Long Relationships: My Incredible Journey from Unknown DJ to Small-Time DJ
by Harold Heath
Velocity Press (UK)

Nobody writes a memoir about why they stopped doing what they love. Everyone can tell you why they started — you lead off interviews and documentaries talking about what got you going on your crazy path in life. But few artists get the opportunity to explain why stopped to take a breather and never got it going again.

Marriage and family is a big one — that will make you reconsider a job that involves walking out of dreary bars at 5am, your ears ringing and your clothes smelling of strawberry vape juice and spilled draft. Some of the wildest, most reckless artists I’ve known began to approach decisions with a hard-headed practicality once they had other people depending on them.

And economics in general winds down a lot of careers prematurely. The economic crises of my lifetime have driven a lot of my friends out of the industry, from the 2000 dotcom bust to the 2008 financial crisis. These things have a way of re-ordering society with brutal efficiency, along lines quite unfriendly to artists in their 30s. It seems to happen at 10 year intervals or so: likely a lot of people also stopped making music or art in 2020, when everyone and everything stopped.

For DJs though it’s different. DJs never stop. No DJ has ever looked in the mirror and thought to themself that they were catching a glimpse of an “ex-DJ.” I know people who haven’t DJ’d in ten years. They still call themselves DJs. They still think of themselves as DJs. They still have headphones on in their Facebook profile pics and probably will until the day they die, when only family discretion will prevent them from being buried in their Sennheisers too.

Harold Heath is still a DJ, even though he’s written a book about why he really doesn’t DJ anymore. It was while presiding over a “kids and parents rave” a few years ago, he recounts, that he took a moment to consider how his career, by most reasonable observations, had ended.

“I’ve played two or three gigs this year,” he writes, “and the amount of clubbers who would be willing to pay to hear me is now probably under a hundred worldwide. I’ve pretty much stopped releasing house music and only put out a couple of remixes over the last twelve months. This final revisiting of 30-year-old records feels like it would be an appropriate gig to draw the line under my career.”

If he were an athlete, he’d be standing still, by himself, with his hands on his hips, contemplating the scene around him for a final time. If he drove a taxi, he might be glancing in the rearview mirror with a wary eye out for the repo man. This should be the end — but he knows there is no end.

“It isn’t my last gig, of course, there’s no such thing as a last gig for a DJ,” he writes. “There’s never a final gig. A true DJ is always ready for the call, should it come. DJs may pack away their decks, put their records into storage and deactivate their Soundcloud account, but they never really stop being a DJ. The DJ instincts are always there in the back of their mind, subconsciously noting the BPM of the tune on the radio in the background.

“It’s not like drug addiction,” he notes, “because DJs can manage for years without a decent gig and still describe themselves or think of themselves as DJs. It’s something else, like a scar on your memories, a fold in your recollections that will always be there.

“Deep down, a DJ never truly retires.”

Harold Heath
Every picture tells a story, and how Harold Heath wound up posing with headphones and his music gear on a beach is a good one.

Harold Heath’s career spanned an eventful but unglamorous era, and like any good narrator he kept his eyes open and his mouth (mostly) shut. Keen and pithy observations like the one above punctuate Long Relationships: My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Small-Time DJ, a book about a DJ that never made it big but made it a little bigger than a lot of others. His memoir isn’t a tell-all, or even a tell-most. Many characters are identified by pseudonyms, and Heath isn’t crapping where he eats even as he calls out the clichés, tropes and inanities of the dance music world.

To state the obvious: I know Harold, he’s written for 5 Mag for a few years now, more or less coinciding with the timing of that introspective “kids and parents” gig he describes above. To state lesser known facts, I also knew Harold as a producer years before that, and I think I even interviewed him in a short online piece about his album, Family Affair, on Lost My Dog. This must have been the period he’s talking about as his high water mark — described as perhaps not a “Golden Age of Harold Heath” but at least one that was a little shiny.

Well-known DJs played his music, he writes, and Channel 4 used one of his tracks in a campaign once. People paid him to play music, but not a whole lot or very often. He was however briefly a popular DJ in Eastern Europe and managed to create a credible career despite “never really reaching the heights, or playing the best clubs.” For a little bit he was able to live off his music-related earnings, but never for long enough to completely swear off a day job.

In other words, Harold Heath was something of a DJ Everyman. His career could be your life.

Some of Long Relationships is an examination of the “DJ hierarchy” as it exists and the place Heath occupied in it. One way to get your moorings in this power structure is to get booked for a boat party and take careful note of your surroundings. Or just a whiff of them.



This was originally published in 5 Mag issue 190: #Rejuvenate with Franck Roger, Ed Nine, Berlin under lockdown & more. Support 5 Mag by becoming a member for just $1 per issue.



“A DJ’s experience of boat parties is related precisely to their position in the DJ pyramid,” he writes. “For those near the top, a boat party might mean gently cruising the Adriatic coast, DJing on a pair of solid gold decks to lots of beautiful people in expensive sunglasses.” When Heath thinks of DJing boat parties, on the other hand, he remembers “a fat, greasy barge, moored near Embankment tube station in London, split level, each with its own unique variant on the damp-smell template. Not one of the floors were even, many of the doorways were lethally low and there was just enough, very slight, movement of the boat to induce nausea in a few punters.” He played a few of these for a “smart-shoes and sun-tan” audience who also wished they were on that boat off the Adriatic coast, like he did, but with the aid of alcohol were better equipped to pretend that they were.

Heath’s observations and punchy style — and most of all his appreciation of the absurd while he is neck-deep in the absurd — is reminiscent of James Young’s memoir Songs They Never Play On The Radio. This is some of the highest praise I can offer: the account of Young’s travels with Nico, the former supermodel, actress and Velvet Underground chanteuse on the final tour of her career is to my mind one of the best music biographies ever written, and pretty high on my list of all-time reads of any kind. Like Songs They Never Play On The Radio, Heath’s story is the story of the rest of story. Heath and Young’s main characters are the people who are usually the supporting characters in the biographies of other, more famous people — the human wallpaper dropped in for an accent and local color. For most readers, Nico is known as a partner in mayhem of Jim Morrison, a Warhol Factory girl, a muse to dude rockers Lou Reed and Jackson Browne. She did other things too. She did songs, for instance, some of them timeless. But you’ve never heard of those. Those are the type of songs they never play on the radio.

Heath’s tracks actually did play on the radio. He’s listening with an ear cocked to the tweeter when he hears BBC Radio 1 play one of his tracks (“Long Relationships,” from which the title of the memoir comes). He even hears Pete Tong say, “And that was Harold Heath” and he waits with baited breath to hear more.

The real Pete Tong doesn’t continue, as he does in Heath’s fever dream, with a solemn toast, welcoming a new initiate past the velvet ropes of the VIP section. Tong should have said that “Harold’s been plugging away at the industry since starting out as a DJ in the late ’80s, but has only been producing for a few years. He’s had a string of releases on some of the best labels in underground house and with this track is definitely stepping it up a few gears, with DJ support from some of the biggest names in the biz… Harold, mate, we’re all rooting for you.”

That’s what Pete Tong should have said, Heath writes, but he didn’t. Instead he moved on to the next record, as he has moved on to the next record countless times every show, every week and every year.

“You realize,” Heath writes, “in those moments of jubilation and success, that the music industry doesn’t actually revolve around you, it hasn’t been waiting for you to show up and it won’t miss you when you’re gone.

“And one day, you’ll definitely be gone.”

There’s a palpable sense of dread when you know you’re fucked. Everyone knew then that they were fucked. It was simple math to figure out you were fucked. Heath knows he’s fucked but like thousands of others he keeps making music anyway.

Knowing a bit about underground house music helps follow the story here, but there are certain facets that any artist can identify with. There’s the absurd logic that results in many of us doing awful things for money so we can keep our art “pure” and free from compromise and contamination. In Heath’s case, he arrives home from a hazy but triumphant series of gigs at the Winter Music Conference in Miami with his head still buzzing to the sobering reality of his “day job” — a bar called “Los Locos” where he plays Top 40 tunes for drunken students and lost tourists. The money’s good, he says, and there are worse ways to earn a living, and the money helps support his “actual” DJ career.

“It’s funny looking back,” he writes, “how I had a regular paying DJ gig two nights a week which I didn’t regard as my DJ career, and then I had intermittent bookings over the year playing underground house in cool clubs which I somehow instead regarded as my actual DJ career.”

What happened to that “actual” DJ career? The timeline of Heath’s career, as mentioned, encompasses one of the most eventful but least glamorous spans in music history, one that turned many profitable careers into character-building exercises. Heath began releasing vinyl on the cusp of medium’s demise as the primary vehicle for dance music distribution. His first releases sold a few thousand units on wax. Later they would sell a few hundred digital downloads, and finally just couple dozen downloads with a few plays on Spotify. That stoned trip through Miami nightlife was the first time he heard someone say that records were going to be just “advertisements” for DJ gigs. This was the “new paradigm,” which never worked because the number of DJs did not remain fixed — or ageless, or physically immaculate, or able to establish immunity to respiratory viruses. Heath finds himself trapped by the doomed economics of this new paradigm, fumbling in the dark for an escape hatch.

There’s a palpable sense of dread when you know you’re fucked. Everyone knew then that they were fucked. It was simple math to figure out you were fucked. Heath knows he’s fucked but like thousands of others he keeps making music anyway.

Apocalypse economics is one answer to the question of what happened to his DJ career, but Heath is more nuanced than that (and obviously the issue forms the foundation of the overall narrative of the book). Heath also points to his own lack of agreeableness. “Sometimes I think I just wasn’t the right kind of person to be a successful DJ,” he writes. “I wasn’t fun enough in real life, I was too serious, unapproachable, not that easy to get on with.” As an example, he describes when the promoters of his residency in the town he was living in once asked him to make his engagement “exclusive” and take an oath not to play elsewhere in the city. “I was getting literally zero other gigs in Brighton at the time,” he notes, “and therefore this was a request that wouldn’t affect me in any way, so obviously I objected on general principle instead.” Regrets? He has a few.

Few scores are settled here, at least with individuals. By and large, Heath’s tale is humorous — he keeps it light even when he’s miserable. His “scores” are more or less with pop history and the depiction of events he saw first hand, or trends in electronic music that once held promise but ran off the rails. He writes well enough about the origins of tech house to make me care about tech house (which is saying something). He describes a genre that at the beginning “was very much defined by what it wasn’t as much as what it was: it wasn’t hardcore, it wasn’t trance, it wasn’t hard techno, it wasn’t uplifting house. It emerged from the gaps between the genres… In fact, apart from its subtle melding of some of the best elements of house and techno, tech house was defined by constant arguing about what tech house was.”

There are a few other choice segments like this, including his critique of the “cohesive story of acid house and rave in the UK” and all of the things they leave out of the official narrative as recounted in books, documentaries and seminars presented by Red Bull. I’ve always felt this sort of rehash is both historically vital and culturally salutary, and Heath’s points as an observer and sometime participant are well-argued and illuminating. Santayana wasn’t thinking of acid house when he wrote “History is always written wrong and so always needs to be rewritten.” But he could have been.

Another smart guy once said that history was written by the winners. Though he spends considerable time measuring how far he fell short of the goal, Heath is one of those too. The lifestyle seems to have nearly killed him but he got out alive, with a family and a set of relationships that have aided him in his next career as someone writing about the scene. The title might make you think this is a car crash in slow motion. It’s not even a fender bender. It’s a guy who drove the course, established his own personal best time and managed not to wind up a cloud of smoke and a pillar of flame. When you get a good look at what the industry has done to some of your friends, that’s not so bad.

Long Relationships by Harold Heath is out now in paperback and ebook from Velocity Press.

Photo via Velocity Press on Facebook.


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