. for a moment, I thought of my face looking out of tellys all over the UK. In front of millions of people, and, all the millions of people looking back at me on their TVs… hahahaha, yeh…..funny. That was sort of a thoughtful moment. Sort of nice. Sort of spaced out. Sort of inconceivable. Jjust as well the music was mimed, so there was no chance of me forgetting whatever I was supposed to be playing or singing.
What prompted the collaboration with Arthur Baker? How did you meet? When did you first hear of Arthur Baker?
A couple of years later, and Freeez had split, and re-formed, partly due to the usual musical tug of war in-fighting between Peter and myself, at least partly. And so, probably to avoid more arguments we pulled together a list of producers we’d like to work with. Instead of me producing as I did for our previous stuff.
Four flights to New York City…. Two rooms booked at a seedy hotel on West 44th Street. Zero plans except for some names on a scrap of paper, and, four naïve little London boys arrived, dwarfed by shadows of the then skyscraper and concrete jungle capital of the world…. The paper list – in alphabetical order – had Arthur Baker as the first of many producers we would try our luck with. We walked straight into his tiny and cluttered office without an appointment. But, as surprised as Arthur was, we were even more surprised, because he knew who we were….. He even had a copy of the Southern Freeez album…. Blimey. He accepted us straight away so we threw the list away. I can’t remember who else was on there.
Everton Mcalla had joined at this point. Introduced via Peter, just before we headed to New York. I don’t recall why Pete pressed for the change, other than Everton being more of a straight 4/4 Disco beat drummer and Paul Morgan being more of a Trad Jazz guy. That was a shame and I should have stood up more for Paul…. mmmm. Anyway, although it wasn’t a necessary change, I spent some great times with Everton in New York. We had a lot of laughs. All four of us in that cheap and seedy hotel. With the mice and cockroaches. Pete and Andy (Stennett; Keyboards) shared one room. Everton and I stayed in another. He was really nice but he was homesick, and in particular I think missing his girlfriend. So after contributing to a few songs he left. Some time before the IOU album was complete.
Were you hanging out in New York? Where did you go? How did it compare to London at the time?
I loved New York!!!! The dirt, grime, sounds, smells and sights. Take a listen to the intro of the track English Man In New York for a flavour. I recorded that on a street corner in Times Square, as con artists ripped off tourists in a three card “Find The Queen” gambling rouse. New York 1982. Where the streets and subway trains were covered in spray painted Hip Hop graffiti, and our free evening entertainment was something like hanging out in Washington Sq, downtown. Where break-dance crews would line up against each other. Body popping, street rapping, sort of breaking but sort of fighting, and stand up comedians would do their thing, while hecklers risked getting punched in the face in the randomly assembled audience. We were living poor, and apart from going to Studio 54 now and again, it was only after we had the hits that we ended up doing all the famous clubs. What a place. We rode the subway to Brooklyn and wrote tracks in someone’s basement. Once Everton had gone back Andy became truly a great friend. We shared so many long deep, personal discussions and mad fits of laughter together, as well as middle of the night wandering trips that ended in fast food joints. We went jogging each evening round the lake in central park, being sure to get out just as it got too dark for safety.
It was early English Autumn 1982 when we arrived in Manhattan, which was sunny and warm. It was late American Fall and the start of Winter when we left. Sharp blue New York skies and icy winds biting through T-shirts and thin jackets. We had expected a couple of weeks at most, but ended up staying three months. We ran out of warm clothes and ran out of money. By November we were living off a handful of cornflakes, the odd portion of fries, and a once in while fast food Strawberry milkshake. We just cut back and got skinny.
What was it like working with Baker? Were the songs IOU and Pop Goes My Love already mapped out, or were they constructed in the studio?
As I recall most, if not all songs, except IOU, were written in the Brooklyn basement, with probably one or two other parts done at one of the New York studios. All of IOU was written in the studio. Check the credits for who contributed to which song, but I usually did all the lyrics. So for example, Pop Goes My Love was written by myself, Pete and Andy, with Arthur getting in there too. He was a real pro when it came to ensuring he got credited as much as possible. Which was why I don’t think any of our demos we brought from London were used. We were still very naïve. Although the demos weren’t great. The exception was IOU. Arthur wanted to keep IOU all to himself. To be fair, it was his baby and he drove its sound and instrumentation – by waving his arms and mouthing sounds at Andy, who then translated that into piano, keyboards and synths, as well as the famed MOOG Bass line. As Arthur didn’t actually write any music, this means that Andy contributed in a massive way to the melodies, rhythms and sounds of the music for pretty much the whole track without any credit or royalty. Sure, he did it with Arthur but that should have been shared in some way. Arthur certainly couldn’t have done it without Andy, and even if he’d used another keyboard player, Andy’s interpretation of Arthur’s ideas would not have been there and so the whole song would have sounded completely different. Arthur also set out some rough ideas for what the IOU lyrics were going to be about, along with small bits of some melodies – though not all. But he just never got round to completing any of them. And time went on and on. In the end I got frustrated waiting and pressed him to sort of “dooby doo” his ideas onto my Sony Walkman recorder, and I took these away, pulling the song together, shaping words and so writing a fair amount of the lyrics to IOU myself. By then it made sense to get things finished, so I could go back to England, so I also ended up without a credit or royalties. Funnily enough, it also just didn’t even occur to me to ask Beggars Banquet for some subsistence money. To buy a jumper, or a proper coat…. and food so we could eat properly. I’m sure that every day in the various studios was being charged at exorbitant rates, so a few dollars to eat would have been negligible. Just shows our attitude towards ourselves was way down the food chain for some reason.
IOU was a huge hit. What was that like? How did it affect you, and the band?
IOU was a summer hit in 1983, all over the world. Spending two weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Charts, and three weeks at #2 in the UK Pop charts. It was a hit throughout Europe, and even as far as Hong Kong and Australia.
Back in England it was sort of an experience to be so famous. I’m not sure if it was great or not. It was different from Southern Freeez, as I was now the front man, and strangely to me it seemed, it had nothing to do with music, but more to do with being a performer (smiles) And a performer I am not. I couldn’t travel on a tube train or walk down the street or eat in a restaurant without people around me pointing and whispering, etc. Anyway. Back with the music….. Technology had taken its toll. The Jazz Funk band had been lost along the way, behind digital sampling, the timeless 808 drum machine and the legendary Moog Bass. Eventually, with no live band elements, like drums and bass, being required for our Electro music, what was left of the “so called band” was reduced to Pete and I. And so, unsurprisingly what was left of Freeez eventually split again (laughs).
By now early basic sequencers, synths and drum machines had just begun to give me the tools to start creating music pretty much by myself. So with Andy’s fantastic help, I released my first solo effort. When I toured the top New York clubs in May 1984 – in my own private stretch limo – I Want It To Be Real was #1 in the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart, and was playing repeatedly on every single radio station I tuned into. Just non-stop. Best of all, the sequenced Pro One Bass line – made up at home, in my Caledonian Road council flat – sounded absolutely MASSIVE on the Paradise Garage speakers! I was blown away.
I never lost my love for Jazz Funk, it was and still is in me, but back then times had moved on. I didn’t leave Freeez per say, I just had no need for the band nor the name Freeez anymore. Or so I thought and felt at the time. I knew there was a commercial and brand value in the name, but I don’t think I ever made my musical decisions based on money. If I had, I’d never have let the name go. Actually, I did the opposite over and over. Rarely making decisions based on monetary value. For me, it was the flood of technological change around me that was a new exciting wave I wanted to try and ride. Just like one of my reasons for getting into the recording studio at the very beginning. So, with my solo stuff going so well I entered into some sort of contractual agreement where Peter was able to use the name “Freeez” for some period of time by paying me some sort of royalty. It made business sense on paper hahaha, not that I’ve seen that piece of paper since then. But In the end it was a dead end. There were no more hits, and not even some great underground cult Jazz Funk following. So that spelt the end of Freeez. Unless I missed something.
Although you`d left the group you continued to work with Andy. Can you tell me more about the Pictures and Pink Rhythm projects?
Andy and I continued to work together even though he was also moving on. At some point he became a full-time, key part of the Stock Aitken Waterman production team, that drilled out so many number one hits. I wasn`t surprised, as Andy was so full of talent. Andy and I did the Pictures album as a great experiment. We just wanted to try stretching ourselves. We should have done more and gone further. That was really going somewhere weird, but a good weird. Some of it sounds pretty good today, so it really deserved to be taken more seriously. Perhaps via a follow up album. I wonder what Andy recalls of Pink Rhythm and why I did that. It was likely my Jazz Funk sideline, and an output for my retro Freeez style ideas that didn’t fit “John Rocca” or Electro. It could and should have been much more. But again I guess I just got too focused on my solo stuff and so Pictures and Pink Rhythm, like Freeez got left behind..
Your solo releases, I Want It To Be Real and Move, were big records on the Chicago House scene. When did you first become aware of House? Was it your idea to bring Farley Jackmaster Funk in for a remix?
After I Want It To Be Real was a US hit I went to New York again. This time alone, to do my solo album. I worked with many people over there, with one of my favourite tracks being The Dream. I should have gone with my heart by releasing The Dream first, rather than allow myself and Beggars Banquet to be convinced, or conned even, by various US folks, into releasing Extra Extra. Possibly driven by their interest in publishing royalties rather than the music. I couldn’t see that being a hit, especially in the UK and The Dream was yet another new step at the time. More risky but moving forward in sound, rather than hanging onto what was by then fairly standard Electro. But never mind (smiles). I enjoyed writing the other stuff and of course Move became a cult hit, especially in Chicago.
I can’t remember how Farley came to be involved, and as with most people I didn’t even know who he was before someone suggested he come in. As for House music,…the 909 sound, it was the drum machine of the time… taking over from the 808, so… what can you do, you will get the House sound if you use it, and of course I loved all the new technology. The last time I saw Farley he was leaving Arthur’s brand new New York studio in the middle of the night with my Sony Walkman! He’d had the headphones on listening to some stuff and forgot they were on his head. I never got it back either.
So while the album didn`t consciously try to emulate anything, and I think that was why some of it was successful, sure, I was also “influenced” by whatever was happening around me at the time. Jazz Funk, Electro, then House? Later Acid House, Rave? And I was out clubbing in New York all the time while recording that album. But. ….. But, but…. If you take for example I Want It To Be Real; I’d never been to Chicago when I wrote it, despite it becoming a cult anthem there. I still hadn’t been there when I wrote Move for that matter. I Want It To Be Real started life as a London bass-line, with Andy adding chords and synths in a tiny West London studio, that I used for most of my stuff.
In music, I think an element of separation, and so of risk, is vital if you want some form of differentiation, and especially a new sound, outside of whatever is happening at the time; be it Chicago, or New York, London, or Tokyo, etc..… Sure, take inspiration from everywhere and everything. Be Open. The lyrics were a bit off the wall, inspired by murmurings of covert CIA activities in the Americas. But even the US mix of I Want It To Be Real, mixed in New York City, was true to the original 24 track analogue tape we recorded in West London. No additional instrumentation. Nothing removed, nothing added, nothing changed, not even the arrangement. Mixed as it had been shipped over, very nicely, very neatly, but very quickly. Mixed by the famed engineer Jay Burnett in a couple of hours – and then stamped with Arthur Baker’s name for branding / marketing reasons…. And, as some minuscule part payback for the IOU lyrics I’d done for him.
What inspired the production of The River Must Flow? Were there specific events, circumstances? What were you listening to at this time? What equipment were you using? Again, where were you going to listen to music? To buy records?
When I wrote The River Must Flow I don’t think I was going anywhere to listen to music anymore, or buying any records. I was just living in my home studio. That happens to people I think. Just imagine, you have a whole studio in your house… thousands of pounds of electrical kit, synths, compressors, mixers, faders buttons and cables. Why would you ever leave? I used to work with headphones on in the dark just to get high on the music. The smell of the electronics and the hundreds of tiny flashing LED lights. It was quite possibly another type of death knell hahaha. But… nonetheless The River Must Flow is one of my favourite tracks. The song is about Apartheid in South Africa and the Zulu spoken on the track was a translation / adaptation of a poem I wrote about the struggle, and read by a member of the ANC. I wrote everything and played all the instruments such as Yamaha DX-7 with samples in an Akai S-1000 into C-Lab Creator sequencer running on a tiny Atari 1040st home computer. Recorded and mixed it onto Betamax digital tape in my bedroom from my two SMPTE synchronised analogue 16 track Fostex machines, with a small mixing console automated by a Commodore 64 computer hahahaha. Ridiculous but it worked and hey, it was super high tech for the time. It was around the start of me playing all instruments myself and so I guess it was the precursor to Midi Rain. I did quite a few odds and ends at that time. Often under various pseudonyms, and pressing up records on various record label names I made up. Some stuff was good, some not so good. Most perhaps showing a level of half-finished inward creativity and practice, rather than outward vision or sophistication.
Midi Rain`s The Crack Train is a landmark record. A brave, honest piece of melancholy Rave. What was it that inspired this song? Was it something in particular that you saw, or experienced?
I was clearly looking for something different again. And so came Midi Rain. I wrote, produced, engineered all the songs, and played all the instruments myself. I’d sold most of the studio kit, focusing in on just a few semi-automated units that could now do it all. Until I recorded and mixed down to tape in a cheap studio, where I was working as a recording engineer. There was no collaboration with anyone per say but I did work with various DJs on some mixes and remixes. I’m still happy with most of the album including my original version of The Crack Train – the lyrics referenced the Crack epidemic of the time – as well as Shine, which was the big hit. Getting to #1 in the US Billboard Dance Charts, in a version that was re-mixed in London, by me and DJ Pierre.
Why did you leave the music business? Do you ever regret doing so? Do you have an archive of unreleased music that you would ever consider making public?
It seemed a great time to step down. I hadn’t started anything new, and my last recorded track was a #1, so I couldn’t really have planned that better. But why leave…? Because there were other things in the world to do and see. Outside the recording studios, the sun was shining and the world was spinning. There was no sadness, or looking back. I just moved on. I went to University and did a degree in Computers. Everything in the studio was changing from Analogue to Digital, and I found it all quite amazing, the start of the digital wave that we all live and breath today. It all fascinated me. Zeros and Ones. New stuff to learn and unknown paths to travel. The degree took me into telecommunications around the time of the main global roll out of the GSM mobile phone systems. So, I travelled the world again, even further this time, but in a different guise. And after that, as part of a UK technology start-up during the “Dot Com” boom and bust, which we successfully launched on the London Stock Exchange.
Are you still in contact with any of your old band mates? Are you still in touch with Arthur Baker?
Nowadays I’m not really in contact with my musical past, certainly not in a big way, if at all. But I do speak with Andy on a personal basis, and I almost had a musical interaction with Arthur a while back, but nothing came of it. Some of the others too from time to time, but mostly related to licensing and royalty matters.
What music are you currently listening to?
I don’t listen to much music either, other than things I put together at home as a form of relaxation. Late night, headphones on, plonking away on the keyboards into the computer. Imitation LEDs flashing, tropical warmth, and noisy darkness outside.
Be With Records reissued Pink Rhythm`s Melodies Of Love on March 16th. You can purchase a copy directly here.