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TRCH - Caitlin Moran

DJ Jonathan on Rock City

1 November 10 words: Rock City
"I remember Joan Jett being sick in a bucket at the side of the stage just before she went on and Morrissey having daffodils thrown at him from his adoring fans"
DJ Jonathan - photo by David Baird
DJ Jonathan - photo by David Baird

DJ Jonathan (aka Jonathan Woodliffe) spent almost a decade working behind the scenes at Rock City in the eighties. During this time he helped establish some of the club nights that still run today, as well as lending bands his shoelaces and buckets to be sick into…

So how did you get roped into joining the Rock City crew?
I used to DJ at a club called Camelot on Bridlesmith gate and Paul Mason, the then manager, used to come down to our club. He approached me with a view to DJing at as they were planning a major refi t in the summer of 1982 and wanted to start a student night on Thursdays. They already had a successful Futurist night on Saturdays and I keenly accepted. The fi rst Thursday night we had about 400 people in and gradually it built up over the next year to become a sell-out most weeks.

You started the Rock City Friday nights off too, right?
Yes, that came a little later. The original plan was to do a dance night playing a mixture of European electronic and American new releases, but after the first three months it was apparent this wasn’t going to work. So I asked Paul if we could change the night to a jazz, funk and soul night, which I wanted to build by word of mouth.
Over the next three months the numbers increased week by week until eventually we had people travelling in from Birmingham, Sheffi eld, Leeds, Manchester and London. I would DJ upstairs in the main room and downstairs (Disco Two) Eric and Floyd played Jazz. My music policy was focused on new releases from America, I’d play what had come out that week for the fi rst hour and then as soon as we’d got enough people in we’d put some of the current big tunes on. The response was a packed dancefl oor and a fantastic atmosphere.

Where did you get your tunes from at the time?
I bought pretty much everything from Arcade records. They’d always know what we’d played on a Friday - as on Saturday mornings there would be a ton of people in the shop trying to buy certain tunes. The rate we broke records at was astounding! I was spending £100-200 a week in there at that time.

What was the venue like back then in terms of kit?
Rock City had a major refit in the summer of 1982 and had a purpose-built sound system installed across the dance fl oor. It sounded brilliant and you had a great view all around the club. There was also an amazing lighting rig and a giant laser, which was something a lot of people had never seen before, along with two giant video screens. I think a lot of bands held the venue in very high esteem because on a sold out gig the atmosphere
was electric!

You worked with a certain Mr Dale Winton back then too?
Yeah, I knew Dale really well. He did the dance show on Radio Trent back then and used to play at Rock City. Like me he would buy records in Nottingham, but he also used to nip to London regularly too. To my knowledge he was the fi rst person to play Herbie Hancock’s Rockit on the radio. The day after his show Arcade records had hundreds of calls asking for it, a week or so before they could get hold of any stock.

So tell us about the Saturday all-day Rock City hip-hop jams that happened in the 1980’s.
Well, bizarrely enough it started as a kids disco at the request of Trent FM. We were a bit dubious of the idea at fi rst, but it was good publicity for the club and they advertised it like hell on the radio. So lots of kids of all ages came down, some with their parents and some without – and it was just soft drinks behind the bar.
It worked reasonably well, but eventually the radio DJ’s lost interest in it and it seemed that the people there were less into pop music and more into the underground stuff. Trent FM eventually pulled out and we changed it into this Saturday afternoon session that revolved around hip-hop. There was never a licensed bar, so age was never a problem and lots of people who couldn’t get in on Friday nights came along to dance and listen. I don’t think that anyone who came along at the time realised that nearly thirty years later it would have become such a landmark event in their lives. There were some of the most amazing breakdancers you will ever see and a few now-famous people like Goldie used to come down too.

Tell us about some of the best bands you saw in your time.
Mark Spivey was brilliant at booking bands and he had the foresight to book acts like REM, Guns and Roses and The Cult before they went Supernova. But probably the best, most intense performances I ever saw at Rock City came from The Ramones, who we had the pleasure of putting on twice.
There are loads of funny stories from the gigs too. I remember Joan Jett being sick in a bucket at the side of the stage just before she went on, I remember Morrissey having daffodils thrown at him from his adoring fans at the height of his fame with The Smiths. Stuart Adamson from Big Country borrowing a pair of shoelaces before their gig as his had snapped - I never did get them back!

How does Rock City compare to other clubs you’ve worked in across the world?
Still to this day I would say that it is the best club I’ve ever worked in – and I’ve worked in quite a few. House music pioneer Larry Heard came to do a gig with us once on a Chicago Trax tour and he has since cited that gig as being an important moment in his career. He said the gig made him realise what it must have felt like to be Michael Jackson by having 1700 people in Rock City on a Sunday afternoon singing along with him!
I played in the Hacienda before it became a household name and I didn’t really rate the way it was set up by comparison. Back then their DJ booth was hidden in a room at the side of the stage and you just had a small slit to look out onto the dancefloor where you didn’t really feel part of the crowd. Whereas at Rock City it’s always been the opposite and as a DJ you feel part of the crowd and see how they react to what you’re playing.

Click here to read more about Rock City's 30th Anniversary


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