Mike’s career started in 1969 in the Starlight Room at Southport’s Kingsway Casino. Resident DJ Baby Bob Stewart, about to start at Radio Luxembourg, had offered Mike his job out of the blue. Music policy at the Kingsway was rare soul and R ‘n’ B, which suited Mike’s record collection just fine. He was only 17, and he shared the spot with Ormskirk DJ Phil Sawyer.
Two years later, music policy at the Kingsway became more mainstream. Mike moved to a more intimate Southport venue, the Nest Club, owned by local bookie Alec Morris. At the time Mike had changed his musical allegiance to street funk. He was the first Southport DJ to play James Brown, Bobby Byrd and the JBs. Mike only lasted a few months at the Nest. Wages were meagre and he now had a wife to support.
In 1970 Mike met Dave Kay who, along with Jeff Hartley, ran a successful mobile disco road show. It was called “Radio Doom Good Guys”, and Mike wanted a piece of the action. Mike and Phil Sawyer started off at Radio Doom as Northern Soul dancers! Then Jeff quit, and Mike took over as DJ in 1972. The job at Radio Doom lasted six years.
In 1978 Mike joined Open Eye, a community communications and media project. He designed and built an eight-track recording studio, and established two record labels: Zoo Records and Open Eye Records. He was a pioneer of the new Merseybeat, working with bands like Big in Japan, Dead or Alive, OMD, the Teardrop Explodes and Echo & the Bunnymen. Both the studio and the record labels were a great hit locally. While at Open Eye Mike was studying for an HNC at Preston Poly. He became social secretary for the Students’ Union, and spent three years as a student DJ and events organiser. In 1981, with the HNC finished, Mike left Open Eye to study full-time at Liverpool University. Leaving Open Eye was a wrench, but he hadn’t had a hit record!
After leaving Preston Mike carried on as a DJ at the Poly. At a Theatre of Hate gig he met Andy Carroll, a Southport DJ. Andy invited Mike to join him as a DJ at a club in Southport called Sandbaggers. They worked together from 1982 to 84, playing stuff like the Cure, New Order, Southern Death Cult, Kraftwerk, the Clash and A Certain Ratio. Mike also played one gig for the Liverpool Uni Guild of Students: the 1984 Summer Ball with Curtis Mayfield.
Mike graduated in July 1984. He then took up residency at the Cavern – an exact replica of the club where the Beatles made their name. He did lunchtime sessions six days a week, with fresh local talent, just as Bob Wooler did in the early sixties. The sessions were a runaway success. Then, later in 1984, Mike became resident DJ at the State Ballroom. Mike and his old mate Andy Carroll played music such as Talking Heads, Simple Minds, U2, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and New Order.
1988 saw the second Summer of Love. At that time Mike and Andy met up with James Barton, later of Cream fame. James wanted them to DJ at Liverpool’s first regular acid house event. Luckily Mike and Andy had been turned on to house after separate trips to New York’s New Music Seminar. Monday nights (styled “Daisy”) were such a hit that the State moved over to house music exclusively, every night, until it was forced to close in 1989. The indie kids had been ousted!
After a brief stint at the Twilight Zone in Duke Street, the stage was set for Quadrant Park in Bootle. Mike first played at the Quad at a Christmas dance for the students of Hugh Baird College. In 1990 he became resident DJ for the three main nights at the Quad, with Andy Carroll sharing on Saturdays. The end of the year saw the start of the legendary Allnighters, when James Barton and John Kelly joined the team. The Quad Allnighter is fondly remembered by Scouse clubbers as the biggest thing to happen on their scene. And it was legal! The music was proper house, as opposed to techno or hardcore. A young man tragically died at the Quad, but that wasn’t why the club closed. Door prices went up, security went down and the venue needed a makeover. Punters voted with their feet and the house scene moved elsewhere. By 1992 the Quad was no more.
Also in 1990 Mike had been contacted by Dave Graham, resident DJ at the Drome in Birkenhead. Dave wanted to change the music policy to house, so he asked Mike to help out on Friday nights. For part of 1991 Mike took a break from the Quad and did his stuff at the Drome on Fridays. The night was called “Life” and it moved on to Bowlers at Trafford Park.
In 1991 Mike was approached by club promoters Nicki Dee and Billy Gillbank. They wanted him to play Friday nights at a new venue, the Hard Dock Café. At the time the Quad was feeling the heat from other places like Club 051 and the Academy. So Mike started at the Hard Dock playing alongside Alan James. Following the demise of the Quad, Mike became main resident DJ at the Hard Dock on Fridays and Saturdays. Music policy was techno and hardcore, with guest appearances from artists like Carl Cox and Groove Rider. Feeling that such music had had its day, Mike left the Hard Dock in 1994.
He was also appearing as a guest DJ at a number of venues. The most noteworthy was the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool, at concerts promoted by James Barton and Andy Carroll. These concerts featured artists such as Adamski, Katherine E, K Klass, the Prodigy, N Joi and Quadrophonia. Mike also played at Cleo’s in Wolverhampton, alongside Laurent Garnier; the Inn on the Park on Jersey with Robbie Edwards and Eric Powell; and Sheffield Poly with John Peel.
An important part of Mike’s career was regular guest appearances at Old Skool / Anthem / Retro nights across the North West. The first was Anthem City, in 1993, at Club 051. Other appearances included: “Ultimate Revival” at Life in Trafford Park; “Passion” at Maximes in Wigan; “Best of British” at the Buzz Club in Liverpool; “Anthem Mania” at the Drome; and the “Anthem City Tour” at Calistos in Huddersfield. Recent retro appearances, in 2003-05, have been for “HayzyDays” nights at Club Zanzibar in Liverpool.
In 1995 Mike moved into the pre-club bar scene. He started an 18-month residency at the Gallery Bar in Liverpool’s Concert Square. The bar was owned by Peter Lee of Metro Bar fame. Mike now had an excellent chance to play upfront American-import house: the kind of stuff played at Back to Basics in Leeds and Ministry of Sound in London. For the first time he was playing for an audience who were listening, not dancing! Without the need to drive the dance floor, Mike could be more experimental. At the time new house music was breaking through built upon themes from soul, funk, disco and jazz. Mike left the Gallery when he heard rumours that the bar was to be sold.
He moved to Southport to work for Craig Carloss at a new bar called the Glasshouse. He was working four or five nights a week. Thursday was 1970s funk and disco; Friday and Saturday were upfront US-import house; and Sunday was “Back to the Old Skool” house anthems. After a dispute with the owner Mike moved to Bar None, Southport’s newest trendy bar. Fridays featured US house; Thursdays featured soul, funk, disco and jazz.
In 1999 Mike Knowler retired as a full-time DJ, after a career spanning 30 years. He can truly be called “the godfather of Liverpool house music”.