Moonlighting as a DJ

What I was doing when I wasn't shooting

Where the magic happens

For a large part of my twenties, I lived a double life. By day I worked on the farm or as a tree surgeon, and sometimes even in an office. I would play football and cricket for my village, I did lots of shooting (of course), I saw my girlfriend(s) if they weren’t busy, and my friends if they were. Pretty normal I suppose. But I had a dark secret, for when the moon rose, I would travel to village halls, hotels, sports clubs and one time even Lakeside country club, armed with cases full of cheesy CDs and an array of stage lighting. I was present at birthday parties, wedding receptions, retirement dos, anniversaries, christenings, a wake or two and so many school discos. Yes, I was a mobile DJ.

It all started when I took a temp job in an office doing data entry for an insurance firm. The days were long and boring, matching scanned correspondence to account and policy numbers. To pass the time, I would chat with the people either side of and opposite me (an absolutely cracking bird called Becky… Phwoaaar!), and often we would talk about what we did outside work, where we went and so on. All being from the same smallish town, and roughly the same age, it turned out that we mostly moved in similar circles. All except one guy, who sat right next to me and rarely said two words during the day. That was until the fateful day when I was just leaving the office, and my normally reserved colleague approached me in an agitated state with a look of fear and anxiousness on his face. What was going on I thought? Turned out he needed help, and he thought I was the man to provide it.

Simon, for that was his name, was a bit of a dark horse. Mild mannered office clerk by day, superstar DJ by night. To say I was surprised by this revelation was a bit of an understatement. We thought he might go home and sit in a darkened room until the next morning, but he actually more often than not loaded up his car with PA equipment, lights and 1000s of CDs and drove all over the county, performing for all manner of people, and bloody good at it he was too. Often not returning home until 2 or 3 in the morning, he would be up and ready for work regardless of sleep, and lived on a constant supply of caffine to get him through the day. No wonder he hardly said anything.

Anyway, back at the office, and for the first time ever, Simon had cause to say more than a few words to me all in one go. He was doing a big gig this very night, and sometimes needed help for one reason or another (setting up, taking requests etc), and tonight was one of those nights. His usual helper had let him down last minute, and would I (could I) do him a massive favour and help him out? All the free drinks I wanted and the chance to chat up drunken ladies all evening? I didn’t hesitate to say yes. So I made my way home, with a solemn promise that I would return to the office car park at 7 o’clock, to meet him and journey on to my first ever mobile disco, a private 21st birthday party being held at a local golf club function room.

He was waiting for me when I arrived, and admitted to me that he didn’t think I would turn up. I said that I always kept my promises, and this was one experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world. So off we went in his little Vauxhall Nova van, rattling across town to the very grand looking golf club with its long shingled driveway and fountains outside the imposing clubhouse. We were met by the birthday girls parents, (dad happened to be the club secretary), and were shown into the room where we would set up. Fortunately, Simon had been here before, so he knew the layout and already had his spot picked out opposite the bar. It took about 15 minutes to completely unload and move all the equipment into the room, and being security conscious , there was always one of us in sight of the van and the equipment, after all there was several thousand pounds worth of CDs in there alone.

Setting up took a while, as Simon had to show me where everything went and how to rig up the lighting and speakers. Eventually, we got so slick, what at first took us over half an hour could be completed in ten minutes. He dealt with the PA and left me to do the lights while he did his sound checks and talked to the host about any special requests, or requirements. This one was quite easy, as all they wanted was recent chart music, and then as the night went on more party/cheese stuff. With about 5 minutes to go, Simon checked on the lights, tweaked them a bit and before we knew it, it was show time. As a fairly typical man in his early twenties, the sight of hoards of scantily dressed girls filing into this room was how shall we say, quite exhilarating, For me, that was always one of the highlights of any disco, and was probably a major factor in me doing more after my first one. Simon seemed nonplussed, If he was checking out the talent, he hid it well, and just seemed to be focused on his music.

The set up was fairly typical of most mobile discos of the time. The sound system was a Numark CD mix 2, with all the necessary controls, and a 2x1000w Gemini amplifier. These were complimented by two free standing RCF speakers (these were bloody heavy). The lighting rig had 8 separate lights, including a strobe, and these were controlled by a remote unit. Topping it all off was a smoke machine, and sometimes a bubble machine. 4 flight cases full of CDs, both albums and singles, with most importantly, every NOW album from the first onwards (These were our go to albums for 75% of the gigs we did). On special occasions, he would bring out the Technics decks and vinyl, but they were normally reserved for club nights and the odd warehouse rave. The first hour or so of a gig was normally pretty tame. Occasionally we would crank into it from the off, it all depended on what sort of party it was, and how much the crowd had been drinking beforehand. And that was the key, for once the drinks started flowing, the music gradually got louder, and then the fun would begin.

Simon in the mix, venue unknown

One of my jobs was to take requests. When I first started doing Discos, I noted everything down and passed it onto Simon. He would either screw it up and chuck it behind him, or tuck it under the CD Mixer, and eventually work it into his set. After a while, I got to know if we had a particular song, so could relay back to the person if they would hear their song or would like to make another request. Also, I became good at filtering out requests that either didn’t fit the vibe, or suggesting an alternative in a bad songs place. Simon very rarely screwed up a piece of paper I passed him after a while. So for my first year or so going out to gigs with Simon, I didn’t do much after the initial set up except take requests and watch the crowd. I would go and get drinks, but Simon didn’t seem to drink much when he was working, and only ever soft drinks when he did. Sometimes I wouldn’t even sit in the DJ booth, and instead I would sit at the bar and chat with the staff (That was actually how I met my (now) wife. So I will always be thankful to Simon for allowing me to meet Mrs CP.

At the end of the night, packing up everything and loading it up into the van was all there was left to do. That was normally pretty quick, and while Simon was getting paid, I would guard the van. Then we would either return to where I left my car, or go back to his house where he would carefully park his van in the garage and obsessively check the locks before going in. It became a regular thing that we would sit in his living room and either watch late night TV or play playstation games, but that all depended on how late it was as I still had a 40 minute drive to get home after leaving his house. On the odd occasion when we did a late finish Friday or Saturday, I would kip on his sofa, and we would then go to the greasy spoon around the corner for breakfast in the morning. I grew to very much enjoy those nights, and it actually replaced going out to the pub or clubbing with my mates as my activity of choice for a while.

As I got more familiar with how things worked and what to expect on a night, Simon would let me do a bit of DJing myself, normally for the first hour or so, and he soon realised I had a natural talent for it, and was quite happy to teach me all the secrets and tricks of the trade. He always took over as the night wore on, and I can’t remember a time when the punters weren’t completely satisfied, and a tip at the end was more common than not.  Simon didn’t have a pre planned set. He kept to more or less the same formula for most gigs, but picked his tracks on the night, judging the next one to select by how much the crowd had enjoyed the previous one. He had favourite combos that were easy to mix together, but he had no problem working anything that would increase the atmosphere into a set, and 99% of the time he got it spot on. I can remember a few occasions when things didn’t go to plan, and he had to cut a track before it was finished, but he had the knack of making his mistakes seem just like part of the act.

There were a few more memorable occasions, all for the wrong reasons of course. One time we were booked to do a 70th birthday at a football club. Something didn’t feel right when we got there, as there was already a lot of younger men lurking about, standing smoking around their pick up trucks and vans, but we carried on setting up regardless. Turns out, the party was for the matriarch of the local traveller clan. 400 or more people showed up, including rival families, police and ambulance, and I don’t think we got more than half an hour into the gig before the fighting started. It was one of the only times I ever saw Simon get aggressive, as he cut the music and lights and leapt over the DJ booth to fend off the approaching commotion. We were lucky to make it out alive, and Simon learned to vet his prospective customers a little more diligently. In case you were wondering, they paid in full before we started, and we ended up having to get a police escort from the premises.

Another time, we agreed to do an 18th birthday gig at the Conservative Club around the corner from Simons flat. It was quite a small function room, and not very well situated, and we had to walk the equipment up two flights of steep stairs. We were set up and ready to go in plenty of time, and the birthday boy and his folks were cutting increasingly lonely figures outside as the invited guests never materialised. One or two people eventually turned up, but there couldn’t have been more than 10 people there including his parents. People can be very cruel sometimes. They still enjoyed the night, and we did too, playing all the latest club hits while the party goers danced away the hours. Simon didn’t accept the payment in the end, and I refused to let him pay me out of his own pocket.

I particularly enjoyed club nights, as there was no setting up required, and Simon could really let loose and show off his skills. It’s a real rush seeing 200 people all going absolutely crazy dancing to the music you select and play for them, and at times it seemed like we had them under a spell, almost like the pied piper. We did regular gigs at the two flea pits in town, usually 3 nights a month and occasional special events like Halloween and valentines day gigs. We played at festivals a couple of times, where depending on what tunes you selected, crowds could go from a few dozen to a thousand in short order.

I got on really well with Simon, and we became firm friends, even when we weren’t DJing. He was an usher at my wedding and I returned the favour a few years later. He joined me and a larger group of my friends who spent a wild 4 weeks in San Antonio, Ibiza, staying at a villa, lounging around the pool and playing football on the beach, clubbing most nights and not doing much sleeping. I saw a different side to him there, as he came out of his shell a bit, no doubt loosened up by the high levels of alcohol we were all drinking. That’s possibly the most fun I’ve ever had, and I look back fondly at the memories, with a tinge of sadness as I realise those days are gone and will never be coming back. Still, I suppose we were lucky to have experienced them at all.

We parted ways when I got married and moved to the other side of the country. I do miss it sometimes, but I don’t know if I could handle the late nights any more. I still keep in touch with Simon, and he is still active, although he doesn’t do as much now due to all the shit of the last year. Last time I saw him in person, he had become a father for the first time and was very much enjoying the experience. Music really hadn’t been a large part of my life before I met Simon, merely some background noise to pass the time. Its thanks to him that I realise what I was missing, and now I couldn’t imagine my life without it.

© Columba Palumbus 2021

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file