The untold story of Brit-funk band Atmosfear

Dancing in Outer Space

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It’s perhaps only fitting that the idea for “Dancing in Outer Space” came to Lester Batchelor in a dream, as if beamed down to Earth via Jupiter 1. “I just woke up one morning with this rhythm in head,” Atmosfear’s bassist recalls of their 1979 jazz-funk opus.

It’s been thirty-five years since “Dancing in Outer Space” propelled its way into club consciousness. On its release, disco innovators Larry Levan and David Mancuso gave it heavy rotation in New York City. On home turf in England, after being licensed to MCA from the indie Elite Records, it clocked up six-digit sales figures and edged into the Top 50 singles chart. More recently, remixes from Masters at Work and Francois K were testament to the fact that Atmosfear’s music still endures. “People do remember the first time they heard that record,” Mark “Snowboy” Cotgrave recently told the BBC. “They could probably name the club; they may even be able to remember the month when they first heard it.”

The North West London group shone bright like Cassiopeia in the early ’80s but burnt out quickly, extinguished by internal rifts and disagreements.

Thirty-five years on, and together with Ray Johnson, the group’s original drummer, Lester has formed Atmosfear II. They are currently riding the wave of a resurgent interest in Brit-funk; the brief music scene that, although localized almost exclusively around North West London, reverberated throughout the U.K.’s clubs, pirate airwaves, and soul weekenders in the early ’80s.

Three gigs into the revival, it’s clear that their skillful blend of jazz-funk still attracts older heads and younger generations alike.

When I meet Jerry Pike, Atmosfear’s original coproducer and effects wizard, my opening gambit was to ask about his absence from the new lineup. It’s without bitterness that he explains, “I never got paid [the first time around], which is obviously one of the things I’ve got against it all. I’ve tried many times to get money out of MCA.”

Besides, Jerry was always a behind-the-scenes man, more comfortable tweaking an echo chamber or tape loop than taking center stage. “I’d be out there clapping,” he jokes.

The North West London native was still making music up until a few years ago, proof that creative urges die hard. And although his twelve-channel mixer and Akai s950 now sit woefully under-used in the attic of his London home, he still owns a respectable cache of vinyl. “I’ve got loads of records up in the attic,” he states setting my collector’s radar spinning. “Well, you’ve got to remember, I used to work in a record shop,” he explains, referring to All Ears, the Harlesden-based shop that was owned by Andy Sojka, the brains and money behind Elite Records.

Between the late ’70s to mid-’80s, Sojka and Pike produced a slew of British jazz-funk, reggae, and dance records. From Powerline’s “Journey” to Level 42’s debut “Love Meeting Love,” the duo were the often unrecognized producers behind some of British dance music’s most enduring tracks.

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“DAZZ,” Jerry says tapping the catalog number on his copy of “Dancing in Outer Space,” “it stands for disco jazz.

“The first [pressings], they had USA written on them because we wanted to kid people it was American. But it actually stands for Unidentified Source of Acoustics.”

If they say that the DJ was the architect of hip-hop, dancers were the architects of Brit-funk. “We were all clubbers,” remembers Lester, referring to not only Atmosfear but many of his contemporaries.

“There was a very rich vein of music coming out in the early ’80s. We’d be at a gig twice a month, every month. Earth, Wind & Fire would be over, Brass Construction, BT Express, Kool and the Gang, Parliament; I could go on. Every month, Hammersmith Odeon was just rocking, and we would all be there.”

Inspired by the music played by British DJs like Chris Hill and Greg Edwards, Lester, Jerry, and Ray took up practicing in Ray’s dad’s front room. Jerry’s friendship with Andy eventually facilitated a move into practice space at the back of All Ears. From there, the group grew to include saxophonist Stewart Cawthorne, vocalist Tony Antoniou, keyboardist Peter Hinds, and Andy on guitar. Other local musicians also drifted in and out of the band’s orbit from time to time including, Leroy Williams, Carol Kenyon, and Beverly Skeete.

Atmosfear

Atmosfear-2

“It was never meant to be anything particularly huge,” Jerry remembers of the early days. “We just thought, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ so we proceeded to find about the cheapest recording studio you could get, which was down in Wandsworth.”

Recalling the session, Jerry remembers, “Lester and Ray were just kind of jamming. ‘Outer Space’ was this real slow, fall-asleep track, and that was going to be an A-side. I was sitting there listening, and they did this little thing that lasted two and half minutes. It was literally just Ray and Lester, and I ran out the studio and said, ‘That’s great, what’s that?’ And Lester went, ‘That’s the B-side.’ And it was literally a two-and-a-half-minute thing with nothing else on it, and it progressed very quickly with Stewart and Andy coming in, and then Peter Hinds on keyboards, and Leroy Williams…we just built it up.

“There are three different phasers on it,” he continues as he slides the record from its sleeve, places it on the turntable and slowly lowers the needle. “There were two or three different echoes, there’s a flange. I love the way the hi-hats cut it, and it’s all just done with a phaser and it just builds all the way through. I still can’t believe now when people freak about it.”

Andy used All Ears to hustle copies of “Dancing in Outer Space” to local club and radio DJs, initially without much success.

“After our twenty friends, nobody wanted it,” remembers Jerry. “It must of sat there for months; we couldn’t give it away.”

“And then a radio DJ from Bristol picked it up,” recalls Lester. “Martin Star, he came in to London to pick up his white labels, and that’s where it broke first; it really picked up in Bristol from Martin. They just pumped it. It really took off there.”

“Because [All Ears] was a dance shop and we ran a mail order department,” says Jerry, “we used to produce a six-page [mail-order] leaflet that I’d send out every six weeks of so. DJs from different parts of the country would buy the stuff, and then we’d get sent their charts. Martin Star would send in his top fifty, and because we knew him, there we were down the bottom.

“Every week he sent it, it was going up. He invited us to Bristol to make an appearance, but down in London nobody wanted to know it. We went over in my Mini, five or six people in a Mini! We went there, made this guest appearance, and the people went absolutely wild.”

Andy’s connections in the U.S. facilitated the record’s stateside buzz.

“Andy used to import all the American stuff back in the day,” remembers Lester. “Earth, Wind & Fire, Slave, Brass Construction—so he had a network amongst the American distributors because he’d be bringing stuff from the U.S. So all we did was flip it the other way.”

In 1980, a year after “Dancing in Outer Space,” Atmosfear released their second single, the double A-side “Motivation/ Extract.”

“ ‘Extract’ became record of the year for Pete Tong,” Jerry recalls proudly. “It was probably Atmosfear’s second-biggest record. There was this London vibes player [on it], a guy called Frank Ricotti. We said, ‘Okay, Frank, what I want you to do is just play like Roy Ayers.’ He was so good.”

Buoyed by a number of successful releases, Andy Sojka began signing other artists to the Elite roster. Once word got round, All Ears became a beacon for up-and-coming local talent. The early ’80s saw releases from the likes of Level 42, Powerline, Stop, and 3rd Army; plus solo 12-inches from Atmosfear vocalists Tony Antoniou and Beverly Skeete.

“I met Andy Sojka in the early ’80s in his record shop in Harlesden,” Beverly remembers. “We were introduced by a mutual friend, who thought we could work together. We got on like a house on fire and I agreed to sign to Elite Records.”

Beverly’s first recording was on Atmosfear’s 1982 boogie track “Xtra Special.”

“Radio London played it non-stop,” she recalls. “We had an underground hit on our hands.”

“Xtra Special” has an interesting history on wax. At the time it was released, Andy was making regular trips overseas to secure distribution deals in the U.S. One such deal was struck with New York–based label City Sounds. Over in Brooklyn, shadowy disco producer Began Cekic was also under the impression that his label BC Records had the rights to “Xtra Special.” One evening, furious at being cut out of a deal, he wired an irate phone call to Andy back in London.

“I was livid when I found out what had happened,” recalls Lester of the late-night phone call.

Cekic eventually drafted in Dolette McDonald to record his own version of “Xtra Special.”

Atmosfear’s discography was to extend into the late ’80s. But after the debacle with “Xtra Special,” Andy carried on the name alone, occasionally working with All Ears co-owner Rick De Jongh. By the mid-’80s, Brit-funk was beginning to cede ground to electro, and Atmosfear’s later releases reflected the changing attitudes of British clubbers.

Meanwhile, in 1983, Jerry, Lester, and Stewart Cawthorne recorded an intriguing private press under the moniker Equa. The cut, entitled “In the Red,” was a slap-bass heavy jazz-funk number reminiscent of Atmosfear’s earlier work.

 

There’s a story that Lester likes to tell, of a time working as a creative director in New Jersey in 2002. One slow afternoon, he’s awoken from a mid-afternoon daydream by a fizzle of familiar hi-hats drifting from the headphones of one of his modish younger colleagues. Noticing Lester’s interest, the kid detaches his headphones from the computer, letting “Dancing in Outer Space” spill out into the office. “Check this out!” he enthuses before attempting to school his elder colleague. Lester, waiting for the right time to drop the bomb, eventually leans forward, smiling. “I wrote that.”

 

Atmosfear Select Discography

LPs
En Trace (MCF 3110) 1981

Singles
“Dancing in Outer Space” b/w “Outer Space” (Dazz 1) 1979
“Motivation” b/w “Extract” (Dazz 2) 1980
“Creators Dream” b/w “Dream On (Creators Dream)” (MSAM 1) 1981
“Xtra Special (Dry Mix)” b/w “Xtra Special (Wet Mix)” (Dazz 12) 1982
“First/Fourmost” (ATM 33-1) 1983

 

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