Warning: explicit language, drugs and general mayhem.
I was on a major crossroads in 2006. I walked out on my last band and decided to leave the music business. I was burnt out and bummed out. I figured my only redemption from a life of mediocrity was to become a DJ. It was a brilliant idea, one that I sort of swaggered into with the smooth kow-towing of a political candidate. I was on the can when it hit me. “Yeah, I could do that… play my favourite tunes… get free drinks and make some cash.” I was quite well-known in the local rock swap in those days. I knew all the promoters in the bars and venues around Camden. Those darkly dreaming places where unsigned bands converge like vultures circling a corpse, hoping for a slice of the action. We were ruthless, the lot of us. My bandmates were my bodyguards and boogeymen. It sounds complicated but when you’re 23 and trying to score a record deal, nothing is simpler.
Then I was reminded of Mack the Hack; a fortysomething club owner who was a total tool. If I was a toolette in those days he was a fucking power tool. My band never actually played his venue, but I was a regular because he was the only nightclub owner in Camden who knew more about obscure 1960s music than I did, and that was enough for me to despise him. Also, he hung out with minor celebrities and was on first-name basis with A&R from some of the major labels so it was in my interest to keep him sweet. I drew the line at sleeping with him. We made plans to meet for coffee and discuss a possible slot at his new party line. Mack showed up 20 minutes late with earphones the size of saucers. I don’t have the best eyesight, so from a few meters away I thought he had a crazy ass fungal infection growing out of his lobes. He ordered two espressos. The first he downed straight up. The second he used to girdle his long, spindly fingers around the rim, spilling coffee every time his laugh exploded into a wheezing rasp that wouldn’t be out of place in a sanatorium. We talked about music (I don’t think my conversation extended to much else in those days) and I showed him an impromptu setlist that I just happened to have with me. He didn’t have to know that I’d spent half the night in its painstaking creation.
He was impressed that I included artists like Dragonfly, It’s All Meat, The Litter, Sharon Tandy, The Daily Flash, Les Fleur de Lys and The Third Bardo, and that I had timed each intro and outro sequence to perfectly meld into the next track. I didn’t have any DJing experience, but years of recording demos and EPs in backwater studios meant that it was second nature for me to time everything. He said I’m in, and asked if I wanted to go back to his place and listen to some rare records. I said no thank you and got the hell out of there.
Now, I neglected to mention to Mack that I didn’t actually have any DJing experience. How difficult could it be right? He assumed that I did and the setlist must have looked the part. But when I arrived early at the club on the night of my first ever gig and was confronted with four CD players, turntables and audio mixers, I realised what I had gotten myself into. Survival mode pulled me in the direction of the bar, where I hastily ordered two JDCs. When the bartender informed me that the drinks were on the house, I had an idea. “Oh, in that case could you make them a double please?” I swilled it down with the gravitas of an Aztec warrior and approached Mack who was sitting in a corner booth snorting cocaine. I was never taken in with that shit. All it does is make you act like an asshole and hungrier for more until the buzz is more of a buzzard flying headfirst into a glass window. So I gave Mack the drink and fired up a cigarette. He guzzled it down. When I was convinced he was hammered I broached the subject.
– So those decks, whey…
– Twin-deck console 1982, and check out the trapezoidal speaker grills!
– Ah, shit.
– Well, I’m used to real vintage equipment.
– Seriously, dude. I’m hardcore. Never worked with a post ‘74 turntable.
– Wow. Hahahaha!
If you want to screw someone with alcohol, make sure they’re not screwing Charlie beforehand. Take it from me.
– So, Mack, do you want to show me the ropes?
– Yeah baby. No one wants the lizard king peeing on the carpet.
We headed for the holiest of holies, the arch-cubicle of cool, the DJ stand. Podium of the gods. Mack put on a vinyl and wagged his index finger in the general direction of the left speaker, flashing me a grin, as if that explained everything. I told him that I knew how to play a record but would appreciate a little guidance on how to use the audio mixers. “Ah! Why didn’t ya say so baby?” I was two seconds away from stabbing his baby with the record needle when he flicked open the equaliser and groped around the controls, giving me slurred commentary about the switches. I didn’t quite get it, but I’d had enough of Frank Zappa screeching out of one speaker and Captain Beefheart weirding me out from the other, so asked Mack if he could get me a drink. His eyes lit up at the prospect of more booze, and off he went. I put Frank and Beefheart out of their misery and retrieved one of my own records; something to soothe the savage beast. But then I did something horrific. It was such a rookie mistake that I cringe at the thought of it now.
I began to arrange my albums on the empty surfaces around the equipment, and because there wasn’t much space, plonked the softbag holding the CDs on the record mat! No self-respecting DJ would be so careless. I was alerted to Mack’s return by the deep growl he produced when he spotted the bag on the mat, “WHAT THE FUCK!?” I feigned shock and said I had no idea how it got there, the bag must have just taken flight and “landed there”. He seemed to believe my poltergeist story, though his eyes continued to bulge like a cartoon character for the rest of the evening. Actually, it was probably the blow.
I don’t think people realise the physical strain that rock singers have to put up with. We can’t be tuned, tweaked and coaxed into submission
The set went swimmingly; I felt like a goddess on the crest of a lightening dais. Spotlights, downlights and fluorescents bathed me in a golden halo of aural lustre. I was in my element. It was not unlike performing on stage with a band, only this was better because I wasn’t on show. Ironically, that was the thing I disliked most about being in a band. The show. I wanted to sing, write music and sell a million records. I wasn’t interested in perpetuating a fantasy. But when you are trying to make it in the music business the actual music is often secondary to the fantasy you are selling. But this was different; I was playing my favourite songs from a safe, elevated distance, synched through sight and sound to the dancing people at my feet. I didn’t have to communicate with them. I didn’t have to purr in pretence or tear my throat out to compensate for a medieval PA system. I don’t think people realise the physical strain that rock singers have to put up with. We can’t be tuned, tweaked and coaxed into submission like a guitar or a bass. And more often than not we have to make do with prehistoric, barely-functional PA systems that would make Maria Callas sound like a karaoke bar reject. Add to that the usual guitarist nonsense with their behemoth amps and penchant for masturbatory solos and you’re left with a singer who is essentially screaming to be heard above the clamour, never mind trying to carry a tune or actually sing well. In comparison DJing was a like a sunny stroll in heaven with an ice cream cone. I made about £50 and would have easily done it for free. Sadly, I never got to DJ at Mack’s club again. I honestly can’t remember why.
My next few gigs were not very memorable. I quickly learnt how to turn on my inner groove without letting the white noise of toadish club owners and pesky punters get to me. There was one thing I never quite understood, however. I was a specialist DJ, which was perhaps why I became so successful in the relative rapidity that I did. I didn’t do trendy pop or electronic music; my thing was 60s/70s freakbeat/garage on one hand and hard rock/heavy metal on the other. But every set that I did I’d have preppy losers come up to me requesting Status Quo or bloody Toto. I actually slapped a guy who asked me to put on the Jonas Brothers one night. Do I look like I play that kind of shit? What’s next, Blink 182? Until one night, somebody actually asked me for a track by Blink 182… I left the podium right away and it’s a miracle I didn’t burn the place down. I don’t get it. Why would you come to an underground club that plays stuff like the Seeds, Elevators and the Stooges and then ask for the lamest music known to man. I’m surprised no one asked for Take That. But you know what? I was loving it. I got paid for doing what I’d be doing at home anyway save for the snazzy setup. Plus I got free drinks and endless attention, which eventually killed it for me. But not yet.
About five months into my DJing career I was offered a gig at one of London’s most famous clubs, the Electric Ballroom. This was a whole other league, not least because of the size of the place but also the music I was expected to play. Alternative and metal. I’ve always been into my metal, not as much as hard rock but they’re easy bedfellows and it’s not always obvious where one genre stops and the other begins. I love the pathos in heavy metal, and to this day if there’s one genre of music I’m a bit precious about, it’s metal. If you think all metalheads are alike you clearly don’t know the first thing about it. So I said okay, as long as I wasn’t expected to play shit like Limp Bizkit or Slipknot. No offense to nu metal fans out there, it’s just not my bag. As with most things, I’m old school. Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Metallica; now you’re talking. I was perfectly happy to rock the socks off London’s premier rock club and get paid a small fortune for my time.
If Mack was a power tool, there are no words to describe the manager at the Electric Ballroom. Unlike Mack, however, he was a gorgeous Izzy Stradlin lookalike who bedded half the girls in London. In fact let’s call him Izzy. And just to make things more interesting, Izzy was sleeping with one of my best friends, who was the girlfriend of my boyfriend’s best friend. Whom I was about to dump. If this is all sounding very Type O Negative “My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend” to you then you wouldn’t be far off the mark. But you’ll have to wait until Part II to read the rest of the story.