Thicky Disco | The Wheels of Steel & Me

13Call it a mid-life crisis if you want; call it one last desperate spin of the bottle if it helps: but in my mid-30s, I suddenly decided it was time I became a DJ. I even created a cool DJ name for myself – Spiral Scratch, inspired by the debut EP of the same name by Buzzcocks. [1]

At the time, I was working at a school on the Surrey fringes. Every day I would cycle to work past the bowling alley where David Bowie kicked off the UK leg of his Ziggy Stardust world tour. George Bernard Shaw [2] would never fail to come to mind as I pedalled by, the cackle of Bowie’s laughter still hanging faintly about the place. I felt a fraud. Inside me there was a superstar DJ just itching to break out.

The chance came sooner than I expected. After a Year 10 parents’ evening, I found myself in the pub across the road from where I lived. I was with a colleague, Alex, who I didn’t know particularly well. We shared similar tastes in music and seemed to get on okay. For want of something to talk about, I told him about my ideas for starting a club night – which had been formulating in my head for all of the 20 minutes since we had both arrived! (You would be wrong to imagine that I had learned anything from my experiences trying to start a punk band, readers.)

Unusually, for an idea of mine, Alex became excited and suggested we should give it a go. It transpired that back in the day, before he became a teacher, Alex had been something of a minor celebrity on the local disco circuit – he and a mate had even had their own sound-system. He was close friends with two club DJs I had actually heard of. Best of all – he still owned his original Technics’ record decks – the so-called ‘wheels of steel.’

My ideas for the club became increasingly and insanely elaborate: we could run it like a youth club and have membership badges (I had been reading a piece about the Heavenly Social which I imagined to be pretty much the same type of thing). Also, what about sofas instead of a dance floor? We could loop some cine-films and project them over the walls: it would be like those early Andy Warhol ‘happenings’ with the Velvet Underground. We could publish a monthly newsletter and even have our own dance company. (We did. We called it Pant’s People.) We should design some collectable posters and flyers – the Heavenly Social did some lovely ones which I covet to this day – and, if things take off, we could even cut a limited edition 12” on coloured vinyl! (Alex did – with Fluid Ounce. It’s pretty good.)

It was pure bravado, of course. I didn’t expect to be called to account. But the more I drunkenly rambled on, the more my ideas seemed to gel with Alex. “What would we call this club?” he asked.

“Polyester.” I replied quick as a flash, as if I had been giving it a great deal of thought. (To this day, I haven’t a clue where I dredged up that name. In our very first newsletter, I stated that Polyester was inspired by the title of a trashy John Waters’ movie, but that’s all bollocks.) Alex liked it though and – incredibly – so did everybody else we told about our idea. Hence the club night was christened Polyester and – unlike The Council Gritlayers – it proved something of a success. (I bet you didn’t see that coming, eh readers?!)

We found our venue for Polyester over the Red Lion pub in Twickenham. (Sadly, no blue plaque commemorates the occasion; nowadays, there isn’t even a pub, just a Tesco Express.) In the early days, the landlord – a big Irish fella who resolutely refused to laugh at a single, solitary one of my carefully rehearsed bon mots – charged us for the use of the room, but after a couple of times, in which our potent mix of pissed-up teachers and punters drank his bar dry, he let us have the room for free, and even gave us a share of the takings.

The room was mainly used for wedding functions, but we rigged it up in an Enid Blyton gang-hut kind of way. I say ‘we’, but in truth it had nothing to do with Alex and me. We would stand hunched over our equipment, earnestly looking the other way – plugging and unplugging lengths of cable – while our wives did all the boring stuff like make the room look nice. We pretended we knew what we were doing with the PA, which we had borrowed after protracted negotiations with the school music department. [3] We wired up Alex’s decks, a battered mixer, and a pair of mismatched CD players; there were extension sockets all over the place. It was a bit Wilf Lunn to be honest.

In its first – and best – incarnation, Polyester ran every last Friday of every month. [4] At the same time downstairs was a rival ‘Rock Night’. This was packed out with grim, frazzled rockers, of pensionable age, who stood about in cadaverous groups like creatures from an E.C. comic. The stink of cigarettes and body odour and patchouli oil clung to their Rainbow and Iron Maiden tour t-shirts. There was a different live band each month, but they all shared at least two things in common: 1) they were always very loud; 2) they were always very shit! When the band downstairs struck up the opening chords of Whiskey In The Jar, the ambient space we had imagined for Polyester – a place to drink and chat with grooves – was no longer an option.

Standing purposefully poised behind the decks, I had intended to start off my first ever DJ set with Serge Gainsbourg’s Requiem Pour Une Comte, but the looping drive of its bass and drum break would have been lost amidst the rising squall from below. Cueing up David Axelrod’s The Warning (for the spoken word intro) and, over it, fading in Pepe Deluxe’s Woman In Blue, should have been a moment of genius. I had the fader set up way too high, however, and nearly blew out the PA system and speakers – along with the windows and all the optics at the bar! Lunging for the volume control – at the same time wildly gesturing my obsequious apologies – I gazed out across a Goya landscape of pained and scornful faces. It’s an image that haunts me still.

The real revelation of that evening was how good a DJ Alex was. Where people had nodded politely through my set of French and Japanese girl-pop, obscure library recordings, wobbly electronica, and lengthy King Tubby dub excursions, they jolted about the place in a frenzy of grateful release as Alex whipped out track after track of floor-filling genius. I can’t recall the titles of any of the songs he played that night, but I can remember how happy he made everybody feel. At one point he threw on some jazz and we all just lapped it up. He was good. He was very, very good. And I was baaaaad. (And not in the cool, inverse meaning of the word!)

Between us, we made Polyester work and for a time it was great fun. [5] We had a loyal following – there were some people who even rather liked my offerings, although they tended to draw the line at my taste in Polish soundtrack music. Eventually Polyester even merited a one-line mention in London listings guide, Time Out, as ‘one to watch’ (ironically just before our last ever club night in 1999). If these things matter to you, the last song we played, before we announced that Polyester was over, was You’re Wondering Now by The Specials.

Polyester flyers with a soundtrack that tells you everything you need to know about me as a DJ.

Notes

1] An incident early on in the life of Polyester – where I lent Alex my shoes so he could go nightclubbing – resulted in me being called ‘The Shoe Man’, and thereafter, to my annoyance, DJ Schuman. I have only ever in my imagination been called Spiral Scratch.

2] The quote I had in mind was, ‘Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.’ rather than the one from Man & Superman so often levelled at teachers.

3] Assurances which counted for shit when we lost one of the department’s spare mixers after our final farewell, a New Year’s Eve bash in 2000/1. Both Alex and I bluffed Alan – the music guy – into believing we had never had it in the first place which, for my part in the deception, makes me mortally ashamed to this day.

4] After a brief break in the summer of 1999, Polyester 2.0 appeared at The Dome, a bistro bar in Richmond Upon Thames. It was a more professional affair, but we called it a day at the start of 2001.

[5] Among my personal highlights are sets from my friend, Jason – who Alex begrudgingly admitted to being the best beat mixer he had ever heard – and Martin from Soul Kitchen. My wife’s favourite moment is the one where I forgot to cross-fade the track playing through my headphones, and to which I was enthusiastically frugging away, so that I was the only one who could actually hear it. During the last ever Polyester event, the chef at the Dome fell out spectacularly with his assistant, so much so that they started trading blows in the street out front. The chef – boggle-eyed with fury – pulled out a huge blade, at which point (arf!), Dave, the Dome’s unflappable assistant manager, stepped in and diffused the situation, disarming the irate chef with the words, ‘Remember we talked about this? Knives stay in the kitchen!’ One last memory: we used a lot of found images for our flyers and posters. My personal favourite featured a cool sixties chick armed with a cine camera, taken from a German only album release. ‘It’s not like the people who made this record are going to see it,’ I remember saying to my sceptical wife. A few weeks later, in my local record shop, I was browsing through some albums when I heard a distinctly clipped German voice enquire, ‘Why is there a poster with one of my album covers on it?’ Turns out that the owner of the label – the wonderful Marina Records – did an awful lot of business with the shop’s owner. Fortunately, he saw the funny side, which is more than I can say for The Kray twins!

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