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.”