D.J. (live, 1995).

The disc jockey created rock & roll, or so it seemed to the kids; he unearthed it, cast it out into the air. So the first rock & roll songs celebrated DJs, courted them (their labels were content to bribe them). “Roll Over Beethoven” opens with “I’m gonna write a little letter, gonna mail it to my local deejay,” which Chuck Berry delivers as one percussive line, releasing all the tension on “deejay.” Sam Cooke in “Having a Party” is cooler, making a few requests, acknowledging the DJ as part of the party. DJs were absent lovers, accidental liberators.

For the punks, though, the DJ was a stooge, a coward, a philistine. Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio” was the prosecutor’s brief: the DJ is a bought fool, the radio is as barren as they want to make your life. Rappers, frustrated by only the blandest hip-hop getting airplay (Public Enemy: “Radio stations, I question their blackness/they call themselves black but we’ll see if they play this!”), kept up the charge. Time, consolidation and technology did the rest, turning the DJ into an interchangeable cog, then an archaism.*

Bowie’s “D.J” comes during the transition. The DJ here is an unemployed shut-in whose girl’s left him (she’s out dancing—what’s it matter, he says) yet he still has listeners who believe in him. It might not be true—he may have lost his job as a DJ, and now he’s just spinning records at home—but it’s all he’s got. It’s the deflating of a once-public figure, Dan Dare lying down. He used to be my boss and now he is a puppet dancer.

Ian Mathers, in his 2004 revisit to Lodger, made a good point that “DJ” is neither celebrating DJ culture nor condemning it, the music and the activity is merely a framework to hang the song upon. “DJ” is a horror story about a human being reduced to nothing more than work.” Still, I wouldn’t go that far: “D.J.” (“David Jones” too, of course) is also a man defined by his records wondering if he’s been reduced to them. If all you are is what you play, when you play dross and nonsense, what does that make you? It’s the idle thoughts of a man whose life has played out in a series of LP cover photographs, the most recent of which found him battered and thrashed on the ground, as if he’d been mugged in a public bathroom.

Bowie’s promo video for the song, directed by David Mallet, seems to offer a way out, with shots of Bowie as studio exile, alone with his records, intercut with Bowie suddenly in the public, walking alone through Earl’s Court Road. Men and women kiss him, he dances with strangers, he seems alive and amazingly fragile. There’s an electricity to these shots and a sense of menace (the man who confronts him at 1:09 looks like he’s asking for his wallet)—this is a year before John Lennon was shot. The video ends with Bowie pulling down the blinds (a tribute to the end of Lean’s Great Expectations) of his cave and escaping, but Bowie in the crowd can seem just as isolated, his face occasionally becoming a mask.**

While “D.J.” was released as Lodger‘s second single, it doesn’t seem like a hit, as it’s an odd A minor composition that seems self-sabotaged in places. It barely charted. While George Murray is hell-bent on turning it into a disco song, with a propulsive, popping bassline (Blur’s “Girls and Boys” starts here), Dennis Davis’ drums are sunk in the mix and Carlos Alomar offers yet another catchy riff demoted to a supporting role. Simon House’s violin crops up, mimicking Bowie’s vocal in the first verse, while Bowie’s Chamberlin sometimes duets with the violin, then replaces it. It features another of Adrian Belew’s forced improvisation guitar solos (see “Red Sails”) that was cobbled together from various takes. The result, as Belew later said, sounds like you’re scanning the radio and picking up pieces of guitar solos here and there along the dial.

All seems to be going to plan—there’s a verse, a catchy chorus, a verse, a guitar solo. Then, instead of riding things out with repeats of the chorus, Bowie suddenly throws in a 16-bar coda to derail it: the chorus never returns. It’s as much a joke (Bowie sings “time flies when you’re having fun” as slowly as he can, filling four bars with it) as it’s disturbing; it’s the final collapse of the DJ figure, who’s reduced to chanting “I’ve got believers.” As the track fades out, the backing singers emphasize the last two syllables: leave us, leave us.

Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC. Released as a single in June 1979 (RCA BOW 3 c/w “Repetition”, UK #29). Performed only during the 1995 tour.

* The very ’90s movie Pump Up the Volume seems like the last time a DJ (in this case Christian Slater’s shock jock in the making) was any sort of radical figure.

** “D.J.”‘s promo film also helped establish a cardinal rule of early MTV: at some point in a video, glass must be broken.

Top: John Blower, “London, 1979.”

22 Responses to D.J.

  1. diamond dog says:

    It was an odd single but is an excellent piece I like it and is a fav on the lp. The promo video is excellent Bowie entertaining a crowd following him is very memorable , the effect he has on grown men is crazy with them hesitantly kissing …odd. The 7inch does not have the slow section as I recall? Great visuals great song.

  2. Jeepster says:

    D.J. is one of the only songs I really like on Lodger; then again I haven’t listened to it in ages!

    That should go on my summer project list along with Scary Monsters, which, by the way, I look forward to reading about 🙂

  3. Remco says:

    That final image of Bowie spray painting his own intitials while wearing a gas mask is really disturbing. Really great video for a really great song.

  4. snoball says:

    Glass or at least a mirror in the case of ‘DJ’. And don’t forget that the actual breaking has a video effect added to make it more intense, a very common early 80’s trick.
    The shot of Bowie kicking in the door wearing a gas mask and a pink jumpsuit, and then just standing there in the doorway makes me laugh every time.

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Well, Gary Numan sure loved it! See video for “We Take Mystery To Bed” for plenty of broken glass, jumpsuits and gas masks! But really, almost all of Numan’s early clips feature broken glass. Speaking of Numan, I always noticed that at the point where Bowie lifts a 7″ off of the turntable and throws it over his shoulder with a cocky wink, the record thrown has an all red label very much like Beggar’s Banquet of the time. I always imagined that it was a copy of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” getting some bitter Bowie karma payback. Thoughts?

  5. diamond dog says:

    In his pink jump suit and gas mask he looks like a gay version of the avenging killer in dead mans shoes…strangely disturbing.

  6. MrBelm says:

    For a DJ, he sure has a hard time mounting records on turntables…

  7. Jeremy Earl says:

    Great video. I particularly love the parts on the street. although the in the studio sections are pretty disturbing. As I’ve mentioned before, my first exposure to Bowie, so i have a real soft spot for this song, which is, lets face it, pretty out there! I love the meta awareness of this track, the DJ reference and notions of identity hidden in the lyrics. Strange choice for a single however when Look Back in Anger would have been so much better and there was even a video for that too. Top stuff though Dave…

  8. diamond dog says:

    I imagine look back in anger would have been a single but maybe rca backed off. Dj is certainly a very odd choice as a follow up to boys. As I said before the slower section of the song is edited down I recall?

    • Carl says:

      I don’t think DJ is at all an odd choice for a single. It’s one of the catchiest songs on the album.

  9. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I think Look Back in Anger was the lead single in the US.

  10. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    “Boys Keep Swinging” was the lead single in the UK, “Look Back” was the lead in the US. RCA didn’t think the US was quite ready for Bowie’s androgyny.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Thanks guys, I didn’t know that was the case.

    • Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

      Germany also went with “Boys Keep Swinging / Fantastic Voyage” as lead single. Don’t think it charted though, and so the next single there was ‘John, I’m only Dancing”.

      The Netherlands and Turkey also got ‘Yassasin’ as a single, which was erm… a brave choice.

  11. Momus says:

    Greatness way beyond the call of duty.

  12. Rufus Oculus says:

    The song was certainly edited for the UK single release. I recall being annoyed at losing the slow section which I thought robbed the song of its drama. I suppose the record company thought DB had sabotaged his own song so in a ham fisted way it tried to put matters right. Although it was not an obvious single the rationale in putting it out may well have been simply the title which would appeal to the vanity of radio DJs just like records with the word radio in their title.

  13. decosabute says:

    First off, as it’s my first comment I’d just like to say thank you for the blog – I don’t think I’ve ever taken as much pleasure in reading anything online and look forward to (as I’m sure you do too, Chris) the book coming out, whenever that may be.

    As for ‘D.J.’, I’m pretty sure the eye-catching promo was at least partly inspired by M’s ‘Pop Muzik’, which climbed to number 2 in the UK charts in May 1979, exactly the time Bowie/Mallet would have been planning and shooting the videos to his singles from Lodger. Not only does it involve a DJ spinning and throwing away disposable records as a main theme, it also feature the singer of the group, Robin Scott, fixing his hair in a mirror, both of which Bowie (intentionally or not) completely mimics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FabM1RJTkrY

    The connections between the pair don’t end there, as according to Scott, they also knew each other from Bowie’s folk days in the 60s. The best link of all though, is that when when M were recording ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich’ – the album from which ‘Pop Muzik’ is taken – in Mountain Studios in Montreux in 1979, Scott claims that Bowie dropped in on the sessions and provided ‘handclaps and horseplay’ on one or two of the tracks:

    • Natasha says:

      Good call on the Scott “M’z Pop Muzik” similarities to the DJ video. i gotta say that I agree with you. Another bit to add to the list is how the letter ‘M’ is sprayed across the screen as the “Pop Muzik” video kicks off much like how Bowie spray paints the letters ‘DJ’ on glass as his video ends. Is it possible that our Bowie’s magpie tendencies are being seen in all of this- or even Mallet’s perhaps? There were not that many music videos in circulation at that point in time (compared to the numbers appearing in the early 80’s)for them to study and learn from. Who knows? And while Scott is certainly credited with bringing to life a memorable pop hit that year I couldn’t help but hear some slight Bowie influences in the vocals- akin to his Ziggy Stardust era vocal style including a Ziggy sense of playfulness with camp-like qualities.

  14. Zach says:

    Great essay on the meaning of this track, but I am afraid I am going to have to respectfully disagree with the overall interpretation. Bowie was never obvious, and so if he made a song about being a “DJ”, it wasn’t going to be about a guy who plays records for a living.

    No this song is about a guy who plays people for a living. Breaking hearts “break his heart, break her heart” and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake “can’t turn around, can’t turn around, oh no!”.

    He’s got everyone fooled, and he’s a faker. “I’ve got believers believing me”. Trusting in hi sincerity when he’s only playing with their hearts. “Time flies when you’re having fun”.

    Please consider all this. It’s right there in the lyrics. I don’t think this song is about being a record DJ at its core.

  15. Matthew says:

    I have an old book of compilations of Bowie interviews published in 1980 in which he says about D.J.
    “This is somewhat cynical but it’s my natural response to disco. The DJ is the one having ulcers now, not the executives, 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.”
    I can’t credit where this is from as the book (omnibus press) doesn’t list individual sources.
    But then it never does to take some of DB’s quotes at face value and I like your idea here, I think the whole song is self referential of his career and media perceptions of him.

    • col1234 says:

      that’s from a 1979 radio interview iirc

      yes of course there are far more interpretations you could do of DJ (and any DB song) and certainly zach’s version makes a good deal of sense

      • Matthew says:

        Great fun too. A favourite pastime of my teenage self, finding new meanings in songs.

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