“Mixed with Love: The Walter Gibbons Salsoul Anthology”. Suss’d Records, 2004.

This tale begins with a skinny white DJ mixing between the breaks of obscure Motown records with the ambidextrous intensity of an octopus on speed. It closes with the same man, sick with Aids and all but blind, fumbling for gospel records as he spins up eternal hope in a fading dusk. In between, Walter Gibbons transformed the art of DJing and marked out the future co-ordinates of remixology.

Gibbons was born in Brooklyn on 2 April 1954. He grew up with his mother, Ann, his sister, Rosemary, and his two brothers, Robin and Edward. Nothing is known of his father -- friends say he never spoke of him -- and little more is known of his young adult life save that he subsequently moved to Queens, dated men and collected black music.

Gibbons was easy to miss. An innocuous white boy with an unconvincing moustache and carefully combed brown hair that was parted right to left, he stood at approximately five foot five and, thanks to his pencil thin build, looked like he would need help carrying his records to work. Shy and softly spoken, he kept himself to himself. He preferred cigarettes to chatter.

But when Gibbons stood behind the turntables at Galaxy 21, an after hours venue on Twenty-third Street owned by black entrepreneur George Freeman, he was hurricane articulate. It was almost as if he kept his daytime thoughts to himself because he knew he could articulate them with so much more force through the Galaxy sound system at night. Why talk when you can DJ?

Fiery and passionate, Gibbons was too much for Freeman, who asked soundman Alex Rosner to introduce a secret volume control so that he could lower the volume when the DJ got a little too excited. "I told George that it was a bad idea but he insisted," says Rosner. "It didn't take Walter long to figure out what was happening, so on a busy night he just walked out and most of the crowd followed him." Freeman backed down.

It was from the makeshift yet intimate habitat of his DJ booth that Gibbons established a radical new framework for spinning and, inadvertently, remixing records. Drawn to the mystical properties of musical affect, the Galaxy spinner approached his nightshift with the mindset of a nuclear physicist, aware that the process of splitting the nucleus of a song into smaller nuclei could produce a significant release of energy. And as he went about his work, he deduced that drums lay at the atomic heart of dance music.

Because there was no way for Gibbons to isolate the drum track from the rest of the multitrack, he began to hunt down songs that included a long drum intro or, alternatively, a break -- the technique transplanted from gospel and jazz into soul, funk and early disco whereby the vocalists and musicians stop playing, often instantaneously, in order to let the drummer "give it some".

Other disco DJs, most notably Nicky Siano at the Gallery, were also passionate about the potential of the break, but Gibbons acquired an unrivalled reputation for his ability to unearth these beat fragments in the most unexpected places. Rare Earth's "Happy Song", "Erucu" by Jermaine Jackson from the Mahogany soundtrack and "2 Pigs and a Hog" from the Cooley High soundtrack became trademark records. All of them were released on Motown in 1975. All of them contained an extended drum solo.

Gibbons specialized in stretching these and other percussive gems beyond the horizon of New York's tribal imaginary and, to achieve his goal, he started to purchase two copies of his favourite records in order to mix between the breaks. Tracks like "Happy Song" soon became unrecognisable. "You would never hear the actual song," says François Kevorkian, a Galaxy employee. "You just heard the drums. It seemed like he kept them going forever."

Performing in parallel yet unconnected universes, DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx and John Luongo in Boston started to play back-to-back breaks around the same time as Gibbons, but neither of them could match the Galaxy mixmaster's razor precision. And while spinners such as Richie Kaczor and David Todd were beginning to perfect the art of extended beat mixing, many of their blends were rehearsed.

Gibbons, however, combined precision and spontaneity. "Walter was making a lot of flawless mixes," says Danny Krivit, who started playing at the Ninth Circle in 1971. "He would go back and forth, very quickly, which made it sound like a live edit. It was very impressive." Kevorkian, who was hired to play drums alongside Gibbons, much to the irritation of the DJ, was also blown away by his deftness. "He had this uncanny sense of mixing that was so accurate it was unbelievable."

The fleeting identity of these drum solos also meant that it was exhausting to mix between them. "Some of these breaks only lasted for thirty seconds, if that, so these quick-fire mixes were work," says Barefoot Boy DJ Tony Smith, who became a tight friend of Gibbons during this period. "After a while Walter started to put his beat mixes on reel-to-reel at home." Everyone confirms that Gibbons was doing reel-to-reel edits before anyone else. "Walter was still doing live mixes," says Galaxy lightman Kenny Carpenter. "But if there was a mix that went over well he would perfect it on reel-to-reel."

Originally released as a one-minute-forty-second record, "Erucu" became a celebrated example of the Galaxy DJ's reel-to-reel prowess, and when Motown included an extended three-minute-twenty-four-second version of the song on the re-released album an affronted Gibbons returned to his domestic editing studio. "Walter had to do something to make his 'Erucu' be the one that everyone still wanted so he added in breaks from 'Erotic Soul' by the Larry Page Orchestra and 'One More Try' by Ashford & Simpson," says Smith, who listened to the new edit on the phone before Gibbons took it to Galaxy. "After that everyone wanted his 'Erucu' again."

Gibbons also rearranged soul records such as "Where Is The Love" by Betty Wright and "Girl You Need A Change Of Mind" by Eddie Kendricks, and in a typical set he would generate tension and drama on the dance floor with a drum edit or a live mix of drum breaks before switching to an ecstasy-inducing soul cut, often from the gospel-influenced Aretha Franklin or a Motown artist such as the Supremes. Drums, drums, drums forever followed by a vocal crescendo, this was nothing less than the house-oriented future sound of dance music.

The fact that Gibbons developed his aesthetic at a run-of-the-mill public discotheque rather than a cutting-edge private venue made his achievement all the more remarkable. "Walter was doing things other DJs wished they could try in their clubs, including me," says Smith. "The amazing thing was that Walter did what he did for a predominantly straight crowd when it was thought they weren't as musically progressive as the gay crowds."

Galaxy's after hours status, however, presented Gibbons with an opportunity that wasn't available to most midtown DJs. "You could get away with things at an after hours venue that you couldn't get away with at a regular club night," adds Smith. "After five hours people would have heard most of the things they wanted to hear and they would be ready for something new. You could go to Galaxy 21 at seven-a.m. and the club would still be packed."

Gibbons didn't acquire the cult status of David Mancuso or Nicky Siano, who were able to develop intense, almost spiritual relationships with their dancers thanks to the private status of the Loft and the Gallery, which helped create an environment that was both intimate and frenzied. That kind of rapport was impossible to establish in a public club, where crowds were transient and, more often than not, less committed to the dance ritual.

Yet Gibbons, against all odds, still became a DJ's DJ. "Everyone was going to hear Walter," says Smith, who would go down to Galaxy once he had wrapped up for the night at Barefoot Boy. "Most DJs finished at four so we could hear Walter from five until ten." After that, Gibbons and Smith would go for breakfast and, weather permitting, a trip to the beach, where they would talk about music. "DJs couldn't go and listen to too many people because we had played all night and didn't want to hear the same thing all over again. But we knew Walter would turn us on. Everyone showed up."

Everyone included Jellybean, who thought he was the "greatest DJ in the world" until he went to Galaxy. "Walter would play two records together, he did double beats, he worked the sound system and he made pressings of his own edits. I said, 'I've got to practice!'" Carpenter was also blown away. "Walter knew how to set a mood. He would take you up and bring you down. He was fierce." Smith, too, realised he was in the presence of an exceptional talent. "I heard every DJ, straight and gay, because I wanted to know what was going on in the music world. Walter was the most advanced."

All witnessed an uncompromising performer who, from the very beginning, was passionate about his music to the point of zealousness.

* * * * *

Walter Gibbons didn't just electrify fellow DJs and suburban dancers. He also electrified Ken Cayre, head of a newly formed label called Salsoul, which had created a minor tremor in Nightworld with the release of the Salsoul Orchestra's debut album. The Salsoul boss proceeded to sign Double Exposure and realised soon after that Gibbons could help him market the group's first single. "Walter was very aggressive when it came to searching out new records," says Cayre. "He became friendly with Denise Chatman, our promotions girl, and we went to hear him play. I was very impressed with his skills."

Cayre was particularly taken with the way the DJ worked "Ten Percent", which had been released as a non-commercial promotional twelve-inch test pressing that consisted of the standard single plus a longer version. "We knew the DJs wanted longer records so we told the producers to get the musicians to jam for a couple of minutes after they had recorded the regular song," says Cayre. "I had to release the promotional twelve-inch single because the seven-inch wasn't doing well." Having laid his hands on two copies of the test pressing, Gibbons worked up a whirlwind. "He did this fantastic edit and the reaction in the club was phenomenal. I said, 'Can you do that in the studio?' He said he could."

Salsoul gave Gibbons and engineer Bob Blank three hours to complete the remix at Blank Tapes Studios. That meant the duo had one hour to put up the mix and channel the sound, one hour to break down the recording and one hour to cut up tape with a razor blade. "Walter was prepared but he couldn't prepare everything," says Blank. "He had to be ready to do 'brain work' on the spur of the moment. The session was very intuitive. Walter was a real genius."

By the end of the session the diminutive DJ had transformed a dense four-minute song into a nine-minute-forty-five-second roller coaster. He was paid $185 for his efforts -- $85 to cover a night's work at Galaxy, plus $100 for the blend -- and he started to spin an acetate of the remix, which was effectively a readymade version of the lightning-quick collages he had already been concocting at Galaxy, in late February/early March 1976.

"'Ten Percent' was one of the best mixes anyone had ever heard," remembers Smith. "Walter turned a nice song into a peak song." The remix became an instant classic. "I heard it on an acetate in the Gallery," says Mixmaster editor and downtown connoisseur Michael Gomes. "It sounded so new, going backwards and forwards. It built and built like it would never stop. The dance floor just exploded."

Salsoul released the twelve-inch -- the first commercially released twelve-inch -- in May, much to the chagrin of the Philadelphia-based songwriter Allan Felder. "The mixer cut up the lyrics and changed the music," Felder told me shortly before he passed away. "It was as if the writers and producers were nothing."

Gibbons didn't set out to offend. Blank notes the DJ-turned-remixer was "very, very, very concerned" the artists, producers and writers would feel he had done the record justice. But DJs were widely regarded as musical parasites and the idea that they should be given carte blanche to remix an original work of art was doggedly opposed by music-makers. The development was seen as being nothing short of scandalous and Gibbons lay at the centre of the action.

Cayre stayed calm and kept his focus. "Walter was the first DJ to show the record companies that they should be open to different versions of a song," he says. "They were in the club night after night so they knew what worked and what didn't work. Walter was pivotal. He convinced producers and other record companies to give the DJs an opportunity to remix records for the clubs. And he showed us that these records could be commercially successful. People didn't believe that was possible before 'Ten Percent'. Walter was a pioneer."

Gibbons remixed "Sun… Sun… Sun…" by Jakki around the same time as "Ten Percent" -- maybe just before, maybe just after. Produced by Johnny Melfi and released on Pyramid as a twelve-inch in 1976, the record contains no reference to Gibbons, but Chatman, who was nicknamed "Sunshine" because of her ultra-cheerful personality, remembers Gibbons phoning her up to tell her he was remixing the record. "Walter called me and said, 'Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine!'" she remembers. "Then he told me the name of the record."

"Sun… Sun… Sun…" hit the Record World disco charts in July, a good two months after "Ten Percent", which suggests the record was remixed after "Ten Percent". Then again, the omission of Gibbons' name suggests "Sun…" was released first: the "Ten Percent" twelve-inch was such an overnight sensation that no label head in his right mind would have dreamed of omitting the remixer's name from the label. The roughness of the mix adds further weight to the theory that it was put together before the much smoother "Ten Percent".

As for the record, "Sun…" is divided into three parts: the regular song (which was released as a single), followed by a looped break (which was snatched from the beginning of the second side of the original seven-inch), followed by a mix of the A and B-sides of the seven-inch. The break -- highly percussive, with trippy vocal bites fading in and out -- was typical of the drums-for-days reel-to-reels Gibbons was compiling for his dancers, and it was this section of the record that his contemporaries loved.

"It was a really bad song and Walter turned it into a nine-minute mix," says Smith, who received an acetate of the remix and remembers that it was slow to attract attention thanks to the fact that Pyramid was a small company and the song was so off-the-wall. "The twelve-inch was very long and included this three-minute break. We would just play the break and after a while we grew to like the rest of the song. The record got no play until it was mixed by Walter."

Whatever the relationship between Gibbons and Pyramid, however, it was Cayre who formed a landmark affiliation with the remixer, and the Salsoul boss further demonstrated his faith in the Galaxy DJ when he agreed to let him remix "Nice 'N' Naasty" and "Salsoul 2001" by the Salsoul Orchestra -- which was headed by the notoriously touchy Vince Montana, of Philadelphia International fame.

The remix of "Nice" included a trademark thirty-second percussive break, yet it was the B-side that came close to giving Nightworld a collective seizure. "Salsoul 3001" -- a the remix of "Salsoul 2001" was renamed -- opened with jet engines, animal whoops, congas and timbales before soaring into a powerful combination of orchestral refrains and synthesised sound effects that were played out against a backdrop of relentless Latin rhythms.

"This has got to be one of the year's most extraordinary products and although it may be too overwhelming and bizarre for some clubs, others, like New York's Loft, turn to pandemonium when the record comes on," reported Vince Aletti in his highly regarded "Disco File" column in Record World. "Experiment with it if you haven't already." If Tom Moulton had set out the fundamentals of remix culture with reworkings of "Dream World", "Do It ('Til You're Satisfied)", "Never Can Say Goodbye", "Make Me Believe in You" and "Free Man", "Salsoul 3001" confirmed that Gibbons was taking the new artform to a freakier level.

"Walter did this weird, off-the-wall stuff with '3001'," says Moulton, who also entered Salsoul's remix fold in 1976. "I said, 'Walter, what was going through that brain of yours for '3001'?' It was nothing like '2001'." Moulton concedes that he "couldn't understand" the aberrant angles of the revamp. "It was like Walter wanted to come out with an album that was tripping. But I didn't like Vince anyways so I thought, 'Serves him right!' Walter was the first radical one."

That militancy was given its fullest expression on the DJ's remix of Loleatta Holloway's "Hit And Run", which was recorded at Sigma Sound in April 1976 and released on Holloway's album, Loleatta, in December. Gibbons asked Cayre if he could remix the song and the Salsoul chief, taking a deep breath, decided to entrust his little prince with the multitrack. "'Hit And Run' was the first time that a studio let a DJ completely rework the song," says Cayre, "and Walter, the genius that he was, turned it into a twelve-minute, unconventional smash."

Having been restricted to carrying out a cut-and-paste reedit of the half-inch master copies for "Ten Percent", Gibbons was now able to select between each individual track, and he dissected and reconstructed the six-minute album version in the most sweeping manner imaginable: a swathe of strings and almost all the horns were sliced out in order to emphasise Baker, Harris and Young's exquisite rhythm track, and, in a high-risk move, the remixer shifted the focus of the song by cutting the first two minutes and all of the verses of Holloway's vocal.

Gibbons' motives were clear. Any song that began "Now I might be an old-fashioned country girl, but when it comes to loving you, honey, I know what to do" was never going to inspire the urban dance floor. Yet the second, improvised half of Holloway's performance, which consisted of an extended series of lung-busting repetitions, screams, tremors and sighs, was quite extraordinary and, having filled up three minutes on the album, Holloway's vamps were now run for a long five minutes on the twelve-inch.

"She was always wailing or moaning or singing and we just reintroduced the stuff that had been cut or buried," says Chatman, who hung out with Gibbons in the studio during the remix. "Walter just took the multitrack and said, 'Ooh, did you hear her do that!' He was like a child in a candy store. There were so many choices. He wanted all of them and it just became long." Eleven minutes seven seconds long.

Salsoul's bigwigs were aghast. "When Walter played me his mix I initially wanted to choke him," says Cayre. "Loleatta wasn't there anymore. Walter just told me that I had to get used to it." Always up for a party, the mogul went to listen to Gibbons play the twelve-inch in its intended setting and "after hearing it a couple of times" he knew that Gibbons "had done the right thing."

Producer Norman Harris was even more concerned than Cayre. When he sent a coy of the recording to Moulton, he included a note on the reel that asked, "Does this have any musical merit?" "I told Norman, 'You're looking at it as a song whereas Walter is trying to get the most out of it for the dance floor,'" says Moulton. "If it was down to Norman the remix would have never seen the light of day."

Moulton reviewed the record in his "Disco Action" column in Billboard at the beginning of May 1977. "Many of the breaks on this record are unpredictable, and convey the impression that the mixing deejay was working with a full floor of dancers and was going out of his way to 'do a number' on the audience," he wrote. "This version is really so different from the original that it must be classified as a new record."

Backed with "We're Getting Stronger", "Hit And Run" caused a sensation in the clubs. "I remember every DJ just loving it," says Smith. "I heard it everywhere I went and the crowds just went crazy." The newness of it all was hard to quantify. "Everyone was used to the uniform Tom Moulton mix of the intro, the vocal, a little instrumental part and then a fade-out on the vocal," adds Smith. "But Walter changed the whole sequence of the song. He did it a bit with 'Ten Percent' and he did it even more with 'Hit And Run'. To think that he was just this kid."

The twelve-inch of "Hit And Run" went on to sell some three hundred thousand copies -- more than both the "Ten Percent" twelve-inch and the "Hit And Run" seven-inch -- and by all accounts the sales went a long way towards placating Harris. It was a significant development. A DJ had revised a leading producer's work beyond recognition, the remix had outsold the single, and the producer was happy. The balance of power was shifting within the music industry, and Gibbons lay at the centre of the transition.

* * * * *

"Ten Percent" and "Hit And Run" established Salsoul as the favourite label of New York's insomniac DJs, and for the first half of 1977 Walter Gibbons continued to be its most prolific remixer. True Example's beautifully tender "Love Is Finally Coming My Way" (backed with "As Long As You Love Me") contains a classic Gibbons break and was considered by many to be one of his strongest mixes to date, while Love Committee's "Cheaters Never Win"/"Where Will It End", a sweet-sounding falsetto recording, was restructured in a similar vein.

During this period, Gibbons also remixed Anthony White's "I Can't Turn You Loose", a rather mundane cover of an Otis Redding classic that contained a radical instrumental edit on the B-side, which was renamed "Block Party" -- and intriguingly credited to Baker, Harris and Young. Barely pausing for breath, Gibbons also remixed "Magic Bird Of Fire", upon which he stretched out the Salsoul Orchestra's slightly demented strings around various layers of shifting percussion. In all likelihood these mixes were completed before Gibbons segued and looped a selection of Salsoul releases, Disco Boogie: Super Hits For Non-Stop Dancing, in the summer.

The DJ, however, had no time to get carried away with his studio success, having quit Galaxy 21 towards the end of 1976 when he discovered that his sets were being secretly recorded. If that had been the end of the story, Gibbons might have stayed, but it also became clear that tapes of his prized reel-to-reel edits (which he would only hand out to his closest friends, and then only reluctantly) were being taken to Sunshine Sound. From there they were being reproduced and sold on the black market. It was as if his genetic code had been ripped out of him for a fistful of dollars. Gibbons had left Galaxy before, but this time there could be no going back.

Galaxy 21 closed around the beginning of 1977 -- the after hours venue was never going to survive without its star spinner -- and Gibbons spent the next six months bouncing from undistinguished club to undistinguished club, notching up Crisco Disco, Fantasia and Pep McGuires along the way. "The business had changed and it wasn't Walter's era anymore," says Kenny Carpenter. "He couldn't play at places like 12 West because he didn't play raving faggot music. Walter was too soulful for that."

To a certain extent Gibbons had already tasted the experience of being a DJ vagabond, having failed to hold down alternate spots at Limelight, Better Days and Barefoot Boy, three of the most popular clubs of the early to mid-seventies. In each instance his tenure proved to be short-lived because he wasn't prepared to compromise his style and adapt to the demands of a new crowd.

"Walter was too experimental and too creative," says Tony Smith, who handed Gibbons the Monday and Tuesday-night spots at Barefoot Boy. "Most DJs trained their crowd to know them, but Walter was known for being Walter and he didn't want to change." Smith tried to tell his friend that he had to modify his style for Barefoot Boy, which wasn't an after hours club, but he got nowhere. "Walter was not good at compromising. He was steadfast in what he wanted to do. He could be so stubborn."

When Galaxy closed, Gibbons was left in the lurch. The Loft, the Gallery and the newly opened Garage were impregnable thanks to the hallowed presence of David Mancuso, Nicky Siano and Larry Levan. The white gay private party scene, which was dominated by Flamingo and 12 West, wanted a sweeter sound than Gibbons was willing to deliver. And the major public discotheques, which included Studio 54, Xenon and New York, New York, were on the lookout for jocks who were willing to keep the dance floor moving to a smooth and steady pop-oriented tempo.

In search of a new DJing home, Gibbons travelled to Seattle and worked in a new George Freeman discotheque, the Monastery, in mid-1977. "He worked with George in Seattle because he couldn't get anything in New York City," says Smith. However his relocation to the upper reaches of the West Coast evidently didn't work out because the discontented DJ returned to the East Coast some time during the first half of 1978. Then, in July, he re-entered the Salsoul fold to deliver a remix of Love Committee's "Law And Order" and "Just As Long As I Got You".

For "Law And Order" Gibbons dissected the cluttered-up original, grabbing a series of instrumental phrases and vocal hooks, which were weaved around an elevated, insistent bongo-driven percussion track. Stripped down and driving, the result was nothing less than a blueprint for the decentralised future of electronic dance.

Yet the remix of "Just As Long" caused even more of a stir thanks to the three minutes of discordant drama added to the end of Tom Moulton's original remix. "I said, 'Walter, what you've done with the keyboards is spectacular,'" remembers Moulton. "The keyboard was there, but I didn't pick up on it. I said, 'Walter, you did a fantastic job on that!'" Moulton openly acknowledges that Gibbons took his remix to the next level. "I complimented him and he was taken aback."

The "Just As Long" release was an event -- the first time that a remixer had remixed a remixer -- and inevitably attracted comparisons between Moulton, who was confident, gruff and impossibly handsome, and Gibbons, who was withdrawn, soft and quirkily odd-looking. Yet it was their studio work that counted, and in this respect Moulton was conservative and melodic, while Gibbons was avant-garde and discordant.

"Walter always said he liked what I did but thought I was very tame," says Moulton. "I told him, 'My aim is to eliminate everything that is a turnoff so that I will have a hit record.'" It was this mindset that persuaded Moulton to develop a standard seven-inch mix with a short intro whenever he went into the studio. "I wanted to get radio play. I said, 'Walter, I'm coming from a totally different place -- retail, wholesale, promotion.'"

Gibbons had an alternative objective: to remix records for the underground. "He didn't think in commercial terms," adds Moulton. "He thought of himself as a jazz musician who didn't want to sacrifice his craft to the system. I always thought that attitude was bullshit." Gibbons didn't shy away from the confrontation. "He told me, 'Tom, you're not drastic enough. You stay too close to what's there.'"

The two remixers were finally driven by contrasting aesthetic preferences. "I wanted stuff to sound real, like a live performance," says Moulton. "The more live it was, the more your body could react." Gibbons came from another place. "He was into drugs and developed weird sounds. It was like he wanted to make music you could trip to. I couldn't understand his sounds and I still can't because they don't make sense to me musically. I wasn't on his level, whatever that level was."

That level, however, wasn't organised around drugs: Smith notes that he and Gibbons would occasionally take blotter acid and smoke pot when they DJed or went to hear other DJs ("usually Larry Levan") but insists the drugs were always secondary to the music. "It was all about enhancing and expanding our creative juices," says the Barefoot Boy spinner. "We wouldn't do anything that was overpowering because that would stop us focusing on the music. The drug wasn't the high. The music was the high. Walter and I would get a rush many times without drugs."

Indebted as they were to Moulton for pioneering the disco mix, New York's DJs regarded Gibbons as their reigning remix deity. "Tom was first and he was consistent all the way through, but Walter's mixes were outrageous and quickly got a lot of attention," says Danny Krivit. "Tom was by no means out of the picture, but Walter was much more irreverent and very much the remixer of the moment."

That irreverence found its fullest madcap expression on two relatively obscure Gibbons releases -- "Moon Maiden" by the Duke Ellington-inspired Luv You Madly Orchestra (the B-side of the more conventional "Rocket Rock") and Cellophane's "Super Queen"/"Dance With Me (Let's Believe)" -- which were evidently part of Salsoul's ill-judged decision to release as many disco acts as possible in 1978 in the belief that everything the label touched would be transformed into disco gold.

The vocals on these tracks are middle European Abba on a cocktail of amphetamines, acid and helium. Instead of smoothing out the strangeness, however, Gibbons accentuated the effect, intertwining the contorted voices with a series of modulating synthesisers and stabbing strings, all laid over an insistent and shifting bongo-driven beat track. Neither record received much attention, but Gibbons was probably having too much fun to worry about that.

During the same period Gibbons mixed Loleatta Holloway's "Catch Me On The Rebound" (for Salsoul), Sandy Mercer's "Play With Me" backed with "You Are My Love" (for H&L), and Bettye LaVette's "Doin' The Best That I Can" (for West End). The Holloway, a professional mix of strong if uninspired song, was notable for its extended break, during which Holloway vamped over thumping drums and bouncing bongos. The Mercer, for which the late Steve D'Acquisto received a co-mixing credit, was noteworthy for the B-side mix, which was a favourite of Ron Hardy in Chicago and Larry Levan in New York.

Yet it was the LaVette remix that shone through this little cluster of releases. "Doin' The Best" amounted to a stirring eleven-minute epic remix that encapsulated Gibbons' aesthetic of trance-like-build-to-emotional-release, segueing from an instrumental build to the vocals before setting off on a disorienting rollercoaster ride of bongos, handclaps, tambourines and shimmering instrumental interludes. As the music critic David Toop later remarked, the remix "opened New York dance to the potential of dub deconstruction."

Gibbons also received an unprecedented level of album work during 1978: he blended the first volume of Salsoul Orchestra's Greatest Disco Hits and the second volume of Disco Boogie, and he was also co-credited, along with Tom Moulton and Jim Burgess, with compiling Salsoul's Saturday Night Disco Party. For all of his problems holding down a spot in Clubland, the ex-Galaxy DJ, was on top of the remix mountain. Everything was going swimmingly.

* * * * *

Then something mysterious happened.

Either Walter Gibbons was handed the task of remixing Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up", came close to completing the mix, but then became a born-again Christian and said he would only finish the job if Ken Cayre recorded some new vocals, at which point the Salsoul boss asked Larry Levan to finish off the remix -- for which the Garage DJ was wholly credited.

Or Gibbons was never handed the Instant Funk remix, which was given straight to Levan, who went into the studio on 4 December 1978 and did what he had to do. Having completed just one other mix -- "C Is For Cookie" by Cookie Monster & The Girls, which came and went without causing much of a stir -- Levan came out with one of the most mesmerising, earth-shattering remixes of all-time.

Ever since the release of "I Got My Mind Made Up", the first version of the story has been nothing more than a flickering rumour familiar to a handful of New Yorkers -- plus Colin Gate, a Glasgow-based dance producer and record collector who, having travelled to Manhattan in the mid-nineties to work for Will Socolov and Todd Terry, was given the opportunity to purchase Gibbons' record collection following the DJ-remixer's death in 1994. When Gate told me about the story, I asked the key parties what had happened.

"I worked for weeks on the record," remembers Bob Blank. "Walter started on the mix but then refused to carry on because he became very religious. I remember him saying very specifically, 'I really don't think I'm going to be working on this record anymore.'" Blank and Cayre subsequently worked on the remix for almost a week in Studio A. "We worked on it after Walter left the project. I brought in a lot of stuff and I have to credit that to Walter. He was the ultimate arbiter."

Blank says that he and Cayre never intended to finish the remix, and that Levan came in at the very end. "Larry was brought in after we had worked on this record forever. Larry basically had very little input on 'I Got My Mind Made Up'. All the groundwork had been done and he only came in for a few hours. But it was Larry who made the nine-minute version. It was never nine minutes before he came in."

Cayre has a different memory of the remix. "Walter never went into the studio with 'I Got My Mind Made Up'," he says. "Larry was playing the record at the Paradise Garage and loved it. We went to see the edits he was doing and we asked him if he wanted to do a remix. We asked Larry because he was getting the best reaction of all the DJs." Cayre says the Garage mixer was a sensation in the studio. "Larry really took the record to a different level. He was very comfortable and really tore into the song."

However Denise Chatman, who was tight with both Gibbons and Cayre, remembers Gibbons being involved, too involved, with the Instant Funk track. "Walter's whole being was taken over by something else during the remix of 'I Got My Mind Made Up' and that made Kenny very, very nervous," she says. "Walter became very judgemental of everybody around him -- he was against any kind of cursing -- and he became very uncomfortable with the material."

Having stretched the boundaries of remix culture to breaking point, Gibbons went a step too far. "Walter asked Kenny to change the lyrics and there was no way that was going to happen," says Chatman. "I told Walter he was being totally unrealistic. Kenny then went with Larry." Chatman adds a cautionary note. "Did I witness these conversations? No. But I was in touch with Walter for quite a while and I remember as clear as can be that the lyrics to Instant Funk made him very uncomfortable."

Chatman insists that Cayre was acting with the best intentions. "Kenny was more than willing to let Walter finish the mix. Kenny is a stand-up guy. If he believes in you he will stand by you through everything." According to Chatman, Cayre was absolutely crazy about Gibbons and Gibbons thought the world of Cayre. "There is no way in the world Kenny would have ever taken the mix away from Walter. They had a real bond. Walter just became uncomfortable with the material. What can you do in a situation like that? The music is what it is."

The events of the "I Got My Mind Made Up" remix happened some twenty-five years ago. Since then, memories have faded and seeped into each other to the point where absolute clarity over what happened when and why has been lost, or at least put on hold. History isn't always a blur, but it can be, and, for the time being at least, the truth behind Instant Funk must remain suspended, especially as Gibbons and Levan are no longer around to provide their version of the story.

Yet the elusive truth behind "I Got My Mind Made Up" matters because the twelve-inch is widely considered to be one of the most spellbinding remixes -- if not the most spellbinding remix -- of the 1970s. It helped propel the single to the top of the R&B charts and it launched Levan onto the remixing map. With the dubious benefit of partial hindsight, it could now cement Gibbons' reputation as the most influential remixer of the 1970s.

The Instant Funk twelve certainly sounds like a Gibbons Galaxy reel transposed onto vinyl. A deceptive sweet-lush intro is followed by a crackling percussive break interspersed with a rhythm guitar, repeated snippets of the song's upfront chorus and an extended keyboard jam, followed by the incredulous female reply of saaay whaaat? Then, in its full-frontal glory, comes the chant of I got my mind made up, come on, you can get it, get it girl, anytime, tonight is fine. The instrumental track and vocals ensue, producing a room-rocking crescendo, before the track cuts to another deep-down break, during which the bass and rhythm guitars groove over an undulating percussive backdrop. A final reprise of the song concludes the track.

The swirling structure and drum-happy attitude is classic Gibbons -- everlasting beats followed by a vocal release to the power of two -- so if Levan did mix "I Got My Mind Made Up" it should at least be acknowledged that he was adopting Gibbons' template beat for beat, phrase for phrase. Levan may have developed his own unique style during the eighties, but this much cannot be said of the ghetto-style groove of Instant Funk.

"'I Got My Mind Made Up' is very much in the style of Walter, so I wouldn't be surprised if he mixed it," says Danny Krivit. "But that doesn't mean that Larry didn't feel the record in the same way." Krivit notes that Levan's remix of "C Is For Cookie" is "much gutsier" than Roy Thode's flipside, so it's conceivable the Garage DJ could have come up with the Instant Funk remix. But whatever the truth, Levan's legacy will remain unaffected. "Larry wasn't credited with doing that many great mixes in the seventies. He did a few, but the eighties was really his decade."

Gate, now back in Glasgow, senses that Gibbons might be viewed differently if he had been credited with the "I Got My Mind Made Up" remix. "Instant Funk took Larry from being just another New York DJ to being a contender in the record industry overnight," he says. "There is no doubt that Larry would have made a name for himself as a remixer without it. But if Walter and not Larry had been credited with Instant Funk, Walter might have been known as the genius."

* * * * *

The relationship between Walter Gibbons and Salsoul may have been drawing to a close, but it wasn't over. In March 1979 Cayre released Disco Madness, which included six new Gibbons remixes and was issued as both a regular album and a DJ-friendly double-pack. "It was the first time a label released an album of mixes by a single remixer," says Ken Cayre. "Every DJ was inspired by Walter."

All of the mixes were radically different to existing versions -- some of which had already been mixed by Gibbons-- and marked a hardening and deepening of his aesthetic. "I don't consider Disco Madness to be a mix of the original music," says Tom Moulton, who regarded the new versions to be so far-reaching that they amounted to new songs. "It wasn't called Disco Madness for nothing. Most people felt the same way. I always said, 'If you want to know anything about that album, ask Walter.'"

On the first part of the double-pack, Gibbons revisited "Magic Bird Of Fire" and, remixing his own remix, elevated the beats and lowered the instrumentation. Faced with the challenge of reworking "Ten Percent", the studio whiz zoomed in on bongos and deep down keyboards. When it came to "Let No Man Put Asunder", a buried album cut by First Choice, he generated a dub-like workout of stripped down beats, sunken synthesisers and subtly echoed vocals.

For part two, Gibbons laid down a fierce, skipping beat for "It's Good For The Soul" and interspersed the chorus with his own infectious chants of "alright", "woo-ooo", "it's good for the soul" and "alright-alright-alright-alright-alright-alright-alright-alright" -- as if, unable to contain himself in the control booth, he kept on skipping into the studio to have a quick dance. The penultimate remix, "My Love Is Free", originally a Moulton twelve-inch, became so deep it almost disappeared into itself. To round things off, "Catch Me On The Rebound" was whittled down to the beats and Holloway's vamp.

Gibbons mixed two more twelve-inches for Salsoul in 1979: two Double Exposure album cuts, "Ice Cold Love" and "I Wish That I Could Make Love To You", plus "Stand By Your Man"/"Your Cheatin' Heart" by the Robin Hooker Band. All displayed a southern-soul-veering-into-gospel vibe that would have appealed more to a church barn dance than a drugged-up dance floor. Catchy, hypnotic and stomping, yet occasionally cheesy, they sounded like the work of a man who had an extraordinary feel for dance music but had fallen out of synch with Clubland.

That was reflected at Salsoul HQ, where the big remixes were going to other DJs. Tee Scott remixed "Love Thang" by First Choice and "Slap, Slap, Lickedy Lap" by Instant Funk. Bobby "DJ" Guttadaro went into the studio with Bunny Sigler's "By The Way You Dance", First Choice's "Double Cross" and Loleatta Holloway's "Greatest Performance Of My Life". And Larry Levan remixed just about everything else: Instant Funk's "Body Shine", plus six tracks for his Salsoul remix album --"Double Cross", "First Time Around", "Greatest Performance Of My Life", "Handsome Man", "How High" and… "I Got My Mind Made Up".

Levan also started to receive big remix commissions from other labels in the same year, including "Give Your Body Up To The Music" by Billy Nichols (West End), "When You Touch Me" by Taana Gardner (West End) and "Bad For Me" by Dee Dee Bridgewater (Elektra). All of these records were huge on the dance floor and, combined with his Salsoul work, make it clear that, even without the Instant Funk, Levan would have still established himself as a remarkably talented remixer by the end of 1979.

Gibbons, meanwhile, started to feed on scraps. His remix of Colleen Heather's "One Night Love Affair" for West End skipped along in a fairly predictable manner before breaking into a series of wild beats and handclaps interspersed with bass, horns and vocals. Released in the same period, his version of Gladys Knight & the Pips for Buddah also veered between the conservative and the crazy: "It's Better Than A Good Time" was a comparatively conventional, gospel-oriented effort, while the incredibly groovy flipside, "Saved By The Grace Of Your Love", featured southern-style yee-haas, handclaps and hallelujahs, all recorded at a sky high beat-per-minute tempo that would have flummoxed the most dextrous dancer (and probably wasn't intended for them in the first place).

Gibbons continued to DJ during this period, holding down spots at the Buttermilk Bottom and Xenon, but his sets became increasingly bizarre and his residencies increasingly ephemeral. "I got Walter his job at Xenon and the owners complained because he only played gospel and Salsoul," says Tony Smith, who had been working at the midtown location seven nights a week and was on the lookout for a helping hand. "I said, 'Walter, you can't do that!' There was so much great music out there at the time. Larry was coming out with all this new stuff. But Walter wouldn't change and after three weeks they told me to fire him."

Smith was shocked at the metamorphosis. "When I met Walter he was so wide-ranging. You didn't know what he was going to turn you onto. He could make a rock record sound like disco." Now, however, Gibbons was using a marker pen to blot out any unsavoury words that appeared on his records, as well as highlight any song titles that contained the word love with a heart. "His musical horizon shrank. All of a sudden the music had to have all these big messages and he wouldn't play any negative songs." Smith had no choice but to sack his friend. "It wasn't good. We fell out over that."

Somewhat inevitably, Gibbons also fell out of synch with the studio circuit. "Ken Cayre always went for the hot thing," says Bob Blank. "Larry became hot and Walter didn't have a base." The competition was growing and Gibbons was becoming yesterday's man. "It's the pop business," adds Blank. "Nobody's a star forever." Gibbons continued to hang around Blank Tapes Studios, but had become a peripheral figure. "Mel Cheren would call him when Kenny Nix was recording Taana Gardner and Walter would show up. He was always very cordial. I think he just didn't have the drive to become a star."

Gibbons was travelling backwards in time. Twentieth century popular culture in the United States had been defined by the tension between Saturday night partying and Sunday morning prayer, with the spirituality of gospel gradually giving way to the corporeality of the blues. Gibbons, however, was moving in the opposite direction, swapping the sin of sex for the salvation of God, and nobody else from the New York underground was willing to join him on his journey. "When Walter went religious he alienated all of his friends," says Kenny Carpenter. "He was really fanatical about the whole thing."

That didn't stop Steven Harvey from profiling Gibbons -- now sporting a mullet-shaped perm -- in his seminal overview of the New York underground, "Behind The Groove", which was published in Collusion in September 1983. Having met at Barry's, a record store on Twenty-third Street where Gibbons recommended danceable gospel tracks such as "Things 'Have' Got To Get Better" by Genobia Jeter, they reconvened at Harvey's apartment. Gibbons arrived with some homemade acetates of Philly-style tracks that included his own vocals. "They definitely had the spirit," Harvey later recorded.

Gibbons told Harvey that he was now playing records at his own house parties and added that he took requests, even for records that he considered to be unchristian, because that could help him get into the mindset of his dancers and help reshape their outlook. When one dancer asked him to play "Nasty Girls", Gibbons put it on, and then segued into "Try God" by the New York Community Choir. "For me, I have to let God play the records," he told the writer. "I'm just an instrument."

The last time he saw Scott, Gibbons added, he gave the Better Days DJ a mix that blended "Law Of The Land" by Undisputed Truth, "Ten Percent" by Double Exposure and a spoken version of the Ten Commandments. "He played it and the crowd roared like I've never heard in my life," Gibbons told Harvey. "Especially after the part where he's saying 'thou shalt not commit adultery, though shall not steal, though shall not kill' -- there was such a roar." Gibbons said he was taken aback. "It was very interesting." The DJ's proselytizing outlook had become more entrenched than ever.

* * * * *

Popular opinion had it that Walter Gibbons had traveled to Cloud Cuckoo Land and wasn't about to come back anytime soon, but in 1984 he approached his old friend Tony Smith, who was now the alternate DJ at the Funhouse, and handed him two white test pressings of a new recording. "I knew I had to play it otherwise we would never be friends," remembers Smith.

The record in question -- "Set It Off" by Strafe, the debut release on Jus Born Records, which was co-owned by Gibbons -- was a revelation. The vocals, performed by Steve "Strafe" Standart, a childhood friend of Kenny Carpenter, were mesmerizing, and the sparse rhythm track, all syncopation and repetition, brought together the seemingly incompatible worlds of breakbeat hip-hop and the downtown underground onto a single slab of vinyl. Once again Gibbons had taken a gravity-defying leap into the future of dance.

The Funhouse crowd, however, wasn't ready for Strafe. "They were really into the Arthur Baker sound," says Smith. "I played 'Set It Off' for ten minutes and it cleared the floor. Everyone in the booth was stunned by the record -- it was so incredible and different -- but Walter left under a real cloud. He was really disgusted. I said, 'Walter, there's no one here over eighteen!'"

When Smith discovered that lightman Ricky Cardona had made a reel-to-reel tape of his set, he made a copy of "Set It Off" and started to play the record once a night until, after a month of extremely careful programming, his dancers started to ask him the name of the unreleased track. "They didn't know the name of the song so they were calling it 'On The Left'," says Smith.

By the time Gibbons returned to the club to give the alternate DJ a copy of the vinyl, "Set It Off" had become a dance floor favorite. "Everyone screamed when I put it on," says Smith. "Walter was totally shocked. He eventually gave me all these other mixes of the song, including a reggae version." "Set It Off" became a Funhouse classic. "The original song was four minutes long and really sucked. I couldn't believe Walter got eighteen minutes out of it. The artist really hated Walter's mix. He didn't have Walter mix his next song and we haven't heard of him since."

Even though he was spending more and more time in the studio and would eventually leave the Funhouse in the summer, Jellybean also played "Set It Off". "It was very, very different to everything that was out there," says the DJ. "It had soul, it had electro, it had Latin. It had a whistle in it, and a lot of the kids on the dance floor would bring whistles. It was a long record that took you on a journey. It captured so many different things -- and it had just the right energy."

In June 1984 Billboard described "Set It Off" (which carried the inscription "Mixed with Love by Walter Gibbons") as a "low-budget production making some substantial neighbourhood noise here in New York, in the same way unusual cuts by Peech Boys and Loose Joints have." Yet while Larry Levan broke Peech Boys and Loose Joints at the Garage, "Set It Off", which was a little too electro-oriented for the King Street crowd, followed a different trajectory.

"Strafe got played at the Garage quite a bit, but it was getting more play in a lot of other places," says Danny Krivit. "It was unbelievably big." By this point Krivit spinning in a number of venues, including the Roxy, Down Under, Laces, Area and occasionally Danceteria, and "Set It Off" worked in all of them. "I could play the record all night, wherever I was DJing. I could play it on the worst sound system and it still sounded good. It was just this huge thing for me."

For his second release on Jus Born, Gibbons returned to the more familiar build-and-break template of his 1970s remixes, although it's hard to think of a more beautifully executed version of this aesthetic than "Searchin" by Arts and Crafts. Having laid down a hypnotic bongo beat, Gibbons brought in a dreamy bass, soulful male and female vocals, a gentle keyboard and a jazzy sax, and he gave each new part its own discrete space in which to evolve. The result was an almost wistful yet ultimately uplifting tapestry of decentralised, floating sounds in conversation with each other -- the future sound of deep house incarnate.

There was, however, no record industry rush to sign up Gibbons and, left with no choice but to plough his own groove, the idiosyncratic evangelist teamed up with Barbara Tucker, then an unknown gospel vocalist, to produce a remix of "Set It Off". Released in 1985 under the moniker Harlequin Four's, the record was the third (and probably last) issue on Jus Born Records. "After 'Set It Off' I thought he would get back into the music business," says Smith. "The record went to number one. But nobody gave him any offers."

Gibbons recorded two of his final releases with the avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell, who had started to produce dance records following his introduction to the Gallery in 1977. Having co-produced "Kiss Me Again" with Nicky Siano in 1978, Russell asked to be introduced to Gibbons after he heard Sandy Mercer's "Play With Me", and Steve D'Acquisto, who went on to record "Is It All Over My Face" with Russell, arranged for the two of them to get together.

Gibbons remixed an unreleased version of Russell's seminal "Go Bang" -- "Walter's mix is very different to the François mix," says Colin Gate. "It's weirder with loads of crazy things happening" -- and the two sound sculptors reconvened when Russell, who loved "Set It Off", asked Gibbons to mix "Schoolbell/Treehouse", which would later re-emerge as a voice-cello solo on Russell's meditative dub album, World Of Echo.

Released on Sleeping Bag in 1986, the Gibbons mix of "Schoolbell/Treehouse" revolved around a spaced-out array of bongos, piercing hi-hats, discordant synth stabs, scratchy cello solos and hovering trombone passages, maintaining a steady-but-jolty tempo before accelerating to a heart-attack finale. Wispy yet self-assured, Russell's voice presided over the mayhem, guiding the listener into the deep-down world of demented dance. "Walter could discuss the different textures of music for days," says Sleeping Bag owner Will Socolov. "The only other person who discussed sound in that kind of detail was Arthur. I think that's why they became friendly."

Having received a commission from Geoff Travis at Rough Trade, Russell also asked Gibbons to remix "Let's Go Swimming". "There were incredible scenes of screaming and fights," says Gary Lucas, who oversaw the recording process, which began at eleven-p.m. and wound up at eight the following morning. "Arthur was shrieking and tearing his hair out, raging around the studio like a psychotic bat, while Walter was calmly snipping and pasting the tape as if it was macramé." There were streams of tape all over the studio. "Arthur would say, 'You're ruining my fucking vision!' And Walter would reply, 'Arthur, Arthur, calm down!'"

"Mixed with Love by Walter Gibbons", the Coastal Dub version of "Let's Go Swimming" was less song-oriented and more conceptual than the Gulf Stream Dub and the Puppy Surf Dub, both of which were completed by Russell. As with so many Gibbons mixes, the track was constructed over a bongo beat, although on this occasion the rhythm was never allowed to settle into a groove, but instead lurched from beat to beat, with Russell's manic synthesiser riff rolling over a rumbling bass and cello. "Walter created a visionary soundscape for the song," says Lucas. "He took the song out to the stratosphere."

Two other Gibbons remixes were released in this twilight period: "4 Ever My Beat" by Stetsasonic, which came out on a Tommy Boy double pack, and "Time Out" by the Clark Sisters, which was released on Rejoice/A&M. Steering an uneasy path between synthesizer pop, jagged beats and run-of-the-mill gospel, the "Time Out" mix encapsulated the conundrum of combining feel-good vocals with a left-of-leftfield sensibility. Gospel Gibbons' ever more angular vision didn't sit easily with gospel.

The message was a lot simpler to communicate from behind the counter at Rock and Soul, situated on Seventh Avenue between Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Streets, where Gibbons sold records and dished out sermons with equal gusto. Saxophonist Peter Gordon, another Russell collaborator, became the recipient of one particularly violent tirade when he handed Gibbons a copy of "That Hat", the B-side of which was titled "The Day The Devil Comes To Get You".

During this period Gibbons amassed a collection of approximately five thousand gospel records, many of which were signed copies purchased directly from church congregations in New York. "He thought gospel was the pure message of God and that something was wrong with you if you didn't get it," says Krivit, an occasional customer. "Every time he opened his mouth he would preach at you. It seemed to a lot of people he was just history, especially as there was less of a nostalgia thing going on at the time."

Yet ever since Bobby "DJ" Guttadaro, Francis Grasso and David Mancuso started to push Dorothy Morrison's "Rain" at the turn of the 1970s, gospel had demonstrated its ability to heighten the celebratory mood of the dance floor, and Gibbons continued to unearth the occasional treasure, including "Stand On The Word", which was recorded live in the First Baptist Church in Crown Heights in 1982.

"'Stand On The Word' was Walter's biggest record at the time," says Gate, who visited the church in order to track down the origins of the song. "The record was recorded in his local church -- the Jus Born studios were only a couple of blocks away. Walter played this record after the church pressed up a couple of hundred copies for the congregation." The song soon became a Garage, Loft and Zanzibar classic, and Tony Humphries went on to remix the record -- which was attributed to the Joubert Singers, after Phyllis McKoy Joubert, who penned the song for the Celestial Choir -- for Next Plateau. For many, Gibbons had lost his way but not his ear.

* * * * *

Walter Gibbons might have started to preach the Gospel with even more vigour after discovering he had contracted the Aids virus sometime in the second half of the 1980s. For a while nobody could tell he was sick: after all, Gibbons had always looked undernourished. But as the disease progressed, there could be no mistaking its presence. "I saw him at Rock and Soul about a year before he passed away," says Bob Blank. "He was in terrible shape. He was very thin and had lost a lot of his hair. He looked around and said, 'I just love being in contact with music. This is what I love.'"

Knowing that his corporeal end was near, and riding on the back of a new wave of interest in disco's pioneering DJs and remixers, Gibbons embarked on a mini-tour of Japan, where he played at the Wall (Sapporo) and Yellow (Tokyo) in September 1992. Mixing classics, house and hip-hop with his treasured reel-to-reels, he was received enthusiastically by local DJs and music aficionados. In between appearances, Gibbons went to listen to Larry Levan and François Kevorkian, who were playing at Gold as part of their Harmony tour. According to DJ Nori, Gibbons loved Japan and wanted to live in Sapporo.

Gibbons returned to Japan in 1993. Eyewitnesses say he was skinny but radiantly happy -- so happy that, during one of his nights at Yellow, he refused to stop playing when police raided the club and ordered it to close. The night was eventually reconvened as a private event and the party hit a new high, with Gibbons channelling his entire soul into the music. At the end of the set he asked to be taken to Hakone and, when he finally saw Mount Fuji, he kept uttering, "It's beautiful. It's beautiful!" He was subsequently whisked to a hot spring where he was able to revitalise his tired body.

Gibbons played his final set in New York at Renegayde, a monthly night organised by Joey Llanos and Richard Vasquez. Drawing on sixties Motown, Philly Soul, disco, early eighties dance and contemporary house, the ex-Galaxy spinner took his dancers on a timeless voyage of devotion and love, sequencing his selections according to ambience rather than chronology or genre. Gibbons demonstrated little in the way of turntable pyrotechnics but stretched the metaphor of the DJing journey to breaking point. Sincerity was more important than dexterity.

Aware that Gibbons regarded himself as an instrument of God, DJ Cosmo, who attended the Renegayde gig, wasn't sure if she had "heard Walter play" or if it was "God on the decks that night." Either way, Gibbons' "pure and beautiful musical aura" provided a striking contrast with the freakish mood of the post-Garage club scene. "I was really struck by Walter's honesty to himself, to his faith and to his audience."

DJ-producer Adam Goldstone, who also went to the party, admired the way Gibbons created an "uplifting, spiritual and positive atmosphere" without slipping "into religious proselytising or the kind of lazy, saccharine clichés that seem to pass for soulful dance music these days." The vibe in the room was electric. "I think everyone at the party realised they were sharing in something special."

Nightworld was war-wearily accustomed to seeing Aids devour its favourite sons and by the time of the Renegayde party it was clear that Gibbons would soon follow. "Walter was looking very thin," says Quinton Deeley, a London-based New York dance enthusiast. "He was obviously in poor health. It was poignant to see him play so well despite his advanced illness." Renegayde turned out to be the DJ's last public performance.

Frail, isolated and all but blind, Gibbons started to go out to Beefsteak Charlie's with François Kevorkian and Tom Moulton every Tuesday night. "A lot of people abandoned Walter, but he wasn't the most outgoing person either, and he didn't attract a lot of friends," says Moulton. "We would help him down the stairs. Beefsteak Charlie's had a salad bar and shrimp, all you could eat, and watching Walter shovel down that shrimp, I don't know where he put it. He kept saying, 'Boy, this shrimp is so good!'"

Gibbons continued to play records until the very end -- Moulton says the ex-Galaxy DJ developed a special "notch system" in order to recognise his records by touch -- and when he learnt that Moulton had just finished remastering a series of Salsoul twelve-inches he asked him to try and get hold of an advance copy. No tests were ready, so Ken Cayre put through a special set, which Moulton took to his old sparring partner. "Walter played one and said, 'Oh, it sounds great!'" remembers Moulton. "Then he cued up another record and mixed it in perfectly. He was a DJ to the very end."

Having spent his final weeks living alone in a YMCA, Gibbons died of complications resulting from Aids on 23 September 1994, aged thirty-eight years old. One of his final acts was to donate his record collection to an Aids charity based in San Francisco. Only a small number of people attended his funeral, and his memorial service, a dignified affair held on 11 October at the Church of St. John the Baptist on Thirty-first Street, was also relatively quiet -- much more quiet than the equivalent service held for Levan in 1992. Billboard marked the moment with a brief obituary at the bottom of its weekly dance music column. Devastatingly shy to the end, Gibbons might have been happy to pass away without too much of a fuss.

Yet we can forgive ourselves a certain amount of frustration that this groundbreaking remixer and DJ hasn't received more attention during the ongoing revival of interest in the disco decade. The name of Gibbons rarely features alongside canonical seventies spinners such as Francis Grasso, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, even though it is difficult to think of a more accomplished or visionary mixmaster. And as a remixer he has received significantly less attention than Tom Moulton, François Kevorkian and Larry Levan, even though he was arguably the most influential of them all when it came to establishing the future contours of remixology.

According to Blank, Gibbons was in a league of his own in the studio. While most remixers would enter unprepared, Gibbons would always do his homework, and while most remixers would bark out instructions, Gibbons would always sit with his hands on the mixing board. Yet the thing that most impressed Blank was the DJ's intuitive outlook. "It was quite easy to chop up a record and extend certain sections," says the engineer. "The difficult thing was to take a multitrack and create a flow. The skill lies in feeling the music and that's what Walter could do. He would sit at the board with the mute buttons, and he would cut and edit in real time."

Gibbons took the art of remixing to an emotional level. "He would come in and say, 'I want this song to be the love mix,'" remembers Blank. "He would listen to the bass part and say, 'That part is really about love.' These are amazing concepts. That's totally different to someone who comes in and says, 'I've got to get this mix out in a day and we've got to have three breaks!'" Gibbons was nurturing a new affective sensibility. "He would say, 'I want the flow to be like this, and just when you think you've hit this peak I want to go back into the groove.' Nobody was doing that. It was an amazing way of working."

When it came to plunging into a multitrack and excavating its core energy, Gibbons wasn't just the best: he was also the first. "By the time Larry came by I had done a thousand dance records," adds Blank. "I knew what was supposed to happen. I didn't say, 'Oh my God, there's the bass drum!'" It was different with Gibbons. "Nobody had heard the strings all by themselves or the rhythm chopped into these syncopated moments, but once he did it people began to understand there was a formula. When the next person came in after Walter, I would bring up all of his good ideas. That was my job -- to remember all the cool things."

The point is not to elevate Gibbons in order to denigrate others. Rather, it is to acknowledge that, at least for a few years, he was streets ahead of his contemporaries. As a breakbeat DJ working with reel-to-reel tapes, he at least paralleled and arguably anticipated core aspects of hip-hop culture. And as a remixer producing stripped down tracks that shifted between insistent beats and floating instrumentation, he developed an early blueprint for house. Gibbons was the first DJ to move into the protected world of the studio, and in the second half of the seventies and the first half of the eighties there were only three DJ remixers who really mattered: Gibbons, Kevorkian and Levan. Gibbons was the first.

Yet if there was a potential flaw with Gibbons' practice, it lay in the unrelenting purity of his vision. "Walter was an innovator, but he also had an abstract I don't give a shit approach," says Kevorkian. "Walter didn't care if anyone danced, whereas Larry would make it for the party. He was a little more conscious of what people liked. Whereas Walter was conceptually the most advanced, he was also a lonely genius. Walter was an innovator, but Larry made it work. He turned records into hits."

Scattered but not discarded, a series of unreleased Gibbons mixes continue to levitate around the outer reaches of the dance ether. Jeremy Newall spotted a reel of "Making Love Will Keep You Fit"/"Freakin' Freak" by Brenda Harris (Dream Records), marked "mixed by Walter Gibbons", in Tom Moulton's office in New York. Somewhere, surely, there is a copy of "Faith", the track Gibbons mixed and produced with Steve D'Acquisto (referenced by Steven Harvey in his Collusion article). And then there is the mouth-watering prospect of that "Go Bang" remix.

Some "lost recordings" are beginning to surface. Audika released Arthur Russell's "Calling All Kids", "remixed with love" by Gibbons some time between 1986 and 1990, earlier this year. And Colin Gate, who purchased the key elements of Gibbons' record collection when it was eventually returned to Rock and Soul, is hoping to release a collection of Gibbons' unreleased acetates, mixes and songs. "Walter's acetates are much more intense than his Salsoul remixes," says Gate. "You can hear slices of his DJing style on remixes like 'Just As Long', where there's that looped section with a kick drum and hi-hat pattern with a clap. Some of his acetates extend that house sound for ten minutes, not just a few bars."

Marking the tenth anniversary of Gibbons' death, this Suss'd compilation brings together his groundbreaking Salsoul catalogue for the very first time and, considered as a collection, the remixes create an indelible impression. These mixes could barely be contained on three CDs, whereas the equivalent Levan compilation barely stretched to two, and the quantity of the ex-Galaxy DJ's output in no way detracts from its quality.

"Compared to the Larry Salsoul compilation on Suss'd, Walter's mixes are more groundbreaking and seem to demonstrate a very hands-on type approach," says DJ/Salsoul aficionado Jeremy Newall, who helped compile both CDs. "It was probably Larry's personality, the size of the Garage, and the success of records like Taana Gardner and the Peech Boys, as well as his obvious DJ talents, that made him the deity he is today." Gibbons might be about to receive a little more recognition himself. "Hopefully this package will bring a lot more respect to Walter. It is deserved, without any doubt."

These remixes would have surely been reissued long before now were it not for Gibbons' conversion. Yet there is also a peculiar proximity between the DJ-remixer's evangelism and the practices that continue to underpin Nightworld to this day. Definitively fervent, DJs try to convert anyone who will listen to their favourite records, while dancers enter into a quasi-religious ritual in which they and their priest-like spinners generate a collective, spiritual high.

Gibbons experienced both sides of this divide -- dance floor spirituality on the one hand, born-again Christianity on the other -- and magnified the continuum that exists between them. Magical and evangelical from the beginning to the end, he lived and died in music. The spirit of his remixes, all of them mixed with love, will continue to move and shape dance floors for the rest of time.



Chidi Achara, Chris Barnett, Bob Blank, Kenny Carpenter, Ken Cayre, Denise Chatman, Quinton Deeley, Ian Dewhirst, Allan Felder, Adam Goldstone, Yuko Ichikawa, Jellybean, JJ, Dr Bob Jones, François Kevorkian, Gary Lucas, Danny Krivit, Cedric Lassonde, Colleen "Cosmo" Murphy, DJ Nori, Alex Pe Win, Steve Reed, Alex Rosner, Will Soclov and, especially, Colin Gate, Niki Mir, Jeremy Newall and Tony Smith.

“Disco”. In John Shepherd and David Horn, eds, Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 8, Genres: North America. London: Continuum, 2012, 180-86.


Coined to describe the broad range of danceable music played by disc jockeys in public discotheques and private parties in North America in the early 1970s, disco became a recognised genre of uptempo popular music that drew on elements of funk, gospel, jazz and soul. Disco recordings were often built on a propulsive underlying rhythm section, around which a wide range of instrumental and vocal techniques were developed, with structured songs and groove-oriented tracks both prominent. DJs became central to the popularisation of disco records, which were often characterised by the way engineers, producers and remixers deployed a series of increasingly unconventional studio techniques to manipulate vocal and instrumental takes, and the genre peaked commercially in 1978. The subsequent coincidence of disco's industrial overproduction with a deep recession culminated in a backlash against the genre and its associated culture, and during 1980 the music industry stopped using the word "disco" altogether. Although many aspects of disco could be detected in the newly coined category of "dance", as well as later genres such hip hop, house and techno, the increasingly electronic and sequenced character of these sounds also distinguished them from disco.

Emergence of disco and the role of the DJ

The practice of dancing to pre-recorded music in the United States can be traced to the spread of jukebox technology in the 1930s and record hop culture in the 1950s. Parallel practices unfolded in Germany, where "Swing Kids" set up gramophones in order to dance to jazz, and also in France, where the venues that played pre-recorded music became known as "discothèques". Having operated as a space in which resistance fighters would socialise and dance, French discothèque culture acquired an elitist, bourgeois cachet during the postwar era, and this was the version of the culture that travelled to New York when Oliver Coquelin opened Le Club at the beginning of the 1960s. In New York, discotheque culture became more democratic when Arthur, drawing inspiration from London's Ad Lib nightclub, opened in 1965, and a clientele made up of young white heterosexual workers danced the twist. But towards the end of the decade New York's discotheques entered a period of commercial decline, and when Arthur closed in 1969 the media reported that the novelty of the discotheque had worn off.

David Mancuso inside the Prince Street Loft. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. Photography by Peter Hujar. Copyright Estate of Peter Hujar.

A pivotal turning point for the culture arrived at the beginning of 1970 when David Mancuso, a resident of the NoHo district of New York, put on the first of a series of highly influential private parties that soon became known as the Loft, while two gay entrepreneurs called Seymour and Shelley took over a failing discotheque called the Sanctuary and marketed the venue to the gay clientele who frequented their bars in New York's West Village. Marked by the spirit of the countercultural era, the Loft and the Sanctuary attracted crowds that were mixed in terms of race, gender and sexuality, and the marginalised social status of many of their dancers combined with the popularisation of stimulants such as LSD contributed to the both emergence of a new dynamic on the dance floor and a non-normative way of experiencing the body. Instead of dancing in couples, participants adopted a freeform style that enabled them to dance with the wider crowd, and responding to the increase in energy, Mancuso and Sanctuary DJ Francis Grasso developed a dialogic relationship with their dancers in which they didn't just "lead" but also attempted to "follow" the dancers in their selections. Growing out of Harlem's rent party tradition, the Loft inspired a series of private parties, most of which opened in the recently evacuated industrial buildings of downtown New York, including the Tenth Floor, Gallery, Flamingo, SoHo Place, 12 West, Reade Street and the Paradise Garage. In a parallel development, public discotheques such as Better Days, Hollywood, the Ice Palace, Le Jardin, Limelight and the Sandpiper were structured according to the model of the Sanctuary. In contrast to the largely unregulated private party network, the public discotheques were bound by New York City's Cabaret Licensing legislation.

Between 1970 and 1973 private party and public discotheque DJs were required to search hard for their music, as record companies were unaware of the nascent dance market and appropriate tracks were in short supply. Drawing on funk, soul and rock as well as rare imports, DJ selections reflected the diversity of their dance crowds, and also contained elements of what would become disco. The break featured not once but twice in Eddie Kendricks' "Girl, You Need A Chance of Mind"; the Temptations' "Law of the Land" accentuated the power of the disciplinary beat; Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes "The Love I Lost" called attention to the four-on-the-floor bass beat; the funk alternative, which became prominent in disco, ran through James Brown "Give It Up or Turnit A Loose"; Chakachas "Jungle Fever" included Latin percussion and clipped, sensual vocals; the parallel move of developing politicised lyrics was evident in the Equals' "Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys"; Olatunji's "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion)" foregrounded African derived rhythms and chants; swooping orchestration was a hallmark of Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft"; WAR's "City, Country, City" revealed the dance floor preference for long records; an ecstatic gospel aesthetic was integral to Dorothy Morrison's "Rain"; emotional expressiveness ran through the Intruders' "I'll Always Love My Mama" and Patti Jo's "Make Me Believe in You"; and Chicago's "I'm A Man" demonstrated an openness to danceable rock. In September 1973 Vince Aletti published an article titled "Discotheque Rock '72 [sic]: Paaaaarty!" in Rolling Stone that drew attention to the way in which the records that were being played on New York's dance floors tended to feature these recurring traits.

Entering an industry dominated by radio DJs, private party and discotheque DJs demonstrated their ability to promote and sell records when Alfie Davison and David Mancuso became the first spinners to play the import single "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango, which subsequently entered the Billboard Hot 100 before receiving radio airplay. The new breed of DJs reiterated their rising influence when they helped transform neglected singles such as "Never Can Say Goodbye" by Gloria Gaynor and "Love's Theme" by the Love Unlimited Orchestra into chart hits. Having functioned initially as shorthand descriptor for the public institution of the discotheque, disco began to be used to refer to the music played in these settings, and when the Hues Corporation and George McCrae scored successive number one hits with the similar sounding "Rock the Boat" and "Rock Your Baby" in July 1974, it became clear that a new genre had come into existence.

Led by Paul Casella, Steve D'Acquisto and David Mancuso, DJs established the New York Record Pool, the first record pool in the United States, in June 1975, and soon after they persuaded a large gathering of major and independent record company representatives to start supplying them with free promotional copies in return for the de facto marketing they received every time a DJ played one of their records. DJs didn't only operate as tastemakers and marketers, however, and many of them became notable for the way in which they strung together their selections. David Mancuso (who considered himself to be a "musical host" rather than a DJ) pioneered the craft of piecing together records so they told a story that unfolded across an entire night. Francis Grasso used headphones and a mixer to blend records into a beat-matched flow. Nicky Siano asserted the creative power of the DJ when he began to interrupt records in mid-flow if the mix sounded right, and he also popularised the practice of working with three turntables simultaneously. Walter Gibbons became the first spinner to make his own homemade edits, and he also developed the art of mixing between the breaks of two records in order to create a "tribal aesthetic". Combining the distinctive styles of Mancuso and Siano, Larry Levan took the art of DJing to unmatched levels of artistry and drama. And although only a few spinners could play a conventional musical instrument ¾ Jim Burgess was a notable exception ¾ they demonstrated that the much-maligned practice of DJing was in fact a skilled art form.

Loleatta Holloway. Photograph by Waring Abbott.

Loleatta Holloway. Photograph by Waring Abbott.

Capitalising on the rising prominence of New York's DJs and the associated dance network, independent record companies such as Roulette, Scepter and 20th Century started to produce and mix records for the dance market, and when Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of the renowned soul label Philadelphia International released "Love Is the Message" and "TSOP" by MFSB towards the end of 1973 it became clear that the music market was beginning to shift, with feel-good disco displacing message-oriented soul. The development was decried several years later by the critic Nelson George, who identified Philadelphia International's conversion to disco as a key moment in the decline of R&B. In reply it could be argued that disco was simply assuming an alternative form of engagement in its development of a politics of the body that deployed black aesthetics within a gay and feminist framework. Records such as "That's Where the Happy People Go" by the Trammps referenced disco's prominent gay male constituency, while the emotionally articulate Carl Bean, First Choice, Loleatta Holloway, Thelma Houston, Grace Jones, Chaka Khan, Evelyn "Champagne" King, LaBelle, D.C. LaRue, Cheryl Lynn, Sylvester and Karen Young joined Gloria Gaynor in forging disco as a terrain where masculinity could assume no easy dominance. Far from abandoning black aesthetic priorities, New York labels such as Prelude, Salsoul and West End recorded dance music that combined rhythmic drive with instrumental sophistication, while Florida's TK Records developed an eclectic, funk-tinged roster of artists that included Peter Brown, KC and the Sunshine Band, and T-Connection.

Development of the disco sound

In a parallel development, European producers started to release disco recordings in 1975, and their collective efforts soon acquired the label of Eurodisco. Silver Convention demonstrated the shift was aesthetic as well as geographical when "Fly, Robin, Fly" featured a strikingly heavy four-on-the-floor bass beat along with a clipped female chorus, and Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte entrenched Eurodisco's thudding four-on-the-floor bass drum motif when they recorded "Love to Love You Baby" with Donna Summer. These and other instances of early Eurodisco retained a connection with the soul orientation of US disco, but during the second half of the 1970s Eurodisco acquired a more obviously mechanical aesthetic. Although the self-consciously technological Kraftwerk are not normally associated with disco, recordings such as "Trans-Europe Express" were popular with many DJs, and Moroder produced an equally innovative and influential futuristic anthem when he teamed up with Summer to release the Moog-driven "I Feel Love". Gesturing towards the western classical tradition, Moroder and other prominent Eurodisco producers such as Cerrone, Alec Costandinos, Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo introduced elaborate orchestral instrumentation and grandiose conceptual themes in many of their recordings.

Eurodisco's rising share of the disco market was bolstered when the Los Angeles-based disco label Casablanca Records signed up a significant number of its most prominent producers and artists. Propelled by its hyperactive and uncontained owner Neil Bogart, Casablanca became the most commercially successful disco label of the second half of the 1970s, and counted Cher, Love and Kisses, and the Village People, along with the ubiquitous Donna Summer, among its most prominent artists. Disco acts on other labels also scaled the Hot 100, including the Bee Gees, Chic, Tavares, the Ritchie Family, Diana Ross, the Trammps, and Barry White, yet one-hit wonders such as Van McCoy ("The Hustle") and Carl Douglas ("Kung Fu Fighting") were also salient presence as well as an indicator of the ephemeral nature of many disco acts. Indeed that status even loomed over Gloria Gaynor until, who endured four years of failure until she scored her second hit, "I Will Survive", which was originally released as a B-side until DJs revealed it to be more effective than the A-side. The startling transience of these and many other disco artists can be partly explained by the fact that the rock-leaning record executives of the majors were notably reluctant to set up disco departments to help provide the genre's artists with a more consistent national profile. Yet as Will Straw has argued (1990), disco's relative fragility can also be traced to its consumers, whose primary concern tended to be the effectiveness of a particular recording in relationship to other contemporaneous recordings. In this disco differed from the rock market, where consumers were more likely to be committed to following the career of an artist or artists.

Instrumentalists and vocalists remained integral to the disco sound, yet as the 1970s unfolded a group of engineers, producers and remixers began to play a dominant role. Among this group, Giorgio Moroder and Alec Costandinos went on to enjoy reasonably successful artist careers, but the influential engineer Bob Blank and groundbreaking remixers such as Walter Gibbons, François Kevorkian, Tom Moulton and Larry Levan remained notably anonymous. Having reconstructed and extended records by artists such as BT Express, Don Downing, Gloria Gaynor, Patti Jo and South Shore Commission in order to make them more dance-floor friendly (often to the consternation of the recording artist), Moulton spearheaded the art of remixing. He also inadvertently recorded the first twelve-inch single when he placed a mix of an Al Downing song on a twelve-inch blank and was struck by the resulting increase in volume and sound quality. Designed to facilitate the circulation of extended records that could satisfy the needs of DJs and dancers, the twelve-inch single became one of the key innovations of disco, and the iconic format was commodified for the first time when Salsoul released a commercially available twelve-inch remix of "Ten Percent" by Double Exposure. The label also took the bold move of hiring Walter Gibbons to carry out the remix on the basis that a working DJ was more likely to understand how to reshape a record in the interest of the dance dynamic than a studio-bound engineer or producer. In this manner the twelve-inch single came to embody a dance floor sensibility, and Gibbons, who also completed groundbreaking remixes for Loleatta Holloway, Love Committee, Bettye LaVette and the Salsoul Orchestra, took the art of remixing into an experimental, leftfield direction. His far-reaching reconfiguration of Holloway's "Hit and Run", on which he was provided with access to the multitrack tapes of a recording for the first time, revealed the creative potential of remix culture.

From local scenes to mainstream saturation

While New York City remained the most important centre for private parties and discotheques throughout the 1970s, important scenes also developed in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and Toronto, as well as cities in Europe and Asia. When the network of dance venues continued to expand during the economic slowdown that followed the oil crisis of 1973, commentators noted the way in which the entertainment institution of the discotheque provided good value for money in comparison to the cost of going to see live music, and during 1977 and 1978 three major discotheques ¾ Studio 54, New York, New York, and Xenon ¾ opened in midtown Manhattan. Competing over set designs, lighting systems, door queues and, most notably, the number of celebrities they could count as their clients, these venues began to appear regularly in New York's tabloid newspapers, as did more general interest features about disco culture. Some of the more thoughtful pieces discussed the way in which disco foregrounded novel ways of producing music and experiencing the body.

Far from being confined to urban centres, disco culture also expanded rapidly in suburban areas, where a markedly compromised version of the Loft/Sanctuary format took hold thanks to the fact that venues were often situated in ex-restaurants, DJs were given less autonomy, and couples dancing was re-popularised in the form of the Hustle. Nevertheless Suburban disco culture acquired an unexpectedly high profile when RSO released the film Saturday Night Fever, which was based on Nik Cohn's partly fictional account of Brooklyn discotheque culture for New York magazine. Released at the end of 1977, the film went on to generate the second highest box office takings of all time (behind the Godfather) and recording-breaking album sales (of thirty million copies). Starring John Travolta as the working-class Italian American shop-worker/dancer Tony Manero and a sound track dominated by the Bee Gees, the film portrayed disco as being both white and heterosexual, and this contributed to the rapid popularisation of the culture during 1978. Although it was less commercially successful, the Casablanca film Thank God It's Friday helped disco consolidate its growth, as did the annual Disco Forum, which was organised by Billboard magazine.

Previously sceptical about disco's aesthetic and commercial potential, major music companies including Warner Bros. and CBS responded to the post-Saturday Night Fever boom by establishing dedicated disco departments, and artists such as Alfredo De La Fe, Herbie Hancock, Johnny Mathis, Dolly Parton and the Rolling Stones started to record disco, albeit with mixed results. Around the same time WKTU, an anonymous soft rock station based in New York, switched to an all-disco format and increased its ratings from a one-point-three share to an eleven-point-three share overnight. Along with the sweeping success of Saturday Night Fever, the rise of disco radio encouraged the majors to switch their promotional focus from discotheque DJs to radio DJs, and they also took the decision to expand their disco output exponentially in the belief that anything that contained disco's recognisable four-on-the-floor bass beat would climb the charts. As a result, DJs and dancers alike were faced with a rush of disco releases that were deemed to be substandard, yet the shift towards a more profit-driven release strategy was not absolute, and 1978 saw the release of records such as Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up", which brought together many of the aesthetic borrowings and innovations of disco, as well as Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", which included Patrick Cowley's synthesiser and served as an early imprint of the "San Francisco Sound". Released the following year and combining hard-edged drums, a prominent bass riff and shimmering vocals, Chic's seminal "Good Times" aligned the feel-good quality of the discotheque experience with black upward mobility.


Disco reached a formal end-point during the second half of 1979 when the hostile "disco sucks" movement helped persuade record companies to abandon the generic label. Originating with John Holmstrom's "Death to disco shit!" editorial in Punk magazine, which was published in January 1976, the anti-disco movement acquired momentum gradually during 1976 and 1977, in part because disco's primary constituency was black, female and gay (in contrast to rock's white, straight and male demographic base), and in part because disco emphasised the female vocalist, the aesthetic of the collective groove, and the near-anonymous work of the producer and the remixer (whereas rock revolved around male musicianship, the primacy of the vocalist and the lead guitarist, and an ethos of authentic performative musicianship). The post-Saturday Night Fever proliferation of substandard disco records made disco increasingly vulnerable to attack, while the onset of a deep recession in the first quarter of 1979 contributed to the creation of a constituency of alienated young men who were searching for a scapegoat to blame for their lack of security. It was within this context that the backlash against disco peaked in the summer of 1979, and when the talk host DJ Steve Dahl staged an explosion of approximately forty thousand disco records in the middle of a baseball double-header at Comiskey Park in Chicago the movement reached its symbolic peak. During the next six months US record companies reduced their disco output radically, closed down disco departments, and started to use "dance" in place of "disco".


Disco Sucks riot at Comiskey Park, Chicago, 1979.

Disco Sucks riot at Comiskey Park, Chicago, 1979.

As consumers grew tired of the overkill of Saturday Night Fever, the limitations of suburban discotheque culture, and the unabashed elitism of Studio 54 and its imitators, thousands of discotheques closed during the second half of 1979, and disco soon ceased to be a media story. Yet in New York private parties such as the Loft and the Paradise Garage continued to flourish, while influential new dance venues such as Bond's, Danceteria and the Saint opened for business in 1980, just months after disco's reputed death. No finite distinction can be made between the disco records released during 1979 and the newly-coined dance output of 1980, and a record like Dinosaur L's "Go Bang!" contained enough links to disco for it to be hailed as one of the founding tracks of so-called "mutant disco". Yet the increasing prominence of synthesisers and drum machines during the first half of the 1980s signalled a shift in dance aesthetics, and the move towards a more technological sound was consolidated when the first tranche of Chicago house tracks were released during 1984. The rise of house in the middle of the 1980s marked a shift away from the skilled musicianship and often costly production processes of disco towards a culture in which music was made on cheap electronic equipment by untrained musicians, yet many of these younger producers attempted to ape the aesthetic priorities of disco, and house recordings have repeatedly featured samples from disco recordings. Early hip hop artists and producers also drew heavily on disco aesthetics, as did pop figures such as Michael Jackson and Madonna.

The failure of house to match the commercial impact of disco confined dance and its various offshoots to the margins of mainstream US pop culture during the 1980s, even if the genre achieved a more pronounced impact in Europe. Meanwhile the general shift in pop music culture towards the deployment of electronic and sequencing technologies resulted in disco acquiring a new significance. Often judged to have been slick and mechanical during the 1970s, by the early twenty-first century disco was notable for just how "live" it sounded in contrast to electronic dance genres such as house, techno, and drum and bass, as well as hip hop. The 1970s remains the last period in western popular music culture when trained musicians from a wide range of generic backgrounds (including funk, soul, rock, jazz and orchestral music) were employed on a regular basis to record music that would be played in dance venues, and this is one of the principle reasons the period has continued to be such a productive terrain for sampling. At the same time the 1970s practice of a DJ selecting records in relationship to a dancing crowd across the course of an entire night has remained the central dynamic of contemporary club culture, while the ethos of remix culture has stayed grounded in the principles forged by the likes of Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons.

To sum up, the sound of disco emerged out of a wide range of danceable genres that were being played by DJs in the setting of the public discotheque and, less prolifically but perhaps more influentially, the private party. The sound came began to coalesce when a small number independent labels began to record music that was specifically designed for the nascent dance market and, around the same time, the music industry began to recognise that club play could boost a record's commercial performance. Consolidated during 1974 and 1975, the genre of disco featured a wide range of instrumental and vocal techniques that revolved around an uptempo four-on-the-floor bass beat (which ran at approximately one hundred and twenty beats-per-minute). Initially disco's open-ended structure enabled it to develop in eclectic and unpredictable ways, but during 1977 and 1978 a deluge of gimmicky releases drew on the genre's simple, easily identifiable rhythmic foundation, and in so doing undermined the credibility of the sound and contributed to its market collapse. The rise of disco-related genres such as house has led to a revival of interest in disco, especially in Europe, where house has enjoyed its most sustained level of success. Yet within the broader popular imagination, disco is regularly associated with "bad taste", and hip hop and rock commentators are often openly disdainful of the culture.

The literature on disco has been shaped by its shifting historical status. A flurry of books, many of them glorified dance manuals, came out in the US in late 1970s, when disco was enjoying its commercial peak; of these, Albert Goldman's Disco, which was published in 1978, is easily the most broad-ranging, even its content and voice are somewhat erratic, while Night Dancin' by Vita Miezitis provides an important turn-of-the-decade guide to the New York club scene. Published in 1979 and 1994 respectively, Richard Dyer's "In Defence of Disco" and Walter Hughes' "In the Empire of the Beat" contributed to the intellectual framing of disco, yet no book-length study appeared until 1997, when the US writer Anthony Haden-Guest published The Last Party, which framed disco through the lens of celebrity culture and Studio 54. Around the same time an alternative attempt to historicise disco within the context of dance music began to unfold in Europe, and while books by Ulf Postchardt (1995), Matthew Collin (1997) and Sheryl Garratt (1998) were heavily dependent on Goldman, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton conducted original research for the two disco chapters that appeared in their broad-ranging account of DJ culture (1999). Following the publication of Mel Cheren's engaging if sometimes unreliable disco memoir, Keep On Dancing', the author of this entry researched the first book-length study of disco, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79, which came out in 2003. Since then, the British authors Daryl Easlea (Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco) and Peter Shapiro (Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco) have contributed to the growing bibliography on disco, the length of which makes Shapiro's subtitle somewhat anomalous.



Aletti, Vince. "Discotheque Rock '72 [sic]: Paaaaarty!" Rolling Stone, 13 September 1973.

Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999.

Cheren, Mel. Keep On Dancin': My Life and the Paradise Garage. New York: 24 Hours for Life, 2000.

Cohn, Nik. "The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night". New York, 7 June 1976.

Collin, Matthew (with contributions from John Godfrey). Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House. London and New York: Serpent's Tail, 1997.

Dyer, Richard. "In Defence of Disco", Gay Left, summer 1979. Reprinted in The Faber Book of Pop, ed. by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage. London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995, 518-527.

Easlea, Daryl. Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco. London: Helter Skelter, 2004.

Garratt, Sheryl. Adventures In Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture. London: Headline, 1998.

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm & Blues. New York: Plume, 1988.

Goldman, Albert. Disco. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978.

Haden-Guest, Anthony. The Last Party. Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997.

Holmstrom, John (ed.). Punk: The Original. New York: Trans-High Publishing Corp., 1996.

Hughes, Walter. "In the Empire of the Beat: Discipline and Disco". In Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose (eds.), Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1994, 147-57.

Lawrence, Tim. "Beyond the Hustle: 1970s Social Dancing, Discotheque Culture, and the Emergence of the Contemporary Club Dancer". In Julie Malnig (ed.), Social and Popular Dance Reader. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2008, 199-214.

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (1970-79). Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004.

Miezitis, Vita. Night Dancin'. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980.

Postchardt, Ulf. DJ-Culture. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. London: Quartet Books, 1998 (1995).

Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Straw, Will. "Popular Music As Cultural Commodity: The American Recorded Music Industries, 1976-1985". Ph.D. diss., McGill University, 1990.

Tolin, Steve (ed.). Disco: The Book. New York: Talent & Booking Publishing, 1979.



Can't Stop the Music. Anchor Bay, 1980, directed by Nancy Walker, screenplay by Bronte Wood and Allan Carr.

Saturday Night Fever. Paramount Pictures, 1977, directed by John Badham, screenplay by Norman Wexler.


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MFSB. 'Love Is the Message.' Love Is the Message. Philadelphia International Records PIR 65864. 1973: US.

MFSB. 'TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).' Love Is the Message. Philadelphia International Records. PIR 65864. 1973: US.

Morrison, Dorothy. 'Rain.' Elektra 45684. 1970: US.

Olatunji. 'Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion).' Drums of Passion. Columbia CS 8210.  1959: US.

Silver Convention. 'Fly, Robin, Fly.' Silver Convention. Jupiter Records. 89 100 OT. 1975: Germany.

Summer, Donna. "Love to Love You Baby". Love to Love You Baby. Oasis. OCLP 5003. 1975: US.

Summer, Donna. 'I Feel Love.' Twelve-inch single. NBD 20104. Casablanca. 1977: US.

Sylvester. "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)". Twelve-inch single. X-13003. Fantasy: US.

Temptations. 'Law of the Land'. Masterpiece. Tamla. STML 11229. 1973: US.

Trammps, The. 'That's Where the Happy People Go.' Twelve-inch single. Atlantic. DSKO 63. 1975: US.

WAR. 'City, Country, City.' The World Is A Ghetto. United Artists. UAS 5652. 1972: US.


“Disco and the Queering of the Dance Floor”. In Angela McRobbie, ed., “Queer Adventures in Cultural Studies”, Cultural Studies, 25, 2, 2011, 230-243

How might we analyse the relationship between sexuality and the dance floor in 1970s disco culture- a culture that is commonly ridiculed, yet which was often progressive and continues to inform the contemporary thanks to its innovations within DJing, remixing, social dance and sound system practices? It has become commonplace to read disco as the site where a binary contest between gay and straight was staged: that disco emerged as an outgrowth of the Stonewall Rebellion of June 1969 and unfolded as a predominantly male gay subculture; that the dance movement was subsequently co-opted, commodified and tamed by films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977), which established it as a safe haven for straight courtship; and that the commercial overkill that followed the runaway success of the RSO movie culminated in an overtly homophobic backlash that turned on the culture’s perceived latent gayness. Rather than repeat this narrative, however, I want to outline some of the ways in which dominant conceptions of sexuality cannot fully account for the phenomenon of disco, and will argue that the conditions that coalesced to create the 1970s dance floor revealed disco’s queer potential- or its potential to enable an affective and social experience of the body that exceeded normative conceptions of straight and gay sexuality. In the analysis that follows, I will be referring to practices that unfolded in the United States, and in particular, downtown New York, where disco’s queerness was arguably most marked, even though the culture’s scope was ultimately international.

In order to assess the significance of queer disco, it is necessary to note that the social dances that preceded disco- most notably the Waltz, the Foxtrot, the Lindy Hop (or Jitterbug), the Texas Tommy and the Twist- were to varying degrees patriarchal and heterosexist. If this claim is sweepingtruncated and in some respects crude, it nevertheless draws attention to theway participants could only take to the floor if accompanied by a partner of the opposite sex, as well as the reality that in this situation it remained standardpractice for men to assume the lead. That did not make the dancesirredeemably regressive. To being with, they were often no more gendered than the wider social settings within which they emerged, and social dancebecame a site where these norms were challenged as well as imposed. As dance historians such as Katrina Hazzard-Gordon (1990) and Marshall and Jean Stearns (1994) note, vernacular dance provided African American communities with a reason to congregate as well as a channel for expressive release,while the under-historicized culture of drag balls that dates back to the Harlem Renaissance disrupted gender signifiers and roles. Successively, these dances also allowed for an increasing amount of space to exist between the dancing couple, and in turn this provided the female follower with greateindependence from her male lead.

Yet on the eve of 1970, prior to the breakthrough of the social dance formation that would come to be known as disco, the rising autonomy of the female dancer in dances such as the Twist continued to be tempered by the ongoing role of men as the gatekeepers of the dancer floor. And while gay men were ushered to the front of the door queue in venues such as Arthur (a comparatively liberal discotheque situated in midtown Manhattan) on the basis that they would help energize the dance floor, once inside they could only take to the floor within the structure of the ostensibly heterosexual couple, andthe same restrictions were applied to lesbian women. Arthur closed in June 1969 not because the Stonewall rebellion made its practices look archaic, but because the pre-disco discotheque craze of the 1960s had come to resemble atired fad. At this particular historical juncture, dance floor practices lagged behind the demands of feminist and queer activists.

Instead of fading out altogether, however, social dance assumed a new form at the beginning of 1970 with the more or less simultaneous emergenceof two influential venues. In one, David Mancuso staged the first in a longseries of private parties that came to be known as the Loft in his NoHo apartment on Valentines Day. In the other, two gay entrepreneurs known as Seymour and Shelley, who were influential players in the gay bar scene in Greenwich Village, took over a faltering straight venue called the Sanctuary that was located in the run-down Hells Kitchen neighbourhood of midtown Manhattan. Together these venues contributed to the forging of a relationship between the DJ (or musical host', as Mancuso prefers it) and the dancingcrowd that continues to inform the core practice of contemporary danceculture. And although gay men were an important majority presence in both of the Loft and the Sanctuary, participants (including participants who self-identified as gay men) did not consider either venue to be gay.

The Loft brought together several diffuse elements: the rent party tradition that dated back to 1920s Harlem; the practice of loft living in downtown New York, which emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s as manufacturers began toleave the city; the rise of audiophile sound technologies, which followed the introduction of stereo in the late 1950s; Timothy Learys experimental LSD parties; and the gay liberation, civil rights, feminist and anti-war movementsthat Mancuso aligned himself with during the second half of the 1960s. Mancuso, who had grown up in an orphanage in upstate New York, was used to experiencing families as unstable and extended, and brought this outlook into his parties, which attracted a notable proportion of black gay men, as well as straight and lesbian women. There was no one checking your sexuality or racial identity at the door,’ says Mancuso. I just knew different people.’ Because the Loft was run as a private party, Mancuso could have run it as anexclusively male gay event, but he chose not to. It wasnt a black party or a gay party,’ he adds.‘ Thered be a mixture of people. Divine used to go. Now how do you categorise her?

The Sanctuary was also indelibly heterogeneous.‘ It had an incredible mixture of people,’ recalls Jorge La Torre, a gay male dancer.‘ There were people dressed in furs and diamonds, and there were the funkiest kids from the East Village. A lot of straight people thought that it was the coolest place in town and there were definitely a lot of women because that was part of what was going on at the time’ (because gay men such as La Torre were often involved sexually with straight women).‘ I would say that women made up twenty-five percent of the crowd from the very beginning, probably more. People came from all cultural backgrounds, from all walks of life, and it was the mixture of people that made the place happen.’ It would have been difficult for Seymour and Shelley to turn the Sanctuary into an exclusively gadiscotheque, even if the idea had occurred to them. First, New York State law continued to assert that male- male dancing was illegal and discotheques were accordingly required to contain at least one woman for every three men; the female quota was filled by lesbians as well as straight women who wanted to be able to dance without being hit on by straight men. Second, while the Sanctuarys owners could have paid off the police in order to get around that obstacle, it is unlikely there would have been a thousand self-identifying gay male dancers to fill up the venue in this formative stage of queer dance culture. Finally, straight dancers wanted to be part of the nascent disco scene, and thanks to the venue’s public status, which meant that anyone who joined the queue could potentially get in, there was no obvious way to identify and exclude them.

I am not simply questioning the common assumption that early discoculture was homogeneous in terms of its male gay constituency just because this is manifestly inaccurate and contributes to the systematic erasure of other histories, including the history of lesbian women. I also want to argue that the reductionist focus on discos male gay constituency underestimates and even undermines the political thrust of early seventies dance culture, whicattempted to create a democratic, cross-cultural community that was open-ended in its formation. Dance crowds were aware of their hybrid character as well as their proximity to the rainbow coalition of the counter culturamovements of the late 1960s, and having witnessed the repressive statreaction against Black Panther activists, Stonewall Inn drag queens, and Kent State University and Jackson State University anti-war demonstrators, thetook to exploring the social and cultural possibilities of the counter cultural movement in the relatively safe space of dance venues. In these settingsdancers engaged in a cultural practice that did not affirm their maleness or their femaleness, or their queer or straight predilections, or their black, Latin, Asian or white identifications, but instead positioned them as agents who could participate in a destabilizing or queer ritual that recast the experience of the body through a series of affective vectors.


Social dance

Whereas dancers in the 1960s took to the floor within the regulated structure of the heterosexual couple, dancers in the 1970s began to take to the floor without a partner. The transformation underpinned the historical experienceof gay male sexuality: the longstanding practice of cruising encouraged gay men to be open to the idea of moving onto the dance floor autonomously, while ongoing legal restrictions around male- male dancing encouraged gay male dancers to continue to take to floor and dance as singles- at least until the law that restricted men from dancing with each other was repealed in New York in December 1971. At the same time, however, the shift to solo dancing was partially inaugurated within the culture of the 1960s music festival, where women and men started to dance in a swaying motion to the sound of acid rock. Because of this, straight Sanctuary dancers who had participated in events such as Woodstock would have already been habituated to the idea of dancing solo, while others might have encountered the discourse of liberation that was so pervasive during this period else where. As George Clinton sang in 1970, Free your mind and your ass will follow.’ On the floor, dancers did not experience the displacement of couples dancing as an individualistic anisolationist prelude to the neo-liberal era, in which the principles of partnership and cooperation would be savaged, but instead as a new form of collective sociality that exceeded the potentially claustrophobic contours of the previous regime.

Aside from that regimes promotion of compulsory heterosexuality, the social dynamic of partnered dancing was necessarily limited because the men and women who formed dancing couples had to concentrate on their partnerin order to move rhythmically and expressively- and also avoid physical injury. As a result, dancing couples were internally focused, and communication with other dancers, never mind the musicians or the DJ, was a secondary matter. In contrast, the dancers who participated in the private party and public discotheque network of the early 1970s were able to develop free form movements, and because of this they experienced an increased ability to communicate and dance with multiple partners. As Frankie Knuckles, a male gay regular at the Loft, notes of that setting: You could be on the dance floor and the most beautiful woman that you had ever seen in your life would come and dance right on top of you. Then the minute you turned around a man that looked just as good would do the same thing. Or you would be sandwiched between the two of them, or between two women, or between two men, and you would feel completely comfortable.

The experience described by Knuckles does not merely describe thdisplacement of one sexual objective (to dance in order to seduce a member of the opposite sex) with another (to dance in order to seduce several members of both sexes). Bisexual promiscuity might be queerer than monogamous heterosexuality, but to entertain such a framing would be to entirely misread the function of the dance floor exchange by reducing it to intercourse. Instead dancers regarded the exchange as their primary objective, not as a means to an alternative end, and in contrast to the framing of earlier social dance forms, which were intended to service compulsory heterosexuality, the emergent dance milieu of the early 1970s articulated no equivalent function. While all manner of sexual liaisons could be read into the free flow of movement on the floor, with the opportunity for gay men to meet other gay men in a novel setting the most marked, participants, including male gay participants, have insisted that any intercourse that could come about at the end of the night was only exceptionally more than a secondary concern. This continued to be the case even at venues such as the Saint, the white gay private party that opened on the site of the old Filmore East in 1980, where sex could be enjoyed in the balcony area, but remained a side attraction for most. 

By turning on a single spot, then, dancers could move in relation to a series of other bodies in a near-simultaneous flow and as part of an amorphous and fluid entity that evokes Deleuze and Guattaris Body without Organs(BwO). Described by Ronald Bogue (2004, p. 115) as a decent red body thathas ceased to function as a coherently regulated organism, one that is sensed as an ecstatic, catatonic, a-personal zero-degree of intensity that is in no way negative but has a positive existence, the dance floor BwO contrasted with other crowd formations: the cinematic crowd because it was physically active rather than passive and in constant communication rather than silent; the sports stadium crowd because its attention was not directed to an exterior event; the marathon runner crowd because its pleasure was based not on remaininwithin the crowd but rather leaving it behind; and so on. In other words, the very being of the dance floor crowd revolved around its status as a collective intensity, and while its resonance with the often asexual Deleuzian concept of the BwO could lead some to question its queerness, its erotics of bodily pleasure- an erotics that intersected with gay liberation, the feminist movement, and the counter-cultural revolt against 1950s conformism- confirms its disruptive sexual intent.


The DJ

The second factor to consider with regard to the queering of the dance floor is the DJ, whose craft was transformed by the shifting social contours of the dance floor. Earlier DJs saw themselves as subservient waiters who served up music prepared elsewhere, or as puppeteers who could manipulate thdancers. Whatever their sense of self-worth, DJs were also charged with the responsibility of encouraging dancers to not only dance but also leave the floor and visit the bar, because that was how most venue owners made their money. But as the Sanctuary DJ Francis Grasso confided, the newfound collective force of the 1970s dance crowd meant he had to change his style. Grasso is interesting because he was the only employee to survive Seymour and Shelleybuyout of the Sanctuary, which means he witnessed the difference between playing to the regulated straight crowd and the more open, heterogeneous crowd that entered the venue at the beginning of 1970. When the Sanctuary went gay I didnt play that many slow records [records introduced to work the bar] because they were drinkers and they knew how to party,’ says Grasso. Just the sheer heat and numbers made them drink. The energy level was phenomenal. At one point I used to feel that if I brought the tempo down they would boo me because they were having so much fun.

 Of course dancers did not just communicate by booing the DJ. They would also clap and cheer and whistle, while the very energy of theimovements was also communicative, and it became the primary role of Grasso and his contemporaries to read the mood of the crowd and select a record that was appropriate for the moment. Because they were now attempting to both lead and respond, DJs contributed to a form of anti phonic music making that has characterized a great deal of African American music, and in order to increase the effectiveness of their playing in relation to the crowd, DJs started to segue and then beat-mix between records in order to maintain the rhythmic flow, or purchase two copies of the same record in order to extend the parts that their dancers particularly liked. As a result, a form of illegitimate music making emerged in which the conventional performing artist was displaced by the improvising figure of the DJ, who could draw on a wide repertoire of sounds and programme them within a democratic economy of desire. Thanks to the absence of the performing artist and the relative anonymity of the DJ, dancers began to respond to the sonic affect of the music rather than the image of the performing artist, and this unconventional circuit subtly challenged the hierarchical underpinnings of the music industry, in which the vocalistmusician and producer held an elevated position above the listener. Because the disembodied recording artist could be heard but not seen, the dancer could also begin to think of her or himself as a contributor to the collectively generated musical assemblage, and could also respond to the music outside of the hierarchical relations of artistry and fandom.


Dance music

Third, I would like to consider the position of pre-recorded music in this moment of flux and change. Again, the contrast with the 1960s is instructive, because whereas discotheque DJs of that era tended to play from a limited rockand roll repertoire that encouraged a similarly limited style of dance, and festivals/concerts from the same period tended to foreground the singular sound of rock, discotheque DJs of the early 1970s drew from a broad range of sounds. The term disco music’ did not emerge until 1973, and when it did it referred not to a coherent and recognizable generic sound, but instead to the far-reaching selection of R&B, soul, funk, gospel, salsa, and danceable rock plus African and European imports that could be heard in Manhattandiscotheques. Even when the sound of disco became more obviously recognizable during 1974 and 1975, DJs would intersperse the emergent genre with contrasting sounds. The introduction of sonic contrast andifference helped generate a sense of unpredictability and expectation on the dance floor, and the juxtaposition of different styles enabled dancers to experience existence as complex and open rather than singular and closed. In other words, DJs were generating a soundtrack that encouraged dancers to be multiple, fluid and queer.

At the same time, the disco genre, which drew together elements that could be found in R&B, soul, funk, gospel and so on, also generated a queer aesthetic, even in its singular incarnation, and this was something that was highlighted by Richard Dyer (1979/1995) in his article In Defence of Disco’Dyer, who completed his PhD at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, might have been isolated in his interest in gasexuality, and perhaps even his love of disco, in that setting; these elements of  popular culture received scant attention from other Cultural Studies scholars whose focus was directed towards class relations, the mods and the punks, government policy and, when Angela McRobbie (1980) raised her voice, gender. Dyer initially set out to defend disco from the leftist attack that, in contrast to folk as well as elements of rock, it amounted to little more than some kind of commercial sell-out, and his argument turned out to be apremonitory critique of the lefts reluctance to engage with the politics of pleasure. Yet it was Dyer's analysis of the aesthetic properties of disco music and the relationship of these properties to the body and conceptions of sexuality that is of greater concern here.

In the article, Dyer outlined a number of the key distinctions that existed between rock and disco. Whereas rock confined sexuality to the cock’ and was thus indelibly phallo-centric music’, disco, argued Dyerrestores eroticism to the whole body’ thanks to its ‘willingness to play with rhythm’and it does this ‘for both sexes’ (1979/1995, p. 523). Disco also offered dancers the chance to experience the body as a polymorphous entity that could be re-engineered in terms that confounded conservative models of masculinity and femininity, for as Dyer added: Its eroticism allows us to rediscover our bodies as part of this experience of materiality and the possibility of change’ (1979/1995, p. 527). In other words, disco opened up the possibility of experiencing pleasure through a form of non-penetrative sensation- and he made this case shortly before Michel Foucault, following a trip to the United States, called for the making of ones body a place for the production of extraordinary polymorphic pleasures, while simultaneously detaching it from a valorization of the genitalia and particularly of the male genitalia’ (Miller 1993,p. 269). Published in Gay Left, the bi-annual journal of a collective of gay mento which Dyer belongedIn Defence of Disco’ did not prompt a widediscussion about queer sexuality within the Cultural Studies discourse of the time, but three decades later that anomaly has been corrected. 

The preference of the early 1970s dance floor for polymorphous ratherthan phallic rhythms is illustrated by the contrast between Olatunji’s Drums of Passion’ and Santanas cover of the same track, which was re-titled Jingo’Whereas Santanas rock version developed a rigid beat and foregrounded the phallo-centric instrumentation of the electric guitar and the male voice, Olatunjis original recording emphasized rhythmic interplay along with a chorus of voices that developed a call-and-response interchange betweethemselves and also the drummers. The owner of both recordings, Grasso only played the Santana version when he DJed in front of the pre-Seymour and Shelley straight crowd at the Sanctuary, but when the crowd diversified at the beginning of 1970 he immediately realized he could start to play the Olatunji. As Grasso recounts: I said to myself, 'If Santana works then the real shit is going to kill them!’’ I was good at mixing one record into another so I played the Santana and brought in ‘‘Jin-Go-Lo-Ba’’. The crowd preferred thOlatunji, where theres no screaming guitar. They got into it straight away.’

Queerness could be harder to detect in the lyrics themselves, in large part because they drew so heavily on R&B’s heavily heterosexual thematics. Yet thanks to the support of a gay male constituency that was affluent enough to spend a significant amount of money on music, the black female diva became a key figure within disco, and vocalists such as Gloria Gaynor and Loleatta Holloway would go on to express their surprise that gay men should be their most fervent followers. Wronged by her man, Gloria Gaynor exemplified the way African American divas could be both emotionally articulate and grittily resistant when she recorded ‘I Will Survive’, which was released as a B-side until DJs and dancers homed in on the recording and prompted the record company to re-release the song as an A-side. In this instance, queerness had more to do with surviving heterosexuality than subverting it. 

Other tracks developed lyrics that were deliberately innocuous because their clipped, repetitive content was designed to accentuate the beat anpersuade the dancer to focus on affective sound rather than discursive meaning, while a third group of unknowingly queer recordings laid down heterosexual themes that turned out to be ripe for appropriation- so Free Man' by the South Shore Commission acquired a new layer of meaning when gay male dancers interpreted it as an anthem of gay liberation rather than a tussle between two straight lovers. Then again, sometimes the straight trajectory of a lyric did not have to be reinterpreted if the delivery was strong enough in the first place, and that turned out to be the case in elements of Loleatta Holloways rendition of  Hit and Run’. In his remix of the record, Walter Gibbons took out Holloways first rendition of a frankly embarrassing set of lines that included references to the vocalist being an old fashioned country girl’ who would know what to do’ when it comes to loving you. But when the vocalist returned to the theme in an improvised vamp that had been largely cut from the original release, the delivery was so remarkably forceful their lame meaning was rendered totally irrelevant.


Temporalities and technologies

Temporal strategies also contributed to the emergence of non-dominant experiences of the body in the dance environment of the 1970s. The practice of staging parties late at night became the founding premise of a culture that aimed to invert the priorities of a society organized around day time work, and the protection afforded by darkness as well as the protected space of the danceparty enabled disenfranchized citizens a level of expressiveness they rarely enjoyed during the day (something Judith Halberstam [2005] has commented on in her book In A Queer Times and Place). In addition, the forward march of teleological time- the time of bourgeois domesticity and capitalist productivity- was upset within the disco setting, where repetitive ancyclical beat cycles created an alternative experience of temporality and the absence of clocks enabled dancers to move into a realm in which work- the work of the dance- was not required to be productive in a conventional economic or indeed heterosexual sense. Within this setting, DJs drew on a range of records that cut across temporal and spatial boundaries in order to evoke and in some respects create a radically diverse sonic utopia. Theipractice of using two copies of a record to not only collapse but also extend time- by, say, extending a particularly popular section- culminated in the creation of a new disco format (the twelve-inch single) that enabled DJs to play long mixes that were specially remixed for the dance floor.

The emphasis on temporal length was important. If the record was long, the dancer had a greater opportunity to lose her or himself in the music, and therefore to enter into an alternative dimension that did not so much evacuate the site of the body as realign it within a new sonic reality. The new sonic reality turned out to be especially forceful in private party spaces (such as the pioneering Loft) that did not sell alcohol and could accordingly stay open long after the public discotheques that were governed by New Yorks cabaret licensing laws had to close. The extended hours encouraged partygoers toengage in marathon-style dance sessions in which the physical was prioritized over the rational, and this opened up participants to the experience of the body as an entity that was not bounded and distinctive, but rather permeable and connected.

The confined space of the dance floor, in which dancers would inevitably come into contact with one another, heightened the experience of the body as extended and open, and a range of sound system, drug and lightintechnologies enhanced this further. Julian Henriques (2003) has described the Jamaican sound system as a form of sonic dominance’, in which the sonic takes over from the visual and creates a community based on sound. In these situations, the sound permeates the body, and therefore creates a situation in which the bounded body (often characterized as the masculine body) is penetrated and becomes difficult to maintain as a separate and unified entity.This was precisely the kind of situation that was engineered in disco, where figures such as David Mancuso as well as engineers such as Richard Long and Alex Rosner introduced a range of technological innovations in ordeto produce both purer and more powerful sound. Drugs- in particular LSD- were consumed in order to further the dancers distance from the everyday and enable entry into an alternative experience of both time and space, as well as to encourage the body to form a connected alliance with sound. Meanwhile, lighting was deployed sparingly, because bodies were more likely to exceed everyday constrictions in an environment that emphasized the connective dimension of the aural above the separating dimension of the scopic (because sound enters the body more forcefully than light). In as much as lighting was used, it was usually aimed at creating disorienting effects, again in order to encourage the dancer to experience the dance floor as an alternative and experimental space.

The conjunctural moment of the early 1970s encouraged these elements and practices to be adopted by a significant range of dancers and venues. This, after all, was the period when the counter-cultural movement's discourse of change, liberation and internationalism continued to resonate; a range of newly-politicized yet disenfranchized groups doubled their efforts to seek out liberated spaces; state repression of political activists encouraged a migration from the dangerous site of the street to the protected haven of the club; the failure of the first wave of discotheque culture and simultaneous evacuation of downtown New York by light industry opened up a plethora of unused spaces that were perfect for dancing; and the music industry had yet to work out how it was going to respond following the failed political promises of rock culture. Along with the Loft and the Sanctuary, spaces such as the Haven, thLimelight, Salvation, Tambourine and Tamburlaine operated dance floors that were remarkably coherent in terms of their social and aesthetic practices. For a while, protagonists believed that they were forging a culture that would go onto reshape the world and in some respects their aspirations have been borne out, if only because so many of their then nascent practices continue to echo. Yet the queer potential of the early 1970s dance floor also proved to be vulnerable to various forms of dilution and co-option, and this procesunfolded in three notable ways.

First, a range of party organizers and accomplice dancers sought to split up the early disco scene into a series of discreet groups that were organized around identity, and this led to an inevitable closing down of the demographic range on New Yorks dance floors as well as the emergence of a more normative and static conception of what kind of identities could be articulatedin the dance setting. De facto white-only male gay venues such as the Tenth Floor and Flamingo, which deployed Mancusos private party template to consolidate a self-anointed A-list’ crowd, could be seen as examples of this kind of practice. Of course these venues catered to a demand because a significant fraction of white gay men considered themselves to be part of some kind of elite that was organized around beauty, professional success anintelligence, and only wanted to dance with men they judged to be their equals. What is more, participants in this stratum of New York dance culture regularly perceived their actions to be politically radical, because gay culture was still historically marginal and the practices of disco were understood to be aesthetically progressive. The tribal experience remained powerful and stoodas a challenge to many conservative practices. But it did not include people who were not white and male, and therefore revealed the way in whicdance venues that were organized around gay men could enact an otherwise regressive social agenda. Largely excluded from these venues, lesbian women opened their first dedicated discotheque, the Sahara, in 1976; the four lesbian women who ran the business made a point of introducing a weekly slot when men could participate. 

Second, as the demographic constituency of disco was divided ansubdivided, a number of promoters began to seek out what they perceived to be an elite dance crowd, and this resulted in the introduction of a marked hierarchy with the dance scene from 1977 onwards, when a series of huge midtown mega-discotheques opened on the premise that they would cater to an elite audience that was organized around fashion, film and so on. The most famous of these was Studio 54, which bore some unlikely links to the culture of the Loft, but ultimately instituted a competitive and hierarchical entrance policyHuge crowds would form outside the venue every night, and while the owners declared their intention to create a democratic mix inside, the prevailing culture was one of cruel exclusion. It followed that a venue that was so self-absorbed with its status would pay more attention to the scopic than the aural to lighting rather than sound, to being seen as a form of validation, and to the possible presence of a celebrity and so the primary activity at Studio was not dancing but looking. For reasons already outlined, this undermined the venues potential to function as a space of queer becoming.

Third, in order to sell disco to the perceived mass market- the suburban market, or the Middle American market- entrepreneurs reframed disco as the popular site for patriarchal masculinity and heterosexual courtship. The most notable example of this involved the filming of Saturday Night Fever, which was released at the end of 1977. Organized around the culture of the suburban discotheque and the figure of Tony Manero, played by John Travolta, the filmenacted the reappropriation of the dance floor by straight male culturin as much as it became a space for straight men to display their prowess and hunt for a partner of the opposite sex. The film also popularized the hustle (a Latin social dance) within disco culture, and in so doing reinstituted thstraight dancing couple at the centre of the dance exchange. In an equally regressive move, the soundtrack was dominated by the Bee Gees, whicthreatened to leave viewers with the impression that disco amounted a new incarnation of shrill white pop. None of this would have mattered if the film had sunk without a trace, but it went on to break box office and album sale records, and in so doing established an easily reproducible template for disco that was thoroughly de-queered in its outlook.

By 1979 conditions were ripe for a backlash against disco. Following the unexpected commercial success of Saturday Night Fever, major record companies had started to invest heavily in a sound that their white straight executive class did not care for, and when the overproduction of disccoincided with a deep recession, the homophobic (and also in many respects sexist and racist) disco sucks’ campaign culminated with a record burning rally that was staged at the home of the Chicago White Sox in July 1979. The coalition of disenfranchized citizens that lay at the heart of disco culture were identified as the beneficiaries of 1960s liberalism, which in turn was blamed for the economic failure of the 1970s. As Stuart Hall (1989) and others have argued, this turn to a conservative discourse complemented and in many respects underpinned the accelerating shift to the individualistic, market-driven priorities of what was then referred to as the New Right, and which is now more commonly described as neo-liberalism.

Yet the backlash did not mark an end to disco per se, because the Loft and its multiple off shoots, including the legendary Paradise Garage, which was modelled on Mancusos party, continued to organize their dance floors according to the communal and explorative principles set out at the beginning of the 1970s. Indeed Richard Dyer ended up travelling to live in New York between February and September 1981, and having danced at the Paradise Garage, started to develop the philosophical framework that culminated in the publication of White (1997). In effect, the perceived failure of disco was really therefore the failure of a form of disco that valorized the patriarchal, the heterosexual and the bourgeois, and not the queer disco that I have outlined in this article. As such, the failure was not so much a failure of queerness as a failure of the regressive attempts to contain queerness and appropriate disco. This failure of the dominant rather than the queer would become more explicit in the period that ensued the backlash against disco, when non-hegemonic forms of dance culture flourished. That they, too, failed to become hegemonicis another story altogether.


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