When DJs ruled the world

These superstars had it all – fame, money, drugs. But come the millennium, the party was over. Dom Phillips, former editor of Mixmag, tracks the boom and bust of the great mixmasters

Friday 13 March 2009 01:00

In the early 1990s, Britain was in recession. Clubbing was a reaction to the economic downturn that had sent many home-owners into negative equity. Nicky Holloway ran a night at his Milk Bar club called the Recession Session. Another London night was called Job Club – which was what unemployed people had to join to keep receiving their benefit. But, by the late Nineties, with New Labour in power and the economy booming, hundreds of thousands of British youngsters would be doing something they had never done before – racing up and down the nation's motorways to giant clubs like Cream in Liverpool or Golden in Manchester or Up Yer Ronson in Leeds. Making friends, forming networks. "A combination of music, popular culture and drugs created these contact points," said DJ Dave Dorrell. "And all of the points that had once been individual towns – Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Bristol, Birmingham – had suddenly become part of a roadmap of hedonism."

Acid house had exploded in the UK in 1988, spreading from clubs in London and Manchester to giant, illegal outdoor raves during the so-called summers of love, immortalised on tabloid front pages and in that smiley face logo. Then it had slipped from view, under the radar, into smaller, dressier, in-the-know clubs in places like Nottingham and Stoke. In 1992, smartened up and now staged in legal venues, it came back. The superclub era began in the North, with clubs like Renaissance and later Cream in Liverpool. Ministry of Sound had opened the previous year in London. And the superstar DJs became their stars.

Clubs opened across the UK, with names that captured what they were about: Gatecrasher and Love To Be in Sheffield, Slinky in Bournemouth, Colours in Edinburgh, Time Flies in Cardiff, Decadance in Birmingham, Hot To Trot and Goodbye Cruel World in Leicester, Passion in Coalville, Wobble and Fun and Miss Moneypenny's in Birmingham, Pimp in Wolverhampton, Karanga in Bath, Back To Basics, Up Yer Ronson and Vague in Leeds, Hard Times in tiny Todmorden. By the late 1990s, it seemed that every city in the UK had its own club. Including Inverness and little Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands.

An industry grew up around this expanding network of clubs. The DJs who performed in them, the agents who booked the DJs, the promoters who paid the DJs and ran the clubs, the clubbers who partied and danced in them, the drug dealers who supplied them. This wasn't like the 1980s, when only people down South got rich. In the 1990s, suddenly, money was everywhere. Young Britain had cash in its pocket, a new love of designer clothes, a developing taste for drugs and an eye for a party.

DJs suddenly found themselves with high-paid careers, hurtling up and down the country playing at three clubs a night, earning thousands of pounds in cash a year, being offered champagne and drugs for free, partying through it all.

"I think to make party music you have to party," said Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook. "It's unprofessional if you don't, you have to walk the walk."

DJs like Cook, Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, Sonique, Pete Tong, Dave Seaman, Judge Jules and Jeremy Healy became rich and famous, living rock-star lives: fans, fame and a life that was a whirlwind of five-star luxury. "The biggest indulgence is when you spent money on private jets," said Pete Tong.

The clubs they played in became part of the architecture of British leisure and their owners became rich, and famous in clubland. Superclub albums sold hundreds of thousands of copies – in 1996, just one of them, the Ministry of Sound Annual II album, mixed by Pete Tong and Boy George, reached No 1 in the charts and sold 613,000 copies.

Acid house bounced into politics. After 20,000 gathered for a free, three-day rave at Castlemorton, the Conservative government legislated against it in the infamous 1994 Criminal Justice Act. Yet, three years later, New Labour rode to victory on an Ecstasy anthem, D:Ream's "Things Can Only Get Better". By the end of the 1990s, brands as diverse as PlayStation, the Halifax and Guinness were using dance music and club-related imagery to sell products.

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Dance music was everywhere – from Pete Tong's News of the World column to daytime radio, from high-street stores to high-street discos. And everyone seemed to be taking drugs. According to NHS statistics, by 1998 31.8 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds had used an illegal drug in the previous year – more than two million people. These were the boom years of fast living and easy money. Acid house was unstoppable.

In the 1990s, there were clubs all over the country – with hundreds of clubbers in each. They all wanted a star DJ. And DJs started racing up and down the motorways to play at all of them. It was a gold rush. Birmingham, like Liverpool, like Leeds, was right in the middle, not just of the country, but also the action.

Clubbing in the Nineties was like a giant Big Brother house – you were there to meet people, have fun, create adventures. Clubbers were silly. Fancy dress was common, as was acting the goat. Sometimes literally, as in the case of Gerald Bailey, promoter of Pimp in Wolverhampton, who, in 1994, rode a white goat around a house party in Birmingham. In 1995, Bailey hired another goat and a llama for his birthday party at the Palace Hotel in Birmingham. At 10pm, he paraded them through the crowd, walked out the door – and promptly lost them.

These were the golden years of 1990s clubbing, when you could meet anyone and be anyone, when the most unlikely networks of people were formed, criss-crossing the country. Club after club sprouted up in drab northern and Midland cities, little blooms of colour and life. Being a clubber felt special. It was about belonging. And for many clubbers, that sense of identity was a huge part of the lifestyle.

Clubland was heating up like a giant frying-pan. And, by 1997, this wasn't about the accidental success of groups of lads playing records for an extended group of friends and ending up with a packed club any more. This was big business. And these weren't audiences of "clued-up clubbers" nodding hello to the DJ any more, the "early adopters" or "opinion formers" of marketing theory. These were big, Saturday night pop crowds, facing the front, cheering their DJ gods. They wanted showmen, not introspective DJ trainspotters. The scene now demanded stars who weren't afraid to play to the crowd and for the crowd: showmen, performers, celebrities... the real superstar DJs.

Three men had already stepped into the limelight. The prize was there for the taking. They weren't hairdressers, car mechanics or telephone salesmen but people who had decided that they wanted fame and success long before acid house came along. Superclubbing simply provided the right opportunity. Norman Cook, Jeremy Healy and Peter Cunnah all became ringmasters in the superclub circus; they cracked their whips and crowds jumped for them. And they worked hard for the glory they wanted. Norman Cook became internationally famous as Fatboy Slim; Jeremy Healy was the personification of the "superstar DJ" at its most glamorous; and Peter Cunnah with his act D:Ream become one of the superclub era's biggest pop-stars. Cook and Healy had already enjoyed success in the pop charts before they even became DJs.

Healy was half of the duo Haysi Fantayzee, whose fashiony pop single "John Wayne Is Big Leggy" was a hit in 1982. After playing bass in the indie-pop combo The Housemartins and before becoming Fatboy Slim, Cook formed Beats International and their pop-reggae skank "Dub Be Good To Me" was No 1 for four weeks in 1990.

Peter Cunnah was just a good-looking Northern Irish club kid hanging around the DJ box of London's Love Ranch club, dreaming about fame. Each of them was smart, ambitious and tough enough to handle both the relentless gig schedule and the equally relentless partying that went with it. Or so they thought.

An ordinary terraced house in Brighton. Except this wasn't an ordinary terraced house. This was the House of Love, on Robson Road, in Brighton's Preston Park district, and if Fatboy Slim began his career anywhere, it was here. Incredibly productive in his home studio, with a showman's sense of style when behind the decks, he was forced to use a variety of aliases for legal reasons – he was signed to Island Records as part of the live band Freak Power, one of his less successful guises. He began releasing records under different names like Pizzaman and Mighty Dub Cats. But Fatboy Slim was the one that stuck. He was smart enough to run with it. And in the wider pop arena, Fatboy Slim became perhaps the most famous superstar DJ of all.

Despite the partying, Cook was genuinely a nice bloke: when he discovered the only noise that bothered his neighbours was the slamming of his front door, he muffled it. But in a story that has become part of the Norman Cook myth, he and his friends snorted cocaine off a railway line. "That's about the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life. I think we only did it so we could tell our grandchildren," he said. "We did actually have someone 30 foot that way and 30 foot that way looking for trains. And we weighed up the odds."

On Sundays, too wired to sleep, Norman retired to his studio. In 1998, other DJs didn't have logos. Neither did many of them really make records. Cook put it all together and created an international name for himself and his alter ego. And as he moved from club gigs to stadium shows, he developed his DJing into a performance that would captivate those crowds. "I put that showbiz element into it," he said.

Cook was still on the cusp of two worlds. In dance music, he was known for his party DJ sets and his hard partying. Outside of that, he was just a name, not a face, on records that increasingly landed in the pop charts. He had the best of both worlds.

That July, he arrived in Ibiza for a series of DJ dates and was invited to be a guest on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, co-hosted by one of the most famous women in Britain at the time, Zoë Ball. Dance music was about to gain its first celebrity couple. Britain was about to meet its first celebrity acid house DJ. And Tony's people would cotton on to this celebrity: Blair used Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" as his walk-on song for the 1999 Labour Party conference. For some commentators, its lyric "I have to praise you like I should" represented Blair's increasingly presidential style: a superstar theme for a superstar prime minister. The Independent's Anne McElvoy was appalled. "It was pure führermusik," she said.

Chemical Brothers aside, none of the other DJs got near Fatboy Slim's status. In 2002, Cook did a three-date arena tour of Japan, during the football World Cup, supported by Jon Carter. Before the tour, Carter accidentally received a fax about Cook's contract. For three shows, Norman Cook, said Carter, was getting paid V C £150,000 – a cool £50,000 per gig. Carter was getting £1,000 a show.

Cook has sold millions of albums. You've Come a Long Way, Baby sold 1,173,000 copies in the UK alone. He doesn't need to play clubs any more, just festivals and giant beach parties. The first time he played for free on Brighton beach, 65,000 people came. "There was a moment halfway through where I suddenly thought, 'We've got away with it, it's worked.'"

The second time he played the beach, a quarter of a million showed up, and tragically a 25-year-old Australian nurse died after falling off some railings. In Rio de Janeiro, 360,000 watched him play. At the 2006 carnival in Salvador in Brazil, the second time he had played, it is reckoned that, over five hours, 1.2 million people saw his float go by. He is so rich that he never needs to work again. "I don't do it for the money. I could have retired five years ago, probably," he says.

Back to 2000. The future writ large – right here, right now, as Fatboy Slim put it. The millennium. And what was clubland going to do? Blast into the new century with the biggest parties ever. If anyone knew how to celebrate, it was the superclubs. And they were going to party like – well, like it was 1999. Clubbing was booming again. The cyber kids were everywhere. But this was an oversaturated clubland. The music was poppier than ever: intense, vocal trance. The fashions were more outlandish than ever – the cyber kids in their sci-fi fancy dress.

But the people at the top of dance music, the DJs and the promoters, had become increasingly blinded by ego and by greed, the brief flurry of idealism at the beginning of acid house by now completely forgotten. With their judgement clouded by money, they forgot about the clubbers who paid their wages. Increasingly these clubbers were being treated with contempt.

Everything was being squeezed a little too hard. The DJs were too caught up in the whirlwind of their superstar lifestyles to notice. There was a payday to be had and the millennium turned into the most cynical feeding frenzy that acid house and superclubbing – not exactly a scene renowned for its self-restraint – had ever seen. How much were they going to get paid? Fortunes.

Sonique made £5,000 for Gatecrasher – her six-figure fees would come later, with her pop-stardom. Jon Pleased came out of retirement, donned his drag outfit and got between £8,000 and £12,000 (he can't remember) for playing three Scottish events. Nick Warren played home in Sydney for £20,000. Dave Seaman got £30,000 for two Renaissance shows and bought his parents a house in Spain. Danny Rampling pocketed £50,000, playing to 30,000 at the River Club in Cape Town, South Africa. "Everyone had been offered ridiculous amounts of money, ridiculous, inflated amounts of money, as if it was going to be the last night on earth," Rampling said. "That was the last days of Rome, in a sense. It was one last payday of the superstar DJ era."

The money mounted up. Jeremy Healy flew around the country in a private plane and earned about £80,000. "It's sinful," he smirked. "It was the height of the stupidest money." Judge Jules got £100,000, for playing Gatecrasher. "The most that I've ever charged," he insisted. "The most I've ever charged by a factor of five." Pete Tong was on £125,000. "It was pretty crazy money," said Tong.

Norman Cook got £140,000. "But that was four gigs. I absolutely worked my arse off. I did Brixton, Cardiff and the two in Liverpool. It nearly killed me," he said. And Sasha? He still won't say. But he claimed it was more than anybody else – which, if that were true, would put him at £150,000-plus.

Who could blame them for charging as much as they could get away with? They were meant to have been hairdressers, ad men, shop managers, photocopier salesmen, bass players at best; yet they had ended up celebrities, pop icons, superstar DJs. They had gone from an average £500 a night to £100,000-plus in just eight years.

But in the run-up to New Year's Eve, thousands of Cream regulars, like clubbers all over the country, decided that they could afford to miss the event. News began to filter out that ticket sales were pitifully low. A local paper ran a story that Cream had only sold 30 tickets. "And we were going, 'Don't be so stupid. As if we'd be going towards the millennium with only 30 tickets sold,'" said Cream's Jayne Casey. "And we'd only sold 30 tickets."

Suddenly, clubbing wasn't looking so golden. The emperor's new clothes had fallen off. And there he was, naked and shivering in a January wind. Over the next couple of years, clubland's punctured bubble slowly and surely expired. It started at the top, with Darren Hughes and Ron McCulloch's new superclub, Home. In Leicester Square, £10m was invested in a building that spread over eight floors. But, while there was a lot of talk about Home's chic, metallic decor, amazing sound system and amazing design, there wasn't much about who its audience might be. Home was supposed to represent the future of clubbing. Instead, it represented its past. The club was struggling. Then, just 18 months after it had opened, police raided the club on 23 March 2001 and found an Ecstasy dealer with 16 tablets. The police wanted it closed down. A few days later, the bank pulled the plug on Big Beat's credit. Big Beat went bust. Seventeen venues closed. More than 300 people lost their jobs. The dream was over.

Slowly, the superclub house of cards began to collapse. In May 2001, 160 officers raided Gatecrasher. Police described it as "awash with drugs" and made 13 arrests. In April 2002, the club went monthly, but it survived and today Gatecrasher owns venues in Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds. By 2002, Cream was pulling in only 500 punters a week and losing £50,000 a week. In July, they decided to stop running weekly nights.

How will history remember the superstar DJs? There is only one film about them, the 2004 comedy It's All Gone Pete Tong, in which Paul Kaye plays a DJ who goes deaf. Pete Tong appeared in the film as himself, interviewing Kaye the DJ with a tape recorder. Kaye made a convincingly idiotic DJ, but despite a few funny moments, the film wasn't very good. It made DJs look like egocentric, cocaine-guzzling idiots, which was unfair, as they were generally much smarter and more likeable that that. Not realising this, some took cameos in the film.

Pete Tong's profit share never materialised because the film never made any money, his one bad business deal. Instead, he has been immortalised in the Penguin Book of Rhyming Slang for the phrase "It's All Gone Pete Tong" – it's all gone wrong. "Had to explain to my mum years ago that it wasn't meant to be a bad thing," he said, determined to make the best of it. "Anything like that, notoriety is a dream, isn't it? To make your name."

Extracted from 'Superstar DJs Here We Go!' by Dom Phillips, published by Ebury Press (£12.99). © Dom Phillips, 2009

When Zoë met Fatboy

Zoë Ball was late. And she was about to be sick. It was 6.25am and she was due on air in minutes. As the car pulled up, she could see a line of worried Radio 1 bigwigs. There was Ian Parkinson, Radio 1's second in command, Pat Connor, in charge of the station's Ibiza weekend, and her co-presenter Kevin Greening. "I could see them all standing on the balcony," Zoë said. The car screeched to a halt and she started dry heaving into a bush, and then went up to do the show.

Ibiza on that morning, 31 July 1998, was at its peak as a clubbing holiday destination. Packed with ravers from all over the world, brimming with clubs, bars and beaches – decadent beyond imagining. So it was an ambitious plan to move the whole of Radio 1 to Ibiza for a weekend. And broadcast live.

Zoë's evening started quietly the night before her show, with a drinks reception at the Radio 1 villa, near San Antonio, where they would broadcast. "We trundled up to the villa. And I remember thinking, 'God, everyone's being so boring, no one's drinking, everyone's being really well behaved,'" says Ball. "And I was like, 'This is Ibiza, we're supposed to be doing something really exciting.'"

Then she was introduced to Norman Cook, who was to be the guest on her show next day. "I said, 'Oh, Mr Cook, I presume.' And he said, 'How would you like to not go to bed with me this evening?' – that is, 'Shall we stay up all night and go to the clubs.'" It's one of the most famous chat-up lines in pop history. And it worked. Zoë piled into a car with Norman and his mates and went out. It was a messy night that took in the KM5 bar and Cream at Amnesia. They finished up at the Manumission Motel.

The next morning, without sleep, Zoë went on air. Norman came on a little after 8am. Their voices were slurred. There were random moments. Greening sounded like an exasperated parent, patiently trying to keep his teenage children under control. And so the great romance of Nineties clubland began – at the end of a long night in Ibiza's clubs, live on BBC radio, with one of Britain's most famous presenters fooling about with a DJ who, in the club world, was famous for his narcotic consumption. Underground acid house and mainstream celebrity collided.

Last week, Norman Cook checked into rehab to tackle alcohol addiction.

Sonique: 'I'm in a man's world'

Sonique's is a unique story. She turned the innate sexism of clubland on its head and became the only female superstar DJ. The club hierarchy of the 1990s was heavily male-dominated, and women had to be tougher than the men to get ahead.

A few did, but not many. There were powerful female DJ agents, like Lynn Cosgrave and Cath Mackenzie. Cosgrave particularly became a major dance industry player. Shelley Boswell, the promoter of Club For Life at London's Gardening Club, often outdid her laddish promoter contemporaries in the hard partying stakes. She once sent out a metre-long flyer for her club, with a picture of herself naked inside a pink fake fur border. The night was called Centrefold.

But Sonique was the only woman who made it into the superstar DJ league. She got the money, the high life and the celebrity boyfriend (Prince Albert of Monaco). She first tasted stardom as the singer in the late Eighties pop-acid act S'Express, remodelled herself as an all-singing, all-dancing star DJ, then made her fortune with one all-conquering pop-dance hit.

She has a strong, individualistic style that's glamorous and yet androgynous: an athletic black girl with short hair, a fierce, no-nonsense personality, a lot of warmth and a warm, richly contagious laugh. DJing might have been a man's world, but that didn't faze Sonique.

First, she could do it. "Because I was a woman it was very uneasy. You would turn up. You knew they were saying, 'Bet you can't mix.' I'd go in and blow the roof off the place and they'd stand there in shock. Shake my hand. 'Wicked. Never heard anyone mix like that.'" Second, she sang, live, in tune, over the records. And third, the guys in the DJ booth were scared of her. "I'm not a small woman. And I do look like I would knock you out if you come near me. I would. I'm in a man's world, I had to have that edge." Sonique is clearly not a woman you would want to fall out with.

D:Ream and Peter Cunnah

The sound of New Labour

In 1990, Peter Cunnah was just a Northern Irish club kid in London, dreaming of fame. Then he fell in love with acid house, discovered Ecstasy, met a DJ – and worked out how to do it. His group D:Ream, formed with the DJ Al Mackenzie, would blur the line between full-blown, euphoric anthems and the pop charts.

The group's dynamic depended on this tension between two radically different worlds: smoky clubs on one hand, squeaky clean pop on the other. When their hit "Things Can Only Get Better" reached No 1 in January 1994, they straddled both. "It was what I'd always wanted," said Cunnah. "We were high in the charts but still playing all these really cool clubs." But the tension between those two worlds would tear the group apart and nearly destroy Cunnah. Their album entered the charts at a disappointing No 40. The record company's solution was to put D:Ream on tour with Take That. Cunnah didn't want to do it. By the end of it, a cocaine habit was eating him up.

Cunnah was in recovery when New Labour called, spending his days walking his dog on Wormwood Scrubs, and with a new manager, Jaz Summers. Summers wanted Cunnah to let Labour use the song as their election anthem. Cunnah was reluctant but felt the force of Tony Blair's charm offensive and watched the results of the 1997 election in a hotel room, wired on nothing more than coffee, as thousands stayed up to see Tony Blair claim his crown at Festival Hall.

In the past few years Cunnah has done well in property buying and doing up flats to sell on.

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