As some of you may be aware, I’m still writing (just not songs these days). A while back, I had the following story published in “Ireland’s Own” magazine. It was a thrill to have it accepted.
One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock…Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock…
By the time we got to nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock, we usually had them on the dance floor. That ol’ Bill Haley & The Comets’ chestnut “Rock Around The Clock” may have been from my parents’ time but it still worked a charm with my generation.
As far back as I can remember I’ve always loved music. At first I just listened to the radio but later I learned to play myself and joined a band. It was so much fun – a dream come true.
We played all around our area and we were lucky enough to become popular. We were a dance band, pure and simple. Every band was back then. Oh, you may have had some groups in Dublin, Cork or Galway that you could sit down and listen to, but not in the country. In the country, people went out to dance.
I learned early on that the test was to get them on the dance floor… a skill that had to be learned. Try too hard, too fast and it backfired on you. Wait too long and you’d lose them. The end result of either of those two mistakes was that they’d sit and look at you for most of the night. So the secret was to play the right song at just the right moment. You’d play several songs as a warm-up; good enough to get their attention, get their feet tapping and build up that need in them to hit the dance floor. Those songs were good but they were throwaways in the bigger game. That’s how I learned to play “Rock Around The Clock” at just the right moment. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it worked. You knew you had a hard crowd if it didn’t.
As disco became popular and took work away from live bands, that ability to read a crowd stood by me. I’d built up a collection of LP’s and cassettes at the time and one day one of my friends asked me if I’d do the music for his sister’s 21st birthday party. He said: “you can just play records or cassettes. It doesn’t really matter. They’re not a dancing crowd. It’s just to have some music in the background.” I agreed to help him out.
I had all the band equipment, so that part was sorted – speakers, amplifiers, a microphone, etc. I had no intention of wiring up two turntables and bringing all my good records so I transferred what I thought were suitable songs to a bunch of cassettes. I made up a ‘slow dance’ tape, a ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ tape and a couple with new and old chart hits.
I felt they might not take me serious if they could see that I only had a cassette player with me, so I made up a big sign to place in front of it. I painted it in all the colours of the rainbow and wrote UFO in big letters. When asked what it meant, I answered – Ultimate Freak Out! Yeah, I was on my way as a DJ!
The evening was a big success… and I got them dancing. It was that ability to read a crowd and know how to pace them by choosing the right records at the right time. By the end of the night they were shouting for more… and I gave it to them. One comment I received repeatedly after it was over was: “Most of the DJ’s just stand there and play record after record but you spoke to us and made it personal.” I thanked them for their comments but little did they know – I had to talk all the time because I needed to cover myself as I took out one cassette and put in another. I’d have lost them if I left them standing on the dance floor in silence. While one song was playing, I’d use my walkman and line up the next song… and that was the UFO disco in all its splendour and glory!
Word of mouth ensured that I was kept busy doing parties everywhere. I could play AC/DC at a 50th wedding anniversary or Frank Sinatra at a 21st and it was all the same – I’d have them sweating it out on the dance floor for most of the night.
One time I was invited to a private party in Dublin; I had mentioned that I had a bit of equipment and brought it on the night. Of course I ended up doing my full disco show and it was such a success that I did it for several years.
When live music came back in vogue, I moved abroad to play music fulltime with my band. Later I heard that the party where I had DJ’d had decided to hire a professional but it didn’t work out at all. Seemingly, he just stood there and played record after record. I guess he didn’t know how to read a crowd… or when to play “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets!!