“Acid and Experimental Chicago House”. Soul Jazz Records, 2005. Re-issued 2013.


House music is disco's revenge. So said Frankie Knuckles, reflecting on the charged history of the genre, which emerged in hometown Chicago in the middle of the 1980s. In this case home, to quote Gil Scott-Heron, is where the hatred is, or was. The disco sucks movement had its spiritual and organisational headquarters in the city, and the organisation's campaign reached its vitriolic climax when the celebrity rock DJ Steve Dahl detonated fifty thousand disco records during the halfway break of a baseball doubleheader. Metaphorical retribution arrived, according to the Knuckles, when dance artists, revisiting the disfigured disco of Dahl's melted vinyl, melded it into house. Revenge indeed.

House music's birth, however, has been largely mystified by this Darwinian story of destruction, survival and evolution. The genre might have received its abbreviated name from the Warehouse, where Knuckles, proud and defiant, continued to spin dance grooves in the aftermath of Dahl's headline-grabbing histrionics. But the sound of house emerged from an acute and unexpected angle that was in many respects cut off from the past. And while Knuckles played a heroic role in keeping disco alive in a city where so many chanted for its death, the acclaimed "Godfather of House" was a secondary figure when it came to pushing the mid-eighties incarnation of the genre.

An alternative genealogy of house might propose the following. That the key musical reference point for house wasn't disco, but a range of off-the-wall sounds that spanned late sixties rock and early eighties new wave. That the genre's key venue was not the celebrated Warehouse or the magisterial Power Plant (where black gay men were dominant), but the ramshackle Music Box (where the crowd was black and straight-leaning-towards-pansexual). And that its most influential spinner was not the ambassadorial Knuckles, but the deviant Ron Hardy ¾ a towering figure who, extraordinarily, was never interviewed before his untimely passing in 1992.

The heavyweight presence of New York has made it difficult to establish this alternative history. Drenched in disco, the city was initially suspicious of house, with Larry Levan, one of its most progressive DJs, notoriously slow to pick up on the genre. When Manhattan's spinners finally caught on, they tended to favour disco-flavoured cuts such as JM Silk's "Music Is the Key" over the obtuse, alien sounds of records such as "Acid Tracks".  Experienced through New York's eardrum, Chicago house sounded like an offshoot of New York disco. This was, and remains, disconcerting for many Chicagoans.

The strange life cycle of Chicago house in the UK only added to obfuscation of house music's original trajectory. The disco-derived "Love Can't Turn Around" went Top Ten before house had had a chance to create a buzz amongst dance aficionados. Then, following the successful release of Virgin's debut techno compilation, Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, Chicago house was cast (yet again) as the intimate and conservative cousin of discoa music that, in contrast to techno's heroic and radical engagement with the future, was determined to look (or listen) backwards.

UK acid house culture, which referenced Phuture's sublimely freakish "Acid Tracks", soon came to signify a broader dance movement that was awash with bright yellow smiley faces, stylistically challenged baggy t-shirts, interminable debates about the meaning of "acid" that rarely referenced the music, and a new mythology that situated the culture's roots as much in the sunny holiday resort of Ibiza as the windswept post-industrial landscape of Chicago.

House wasn't born this way. Not in Chicago, at least. And this albumwhich focuses on experimental house records, many of them rarities, many of them released between 1985 and 1988opens up an opportunity to retell the story of Chicago house that gives belated emphasis to the music's progressive roots.

* * * * *

Chicago boasts a long history of radical, roots-oriented music making. The city played a central role in the evolution of the blues from the 1920s to 1940s, when it channelled the raw guitar work of the Mississippi Delta into the circuitry of electronic instrumentation, and in the late 1940s and 1950s it became a key centre for R&B, turning out artists such as Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, the Dells, Gene Chandler, Dee Clark and the Chi-lites. "By the late 1960s," writes Robert Pruter in his book Chicago Soul, "the predominant recording activities in the city were in the soul field."

Ironically, Chicago produced no DJs, remixers or clubs of national significance during the 1970s. Its most famous spinner, Frankie Knuckles, hailed from New York and travelled west only when his career (established at the Continental Baths) lost its early momentum (after the bathhouse closed, Knuckles found himself spinning at the less-than-hip Stargate Ballroom). Meanwhile disco commentators never considered the Warehouse, which became virtually synonymous with Knuckles, to be anything more than a regional footnote, at least in its 1977-79 incarnation. Of course these commentators penned their copy in New York, but if they had travelled to Chicago they would have surely described the Warehouse as variation of party spaces such as the Loft, the Gallery and, most spectacularly, the Paradise Garage.

Knuckles and the Warehouse did play an emotional and sustaining role in the face of the disco sucks campaign, and the intense devotion felt by dancers and DJs for this music was illustrated when, some time around 1980/81, the staff at Importes [sic.] Etc, the main dance store in Chicago, introduced the label "house music" in order to channel the stream of requests they would receive from customers in search of Knuckles's non-commercial selections ¾ mainly disco, post-disco R&B and a healthy smattering of imports, many of them from Britain (new wave) and Italy (Italian disco). "House" was, quite simply, an abbreviation of "Warehouse" and it soon became part of the established scenester lexicon. But the Warehouse had no direct role in the house music that emerged as a distinctive musical genre from 1984 onwards.

Mid-eighties house music was rooted, instead, in the unnatural technological soil that was being cultivated by a new generation of researchers, engineers and musicians. The most influential figure in this movement, Robert Moog, launched the first commercial monophonic modular synthesizer in 1967. The following year Columbia Records commissioned a series of electronic and modern compositions that used the technology, including Walter (now Wendy) Carlos's acclaimed rendition of Bach, Switched on Bach. The Beatles used the Moog on their experimental White Album, which was released in 1968, and Giorgio Moroder employed the synthesizer as a font of gimmicky sounds on "Son of My Father" ¾ its first appearance in pop. After a few songs he gave up on the new technology. "The audience response wasn't really there," he says, "and I was always a commercial composer-producer."

Kraftwerk took synthesizer technologywhich acquired a polyphonic capability with the commercial release of the Oberheim Four Voice in 1975more seriously, deploying it as an avant-garde sound source on the cerebral Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, and Moroder returned to the Moog soon after, this time in order to generate futuristic sounds for "I Feel Love", the final track on his journey-through-the-decades album with Donna Summer, which revolved around a hypnotic oscillating synth line. Although drum machines such as the Chamberlain Rhythmate, Wurlitzer's Sideman and Korg's Dunca Mata had started to appear on the market from the late 1940s onwards, their purpose was to generate dinky "samba" and "bossa" lines for amateur organ players, so Moroder ended up finding most of his percussion sounds from the Moog. "We managed to create a snare and a hi-hat but we couldn't find a punchy enough bass drum," he says. "Eventually we just did an overdub."

Roland launched its first preset drum machinesthe TR-33, TR-55 and TR-77in 1972. Six years later the company came out with the CR-78, which allowed music makers to programme their own patterns. Then, at the end of 1980, the Japanese manufacturer introduced the TR-808, its most "convincing" drum machine to date (even though the equipments sounds were all synthetic). Phil Collins was one of the first artists to deploy the TR-808 in the musical mainstream, although other musicians complained of its artificial sound. When the widely loathed Dutch outfit Starsound used a drum machine in order to join-the-dots on "Stars on 45", an abridged version of the Beatles greatest hits that was released in 1981, the technology seemed to be destined for permanent ridicule.

On the surface, the TR-808 appeared to be absurdly limited, capable as it was of producing just sixteen basic sounds (bass drum, snare drum, low tom, mid tom, hi tom, rim shot, handclap…). What's more, the sounds weren't particularly convincing. As music critic Kodwo Eshun notes, there were no drums in these drum machines, and their sounds (electronic pulses and signals) were utterly different from live drums. All of the sounds could be tweaked through rotary controls, however, and that was exactly what Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker tried out during the recording of "Planet Rock"which included TR-808-generated beats and the quivering orchestral keys of the Fairlight synthesiserin 1982. The emergent genre of electro soon became synonymous with these aggressive beats. The TR-808 no longer seemed to be quite so feeble.

Drum machine technology took another leap forward when Roger Linn released the LM-1 around the same time that Roland came out with the TR-808. The LM-1 was entirely sample-based and was considered superior to the TR-808 for this reason. The drums on Prince's 1999 were almost entirely sourced from the LM-1, and other high-profile artists, including the Thompson Twins, Stevie Wonder, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, the Human League, Jean-Michel Jarre and the Art of Noise, used the equipment. The five thousand dollar price tag, however, was prohibitively expensive for most musicians.

Roland released the hybrid TR-909, which used both analogue and sampled sounds, in 1983 (the samples comprised of recordings of "real" drums stored digitally). Only ten thousand machines were manufactured before the company discontinued the model and replaced it with the TR-707, which, like the Linn, drew on an archive of exclusively digital samples. More or less simultaneously, Yamaha launched the DX7, the first entirely digital synthesizer. Artists approved of the sparklingly, life-like sounds of the DX7 so much that the market for firsthand analogue synthesizers (including the original Roland machines) virtually evaporated overnight.

Chicago music makers didn't hang around for the market to collapse. A number of DJs rotated "Mix Your Own Stars"the B-side of "Stars on 45"to mix between records; Kenny Jason was reputedly the first Chicago spinner to use a "live" drum machine in his DJ sets; and Jesse Saunders, who was putting on parties for high school kids at the Playground, wired up a TR-808 to his turntables during the summer of 1983. These and parallel practices were interesting but far from extraordinary. "The sound of the drum machine wasn't that different," says Saunders. "Kraftwerk had been using electronic drum pedals. It was already in use."

Jesse Saunders and Jamie Principle laid down the first Chicago house tracks. Principle, an ardent fan of English new wave bands and a disciple of Prince, recorded the dark, stripped down, haunting and distinctly European "Your Love, which started to get reel-to-reel play in late 1983. Soon after Saunders, who soon linked up with Vince Lawrence, the son of a small-time Chicago record label boss, put together "On and On", a copy of a bootleg remix by Mach that included snippets from "Space Invaders", "Funkytown" and "Bad Girls". "On and On" was pressed up firstat the beginning of 1984.

Principle and Saunders were equally influential. Principle inspired his peers because "Your Love" teased open the awesome possibilities of a new musical sound that combined the faux futurism of British new wave with a mesmerising dance groove. Saunders, for his part, created a different kind of wonder. Few, if any, thought that "On and "On" was any good, but almost everyone saw Saunders sell thousands of copies and achieve an remarkable local fame. Saunders got the money, the girls and the cars, all from punching a few keys on a drum machine. "We didn't think we could touch Jamie, but Jesse's bullshit sold, and we could visualize doing better than that," says post office worker Marshall Jefferson, who was keeping half an eye on the unfolding scene. "Jesse was responsible for the house music boom. Without Jesse Saunders, the non-musician would not be making music."

* * * * *

There is almost no point in attempting to impose a calm, coherent chronology on the house music scene of mid-eighties Chicago, which gathered steady momentum during 1984 before the floodgates opened in 1985. The naivety and desperation of many of the record makers combined with the off-the-hoof machinations of the local label entrepreneurs created a recipe for vinyl chaos. What's more, there was no established practice, ethical or otherwise, for music makers and publishers to fall back on in order to reference the dos and don'ts of the music business.

To complicate matters further, the Chicago house music economy was only partially organised around the traditional process of pressing up vinyl. Whereas labels were dominant in the New York food chain, they were all but absent in Chicago, which meant that the grey economy of tapes took on a heightened role. It was quite normal for a producer to lay down a track, distribute it on tape and see it pressed up on vinyl several months later. What happened in between was anyone's guess.

Records that were pressed up independently took on a heightened scatological existence, especially if they proved to be popular. The more established labels, which might have rejected the track first time around, would suddenly scurry to put it out. Contracts, usually extremely flimsy affairs, were often an afterthought. And so a virtually unmappable exchange of tapes and acetates began to emerge in the second half of 1984 and accelerated during 1985. There was little order, but a great deal of excitement.

Into this cauldron of activity, two broad categories of house music emerged: house that, referencing the past, continued to live in the present, and house that, articulating an experimental present, reached for a tangible future. The first type of house, drawing on disco as its supreme inspiration, sought to rejuvenate seventies dance within the framework of eighties technology. The second type of house, which is rarely distinguished from disco-driven house in historical accounts, had no direct connection to its seventies predecessor. House was bipolar ¾ and at least fifty percent avant-gardistright from the start. It is the radical half of house that is the concern of this album.

Naturally, New York discophiles heard more than a faint echo of their favourite genre in the new house sound of Chicago. "When house first came out, it sounded a lot like disco, but really raw and stripped down," says Danny Krivit, a resident DJ at Downunder and Laces Roller Rink at the time. "'Love Is the Message' was a blueprint for house music and MFSB, with Earl Young on drums, were also the band behind a lot of the things that Frankie would play. He played these records on a good sound system and he used the three-way crossover to create a stripped down effect. He basically made old disco sound like house." Impressionable young kids, who lacked the musical skills of their disco forebears, listened and learnt. "The people who were going to listen to him used their new drum machines and synthesizers to emulate what they would hear in the club. Most of them were DJs, not musicians, and they just improvised."

Billboard columnist Brian Chin was initially cautious in his response to house, which he perceived to be essentially derivative. "Chicago house started out as a subset from Philadelphia," he says. "'Music Is the Key' was a rip-off of 'Music Is the Answer' by Colonel Abrams. Chip E 'Like This' was [ESG's]  'Moody' sideways. 'Jack Your Body' was [First Choice's] 'Let No Man Put Asunder'. Larry Heard 'Mystery of Love' was more originalit wasn't recognizably after any particular record ¾ but house was generally a hard-driving variant of disco." ("Like This" by Two of a Kind, which foregrounds its indebtedness to the mutant disco of ESG, can be added to the list. The record appears on this album.)

Looming over mid-eighties Chicago, disco was an impossible act to follow for the city's producers and artists, who didn't even bother to dream about pulling together the multi-tiered musical ensembles and studio time that was run-of-the-mill standard for so many disco productions. It wasn't just a matter of finances, or lack thereof. It was also about technical training. What would these young Chicago producers have done with all of these musicians and studio time? The answer is: nothing.

"The reason that house was stripped down was no one could afford to deal with live bands, plus a lot of people who made that shit weren't theoretically trained," says Lil' Louis, a rising DJ name who was spinning at the Hotel Continental. "You could hear that in the records. They were almost a dissident version of what real music should be." But one thing was clear. Disco was dope, and a subtle (or not-so-subtle) reference to a favourite song was the easiest way they could pay their respects ¾ and snatch what was required.

Yet while some Chicago's house producers gazed longingly in the direction of disco central (New York) and its key satellite states (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami), others gazed into space, searching for new co-ordinates, hoping to break with the past and gamble with the future. Marshall Jefferson and Larry Heard led the way in trying to sound as strange, even as unmusical, as possible, and while they drew on the same technological pool as the discophile set they also deployed the equipment in such a different way that some would allege they misused it. This kind of house music wasn't something that gradually evolved out of the template established by Hurley and co. It was there from the start.

Jefferson, a rock freak who actively disliked disco, paid a visit to an equipment store in the summer of 1984 and started to lay down a slew of hard-edged, non-referential recordings. Virgo's "Go Wild Rhythm Tracks" (featured on this album) was put together with the less than helpful assistance of Vince Lawrence (whose 1986 track "Dum Dum" also appears on this album) and the seminal "I've Lost Control" (another inclusion) featured the deranged vocals of Sleezy [sic.] D as well as the demented gurgling of the 303. Neither of these recordings contained a self-conscious reference to disco, and the sound of the seventies was equally absent from the slew of recordings that Jefferson put together between 1984 and 1985.

Larry Heard, meanwhile, had grown bored playing drums in a local band and, at the end of 1984, purchased a Roland Juno 6 synthesizer and a TR-707. Heard went home and produced three tracks in one day: "Washing Machine" (angular, otherworldly, trance-inducing), "Can You Feel It" (technical, melancholic, low key) and "Mystery of Love" (lush, warm, gently percussive). In 1985 Heard teamed up with vocalist Robert Owens to re-record "Mystery of Love", and the duo went on to record "A Path", "You're Mine", "It's Over" and, with Harri Dennis, "Donnie". "Beyond the Clouds"featured on this album—was laid down after Heard added a Roland Jupiter 6 keyboard to his home studio in late 1985. "I was intrigued by synthesizers," he says. "I wasn't a writer. I wasn't a composer. I was just trying to do something creative. I knew I could play the keyboard in a traditional way, but I didn't want to do that."

These recordings were still indebted to seventies dance music. It is hard to imagine, for example, "I've Lost Control" or "Beyond the Clouds" happening (or at least finding a consumer market) without disco's emphasis on polyrhythm, the extended break and the rhythm section, plus the introduction of chant-like clipped vocals that drew on whittled down, floor-friendly themes. The journey from "work that body" to "jack your body" was a reasonably short one. Yet there was also an intentional break with the lush sophistication that came to define a good deal of disco in the second half of the 1970s, and the decisiveness of this rupture has yet to receive proper recognition.

House's forward-looking producersJefferson and Heard, with Adonis, Chip E and others—were stepping into a long-established practice of western avant-garde music making that received its most forceful expression when the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo published The Art of Noises on 11 March 1913. Russolo's manifesto called for the creation of a new form of music that would be built around machine-like noise rather than the entrenched instrumentation of the symphony orchestra. "We cannot much longer restrain our desire to create finally a new musical reality," wrote Russolo. "Let us break out!" Dance music acquired a futuristic edge with Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, and the baton was subsequently picked up, according to many, by the street freaks of electro and the bedroom boffins of techno, with house producers playing only a supporting role of catch-up. If that.

"House music to me is nothing more than an extension of disco," says Juan Atkins, the senior representative of the "Belville three", the founding fathers of Detroit techno, who hailed from suburban Belville (Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson completed the troika). "Chicago came out with its own version of techno a couple of years down the road with Larry Heard and Marshall Jefferson, but they didn't call it techno because we already had the term, so they called it acid house." Atkins adds: "It was a little take-off. I think there was somebody there trying to emulate a Detroit record… It seems like an awful coincidence that our records were selling so well in Chicago and all of a sudden acid house came on the scene."

The best known of these records ¾ and the one that Atkins refers to ¾ is "No UFOs", Model 500's debut release on Metroplex, which came out in the spring of 1985. The record, produced by Atkins, entered the Billboard charts in August 1985, having weaved its way into Chicago a little earlier thanks to May, who was travelling Chicago regularly to visit his parents. In contrast to Atkins's earlier electro releases, which were recorded with the group Cybotron and were similarly saturated with ideas of the alien other, "No UFOs" used a four-four bass drum, and this, according to the Detroit producer, was the reason why the record landed so successfully in Chicago.

Yet while "No UFOs" was played on radio in ChicagoAtkins credits Farley "Jackmaster" Funk of the Hot Mix Five as being the first radio jock to rotate the trackit is less than clear if it was rotated in the clubs that counted. Chicagoans insist that it wasn't, and that Detroit techno only established a foothold in the city with the release of May's "Strings of Life" and "Nude Photo". But even if Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy did play the Model 500 debut, the daring originality of Jefferson and Heard's earliest productions is beyond dispute, and these were laid down before "No UFOs" made the westbound journey to Chicago. Chicago, in other words, didn't follow Detroit into the future. The Windy City was running a dead heat with the Motor City and it might have even been ahead, at least when it came to four-on-the-floor.

Techno aside (and it really was aside in Chicago during 1985 and 1986), differences between the two principal strains of Chicago house shouldn't be allowed to obscure their similarities. Whatever the relationship to the past and the future, house producers were part of a pioneering posse of alternative musicians whose principle activity was to piece together rather than play music. That was because the rapid spread of drum machines, synthesisers and sequencers (sampling had yet to take hold in house) changed the nature of musicianship, seemingly for good. While it was still entirely viable to learn to play a traditional instrument in real-time before attempting to record music, that kind of skill was no longer fundamental to the recording process.

Jesse Saunders might have regarded himself as a conventionally skilled musician, but most Chicago producers were more interested in finding than playing. Jacques Attali commented in Noise, published in 1977, that the musician was becoming a spectator of the music created by his computer." The French philosopher and music theorist added: "One produces what technology makes possible, instead of creating the technology for what one wishes to produce." Following this dictum, house music was (in the words of Simon Reynolds, writing for Melody Maker in February 1988) "assembled, not born". The distinction between music technology and music creation was becoming harder to define. And the difference between Chicago house and New York disco was become easier to hear.

* * * * *

Following the runaway local success of "On and On", Larry Sherman, the owner of the only pressing plant in Chicago, decided to set up his own house music label, which he dubbed Precision Records. Then, at the beginning of 1985, Sherman set up a label with Jesse Saunders, the most prolific (if not most creative) figure in the new genre. Vince Lawrence came up with a name for the label ("Tracks") and Sherman, a notoriously bad speller, the legendary lettering ("Trax"). "Wanna Dance?" by Le' Noiz, a pseudonym for Saunders, was the first release.

Sherman and Saunders were less gung ho when it came to releasing other people's music. They rejected Marshall Jefferson's "Go Wild", which the producer brought to them soon after the label was formed. (Jefferson responded by setting up his own label in order to release the record.) They also turned down Chip E's "Jack Trax" EP, which arrived on their doorstep in the spring. (Chip E formed his own label and paid Sherman to press up a single acetate of the recording.) Then, towards the end of the year, they passed on Jefferson's Virgo EP, which featured two tracks by Adonis, including a remake of "I've Lost Control", titled "No Way Back". (Jefferson put the record out himself, and when Sherman heard how "No Way Back" was going down he released it on Trax.)

By the end of 1985, Chicago's record label scene had divided itself into two: established independents and fly-by-night vehicles for producers who were being cut out. Trax was almost old school, having been in operation for almost an entire year, and DJ International, which was opened around the middle of 1985 by local record pool boss Rocky Jones, with Steve "Silk" Hurley in initial tandem, was also becoming a major player. Trax and DJ International soon developed an intense rivalry that was based less on their differences than their similarities: both Jones and Sherman ran "streetwise" operations in which artists, seduced by up-front cash sweeteners, rarely made as much money as they were due.

Artists who couldn't get released on Trax or DJ International often set up their own labels, flagging the move towards a highly flexible, deregulated and transient market in music recording along the way. Jefferson's Other Side was one, Heard's Alleviate was another. Their labels might have looked like they were the musical equivalent of vanity publishing, but whereas most self-published books don't sell, these records sold in their thousands. The problem was simple. There weren't enough labels around, and the ones that were up and running were still getting to know the market.

To all intents and purposes, Sherman controlled the blood flow. All records travelled through his pressing plant and numerous eyewitnesses testify to his willingness to siphon off the most profitable material pretty well as he pleased. If a reject record turned out to be a local hit, who could stop Sherman from pressing up copies behind the artist's back? The Wild West (or, alternatively, neo-liberal) business model was carried over into the mogul's use of raw materials, which were often more cooked than raw. In order to maximise profits, Sherman regularly resorted to using recycled rather than virgin vinyl and the result, which apparently didn't cause the plant owner too many sleepless nights, was a spew of a poor-quality pressings. "Importes Etc. had a lot of complaints from customers," says Charles Williams, who worked in the store. "But in the end they had no choice because these were the only versions."

The real powerbrokers in the Chicago house scene, however, weren't the labels but the Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hard, the two most influential spinners in the city. And even though Knuckles is commonly called the "Godfather of house", Hardy was the more influential DJ between 1985-88 period ¾ the period that marked the rise of house, and which is the focus of this album.

Both Hardy and Knuckles were operating in new conditions. During the 1970s there was little, if any, direct contact between musicians and producers on the one hand and DJs on the other. Record companies were the effective gatekeepers of the dance music economy, opening or barring the way to club play. Musicians and producers rarely went to the clubs where their music was being played, and key remixers such as Tom Moulton (who didn't like clubs) and Walter Gibbons (who was too busy DJing) weren't around to do the legwork. So it was left to the promotional reps of the record companies to hand deliver the latest sounds to the DJs, or drop off boxes of records at the local record pool.

This system began to break down in the late 1970s. Having entered the dance market at an ungracefully late moment, record companies pulled back with even less poise when the western-wide recession decimated music sales. By the early eighties, the gulf between the companies and the producers/artists had widened thanks to the wave of new, comparatively cheap technologies, which encouraged music makers to piece together rudimentary bedroom studios and press up records ¾ well away from the companies. By the time Chicago's fledgling house producers started to make records, it was easier to take a tape to Ron Hardy or Frankie Knuckles ¾ either in person or via a friend ¾ than it was to get a record released by one of the city's companies. And the contrasting personalities of the two DJs, combined with distinctive identities of their crowds, resulted in the emergence of distinctive dance worlds.

Having split with Robert Williams when the Warehouse closed in June 1983, Knuckles opened his own venue, the Power Plant, in November 1983. He was widely considered to be the more progressive and skilled DJ throughout 1984, and his crowd, which was largely composed of knowing and mature ex-Warehouse dancers, as well as some younger, more obviously streetwise elements, bolstered his reputation. "The Plant was located at 1015 North Halsted Avenue, in the 'back yard' of one of Chicago's most notorious public housing projects, Cabrini Green," says Alan King, a Warehouse and then Power Plant devotee. "Due to its proximity to Cabrini Green, the Plant drew a very interesting mix of people ¾ the more eccentric, often gay, former Warehouse crowd, as well as a more 'thuggish', generally straight element from Cabrini. It was very interesting to watch the communal power that Frankie and the music he played had on folks from very different walks of life. While some referred to house music as 'fag music', the hardest, straightest folks from Cabrini also became captivated regulars at the Plant."

The erudition of the Power Plant dancers also meant they had "high standards" and this, combined with Knuckles's penchant for expertly produced sounds and the inaccessible architecture of his towering booth, meant that the venue was comparatively closed to the rudimentary home-made tapes of Chicago's first wave of house producers. The devotion to discoincluding the dark disco of groups such as the Skatt Bros.—was accentuated by the memory of Steve Dahl. Having been told that their beloved music sucked, dancers at the Warehouse, and then the Power Plant, were doubly determined to guard its survival. The crowd, in other words, could be just as picky as their spinner when it came to new music.

Hardy, for his part, was considered to be relatively conservative when he was recruited by Williams to play at the new Warehouse, which was situated in the old home of the Schwinn Bicycle company, located at 1632 South Avenue. Born into a jazz family, Hardy had played at a string of Chicago clubs ¾ including Den One and Carol’s Speakeasybefore travelling to California in the late seventies. He returned to the Windy City in the early eighties and led a life of relative obscurity, but Williams "thought he was pretty good" and "had the potential to develop himself into a better DJ" if he was given his own space.

The new Warehouse opened for business around the same time as Knuckles triumphantly launched the Power Plant and was forced to shut down soon after. Williams's new club, it seemed had little going for it. Hardy was playing a less interesting selection of records than Knuckles, and the new Warehouse was much less impressive in terms of all-round finish than the Power Plant. So, acknowledging that he wasn't going to win back his core black gay crowd anytime soon, Williams reopened his venue as the Music Box and started to try and draw in an alternative clientele. "The Music Box became more heterosexual than homosexual," says Williams. "A lot of gay people came along, but it wasn't as gay as the Warehouse. It introduced another group of people into the scene."

The new crowd didn't burst onto the scene out of nowhere. Some had danced at the original Warehouse, but most got their first taste in variety of less celebrated spaces. One of the most significant was known as the Loft, which was an entirely separate entity from David Mancuso's New York party, despite the shared name (the organisers, like almost everyone else, hadn't heard of Mancuso's subterranean space when they opened in 1980). Running in parallel, Saunders put on huge high school parties at the Playground, where he played a mix of disco, R&B, new wave and electro that was similar to sets of Kenny Carpenter and John "Jellybean" Benitez, both of whom were attracting similarly young straight black, Latino/a and Puerto Rican crowds at the reincarnated Studio 54 and the Funhouse. Having been excluded during the 1970s, straight "kids of colour" were finding their way into clubs en masse for the first time.

It was at the Playground that Keith Farley (who became Farley Keith Williams, then Farley Keith, then Farley "Funkin'" Keith and finally Farley "Jackmaster" Funk) got his first DJing gig and then shot to local fame when he joined the Hot Mix Five, which was formed in 1981 and also included Kenny "Jammin'" Jason, Mickey "Mixin'" Oliver, Ralphie "Rockin'" Rosario and Scott "Smokin'" Silz. "It was called Saturday Night Live, Ain't No Jive, Chicago Dance Party," says Silz. "We started off playing R&B dance music and we gradually became more progressive. In 1982 and 1983 we started playing a lot of imports from Italy and Canada, and then we got into house music. We played records from Jesse Saunders and Wayne Williams." Listening figures shot through the roof. "The show was number one. We had a thirty share of the Arbitron rating in the Chicago market, which was just incredible."

The Hot Mix Five soon became synonymous with WBMXthe mixers played on Friday nights as well as a daily Hot Lunch Mix and Traffic Jam sessionand they also put on parties for local high school youths. "We took dance music from a very lean time period to the height of house music," adds Silz. "It used to be every kid wanted a baseball glove and a bat. It became every kid wanted two turntables and a mixer. All of a sudden everybody wanted to be a DJ. We were the force in bringing it to the masses."

While these events never came close to generating the same kind of underground cachet as the Warehouse, they nevertheless introduced dance music to thousands of youngsters and established an embryonic network that would go on to form an important part of the largely black straight crowd that gravitated to the Music Box. When some of these kids ¾ and their friendsstarted to record dance music, it was only natural that they would take the tapes to their local DJs. Hardy received the lion's share.

That was because Knuckles was relatively inaccessible, not just physically, in terms of the foreboding design of his new booth, but also psychologically, with regard his intimidating superstar (superstar in the relatively small world of Chicago Clubland, that is) status. Knuckles could be approached, and producers were certainly keen to give him their records, but he nurtured a reputation for accepting only high quality productions and a not entirely appetising rumour had it that the DJ cut up tapes he didn't like. The hurdles were formidable and the success stories fairly infrequent

Hardy, in contrast, was less of a star and had less of a reputation to protect. The less exalted base from which he had to operate suited the spinner, who stayed closer to the floor, and the people who headed in his direction were precisely the straight black youths and friends of straight black youths who were developing the nascent sounds of house. Tapes and acetates started to trickle in Hardy's direction during his stint at South Indiana Avenue, and when the Music Box relocated to the R2 Underground at 326 North Lower Wacker Drive the trickle turned into a flood.

"Ron Hardy got adventurous when he went to the Underground Music Box," says Marshall Jefferson. "He started taking tapes from everybody. I gave him fifteen tapes through Sleezy D and he played all of them. Frankie wouldn't take tapes. He tried to keep a level of quality and I don't think he really understood what was going on. 'I've Lost Control' was the biggest thing in the Music Box. I don't think Frankie played it." Chip E, who sold records to Hardy at Importes Etc., also found it physically easier to get tapes to the Music Box spinner. "Ronnie and Frankie were at different levels," he says. "With Frankie you almost had to have an invitation to the booth ¾ it had to be something that was planned before. But when I went to the Music Box Ronnie would put it on whatever I gave him, almost without listening." If Chip E couldn't get into the Music Box booth, he would just stretch out an arm and hand his latest tape to Hardy. "Ronnie was always more accessible."

The minimal-to-the-point-of-cheapskate design of the new Music Box complemented the shifting selections of the venue's DJ. The room, long and narrow, was painted black. Stacks of speakers lay at one end of the room and the DJ booth was positioned at the other, as if someone had set up a makeshift club in a dark and gloomy hallway. The sound system was loud but poorly defined, with the tweeters and midrange on the verge of permanent disintegration. The only source of light emanated from a couple of strobes, which flashed out visual warnings of sonic disorientation. It was as if the club physically embodied the dark, stark tapes that were being thrust in Hardy's direction.

Hardy developed a stylistic signature that matched the edginess of his selections at North Lower Wacker Drive. He started to play records fast (plus-eight fast). He violated established DJing etiquette and began to rotate his favourite tracks several times in succession. And, flying in the face of musical convention, he started to play tracks backwards via his reel-to-reel. "Ronnie took a real liking to 'It's House'," says Chip E. "He put it on reel-to-reel and started playing it backwards. Everyone loved it. People were coming into the store asking for the backwards version."

A hardening heroin addiction propelled the DJ's shift to an uncompromising style. "Ron had personal family problems that caused him to start doing the wrong kind of drug," says Robert Williams. "I'm not saying that Frankie didn't do anything, but he didn't do the wrong onethe one that was addictive. Ron started on heroin." Williams participated in the ritual but managed to survive its potentially pernicious effect. "I knew I could dibble and dabble, but I was very cautious and very mindful of what would happen if I got carried away. I used it as a recreational drug on occasions and didn't take it seriously. But Ron's brother had OD-ed and there were other family tragedies." Heroin made the music seem slower to Hardy, who responded by pushing up the speed controls. "That was why everyone thought Ron played with more energy than Frankie."

The predominantly young straight black crowd at the Music Box lapped up the madness. "It was full of urban guys from the west side and south side of Chicago," says Byron Stingily, who was introduced to the scene by Vince Lawrence, an old college friend. "Guys would dance with their arms locked around each other and jump around." Hardy's followers also jacked, which involved them thrusting their whole bodies forwards and backwards spasmodically, as if possessed by a demonic rhythm, and in so doing they inspired dance-driven cuts such as Chip E's "Time to Jack" as well as Hurley's "Jack Your Body". "The entire lyric for 'Time to Jack' was 'Time to jack, jack your body,' because that was all that was important," says Chip E. "People didn't need to hear a story. 'Time to jack, jack your body' — that was the story right there."

Power Plant dancers also jacked, yet they remained convinced of their own superiority. "The Power Plant had more disco sophisticates than the Music Box," says Andre Hatchett, a Warehouse regular who followed Knuckles to his new venue. "We were more knowing. We were the crowd. They were just our seconds, our hand-me-downs!" There can be little doubt, however, that Hardy's dancers had more energy than their Power Plant counterparts and, having received less education in the nuances of quality music, they were also happy to be taken on an extremely rough ride. "I went to the Music Box," adds Hatchett. "I didn't like it because I was a Frankie fan. Frankie kept a certain tempo and there was more of a groove. Ron Hardy had a more frantic tempo. Playing the reel-to-reel backwards started with Ron Hardy."

Contrary to popular folklore that has conferred the status of "Godfather of House" upon Knuckles, it was Hardy who lay at the fulcrum of house music's earliest, wobbliest, most experimental and most exhilarating incarnationand it was Hardy who broke most of the records featured on this album. Knuckles kept dance music alive in the post-disco sucks era, inspired the term "house" via his selections at the Warehouse and went on to play a selection of house records that passed his scrupulous standards. But it was Hardy who was hungry for the new sounds of house, who accepted tapes over his booth, who played them with barely a listen, who encouraged novice producers to keep on producing and who established a consumer base for these fresh sounds. "I give Ron Hardy and his crowd credit," says Hatchett. "They invented house."

* * * * *

The brainchild of Earl "Spanky" Smith, "Acid Tracks" (included on this album) was inspired by Ron Hardy. Having left Chicago for California in the summer of 1984, Spanky returned when his friend Herb Jackson told him about the new club. "Herb said I had to come back, just to go to the Music Box," says Spanky. "I haven't returned to California since." Around the beginning of 1985, Spanky persuaded his sixteen-year-old buddy DJ Pierre (who had been spinning records since the age of thirteen) to visit the venue. "It changed his life, too," adds Spanky.

Some time later, Spanky and Pierre visited another friend, Jasper, who owned a Roland TB-303. Spellbound by the equipment's seemingly magical ability to synchronise the bass and the drum pattern, Spanky decided he had to buy a Roland for himself. His initial search yielded no results: Roland had discontinued the model and the main equipment outlets had sold out. "Eventually I found one in a second hand store for two hundred dollars," he says. "I spent my last dime on it."

Following the long established and extremely serious tradition of experimental music making, Spanky took the TB-303 home and, along with Jackson, started to press buttons he didn't understand. "After a while this strange sound popped up," says Spanky. "It was programmed into the machine. I thought it was slamming. I could picture Ron Hardy play it in the Music Box." Spanky called DJ Pierre. "Spanky had a drum beat going and the 303 was making all these crazy sounds," says DJ Pierre. "I thought it sounded interesting. Then I started to twiddle some knobs and the sounds became even weirder."

Spanky and his gang had pressed a button that was supposed to sound like a live bass guitar, but the imitation was poor and when the friends started to mess about with the frequencies the result was positively strange. "We were already going to the Music Box and hearing weird shit," says DJ Pierre. "We were already attunedRon Hardy had trained our minds—so the bass didn't sound like noise. It sounded like something you could dance to."

Spanky and DJ Pierre took a tape of the record (provisionally dubbed "In Your Mind") to the Music Box and, standing outside the club in the bitter cold, waited for Hardy to arrive. When the spinner arrived he listened to their cassette and said it sounded OK, and later on that night he played the track. "The first time he played it the crowd didn't know how to react," says Spanky. "Then he played it a second time and the crowd started to dance. The third time he played it people started to scream. The fourth time he played it people were dancing on their hands. It took control over them. Ron Hardy said, 'That's a great track!'" DJ Pierre adds: "Frankie Knuckles wouldn't have played it."

Spanky and DJ Pierre went to the Music Box for the next fortnight and then took a three-week break. During that time a friend approached them and said that Hardy was spinning an amazing track, which the dance floor was referring to as "Ron Hardy's Acid Tracks". The friend played a tape of the record to Spanky and DJ Pierre. It was "In Your Mind". "There was a rumour that they put acid in the water at the Music Box," says DJ Pierre. "I don't know if it was true or not, but we now had a new name for our record."

Following a Music Box performance of "Move Your Body"actually titled "The House Music Anthem" and released on Trax in the summer of 1986—Spanky, DJ Pierre and Jackson approached Marshall Jefferson to see if he would produce "Acid Tracks". Jefferson, who had already toyed with the 303 on "I've Lost Control", agreed. "I tweaked the 303 before I recorded the track, whereas they tweaked it during the recording," he says. "I liked theirs better than mine."

According to Jefferson, there wasn't a great deal for him to do. "I sat in the studio and watched them. Larry [Sherman] told me he didn't want to put the record out unless I produced it. Since I recommended the project, I wanted to make sure it got taken care of." Jefferson introduced one significant change, slowing the record down from 126 to 120 beats per minute. "Marshall told us, 'New York has got to get into it!'" says DJ Pierre.

"Acid Tracks" was released under the moniker Phuture, and the first song on the B-side, titled "Phuture Jacks" (also included on this album), recycled the name. "We were sitting in a restaurant and a friend of ours called Tyrone, who was nicknamed Yancy, came up with the name 'Future'," says Spanky. "We thought that somebody would have already used it so we decided to call ourselves 'Phuture'." Given that "Acid Tracks" sounded like it had crash-landed in Chicago from some dark-and-twisted dystopia, the name was fitting. "The future was part of our lives," adds Spanky. "We weren't copying a sound that was already out there. We were creating a sound that you would expect to hear in the future."

Order and tranquillity reigned for about half a second. Armando released "Land of Confusion", ostensibly the second (or third if Sleezy D is counted as the first) acid house track, which the Phuture team enjoyed (Armando's "Downfall" appears on this album). After that, mayhem ensued, with an estimated sixty to one million acid house tracks being released in the slipstream of "Acid Tracks". Jefferson ¾ and it's not entirely clear if he's being serious or not ¾ blames DJ Pierre, who apparently revealed the TB-3030 secret to the rest of the world, for the avalanche.

The subsequent outpouring of acid releases included a good number of make-some-quick-money imitations, but also gems such "This Is Acid" by Maurice featuring Hot Hands Hula (included on this album), the cunningly titled "Acid Track" by Adonis (whose "Do You Want to Percolate?" also makes an appearance), and "Acid Over" by Tyree (another inclusion). "The crucial element in acid is that the bass line really carries the song," Tyree told Simon Reynolds in an interview for Melody Maker in February 1988. "It's the modulation of the frequencies of the bass line that keeps the track moving, keeps it hot."

Ron Hardy broke these and scores of other acid house releases at COD's, the Music Box having shut down some time around the end of 1986/beginning of 1987. Robert Williams eventually joined Hardy at his new spot, but it never became known as the Music Box, and Hardy subsequently left COD's for the Power House, where Knuckles had held his final Chicago spot before leaving to play a residency at Delirium in London in September 1987. (Knuckles, who was unable to detect any temporary, let alone lasting, value in acid house, returned to Chicago in December and then left for New York in January 1988.)

Hardy played alongside Steve "Silk" Hurley at the Power House and in the spring of 1988 the venue was renamed the Music Box. "A lot of the hardcore people who really loved the [Music Box] Underground at 326 didn't like the Power House," says Jamie Watson, who started to go out in the summer of 1988. "The Power House was a huge space compared to 326 and it didn't have the same atmosphere. The next generation was beginning to come through and a lot of the people who did their thing at the Underground felt they were too old to be partying with teenyboppers."

For many, 1988 was the year the Chicago scene experienced an irreversible downtown. Local authorities reigned in the clubs and WBMX went off air, all of which prompted Mixmag, whose attention was shifting sharply in the direction of New York, to announce in its July issue that the Chicago club scene was "dead". But while New York and New Jersey were now challenging Chicago as key centres of house music production, artists based in the Windy City continued to turn out experimental music, even if the circumstances of their release were often murky.

Tyree's "Acid Crash"(included on this album) typified the bedlam. Originally released as "Video Crash" on Rockin House Records in 1988, the record was bootlegged in New York and re-released as "Acid Crash" on House Musik later on that same year. Tyree had no cause to get upset, having drawn heavily on "Video Clash", which was released on Dance Mania in 1988, in order to make the record in the first place. And Lil' Louisaccording to many, Chicago's third most important DJ, even he is widely considered to have been a "long third" behind Ron Hardy and Frankie Knucklescouldn't get too upset, either, because his own contribution to the recording was disputed.

Jefferson (surely the most influential Chicago producer of the mid-eighties) laid down the first version of "Video Clash" with Kym Mazelle around 1986. Jefferson says that Lil' Louis was over his house "every day" during this period, always on the hunt for new music, and when the DJ laid his hands on Jefferson's distorted, virtually insance "Video Clash" he cut out Mazelle's vocal and turned the stripped down tracks into his signature tune at the Future (the old Playground, which Lil' Louis took over in the mid-eighties) and the Bismarck (a hotel where he put on huge pizza parties for a young crowd).

"It was a crazy song," says Lil' Louis. "I used to play it at my parties and people would beg me for it." Jefferson was characteristically blasé when, a couple of years later, Lil' Louis said he wanted to put the record out. "He expressed how upset he was that people were ripping off the tune," says Jefferson. "He then released 'Video Clash' under his own name [with Jefferson's permission] and didn't give me or Kym song writing credits." The recordincluded on this albumwas pressed up on Dance Mania in 1988. So at least the genesis of this particular record, and its manifold offshoots, is clear. Right?

* * * * *

In a short five years, Chicago house had more or less completed the first cycle of its story. The simple version of this narrative goes something l-l-l-like this. Having started out as a small town, organic art form that melded pragmatics, pleasure and creativity, house chiselled out a potentially lucrative market and, after that, was ransacked by moneymen. The drive to commercialism spawned sameness and fatigue, but it also helped generate new markets outside of Chicago that, in turn, spawned new waves of dynamism followed by plagiarism and fatigue.

The slightly more complicated version of house music's first half-decade, mindful that there can be no way back to the genre's earliest years, tells a different version of events. House music, according to this account, emerged in 1984 in an environment defined not by innocence and manic creativity but rather by ruthlessness and blandness. Two years of high creativity ensued (the departure of Saunders to the West Cost to pursue a recording career in R&B for Geffen may or may not have been a coincidence), and this inventiveness revolved around Hardy, who developed a frantically dynamic environment for artists and dancers alike. Some critics suggest that stagnation set in following the release of "Acid Tracks", but experimental tracks were still plentiful ¾ until a combination of government politics, excessive drug use drugs the greener concrete of other cities broke up the reigning artist-DJ-dancer nexus.

As Chicago started to splutter, Manchester, London, Paris and Rimini joined New York and New Jersey and flung themselves into house. (Detroit, and to a large extent Berlin, stuck to Techno.) Deep house emerged as a compelling counterpoint to acidJefferson was once again an important pioneerbefore it mutated into a more general repudiation of progressive house or trance, which were the dominant sounds of Britain and Europe in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade deep house (alternatively known as Garage or New Jersey) had largely descended into a cul-de-sac of jaded, chin-stroking tracks and too-highly-polished vocals. In the meantime, techno and drum and bass forged their position at the head of radical experimentalism ¾ and confined house to the realm of safe nostalgia (even "Dad's music") in the process.

Meanwhile Chicago, having climbed so high so fast, experienced an attack of vertigo and lost its balance altogether. Its subsequent fall was bruising, but not fatal. Key producers and DJs moved away or, in the tragic case of Ron Hardy, passed away, and for a while the city's dance scene, which had partied hard for the best part of a decade, suffered from a nasty hangover. By the early 1990s, however, the Chicago dance scene started to rediscover its rhythm and a new generation of producers (including Cajmere, Roy Davis Jnr., Ron Trent, Glenn Underground, DJ Sneak, Anthony Nicholson, Paul Johnson, Boo Williams) and labels (such as Cajual, Prescription, Clairaudience, Relief and Clubhouse) made sure that Chicago didn't simply signify the past.

While many of the new scenesters looked to disco (for loop-friendly samples) and deep house (for mood-inducing instrumentation), othersmost notably Cajmere and Davis—developed a dialogue with the tradition of acid house. Cajmere's "Explorer" (1994), included on this album, provides one example of this evolving avant-attitude. Davis's "Acid Bass" (1995), also featured here, stands as another. (Incidentally, "Acid Bass" more or less coincided the release of the "Gabrielle", another Davis track, which did so much to inspire UK Garage.) The inclusion of these records stands as a reminder Chicago didn't disappear from the house music map towards the end of the 1980s. The city's experimental foundations might have wobbled for a while, but by the mid-1990s they had been firmly re-established.


All quotes are from original interviews unless otherwise stated.

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“In Defence of Disco (Again)”. New Formations, 58, Summer 2006, 128-46.

‘Disco’ is the overburdened name given to the culture that includes the spaces (discotheques) that were organised around the playback of recorded music by a DJ (disc jockey); the social practice of individual freeform dancing that was established within this context; and the music genre that crystallised within this social setting between 1970 and 1979. Although disco has rarely been taken seriously, its impact was - and remains - far-reaching. In the 1970s, some fifteen thousand discotheques opened in the United States alone, with notable scenes also emerging in Germany, France, Japan and the UK, and the music, which revolved around a four-on-the-floor beat (an even-tempo ‘thud, thud, thud, thud’ on the bass drum), polyrhythmic percussion and clipped vocals, became the best-selling genre on the American Hot 100 during this period.

Since the 1970s, disco, which formally went out of production towards the end of 1979, has moved under a different guise, yet remains prevalent. The clubbing sections of Time Out are testament to the ongoing popularity and vitality of the social practice popularised by disco, and the music’s pounding rhythm is prominent in mainstream pop acts such as Kylie and the Scissor Sisters. Madonna wasn’t just born out of the embers of seventies disco (her debut album was rooted in the New York dance scene of the early 1980s); she also owes her recent revival to disco. ‘Hung Up’, Madonna’s first unblemished success for the best part of a decade, doesn’t just sound like disco (the album from which it is taken, Confessions on A Dance Floor, unambiguously references club culture). In sampling Abba’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’, a staple on the white gay dance floors of 1970s New York, it also recycles disco.

For the most part, disco’s political ambitions have been local. Seventies artists, producers and remixers released records that, inasmuch as they contained lyrics, were focused on the theme of dance floor pragmatics (‘Dance, Dance, Dance’, ‘Work that Body’, ‘You Should Be Dancing’, ‘Disco Stomp’, ‘Let’s Start the Dance’, ‘Turn the Beat Around’, ‘By the Way You Dance’, ‘Dancer’, ‘Can’t Stop Dancing’, ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’, ‘Fancy Dancer’ and so on). Meanwhile dancers were, and remain, preoccupied with the experience of bodily release, temporary escape and the ephemeral community of the nightclub. Private and evasive, disco and dance successors such as rave have nevertheless been dragged into the centre of mainstream political culture at key moments of ideological struggle. John Major, seeking to establish a post-Thatcherite sense of purpose, picked on dance culture (as well as hunt saboteurs, countryside ramblers and civil liberties campaigners) in his Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994. Mayor Giuliani mobilised his pre-9/11 popular conservative constituency around the clampdown on clubbing activity and the sanitisation of Times Square sex. And the American New Right, searching out a polyvalent symbol of the ‘degenerate’ values of the 1960s (drug consumption, women’s rights, civil liberties, gay liberation, excessive public spending), drew on disco as a key target around which it could mobilise the long-suffering moral majority.

The disco that riled the gathering forces of the New Right was born in cauldron conditions. Lacking alternative social outlets, gay men and women of colour, along with new social movement sympathisers, gathered in abandoned loft spaces (the Loft, the Tenth Floor, Gallery) and off-thebeaten-track discotheques (the Sanctuary, the Continental Baths, Limelight) in zones such as NoHo and Hell’s Kitchen, New York, to develop a uniquely affective community that combined sensation and sociality. Developing a model of diversity and inclusivity, participants established the practice of dancing throughout the night to the disorienting strains of heavily percussive music in the amorphous spaces of the darkened dance floor. While the nonlinguistic practices of these partygoers differed from the direct action of their counterpart street activists, they were similarly committed to the liberation of the dispossessed, and a number of faces could be spotted shuffling between the club and the street. And who was to say that civil rights, gay rights and feminist protestors didn’t experience a form of the transcendence-throughenvelopment that was so central to the dance ritual in the midst of marching, chanting crowds?

The heat and humidity on these dance floors was almost tropical in intensity, and when urbanites and suburbanites picked up on this ethicalkinetic movement (‘Love Train’ by the O’Jays, released in 1972, captured the spirit of the floor and was adopted as a pre-disco anthem) it seemed, at least for a couple of years, as if the transgressive dancers of New York’s ‘downtown party network’ - the network of sonically and socially progressive venues that included the Loft, the Sanctuary, the Limelight, Gallery, the Tenth Floor, Le Jardin, the SoHo Place and Reade Street, which were for the most part clustered in downtown Manhattan - might be about to remould the United States through the sonic and bodily practices of their queer aesthetic. As disco stretched out, however, its DJs became less attuned to the mood on the floor, its clubs more oriented towards looking rather than listening, and its music more geological (structured according to the hardened co-ordinates of the classic pop song in which the lead vocalist and lead guitarist are dominant within a set verse-chorus structure) than aquatic (built around unpredictable structures and fluid non-hierarchical layers of textural sound). The backlash, which began to gather momentum in the mid-seventies, reached its crescendo in the final summer of the 1970s when the rabid rock DJ Steve Dahl detonated forty thousand disco records in a hate fest at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox. The Left barely mustered a whisper in disco’s defence. Except, that is, for Richard Dyer.

In its commercialisation disco mirrored the folk and rock movements of the 1960s, and although its marketing, which tracked the upward curve of neo-liberalism, may have been unprecedented within the music sector, disco suffered disproportionately because it had few allies in the major record companies, whose ranks were dominated by white straight executives. Their sympathies lay with the rebellious postures of the Stones and Dylan rather than the gutsy emotional outpourings of the black female divas - among them Gloria Gaynor, Loleatta Holloway, Donna Summer and Grace Jones, as well as the black gay falsetto vocalist Sylvester, author of the gay anthem ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ - who established a foothold in the music industry thanks to the consumer support of New York’s heavily gay dance floors.

In retrospect, 1977 was a transitional year. The opening of Studio 54, the glitziest and most exclusionary venue of the disco era, in April, followed by the release of Saturday Night Fever in November, steamrollered the ethical model of the downtown party network into smithereens, at least in terms of the emergent disco industry. Whereas the dance floor was previously experienced as a space of sonic dominance, in which the sound system underpinned a dynamic of integration, experimentation and release, at Studio this became secondary to the theatre of a hierarchical door policy that was organised around exclusion and humiliation, as well as a brightly-lit dance floor that prioritised looking above listening, and separation above submersion. Meanwhile Saturday Night Fever replaced the polymorphous priorities of New York’s progressive venues with the flashing floor lights of 2001 Odyssey and the hyper-heterosexual moves of John Travolta. Whereas the dance floor had previously functioned as an aural space of communal participation and abandon, it was now reconceived as a visually-driven space of straight seduction and couples dancing, in which participants were focused on their own space and, potentially, the celebrity who might be dancing within their vicinity.

Saturday Night Fever and Studio didn’t just dominate the disco landscape of the late 1970s; they also held sway over the cultural landscape of the United States. Fever became the second most popular film of all time (the Godfatherheld onto its poll position) and the best-selling album of all time, while Studio, thanks to its unnervingly compelling combination of celebrity gossip, drug scandal and door-queue carnival, hogged the front pages of the tabloids. As disco exploded in 1978, thousands of discotheque moguls and their patrons mimicked these contorted versions of dance culture, and while the initial experience was thrilling, the effect soon began to fade or, worse still, jar. By 1979 the combination of the shrill white disco pop that had come to dominate the charts and the exclusionary, individualistic practices that had come to dominate the dance floors led disco’s swathe of recent converts to question their new affiliation. Dancing became disengaged, and when a nationwide recession kicked in during the first half of 1979 the groundwork was prepared for the popularisation of the ‘disco sucks’ movement, a network of disco haters that first emerged at the beginning of 1976 and eventually coalesced around Steve Dahl, a disillusioned Chicago-based rock DJ/talk host.

Dahl and his anti-disco followers tapped into the homophobic and racist sentiments that underpinned the rise of the Anglo-American New Right and would culminate in the election of Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher. The ‘disco sucks’ slogan evoked the way in which disco drew dancers into its seductive, beguiling rhythms as well as the action favoured by so many of its most dedicated participants, and while Dahl claims to have been more concerned by disco’s superficiality and artificiality than the identity of any of its dancers, these terms had, by the late 1970s, become euphemisms for ‘gay’. As cultural critic Walter Hughes notes, ‘even the subtler critiques of disco implicitly echo homophobic accounts of a simultaneously emerging urban gay male minority: disco is “mindless”, “repetitive”, “synthetic”, “technological”, and “commercial”, just as the men who dance to it with each other are “unnatural”, “trivial”, “decadent”, “artificial”, and “indistinguishable” “clones”’.

Gay men, however, weren’t the sole focus of the anti-disco movement’s rage. Almost as target-friendly were the equality-demanding women and African Americans who had become intertwined with disco and, much to the displeasure of the New Right’s core following, were displacing white straight men from the centre of American popular music culture. ‘I think I tapped into young, brotherly, male - and dragged along for the ride, female - angst,’ Dahl told me. ‘You leave high school and you realise that things are going to be tougher than you thought, and here’s this group of people seemingly making it harder for you to measure up. There was some kind of anger out there and the anti-disco movement seemed to be a good release for that’.

The concerns of the New Right came sharply into focus just as disco’s commercialisation reached saturation point. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter defeated President Ford, nearly seventy percent of voters declared the economy to be their primary concern, yet by 1979 national conditions had dipped dramatically. Meanwhile, the Middle American heartland began to complain ever more bitterly at the way in which sixties social values had become increasingly entrenched in US governmental policy, with Carter perceived to have introduced a series of liberal policies, on issues from abortion to affirmative action, that were deemed to be favourable to African Americans and women rather than the so-called ‘average’ voter. Building on its early formation, when it was known as the ‘middle American’ revolt, the New Right deployed its support for the Protestant work ethos and abstemiousness against the corrupting influences of pleasure and play. 

Under Carter, the argument ran, the United States had become unprofitable, valueless, sinful, profligate, stagnant, disorderly, vulgar, inefficient, unscrupulous and lacking in direction. The proponents of this critique might as well have been talking about disco and, to their good fortune, disco - populated as it was by gay men, African Americans and women - contained scapegoats galore. ‘It wasn’t just a dislike of disco that brought everyone together’, Dahl added (before he realised I wasn’t a sympathiser and abruptly ended the phone call). ‘It was all of the shared experiences. But disco was probably a catalyst because it was a common thing to rally against’.

Yet if, for the emergent New Right, disco was a metonym for a degraded capitalism, the organised Left, which had yet to adjust its antennae to the politics of pleasure, wasn’t concerned with that kind of distinction. As far as socialists were concerned, mainstream disco’s flirtation with upward mobility, entrance door elitism and rampant commercialisation was quite enough. Although Saturday Night Fever might have been set in the working class neighbourhood of Brooklyn, disco appeared to be disengaged from the concerns of class inequality, and, in contrast to folk and rock, its vocal content (which was never the point of disco) failed to address the wider social formation. Working one’s body - a common refrain in disco, in which vocal repetition, following in the tradition of gospel, emptied words of their meaning in order to open the self to spiritual inspiration - wasn’t the kind of labour that appealed to the Left in 1979, the seismic year in which Thatcher and Reagan were elected.

It was into this hostile terrain that Richard Dyer seemingly ventured with the publication of his far-sighted article, ‘In Defence of Disco’, which came out in the same month as the Comiskey Park riot. Dyer, however, wasn’t concerned with standing up to the escalating homophobia of the disco sucks bullies because he hadn’t heard their taunts. ‘I was living in Birmingham [in the UK] and was involved in Gay Liberation and I had the feeling that the kind of music that I liked was constantly being disparaged’, Dyer told me.

I was part of the Gay Liberation Front in Birmingham and we put on discos, in the sense that we played music that was on vinyl. They were free or very cheap, and we always befriended people who came along. It was meant to be a whole different way of organising a social space and there was always tension over what music should be played. There were those who thought it should be rock, and those of us who were into Tamla Motown and disco. We were criticised for being too commercial. It was just felt it was commercial, capitalist music of a cheap and glittery kind, rather than something that was real and throbbing and sexual. The article sprang out of the feeling of wanting to defend something when the last thing it needed was defending because it was commercially very successful.

Believing that the left-leaning Gay Liberation Front was out of synch with the wider gay constituency - ‘Most gay men had nothing to do with gay clubs, but gay men who had an identified gay lifestyle were probably into disco and clubbing’ - Dyer decided to pen a response in Gay Left, a bi-annual journal that he worked on alongside a collective of several other men. ‘All my life I’ve liked the wrong music,’ he wrote. ‘I never liked Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll; I always preferred Rosemary Clooney. And since I became a socialist, I’ve often felt virtually terrorised by the prestige of rock and folk on the left. How could I admit to two Petula Clark LPs in the face of miners’ songs from the North East and the Rolling Stones?’

The key problem, according to Dyer, was that disco, in contrast to folk and rock, tended to be equated with capitalism (even though the latter genres had been co-opted by the music industry much earlier than disco). Yet ‘the fact that disco is produced by capitalism does not mean that it is automatically, necessarily, simply supportive of capitalism,’ he countered. Dyer added that whereas rock confined ‘sexuality to the cock’ and was thus ‘indelibly phallo-centric music’, disco ‘restores eroticism to the whole body, and for both sexes, not just confining it to the penis’ thanks to its ‘willingness to play with rhythm’. Anticipating the queer materialist arguments of Judith Butler, Dyer concluded that disco enabled its participants to experience the body as a polymorphous entity that could be remodelled in ways that sidestepped traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity. ‘Its eroticism allows us to rediscover our bodies as part of this experience of materiality and the possibility of change’.

Dyer was virtually a lone voice however, and while his arguments would have garnered the support of disco’s most dedicated evangelists in the States, this constituency was much too busy with the business of dancing to concern itself with developing (or for that matter reading) a theoretical defence of the genre. That said, Dyer might not have written ‘In Defence of Disco’ had he lived in the unofficial capital of disco - as he did between February and September 1981 - rather than Birmingham. ‘I went to live in New York and when I was there I went to the Paradise Garage,’ he says. ‘I was in a group called Black and White Men Together, I had a relationship with an African American man, and going to the Garage was very much part of that. Obviously there were lots of white people at the Garage, but nonetheless one felt one was going to a black-defined space. That made me reflect much more upon the fact that I was white’. The experience would trigger Dyer’s future work on whiteness, yet had the peculiar effect of closing down his work on disco. ‘I just remember thinking the Garage was fabulous. Of course there was absolutely no one at the Garage or the Black and White Men Together group who spoke about how awful all this disco music was. There was no one who said that. It just wasn’t something that anyone said’. It followed that, in this congenial environment, there was no need to mount a defence.

The tumultuous summer of 1979 bears an uncanny resemblance to the present. As neo-liberals on both sides of the Atlantic aim their fire at the last remaining vestiges of social democracy, people of colour (who ‘drain the welfare coffers dry’ and support ‘gang culture’) and queers (who threaten to undermine the ‘moral fabric of Christianity’) are blamed for the destabilisation of Anglo-American prosperity and order. Meanwhile dance music, which enjoyed a period of prolific creativity during the 1980s and 1990s, when house, techno, drum ‘n’ bass, garage (in its US and UK articulations) and grime made rock look leaden-footed, is once again facing charges of excessive hedonism and aesthetic banality. In Britain, the ebb and flow of the Mercury Prize has functioned as a barometer of dance music’s sliding fortunes. Whereas dance acts such as Reprazent, Talvin Singh and Dizzee Rascal captured the prize either side of the Millennium, rock acts are once again dominant. The winners of the autumn 2005 prize, the queer-torch-singing Antony and the Johnsons, might not fit the pattern of guitar band conservatism, traditional rock acts such as the Kaiser Chiefs and Coldplay filled up the shortlist to such an extent that dance was all but obliterated. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, and seeping back into Britain, came the politicised poetics of … Bob Dylan. Riding on the back of a Martin Scorsese documentary film and an autobiography, the folk-turned-rock star’s latest and most hyped revival has been received by leftist critics as evidence of his timeless political and artistic values, even though Dylan virtually created rock’s centrifugal myth of romantic individualism: the belief that a white straight man, as a creative and authoritative being, can speak for the ‘masses’. When dance plays second fiddle to ageing as well as contemporary rock, it is clear that it has ground to make up.

Yet beneath the narrative of these coincidences and echoes with the late 1970s, the status of disco has shifted considerably and the genre, somewhat surprisingly, has now acquired the aura of an undervalued cultural formation that is rich in musical material and political example. As such it is much easier now than at any point in the last twenty-five years to defend disco, and the reasons for this lie in the effects of AIDS, the death of legendary disco DJs, the commercialisation of rave, a growing interest in the genealogical excavation of the ‘sample’, and the emergence of anti-digital discourses in dance culture.

Fuelled by the rise of Chicago house (a DIY form of post-disco dance music put together with cheap synthesisers and drum machines) and the spread of Ecstasy (the popular feel-good drug of choice that was popularised in the UK during 1988), the rapid expansion of British club culture in the late 1980s was interpreted by dancers, as well as a good number of spinners, as the negation of disco. The pointedly ‘stripped down’ (naked except for the bare bones of percussion and minimalist instrumentation) non-musicality of Acid house, a subgenre of Chicago house, was contrasted with the elaborate productions of the high disco period, and while the early formation of acid and rave culture produced progressive versions of a de-masculinised and deheterosexualised dance floor, discourses around the music were less queer, with house/acid posited as the male straight (stripped down, hard, serious) antithesis to feminised gay disco (elaborate, soft, playful). There was no such disavowal of disco in New York, but nor was the culture valued. The high point of the AIDS epidemic from the late 80s to the early 90s created a milieu for nostalgia, yet the ruling DJ-production forces of the era - Todd Terry (the producer of sample-heavy tracks such as ‘Party People’, ‘Can You Party’ and ‘Bango’) and Junior Vasquez (the DJ at the Sound Factory, who developed a relentless tribalistic aesthetic) - were also moving into the territory of a hard house sound divorced from disco.

The roots of this revival were initially difficult to discern. Following the backlash against disco, the music industry in the States laid off its disco promotion staff - incidentally (but not coincidentally) the first group of openly-gay employees to be employed by corporate America - and replaced the name ‘disco’ with ‘dance’. Disco classics were still much loved, but their heavy rotation by DJs was motivated as much by necessity as desire, the major records companies having reeled in their dance output. Even Chicago house, which broke through towards the end of 1984 and gathered momentum during 1985, became something of an estranged cousin to the 1970s genre. Lazy history has it that ‘house was disco’s revenge’ (the phrase was first uttered by Frankie Knuckles, the DJ at the Warehouse, the key dance venue in Chicago between 1977-83). However, the most influential producers within the nascent genre - Marshall Jefferson and Larry Heard - were more concerned with imagining a contorted, technological future (synthesiser patterns and drum tracks that didn’t imitate disco) than referring back to a wholesome, organic past (synthesiser patterns and drum tracks that did), and the crucible for their experimental tapes wasn’t the Power Plant, where Frankie Knuckles, the mythological ‘Godfather of House’, was spinning a refined selection of disco classics and, when it was sufficiently sophisticated and well-produced, house, but the Music Box, where DJ Ron Hardy, blasted on heroin, was playing anything that sounded strange. The producers of techno, which emerged in Detroit a little after house surfaced in Chicago, were even more decisive than their Windy City counterparts in breaking with disco (even if Donna Summer’s futuristic disco recording, ‘I Feel Love’, was an important inspiration), and when New York started to run full throttle with the house baton in the late 1980s and early 1990s its most influential protagonists were the producer-remixer-DJs Todd Terry and Junior Vasquez, who dipped into disco but were primarily dedicated to developing the merciless sound of hard house - house that was heated in a Petri dish until it was reduced to its disco-inspired, electronically-fortified breaks.

The reverberations of disco were even harder to discern in the British club boom of the late 1980s, which drew heavily on the Chicago subgenre of acid house yet, according to the historians of the rise of house in the UK - Matthew Collin (Altered State) and Sheryl Garratt (Adventures in Wonderland) - was primarily inspired by the holiday island of Ibiza. There, the story goes, a group of white straight lads on holiday (Trevor Fung, Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Ian St Paul) sampled the bitter-yet-ultimatelysweet taste of Ecstasy while listening to Balearic music (music popularised on the Island of Ibiza that featured a comparatively slow R&B beat with Latin, African and funk influences, including lots of classical guitar) and house, dancing under the Mediterranean night skies.Within months of their return, Ecstasy-fuelled parties were springing up in London and, to remind them of their Ibizan roots, clubs were regularly decorated with fake palms while employees handed out ice pops and the like. As it happens, house had already taken off in the north, where black dancers - in contrast to their black southern counterparts, who remained committed to the softer humanism of soul - consumed it as a black futurist outgrowth of electro. However this narrative was marginalised by the historians of UK dance, who paid tribute to the black roots of dance in New York and Chicago before attributing the ‘discovery’ of this music not to the Black Atlantic inter-connections forged by black British dancers but by the post-colonial narrative of white British dancers on holiday in the Mediterranean.

At this particular juncture and location, disco wasn’t even pre-history. Acid house’s stripped-down non-musicality provided the ultimate contrast to the elaborate productions that had come to dominate disco, and the UK dance scene simultaneously developed a progressive dance floor politics of sexuality that revolved around de-masculinised and de-heterosexualised identities (amorphous, baggy, intentionally sexless T-shirts were all the rage, while Ecstasy had the partially progressive effect of making straight men want to hug each other rather than chase after women). When the first analysis of this culture was published in a collection of essays edited by Steve Redhead, Rave Off: Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture, most of the contributors drilled their analysis with Baudrillardian theory and posited the experience as motivated by an aesthetic of disappearance. The fact that the Haçienda, the most popular club in Manchester during the halcyon days of the early house boom, had already been running successfully on an unlikely diet of black electronic music and indie rock prior to the introduction of house was erased by the contributors to Rave Off, as was the direct, New York-based inspiration for the venue, Danceteria, which opened just as disco was mutating into post-disco dance. According to this discourse, the Haçienda didn’t have a history; instead it arrived from a parallel universe (which is probably how most dancers understood their experience).

These years 1987-89 marked a noticeable shift in dance music’s centre of gravity. Whereas New York had been dominant during the 1970s and, in spite of inroads made by Chicago and Detroit, retained its pre-eminent position in the United States during the 1980s, the city’s dance culture was struggling to maintain anything resembling momentum by the end of Reagan’s second term in office. Of course it was AIDS, rather than the histrionic gestures of Steve Dahl, that killed, or at least came close to killing, disco. So rampant was AIDS within the city’s gay clubbing population that the virus was initially dubbed ‘Saint’s disease’, after the Saint, the biggest, most renowned white gay venue of the 1980s, where dancers were dropping in disproportionate numbers. The Paradise Garage, regularly touted as the most influential club of all, was also struck by the virus and closed its doors in the autumn of 1987 when its owner, Michael Brody, fell sick and decided against renewing his ten-year lease. The Saint shut down a short while later in the spring of 1988. ‘One of my best friends was [the owner of the Saint] Bruce Mailman’s assistant, and she said that towards the end the number of letters for membership renewals that were coming back marked ‘addressee unknown’ or ‘addressee deceased’ was just unbelievable’, Robbie Leslie, a resident DJ at the Saint, told me. ‘It wasn’t that the living were cancelling their memberships. It was just that they were dying off and there was nobody to fill the gap. It became an unfeasible operation’.

Ex-gay men, queered through ACT-UP’s trenchant campaign for statesponsored medical treatment and political acceptance, were politicised by the AIDS crisis. As the number of new cases reached its peak in 1993, dancing became less and less of a priority for those who survived. For those who continued to go clubbing, there was no room for nostalgia - the dominant aesthetic of the period was the rough, edgy sound of hard house - so when pioneering DJ Walter Gibbons, the Jimi Hendrix of the disco era who moreor-less invented the modern remix, passed away in 1994 his funeral was unceremonious and attended only by a handful of people. The fate of his record collection, which was donated to a San Francisco AIDS charity only to be returned because they could not be sold, was indicative of disco’s status. Here was a used-up culture for which there was no demand. (Today the collection would attract bids of tens of thousands of pounds, in all likelihood, if it were to be auctioned on eBay.)

Effective HIV therapy was adopted in 1996 and, as it gradually became clear that gay men with AIDS could live with the disease, disco began to come back into soft focus as the ultimate symbol of pre-AIDs abandon, a culture of innocence and release that could never be repeated. Memories and emotions inevitably coalesced around the Saint (especially if you were white and gay) and the Paradise Garage (especially if you were black and gay), and thanks to its greater influence on straight ‘Clubland’ the Garage soon began to bake up the largest slice of the nostalgia cake. The preciousness of the memory of the Garage was heightened further by the death of its resident DJ, Larry Levan, who passed away in 1992. For some, Levan died, at least in spirit, when the Garage (where he had worked as the resident DJ for ten years) closed in 1987. He continued to play at other venues, but the mystique and aura he had nurtured so successfully at the Garage were impossible to sustain, and his extraordinary remixing career ground to a rapid halt. When the spinner was invited to launch the Ministry of Sound, the London venue modelled on the Garage, he showed up empty-handed, having sold his records to feed his heroin addiction. Two years later, significant numbers of diehard New York clubbers turned up to his funeral, and for his next ‘birthday’ ex-Garage heads put on a birthday party, which became an annual event, with each celebration more nostalgic than the last (Garage classics and, in particular, Levan’s productions and remixes, would be played back-to-back at these events). The anniversary parties reached their crescendo when Body & Soul, which opened in 1997 and was quickly honoured as the latest New York party to pick up the torch of the ‘dance underground’, put on a Levan celebration and invited Nicky Siano, a supremely gifted disco DJ and one of Levan’s most influential mentors, to come out of retirement and play. Siano’s performance, true to the spirit of the 1973-77 era, when he played at the Gallery was widely considered to be New York’s most talented and influential DJ, was an extrovert affair and came to symbolise the moment when the latest generation of New York’s downtown clubbers, who had been introduced to the 1980s at previous Levan anniversary parties, began to grasp their culture’s roots in the 1970s and, more specifically, disco.

Plucked out of their cultural and institutional context, which, like any other, was riven with conflict and struggle, disco and Levan became the rose-tinted signifiers of lost communal harmony and musical sophistication. To refer to either one became a way of highlighting a set of aesthetic preferences and paying homage to the past while entering into a coded system that, combining seriousness and cool (two words that were rarely associated with disco during the 1980s), offered the prospect of privileged status to dance aficionados. Around this time it became seemingly obligatory for dance remixers and producers to dedicate their vinyl releases to Levan or the Garage or, more occasionally, the Loft (the influential party organised by David Mancuso from 1970 onwards), and record labels, picking up on the trend, started to release bootleg disco and Garage ‘classics’, largely because demand for these records, for so longer unwanted, was spiralling and fleet-footed Japanese kids, spurred on by Levan’s last ever gig, which took place in Japan in 1992, had been hoovering up the originals with consummate skill.

Unable to fall back on their own history of subterranean party networks and groundbreaking DJ innovators, British club kids were introduced to the sonic if not social possibilities of disco through the dreaded antagonist of the live musician - the sampler. Having come to characterise the cut-andmix aesthetic of 1980s hip hop, the sampler began to influence the shape of house when dance producers and remixers came to understand that their electronically produced tracks could gain a third dimension if they were interspersed with carefully chosen live quotation (a distinctive horn riff, or drum break, or guitar lick, or vocal phrase) from an old disco record. The groundwork for this trend was established by Chicago’s early house producers, who regularly copied (rather than sampled) favourite disco extracts, and this practice was taken to its logical conclusion when Todd Terry, the first major New York house producer and, not by coincidence, a hip hop devotee, placed the postmodern imprint of the sampler at the centre of his house releases during 1987-88. Terry’s technique was well received in New York, but it was the British dance press that, unable to contain its enthusiasm, declared Todd to be God. More or less coinciding with the Japanese hunt for disco rarities, British DJs and remixers, hoping to access disco’s apparently infinite seam of sampling possibilities and having almost invariably missed out on the vinyl first time around, started to do exactly the same.

The trend inspired the musician and writer David Toop to publish a piece on disco and its revival for the Face - the style magazine that had helped break Chicago house in the UK and which was still considered to operate at the cutting edge of British fashion and cool - in 1992. Citing ‘neo-disco tracks’ such as Joey Negro’s ‘Enter Your Fantasy’, Deep Collective’s ‘Disco Elements’, the Disco Universe Orchestra’s ‘Soul On Ice’, Grade Under Pressure’s ‘Make My Day’, the Disco Brothers and Sure Is Pure’s ‘Is This Love Really Real?’ and M People’s Northern Soul, Toop noted the way in which British house tracks were successfully negotiating a ‘space between nostalgia and machine futurism’. In between references to disco’s history of sonic innovation, camp extravagance and commercial saturation, Toop added: ‘Studded with (studied) disco clichés now distant enough to resonate with Antiques Roadshowmystique, throbbing with a new cyber-strength that the old classics could never match, they are smart enough to avoid a headlong plunge into unabashed shallowness’.

The sampler inadvertently introduced unknowing British house heads to the sonic possibilities of disco - however much they were curtailed, these snippets were often the high point of the track - and when streetwise labels started to release compilations featuring the full-length versions of disco tracks that had been popularly sampled, thousands of non-collectors were able to easily access non-commercial disco classics for the first time. These collections demonstrated the consummate skill of the producer/remixer, whose job it was to pick out these fleeting quotations from the complicated, layered text of the disco original. Yet, more often that not, the house track that had rejuvenated the live seventies version suffered in comparison, with the sampled house track sounding shallow and gimmicky when played backto-back against the disco records that had garnished their grooves, largely because the sampler, by highlighting and repeating an unoriginal phrase ad infinitum, can easily become the ultimate producer of cliché.

Even if the house version sounded good in the clubs, where the use of the post-disco technology of the drum machine came into its own via reinforced sound systems (Toop’s point above), the tracks didn’t stand up to - and, importantly, weren’t intended to stand up to - repeated listening. That wasn’t the case with disco, which would regularly employ the finest session musicians of the era in the pursuit of freeform, jam-oriented, transcendental grooves. Disco, so often characterised as worthless ‘cheese’ by UK-based house heads in the late 1980s, started to resemble a fine pecorino, with the full complexity of its flavour only coming to the fore when allowed to mature over time. (House tracks, meanwhile, began to take on the characteristics of a ripe briethanks to their tendency to provide intense pungent bursts of flavour over a relatively short period of time, after which they would start to go sour.)

The backdoor entrance of disco into contemporary house more or less coincided with a structural shift in the organisation of British dance culture. As Collin recounts in Altered State, published in 1997, British dance culture was born in the clubs but started to spread to disused warehouses and hastily erected tents around the M25 when dancers became frustrated with the early closing-time restrictions of Britain’s antiquated licensing laws. The birth of rave at the end of the 1980s ushered in an era of high-tempo techno and progressive house - stripped down, track-oriented music that complemented the spacious, echo-oriented contours of these improvised venues - but the rapid commercialisation of this culture in the early 1990s followed by the passing of the restrictive Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994 dampened the momentum of rave.

That left dancers with a conundrum: having revelled in the initial transgression of Ecstasy culture, after which they rediscovered their enthusiasm through the daring spatial transgression of rave, dancers where beginning to wonder about the true oppositionality of their practices. The almost total failure of ravers to participate in the campaign against the punitive Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which offered an opportunity to join forces with other outlawed groups including ramblers, hunt saboteurs and civil rights organisations, further undermined the sense that dance culture was rebellious as well as hedonistic. With the number of outdoor events in decline, and those that remained tamed by the process of local authority licensing, many dancers returned to the clubs. There they discovered that the multinational drinks companies, whose products had been wholly marginalised by Ecstasy consumption during the late 1980s and early 1990s, were once again calling the shots. Offering clubs lucrative sponsorship deals, alcoholic brands now permeated flyer and related publicity material, and the drinks themselves were repackaged, usually through the deployment of fluorescent colours, in order to appeal to the aesthetic preferences of drug users, who didn’t so much stop taking Ecstasy as combine this consumption with alcoholic intake. As Collin notes, it was around this time that clubbers also started to complain about the quality of the drugs they were taking - an indication that either the active ingredients of Ecstasy were being diluted more and more, or that the effect of the drug was diminishing with repeated use (this being one of Ecstasy’s traits).

Faced with the additional comedown realisation that they were participating in a highly commercial culture in which so-called ‘Superclubs’, which prided themselves on their corporate identities, were coming to dominate the nightscape, a number of dance writers began to seek out an alternative political narrative to contextualise their practice and, looking west rather than south, came up with a new chronology of British dance culture that began not on an Ibiza beach during the 1980s but in NoHo lofts and Hell’s Kitchen discotheques during the 1970s. Collin opened Altered State with a section on the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, the Sanctuary, the Loft and the Paradise Garage, while Garratt devoted the opening chapter of Adventures in Wonderland to the rise of the modern discotheque, culminating in the opening of the Sanctuary, and chapter two to the black gay continuum that began at the Loft and culminated at the Paradise Garage. Sarah Thornton might have commented that the evocation of ‘black gay’ culture served the purpose of endowing the British club and rave narrative with a dose of ‘subcultural capital’ (Bourdieu’s cultural capital within a clubbing context) had she considered disco to be worthy of a single mention in her 1995 book on dance culture, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital.

The move to highlight the contribution of African American gay men to the culture of disco to the point where, in its earliest formation, disco was black and gay, added an important layer to the historicisation of the genre, even if the black gay element was central rather than dominant at this juncture. Anthony Haden-Guest’s Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, published in 1997 and the first substantial book to be published on disco since Albert Goldman’s Disco (which came out in 1978), had erased this narrative in favour of a scandalous focus on the ultimately marginal celebrity contingent at Studio 54. Yet there was a sense that the switch in popular historiography towards highlighting the black gay presence in early disco culture was motivated less by the desire to produce a history of the marginalised than by the craving for a hip marginality that could lend glamorous credibility to Britain’s increasingly vacuous club culture. The authors of this popular historical narrative of UK dance culture were at the time employed, after all, by trend-setting magazines such as the Face and i-Dthat retained an investment in preserving the fashionable identity of the dance cultures they had helped break, and the black gay component of early New York dance culture seemed to be safe to write about because it was something that had happened in the past - and overseas. If any commitment to a politics of inserting a history of the dispossessed into the history of dance existed, surely they would have also drawn attention to the important incubator role played by early London clubs such as Stallions, Pyramid and Jungle, where black and white gay men constituted the core crowd, and northern venues such as Legend, Wigan Pier, Placemate 7 and the Haçienda, where black (and white) straight dancers embraced the challenging sounds of American dance. That they didn’t do so suggests a willingness to tick the boxes of alternative identity so long as they were positioned at a safe distance. Otherness, in this revised official history of dance, functioned as a prologue to a familiar main narrative: the centrifugal role of the white straight men (who just happened to now be wearing a Hawaiian shirt).

The excavation of disco in the late 1990s was also a sign of the maturation of dance culture - a phase that, for some, represented the scene’s loss of energy, cultural institutionalisation and sedimentation. Just as Britpop had, in the mid-1990s, reminded music consumers of the bleached version of rock history that has the genre beginning with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, now, for the first time, at least in the UK, dance culture participants were being asked to explore the roots of their own practices. The move was in many respects counter-intuitive. Whereas rock fans tended to follow the career of an artist, collecting their records as, true to the Romantic roots of modern artistry, they developed over time, disco/dance functioned according to the pragmatics of the dance floor. If a piece of music worked, that is, made dancers dance, participants might go out and buy the record; if it didn’t they wouldn’t. However, as the generation of late eighties clubbers grew older, and ostensibly started to spend as much (if not more) time listening to dance music at home as in the clubs, their listening priorities shifted. Record-collecting became more important, especially amongst male consumers, and alongside this process came a new emphasis on the historical genealogy of dance, which invariably led back to disco. Early house heads, who had despised disco when they discovered Chicago house in 1987-88, now began to treat seventies dance as an object for connoisseur-like attention. In addition, as dance consumption shifted from the club to the home, repeated listening became a greater priority and disco, more than house, was able to bear this kind of close sonic scrutiny. The sample might have been a creative tool that could contribute to sonic combinations not available to seventies producers, yet its repetitive and fragmentary logic tended to produce its eventual redundancy. If the sample existed as a superior fragment from a wider text, why settle for just the fragment?

In the second half of the 1990s New York producers, responding to the limitations of the sampler as well as the drying up of the archival well, started to re-emphasise the ‘live’ component of their recordings. Having turned to sampling first time around because they lacked the musical know-how required to produce the sounds that were so abundant in seventies disco, house producers and remixers such as Masters at Work - ‘Little’ Louie Vega and Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez - began to invite session musicians into the studio in order to jam over technologically-generated tracks. In 1997, operating under the Nuyorican Soul moniker, Vegan and Gonzalez took this trend to its logical conclusion and released an entire album, titled Nuyorican Soul, of live recordings that featured legendary seventies performers such as Jocelyn Brown, Vince Montana and Roy Ayers re-recording seventies classics alongside a live band or, in the case of Vince Montana, a whole orchestra. The album sent mild shock waves through Clubland where house fans, raised on a diet of pulsating drum machines, didn’t quite know what to make of the subtler and superficially less dynamic sound of live drums. In terms of its wider politics, the clearest message of the album - that dance music was in danger of eating itself alive if it failed to employ musicians to generate new sounds and reintroduce the ‘feel’ of grooving musicians into the dance matrix - was compromised by the over-emphasis on cover versions of soul classics. The mining of disco and its wider aesthetics, however, was unmistakable and largely welcomed by DJs, dancers and other producers.

The resuscitation of disco in the US and the UK coincided with the wider shift in political culture in which the morally conservative alliances of Reagan/Bush and Thatcher/Major, which propped up their economic liberalism with intermittent bouts of racism and homophobia, gave way to the comparatively progressive social politics of Clinton and Blair. Although there was no let-up in the neo-liberal agenda following the election of the Democratic President and the Labour Prime Minister, the Anglo-American cultural context shifted in important ways, with women, people of colour and gay men/lesbian women co-opted into the newly multicultural, liberal feminist, gay-friendly marketplace. Disco’s revival in the second half of the 1990s can, in this regard, be understood as part of the historical continuum that witnessed the rise of ‘Bling’ - untamed materialism based around the champagne lifestyle of expensive jewellery, fast cars and designer clothes - in US hip hop and UK garage. More amorphous in terms of its black and Latin roots, disco offered a milder entry into the quagmire of racial politics and, following the breakthrough introduction of protease inhibitors and cocktail treatment strategies, which produced dramatic results in the containment of AIDS, it also became a safer and more marketable gay lifestyle product. Disco, having been pronounced ‘dead’ as the New Right swept to power, came back to life (at least in terms of its public profile) as this era came to a close.

Disco’s status as a source of radical musicianship received its ultimate affirmation in the summer of 2005 with the publication of Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco by Wire journalist Peter Shapiro. Notorious for its high-minded avant-gardism, general seriousness and penchant for arrhythmic music, the Wire was never a likely home for complimentary articles about disco. David Toop’s feature on Giorgio Moroder was a rare exception, as were Peter Shapiro’s pieces ‘The Tyranny of the Beat’ and ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’. As such Shapiro’s book was to be welcomed not so much for its arguments about disco music, which had been set out in other publications, as for the fact that he was taking these arguments, along with a new level of musical detail, to a cynical audience. If only Shapiro’s publishers had understood the wider critical contest that was at stake: their use of sparkling effects and lurid fluorescent colours on the covers of the US and UK editions of the book undermined Shapiro’s attempt to stake out disco’s right to be taken seriously.

The aspect of disco musicality that Shapiro fails to articulate adequately, which also happens to be the aspect that has proved to be the most enduring in terms of aesthetic innovation and global influence, is the role of the DJ. Spinners such as David Mancuso, Francis Grasso, Michael Cappello, Ray Yeates, Bobby Guttadaro, David Rodriguez, Tee Scott, Richie Kaczor, Nicky Siano, Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles developed a mode of communication that mirrored the marathon trance grooves emerging from artists as diverse as Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead and War, although in contrast to the practices of these musicians they functioned as engineers of collage, melding found objects (vinyl records) that originated as distinct entities (works of art) into an improvised aural canvas, and as such challenged traditional notions of musicianship.floor. Experienced producers, vocalists and musicians stood by and gasped as weedy, know-nothing DJs were let loose in the studio and slashed their carefully constructed recordings, highlighting some tracks and cutting out others. The resulting releases, which revolved around an aesthetic of stripped down beats, the groove of the rhythm section and clipped vocals, set out the blueprint for house - the genre that would later return to these records for sample-friendly material.

One of the attractions of the seventies dance environment was the streetlevel status of its DJs, who were for the most part anonymous, low-paid music enthusiasts. In their hunger to search out new sounds and put on parties for friends, they became conduits for a new genre of music, but in spite of the often-adoring reception they would receive from the floor, only the most deluded could have imagined that they were a star or celebrity outside of their cocooned mini-universe. DJs were lucky to get an occasional mention in the media. Nicky Siano was probably the best-known spinner of the decade, yet his cuttings library consisted of a three-paragraph mini-feature in New York magazine and a couple of quotes in articles about disco that ran in the nationals. Some, such as Mancuso, and to a certain extent Levan, were media shy and believed that a higher media profile might undermine the feverishly protected privacy of their parties at the Loft and the Paradise Garage. But this fails to explain how the Paradise Garage, during a ten year reign at the apex of Nightworld that spanned the seventies and the eighties, didn’t receive a single feature exploring its dynamic - and only a short obituary in Billboard when the venue finally closed. Larry Levan and owner Michael Brody might not have favoured press coverage, but the press also wasn’t especially interested in a micro-scene whose black gay core continued to exist outside of the public eye.

Today, following the repeated excavation (and defence) of disco, a Google search on the Paradise Garage or Levan will yield results of some 135,000. Even Mancuso, perhaps the most influential pioneer of seventies disco, yet a barely-known figure outside of the downtown party network until Nuphonic Records released a compilation of Loft classics in 1999, achieves about 52,000 results. Fascination and the desire to experience in some respects go hand in hand, and many attribute the resurgent popularity of figures such as Mancuso to a wider desire to taste a slice of seventies disco. Of course the clock cannot be turned back to the 1970s, but the persistence of seventies and classics nights - adorned with, in the worst-case scenario, an industrial quantity of glitter, neon, wall mirrors and Bee Gees/Village People pop - indicates that promoters and, presumably, dancers are not about to tire from trying. To dance to disco at one of these events is not akin to experiencing the 1970s, for seventies music, played in the seventies, would have sounded new and challenging, while today it will normally sound like music that is thirty years old (whatever the symbolic or affective significance of that might be).

Some, such as Energy Flash author Simon Reynolds, argue that disco is a reactionary force in contemporary club culture. Writing for the Village Voice in July 2001, Reynolds is gently critical of New York’s ‘double take’ around disco, whereby a number of clubs - most notably Body & Soul - are seen to be evoking dance music’s ‘roots, origins, and all things ‘old school … With clubbing tourists coming from all over the world to experience ‘the real thing’ as a sort of time-travel simulacrum, New York’s ‘70s-style dance underground has become a veritable heritage industry similar to jazz in New Orleans’. Reynolds, however, overstates his case. Even the Levan birthday parties can’t be equated with disco nostalgia nights - the Levan remixes that form the staple of these nights were for the most part recorded in the post-disco era of the 1980s, and the classics (tried and tested favourites from the seventies and eighties) normally give way to newer music that references the past while teasing out the future - and nobody in New York has produced what might be called a disco record since the very early 1980s. While Todd Terry initiated the trend of sampling disco in New York, his biggest audience was in the UK, and it was in the UK that the practice was deployed to the point of saturation. New York producers and remixers responded to this particular malaise by combining live instrumentation with technologically generated beats - a step ‘backwards’ that is implicitly criticised by Reynolds (‘New York dance culture hasn’t delivered the shock-of-the-new in well over a decade’), but which has been a regular tool of the progressive music makers that Reynolds lauds elsewhere (such as jungle producers digging through their old record boxes in order to redeploy the bass from Jamaican dub into breakbeat techno).

Reynolds’s real problem with New York’s ‘disco-house tradition’ would appear to be ‘the scene’s premium on old-fashioned notions of ‘musicality’ and ‘soulfulness’’, which runs in opposition to his preference, outlined in Energy Flash, for dance music that is part of a rave/hardcore continuum built around ‘noise, aggression, riffs, juvenile dementia, hysteria’. Yet while the producers of hardcore have contributed to the creation of a dance market in which subgenres develop and disappear with startling speed, the mutant disco producers of the so-called deep house scene are engaged in a project that, evoking Amiri Baraka’s concept of the ‘changing same’, is more concerned with continuity and longevity than disruption and transience. Political struggle can only be ongoing if affiliations, rather than being dropped as soon as a more futuristic option emerges, are maintained over time.

(When the two paths converge - around, say, drum ‘n’ bass, which added jazz riffs and dreamy synthesizers to jungle’s throbbing rudeness - Reynolds tends to disapprove. Nevertheless such a strategy, which finds contemporary expression in the Deep Space dub-meets-techno-meets-disco framework developed by François Kevorkian, as well as Maurizio’s techno-oriented dub productions for Rhythm & Sound, offers a potentially productive solution to the conservatism and radicalism that runs through much of dance culture. For now, demand is strong enough to sustain all three approaches.)

Veteran seventies DJs who are still playing today - including the highprofile David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, François Kevorkian, Danny Krivit and Frankie Knuckles - are to varying degrees expected to deliver a seventies agenda (even if the agenda in the seventies was to play new music, not seventies music). The arguments that flow across discussion boards such as Deep House Page (www.deephousepage.com) and DJ History (www.djhistory.com) after a Mancuso Loft party, for example, illustrate the conflict that inevitably surrounds the performance of a ‘legend’ outside of her or his original milieu. Disco nostalgists (both those who experienced the seventies first time around, and those who weren’t there but wish they had been) are critical of Mancuso’s non-disco selections, of which there are a good number, while others urge the one-time cutting edge pioneer to play a higher proportion of new records in order to demonstrate the template’s relevance to the current conjuncture.

Whether it is through the playing of a disco record, the snatching of a disco sample or the mutation of disco’s sonic imprint, disco’s reach might be shrouded yet it is also resilient and widespread. Just as significant, though, is disco’s social template. First outlined by Richard Dyer back in 1979, and developed by Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson (Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound) and Maria Pini (Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity) some twenty years later, disco’s politics of pleasure, experimentation and social equality, which draws on the potentially queer/affective experience of the amorphous body moving solo-with-the-crowd to polyrhythmic music, remains an enticing objective every time a DJ comes into contact with a group of dancers. Disco, like any music genre, is vulnerable to commercial exploitation. Yet few music genres (it is hard to think of any) have been so successful at generating and spawning a model of potentially radical sociality.


Thanks to Jeremy Gilbert for comments on an earlier draft of this article

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