Meet Heinrich, the World's First Disc Jockey

The world's first DJ, Heinrich, recalls how he made music history by accident.

October 20, 2009, 8:13 AM

Oct. 20, 2009 — -- The quiet western city of Aachen, which last made news when Charlemagne lived there 1,200 years ago, has a credible claim to being the birthplace of the discotheque -- meaning that the world's first disc jockey was called Heinrich.

Up until the late 1950s, dancing establishments around the world would rely exclusively on live bands. Records were shunned because they were regarded as "dead music."

Then, in October 1959, Austrian businessman Franzkarl Schwendinger broke new ground. He opened an exclusive restaurant, the Scotch Club, in Aachen, and hired someone to play a series of records for entertainment. He got the idea from listening to Radio Luxembourg, a radio station that was rapidly reaching cult status by playing pop music, something unheard of in the conservative world of German broadcasting at the time.

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Heinrich, whose real name is Klaus Quirini, was a 19-year-old cub reporter for the local newspaper and had been sent to write a story about the strange new phenomenon of public record-playing. The man on stage, an opera singer from Cologne, would change records without saying anything, and the audience wasn't impressed.

"The place was full but the entertainment wasn't going down very well, so we started complaining," Quirini told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I was drinking whisky for the first time in my life and I may have been a little loud so the manager came over and said why don't you give it a try."

Fuelled by liquid courage, he jumped on stage. "I said: Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to roll up our trouser legs and flood this place because A Ship Will Come with Lale Andersen!"

'A Ship Will Come' by the German singer Lale Andersen was a hit at the time and the audience was stunned at the witty introduction to the song, says Quirini. "People started applauding, they thought a miracle had happened."

A new trend was born that night in Aachen. Some might argue that the Scotch Club with its sentimental German ballads and strict dress code -- jackets and ties for the men and definitely no trousers for women -- paved the way for the discos of the 1970s and the modern techno nightclubs with laser shows and dancers gyrating from suspended cages.

Aachen Triggered Disco Revolution

The discotheque swept Europe throughout the 1960s and didn't reach the US until the 1970s, says Quirini. In fact, he recalls not being impressed by the venues he saw in New York during a trip in the mid- 1980s. "I didn't see a single smart discotheque there. We were 10 to 15 years ahead of them."

"Rivals in the business poked fun at us at first but history proved us right," says Quirini, now 68. Schwendinger, the owner of the Scotch Club, knew he was on to a good thing and immediately offered Quirini a full-time job, for 800 marks a month, a huge salary at the time. But his father, a prominent judge who was conducting a major political trial at the time, insisted that he change his name if he took the job.

"At first I wanted to call myself Egon, because there was a hit at the time called 'Oh Egon, I Only Drank a Glass too Many Out of Love for You.' But we didn't have that record," says Quirini. "But we had a record that went 'Heinrich, I've Only Got You.' So I changed my name to Heinrich. When I walk through Aachen people in their 70s and 80s still say Heinrich to me."

DJ Heinrich worked at the Scotch Club for eight years, adding Rock and Roll to his repertoire of German ballads, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He moved to Switzerland and setting up the Alpine country's first discotheque in 1968. He then worked on pirate radio from a ship moored in the port of Hamburg for three months, until the city threatened to prosecute him and he had to leave.

The word discotheque was coined a few years after Quirini first jumped on stage -- the Scotch Club called itself a Jockey Dance Bar, a description that didn't catch on, unsurprisingly.

What makes a good DJ? Heinrich certainly seemed to have the knack. "You should take a look at the lyrics and work that into your announcement, it's not something you can learn. You've either got it or you haven't. I remember dancing on a table in a kilt teaching people how to do the twist." He had a stock of hundreds of funny phrases and jokes to amuse audiences in between songs.

Quirini stopped being a DJ decades ago but he has kept track of the trends -- how clubs had to make way for the gigantic techno temples in the 1990s, and how the scene is moving back towards smaller venues now.

In the 1960s, many young men wanted to become DJs because the job sounded like an easy way to make money and attract women. Quirini fought to have the occupation recognized as a proper job and formed the German Organization of Disc Jockeys in 1963.

Some might say the way German DJs organised themselves was typical of this heavily regulated, well-organized country. "Every DJ who wanted to become a member had to show an official police certificate of good conduct," he said. In the 1970s, he successfully campaigned for DJs to gain access to statutory health and pension insurance -- not very Rock n' Roll, perhaps but useful for long-term stability.

Ageing Audiences Still Kicking

The word disco has gone out of fashion and now stands for the 1970s style forever enshrined in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever -- mirror balls, flares and John Travolta swinging his hips. For Quirini, the traditional discotheque is very different from what he calls "discos", or modern nightclubs. His type of discotheque is alive and kicking, although its audience is aging, he says.

"In a discotheque a DJ moderates and brings the music to life with his intros. In the modern disco, the tracks are brought to life by light effects, fog or blowing bubbles. The heyday of the discotheque isn't over. In Cologne for example, in the Wiener Steffie (editor's note -- a large dance hall with long wooden benches which often stages theme parties), the audience is 35 to 80 and if the DJ dares to put on Britney Spears, they'll send him packing."

"I still go to discotheques but only to places where people my age go," says Quirini. "To the Tanzpalast in Aachen, for example, where you definitely won't find people dancing in cages."