Wayne A. Dickson knows a thing or two about timing.
The Scottish DJ, manager and compilation producer, perhaps best known for a staggering discography of soul and disco reissues for Cherry Red's Big Break Records label, recalled a passion for getting a proper collection of 12" mixes by CHIC and related artists on CD. "It was greenlit something like four times over six years, and then the project manager who'd greenlit it would get let go, and the project would die with it," Dickson recalled in an interview conducted over the summer.
Things finally changed the week Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" - featuring the unmistakable guitar groove of CHIC co-founder Nile Rodgers - ascended to the top of the British singles charts in 2013. "The morning that chart came out," he said with a laugh, "I emailed all of the people at Warners, attached the track listing and said, 'Good morning! Do I really need to sell you this today, guys? We should just do it, right?'" The result was Nile Rodgers Presents The CHIC Organization: Up All Night, one of many projects Dickson's worked on in an admirable, at times unpredictable career.
In the last few years, Dickson has returned to those dance roots compiling an ambitious, successful series distributed by Demon Music Group: Arthur Baker Presents Dance Masters. The ongoing series kicked off in 2021 with a multi-disc box set devoted to the work of remixer Shep Pettibone, and this year added two more installments: a collection devoted to Baker himself, and a third to dance innovator John Luongo, available today. (When this conversation with The Second Disc was recorded, the Luongo box set had yet to be announced.)
Across just three installments on CD and vinyl (with more planned), Dance Masters harkens back to a brighter age of box sets while arguably surpassing it in some ways, too. The works of Pettibone, Baker and Luongo pushed the boundaries of dance music even further than the '70s disco boom; they delivered cutting-edge studio wizardry and club sensibility to mainstream pop and even rock acts, injecting the airwaves with style and craft that elicits deep nostalgia for those who bought 7" and 12" singles in this era.
To herald their work in handsome packages that license marquee acts from major labels is just something that isn't done very often, and the participation of each producer/engineer helps fans understand their work even deeper. Dickson's passion for telling stories through catalogue music shines through on these boxes - as he himself is quick to note. "I come from a very working class background. None of this was ever my destiny if I didn't grab at it myself," he said. "That was what got me here in the first place, and that's what I'm gonna do to keep myself there."
Our freewheeling conversation with Dickson offers some insight into what it's like to put these sets together, and what fans can expect from Dance Masters in the future. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Obviously, existing in the space that you did for so long with soul and disco - which were so rich in dance remixes - that's probably the seed of where we are now. But I'd love to hear more like how did the Dance Masters concept solidify?
I was invited in 2011 to write the liner notes and conduct some interviews for A Complete Introduction to Disco, a Universal U.K. 4CD box set put together by a gentleman called Mark Wood. I contacted a lot of people for quotes on a lot of the classics that were included in this collection, and Arthur Baker was one of these people. I'd spoken to him previously, because BBR reissued Carly Simon's Spoiled Girl album, on which he'd produced two tracks.
Afterward, I was invited to DJ a fashion event hosted by Arthur's wife at The Ivy in London, where Universal decided that this would be the place to launch this release. It was the first time I'd met Arthur in person, and I said to him, "I think we need to start looking at doing more box sets like that, but for people like you, entirely consisting of your remixes." And he said, "Well, it's funny you should say that. I've been trying to start something like that. And I've gone around to each of the majors, and they're not interested in it." "Well, we should talk about doing that at some point!" And he was like, "Yeah, we should." But we didn't do that, not for a long time.
Eventually, Demon started to take it seriously as a series idea. They said, "We need someone to front the series. This will sell a lot better if we have the right person for the job." And I said, "Well, just give me half an hour and I'll come back to you." I knew exactly who. I called Arthur and I said, "I'm doing this series, and I'd really like you to be the face of it." He said, "Remember we had this conversation back in 2011?" So we did! I managed to completely forget; it genuinely slipped my mind - and yet my instinct in the first place was obviously the same as my instinct was 10 years later, to go to Arthur with the idea.
As one half of Nuovi Fratelli (with Luigi Pasquini), I'm a record producer and remixer myself. So, I've always paid attention to who worked on the records I love, and this series was inspiring to me as one way to pay respect to
some of these people who I still admire greatly. Luigi and I did a remix of Change's "Let's Go Together" a few years ago where we were determined to make it even more 1985 than the original. If you listen to that mix you can tell just how much of an influence both Shep and Arthur were on me.
What was it like kicking off Dance Masters with a remixer as ubiquitous as Shep Pettibone?
It took a couple of years to get a real dialogue going with Demon about it. The Shep Pettibone collection was one that I thought was the most commercial to launch a series with, given the ridiculous amount of high-level pop artists he ended up working for. They just kept saying, "We'd never get the clearances." And I said, "Yeah, you will - not all of them, but you will. It's time for them to let this through the gate." Five years ago, we would have had trouble; but now, I reckon
we can just about pull it off.
Demon said to me, "On Disc 1 alone, of the 10 tracks, you have eight artists we've never managed to clear for any release." I said I get that, but this is a release with context, and I had a feeling that a lot of those artists who have the say on this would approve something for a Shep
collection that they would never approve for other things. I say we just try it and see how we go. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work - but if it does work, we have a very, very major release on our hands here.
At that time, we were suddenly getting to the threat of lockdown. And I honestly think part of it was just the fact that, since we didn't know what the hell was going to happen with anything, we might as well go for broke and try something a bit out there as they hadn't done something quite like that before. The clearances started flying in: George Michael, Whitney Houston, Pet Shop Boys. And it was just kind of like, even if these three are all we have for the major pop artists, we could clear enough for the rest of it that justifies a release.
When Arthur signed on, we were only halfway through clearing the tracks, and we had some artists we were having trouble getting an answer from one way or the other. Arthur started contacting people - either the artists directly, or people at labels that he knew - and it really helped to push a lot of the tracks that we were desperately trying to get. By the end of it, we had such an embarrassment of riches that there were some tracks by major, major artists of the '80s we had to drop, because we ran out of room. We decided that they would be forwarded onto a volume two - whenever we got around to doing that.
There's sort of a cosmic irony that all this came together during lockdown. It's a time when there was no public dancing, coming together like that - and then, the Shep set came out when that had changed, and people started joining in music and dance again.
It absolutely wasn't intentional, but at the same time, I can't imagine a better time for it to have happened. The Shep release sold very well, way beyond Demon's expectations. And I think that had a lot to do with the fact that anybody who may have been interested in it - because they knew who Shep was, or they knew some of the artists on it, or some of the hits - it was presented to them at a time when they had no distractions. So, from our point of view, it really was a wonderful thing, that the timing went the way that it did, because so many people were so excited about it in a way that they may have been too busy to be under other circumstances. And that's also why we made sure we continued with a similar format for each release.
Talk to us about the storytelling aspect. This isn't just a collection of remixes; it works like four albums. What is your process like putting these together?
The important thing was not to just make it about the biggest songs of the biggest artists in the collection. This isn't a greatest hits album; it's the legacy of Shep Pettibone. And so, all the different sides of his career have to be represented. If you look at the discs on either the Shep or the Arthur releases, you'll see that there's a sort of theme for each disc, albeit in some cases, quite a loose one. But you know, there is some sort of musical thread throughout all of it. That makes it make sense if you listen to it from start to finish.
It's clearer cut with the Shep one. Disc 1 you've got a very American style of pop, the dance mixes of that. Even if it's British artists, it'd be the British artists going through their "trying to break America" period. Disc 2 is very much more a British style of pop, related to other electronic productions from Europe, or indeed from America when it comes to things like freestyle. Disc 3 is more R&B oriented, and Disc 4 was more classic post-disco - the stuff that
Shep arrived with and made a name for himself. So, it's very much about giving those different flavors.
From there, you turned the lens onto Baker himself. What were some of the notable aspects of that set in particular?
The series is called Dance Masters. But in a way, that's a misnomer, because the point of this series is that these people who came from dance music and the late '70s or early '80s, at its underground, by the end of the 1980s, were mixing or remixing the biggest pop hits of the day. Or in some cases, some of the biggest rock records of the day. And of course, Arthur himself had a lot to do with that. Because if anyone really fused, dance, rock, pop, and R&B all in one place on his mixes, it was Arthur - particularly with what he did with Hall & Oates, and Bruce
Springsteen, and The Rolling Stones.
And yes, in case anyone's wondering: of course, we tried to get Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones. We tried really, really, really, hard! We took it to a point where people almost had a hit put out on us all for trying so hard! We didn't quite manage it this time, but we're not finished yet, thank you very much!
My job, as far as I'm concerned, when I put this together, is to give the best representation I can, subject to licensing, the best overview of Arthur's career as a remixer. This is a series of a major remixer on a major reissue label, that's basically designed to appeal to not only the obsessives, but basically pop music fans of the 1980s, who may have bought some or all the 12" singles featured. That must be my primary concern.
And when I do this, I do not make playlists. I make albums. I cannot tell you how much I've jeopardized my mental and physical health by sequencing and resequencing releases. I would genuinely say that for the Arthur box, if I were to think about it, and imagine how many hours I put into sequencing, there would have been about, on average, 30 days where I would spend an average of two and a half hours resequencing, depending on what extra clearances came in. And we held on tight to that release and delayed it until we had several things cleared. Demon
wanted us to just close it and get it out - but if we had done that, it would not have Cyndi Lauper, Pet Shop Boys or Talking Heads. Without those, it doesn't look nearly as strong contextually and we all have Arthur to thank for his hard work getting those tracks pushed through.
There are other things that we had to just give up on because we just weren't getting there. Springsteen and The Stones are obvious examples, and Paul McCartney, but also Diana Ross, There is always that thing where you must call it at some point, and as soon as we got Cyndi, Pet Shop Boys and Talking Heads, it's like, "Okay, I think we have to go with that." There will be an opportunity for a second volume. But ultimately, you must, at some point, think, "Well, this is the absolute best that we can manage at this point in time with all that we have at our disposal." And then it's my job to make sure that someone who is not an obsessive can put this release on and really enjoy listening to it from start to finish, and that the sequencing and the content itself holds up.
It must be difficult to work within the confines of those licensing restrictions. We know fans can be discerning!
It's an important time to say this. We live in an age where the hardcore fans are heard way more than they would ever have been heard before, and sometimes that can deafen anyone else's opinion. That can be a problem for people like you and me when we're doing what we do
And if anybody's just buying to cherry pick and digitize a couple of tracks? Well, that's their right to do that. But they're missing an experience if they do so. Sometimes I feel like saying, "Just put the goddamn thing on, sit back, and live it!" if you focus solely on what hasn't been digitized, then as soon as it's been digitized elsewhere - as it probably will be since you've woken up the catalog - then it makes your product a bit obsolete. Because now it's all available, so you've dated your own project and possibly curbed its potential legacy.
I did that way back in 2004. I compiled the Pointer Sisters' Platinum & Gold Collection for BMG. In a 12-track compilation, I had to include all seven of their U.S. Top 10 Billboard pop hits on there. So, I selected the more interesting versions where I could. I added the U.K. 12" mix of "I Need You," the Shep 12" mix of "Goldmine," one track from Priority and two tracks from Special Things, neither of which had yet been on CD. But then as soon as those albums were released on CD, it made the compilation look like my little budget collection was avoiding hits for no good reason! I learned that lesson then and there. I had turned what was once something really exciting for me into something relatively obsolete. Whereas if I had faith that these things would be digitized at some point through some other medium, my collection would have been a better representation of the Pointer Sisters in that series than was available at that time from a hit singles point of view, which was in fact the point of that series.
What are some standout tracks for you on these sets? Are there any that "got away"?
I'm not going to say what it is, but the smart ones will be able to work it out: on Disc 2 of the Shep box, until the 11th hour, there was a U.K. No. 1 single on there, which got kicked off because I finally managed to clear "I Am What I Am" by Gloria Gaynor, which is such an Important record - way more important than many No. 1 hits from a cultural perspective! But the point is that it's about the listening experience from start to finish. That's what it must be about.
For John Luongo, there were two 12" mixes of "Human Touch" by Rick Springfield. There was one that was released internationally - a standard rock/pop mix - and a version that was released in the States that was more dance oriented. John managed to create two mixes which had only a few seconds' difference in length. Many people, even fans, don't even know that there were actually two mixes. It was so important to me to get this dance-oriented mix on there because it's even better, for starters, and it hasn't done the rounds. It's been on CD once in Japan, but that's it.
One of the great things is when you get to take something that's maybe not seen as too important and give a platform to be evaluated as part of a greater legacy. A particular track with that in mind on the Arthur box is the wonderful dance mix of "Soweto" by Jeffrey Osborne, which was an amazing, timely record for 1986. It had success in its time, but not to the level that I think it deserved. It's truly great to be able to put a track like that amongst much bigger hits like "Buffalo Stance" by Neneh Cherry and have an overlooked or forgotten gem reviewed in context
with more celebrated classics. Another example is Roberta Flack's "Uh-Uh Ooh-Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes)." The Steve "Silk" Hurley remix, which was the other side of the 12", has been around. But for Arthur's mix, this is the first time that's ever been digitized.
Or things like Talking Heads' "Blind": not their biggest hit, not Arthur Baker's biggest dance remix. But nonetheless, an important record when an act like that was pushing boundaries to go into other subgenres. That one is among the more hip-hop, freestyle oriented stuff, and gets to sort of live amongst those records where it fits best. If you look at that track listing, Disc 1 is where you think you'd put Talking Heads, but it just sounded weird within that sequence. So, it ended up finding its own place, and just finding that out by trial and error is such a great joy for me when doing this. Knowing that you're programming something that, if people listen to it properly, will make them rethink what they're listening to.
I know you feel this way, but it's really great that Dance Masters exists the way it does. When it was first announced, it was one of those ideas that made you think "How has this not been done yet?" It's entertaining, but it's also informative as well. And it's really cool that John Luongo is getting that attention in the series.
We're essentially presenting historical documents. That's what these box sets are to me. They're summing up different periods of time with slightly different colors and slightly different shapes and corners. But the common thread is the power of Arthur Baker's production on these remixes, Shep's, John's, Jellybean's, or the M+M guys or whoever. And all those equivalent DJs and mixers in the '90s were celebrated over many compilations, and very much built up into the cult of the DJ. But the '70s and '80s guys we are covering here were the forbearers. These are
the guys that made it all happen. And they're too often overlooked within this context. There is no better example of this than John Luongo, who is and was a true maverick.
A lot of younger people will know who Arthur Baker is because of "Planet Rock" or "Out of Touch" or some of the more obvious things he's connected with. But a lot of them would have no idea that he did 12" mixes of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" - and in fact, that's why he got to work with Bruce Springsteen, because Springsteen really liked that mix. And that's how he got The Stones after that, and then we have "Sun City." Just from what began him doing a Face to Face remix for Epic, he ends up getting Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed and
Miles Davis in the same room on the same record.
These are the kinds of stories that matter. These are the kind of cultural moments that even people who were there at the time often had no idea of. It feels very important to give light to these wonderful stories and give these guys a spotlight for their work, like so many of the people who came after them received.
Again, one of the most exciting people to view in that context is John Luongo. He's one of the original guys and was so unpretentious. He'd happily remix any record in any genre for any label, if he saw there was something in it. And so, it's good to be adding him to the equation,
because he really inspired both Arthur and Shep in the first place. I don't think you get Shep or Arthur if you didn't have John beforehand, and I think he influenced them a lot more of them than many of the other disco era remixers, because Luongo was the one that really started
adding new elements to the production; he essentially invented the phrase "additional production and remix by." He had to fight hard to get his name on a lot of the records; in his box set, there's a lot of records his name was never on and people had no idea he had anything to
do with them.
John did so many remixes that he can't remember doing some of them until he checks his own personal records, which may sound ludicrous to you and me. But he did so, so many! As did Shep, and there are some remixes in the vault that never saw the light of day. I asked Shep about that a few years ago: "Was there any mix you ever did that never came out that you really wish had?" He said yes: the artist in question was very negative about it, and
said, "You're painting over my beautiful canvas!" To which Shep replied, "I thought that was the point!" That song was "Thorn in My Side" by Eurythmics. I wonder if we'll every get to hear that mix.
What can fans expect from future installments of Dance Masters?
This series, although we are currently featuring specific remixers and their work primarily around the 1980s, the series won't just be about that. We will look into many other different avenues within dance music and within the '70s, '80s and '90s. We will be looking at focusing on specific labels and their output, we will be working on specific sub-genres, or perhaps even a collection of just dub mixes. We just wanted to make sure that the first four or five of them were very strong releases that set the tone. But that's just our starting point. There are many different
stories to tell, and as many ways to tell them.
Our gratitude to Wayne A. Dickson for taking the time to talk with us! You can order the Dance Masters volumes at the links throughout this story, including below. And keep an eye out on The Second Disc in the coming weeks, when we'll present a terrific discussion with John Luongo about putting together the latest release in the series devoted to his incredible work!
Arthur Baker Presents Dance Masters: The Shep Pettibone Master Mixes (Edsel EDSL0081 (U.K.), 2021)
Arthur Baker Presents Dance Masters: Arthur Baker (The Classic Dance Remixes) (Edsel EDSL0143 (U.K.), 2023)
Arthur Baker Presents Dance Masters: John Luongo (The Classic Dance Remixes) (Edsel EDSL0162 (U.K.), 2023)