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D.J.: How David Bowie’s Disco Satire Critiqued Celebrity Culture
Warner Music
In Depth

D.J.: How David Bowie’s Disco Satire Critiqued Celebrity Culture

David Bowie’s ‘cynical’ response to disco music, D.J. was a warped dance song that looked at the changing face of celebrity in the late 70s.

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Opening the second half of David Bowie’s Lodger album, D.J. was the first in a run of five songs on the record to critique Western society – in this instance, changes in celebrity culture at the end of the 70s. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” Bowie sings on the song’s bridge, as if looking back over the decade he’d shaped in his own image. But while The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars had confirmed Bowie as the archetypal rock star in 1972, by 1979 a new kind of pop-culture icon had begun to emerge.

“You look at the DJ and wonder what he does, or why he became a DJ,” Bowie said of the song’s inspiration, in an interview with New York City radio station WNEW-FM. Imagining the nightclub disc-jockey as a recently unemployed figure both trapped by and seeking transcendence in his role as enabler of escapism, Bowie – who, born David Jones, shared his birth initials with his protagonist’s job title – took a look at fame through the DJ’s eyes. Arguably, it didn’t differ all that much from his own experience…

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The inspiration: “It was a kind of pastiche thing that one thinks up in a disco”

“This is somewhat cynical, but it’s my natural response to disco,” Bowie said of D.J. while talking to Melody Maker magazine ahead of Lodger’s release. After groups such as Bee Gees and Chic helped make disco music a global phenomenon with the Saturday Night Fever movie and dancefloor-filling songs such as Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) and Good Times, the genre had begun to experience a backlash: Chicago DJ Steve Dahl had launched the “Disco Sucks” campaign, culminating in Disco Demolition Night, during which an estimated 50,000 people gathered at Comiskey Park baseball stadium on 12 July 1979, to burn disco records as part of a promotional stunt between games.

Bowie, who had embraced soul and funk music just a few years earlier with his Young Americans album, and would soon enlist disco architect Nile Rodgers to co-produce 1983’s Let’s Dance, wasn’t about to dismiss an entire style out of hand. Having recently laid the blueprint for the rising new-wave scene, however, his “natural response” to disco was to create a warped dance track that shared more with Talking Heads than KC And The Sunshine Band, and which scratched at the surface of the nightclub’s central figure: the disc jockey.

“It was just a sort of a kind of pastiche thing that one thinks up in a disco, really,” he told WNEW-FM.

The recording: “They took all the best bits and spliced them together”

From disco inspiration to studio realisation: Bowie and his core band of Carlos Alomar (guitar), George Murray (bass) and Dennis Davis (drums) recorded D.J. in Mountain Studios, in Montreux, Switzerland, during sessions for what would become the final album in his “Berlin Trilogy”. Though none of the Lodger sessions took place in Berlin, Bowie was still working with his Low and “Heroes” co-conspirators Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, and the experimentalism that characterised those albums also underpinned the D.J. sessions.

Seesawing its way through the track as a counterpoint to Murray’s disco-styled bass work and Alomar’s fluidly funky riffing, Simon House’s violin created a suitably queasy atmosphere for Bowie’s “incurably ill” protagonist, trading places with – and sometimes running through – Eno’s trusty EMS Synthi to superbly unsettling effect. As Bowie sings the words “Can’t turn around, no”, the music traps his DJ in a dizzying vortex that spins faster than the records on his decks.

“The DJ is the one having ulcers now,” Bowie told Melody Maker, “because if you do the unthinkable thing of putting a record on in a disco not in time, that’s it. If you have 30 seconds silence, your whole career is over.”

Packed to its full four minutes with swooping synths, chattering hi-hat and a deranged guitar solo compiled from separate takes improvised on the spot by Adrian Belew (“They took all the best bits and spliced them together,” Belew told Uncut magazine almost 30 years later. “When you listen to that record, you realise there’s no way I can make those changes”) there was no silence in D.J. itself. Installing himself in New York City’s Record Plant in March 1979, Bowie added his vocals, sounding for all the world like David Byrne’s more anxious cousin as he asks, “You think this is easy, realism?” Weighing up the spoils of fame, he finds them lacking: “Fast food, living nostalgia/Humble pie or bitter fruit.”

The release: “A boldly uncommercial choice”

Later praised by Bowie expert Nicholas Pegg for being “a boldly uncommercial choice as the follow-up single” to Boys Keep Swinging, D.J. was released on 29 June 1979, and would peak just inside the UK Top 30. Directed by David Mallet, the song’s promo video saw Bowie further explore the pressures – self-imposed or otherwise – of being a public figure, while also blurring the boundary between the fictional DJ and the real-life David Jones.

“I am a DJ, I am what I play,” Bowie sings while taking an impromptu stroll down London’s Earls Court Road. “I’ve got believers believing me.” As shocked onlookers mob him – with two particularly zealous fans covering him in kisses – the footage, interspersed with clips of Bowie trashing his DJ booth, recalls earlier scenes of Ziggymania, when acolytes threw themselves at Bowie, uncertain of where the rock messiah role-play ended and the real-life human began.

The legacy: “He’s got to keep that constant wave of people moving”

As if leaping straight out of Bowie’s song, the celebrity DJ would became a regular fixture at clubs and festivals in the 90s and 2000s, playing to crowds of thousands and extending the DJ’s role far beyond song selection into remix and production work. Fittingly, the song D.J. would itself be retooled during this time, with Bowie unveiling a rock-tinged arrangement for its first live airing, during the 1. Outside album’s supporting tour, before approving an electro overhaul by Italian house DJ Benny Benassi. Returning to the original master tapes in 2017, Tony Visconti remixed the track as part of a whole Lodger rework, while the song would later be issued in a largely instrumental mix for Brett Morgen’s Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream.

“He has to be so finely tuned in to the atmosphere on the dancefloor,” Bowie said of the original figure that had inspired D.J. “He’s got to keep that constant wave of people moving.” So finely tuned to what moved people himself, Bowie remains a totemic figure in pop culture. Whether DJ or DB, his believers are still believing him.

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