DJ Phil, a Brief Career Introspective – The Early Years (Part Two)

Last time out, I made the comment that, if I was going to get regular work, I’d have to start gigging outside my comfort zone of the rock and alternative scene, sell my soul to the dark side and start playing at commercial discos.

Well, sometime in 1983 (I can’t remember the exact date), and after several years of random, one-off soul, Northern Soul, punk, alternative, and hard rock discos (which I continued to gig at, by the way – the random gigs didn’t just stop), I got my first regular gig. Actually, it was only one Friday night per month, but it was still my first “regular”. And the music certainly was different from anything that I’d ever played before. Radically different. But it was most definitely NOT your typical Top 30 chart disco…

I’d been asked by some close friends if I would start playing once a month at a regular disco for the local gay community, which I thought was quite amusing, as I’m a card-carrying heterosexual myself. I was delighted to say “yes”, and this was to begin a fifteen-year association between myself and the gay community, during which I was the official DJ, from 1983-1998, at what everyone in Derry almost universally referred to as the “Gay Disco”. For the first couple of years, the disco was held in Dill House, an old Victorian red brick building which served as the Student’s Union at the local University of Ulster campus, sited at Magee College, a nice, quiet spot on the outskirts of the town, well away from the city centre.

Back in the early-1980s, the local gay music scene (and gay society as a whole) was much more underground and progressive than it is today. Many younger gays might disagree with me, but I’d argue that, in taking huge strides towards becoming more accepted and assimilated into “normal” society, the gay scene (in my town, at least), AND its music have lost their edge and become not only extremely similar to the “mainstream”, but, dare I say it, bland and dull, at least in comparison to the underground heyday of the 1980s, when virtually “anything goes” was the norm on the local gay scene.

Back in those days, anyone of LGBT orientation usually tried not to display their true nature and behaviour too much in public, in fear of the rampant homophobia (gay-bashing was pretty common in our town) in mainstream local society. The “Gay Disco” and other similar venues were usually in less central (to city centres) venues, well out of sight of any hostile anti-gay groups, and were places where gays of all shades could feel safe, let their hair down, and have fun. And, boy, did those people know how to have fun!

Everything about the “Gay Disco” was, exhibitionist, loud, and Proud To Be Gay. From the patrons themselves, many in drag, all trying to outdo each other with the most outrageously camp behaviour and dancing, to the music, which was, with very few exceptions (maybe a very short “slow set”), relentlessly upbeat in tempo. Aside from a handful of the better dance songs from the charts, it was non-stop classic soul, disco, funk, eurodance, and gay club anthems, many of which I had never even heard before. At the very beginning, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going half the time, and I was certainly winging it for the first few gigs before I started to find my feet. 🙂

Well, I had to learn the ropes pretty darned fast, I can tell you. So I went out and started hunting down some completely new (new to me, anyway) types of music, most of it unique to the gay music scene, just for this one monthly gig. As a guy who was accustomed to playing loud, heavy, guitar music to hairy rockers, or frenetic punk riffs and weird New Wave tunes to spikey-haired “fraggles”, punks and skinheads, this was like stepping into a completely different world. There wasn’t a hard rock or punk rock tune in sight. Absolutely NO guitar music at the “Gay Disco”.

And y’know what? It was FUN! For a long time, the “Gay Disco” was the place to be for the best nightlife in Derry. Even the “straights” from the town (in the shape of crowds of gay-friendly punks and “fraggles”), looking for a late-night spot to hang out, would land up in large numbers at around 1.30am or 2am with their carry-outs (it was a “bring your own booze” gig), as the other pubs in the town would close around 1am, and the “Gay Disco” continued on sometimes until 3am or even 3.30am. For a couple of years, from 1983-1985, it was the best disco in the town.

But that all got put on hold for a year or two, as things temporarily took a turn for the worse on the gay social scene. The new, growing university campus at Magee College was being greatly expanded and redeveloped, with many of the older Victorian buildings demolished to make way for the brand spanking new modern university buildings. Unfortunately for the “Gay Disco”, venerable old Dill House was scheduled for demolition, and at some point during early 1985, the “Gay Disco” found itself without a home.

A quick relocation of venue was organized, but, unfortunately it was a very bad move, to the Union Hall, which was right bang smack in the centre of town, beside the city walls. This was very hostile territory for gays, with gangs of drunken “gay bashers” roaming the town and waiting outside at the end of each gig to give some unfortunate victims a beating. So very few gays actually ever went to this gig (there were rarely any more than a couple of dozen people at each disco), bar a handful of hardcore, brave, hardy souls. The “Gay Disco” limped along in limbo to near-empty halls for the best part of a year and a half.

Then, in late 1986, the “Gay Disco” returned to its original home on the Magee College campus, and a whole new chapter in my DJ career was to begin…

To Be Continued…