I Am What I Play

Did you know Frank Sidebottom played Wembley? How about two of Madness making a hip hop electro dance song about Judge Dredd? Or which alcoholic drink has featured in the titles of the most chart hits? All that and loads more can be found in my new book “Death Death Death Stereo Stereo Stereo” which mixes tales from my unhealthy relationship with the world of music and the daft trivia that springs up from it. Here’s a sample piece about my experiences of being a DJ. The full article can be found in the book, links at the bottom of the page.

When Madonna once sang “Hey Mister DJ! Put a record on! I want to dance with my baby” it really failed to capture for me the true experience of requests DJs get at organised events. For a start, at no point did Madge shout “Get this shit off” then drunkenly demand a particular tune, one in which you know full well from many years’ experience will not get anyone on the dance floor and evacuate those happily on it currently, with the caveat “I’m telling you everyone will get up and dance to it”. And if you do play said urgently demanded record, not only does nobody dance but the person who asked for it has completely vanished or, worse, is loudly talking with friends by the bar. It’s also missing that final verse where said person then returns some time later angry that you haven’t played said track and when pointed out the error of their ways says “Okay, well this time we definitely WILL get up and dance…”

I am in no way what you would call a DJ in the hip, arms aloft, glowstick-waving, beat-matching technical way that became big in the 90s. I was brought up with mobile discos at family parties in working men’s clubs. Where men (and it was ALWAYS men), dressed in pink ties and gaudy suits, stood behind flashing light boxes playing seven-inch singles and rotten ‘megamix’ twelve inchers when they needed a tod or wanted to chat up someone by the cigarette machine.

My parents had a pub and occasionally let me mess around with the music. It was here my Dad came to realise (a lot earlier than I did) that, whilst I was inexperienced and was interested in all this new loud music, I had a pretty good knack for reading a crowd and knowing what to play. That’s not to say I’ve never got it wrong, indeed about 90% of my party DJ-ing experiences were off beam for some reason or other.

One memorable night I’d been asked to fill in at a local rough pub on a Thursday, a gig I took despite my absolute terror at the thought due to it being a school night and the fact I was told I could play whatever. This was a few years before I had a laptop or Spotify was a thing so it involved me taking a lot of CDs in a carrier bag with me, figuring I’d go the School Disco cheese route which was popular at the time. It was about 40 minutes before I hit my first roadblock, a five foot lady with military hair and a salmon Ben Sherman shirt screeching at me for not playing a song the usual DJ played. I pointed out somewhat obviously that I wasn’t said disky jock to a bewildering response of “You’re shit; you’re not even playing what he always plays”. This was neither the first or last time this occurred that night. When I went to get paid at the end of the night somewhat shamefaced, the landlady gave me extra and asked if I could come back next week. Sadly I was dead that day so couldn’t take her up on this exciting opportunity.

My problem is that I take everything to heart. The most popular DJ in my hometown didn’t seem to have any such qualms and would play pretty much the same songs in the same order, peppered with the same jokes every time I was in the place. Pulsating Pete, for that is he, was already in his forties by the time I was going out and had his patter down solid – by which I mean it would fairly result in about fourteen legal suits a night in the modern #metoo climate. Even now whenever I have the misfortune to hear Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” I can still hear him fading down the music to bellow “OH / OHHH / SHAGGING ON A CHAIIIIRRRRRRRR” over the chorus. Pete still pulsates in 2019 but at a smaller pub slightly out of town, replaced by a new generation of charmless nerk playing much the same songs, now classified as oldies. Thankfully my days of being lured by three watermelon VKs for a fiver are behind me. Although I am a bit thirsty and do love a bargain….

These days I only play music in one venue, a lovely alternative club about ten minutes’ walk from my house, where I’ve licence to do what I want really. Most of the time this works a treat but there’s always that one show where the best planning can go nowhere. Earlier this year, I spent a long time putting together a set of fitting pre-Britpop indie tunes for a Smiths tribute band, only for all the older folk to go home immediately after the gig, leaving us with mostly twenty year olds bellowing for The Courteeners. As I acquiesced and played one of their tracks, a lad ripped open his shirt, jumped on a sofa and shouted “LETS GET FUCKED UP”. To which I thought “bollocks to that” and immediately queued up something abrasive by the Pixies, My Bloody Valentine and “Where’s Me Jumper?” by Sultans of Ping FC then went for a very long pee. From a business point of view it wasn’t the smartest move but by Christ, the look of terror in their eyes was worth it and the remaining thirty or so of us had a great night once they’d gone.

When it works though, playing records for people is like no feeling I can describe. The connection when you find that track that gets everybody, from the wallflowers to the slurring over-requesters, having a boogie and an amazing time. My favourite all time moments as a DJ have been the past few New Year’s Eve at the aforementioned local alternative venue The Exchange. My first was in 2012 when the owner didn’t think he’d need someone to play records then swiftly realised he did which lead to me jumping in at about ten to midnight to help (still haven’t been paid for that one) and most years have followed suit. It’s a crowd I more or less know, can read instantly and play off minute by minute. Even then you can never know what to expect and the ultimate highlight was several friends all simultaneously doing the Macarena to Andrew WK’s air-punching daft anthem “Party Hard”. And by Christ, it bloody fit perfectly too !

Last year I was booked to do the 31st but unfortunately got very sick a few days before (a time that just so happens to also include my birthday. Thanks illness!) and so couldn’t make it. Instead I sat home with a fever and built them some pre and post-midnight playlists with a big countdown in the middle. I’ve never had compliments like it before! It went down a storm and had people dancing for hours, which means I apparently did my best work when I wasn’t even in the building. AND I got paid after for doing it. And if that isn’t the real DJ’s dream I don’t know is.


Now what was it you’re after Madonna? “Seven Tears” by The Goombay Dance Band?? Oh boy…

Lulu Link: http://www.lulu.com/shop/ben-baker/death-death-death-stereo-stereo-stereo/paperback/product-24190788.html

Kindle / eBook Link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07VSHVG3W

Alternative Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/108615620X

Click here to download a 50+ page preview of the new book!

There’s articles on:

  • The biggest bands that never made the top ten;
  • Irish pop from a distinctly outside perspective;
  • The early days of Frank Sidebottom;
  • The UK’s top 25 drinking songs;
  • The best of Creation Records;
  • The mysterious majesty of Australian art rock lunatics TISM;
  • Suggs and Judge Dredd – a marriage made in the IsoCubes?;
  • Why Kenickie deserved better;
  • The least greatest Greatest Hits,
  • Bowie, The Beatles and Barry McGuigan!
  • Plus: Terrorvision, Zig and Zag, Foo Fighters, The Levellers, Fountains of Wayne, Smith and Jones, Feeder, Madness and even Welephant. And much more! So much more!

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