Sunday, December 2, 2012

Book Review: Last Night A DJ Saved My Life … by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton (1999/2006)

Over the past few years I’ve been slowly working my way through several of the key texts that document the rich tapestry of (relatively) recent popular music history. There’s been Jon Savage’s seminal history of punk, ‘England’s Dreaming’, Simon Reynolds’ post-punk tome ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’, and most recently, ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’, the history of the disc jockey, courtesy of Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. As we head into 2013, the spine of a crisp brand new copy of Lloyd Bradley’s ‘Bass Culture’, a journey into Jamaican dub and the world of soundsystems, stares back at me – unread – from the bookshelf at the foot of the bed.

But it’s ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ that concerns me here. I’ll get around to reviewing the others eventually. First published in 1999, I picked up the updated 2006 edition of ‘Last Night’ a year or so ago, so that is the version under review here. And while that might not seem overly significant at first glance, the additional seven years of coverage is useful in terms of adding more perspective to the state of the DJ art as it exists today, in 2012, with the current “DJ-as-performer” scenario now firmly ensconced within mainstream culture – a very recent development, one that seemed highly improbable when the book was first conceived.
2 editions of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life
Brewster and Broughton kick things off by taking us way back, a full century, to the start of radio, drawing together the loose strands of the wider history of sound; the evolution of the gramophone, a quick foray into the earliest recordings, the first DJ broadcasts, and a look at where things were at on an international scale etc. Working my way through the early chapters I soon become aware that this is not only the history of the DJ, it’s the history of dance music, and more than that, it’s the story of a cultural phenomenon … the power music has to draw people together. To gather people from all backgrounds and creeds to one place, a mass gathering of like-minds, to celebrate a love of music, of dance, and of (gag reflex alert) other human beings. I’m sure there’s a thesis waiting to be written there: Nightclubs are the new churches, discuss.

Understanding the social impact of venues like the Wigan Casino in northern England, for example. Digesting the monumental influence clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Loft had on New York nightlife in the late Seventies and early Eighties – an influence that remains omnipresent today. And I personally had completely overlooked just how important the roles of the gay and (for want of a better word) “outsider” communities were in laying the foundations for the phenomenon we now know as clubbing.
Larry Levan of Paradise
Garage fame
And so we move from Northern Soul to Reggae, through to Disco and its offshoots like Hi Energy and House, from Soul to Hip Hop and its roots, then into more specific strands of contemporary dance music – Garage (both US and UK), Techno, Balearic, Acid House, and beyond. Right on up to the present day where discussion focuses on that most peculiar thing: the Superstar DJ, the guy who becomes the music he plays, the one who is now just like any other “artist” or band, a solo performer who creates something fresh from segments of someone else’s original piece of art. The age of the DJ-as-composer/producer. Recent examples would be the high profile likes of Tiesto, Armin van Buuren, Skrillex, and David Guetta (spit). Just compare and contrast the pop charts of 1987 with those of 2012 for the removal of any doubt about where the DJ now sits in terms of mainstream/public consciousness.
We get overviews on the key places people gathered, the cities that hosted them, so many of the more high profile clubs and venues being much shorter lived affairs than I’d previously imagined. And loose profiles of the messiahs who held court at those venues – the leading DJ’s themselves – often prove hugely revealing in their depth and relative intimacy. That might then be expanded to a whole scene, or linked to a specific genre. The birth and subsequent expansion of the Ibiza scene, for example, is an especially compelling section.

Of some wider social interest in one of the later chapters, there’s a look at the drug culture that surrounds popular music in general, but clubbing specifically. After talking us through that whole crazy Rave/random party scene in the UK, circa ’88-’93, there’s a discussion about the drugs that fuelled it – particularly the use of euphoric chems like ecstacy. We learn of the legislation that effectively pushed people back indoors, away from outdoor raves and festivals, back into licensed premises, and how that effectively reinvented – and reinvigorated – clubbing at a time when it was all but dying on its feet (no pun).

The cynical angle of course, is that the breweries and those with a vested interest in keeping alcohol at the forefront of the party scene evidently had a major say on legislation that banned public gatherings and killed the chem-orientated outdoor Rave scene. Whatever the case, it did result in the revival of “the nightclub” as primary place of worship, and from a law enforcement perspective, an element of control had returned. Or so you would think. The point is … the book doesn’t shy away from important social issues that otherwise might be regarded as peripheral to the dance music scene. It seeks to explain and add variations of colour in its search for context.

Tiesto asks what time it is ..

At the end of the near 600-page tome we get some charts – the ‘Wigan Casino 50’, ‘Loft 100’, ‘Warehouse 50’, ‘Hacienda 50’ etc – designed to present in quick reference form a list of the key tracks as they related to each major club or the scene it spawned. This is a fascinating section for anoraks like myself, and it seems like a perfect way to document the music – the key ingredient in all of this, remember – that propelled the DJ to such great heights in the first place. And don’t we all love a good list?

So it’s a great book – thoroughly researched, packed full of detail, unrelenting in its coverage and reach. Every bit the definitive history of the DJ (and dance music) it purports to be. Recommended.

Speaking of lists, here’s a not-so-totally-random everythingsgonegreen DJ Hall of Fame* (your author recognises a large element of bias and accepts the high likelihood of the list being instantly dismissed if your own favourite has missed the cut!):

Juan Atkins, Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, Ashley Beedle, Jellybean Benitez, Matt Black, Prince Buster, Michael Capello, Dick Clark, Norman Cook, Carl Cox, Steve D’Acquisito, Coxsone Dodd, Double Dee & Steinski, Terry Farley, Alfredo Fiorito, Froggy, Grandmixer DST, Grandmaster Flash, Walter Gibbons, Francis Grasso, Bobby Guttadaro, Kool Herc, Tony Humphries, Steve Silk Hurley, Jam Master Jay, Norman Jay, Marshall Jefferson, Francois Kevorkian, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Ian Levine, David Mancuso, Derrick May, David Morales, Tom Moulton, Paul Oakenfold, John Peel, Gilles Peterson, Danny Rampling, Sasha, Kevin Saunderson, Nicky Siano, Tiesto, Pete Tong, King Tubby, Junior Vasquez, Armin van Buuren, Andy Weatherall.

*49 listed, there was going to be a nice round 50 but on account of recent revelations and consequent disgrace, one Jimmy Savile (arguably the UK’s first superstar DJ) has been omitted. As has current “star” David Guetta. Guetta’s omission is basically because he’s shit.


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