Profile: Dave Mills
Sitting down and writing is something that doesn’t come easily to me at the best of times, so writing about myself and telling my story? This WILL be a challenge!
My first introduction to music was listening to my late father’s old big band / jazz albums over the Sunday roast dinner; Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Stan Kenton, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie and many others were the first ‘rock stars’ in my little world. As a child, my Star Wars soundtrack album was my only contribution to those Sunday lunch listening sessions. My mum always tells me that when my dad was a young man serving in the R.A.F. stationed in Germany, he would always bring a new record home with him every time he made one of his regular trips home. He built up an extensive collection and, while not exactly to my taste, I am now proud to be its owner.
Growing up, modern music wasn’t really played in my house. My dad worked shifts and being quiet when he was on nights was essential, so the radio was rarely on. This meant that to pick up on what was relevant to my peers I had to rely on the bits and pieces I heard about at school. What was this Bohemian Rhapsody they’re talking about? I have to be honest, I actually remember hating it when I eventually first heard it! What about Silver Lady? Bright Eyes? Summer Loving? No, I had no idea. But I did become curious, so decided to investigate. Top of the Pops was the obvious starting point, and I still distinctly remember an eleven-year-old David feeling ‘a bit funny’ when first seeing Debbie Harry singing ‘Heart of Glass’ on TOTP (readers of a certain age will know exactly what I mean!).
And then it happened. In May 1981 I went off to my local newsagents, Knights in Woodley, and for 99p bought the number one single, ‘Stand and Deliver’ by Adam and the Ants. That was it, I had found my drug! For the next couple of years every last penny I had went over the counter of that shop and all of it on vinyl. I still own every record I’ve ever bought!
As well as watching TOTP, listening to the whole top 40 on the radio became a religious habit. I recorded it on tape every week (didn’t we all?) and also wrote it all down. I would analyse my lists for hours – movers up and down, new entries, weeks spent at no.1 – trying to work out the magic formula to a hit record. My musical tastes were very much pop to start with, and I still appreciate a good pop song. A good song is a good song, regardless of genre, right?
In my teenage years the radio was always on when I was at home; be it blasting in my bedroom or through my headphones if Dad was on nights. Mike Read, Peter Powel, Annie Nightingale and Tommy Vance were my gateway to a world I thought to be simply magical. If I wasn’t listening to music, I was making my own radio shows and compilation tapes from the ‘studios’ of DJM Recordings (my bedroom). I sought out music from every source possible, TOTP, Radio 1, random late night concerts on the TV, Glastonbury coverage and the chaos of Channel 4’s The TUBE! But soon I found myself leaning toward a louder, heavier genre which just seemed to tick all my musical boxes. In 1982 I watched Status Quo perform their 20th anniversary concert for the Prince’s Trust on BBC1 and then listened to the second half broadcast on Radio 1, I became an instant fan of the band and I still am today.
I soon started to discover other bands that made a bit more of a noise and put more into their performance than just standing there miming to a recording. Iron Maiden, Whitesnake, Gillan, Meatloaf, Slade… A whole new world suddenly opened up in front of me that I had no idea even existed, I read review after review of the Monsters of Rock festival held at Donington Park each year. I also discovered there was a festival just down the road from me, ‘Reading Rocks’. How did I not know about these events? More importantly, why was I not going to them?
In June 1984, four days after my 16th birthday, I experienced the first taste of my next new drug, LIVE CONCERTS! I got to see my heroes Status Quo live for the first time and I was instantly hooked on the buzz and atmosphere of a live audience watching an artist perform. I still have the ticket (it's in a large frame) and I’ve seen them many times since. The following year saw my first visit of many to Donington. I continue to be an avid fan of live music and there’s now very few rock bands of any real note that I haven’t seen live, and I’ve been lucky enough to be at some really big gigs, many broadcast on the radio and TV. [Although there was an eight year gig-free gap during ‘the married years’, more on that later!]
I was always a bit of a geeky kid at school. Shy, quiet, socially a bit awkward. As a teen I was the one in the corner going through the music collection at house parties, which naturally meant that I ended up being the one who changed the records. It also helped that I didn’t drink then, so could be trusted to use any home hi-fi stack systems without damaging anything. It wasn’t long before I started to be asked to bring my records to the parties too, as I seemed to have all the ones everyone wanted to listen to. As much as I hadn’t realised it, I think my DJ path had been written way back then!
When I left school, my first job was in the record department at Woolworths. It seemed like a good fit at the time, but I soon became very frustrated with their stocking policies. If it wasn’t in the charts, we were not allowed to keep it on the shelves. I left after nine months, let’s just say because of ‘musical differences’! I found a warehousing job closer to home and, in full-time employment, living at home, with no real commitments, I could indulge totally in my music habit. My late teens were a fabulous time! I could listen to the radio all day, my record (and then CD) buying continued, and my gig going exploded! Whenever I went out, it was to a gig. Whenever I came home I had another record or t-shirt under my arm, and most of the time it was both. (History pretty much repeating itself. Thanks Dad!).
I could also now drive and started to roadie for a band that some mates had formed. Not only was I heaving the kit around, I helped with their publicity and occasionally ended up on stage with them to do the odd guest star appearance! In the late ‘80s / early ‘90s Loose Tourniquet became quite a name on the Reading live music scene and were the first band to ever play on the stage at the Rivermead Centre, just down the road from the Reading Festival site.
Through the band and the increasing circle of friends associated with them, I met Chris Locke, a musician and DJ. He asked me to roadie for him on a couple of DJ gigs and I was soon promoted when he found out that I had a few records he didn’t! We teamed up for a while as a double act although we never got ourselves quite organised enough to own our own kit, or even come up with a proper stage name. But we did had a lot of fun and even co-hosted shows on charity radio station Radio Cracker.
When Chris started another band, I kept on with the DJing and continued to hire in equipment when I needed it. With no ties, I was also happy to travel anywhere I was invited to play which included the Saturday night of the Red Dwarf Fan Club convention in Daventry. I became quite a personality among the delegate ‘Smegheads’ and, as I was a massive fan of the show myself, was excited to meet most of the cast. The one downside from that time is that’s where the inevitable and regrettable nickname of ‘Disco Dave’ came from, some people still call me it even now, though in some cases it’s been shortened to just ‘Disco’.
Despite a few early successes, I didn’t really know how to advertise or market myself so bookings were not regular enough to invest in equipment, even though I was now being asked to DJ at friends’ weddings. My musical tastes had changed a little too, still on the guitars but I jumped well and truly on the Britpop bus as my Rock heroes had stagnated since the arrival of grunge.
I took on a part-time bar job at my local rugby club, covering match days and into the evenings when the function room needed to be turned round from players bar into a dancefloor area for private parties. Some of the discos that turned up were truly dreadful and, while I couldn’t claim to be the next best thing, I certainly knew why a 60th birthday party was a dismal experience for all when the DJ refused to play anything other than acid house!
After mentioning that I did a bit of DJing, I soon became the rugby club’s DJ (the only time I have ever had something that resembled a residency), playing the end of season ball, some private member’s parties and the big one, New Year’s Eve. This was a fantastic first for me, even if I did make the school boy error of not setting my watch for midnight and completely missing it! Big Oops!!
Despite this mishap, I got the return booking for NYE the following year. Fully pumped with a completely accurate, double-checked watch I setup and waited for the hordes to arrive. But no one came, not a soul! And it wasn’t because of what I did the previous year! The new club management had gone to the trouble of booking me and even agreed to my ‘pushing my luck’ fee of £200 but hadn’t thought to let anyone else know! They thought that because it was NYE all the members would just turn up, but no advertising meant no party. I got paid, but it didn’t really make up for the fact that I spent NYE alone with just my records for company!
A DJ business partnership followed, but failed thanks to bad planning, bad ideas, a couple of really dodgy bookings and the fact that apparently me staying sober when working was an issue! I walked away with most of the equipment we had built up together and, since all the music was mine anyway, I decided to fulfil our final bookings solo and vowed to do things my own way from now on. I was never going into a partnership again, so in charge of my own future, Destiny Mobile Disco was born. I had spot boxes, Comus screens, a Martin Robozap, a rope light, a pair of Citronic decks, two single CD players, a mixer AND a smoke machine! I just needed a speaker system and amp, so back to the hire shop I went. That shop will be well-known to many in Berkshire and they also ran an entertainments agency. I was a regular and liked customer at ‘the agency’ and after a few months of hiring PA, with Christmas coming, I was asked if I wanted to fill my diary working for them? To be honest, my diary was pretty much empty and, seeing as I had parted company with the rugby club for good, I didn’t really have much to lose.
That Christmas I did ten bookings at £100 each! It was more than I was used to getting, all the money earned was mine, and it would come on a regular basis. The only drawback was that I had to wear black tie for all bookings and felt very out of place compared to some of the clients that attended the ‘joiner parties’ I was sent to. But I got to play music and people danced, so all was good.
The agency gig was only really supposed to be a temporary plan, but in the end I worked for them for 16 years! And they worked me hard; for the majority of those years I worked flat out, 2, 3, occasionally 4 gigs a weekend, still at £100 a night. I was told you couldn’t get any more than that in this business and, not knowing any different, I believed them. But I played some really good venues, made some good friends at the regular ones and enjoyed feeling like part of a team.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 95, Pages 15-22.