Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Days Before the Deejay Was Cool

For decades now, deejays have been lavishly paid superstars, headlining huge raves, doing residencies in Las Vegas...  

Those not tempted by this prospect could pursue the alternative career path:  becoming a cult figure, revered for taste and esoteric knowledge, or for mixing finesse... a respected curator of the musical past, or a tastemaker in the cutting-edge contemporary.

Either way, renown, remuneration, and international travel are plausible outcomes.

Disconcerting, perhaps, to cast your mind back to the days when almost all deejays were unglamorous figures - mundane technicians, light entertainment professionals, modestly paid...  most of them were resident deejays, regular and unremarked upon fixtures at a local nightclub or tacky discotheque in their home town (many of them part of chains owned and run by big companies like Mecca or EMI)...  in status and remuneration only a notch above the bar staff and the bouncers...   Or, if they ran a for-hire mobile disco , they might travel a few miles, maybe ten at most, lugging their record boxes and audio equipment and lighting systems out the back of a van  in preparation for a long night of entertaining drunken revelers at a wedding, a Christmas office do, a birthday party, or other function.  

Okay, in the 1970s, there were a few cult-worshipped jocks... in the New York gay disco scene...  at the Cosmic club in Italy... on the Northern Soul circuit...   selectors at reggae sound systems.... There was  already germinal beginnings of what would become the house / rave / EDM star system. 

But the vast majority of jocks were a humble, faceless lot... usually quite a bit older than their audience...   reliable providers of a service.... not known or valued for their selectorial suss or technical deckmanship...  simply in the business of punter-pleasing.... request-playing panderers...  required to play slowies for body-to-body dancing and smooching at the night's end...  

Generally they would have recourse to the microphone so as to smarmily segue between records that were not being mixed together. (hence the emphasis in the EMI Dancing advert above on the need for aspiring disc jockeys to have a "good speaking voice" - not a requirement for deejays today!).  

And the patter would be more than a little Smashy & Nicey.

Talking of which, probably the closest to deejay-as-star in the modern sense back then were the BBC pop jocks who'd go round the country doing the Radio One Roadshow... 

One of the things I discovered during my research on Shock and Awe was that the teenybop end of glam 'n' glitter was synonymous with the discotheque - the local disco that every decent-sized town had by the early '70s. There was also a burgeoning economy of mobile deejay systems for hire.  Glam was stomp-along and shout-along music, a domineeringly prominent drum sound being a fixture of records that were built for dancing

Reviewers often described singles by The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Mud, et al, as "disco music" or "disco fodder". Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll, Part 2" became a hit not through radio play but through  the discos, gradually breaking out as a chart entry after sixteen weeks. It took nearly four months of dancefloor spins before it got its first play on the radio! 

Although bands like Slade were big live draws and mightily rocked crowds, for the most part the pop success of glitter rock was won not through gigs but through records.... the tours came after the chart hits. 

The more astute and teenmarket-attuned record labels, like Bell, started to do out-reach to local deejays, sending them promos and in some cases getting feedback about which records were igniting the disco dancefloor. This would influence their decisions on whether to proceed to a proper pressing and a promo push with adverts in the music papers and pluggers pestering radio. 

In short: for several years before disco meant what we think of when we hear the word "disco" - black music - disco in the UK meant white pop-rock aimed at teenyboppers. 

And one of the reasons why some of the big glam 'n 'glitter artists went funk in '74-'75 - Bowie, T. Rex, Glitter -  is that a shift in teen taste was happening in the discos: from stompy big-beat rock to the sway-and-shuffle of Philly soul and Van McCoy / Hues Corporation / George Macrae style soft-funk. 

One type of "disco music" was being displaced by another type of "disco music".

So abjectly was Bolan in need of a hit in 1975 that the single "Dreamy Lady" was credited not to T.Rex but to T.Rex Disco Party.


Here are some snippets from my research

June 5th 1974 Melody Maker piece by Robert Partridge and Chris Charlesworth, looking at the differences between the pop scene in the U.K. and U.S.A. 

The New Pop in Britain has been broken through the discotheques. Suzi Quatro, Gary Glitter, Mud, Slade, The Sweet... all of them make good dance records…. But in the United States there is no equivalent discotheques, no natural outlet for the New Pop.”

They also point to a lack in America of kids-oriented TV shows with pop content of which there were several in Britain. 

September 14th 1974 Melody Maker feature "Going to A Go-Go", by Geoff Brown and Laurie Henshaw 

Jonathan King and his UK Records label use discos as a test market.  King will take a demo to a club, gets the deejay to put it on, and see how kids react.

Bell Records - which in the States had a history of working with pop soul - used similar methods in the UK. 

After the late Sixties, when “kids had stopped dancing and were to be found slumped in comatose heaps around the floor rather than stomping or clumping or bumping on it”, there was a revival of danceable pop: the kids “emerged from their deep sleep” and “attention returned to the feet. To the beat. Slade  stamped....T. Rex boogied… and every other manifestation of “newpop” put out 45s in 4/4 time ideal for playing loud to the accompaniment of flashing lights and flying limbs.

Bell drew up a list of every club in the land -- with information about the type of kids, the type of records played and the time in the night at which they were played.

When deejays flipped Glitter's "Rock and Roll, Part 1" over and played the near-instrumental B-side "Rock and Roll, Part 2"...  “the Paunch was launched

Glitter's producer Mike Leander describes the disco as “a sort of market research.... We... are with a record company [Bell] that has terrific contacts and connections on a person to person basis with deejays in discotheques....  When a record is about to come out we now service around 600 discotheques with copies

Deejays, because of “their good relationship with the company will give a call back and tell us the reaction, especially if it’s been a good one. You’ll know pretty quickly. Either the place’ll start jumping up or the kids drift off the dance floor and sit down. The deejay is a really important cog in the machine… he’s a very good barometer.

 "Look at it is this way. There are, say, a thousand discos throughout the country each filled with 2,000 kids. Now they’ll play a popular disco record three times a night and they’ll play it six nights a week. On a national scale that’s amazing promotion.

 "The kids’ll start going into their local record shop and ask dealers for a copy. The dealers normally only stock the top 30 but in one area they’ll become aware over, say, a two week period that they’re losing a lot of sales, because this one particular record isn’t in stock. So after 40 or 50 kids have been in asking for the record and this happens in several areas the dealers will start ordering a dozen or maybe a few dozen copies and this feedback will reach the factory. They’ll notice they’re receiving 300 to 400 orders a week for a record. From the factory, this will filter back to the company itself.

But there are some records that kids love to dance to but don't necessarily want to spend 50 p to buy as a single. 

Leander: “I'm personally going through a period of making disco hits but I'm not setting out to be a producer of disco records only. I'm making records to be sold." 

Side panel on Mobile Discos

Roger Squire used to run his own mobile disco but now runs Disco Centre, a company that sells or hires disco units and lighting equipment for mobile deejays

Squire's business is booming - his annual turnover is £250,000 

He reckons that there are 20 thousand to 25 thousand mobile discos in the UK and about 40 thousand deejays in the country. 

Your average Mobile disco is a two man operation -- the deejay who does the patter and has the personality +  a technically minded pal. 

They play at weddings, Masonic dos, football club functions...

Average work rate: from two nights a week to seven nights at week.

Fee ranges from £15 to £18

c.f. what a Radio One deejay can charge for a gig:  £250 

Incidentally, the weekly music paper most plugged into this corner of the music market was Record Mirror. Specifically RM writer James Hamilton and his Disco column.  This started in September 1974 around the time the UK meaning of "disco" decisively shifted from glitterstomp to black American music, but clearly is in continuity with the fact that Record Mirror was the most teenybop-friendly of the four weekly music papers, the one with the youngest and most female-leaning readership, and that had pin-ups of the pop idols, along with a column penned by Marc Bolan. 

That said, Hamilton's column was squarely aimed at jocks -  indeed he was a deejay himself, with deep roots in the soul scene. As time went by, Hamilton got into scrupulously noting the b.p.m. of each track reviewed, and indeed in his capsule reviews even noting the changing b.p.m of different segments of a tune, if the tempo fluctuated. 


Ed said...

I knew none of that history. A fascinating time capsule, although the mention of Jonathan King makes it seem more sinister in retrospect.

If you haven’t seen it, the 2003 documentary Maestro, available on the Criterion Channel, is a fascinating evocation of the dawn of the superstar DJ era in late 70s / early 80s NYC.


Feel like I saw it at the time, or near the time, of its original release. But I can't remember!

I remember having some kind of interaction with the makers of it - possibly interviewing them for this piece I did on New York house club of early 2000s (Body & Soul) that were kind of living homages or recreations of the 70s ones like the Loft and Paradise Garage. Perhaps I spoke to them when they were in the early stages of doing the doc, or hoping to make the doc.

Abigale Huels said...
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