Indeep’s ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’ is a weird, wonderful gem that really is weird.
Over the course of the pandemic we’ve all done some weird stuff to get through the days. When I wasn’t trying to paint, I occupied my mind by listening to a bunch of music. One of the songs that kept popping up was Indeep’s 1982 modest dance floor hit ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’. The song hit the 10 Top RB/Hip Hop Songs, but never broke into that year’s Hot 100. America was at a crossroads in 1982, Americans regularly spat at Vietnam vets for losing the war. Ronald Reagan, presumed to still have most of his faculties, was still three years from uttering the word ‘AIDS’ and the disco hangover inhibited black artists’ success on the charts. I’m not sure if that’s relevant, it’s just a reminder times change.
There’s lots to love about this song. It starts out with a then technologically astounding Casio beat. Just at the right moment, a bubbly bassline drops that keeps everything humming. A disco inspired guitar enters to jazz up the proceedings. At this point, everybody should be along for the full ride. If there’s any doubt, the vocals kick in with a line filled with intrigue – Last night a DJ saved my life.
Before all the infinite why’s and how’s can pollute your thoughts, the mystery expands to the DJ imploring the woman vocalist ‘you gotta get up, you gotta get on, you gotta get down girl’. The lyrics reveal she can’t reach her (possibly philandering) man by telephone. She then jumps in the car and slams on her brakes when she comes to her senses. Then she is soothed by the DJ’s mix that cures her half broken heart?
The Power of Lyrics
Thematically, the song can be a reflection on the power of art/music to cure and heal, or how to get over being in a crappy relationship, or just how much fun it was to go to clubs in the 80s. Either way, the song plays things pretty straight lyrically against its tremendous 80s beats. The lyrics (with the aforementioned gotta get up/on/down girl) uses a special little earworm that changed the ends of the line to creat new meaning. I’m a sucker for these types of lyrics, setting expectations and changing them midstream. The chorus achieves this perfectly:
Last night a DJ saved my life
Last night a DJ saved my life from a broken heart
Last night a DJ saved my life
Last night a DJ saved my life with a song
side note: This type of structure is taken to the limit in Bill Callahan’s 2009 song ‘Too Many Birds’:
If you could
If you could only
If you could only stop
If you could only stop your
If you could only stop your heart
If you could only stop your heart beat
If you could only stop your heart beat for
If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart
If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart beat
But ’Last Night…’ goes to a bunch of weirder places.
There’s a solid fascination with the literal that is amusing if not mildly distracting in the song and the accompanying music video. I know sampling was in its infancy, but still! When she tries calling her man on the phone, an actual ring tone is inserted over the bears, even ringing three times for effect! When she hops into her car, there’s a squealing tire sound effect when she says ‘ didn’t get very far’.
Both of these are trumped when the DJ delivers his self serving rap towards the climax of the song. ‘Cause away goes troubles down the drain’ acts as the queue for the flushing toilet sound effect, that is used twice in a row! Full flush! Twice! At the end of the second flush, there’s a pregnant pause, and the vocalist responds with a matter of fact ‘Well all right.!.’ It’s hard to pinpoint her exact emotion, but its somewhere between gratitude, sarcasm, enthusiasm and boredom. The DJ lets himself out of the room by announcing its ‘dub time’ and the song enters a musical interlude of sorts.
You better hear what he’s got to say…
Which allows us this moment to talk about the DJ. Information online about Indeep is pretty sparse, but the band was Michael Cleveland, the DJ/Producer, alongside Réjane “Reggie” Magloire and Rose Marie Ramsey, who provided vocals, and from the surviving evidence, the ‘front’ of the band. Michael Cleveland’s rap is perhaps the spiritual followup to Deborah Harry’s moment in 1979’s Rapture. It’s somewhat rhythmically performed in what may be the 1982 male equivalent of the curious 21st century young woman’s vocal fry that lives today. Or maybe it was just 80s coke, I have no idea.
80’s Visuals for an 80’s Song
(for this segment, it’s totally worth watching the linked music videos, or at least going to 3:02 into each for the DJ’s rap)
As amusing as literal the sound effects are and the ‘80’s cool’ performance of the rap by Mr. Cleveland, even better are the performances of this song that still remain online. In a French TV appearance, Mr. Cleveland, plays a bass and appears center stage flanked by Ms. Magliore and Ms. Ramsey. Dressed in a grey blazer, dark pants, pencil thin tie and a beard Michael McDonald would be proud of, he seems to lip sync the bass well enough. HIs gaze is obscured by sunglasses, but his confident pointing tells the viewer he means business.
In another performance, on Britain’s Top of the Pops, Mr. Cleveland appears behind a turntable, headphones down on his neck, in a similar, if not the exact outfit. Freed from holding his base, his rap is even more authoritative, punctuated by some hard diagonal points down during the ‘down the drain’ lyrics. I can imagine a similar hand gesture during that time from an owner of a Chryler LeBaron warning some kids to get away from his car.
Why doesn’t MTV play videos like this anymore?
Yet, the most baffling performance comes in the official music video. ‘You better hear what he’s got to say’ cannot be emphasized enough in this one. Ms. Magloire and Ms. Ramsey do their dancing and singing thing quite well in the 80s equivalent of loudly colored prom dressed and high heels (bonus 80s points for a lace waist corset on the outside of the dress!) , but the rap is what brings the house down.
In place of Mr. Cleveland is a black DJ! The problems only get worse from there. Armed with a mic and a pair of headphones around his neck, our video DJ lips sync poorly. He over enunciates his words and comes off looking like Michael Winslow making sounds effects with his mouth. He does create an imaginative and effective waving motion with his forearms and hands during the ‘down the drain’ segment of the rap. Baffling and ultimately amusing, it’s a pretty priceless piece of 80s music video.
Finally Bringing This Home
I’ve listened to this song a countless number of times over the past couple of years, and am thankful it exists. Indeep didn’t achieve much after this song, and tracking down anything of Michael Cleveland’s work after Indeep is impossible online. Ms Ramsey is nigh invisible as well, and Ms Magloire went on to some continued success as a member of Technotronic. Indeep’s Michael Cleveland is also not to be confused with the Grammy winning blind and nearly deaf fiddle player of the same name. (On a side note, imagine a person with the same name in the same profession winning more awards with only 60% of their five senses)
Labeled as “one of the greatest songs ever written about being a girl, listening to the radio, or any combination of the two.” by Rolling Stone magazine, I’m not alone in praising this song.
Every one hit wonder has its day, and with nostalgia and the need to fill movies, tv shows and video games with a soundtrack, Indeep has done well on this front, with this song appearing in everything from Succession to American Crime Story to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Hopefully the royalty checks are big for this deserving crew for coming up with the wonderful classic song.
As if I haven’t obsessed over this song enough, but wait, there’s more! The record label must’ve re-released the album a few years ago, and actually added some bonus tracks! The bonus tracks in question? Just the unadulterated samples of a telephone ringing, car wheels screeching, and 2:41 of a toilet flushing! This is really for the completionist. I guess if there can be a ceaseless amount of back story and exposition in every nerd movie series, adding in a few minutes of these samples is just hilarious!
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop!
I also found this video produced for a Dutch TV show. It features a lavish budget, compete with soft focus, multiple cameramen, and seemingly extravagant lighting! Mr Cleveland wearing his signature outfit, playing bass once again, but standing over a bubble machine for the duration of the video! There are some masterful close ups with 80’s over exposed lighting, and the video features a great shot of a drain to go with the toilet sound effect. Enjoy!
Last Night a DJ Saved My Life – Indeep
I can go on and on and on, but here’s all you need: