Last month Nottingham (and the worldwide free party scene) said goodbye to Pete ‘Woosh’ Birch after a long battle with cancer. A driving force of the DiY Soundsystem, one half of the DJ duo Digs and Woosh and the founder of Spirit Wrestlers. Pete’s oldest friend Harry Harrison tells us about his remarkable life…
Pete and I met in the early eighties in Bolton where we both grew up, funnily enough in a pub called Fannies, so named, it was said, because all the dicks went in there. We were both in there because they would happily serve pints to a couple of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds who hadn’t started shaving yet. Pete was sitting at the next table and overheard me talking about an upcoming Echo and the Bunnymen gig at the Manchester Apollo. He leaned over and said:
“Excuse me mate, did you say you were off to the Bunnymen gig?”
“Yeah,” I replied
“Any chance of a lift...?”
“Dunno, I’ll ask my mum.”
So began our friendship, steeped in dark northern humour from the off. That first time we met he was wearing a blue velvet suit and blue pixie boots, but he later made me swear never to tell anyone. I guess I can now break that thirty-eight year silence. I don’t think I ever saw him badly dressed again – in fact even throughout the rave heyday he never succumbed to the brightly coloured leisure wear and hi-top trainers others did. He was, to the end, always well turned out and was probably the only man at Castlemorton wearing a neatly pressed white shirt.
From that night so long ago, we quickly became inseparable, and soon established a much bigger Boltonian gang. He introduced me to so much music: Kraftwerk, John Coltrane, Hawkwind and Planet Gong, Fela Kuti, Crass and Flux of Pink Indians, Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone, Pharaoh Sanders, Gil Scott-Heron, On U Sound… The list is endless and utterly eclectic.
Pete went to Liverpool Poly in 1985 and I set off to the University of Nottingham. I often visited him in his flat on Lark Lane in Liverpool and he visited me several times, this becoming more frequent when I moved into a huge, rambling old Victorian townhouse on Magdala Road. It was in this building that DiY was born in 1989. Pete moved to Nottingham in 1990 and himself, me and Rick moved into a terraced house in Forest Fields. We had met Simon and Jack by this stage and over the next seven glorious years, with so many other similarly-minded people such as Phil and Emma and Pezz and Cookie and Pip and Julian, we built the good ship DiY together as a collective through which we could try to change the world through music.
I will not dwell for too long on those golden years in the nineties but will quote our good friend Scotty Clarke, who captured something in a recent Facebook post that we probably couldn’t say about ourselves:
“DiY and the Free Party People did something to Nottingham that I have not witnessed before or since. DiY brought tribes together. Students, townies, inner-city ravers, blow-ins, colonial immigrants, travellers, oddballs, weirdos and revellers. Gay, straight, black, white and those from afar who were paying attention and flocked to the Deep House Mecca of the Midlands, to groove together, on its dance floors, fields and houses. The inherent love that united dance floors spilled over into an industrial city in decline.
“The fact that there were many hundreds of those assembled tribes from Nottingham at Castlemorton Festival speaks volumes. Townies who had been working night shifts at Pork Farms or enduring the poverty of unemployment, through their love of music found themselves at the defining event of their generation. That culture clash allowed ideas to permeate what could have been closed minds. Beyond the love that the DiY and the Free Party People brought to the city of Nottingham, they also brought an attitude. An attitude of rebellion. An attitude of defiance, as opposed to an attitude of compliance.”
Throughout the early to mid-nineties, Pete, Rick and I lived together in two communal properties in Nottingham, first at Vickers St and then at Premier Road in Forest Fields. All through this period and beyond, the parties and the clubs and the DJing, the endless hours on motorways, the trips abroad, the recording studio, the record labels, the sleepless weekends and all the other madness continued. Eventually, burnt out from sharing the same house for eight years and mired in what we could call personal issues, Rick and Pete and I all went our separate ways.
The later nineties brought us a period of division and estrangement. I don’t think this was a happy time for either of us; I eventually moved to London and then San Francisco and we didn’t talk for many years. For him, as the smaller half of Digs & Woosh, these years brought great success as DJs and producers. They steered our record label, DiY Discs, to international recognition but the halcyon days were probably over, and no more would DiY be called “culturally, the most dangerous people in the country.”
We assume that shamans are big, wild and extroverted but in Pete’s case the shaman came in a small, introverted package in a duffle coat and trainers
During these times, just as myself and many others had succumbed to the perils of addiction, so eventually did Pete. These times I would call our wilderness years, and yet, through it all, Pete was still following the true path of music, still DJing, producing and running the DiY and Serve Chilled labels, still believing in the transformative power of people, place and above all music.
He and I were reconciled around 2009, after my return from living in America, where we spent a whole night and dawn engaged in a long, rambling conversation on a hillside in Anglesey and where he forgave me for past sins. This was the mark of the man, he had moved on, realised life was too short and to forgive is divine. After hours of conversation and many tears, Pete turned to me and said “I’ve always loved you Harry and I hereby forgive you… but you’re still a twat,” his northern humour firing even in this moment of deeply emotional intensity.
Sometimes it felt like our dark sense of humour was all that saved our sanity during the collective madness of those years. We had the ability to laugh at everything. I remember him and Rick turning up for a flight only to find the promoter had booked the tickets as Mr Digs and Mr Woosh. Once we were physically removed from the decks at our own night at the Hacienda by members of our boyhood heroes New Order and Tony Wilson. The night we dropped five and a half thousand pounds in cash on the floor at dawn after getting paid at a Universe party and had to crawl around trying to pick it all up absolutely shit-faced and laughing uncontrollably. When he put olbas oil into the kettle to steam away a cold, when he cooked a meal for the first time at Premier Road and it consisted of salad and gravy. And one memorable night after the Marcus Garvey centre in 1992, we were carrying our exceedingly heavy bass bins down the wet metal stairs at 7am and Pete says deadpan: “I bet Sasha doesn’t have to do this.” I could go on.
Pete spent his later years, living in Nottingham, a city he had come to love. He conquered his addiction and continued his search for meaning in this sometimes dark and meaningless universe. Then in 2015 came his dreadful diagnosis with head and neck cancer. It is a funny thing but a couple of years ago he said to me that his life since cancer had been the most rewarding and peaceful. He did of course become totally abstinent, exercised daily, ate a strict vegan diet and paradoxically looked the healthiest he ever had. Pete made the somewhat controversial decision not to have the recommended radiotherapy treatment but chose the use of cannabis oil in conjunction with his very healthy fitness regime. In doing this, I think, he was extremely brave and through it all he stuck to his guns, despite occasional criticism and sometimes unwanted advice.
He continued to DJ: his sheer primal love of music overcoming the strangeness of DJing straight when all around were intoxicated. He still made music and was involved in many and varied musical ventures such as Gallery Sounds in Nottingham, Banksy’s Dismaland, Festival 23, the KLF’s Welcome to the Dark Ages and the Day of the Trickster.
Together, we threw a DiY 20th anniversary party and then a 25th, and we just made it to the 30th. It was around this time that Kate, I think it’s safe to say, exploded into his life. I am not exactly sure of the chronology, but it was not so long after they met that he received his diagnosis, but their relationship transcended this and they fell in love, and had many adventures together. Pete set up Spirit Wrestlers and the 52 Card Trick, a digital music label featuring tracks donated by friends all designed to raise money to increase the awareness of natural, holistic paths of cancer treatment. He also solidified his friendship with David Brooks, who, with seemingly tireless commitment and patience, has helped to make Pete’s ideas into reality over the last few years.
Over the last few months Pete’s situation deteriorated and he was left in constant, sometimes overwhelming, pain from which all the painkillers in the world would provide little relief. It was during these months, in the absence of any surviving birth family, that Pete’s amazing network of friends were able, in often difficult circumstances, to nurse him, to feed him, to administer medication and to love him. Above all, I would like to pay tribute to Kate’s tireless and selfless care for Pete over the years and especially these last few months. Thank you also to David and Andrew Brooks for their unstinting support. The four of us managed, just, to get Pete up to Anglesey a few short weeks ago in the back of David’s van for a last trip to one of Pete’s favourite spiritual places. We visited a megalithic burial mound where Pete offered his salutations to the Great Spirit and on to Holy Island and a somewhat drunken night on an abandoned airfield. That was the last time I would see my brother and comrade with whom I, and we all, have been through so much over the decades.
What I realised while reading all the tributes after his death was that Pete was essentially a shaman. I suppose we assume that shamans are big, wild and extroverted, but in Pete’s case the shaman came in a small, introverted package in a duffle coat and trainers. He believed passionately in the transformative power of people, place and, above all, music. He had an abiding belief in nature and in art, an endless curiosity for life and a thirst for living.
At the end of the day, I think Pete truly believed in love, in the spirit, the tribe, the community. Above all, I think he believed in magic. I will never forget the two of us sitting in the dark on top of a hill on the night of Friday 21 May 1992, overlooking Castlemorton Common as thousands of car headlights stretched out in every direction trying to get to the ever-growing festival below. I turned to Pete and said, “I think we might have pushed it too far.” He turned back and just said, “It’s never too far.”