I think I was always destined to be a DJ! My three older brothers said I could pull a 7” single I wanted played out of the wire rack before I could read. I grew up in a working-class home full of music. My brothers playing rock & roll, ‘60s beat and soul etc. ensured I got to hear a wide range of music to complement my parents’ easy listening tastes.
I was buying singles from age 12, especially glam rock and reggae, but nothing was off limits. I was into the youth cultures of the day as a dedicated Saints fan on the terraces at an early age. All through the early-to-mid-‘70s I was soaking up everything on offer and always expanding my tastes as an avid reader of music magazines like the NME and Melody Maker.
1975 was the year I started tuning in to legendary DJ John Peel’s late-night show on Radio One and he, more than anyone, showed me the way forward with his hugely eclectic playlist and ability to play totally new and obscure artists and songs alongside the big tunes of the day. I would set the timer on my old radio cassette player to record it and then listen back in the morning; I couldn’t possible miss a thing or new essential song!
By ‘76 it was time to leave school and move into the real world. Times were changing fast and my tastes were as wide as my trousers. But not for long though, as the revolution was underway.
I first read about punk rock just before the long hot summer started and this was to change my life forever and ultimately lead me to start DJing. Punk set me free. It taught me everything about being myself and I found a whole new group of like-minded friends. We were a very close-knit community and were deemed the enemy by the mainstream and the stiffs who hated us, and we had to learn to fight back, which we did. It was thrilling being the outsiders and I loved every minute of it. I felt king of the world walking round with my short hair and taken-in jeans when everyone else was still in flairs and long hair. I recall my mum hiding my clothes once so I couldn’t go out dressed like a punk!
Clubland was a whole different world back then. Dress policy was standard everywhere and punks were not welcome, so we stuck to live gigs and gate-crashing house parties. Then, in late 1979, we found that the only gay club in Southampton, The Magnum Club, would allow us in as long as we arrived in singles or pairs, not mob-handed. Wow, clubland was so much fun and we all mixed brilliantly. I, amongst many others, constantly pestered the amazing in-house DJ, John Davis, for all our favourite songs, which didn’t at all fit the theme of the night. After a while John came up to a few of us and said he loved us being there but we were taking over and it was, after all, a gay club. Fair point John! He asked if we would be interested in a night of our own at a club in St Mary’s, which was struggling. I instantly said “yes” and offered to DJ. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, one Tuesday night in the spring of 1980, my friend Gary Jones and I trudged off to the bottom of St Mary Street with an Adidas bag full of singles to play to our mates at the (supposedly) country and western Rio Grande Club. (Now student halls of residence.) It was more like the Wild West in reality! We were terrible as DJs, but got some good numbers along despite being open until 2am on a school night. (Some very sore heads at work the next day as I recall!)
We soon took over the prime Saturday night slot and we were packed full of punks, mods, skinheads and football boys as well as street ragamuffins. It was always great fun, but violence was always in the air and I was the victim on a couple of occasions. I remember once telling my mum I’d walked into lamppost when not wanting to admit to being involved in a fight (though that probably happened as well!).
We could finally hear the music no one else dared to play in other clubs and I got a real buzz from that, not to mention the fact I was given £5 worth of Holsten Pills to drink as payment, which made it even sweeter. We played punk / post-punk, mod, ska, ‘60s and my favourite glam rock tunes. (Well, why not? We had all grown up on Bowie, T Rex and Sweet etc.) What a thrill when I put on ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles and, for the very first time, experienced a crowd going absolutely wild on the dancefloor. I was hooked after that.
It all came to a chaotic end in the autumn and that was that. I never once thought I would get to DJ again as I had a fulltime job as an Assistant Manager so was working some very long hours but also learning social skills that would serve me well in my future DJ career.
In the period after The Rio I started doing the odd party for friends at the Joiners Arms, for which I hired twin decks from a friend at the council for a fiver. I can’t recall what I charged, probably a fiver, but I just wanted to DJ!
In early 1981 rumours started to go around about a new club called Manhattans that was playing our music, so off we went to see what the fuss was all about. Within a few weeks I had blagged myself the Friday DJ slot and often ended up playing midweek as well. Wow! That was a learning curve, as I was playing to a crowd totally out of my comfort zone. It was then I realised I’d need to play requests and tailor the music to fit the crowd in front of me to survive, not just pander to my own tastes and ego.
I was getting good money, about £16 a night, but it came at a cost! I fell asleep at the decks one Thursday night as I was working 5-6 long days a week in the day job as well as 3 nights at the club.
Fridays were unreal. We were playing the new romantic / futurist / post-punk tunes at the right time and everyone was dressing up, myself included. We partied until we dropped and I’d go back to work on a Monday for a rest! I DJed there with Gary for about 5 months until the manager employed a dedicated fulltime DJ. After that we still went to the club and brought our own records for him to play!
I was working very hard in my day job but playing even harder at weekends, living the hedonistic club lifestyle especially at northern soul and funk nights. I purchased my first decks from Sam Costa, the landlord of renowned live music venue The Joiners Arms. A twin deck console of unknown make, those decks were to serve me well despite only having a 50-watt amp! I started doing all sorts of functions and house parties. It horrifies me now that back then I turned up at a friend’s wedding with a box or two of singles, borrowed a table and asked the bride what song she would like for the first dance. If I had it, she was in luck!
During this period I really started to learn how to work a crowd. I honed the art of bringing a crowd up and down and how to keep everyone happy by playing three songs of one genre and then move to the next set with a transition song. It was all the chart hits of the day alongside classics from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Slowies were also a big thing back then. People are surprised, but also thrilled, when I play them at functions to this day.
In March ‘85 I visited a club called Riverside that had developed something of a reputation. I wanted to see what the buzz was all about. It was housed in one of the old floating bridges, which made for a unique venue. The instant I walked in, I was summoned to the office of Brian Brenan, the club’s manager. I’d DJed a couple of times for him to cover holidays at the amazing Upstairs At Eric’s venue in Bournemouth. The next Friday I was behind the decks alongside DJ Neil, who was a bit uncertain about having a sidekick, and I don’t blame him, we were certainly different characters! Fortunately, we hit it off big time and soon worked out that three songs each was the way forward. It was advertised as an Alternative Night and back then it meant just that: alternative to the mainstream. Now alternative has become just another genre.
I’d taken my eye off the scene for a few years and a whole new generation of teenagers had come along, so it wasn’t just my old crowd in attendance. It was often mayhem on the dance floor as I mixed up this new-fangled goth music alongside alternative rock, psychobilly, ‘60s psychedelia and mod, swing, punk, ska and the crazy sound of the Pogues, which leads me to my next anecdote.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 101, Pages 14-22.