Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, The History of the Disc Jockey, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

As the subtitle has it, this book purports to be a history of the DJ.  It starts off promisingly enough with introductory chapters on the early role of DJs in clubs and on the radio.  dj savedHowever, once Brewster & Broughton (B&B) enter into the meat of the book they quickly lose focus and what we get is a more or less random collection of anecdotes that sometimes are about DJs and sometimes are about other aspects of dance music or club culture. 

It is telling that the central section of “Last Night . .”, which is just under two thirds of the book, is organized around types of music rather than DJs, DJing practices or DJing techniques.  Often it seems B&B are more interested in different types of dance music than they are in DJs.  This is most apparent in the chapter on Techno where they point out that the key players in early Detroit techno, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, were not DJs and had almost nothing to do with DJs and then they go on to spend a whole chapter on anecdotes about them.  Northern Soul is given 34 pages during which the same few points are made again, and again, and again.  The writing in this chapter is so redundant I came very close to putting the book down as a waste of time.  While B&B are enthused with Northern Soul, they don’t make any kind of case that the scene was of more than marginal importance for anything having to do with the development of the DJ over the time period covered in the book.  It only seems to be given so much attention because B&B like it.  The following chapter is on Reggae and here we have a wealth of rich ores to mine in the history of the DJ.  B&B point out that remixing, stripping tracks down to bass and drums, extending breaks, “toasting” (later called rapping) over DJ played music, and more may well have originated in Jamaica.  If you were really interested in the history of the DJ you could spend an entire book tracing out how these techniques developed and were passed on to the DJs in New York and Miami.  B&B give reggae 16 pages (compared with Northern Soul’s 34!) and, other than saying “this started in Jamaica, that started in Jamaica” do almost nothing else with it.  The whole book is like this; they tell anecdote after anecdote about the kinds of music they like and skim along the surface of everything else.  Too often “Last Night . . ” is shallow in both thought and coverage. 

At times the writing style is so hysterical and the statements claimed as truth or insight are so overwrought and poorly supported that a reader concerned with clear thinking and analysis rather than assertions of opinion is compelled to take even the author’s less extravagant claims skeptically.  For example, B&B write “And when his dance revolution swept all other pop before it, the DJ found himself at the center of momentous social change, as he dramatically altered the way people consumed their music and enjoyed their leisure.”  The “dance revolution that swept all other pop before it” seems to be the development of house in Chicago, techno in Detroit and possibly hip-hop in the Bronx although it’s really not very clear.  This grandiose nonsense is apparently based on the observation that some DJs developed successful careers as remixers and producers. 

One very useful aspect of the book is an appendix that contains “Club Charts” that list “Top” 50 or 100 tracks played at a number of the famous dance clubs mentioned in the text.  As sources for music you might want to listen to, these lists are terrific.  As a reliable index of what was played or what was popular in any of these clubs, their value is much less clear.  They are labeled “Top 50” or “Top 100” but how anyone arrived at these lists is unknown and unaddressed by the authors.  Some of the lists are compiled or partially compiled by the DJs who made the clubs famous.  Others are compiled by “The Committee”.  Who “The Committee” are, what grounds they have to claim expert knoweldge of what was played in any given club, what their criteria for the inclusion of a song on the list were is anyone’s guess. 

As a collection of anecdotes about different kinds of dance music, clubs, and DJs from roughly 1970 to the mid 1990s, “Last Night . . ” is an enjoyable read.  As a book that details the history of the DJ or provides information that one can trust as reliable it’s a failure.

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07/08/2007 - Posted by | book reviews, music

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