I had a great chat on New Year’s Eve with Simon, a young DJ who is at University doing Music Tech or some course like that. I said he was a DJ because that’s what he wants to do. I am fascinated by Dance Music and the DJs who create it. It seems a real mystery, a real dark art, as these folks go into their studios or even on stage mix and scratch and swap in and out and do whatever they do, it’s no wonder they are stars in their own right.
DJ used to stand for (probably still does) Disc Jockey; someone who would play a disc followed by another one. They didn’t ‘create’ anything, their job was to try and keep people dancing, as someone who used to do this, I know how this is the success criteria of any Disco. If someone asks for a request that you know will empty a packed dance floor, you have to try and be diplomatic and promise to play it later…perhaps, or maybe just lie and say you don’t have it, which often you don’t. Sometimes, if nobody is dancing, then any old request is welcome, as you know at least one person is enjoying Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson Lake and Palmer or whatever obscurity you were asked to play.
Simon agreed that the point of the DJ is to keep people dancing, at this, I felt some kinship, also, he said some DJ’s do just play one record after another, this pleased me too. He followed that up however, by saying that those DJ’s are not respected.
As a DJ I was often just asked to play types of music. “Got any metal?”, “Got any reggae?” that kind of thing. The amusing thing about playing ‘metal’ was that the floor wold empty, to be replaced by a hard-core half a dozen of leather jackets who play their air guitars and stand as close to the speakers as possible. It was an entertaining interlude for the Disco dancers who were having a break.
Radio DJ’s are different, they have to have inane patter between songs and often the show is all about them and not the music. There were exceptions; John Peel being the most significant, more about him another time.
Back to the Disco; the drafty village hall, the grim sticky floored pub, or maybe the posh people’s own house!
I was lucky because I actually worked for a guy called Wally, who was an electrician, but who owned (and actually handmade) a lot of disco equipment. Most weekends he would have two or three of us doing discos maybe twice or three times a weekend. It could be a wedding, a birthday party, just a Friday night in the pub disco or perhaps as a support act for a local band.
Most of the discos at that time had the latest chart stuff, the crowd pleasers plus a few golden oldies. I had a secret weapon though; my sister’s singles collection. Everyone had Bill Haley ‘Rock around the Clock’, but only I had ‘Doo Wah Diddy’ by Manfred Mann and ‘Hit the Road Jack’ by Ray Charles.
The Disco hits of the seventies that were guaranteed floor fillers were anything from Saturday Night Fever, anything by Donna Summer and ‘Mighty Real’ by Sylvester. I hated playing slow ones. These were obligatory though, for romancing couples, and desperate singles looking to ‘get off’ with someone even if it was only for the duration of ‘Nights in white Satin’ by the Moody Blues.
I never used to use the mic much. Some DJ’s thought they were on the radio and insisted on jabbering away between songs, nobody was listening and it did not help to engage you with the punters, ‘you’ were not why they were there. They were there to dance and drink and have fun, your job was to provide the music bit. So my suave DJ patter was normally restricted to: “Last orders at the bar please folks” or sometimes “There is a yellow Ford Capri in the car park with its lights on”.
I used to quite enjoy driving the van, and setting up wasn’t too bad, but at the end of the evening, exhausted, and adrenalin drained, loading speakers, light boxes, and stacks and stacks of records into the back of the van was a drag. Living in Suffolk, there were plenty of gigs in out of the way, hard to find places, no sat navs in those days!
Simon looked amused as I explained about the physical labour required to do a disco back in the Seventies. He told me that the only equipment he needed for a gig was a USB stick and his headphones. I resisted from the ‘It was tough in the good old days’ speech, as I was still in awe of what young Simon and other Dance Music DJs do. At the end of the day being a DJ in the ‘good old days’ was easy.