“The trick was to mix in stuff people didn’t know, but keep them on the dance floor”
Folk musician John Spiers (King’s 1994) got his first melodeon as a second year but didn’t learn how to get a crowd on its feet until DJ-ing in King’s bar.
Mouth of the Tobique
This track was on a folk music tape my parents made, and it made my head melt. I’d bought my first melodeon, or squeezebox, in my second year – I played the piano before I came to Cambridge as a way to relax, but a piano was expensive and impractical, and after my wallet (with all my savings in it) was stolen during my second year, College helped me buy the squeezebox – and I tried hard to emulate Sharon Shannon’s sound. But the melodeon was much harder to play than I’d anticipated. There are buttons on both sides, and each button changes the note when you alter the pressure with the bellows. Shannon’s dexterity is amazing and, in the privacy of my room, I tried to get my fingers to keep up. It took me four and a half years to be able to play it.
Everything was Blur versus Oasis at that time, and I was never really into Blur – it was like they had made a pact to be a bit weird. But this track was musically amazing. It was still a bit clever, but it was like a Beatles track – progressive, with breakaway bits and a lot going on. It felt optimistic, like everything did at that time, as if the world was building towards something better. I was busking in Cambridge on the day of the 1997 general election, and I was interviewed about how Labour would be in government. I said, “I don’t really care, let’s just have some fun.” That’s what this song felt like.
This song came out in the spring term of my second year and it felt like everything was blossoming. There had been a lot of grunge music around, but this song was sparkly and trippy and retro: it had a sunny disposition. I cycled around with it in my headphones and, in the mental snapshots it brings back when I listen to it now, everything is bright. I was determined to make the most of every opportunity at Cambridge. I was learning to DJ and putting on events in the Cellar Bar. And, once a week, I’d nip off to play the folk music I’d been practising in my room to the residents of the Mayflower care home down the end of Mill Road.
Earth, Wind & Fire
By my third year I was installed in the lowly position of minor DJ, and some friends and I were putting on a night in King’s Bar called Tacky Shite Nite. The trick was to mix in stuff people didn’t know, while keeping them on the dance floor. Boogie Wonderland has that ‘whaaaay’ factor that gets people up, but you can find lesser-known tracks that have the same effect. I saw that music has the power to affect your mood. It’s in the euphoric chord changes and how the layers build, with percussion solos and vocals – that’s how I learned to build a headline set. There’s music that’s purely functional, for disco dancing, barn dances and ceilidhs. Then there’s music for emotion – the lyrics of a deep ballad, building the musical language. At the King’s Mingle in third year I played the melodeon while Zadie Smith (King’s 1994) sang. She has an amazing, jazzy voice. And then I played Tacky Shite Nite.