Nicky Siano was an extreme DJ, perhaps the most extreme DJ of the 1970s. More than any other spinner of the era, he stretched the nascent practice of turntablism to points where nobody dreamt it could go, and he did this not just in terms of technical skills but also emotional expressivity. If you danced to Nicky Siano, it was almost inevitable you would have an attack of the heart.
Between 1970 and 1973 Nicky Siano -- along with Michael Cappello, Steve D'Acquisto, Don Fendley, Francis Grasso, Bobby "DJ" Guttadaro, Richie Kaczor, David Mancuso, David Rodriguez and Ray Yeates -- pioneered the art of DJing. This group of insomniac music fanatics gave birth to disco and Siano, who took both the art of DJing and the being of DJing to a new level of intensity, was its standout spinner. Other jocks went on to accumulate more gold records and Billboard awards, but everyone knew that Siano was the DJ's DJ, and he held onto this unofficial title from 1973 to 1977.
A pencil-thin high school senior who wore nutty professor big glasses and parted his floppy brown hair at the centre, Siano first sampled the embryonic culture of disco at the Firehouse, where the Gay Activist Alliance was putting on bustling parties for New York's newly liberated gay men. Next he visited Tamburlaine, a Chinese-restaurant-cum-disco situated on 148 East Forty-eighth Street that attracted the most colourful crowd in Manhattan. Then he tried out Tambourine, where a heavily drugged up crowd was stressing out the neighbourhood community. And after that he went to David Mancuso's Loft, which changed his life.
Less disco-not-disco than disco-pre-disco, Siano made his debut behind the turntables at the Round Table around the middle of 1972 after his companion Robin Lord proposed an "exchange of favours" with the club's mobster manager. Then, in February 1973, he teamed up with Lord and his brother Joe to open the Gallery in an old warehouse on West Twenty-second Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. "We didn't look into licensing or anything like that," says Siano. "We just wanted to dance. It was as simple as that."
Club kids Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan helped decorate the room with balloons and the party burst into life in the summer of 1973. When the Fire Department closed the Twenty-second Street venue down a year later, the Gallery relocated to Mercer and Houston, where it reopened in November 1974. Recognising that Siano was an exceptional talent and that the Gallery dance floor was a place of communal gathering, physical expressiveness and spiritual release, downtown aficionados were collectively delighted.
Throughout this period Siano DJed with a combination of intensity, flamboyance and assurance. He cut up songs to build new records and generate new flows. He sustained his party peaks for longer than anyone else dared. He deployed a third turntable in order to overlay sound effects while he mixed. He played with the EQs like no other jock. He put on shows -- the Statue of Liberty, Sweet Transvestite, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand -- in mid-set. He played songs that, in the words of one contemporary, "made you want to put on a skirt and spin." And as the night drew to a close he occasionally sat down, took off his shoes and socks, and started to mix with his feet.
As an extrovert personality with evangelical tendencies, Siano was always going to stretch out beyond the cosy confines of the dance underground. He did this by breaking hit after hit after hit as well as by playing larger, more commercial venues such as Le Jardin and Studio 54, where he worked as the alternate DJ for the first four months of the club's existence. "At that time we needed to expand," says Siano. "Bigger clubs were opening and Studio encapsulated the whole thing." Nobody at the Gallery objected to the uptown residency. "It was the culmination of seven years of nightclubs."
The dream began to fracture in the second half of 1977. Studio turned sour when it became clear that the visual was being prioritised at the expense of the aural, and in the summer co-owner Steve Rubell, who was uncomfortable with the Gallery DJ's alternative style and excessive drug use, gave him the sack. In the autumn, Joe Siano begged him to ease up on the drugs and not "kill himself", or else he would shut down the Gallery. Siano refused to ease up and his brother shut down the Gallery.
Siano went on to play at Buttermilk Bottom, which he converted into an underground haven for the Gallery faithful, and in November 1978 Sire released his first single, "Kiss Me Again" by Dinosaur, which he co-produced with the classical-cellist-turned-disco-fan Arthur Russell, whose conversion to dance culture took place at the Gallery. The first disco twelve-inch released on the new-wave-oriented Sire, "Kiss Me Again" was ridiculously successful, but by now Siano's drug addiction was out of control and, following a couple of aborted attempts to reopen the Gallery, he went into rehab and said his final farewell to Nightworld. Or so it seemed.
When I started searching for Siano in 1997, everyone assumed he had disappeared or, thanks to his uncompromising lifestyle, passed away. But then Steve D'Acquisto had a chance meeting with the ex-Gallery spinner in an AOL chat room and put the two of us in touch, after which we began a series of fervent interviews (the results of which can be found in Love Saves the Day). When François Kevorkian, preparing for Larry Levan's anniversary birthday party, started to put out feelers for Siano, I gave him his number and Siano went on to tear down the roof at Body & Soul.
Siano has subsequently held down the celebrated Twelve West residency at Cheetah, toured the world and released a string of floor-blazing productions, including "Smoking It" by Automagic. Whether he is playing in New York or performing abroad, Siano performs with a rare energy, feeling the music like no other DJ and channelling this concentrated emotion into his playing. When he plays classics (which he mixes with contemporary dance releases) they don't sound like classics. They sound like the revelatory future.
Yet for all of the revivalist interest in seventies dance culture, Siano has not received the recognition he warrants. For four-and-a-half years the Gallery was every bit as influential as the Loft, and for much of the 1970s Siano stretched the art of DJing to its very limit. For Siano's quasi-religious devotees, this compilation will bring blissful memories of shimmering nights. As for the rest of us, we can now sneak into an imaginary Gallery and listen to Siano's message of love, hope and passion. Don't forget to put on your skirt and spin.