AHoliday Inn by the A303 is not really the kind of place you would expect to meet Paul Oakenfold. He is, after all, the person who almost singlehandedly invented the latter-day notion of the superstar DJ, and whose 30-year career has warranted not only a mention in the Guinness Book of Records (as “the world’s most successful DJ”) but also a a graphic novel. “This book,” reads the blurb, “charts the windy road taken to fame, fortune and musical nirvana.”
Yet here he is, in a business park just off the windy road taken to Basingstoke, dressed in tracksuit bottoms and exuding a surprising degree of nervousness about his next gig. Later today, he will become the first-ever DJ to play at Stonehenge, as the advance publicity has it. In fact, he almost certainly isn’t – someone must have played records between performances by Hawkwind and Gong at the infamous Stonehenge free festivals in the 1970s and 80s. But, technically, those events took place in fields adjacent to the stones, while Oakenfold is doing his stuff right in front of them.
Besides, it is the first time English Heritage have officially permitted a live performance at the monument, albeit in front of a select, invited audience of 50, among them actor Andy Serkis and a number of Oakenfold’s peers from the early days of acid house and the “second summer of love”: Danny Rampling, Carl Cox, Terry Farley, Nancy Noise, Mark Moore of S’Express. Moore’s presence underlines Oakenfold’s belief that the event functions as “a celebration of electronic music, club culture as we know it being 30 years old”.
The event is the brainchild of Alon Shulman, who is a special adviser to English Heritage, a partner with Oakenfold in a promotions and events company, and the boss of Universe, the promoters behind the vast Tribal Gathering festivals of the 1990s. He says it took a year to organise the event – which serves as an announcement that “Universe is relaunching on the world stage” – as well as being a fundraiser for English Heritage. Once government funded, it is now a charity that needs to reduce its annual subsidy requirement to zero within five years. This is why Oakenfold’s set is to be released as a charity album, while Shulman and the DJ have co-authored a song to commemorate the event, prosaically titled Stonehenge, replete with samples of “sounds from up there – the birdsong and, in the faint distance, cars”.
Oakenfold has been preparing for weeks. He proffers what looks like an inflight menu, which is covered in scribbled notes of track titles and timings. “I’ve been in Ibiza, playing music, timing music to sunsets. It’s dramatic, a sunset. How do I build up into it? How can I touch you emotionally? Can I play something you’re shocked by, that makes you go, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s playing this,’ but then you let it go and say, ‘I understand, because I’m looking at the sunset at Stonehenge’? There are many questions because it’s such a big moment.”
For all of his preparation, a degree of apprehension persists. Oakenfold peers out of the hotel window glumly. “You might not be able to see the sunset because a cloud might get in the way, right?” And he frets about whether the team can set everything up in the 35 minutes between Stonehenge closing to the public and the event starting. “We did a rehearsal yesterday,” he frowns. “And that went wrong, to be honest with you.”
Still, his nervousness is surprising, because playing Stonehenge is the kind of grandiose gesture of which Oakenfold seems fond. He has DJed on the Great Wall of China, in the middle of a rainforest in Argentina and at Mount Everest’s base camp, an event that sounds as if it would put you off grandiose gestures for life.
“It was minus 16 and I was sleeping on the floor in a tent,” he says. “When we got on the mountain, I had one day I couldn’t breathe. It was 16,000 feet up and I was popping Diamox [altitude-sickness pills]. You’re climbing and you’re struggling and you’re thinking of your family. You get scared. Then you get news that, at other camps, people have been helicoptered off, people have died, and then you’re worried about what happens if I turn the sound on and there’s an avalanche? All this goes through your mind. But you get through it.”
You could see these events as symbols of a steely ambition that has marked Oakenfold’s career from the time he and four other British DJs returned from a 1987 holiday in Ibiza, where they sampled both ecstasy and the music played at the island’s outdoor club Amnesia – and resolved to create something similar back home. Danny Rampling may have opened Britain’s most celebrated acid house club Shoom, but Oakenfold’s rival night Spectrum was on a far larger scale. Furthermore, he spotted an opportunity for fame buried beneath the nascent scene’s pie-eyed talk of one-love, every-one-together egalitarianism.
By his own account, his career really took off when he remixed U2’s Even Better Than the Real Thing – he says his version outsold the original – and was invited to open for them on tour. But his canniest move may have come at the turn of the millennium, when he refocused his attention on the US, and in the process blazed a trail that EDM, the brash US take on dance culture, would follow. “Thanks Paul! Thanks for all of this!” offers the cartoon Calvin Harris in the graphic novel. “Without you and your friends, this whole world wouldn’t exist! There could be no Calvin Harris without Paul Oakenfold!”
The graphic novel has a point. Oakenfold was the first DJ to do the kinds of thing that are now very much the sine qua non for EDM stars, including having a residency in Las Vegas and turning his performances into a grand spectacle. “In Vegas,” he says, “we had 50, 60 people doing trapeze acts. There was a show going on, big screens. It moved me on from just DJing and waving my arms about.”
Indeed, now that such things are de rigueur, it’s tempting to see Oakenfold’s penchant for big events in unlikely settings as a means of upping the ante, a headline-grabbing way to underline the fact that, when it comes to superstar DJ grandiloquence, he is still the godfather. But no, he says – his reasons for doing them include “good causes, breaking the cycle, pushing electronic music and flying the flag. I’m very proud of being English.” The Stonehenge gig appealed because, “I see the bigger picture. I’m someone who talks to a young demographic worldwide. If I can share with this younger generation that English Heritage is so important, our culture is so important and we need to preserve these iconic places, then so be it.”
And with that it’s time to go. Oakenfold’s concerns about the weather are unfounded: it’s a crisp, clear evening and, whether you buy into the mysticism and spirituality of Stonehenge or not, as backdrops for DJ booths go, it is a particularly impressive one. As the coaches disgorge their passengers, it’s difficult to argue that it is anything other than a unique event, although it’s a struggle to find a suitable noun to describe it.
Despite the presence of someone handing out glow sticks, you would never call what’s happening a rave. For one thing, the music is broadcast via silent disco-style headphones, due to concern about noise pollution. For another, no one really dances. They wander around the stones, headphones on, taking selfies. Perhaps, were it the late 60s, it might have been called a happening.
Meanwhile, the music Oakenfold plays is certainly eclectic. There is a lot of the trance-like electronica for which he’s best known, but there’s also the Weeknd’s Starboy, U2’s Love Is All We Have Left, bits of film soundtracks – Blade Runner, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Gladiator – and the Grid’s old Balearic classic Floatation. As the sun begins to set, the sound of Irish new age folkies Clannad’s 1982 hit Theme from Harry’s Game comes wafting out of my headphones. It sounds fantastic. More unexpected still, it is followed by the sound of Andrea Bocelli singing Nessun Dorma. Oakenfold’s old second summer of love peers seem to be loving it. “I had a bit of a moment in the middle of the stones,” says Moore with a smile.
The event is being conducted in more-or-less eerie silence, so the effect is bizarre if you take the headphones off. There are speakers by the DJ booth, but they are turned down so low they’re drowned out by the sound of traffic from the nearby road. The event must look simultaneously spectacular and baffling, not least because it had to be kept secret lest hoards of Oakenfold fans descended. Anyone driving past would see Stonehenge inexplicably lit up in red and blue, with people creeping around a site that English Heritage spends most of the year keeping them a discrete distance away from.
As night falls, Oakenfold stands on the small stage, wrapped in a red padded jacket, sharing DJ duties with Cox. Behind him, projections of flames illuminate the stones and bright spotlights strafe the sky. He says something about how life doesn’t get much better than “playing music in the open air at Stonehenge and seeing the joy in the faces of the crowd”. Then he adds: “We did it!” Another grandiose gesture successfully pulled off.
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