John Rocca, vocals, percussion
We were a DIY band who had a jazz-funk hit with Southern Freeez, but we broke up because I kept having arguments with the bass-player. When we got back together a year later, we decided to get a producer to sort us out. Top of the list was Arthur Baker, who was making all these great dance records in New York. We persuaded indie label Beggars Banquet to get us flights and put us up in a grubby hotel in Manhattan. We just turned up at Arthur’s place – a bunch of scruffy, idealistic kids who’d come all the way from London, and he felt sorry for us.
It was 1982 and New York was very exciting. Clubs like Dancetaria and the Fun House were playing all the early hip-hop and electro stuff. There was a revolution happening and we had landed in the middle of it. Sampling was coming in and Arthur had drum machines. Together we made the album Gonna Get You, a hotchpotch of jazz-funk and this new electronic music. IOU was the last track we did together.
Today, you’d do it on computers, but IOU was all played manually, except for the drum machine. Arthur told us what he wanted. There was a cheap glockenspiel in the studio that he wanted played over the hook line, so Andy Stennett, our synth player, hit it with a stick, while playing the piano and doing the surging synth part that’s since been sampled many times.
We had used a guest vocalist for the track Southern Freeez and assumed that Arthur would bring in an American singer for IOU. But he said: “John should sing this.” I didn’t want to – and made such a mess of the high notes that I swore into the microphone. But Arthur liked my voice and the engineer removed the swear words.
Don Letts directed the video inLondon. We’d seen kids breakdancing and body-popping in New York’s Washington Square Park, so we got some kids to street dance to a beat box in Islington. With the kids on BMX bikes the video really captures that it was. Top of the Pops made me re-record the song for the broadcast. I had a bad cold but someone told me that gargling whiskey would help me hit the high notes. I didn’t do too badly that time.
Arthur Baker, songwriter, producer
Freeez had sent me some records but I never listened to them. Then they showed up at my office unannounced. I was in the midst of working with Rockers Revenge and New Orderwhile also trying to make a follow-up to Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force. But I felt bad for them so I did a deal giving my label Streetwise US rights to what we recorded.
We wrote the bones of an album, but I didn’t feel we had a single or something that fitted what was happening in the clubs, so I came up with the bassline and chords for IOU. At first it was an instrumental, not a song. Then I went to a Chinese restaurant, listened to the track on the way back, and came up with the chorus in the cab.
We only had a few days to finish it before they went back to London. John Robie – who’d co-written Planet Rock – played the main synth riff. My DJ friend John “Jellybean” Benitez came up with the idea of sampling the “AEIOU” chorus and playing it as if it was a solo. It was a collaboration, with me as overseer.
John did the vocals at Vanguard Studio, on the way to the airport with his cases packed. I knew, given the high register, that people would think it was a girl singing, which was an interesting flip on people like Annie Lennox and Alison Moyet who were subverting female stereotypes. When I played the finished record at the Fun House, people went crazy. IOU was huge in New York and reached No 2 in the UK. We were inspired by new technology. Today, when I hear people like the Weeknd, I can trace it back to what we were doing 40 years ago. I still play IOU in clubs.
Upon a Time in NYC, a compilation of John Rocca’s proto-house music, 1982-87, is out now on Beggars Arkive.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism