Last Night a DJ Saved My Life – The History of the Disc Jockey

Can we review our own book? Let’s see. Those paying attention will have noticed Last Night a DJ Saved My Life is back in the shops, provoking many questions. Why bother? What’s new and different? Are Swedish House Mafia in it? What about Nervo? But most of all, is it worth shelling out for a new copy? Well, yes it is. It’s the best it’s ever been. And the heaviest. With absolutely the best cover – thanks to that amazing photo by Adam Friedman, captured at the last night of Talking Loud in 1990. We’ve done a lot of interviews about the book lately, radio takeovers, international book tours and such, so here are some of the bon mots those skilled interviewers teased out of us.

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life – The History of the Disc Jockey was first published in 1999. Twenty-three years later so much had changed, and we didn’t want it to end up as a museum piece. We wanted someone who’s 25 to be able to pick it up and read it and make sense of it. Problem was, we were trapped in a contract. Our original publisher was all about stocking-fillers and footballers’ autobiographies – real of-the-moment titles, and not much interested in a book that stayed in print for more than 20 years. So it wasn’t available because they were only printing enough copies to hang on to the rights.

Then Lord Weatherall aligned the stars for us. Lee Brackstone, the wild man of British publishing, was giving a eulogy at Andrew’s memorial service – he’d been working with him on a possible memoir. Afterwards, Lee got talking to Bill and mentioned he’d love to publish Last Night on his new imprint, White Rabbit Books. But still Headline refused to give us the rights back, so for months it looked like this would stay a frustrating dream. We’d updated it once for the UK paperback and again for the US edition, but it looked like we’d have to leave it frozen in time around 2006. And then… we realised that Headline and White Rabbit were both owned by the same parent company. After a boardroom handshake and a pound changing hands it was on.

Lee was a great editor because he made us actually edit it. There are over a quarter of a million words in there and we’d never really sat down and found where we could streamline things. But Lee said we could only add new bits once we’d made space for them. In the end we painstakingly cut out 20,000 words and added 23,000. Which makes it a real rollercoaster read. There’s no excess, so it barrels along.

One of the things we wanted to address was the fact it’s such a male story. We wanted to hear more women’s voices in the book. Some of it is inescapable. DJing was a very male profession for so long, a lot of the action was centred on gay clubs in New York and Chicago, and it was almost a masonic process where men passed on the sacred baton to other men, with very few women interrupting their cosy flow. Until quite recently a woman behind the decks was seen as noteworthy. So even though we can’t change the story, what we could do is bring in more women as commentators – clubbers and contemporaries. And go deeper into the lives of the women DJs we’d written about in the first edition. Originally they had been in the ‘Outlaw’ chapter because women DJs were freedom fighters battling for recognition. For the new edition we expanded their story into a whole chapter.

From ch 20 WOMAN: Fight The Power, p672

It’s 6am under the vast dome of The Saint, the most spectacular audiovisual play-palace in the world. Thousands of half-naked men have been dancing through the night under the electric stars, safe in the warmth of each other’s bodies and the sense of refuge from the destruction outside. It’s 1981 and the city’s gay population is pummeled by fear and grief as people begin to grow sick and die. They don’t know it yet, but by the time the emergency fades, these people will have lost half of all their friends. The music is fast, escapist disco and the turbulent male ocean of the dancefloor expects this tempo to last another six hours.

But it drops to silence.

Then darkness.

Then light.

Then slowly, but insistent, as lights ripple over people’s faces, a ballad begins. It’s a song from childhood, from a musical, and they all know it by heart. But through their adult lives it’s earned a deeper meaning – This is the anthem that symbolises their hope, their protest, their yearning for equality, more than any other. The death of its singer sparked their uprising; its lyrics even inspired their flag. It is unashamedly camp, and its campness is at the core of their rebellion.

But… as the song soars through the speakers, it’s not the version they know. This is bolder, defiant, vastly more soulful, with the barely suppressed anger of a spiritual. And it flies higher… and higher…

When Sharon White halted everything at peak time to play an acetate, fresh from the singer herself, of Patti Labelle’s ‘Over The Rainbow’ to six thousand gay men in the frightening months at the start of the Aids crisis, the intensity of the collective emotion in that enormous room was possibly unequalled in human history.

‘It was unheard of to stop the floor for a ballad at six in the morning.’ she told Claes at ‘I took a big chance playing it then, but the entire room stopped and people held each other, people were in tears… It absolutely soared on that sound system. When it ended, the applause wouldn’t stop.’

Sharon found herself swept away, lost in tears and hugging her best friend, lighting director Mark Ackerman, as time stopped and the room held on in flames. ‘It was such an overwhelmingly emotional moment that everyone shared,’ she remembers ‘It was the one moment I craved my entire career… To have so many people on the same emotional plane…It was magic.’

Sharon White was the first woman to play The Saint. She was a regular at The Garage ­­– playing when Larry was a no-show ­– and thus the only DJ who ever played both clubs. She also graced Studio 54, Limelight, Roxy and The Sound Factory Bar. She was the first DJ reporting her charts to Billboard who wasn’t male. As the first female DJ in a major New York nightclub, she opened a small door into the future. ‘Since I was the only woman playing those venues, I was considered a trailblazer. I’m glad I made a difference. I tried to make people aware that gender has nothing to do with your ability to present music.’

It was great to also find a few new names we weren’t aware of. Like Celeste Alexander, who was one of the rare female DJs to play on the Chicago scene when house music was evolving. You can read her full interview on the site here.

From ch 20 WOMAN: Fight The Power, p 687

Celeste Alexander had grown up with creative parents in the bohemian multiracial neighbourhood of Hyde Park and was the kind of girl who didn’t take no for an answer. At junior college with future producer Steve Hurley, she was taken by the idea of DJing and asked him to teach her.

‘I had a real crush on him. We became friends and mixing, or ‘hot mixing’ as we called it back then, was all he really talked about.’ When Celeste asked Hurley why other girls weren’t DJing, he told her it was because they didn’t think they could. ‘The guys thought it was a specific thing for them to have that hand-to-eye coordination in order to mix and blend. That got my attention immediately.’

As well as establishing herself solo, in answer to the city’s famous Hot Mix 5, Celeste was briefly part of an all-girl alternative. The Fantastic Four hot mix crew was Celeste, Chrissie Hutchison, Kenya Lenoir and Berlando Drake, or sometimes Steve Hurley’s sister Angie, who had to play first to be home by 8pm for her strict parents.

Celeste went on to impress Ron Hardy, one of the twin gods of Chicago house, to the point that he invited her to play at the Music Box. The first time she warmed up for Hardy he’d been listening incognito from the other side of the room, and when he came to congratulate her and start his set she was so nervous she barfed on his shoes.

Another find was the woman who had been Sharon White’s mentor, a radio DJ called Alison Steele who became a revered late night ‘freeform’ DJ on New York radio.

From ch 20 WOMAN: Fight The Power, p 678

Radio had provided Sharon White’s route in, first at college, then at WNEW in New York. Her mentor at the station was a talented radio DJ with her own pioneering story: Alison Steele, who rose to fame on-air as ‘The Nightbird’. In 1966 the station had launched its FM offering with an attention-grabbing all-female format. Eight hundred women applied for ‘Air Personality’ roles and Steele was one of the founding four, drawn from TV and theatre. The press release noted she’d previously been the star of her own TV show, the ominously titled, ‘You And Your Figure.’ Eighteen months later, when the station failed to hit audience targets, it shifted from its schmaltzy MOR (Middle of the Road) format to Progressive Rock and jettisoned most of the women presenters. Thanks to her love and knowledge of the music, Steele was the only one they kept, and found herself introducing the west coast FM ‘freeform’ format to New York. She was given complete creative freedom, and wove poetry, Indian music and Andean flutes into the blossoming rock music of 1967 onwards. ‘She was an incredible DJ as well as the first woman on that scene,’ lauded White. In later years Steele became a CNN producer, opened a cat boutique and was the in-flight DJ for Trans World Airlines.

We also found new stories from the very early years. In the 1940s, in wartime, there were literally men in sheds tinkering with electronic equipment, and they became the first mobile DJs. Read more about them here.

From ch 3 BEGINNINGS, CLUBS: Night Train, p 54

Ron Diggins was a professional radio engineer in Boston, Lincolnshire, with a business providing public address systems. ‘I’d been playing background music and doing voice-overs out the back of my van at school sports days and the like,’ he told the Boston Standard. ‘It was nothing to do with dancing – that was the last thing on my mind.’ But in September 1947, the farm girls from the Swineshead Land Army decided Ron’s gear could be put to better use: ‘They were passing the office, saw the van and came in to ask if it could be used for dancing. They were having a harvest supper with some of the Italian POWs. Well, I’d never thought of it before, but I didn’t want to lose the booking – so I said I’d give it a go.’

It was men like these who took the available technology from fairgrounds and cinemas and gave it new life as travelling disco rigs. In 1949 Diggins built his ‘Diggola’ a wonderful art deco mobile DJ booth modelled on the bandstands of the jazz era. It came complete with double decks for 78s, a home-made mixer, lights, microphone, amplifier and ten speakers. ‘We couldn’t get plywood in those days, so soon after the war. So I had to make it out of coffin boards.’

Savile is still in there. Our legal advice for the first edition was to avoid calling him ‘odd’ as he was so litigious, but we dropped the ‘odd’ bomb regardless. Following the epically grim revelations, the new edition gave us a chance to confront him head on. We weren’t going to rewrite history by deleting him, he was a hugely significant figure in shifting the UK from dance bands to DJs, but we’ve pointed out that the way he exploited his DJ status is a theme running through history and not just a bizarre aberration.

The spring clean led us to shuffle a few sections around for clarity. One result of this was we gave jazz-funk a chapter of its own. It was previously in the Acid House chapter as one of the scenes that laid the groundwork for the Summer of Love, but it made more sense to give it room to breathe its own air.

From ch 14 JAZZ-FUNK: Expansions, p 500

In the mid seventies Britain was not a pleasant place to be. An oil crisis had reduced the country to a three-day week, with power cuts as an added bonus. With constant confrontation between government and unions, and IRA bombs almost monthly, paranoid right-wingers even talked of staging a military coup. The country was brown, as if colour had been rationed. In fact everything seemed to be in short supply: petrol, sugar, jobs, fun.

In stark contrast, jazz-funk’s early aficionados were colourful, brash and stylish. Many of them were Bowie kids and early punk rockers; sharp and street-wise. Mohair sweaters, peg trousers, wedge haircuts, cap-sleeved T-shirts – these were all sure signifiers that the wearer knew how to dance and probably owned some Kool & the Gang and BT Express albums.

The scene’s landmark venues read less like citadels of glamour than a particularly ribald pub crawl: Lacy Lady, the Orsett Cock, Frenchies, the Rio, Flicks, the Belvedere. If suburban jazz-funk was born anywhere, it was in Canvey Island, an ugly lump on the Essex coastline with an oil refinery for a view. Canvey’s best-known musical export, pub rockers Dr Feelgood, dubbed it (only half joking) the Thames Delta. Here, in a club called the Goldmine, a former worker at Dagenham’s Ford car plant named Chris Hill combined an encyclopaedic knowledge of black dance music with some over-the-top showmanship.

At its height in the later seventies the Goldmine attracted travelling fans from all over the country. Coaches would come down from Scotland and the dancers would sleep in the car park overnight. It was a magnet for fashion-oriented youth, with future stars like Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode and Culture Club present, as well as punk vanguard the Bromley Contingent (including Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol). Punk’s future wardrobe was clearly in evidence.

One of the best reasons to buy the new edition is James Murphy’s foreword. It’s been heartwarming over the years to connect with so many people who’ve enjoyed the book, and to realise it’s been inspiring to people, not just as a piece of history, but as their doorway into a deeper appreciation of music. But it’s pretty mindblowing when Questlove picks it out as one of his favourite reads, or when LCD’s James Murphy emails to say thanks because, as he put it, ‘it literally changed the course of my life’.

And of course Lee knows James, because Lee knows everyone, and he asked if he’d write a foreword for the book. And James said yes. But he was really busy. And then he got covid. Finally, he handed it in, literally the last day before they had to send it to print. He wrote this beautiful story about how he was playing in a band, uninspired and not very successful, how he hated dance music and expected the whole DJ world to be ‘idiotic’. And then suddenly, he became friends with a DJ and started seeing how, when you go to a DJ event, it’s a bit more fun.

From FOREWORD by James Murphy

And then I read this book. It’s hard to explain the effect it had on me. I went, quickly, from thinking we were renegade geniuses, to understanding that we were, instead, lucky to accidentally find ourselves part of a long and beautiful tradition of evangelists, hosts, caretakers, maniacs, etc., whose job was more about making a place for the people who were willing to come listen and dance than it was about, well . . . us. So, this here book quickly and firmly disabused me of any egotistical DJ notions I might have been harbouring, and changed my life for the better.

It was a miraculous and humbling gift to read about Francis Grasso, playing records for fourteen hours straight at the Haven, just steps from my first apartment in The Village. Or about David Mancuso, the Herc/Bambaataa battles, Ron Hardy, Deep Space Soundworks . . . To read about Larry Levan’s uncompromising vision and work with the Paradise Garage sound system . . . I had been a sound engineer for years. It was my living. I was obsessed with making things hit you just right – so loud you had that fear response, but never hurting your ears. Just deep. It was so strange to find this kinship and inspiration in a world to which I had never given much thought.

This book also taught me something new about the universality of feeling – the body feeling that I was always chasing. It taught me that there were tribes upon tribes, as in awe of music as I ever was, throwing themselves into it with love and weird, blind fury.

This journey – from thinking of dance music as flippant and throwaway, to recognising that it’s a vital part of musical history – is something that’s happened on a wider scale. The biggest change for our book in the last 23 years is the context it falls into. When we first wrote it it was provocative to pay so much attention to the DJ. Dance music was a global culture by 1999, but it was a bit much to suggest it deserved any kind of historical scrutiny. Back then you’d go to a music bookshop (when such things existed), and there’d 36 books about the Beatles and what they had for dinner, and nothing about DJs or dance music beyond David Toop’s Rap Attack and Matthew Colin’s Altered State. Or you’d read in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music that disco was ‘a dance fad of the ’70s, with profound and unfortunate influence on popular music.’ So when we first wrote Last Night we were on a mission. We were really conscious we had to fight for the DJ’s place in history and earn dance music some respect. Now, of course, there are lots of books taking our subject seriously and the battle is largely won. So one of the subtle changes in the book is that we’ve come off our soapbox. There were several endearingly tub-thumping passages that we quickly removed. As we wrote in the new preface, ‘Thankfully, we can now relax. The idea of dance music having a history is no longer preposterous.’

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton