THE L.A.-BASED RADIO DJ WHO GOT BOWIE A RECORD DEAL AND INTRODUCED THE RAMONES TO THE WORLD TALKS ABOUT HIS ROCK-AND-ROLL LEGACY
It goes without saying that the music world is filled with eccentrics. From producers to groupies to the artists themselves, the hysterical, bawdy, and over-the-top industry of popular song is a wellspring of the world’s greatest characters. At the top of that totem pole is Rodney Bingenheimer, one of the most stylish, influential, and consequential personas ever to exist in the music biz, and one of the most charming as well. But he’d never say so.
“My life has been very quiet since the club,” he says bashfully, his soft tone evoking a bygone, albeit cool, era. He’s talking about Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco—the popular Hollywood club he started in the early ’70s, at 7561 Sunset Boulevard—which landed him a gig as a radio DJ on KROQ, a position that he’s held on to ever since. Over the past three decades, Rodney on the ROQ has been synonymous with American rock music: he’s cited as the first American DJ to play the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Blondie, the Clash, the Talking Heads, the Runaways, “the list goes on and on,” he says. The late Hollywood legend Sal Mineo famously dubbed Rodney the “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” a nickname that became the title of a popular 2003 documentary about his life. He started out as a live-in publicist for Sonny Bono and Cher. “I was up on the Sunset Strip and I had hair like Sonny,” he recalls. “So Cher said, ‘You should come hang out with us,’ and I did. They looked after me, like a little kid they took under their wings.” Among his accomplishments, the most significant perhaps is having gotten David Bowie his American record deal.
“He sort of gave me the idea for the club. It was basically a David Bowie cathedral,” Rodney says with a laugh. “It was all about London and had posters and flyers and memorabilia of Davie Bowie and stuff. Then I was helping him shop a record deal, and we first went to Liberty/UA Records, actually. And when that didn’t work out I knew the people at RCA, so I kind of put a word in for him, along with my partner at the club, Tom Ayres.”
Despite witnessing the meteoric rise of the countless bands he helped over the years, the Mayor of the Sunset Strip still finds himself in awe. “It was really nice to see Blondie get the award for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and who do they thank but me—the first name they say onstage! I love Debbie, and that was very nice.” About being awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in 2007, Bingenheimer says, “That was quite earthshaking and who should be there but Brian Wilson, Henry Rollins, the Bangles, the Donnas, some of the Go-Go’s, a lot of cool people, and a lot of listeners.”
Rodney on the ROQ is still on the air, Sunday nights from midnight to 3 a.m.—a set the veteran DJ always plays live. He maintains an active MySpace profile for the show, which lists his age as 26. “Ageless,” he explains. Ever on the lookout to break new bands, Rodney was instrumental in the success of groups like No Doubt, Blur, and Nirvana in the ’90s (Courtney Love famously claims to have stalked him in order to become a star) and today believes we are reaching a new, exciting era in rock. “It’s a lot better now than it’s been in a while,” he says. “There was kind of a slump, but it’s picking up again.” His current favorites are U.K. bands Spector and Arctic Monkeys as well as Welsh singer/songwriter Marina & the Diamonds. He also likes the new Beach Boys single. “I played it before it came out, ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio,’ it’s all about radio!” Is there anybody he’d still like to meet? “I haven’t met Lindsay Lohan,” he says earnestly.
At the suggestion that he write his own history of rock and roll, Bingenheimer replies, “I am doing a book right now! It’s called Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco: A Glitter Revolution.” While the book will trace only the history of the club until its closing, the soon-to-be author is open to doing another one, or a film, that will take into account his larger-than-life career. One thing he isn’t open to, however, is retiring anytime soon. “As long as there’s good music, I’ll be there to play it.”
photography MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/CORBIS