“Party Time with David Mancuso and the Loft”. Placed, Germany, September 2007.

Introduction reprinted in Loops, 2, 2010, 85-91.

Introduction and interview published in Italian in Nero, 15, February/March 2008.

 

Like a soup or a bicycle or Wikipedia, the Loft is an amalgamation of parts that are weak in isolation, but joyful, revelatory and powerful when joined together. The first ingredient is the desire of a group of friends to want to get together and have some fun. The second element is the discovery of a room that has good acoustics and is comfortable for dancing, which means it should have rectangular dimensions, a reasonably high ceiling, a nice wooden floor and the possibility of privacy. The next building block is the sound system, which is most effective when it is simple, clean and warm, and when it isn't pushed more than a fraction above 100 decibels (so that people's ears don't become tired or even damaged). After that, the room should be decorated, with balloons and a mirror ball offering a cheap and timeless solution. And because the party might last a long time, and because some friends might be hungry, a healthy spread of food and drink should also be prepared. Finally ¾ and this really is the last thing to get right, and can only follow once everything else is in place ¾ the friends will need someone to bring along some dance records. After that, it's party time.

All of these parts were assembled at 647 Broadway, in the abandoned NoHo district of New York City, when David Mancuso hosted a Valentine's Day party in his loft in February 1970. That party, which soon became known as the Loft, wasn't so much a moment of inception, or the point from which all subsequent events can be traced, as a moment of synthesis in which a number of practices and experiences, some of which can be traced back to a much earlier period, came together in a new form. The children's home where David was taken straight after he was born suggested that families could be extended yet intimate, unified yet different, and precarious yet strong. Sister Alicia, who took care of David and put on a party with balloons and food and records whenever she got a chance, suggested the Loft from another time and space. The psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, who invited David to his house parties and popularised a philosophy around the psychedelic experience that would inform the way Mancuso selected records, was another resonant figure. Co-existing with Leary, the civil rights, the gay liberation, feminist and the anti-war movements of the 1960s were manifest in the egalitarian, come-as-you-are ethos and rainbow coalition demographics of the Loft. And the Harlem rent parties of the 1920s, in which economically underprivileged African American tenants put on evenings to help fend off their landlords, established a template for putting on a private event that didn't require a liquor or cabaret license (and could accordingly run all night because they lay beyond the control of New York's licensing authorities). These streams headed in a multiplicity of directions before meeting at 647 Broadway in February 1970.

The February party didn't have a name, but the homemade invitations carried the line "Love Saves the Day". A short three years after the release of "Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds", the coded promise of acid-inspired things to come was easy to unpick for those in the know, although in this instance Beatles gobbledygook was exchanged with a commitment to universal love. The invitations also reproduced an image of Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory", which now looks like another cryptogram, but didn't resemble one at the time because David hadn't yet had his latent childhood memories of Sister Alicia jogged into Technicolor revelation. Of course the image of Dali's melting clocks wasn't simply random: David was offering his guests the chance to escape the violence and oppression of everyday life, and the idea of entering into a different dimension of time, in which everyone could leave behind their socialised selves and dance until dawn, was intended. "Once you walked into the Loft you were cut off from the outside world," says David. "You got into a timeless, mindless state. There was actually a clock in the back room but it only had one hand. It was made out of wood and after a short while it stopped working."

When David's guests left the Valentine's Day party they let him know that they wanted him to put on another one soon, and within a matter of months they had become a weekly affair. Inasmuch as anyone knew about the events ¾ and few did because they were never advertised, being private house parties ¾ they acquired a reputation for being ultra hip, in part because 647 Broadway was situated in the ex-manufacturing district of downtown New York where nobody but a handful of artists, composers, musicians, sculptors, video film makers and dedicated bohemians had thought about living. They moved in because the district's abandoned warehouses offered a spectacular space in which to live, work and socialise, and the inconvenience of having to hide the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom from view (in order to avoid the punitive searches of the city's building inspectors) turned out to be an innovative way to free up space in order to do things that weren't related to cooking, sleeping and washing. Outside, the frisson of transgression was heightened by the fact that there was no street lighting to illuminate the cobbled streets, and because David didn't serve alcohol, he was able to keep his parties going until midday, and sometimes even later, long after the city's bars and discotheques had closed. "Because I lived in a loft building, people started to say that they were going to the Loft," remembers David. "It's a given name and is sacred."

From the beginning, David looked for ways to improve his sound system because he was convinced this would result in a more musical and intense dance floor experience. He began to invest in audiophile technology and asked sound engineers to help him build gear, including tweeter arrays and bass reinforcements, which David would tweak during the course of the party, sending shivers down the spines of revellers. Yet by the time they come to dominate the increasingly popular discotheque scene of the 1970s, David concluded such add-ons interfered unnecessary with his audiophile set-up and resorted to purchasing increasingly esoteric equipment, including Mark Levinson amplifiers and handcrafted Koetsu cartridges, which he combined with his Klipschorn speakers. "I had the tweeters installed to put highs into records that were too muddy but they turned into a monster," explains David. "It was done out of ignorance. I wasn't aware of Class-A sound, where the sound is more open and everything comes out."

Like the space, the legal set-up and the buffet, the sound system was introduced in order to assist the party dynamic, and as David relentlessly fine-tuned his set-up, the dancing became more free flowing and intense. "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," says Frankie Knuckles, a regular at the Loft. "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." Facilitating a sonic trail that was generated by everyone in the room, David picked out long, twisting tracks such as Eddie Kendricks "Girl, You Need A Change of Mind" and War "City, Country, City"; gutsy, political songs like the Equals "Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys" and Willie Hutch "Brother's Gonna Work It Out"; uplifting, joyful anthems such as Dorothy Morrison "Rain" and MSFB "Love Is the Message"; and earthy, funky recordings such as James Brown "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" and Manu Dibango "Soul Makossa". Positive, emotional and transcendental, these and other songs touched the souls of dancers and helped forge a community.

The influence of the Loft spread far and wide. At the end of 1972 a Broadway regular set up a similarly structured party for an exclusive white gay clientele called the Tenth Floor, which in turn inspired the establishment of Flamingo, the most influential white gay venue of the 1970s. Objecting to the elitist nature of Flamingo's so-called "A-list" dancers, another Loft regular founded 12 West, which was intended to create a more democratic party environment for white gay men. As all of this was unfolding, another Loft regular, Nicky Siano, set up his own Loft-style venue called the Gallery where he mimicked David's invitation system, hired David's sound engineer, and also borrowed a fair chunk of David's dance crowd when the Broadway party closed for the summer of 1973. Richard Long and Mike Stone's SoHo Place along with Michael Brody's Reade Street also drew heavily on David's template. And when both of those parties were forced to close, Brody opened the Paradise Garage, which he positioned as an "expanded version of the Loft", and invited Richard Long, considered by some to be New York's premier sound engineer, to build the sound system. Meanwhile Richard Williams, another Loft regular, moved to Chicago and opened a Loft-style venue called the Warehouse. Having grown up on the dance floor of the Loft, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles went on to become the legendary DJs at the Garage and the Warehouse, where they forged the contours of what would come to be called garage and house music. Other spinners such as Tony Humphries, François Kevorkian and David Morales look back on the Loft as an inspirational setting. The Loft, in other words, was an incubator.

Like any party host, David has had to face some unexpected hitches during his thirty-eight year journey. In June 1974 he moved into 99 Prince Street after he was pressured into leaving his Broadway home, and ten years later he bought a promising building in Alphabet City, only to see the neighbourhood slide into a virtual civil war instead of receive moneys promised for regeneration. By the time David was forced to leave a space he was subletting on Avenue B towards the end of the 1990s, things were beginning to look inescapably grim. But before he was vacated that particular space, David received invitations to travel first to Japan and then to London. Initially reluctant to put on a party outside his home, David accepted both offer, and although he experienced some problems, he ended up returning to both Japan and London in order to team up with other groups of friends who wanted to put on regular events. As he went about this work, David stuck to the principles that have driven him from day one: be faithful to your friends, find a good space for a party, seek out the best sound equipment available, and say "thank you" when you're invited into someone's home. In the process, David drew on the life shaping experience of his orphan childhood to realise a profound philosophical lesson: homes can be built wherever you put down roots and build relationships. Returning again and again to Japan and London, David realised his own universal vision, which was previously constricted to New York, but has now captured the imagination of partygoers across the globe.

Shortly after making his first trips to Japan and London, David also hit upon a hall in the East Village that has become the new home of the Loft, and although the parties are now held on holidays rather than a weekly basis, David is convinced the dance floor is as vibrant and energetic as ever. The fact David doesn't live in the space is a little inconvenient in that he has to set up his sound system each time he plays, but even though he doesn't sleep in the hall, he's also more comfortable in his current space than any of his previous homes. "It's in the heart of the East Village, which was where I always used to hang out," he says. "I might have lived on Broadway, but for the other five or six days I was in the East Village. This is where I've been hanging out since 1963. My roots are there. My life is connected to the area." Forging new roots and connections, grandparents have started to dance with their grandchildren on the floor of the New York Loft.

Thanks to David's longevity and belated recognition as a seminal figure in the history of New York dance culture, it has become easy for partygoers to assume that the Loft has come to resemble a nostalgia trip for the halcyon days of the 1970s and early 1980s. Since February 1970, however, David has always played a mixture of old and new music, and he continues to mix it up in a similar way to this day. New faces in Japan and London might arrive expecting a trip down disco alley, but that's not what they get, because the party isn't a fossil-like impression of what it used to be. Throughout, David has remained committed to selecting records that encourage the party to grow as a musically radical yet never musically negative community. This sonic tapestry can sometimes sound strange to dancers who have become accustomed to a political climate in which communities are dismantled in favour of materialistic individualism and capitalist-nationalist wars, but the countercultural message is persuasive. "After a while the positive vibe and universal attitude of the music was too much for me, but this moment of hesitation and insecurity only lasted for a few minutes," commented a dancer after one party. "Then all the barriers broke and I reached the other side. Like a child, I stopped caring about what other people might think and reached my essence, through dancing."

Confronted by the tendency of partygoers to worship at his DJing feet, even though he has never considered himself a DJ and is resolute that this kind of attention detracts from the party, David positions the turntables as close to the entrance as possible so that dancers see the floor and not the booth as they enter the room. In a similar move, he also arranges the speakers so they will draw dancers away from the booth and towards the centre of the floor. Yet in London (much more so than in New York) dancers tend to face David, even though the effect is the equivalent of sitting with one's back to the orchestra at a concert. And at the end of these parties dancers applaud as if he's some kind of saviour, when in fact he's a guy who helps put on parties and tries to read the mood of the floor as the "sonic trail" unfolds. Reinforced by a cultural environment that encourages crowds to seek out iconic, authoritative, supernatural leaders, the adulation makes David deeply uncomfortable. "I'm a background person," he says.

Even if utopias can't be built without a struggle, and can never be complete, the mood at all of these parties is thrilling to behold. The floors outside New York might benefit from believing more in themselves, yet much of their applause is directed towards the music, as well as the surprisingly rare joy of being able to dance among friends in an intimate setting. That feeling has come about because, after years of dancing together, people now recognise each other to the extent they are entirely comfortable about welcoming in new faces. "It's unbelievable," said a female dancer who came to her first London party with her two daughters. "The people here ¾ they make eye contact!" Eye contact might not be very fashionable, but then the Loft isn't about fashion. Rather, it's about putting on a party with friends. And because it doesn't follow trends, it's been able to outlast every other party in the ephemeral (yet eternally hopeful) world of dance.

 

Download the article here

“Big Business, Real Estate Determinism, and Dance Culture in New York, 1980-88”. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 23, 3, 2011, 288-306.

Despite the late 1970s national backlash against disco, dance culture flourished in New York during the first years of the 1980s, but entered  a period of relative decline across the second half of the decade when a slew of influential parties closed. Critics attribute the slump to the spread of AIDS, and understandably so, for the epidemic devastated the city’s dance scene in a way that began with yet could never be reduced to numbers of lost bodies (Brewster and Broughton, Buckland, Cheren, Easlea, Echols, Shapiro). At the same time, however, the introduction of a slew of neoliberal policies—including welfare cuts, the liberalization of the financial sector, and pro-developer policies—contributed to the rapid rise of the stock market and the real estate market, and in so doing presaged the systematic demise of dance culture in the city. In this article, I aim to explore how landlords who rented their properties to party promoters across the 1970s and early 1980s went on to strike more handsome deals with property developers and boutique merchants during the remainder of the decade, and in so doing forged a form of “real estate determinism” that turned New York City into an inhospitable terrain for parties and clubs.1 While I am sympathetic to David Harvey’s and Sharon Zukin’s critique of the impact of neoliberalism on global cities such as New York, I disagree with their contention that far from offering an oppositional alternative to neoliberalism, cultural workers colluded straightforwardly with the broad terms of that project, as will become clear. 

The dance culture that I want to discuss can be traced back to the beginning of 1970, when parties such as the Loft and the Sanctuary pioneered the weekly practice of all night dancing that would go on to be labeled (somewhat problematically) “disco.”2 Initially off the radar, the movement became highly visible following the opening of Studio 54 in midtown Manhattan in April 1977 and the release of the movie Saturday Night Fever later that year. Disco achieved mainstream saturation across 1978—thousands of discotheques opened and the genre outsold rock—only for the combination of the overproduction of the sound and the slowdown in the US economy across 1979 to generate a homophobic, racist, and sexist backlash against the culture. Led by the Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl, the anti-disco movement highlighted the angst felt by white straight men about their increasingly uncertain future, and their perception they were losing ground to gay men, women, and people of color (or the alliance of dispossessed citizens that lay at the heart of the 1970s dance network). The “disco sucks” campaign, then, captured the crisis that enveloped the United States as disillusioned citizens sought out scapegoats to blame for the exhaustion of the postwar settlement, and picked on discophiles along with 1960s countercultural activists for leading the country into a cycle of supposedly unproductive hedonism.3 However, while the consequences of the backlash were far-reaching in terms of the number of dance venues that closed down nationally, as well as the cuts that were executed in disco departments across the music industry, New York City’s dance network was largely unaffected, and the independent record company sector that served it only temporarily troubled.

Downtown’s private parties survived with ease. “I read about ‘disco sucks’ in the paper and that was it,” comments David Mancuso, host of the Loft, the original downtown private party. “It was more of an out-of-New York phenomenon. New York was and remains different to the rest of the States, including Chicago. Out there they had this very negative perception of disco, but in New York it was part of this mix of cultures and different types of music.”4 Opened in stages across 1977 and 1978 as an expanded version of the Loft, the Paradise Garage thrived alongside Mancuso’s spot, especially when owner Michael Brody turned Saturdays into a gay male night (with a female and straight presence), and maintained the already successful Friday slot as a mixed night. Flamingo, which catered to an elite white gay male crowd, and 12 West, which attracted a more economically diverse gay male membership, also prospered until the theater and bathhouse entrepreneur Bruce Mailman opened the Saint on the site of the old Fillmore East at the cost of $5,000,000 in September 1980. Sporting a spectacular planetarium dome above its dance floor, the Saint started to attract 3,000–4,500 dancers every Saturday from opening night onwards.

Public clubs proliferated across the same period. Among the new spots, the Ritz opened as a rock-oriented discotheque that showcased live bands, the colossal Bonds switched to a similar format when its original owners become embroiled in a tax scandal, Danceteria operated as a supermarket-style entertainment spot that dedicated separate floors to live music, DJing, and video, and the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge took off as bar and dance venue that prioritized new wave, performance art, and East Village drag. Forging a more overtly multicultural aesthetic, the Funhouse caught on around the same time when Jellybean Benitez was hired to DJ at the spot, and drew in a huge Italian and Latin crowd. A short while later, Ruza Blue’s Wheels of Steel night at Negril and then the Roxy offered a mix of funk, rap, electro, dance, and pancultural sounds. Meanwhile the Mudd Club continued to integrate elements of punk and disco in its mix of DJing, live music, art exhibitions, and fashion shows, and Club 57 maintained its spirited combination of whacky parties, performance art, and film screenings. A number of these spots displayed the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura 2000, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and other young artists who could not find a way into SoHo’s already sedimented gallery scene, and gave them jobs if they needed to supplement their income.5 As such, they operated as inclusive, self-supporting communities that forged a cooperative ethos that contrasted with the neoliberal logic of exploitation, division, and maximum profit. 

Liberated by the decision of the major record companies to withdraw from dance along with the loosening up of audience expectations in the postdisco period, independent record companies such as Island, 99 Records, Prelude, Sleeping Bag, Sugar Hill, Tommy Boy, and West End also thrived across the early 1980s. Together they reestablished the position independent labels enjoyed in the mutually supportive network that defined the relationship between dance venues, dancers, and recording studios across much of the 1970s, and although few of their releases went on to achieve a national sales profile, the independents were able to thrive on locally generated club-based sales that would often run into the tens of thousands. Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan enjoyed his most prolific and creative period as a remixer between 1979 and 1983, and along with figures such as Arthur Baker, Afrika Bambaataa, François Kevorkian, Shep Pettibone, and John Robie, Levan contributed to the creation of a chaotic, mutant milieu that drew the sounds of postdisco dance music, rock, dub, and rap into a sonic framework that was increasingly electronic. 

While late 1970s disco producers recorded within the constraints of an increasingly demarcated and rigid format, early 1980s dance producers conjured up cross-generic combinations that drew explicitly from rock, dub, and rap. In the case of “Don’t Make Me Wait” by the Peech Boys, bandleaders Michael de Benedictus and Larry Levan introduce cluster storms of echo- heavy electronic handclaps around which a thick, unctuous bass line splurges out massive blocks of reverberant sound, vocalist Bernard Fowler channels soul music’s routinized theme of sexual attraction through the erotically charged, transitory environment of the Garage floor, and guitarist Robert Kasper plays hard rock. On another contemporaneous release, David Byrne’s “Big Business” explores the connections that ran between new wave, funk and dance while delivering elliptical lyrics that appeared to warn against the country’s rightwards shift. “Over time disco became less freeform and more of a formula, and the arrangements also became less interesting,” notes Mancuso of the shifting sonic terrain. “There were fewer and fewer good records coming out. It was obvious there would have to be a change. People didn’t want a set of rules. They wanted to dance.”

 

Neoliberalism and Downtown Culture 

The shift to a neoliberal agenda can be traced back to the moment when the banking sector began to exert an explicit grip on New York in the mid-1970s. Unable to repay its short-term debts as a result of the decline of its industrial manufacturing sector and the flight of white taxpayers, New York’s government was compelled to strike a harsh deal that led to 65,000 redundancies, a wage freeze, welfare and services cuts, public transport price hikes, and the abolition of free tuition fees at the City University in return for a bailout (Newfield and Barret 3). In the eyes of free-marketeers, the city that had come to symbolize the intractable waste of the 1970s became a model of neoliberal adventure. “The management of the New York fiscal crisis pioneered the way for neoliberal practices both domestically under Reagan and internationally through the IMF in the 1980s,” comments David Harvey in A Short History of Neoliberalism. “It established the principles that in the event of a conflict between the integrity of f inancial institutions and bondholders’ returns on the one hand, and the well-being of the citizens on the other, the former was to be privileged. It emphasized that the role of government was to create a good business climate rather than look to the needs and well-being of the population at large” (48). 

A committed Carter supporter, Mayor Ed Koch had little choice but to accept the environment of extreme financial restraint when he assumed office in 1978. Yet rather than emphasize his opposition to the settlement, or seek to introduce policies that would support the poor rather than the interests of large corporations, Koch embraced the fiscal restraints imposed on New York City with the zeal of a born-again bank manager. As Jonathan Soffer notes in his biography of Koch, the mayor’s inaugural speech “reflected a neoliberalism that was far more concerned with ‘business confidence’ than with aff irmative action,” and concluded that the “city had been too altruistic for its own good, leading to mistakes ‘of the heart’” (146). Koch made gentrif ication “the key to his program for New York’s revival,” adds Soffer (146), and went on to construct a governing coalition of “real estate, f inance, the Democratic Party machine, the media, and the recipients of city contracts,” comment Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett (3). Struggling with the burden of a $1.8 billion debt in 1975, the city went on to produce a budget surplus ten years later thanks to strong economic growth. “At the same time,” note Newf ield and Barrett, “the poor were getting poorer, for the boom of the 1980s bypassed whole chunks of the city” (4). 

At the national level, Jimmy Carter preempted Reagan’s embrace of neoliberalism by introducing deregulation into not only the gas, oil, airline, and trucking sectors, but also the increasingly powerful banking sector (this via the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980). Adding electoral positioning, revisionist history, the conviction of class interests, and affective reassurance to the mix, Reagan delivered a series of speeches and policy statements that aligned him with the so-called traditional voting constituencies that Carter had failed to favor: he characterized the countercultural coalition of the late 1960s as the cause of the country’s demise during the 1970s; he seized on policy developments around deregulation and welfare cuts not as a requirement but as an opportunity to unleash market-driven wealth at the expense of greater equality; and he embodied a form of brill-creamed 1950s conservatism that reassured many that these radical economic and social changes would help reestablish the country to its supposedly golden past.6 William K. Tabb maintains in The Long Default that the Reagan administration became “merely the New York scenario” of the 1970s “writ large” (15), the main difference being that Reagan lacked Koch’s progressive instincts around healthcare, gay rights, and other so-called liberal issues. 

Along with the wave of artists, choreographers, composers, ex- perimental video filmmakers, musicians, performance artists, sculptors, and writers who gravitated to downtown New York during the 1960s and 1970s, the party hosts and promoters who operated in the East Village, the West Village, and SoHo appeared to be threatened by these developments. After all, they moved to the area because space was cheap, which in turn meant they could live in a community that was organized around creative work that put a low value on commerciality. As a result, they pursued unlikely interdisciplinary and cross-media projects, exchanged favors around performances, valued ephemeral art over the production of objects that could be sold, and forged a network that was notable for its integration and level of collaboration. “Artists worked in multiple media, and collaborated, criticized, supported, and valued each other’s works in a way that was unprecedented,” notes Marvin J. Taylor in The Downtown Book . “Rarely has there been such a condensed and diverse group of artists in one place at one time, all sharing many of the same assumptions about how to make new art” (31).

If the probusiness, progentrif ication policies of Koch and Reagan broke up that network, it would have made sense for politicians and cultural producers to be strategically opposed to one another. However, Sharon Zukin argues in Loft Living: Cultural and Capital in Urban Change that in fact the cultural producers forged an alliance with real estate investors and the city government in order to drive out industrial manufacturers from SoHo and other loft-rich areas. “Before some of the artists were chased out of their lofts by rising rents, they had displaced small manufacturers, distributors, jobbers, and wholesale and retail sales operations,” Zukin writes. “For the most part, these were small businesses in declining economic sectors. They were part of the competitive area of the economy that had been out- produced and out-maneuvered, historically, by the giant f irms of monopoly capital” (5).7 Zukin adds: “The main victims of gentrif ication through loft living are these business owners, who are essentially lower middle class, and their work force” (6).8 Of the 1975 amendment to the Administrative Code of the City of New York, Zukin argues: “With J-51 [the amendment], the city administration showed its irrevocable commitment to destroying New York’s old manufacturing lofts” (13). And in the postscript to the UK publication of the book, published in 1988, Zukin concludes: “With hindsight, and with the bittersweet taste of gentrif ication on every urban palate, it is not so diff icult to understand the ‘historic compromise’ between culture and capital that loft living represents” (193). 

David Harvey develops the argument that cultural producers and capital colluded across the 1970s and 1980s in A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Indeed, Zukin notes that Harvey’s 1973 book Social Justice and the City inspired the analytical approach of Loft Living, and having written the introduction to that book, Harvey expounds on its central thesis; that far from being politically progressive, cultural workers became inseparable from the neoliberal project across the 1970s and 1980s. “The ruling elites moved, often factiously, to support the opening up of thecultural field to all manner of diverse cosmopolitan currents,” he writes, “The narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality, and identity became the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and artistic licence, promoted by the city’s powerful cultural institutions, led, in effect, to the neoliberalization of culture. ‘Delirious New York’ (to use Rem Koolhaas’s memorable phrase) erased the collective memory of democratic New York.” Harvey adds that a conservative distrust of the demographic make-up and outlook of artistic types caused ripples of dissent that were usually drowned out in the pursuit of prof it. “The city’s elites acceded, though not without a struggle, to the demand for lifestyle diversif ication (including those attached to sexual preference and gender) and increasing consumer niche choices (in areas such as cultural production),” adds Harvey/“New York became the epicentre of postmodern cultural and intellectual experimentation” (47).

Harvey’s and Zukin’s analysis is reasonable insofar as a number of cultural workers purchased their loft apartments and went on to make signif icant prof its on selling their properties, having contributed to the gentrif ication of the area. In addition, some went on to prof it from the market-led rejuvenation of New York’s economy through the sale of their works and the receipt of sponsorships from the benef iciaries of the neoliberal boom, from Wall Street brokers to public institutions that were charged with the role of marketing New York as a global center of cultural tourism. However, both Harvey and Zukin overstate the collusion inasmuch as only a tiny proportion of cultural workers could have moved downtown in order to participate in a self-conscious project of gentrif ication, while many lived in small apartments in the East Village because even the low rents of SoHo, TriBeCa, and NoHo were prohibitive. In addition, Harvey and Zukin underemphasize the experience of the vast majority of those workers, who were carved out of SoHo’s gallery economy from an early moment, and were compelled to leave the area in signif icant numbers when rents went up.9 While some of the work of the downtown artists was suitable for co-option by the sponsors of neoliberalism, a far greater proportion was grounded in collaborative, noncommodif iable practices that could not be sold in any straightforward way. Along with Harvey, Zukin mourns the shift from industrial to postindustrial capitalism, yet inexplicably attributes this to the existence of cultural workers when she argues that they “displaced” industrial manufacturers, or ousted them forcibly, even though the artists moved into empty lofts that had been evacuated by industry, either because those businesses had moved to areas that were more favorable than downtownNew York, or because they had succumbed to the national decline in the industrial sector. That could hardly be attributed to a relatively small group of cash-poor creative types. 

New York’s downtown dance scene might have been post-Fordist in its co-option of ex-industrial buildings, yet its core ritual was anything but neoliberal, rooted as it was in the anti-individualist ethos of the dance floor, where dancers abandoned the self in pursuit of collective pleasure, often in settings that encouraged the kind of “inter-class contact” advocated by Samuel R. Delany in his book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (111). Indeed owners and promoters disregarded the prof it motive consistently, with David Mancuso and Michael Brody notable for spending huge sums of money in pursuit of perfect sound, Jim Fouratt and Rudolf Pieper for reinvesting Danceteria’s takings into risk-taking programs and costly interior redesigns, Bruce Mailman for seeking a degree of experiential perfection that left his investors dissatisfied, and so on. Moreover, whereas the arrival of artists contributed to the regeneration of SoHo and other downtown neighborhoods, the existence of dance venues, and in particular those that attracted a heavily gay and ethnic presence, was deemed to counter the gentrification process by local residents (who opposed Mancuso’s move from NoHo to SoHo, for example). Nor did neoliberal wealth trickle down to the protagonists of the New York dance scene. “All this money came into New York, and it was like, ‘Give all the money to the rich people and it will trickle down to the little guy.’ But that never happened,” notes Ivan Ivan, a DJ at the Mudd Club and Pyramid. “Money was coming into New York, but it was being enjoyed by a bunch of Wall Street guys doing blow, drinking champagne, and going to really fancy restaurants. It wasn’t really trickling down. Maybe some of the art world was getting some of that money, because these people had money to spend on art; but overall it was a pretty hairy time.” 

Opposing Reagan, the Mudd Club staged an ironic inaugural party, Danceteria mocked the bland conservatism of the government’s domestic vision, and venues such as the Loft and the Paradise Garage positioned themselves as safe havens for dancers who lived at the hard-end of economic, sexual, and ethnic discrimination. These and other spots were profoundly aware of the way their practices existed in relation to wider economic and political developments. “The Pyramid was an amalgam of glamour and the grungy surround that we lived in in the East Village,” explains Brian Butterick/Hattie Hathaway, a drag queen who worked and performed at the Pyramid. “We also had a very strong 1960s influence that ran through everything; we were hippyish, if you will, idealistic. But of course we were living in the age of Reagan, so I don’t know how long our idealism lasted. After a couple of years the timbre of the shows became very sarcastic.” Ann Magnuson, who performed regularly at Club 57, Danceteria, and the Pyramid, comments: “At the time, it was, ‘Well, [Reagan’s election] that’s fucked up, but we’re going to keep on doing what we do. People were still saying, ‘I’m not going to let this get me down, or change who I am. But the anger kept on brewing and brewing, and the anger informed everyone’s work and performances. There was a lot more ranting and a lot more screaming and frustration and darker imagery.” 

Most pointedly, party hosts and club promoters along with noncommercial creative workers were forced to confront the consequences of Koch’s drive to turn Manhattan into an oasis for property investment. “Between 1982 and 1985, sixty new off ice towers went up south of 96th Street,” write Newfield and Barrett. “Real estate values in gentrifying neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn went soaring, and the exodus of major corporations from New York was stopped. A new convention center was built, a half- dozen luxury-class hotels were financed with tax abatements, and tourism increased, injecting revenue into the Manhattan economy of theaters, hotels, and restaurants” (3–4). Concurrent property price inflation, which rocketed by 125% between 1980 and 1988 in New York City, priced many party hosts and club promoters out of large swaths of Manhattan, while tax abatements that totalled more than $1bn in “corporate welfare” left them full of resentment, as the following examples illustrate.10 

 

Real Estate Determinism, AIDS, and Social Division 

The Loft became a site of embattled struggle when David Mancuso left his 99 Prince Street location in June 1984 because his lease was about to expire and the building’s owner wanted to cash in on the rising value of the property market in SoHo. Mancuso could not afford to meet the landlord’s price, and, as a countercultural radical who was deeply committed to running an integrated and ethical party, would not have wanted to anyway, thanks to SoHo’s shift from a zone that encouraged artistic and social experimentation to one that was embedded in boutique consumerism and real estate mania. Mancuso had prepared for his exit by purchasing a building in Alphabet City, which was due to receive a significant government subsidy, but maintains that the move hit problems when the plans to regenerate the neighborhood were abandoned and the crack cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980s began to take hold. Mancuso lost a signif icant proportion of his crowd immediately, with many of his female dancers concerned about venturing into an area where it was so hard to catch a taxi home. Moreover, the very forces that persuaded Mancuso to move encroached on his ability to engage in activism. “It took a couple of years to see what damage Reagan was doing,” recalls the party host. “In 1982 I knew I had to move, and when I moved from Prince Street to Third Street a lot of things changed in my life that meant I couldn’t focus so much on politics. I was just trying to survive.” 

Danceteria was also priced out of the real estate market. For three years, the promoters just about met their expenses as they showcased fledging bands, helped pioneer the staging of art-oriented events in a pop setting, and reinvented the interior of the third and fourth floors at a furious rate. But in mid-1985 Alex Di Lorenzo, the property mogul owner of the building, who doubled as part owner of the venture, decided to rent his space out for more money than Rudolf Pieper and manager John Argento could afford. “Our lease was up and the owner of the building had partners who were not part of Danceteria, and were making money from real estate,” recalls Argento. “We rented the whole building for $1.20 per square foot and he [Di Lorenzo] was getting offers of $25 per square foot. His siblings pressed him to rent the building for more money.” A realtor purchased the lease for $600,000, and Pieper and Argento were among the benef iciaries, yet Pieper had no control over the outcome and took little pleasure from the development. “When Danceteria opened, 21st Street was in an abandoned neighborhood,” he recalls. “You could walk for blocks and not f ind anything open at night. Then, gradually, the excitement of New York brought in hordes of moneyed bores from the rest of the country and real estate prices went up. The club would have continued where it was had not some speculator come up with an offer. Now it’s a residential building with ‘apartments of unsurpassed luxury.’ How exciting.” 

The Saint closed a little under three years later, apparently due to AIDS, which struck the venue’s membership with particular force because the balcony area doubled as a feverish zone for promiscuous and often unprotected sex; indeed, early on AIDS was nicknamed “Saint’s disease” because the virus was so prevalent among the venue’s members (Shilts 149). Initially, the dance floor dynamic was not affected, largely because the venue’s long waiting list meant that sick and deceased members were replaced seamlessly, and also because the venue offered those who were sick or knew people who were sick with a chance to “dance their troubles away” (as the Saint DJ Robbie Leslie told me). But when turnout began to decline around the middle of the 1980s, Bruce Mailman opened the club to straight dancers on Thursdays and Fridays, and numbers caved in on Sundays as well during the venue’s f inal years.11 “The Fridays stopped and then Sundays became very, very thin towards the end of the 1980s,” comments dance floor regular Jorge La Torre. “I didn’t want to stop going, but when there weren’t enough people to get the party going and f ill the dance floor it wasn’t the same.” 

The AIDS epidemic placed signif icant emotional and economic pressure on Mailman, who became involved in a public dispute with Koch as he fought to maintain the right of gay men to regulate their own sexual practices in the Saint and the St. Mark’s Baths (which he also owned). “Because the circumstances have changed, because political opinion makes us bad guys, that doesn’t mean I’m doing something morally incorrect,” Mailman told the New York Times in October 1985 as the tussle unfolded. “In my own terms, my behavior is correct and I’ll do what I believe as long as I can do it” (Jane Gross). However, according to Terry Sherman, a Saint DJ who was close with Mailman, the Saint closed only when a real estate developer made Mailman an eight-f igure offer that would have at least doubled his initial investment, and the owner accepted, in large part to satisfy his investors, who had long expressed their frustration that the immense costs involved in running the club meant they had not seen a return on their outlay. “Bruce was very ambiguous about selling the club because he loved it so much and the last season (1987–88) was actually crowded again on Saturday nights,” says Sherman. “He did say to me, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t sell it this year.’” Although numbers dropped from the mid-1980s onwards, La Torre conf irms that “Saturday nights always had a sizeable crowd,” and the ensuing success of the Sound Factory, which opened in 1989 and attracted a huge white gay male crowd, illustrated that AIDS did not amount to the teleological, retributive conclusion of queer pleasure on the dance floor and beyond. As devastating as the AIDS epidemic was for the Saint community, the venue was sold in the final instance because Mailman also needed to satisfy a set of investors, and those investors wanted to see a return on their money that embroiled the venue in the neoliberal turn. 

For its part, the Paradise Garage became entangled in a perfect 1980s storm of gentrification, AIDS, and drug addiction. First the freeholder of the King Street location made it clear to owner Michael Brody that the venue’s ten-year lease would not be renewed when it expired in September 1987—because the empty parking lot that lay next to the Garage was about to be developed into an apartment block, and the new owner of that block along with the neighborhood association insisted that the club close down. “When Michael f irst got the lease there was no one living near the club,” notes David DePino, the alternate DJ at the Garage, and a close conf idant of Levan’s and Brody’s. “On the corner was a parking lot. Eight years later the lot was gone and in its place was a very big and expensive apartment building. The developer and the local neighborhood association wanted the club gone so they persuaded the landlord not to renew the lease.” DePino adds: “Neighborhood associations are powerful. It’s not something a landlord wants to have problems with.” Brody responded by searching out possible new sites, but contracted AIDS soon after and resolved he would not attempt to continue. Brody’s deteriorating relationship with Levan, his totemic DJ, helped him make his decision; always demanding, Levan had become extremely difficult to work with after he became addicted to heroin. 

The independent label sector also lost momentum across the mid- 1980s, in part because its representatives were squeezed out by the major labels, which were emboldened by the economic recovery, the commercial success of the CD format, and the marketing bonus provided by MTV. The majors proceeded to cherry pick dance acts such as D Train and France Joli, rip them out of their integrated networks, and mismanage them into producing albums that did not work locally or nationally. Across 1983 and 1984, the majors also started to offer remix commission to cutting edge dance figures such as Arthur Baker, Franc¸ois Kevorkian, and Jellybean, who found themselves working on an increasing number of rock and pop tracks that did not translate in a club context. At the same time, the closing of Danceteria along with the Mudd Club, Tier 3, and other spots that showcased live bands alongside DJs deprived labels such as 99 Records and ZE of their principal means of promotion. Both ground to a halt across 1983–84, and although this could be put down to a mix of exhaustion and misfortune, the mid-1980s did not produce a new wave of danceable punk-funk acts to replace the likes of the Contortions, ESG, Konk, and Liquid Liquid. Nor did a towering f igure emerge to replace Larry Levan when his heroin addiction hardened, or Shep Pettibone after he went on sabbatical in 1984. When Chicago house music started to arrive in the city during 1985, dance DJs embraced it hungrily, in part because by then the majors had succeeded in reclaiming control of dance music, which they flooded with a pop sensibility (Shepherd, 1984a, 1984b). 

The mid-1980s New York club-music milieu also fragmented as record companies and club owners attempted to target their offerings with greater precision. Whereas 1970s and early 1980s disco and dance had operated according to the principles of integration and assimilation, mid- 1980s rock and rap shifted away from polymorphous rhythm in favor of a heavier, more aggressive, more masculine aesthetic. The shifting terrain made it difficult for integrationist parties to survive, and Ruza Blue was ousted from the Roxy when the venue’s owner concluded that her vision was not sufficiently prof itable; soon after the venue along with rap music became more tightly def ined and heavily commodif ied as the MC-rapper displaced the DJ-integrator as hip hop’s emblematic f igure. “The management at the Roxy were clueless, and didn’t get what I was trying to do there,” comments Blue. “They started to book a lot of MCs and groups, and the scene became one-dimensional instead of three-dimensional. It became a bit violent and troublesome. There were mostly men in there. Not very exciting.” 

Across the same period, the pluralistic sound that could be heard in white gay venues across the 1970s and early 1980s congealed around a beautiful disco/Hi-NRG aesthetic, in part because the high cost of membership and entry to the Saint encouraged its regulars to reimagine themselves as individual consumers rather than participants in a fundamentally collective ritual, which in turn led a significant number to write hostile letters to Mailman when they felt less than overwhelmed at the end of a night. The flurry of letters appears to have contributed to the drug overdose that killed the venue’s most established DJ, Roy Thode, and it also led the sacking of George Cadenas, Wayne Scott, and the venue’s most unlikely DJ, Sharon White, a black lesbian who liked to “play outside the box” (as she puts it). These and other developments encouraged many of those who held onto their positions to eliminate risk from their selections, which in turn led to an aesthetic stasis. The venue’s most popular DJ, Robbie Leslie, acknowledged as much when he told the New York Native in March 1984: “Music has evolved but New York’s gay market has faithfully held on to the romantic period of disco, which was 1978 through 1980. While we’ve all been dancing to that, we haven’t noticed that there are a lot of records being produced that over the past couple of years we’ve ignored because they haven’t f it into the mold that the audience has demanded” (Mario Z). When house music broke into New York in 1985, Saint DJs (with the partial exception of Terry Sherman) rejected it outright. Looking back, Leslie comments: “Overall we were walking on a cliff edge musically at the Saint and product was running scarcer by the week. I felt a feeling of imminent disaster.”

Meanwhile the Garage, the Loft and successor parties continued to espouse a pluralist ethos, but the heightened segmentation of the market, which witnessed rock and rap shift away from dance, and Hi-NRG targeting female pop and gay male dance audiences, left them with little to play beyond house music. Some outfits attempted to blend the sounds of house and rap, but the experiment was short-lived. Politicized by the inherently divisive consequences of neoliberalism and the effects of the crack epidemic on the black community, black rappers, such as Chuck D of Public Enemy, came to see house as “elitist” and objected to the way it tried to “separate itself from the street” (in Chuck D’s words). Back in 1987, the perception that house music’s followers were not interested in addressing the most urgent concerns of the black community led Chuck D to address the issue in more incendiary terms and label the genre as “music for faggots” (Reynolds 49). In so doing, he drew attention to the broader failure of the black community to address the question of homophobia as well as the threat of AIDS, and he also gave expression to the corrosive effects of neoliberalism, which encouraged groups that had once sought out common ground to see each other in terms of opposition and even betrayal. 

“In the early ’80s, everything was progressive,” Bambaataa commented in an interview in 1994 (Owen 68). “People listened to funk, soul, reggae, calypso, hip hop all in the same place.” But by the late 1980s, continued Bambaataa, club culture resembled a form of “musical apartheid.” “If you wanted house music, you went to this club, reggae another club, and hip hop yet another club,” he added. In the early 1990s, significant proportion of the “gangsta” rap scene would go on to embrace the Hobbesian trajectory of neoliberalism, or the argument that the world was made up of individuals whose natural mode was one of warlike competition. “Reagan appealed to that American sense of individualism that was really tailor made for the hip hop generation,” comments Mark Riley, a regular at the Loft and the Paradise Garage who worked in the news department of WBLS and LIB. “I am therefore I am; greed is good; the accumulation of wealth is a worthy goal in life; to hell with everyone else.” 

The demographic make-up of New York’s clubs shifted in line with the times, with Area a case in point. Opened in the autumn of 1983 by four Californians who wanted to place the idea of art production at the center of their venture, the venue attracted a mix of creative and for the most part hard-up partygoers who were drawn to the ingenious revamping of the club’s interior theme every six weeks. The cost of this work was so expensive the downers are said to have never made a prof it, but a year or so into its existence Area started to attract a new kind of preppy club-goer, and within a couple of years this new type had taken over the space. A dominatrix doorwoman, barwoman, performing artist, and promoter whose boyfriend Johnny Dynell DJed at the club, Chi Chi Valenti notes: “At Danceteria there were one or two of them—they were hideous geeks with a tie. But by the end of Area there were so many of them they weren’t just an irritant, they were a threat, and I took it very personally.” The shift mirrored changes that were taking place in the demographic make-up of downtown, where many low-earning cultural workers were forced to leave due to the cost of rising rents. “When I got to New York [in 1978] my feeling was the most uncool thing you could be was rich,” recalls Ann Magnuson, a performance artist who ran Club 57. “Then what started happening was the most uncool thing you could be was poor, and it sort of switched like that very dramatically. It shifted for me when Reagan got into off ice for the second four years.” 

Koch introduced social policies that contributed to the city becoming a more stable and profitable investment prospect while making it much harder for clubs to operate. Falling in line with Reagan’s National Minimum Drinking Age Act, ratified in July 1984, the mayor raised the legal drinking age to 21 in December 1985, ostensibly to prevent college students from drinking and driving. Whatever the intent, the effect on clubs was regressive, because young dancers injected bodies and energy into the culture; interviewed in 1985, Rudolf Pieper referenced the drinking reforms as “the final nail” (Michael Gross). Feeding the panic that surrounded AIDS, Koch also rounded on the city’s gay sex clubs and bathhouses in the name of public health, closing the Mineshaft and the St. Mark’s Baths in rapid succession, even though public health would have been supported much more effectively by backing the numerous organizations—including the St. Mark’s Baths—that were educating vulnerable groups about the disease. 

In broad terms, capital fed off club and music culture while offering little in return. When party promoters and musicians sought out cheap spaces in nonresidential areas in order to go about their work in affordable ways, they paved the way for young, smart, cash-poor populations to experience the area, only for that movement to function as the precursor to gentrification. In a parallel development, the government started to highlight New York’s cultural legacy in an attempt to promote the city as a tourist attraction, only for this to lead to the spread of expensive hotels and restaurants that made New York a less livable place for the core populations most likely to contribute to the city’s cultural life. Cultural workers might have contributed to the process of gentrification and tourism, but their involvement was often unwitting given that they were simply seeking out affordable space thanks to their lack of income. Moreover, their presence did not cause gentrif ication to happen, but simply enabled those with more money to move into the area and escalate property prices. Party hosts and club promoters were caught up in the same stream of developments, and their radically reduced presence in downtown New York across the 1980s speaks to the way rising property prices benefited owners and investors at the cost of those who wanted to undertake the simple act of congregating on a dance floor. 

Buttressed by the introduction of socially conservative policies around zoning and other policing matters, the further embedment of neoliberal policies supporting the deregulation of the banking sector and property investment across the 1990s and 2000s has reduced the number of places where dancers can head out to such an extent that the regressive period of the late 1980s now resembles a period of wild opportunity. Indeed, the city’s retail, property, and corporate interests have become so embedded that even the dip in the real estate market that followed the banking crisis of late 2008 failed to augur a mini-revival in dance culture. As a result, a generation of teenagers and adults has grown up with few opportunities to dance beyond the comparatively constrained environments of social dance forms such as ballroom and the tango. Within this context, the highlighting of an era when collective, freestyle dance parties were numerous and vibrant reveals not only what New York once was, but also what it can become. The critique of the role played by neoliberal economics and politics in the culture’s collapse brings to the fore the sometimes-obfuscated business and policy agenda that surely must be challenged if an alternative urban environment is to flourish once again.

 

Notes 

1. I am indebted to Jonathan Sterne for suggesting the phrase “real estate 

determinism” after hearing an earlier version of this article at the EMP Pop Music 

Conference at UCLA on February 26, 2011. My use of the “determinism” moniker 

is not intended to suggest that the economic dictates everything around it, including 

the cultural, but instead to draw attention to the way the cultural occurs within the 

milieu of the economic. 

2. Disco historians, such as Alice Echols and Peter Shapiro, refer to 1970s 

dance culture as “disco,” but the culture was motored by private parties as well 

as public discotheques, from which so-called disco culture got its name in 1973.

Indeed, the private party network was arguably more influential than its public 

discotheque counter part for much of the 1970s, which is a case I make in Love 

Saves the Day (Lawrence). In addition, the DJs who helped forge disco began their 

work in 1970, some three years before the “disco” term was coined, and during 

this pre-disco period and after drew on a wide range of danceable sounds that 

included but was never reducible to the generic style that came to be known as 

disco. Therefore, while “disco” works as a neat description of 1970s dance culture, 

it obfuscates its richness. 

3. I outline the relationship between the slowdown in the US economy, 

the backlash against disco, and the rise of the Republican right in Love Saves the 

Day (Lawrence 363–80). An equivalent argument has been made by Peter Shapiro 

(227–32) and Alice Echols (205–15). 

4. All interviews conducted with the author unless otherwise stated. I am 

grateful to John Argento, Ruza Blue, Brian Butterick/Hattie Hathaway, Chuck D, 

David DePino, Ivan Ivan, Jorge La Tor re, Robbie Leslie, Ann Magnuson, David 

Mancuso, Rudolf Pieper, Mark Riley, Ter ry Sherman, Chi Chi Valenti, and Sharon 

White, all of whom I quote in this article. In addition to these interviews, this 

article is based on interviewing and archival work (car ried out for a forthcoming 

monograph on New York dance culture in the f irst half of the 1980s) that is too 

extensive to cite here. 

5. By default, they also provided these employees, their friends and their 

peers with a premobile phone, preinternet space in which they could congregate, 

exchange ideas, and plan projects. 

6. Regarding the importance of affect, Laurence Grossberg (253, 268) 

maintains that Reagan was able to popularize a new conservatism because he 

“embodied the sentiment, passion and ideology of the new conservatism,” and 

“placed himself within the popular” both “rhetorically” and “socially.” 

7. My emphasis. 

8. My emphasis. 

9. Indeed even larger numbers did not live in a loft in the f irst place, because 

apartments in the downtrodden East Village were considerably cheaper. 

10. The inflation figures are sourced from http://www.forecast-chart.com/ 

estate-real-new-york.html. Accessed Feb. 26, 2011. Soffer (259) provides the tax 

abatement details. 

11. The introduction of straight nights is noted in “Saint Says ‘No’” 1. In 

an interview with Dar rell Yates Rist published in May 1988, Bruce Mailman noted

that Saturdays were attracting something closer to 1,200–500 a week rather than 

the regular “3,000 week in, week out,” rising to “6,000” at some special parties 

(Yates Rist 18). 

 

Works Cited 

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

Buckland, Fiona. Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002. 

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

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York UP, 1999. 

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

Echols, Alice. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 

Gross, Jane. “Bathhouses Reflect AIDS Concerns.” New York Times 14 Oct. 1985. 

Gross, Michael. “The Party Seems to Be Over for Lower Manhattan Clubs,” New York Times 26 Oct. 1985, 1. 

Grossberg, Laurence. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. 

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–79. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. 

Newf ield, Jack, and Wayne Bar rett. City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York . New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 

Owen, Frank. “Back in the Days.” Vibe (Dec. 1994): 66–68. Reynolds, Simon. “Public Enemy.” Melody Maker, 17 Oct. 1987.

Reprinted in Simon Reynolds, Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip-Hop. London: Faber and Faber, 2007. 47–55. “Saint Says ‘No’ to Straights on Saturdays.” Nightclub Conf idential 1.1 (May 1986): 1. 

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

Shepherd, Stephanie. “The 12′′ Single Is Here to Stay.” Dance Music Report (30 Nov. 1984a): 3, 12–13. 

Shepherd, Stephanie. “1984: Conservative Consciousness Reigns Supreme.” Dance Music Report (29 Dec. 1984b): 3. 

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1987. 

Soffer, Jonathan. Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. 

Tabb, William K. The Long Default: New York City and the Urban Fiscal Crisis. New York: Monthly Review P, 1981. 

Taylor, Marvin J. (ed.). “Playing the Field: The Downtown Scene and Cultural Production, An Introduction.” The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974–1984. Ed. Marvin J. Taylor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2006. 

Yates Rist, Dar rell. “A Scaffold to the Sky and No Regrets.” New York Native 2 May 1988, 18. 

Z, Mario. “Robbie Leslie: The Pat Boone of DJs.” New York Native 12 Mar. 1984, 21 24. 

Zukin, Sharon. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. London: Radius, 1988.

 

 

Dowload this article here (pdf

“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.

 

Thanks:

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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“From Disco to Disco: New York’s Global Clubbing Influence.” Daily Note, published by Red Bull Music Academy, 10 June 2013.

The case is harder to make today, but once upon a time New York hosted the most numerous and adventurous DJ-led party spaces in the world. Visitors testify they had never experienced anything like it prior to their trip to the city. Some even returned home with the dream of re-creating something of their own.

New York’s influence can be traced back to the moment at the beginning of 1970 when David Mancuso hosted the first in a series of shimmering house parties that came to be known as the Loft. Around the same time, two entrepreneurs known as Seymour and Shelley took over a struggling discotheque called the Sanctuary and became the first nightclub proprietors to welcome gay dancers into a public venue.

Selecting records in relation to the energy of their multicultural and polysexual crowds, Mancuso and Sanctuary DJ Francis Grasso established the sonic and social potential of a contagious culture. Better Days, the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, Le Jardin, Flamingo, 12 West, SoHo Place, Galaxy 21 and Reade Street bolstered the word-of-mouth network. With the media barely aware of its existence, the city’s dance scene remained resolutely subterranean – to most locals as well as tourists.

 

Studio 54 DJ Booth, 1979. Photograph by Bill Bernstein.

Studio 54 DJ Booth, 1979. Photograph by Bill Bernstein.

That began to change in the spring of 1977 when one-time restaurateurs Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager opened Studio 54 in Midtown Manhattan as a celebrity hangout. From the moment Bianca Jagger rode through the venue on the back of a white stallion, New York discotheque culture circulated as a global media story. It did so again in November when the release of the Brooklyn disco movie Saturday Night Fever carried the culture into its juggernaut phase.

With Laker Airways having recently launched Skytrain as the first long-haul, low-cost transatlantic airline, it became much more likely that disco would travel via the firsthand experience of dancefloor immersion as well as vinyl, tape and print-media distribution. The industry-oriented Disco Forum, first staged in New York in 1976 and held annually, helped potential nightclub operators meet lighting and sound operators. The hermetic culture of disco was all set to spread.

Responsible for installing the sound systems at Studio 54 as well as the Paradise Garage, a Loft-style private party located in a gargantuan parking garage on King Street, bass innovator Richard Long vacuumed up a significant portion of the technical work. The engineer described Studio 54 as his “best calling card” in an interview with Billboard, yet he also made a point of taking clients with a purist bent (including the future owners of the Zanzibar in New Jersey) to the Garage, an evolving sonic laboratory and the ultimate showcase for his work.

By the end of 1979, Long had installed some 300 systems around the world, most of them in Europe and South America. “Believe it or not, he was even contacted by an interested party in Iran,” Dance Music reported in early 1980. International dancers might not have known it, but the state-of-the-art technology that drew them to the floor originated in New York.

Already home to the Northern Soul scene, the north of England became an emerging hub for New York-style disco when the Warehouse in Leeds and Wigan Pier in Wigan opened during 1979. “The Wigan Pier was fitted out by a company called Bacchus,” notes DJ Greg Wilson, who started to play at the venue in 1980. “The people who owned it were going to do a normal club installation, but they got persuaded to do something New York-style. It was actually advertised as an American-style disco. The logo of the club was an American flag with a frog underneath it.”

When Wilson went to work at Legend in Manchester in the summer of 1981, the transatlantic connection struck him again. “Legend was a step further than the Pier,” he adds, referring to a system that channeled the high end through the ceiling, the mid-range around the dancefloor and the sub-bass from the floor. “They even had a sound sweep. You could send the sound in a circular motion around the floor. At the time there wasn’t a sound system to compare. There were never any specific clubs mentioned, but NYC was undoubtedly the influence.”

Studio 54 became the first New York discotheque to inspire an international replica when a version of the venue opened in Madrid, Spain, in 1980, with Studio selector Richie Kaczor as its DJ. (Rubell and Schrager had gone to jail earlier that year for tax evasion.) But the more compelling exchange continued to unfold in the north of England when the Manchester band New Order, formed from Joy Division after lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide, went on a muted tour of the United States in the autumn of 1980 with their manager Rob Gretton, and Tony Wilson of Factory Records. 

 

Crowd at the dancefloor of Hurrah, 1979. Photograph by Bill Bernstein.

Crowd at the dancefloor of Hurrah, 1979. Photograph by Bill Bernstein.

Stopping off in New York, the band opened for A Certain Ratio at Hurrah, the first New York venue to blend DJing with live music. During their stay they also went to the Paradise Garage and Danceteria, another venue that mixed DJing with bands. They returned to Manchester with the dream of opening a Manhattan-style venue where eclectic crowds could come together to dance to diverse sounds.

In part because it reminded them of the post-industrial milieu they had just witnessed in downtown New York, Gretton, Tony Wilson and New Order settled on a former yacht warehouse on Whitworth Street, agreed to call their venue the Haçienda, and advertised that DJ Hewan Clarke would play “the latest American imports.” “Tony Wilson said they had seen the Paradise Garage and they wanted that concept in the Haçienda,” recalls Clarke.

Yet the influx of ecstasy during the spring of 1988 and the Ibiza-influenced summer that followed disturbed the Haçienda’s carefully calibrated New York equilibrium and persuaded a significant proportion of the black crowd to move on. “I regretted the fact that once you’d come down off the E everything was pure house,” argues Pickering. “I could tell, even in 1989, that that wasn’t a good thing and that what we were doing before was much more precious, because we were playing a wider range of music. By 1989 we were slaves to the beat.” For a while London looked primarily to Chicago and Ibiza for dance inspiration, but shifted its gaze toward New York when Justin Berkmann opened the Ministry of Sound in September 1991.

A disillusioned wine trader who arrived in New York in 1986 (his father having sent him there in order to find himself), Berkmann danced at the Paradise Garage until the venue’s lease expired in September 1987. “When the Garage closed it just left such an enormous hole in everyone’s life,” recalls Berkmann. “New York got pretty depressing pretty quickly. By February 1988 I was back in London.” Introduced to James Palumbo and Humphrey Waterhouse, Berkmann proposed they develop a nightclub drink, which they rejected, and then a Garage-style venue, which they agreed to fund.

After an exhaustive search for an appropriate site, Berkmann settled on a parking garage located in Elephant & Castle, an economically deprived area of southeast London, and negotiated a 24-hour, no-alcohol license for the venue, which meant it would match the Paradise Garage’s juice-bar status. Seeking to match the Garage’s celebrated sound system too, he hired Austin Derrick – who worked with Kenny Powers, a member of Richard Long Associates – to install the venue’s sound system. Only the introduction of a VIP area stood as a direct affront to the King Street setup. “The concept was about 80% Garage and then the other 20% would have been a bit of Area and a tiny bit Nell’s,” adds Berkmann.

Berkmann cemented the Garage
 connection by inviting the venue’s to
temic DJ Larry Levan to play at the 
Ministry of Sound three weeks into its 
run. Victor Rosado, who had become
 close to Levan, stepped in after the
 Garage DJ missed his flight. Several
 more were missed before Levan finally 
landed the following Saturday with no
 records, having got into the habit of
 selling his vinyl to raise money to buy
 drugs. Jeremy Newall and DJ Harvey,
 along with Berkmann, cobbled together a collection and Levan played that
 night. “He was still the Larry we knew and had come to love, with all his flaws and also his genius way of transforming a room,” Rosado remembers of the set. “He was very happy to see that what he had created wasn’t in vain – that it had inspired someone to create the ideals and ideas of what a party should be like. He was very motivated to take London by storm by showcasing the Ministry of Sound as his new home away from home.”

The development was symbolic. As a perfect storm of AIDS, gentrification, real estate inflation and the incremental city-led clampdown of the club scene made New York a less hospitable place for party culture, London became something of a new capital for clubbing. Ministry bolstered the case when it hired Zanzibar and Kiss FM DJ Tony Humphries to begin a residency in January 1993. But although Humphries looks back fondly on the opening months of his stay, in the end he felt underwhelmed by the venue’s “revolving door of DJs,” which made it hard to strike up an affinity with the crowd. DJ, producer and remixer François Kevorkian maintains that the venue “didn’t understand that it’s the crowd that makes the venue, not the furniture.”

New York still exerts a profound, if smaller-scale, influence on global party culture. David Mancuso started to build Loft-style parties in Japan and London when he became convinced that if he worked with overseas friends he could hold onto his house-party ethos outside of his home. Kevorkian launched his own long-running Deep Space night at Plastic People in London because nobody at home quite trusted his vision (the party eventually settled in at Cielo in NYC, where it still holds down Monday nights). Kevorkian, Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit started to travel the world with their legendary Body & Soul parties, building communities and hiring balloon machines wherever they went.

Cultivated in New York, the practice of bringing together diverse sounds and crowds in a single space for a night of dancing has grown to become one of the most compelling in global party culture. At times its international take-up has been successful. On other occasions the purity of its ethos has been hard to adapt. Either way, when they cross the Atlantic or head back through to the Pacific, New York’s ripples of influence evoke a pioneering history that will never be matched.

 

Source: http://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/magazin...