Really, isn’t this blog geared toward people who love and understand music? Aren’t we the ones who are brave enough to dig beneath the lies of the music industry and the ignorance of mainstream culture? Are we not searching for the truth that lies nestled between a funky bassline and a sweet kick drum? Yes, we are. So, hear me out. This is Fat Chuck coming at you with disco music and fun, and if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done.
Disco was born at a time when the laws in New York City prevented guys from going to clubs and dancing with each other. The cops were fucking things up, the preachers were fucking things up, and the upstanding straight white folks were fucking things up. Gay New York in 1970 was probably a lot like Footloose, but Lori Singer’s role was comprised by a dude with a cheesy mustache who really wanted to get his Kevin Bacon on, if you know what I’m saying.
There were a lot of things that led up to disco, but the seeds bloomed on Valentine’s Day of 1970. That’s the day that a cat named David Mancuso threw a party. He sent out invitations to his closest friends stating that “Love Saves the Day.”
Mancuso’s loft parties became a regular occurrence, to the point that Mancuso’s house — and house parties — became known as The Loft. Partygoers were treated to free organic food, an unparalleled sound system, and an environment of tolerance. (Oh, and there were drugs, too. Love Saves the Day??? At least it’s a better message than Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, which is Asinine, Crappy, Idiotic, and Dumb.) The Loft was a place for friendship, fun, respect, equality, creativity, and acceptance. The Loft wasn’t about velvet ropes and money and attitude, it was simply about a bunch of friends hanging out together, listening to music, and dancing. The Loft was a place for Love.
I’m not going to give you a history lesson about disco, because there are a bunch of books and CDs at the end of this article that can do that much better than I ever could. Mancuso’s parties weren’t the only thing going on in the underground gay scene in the early ’70s. They did, however, establish a mindset that has persisted through virtually every form of underground dance music for nearly four decades: peace, love, unity and respect.Respect is one of the many great things about disco. There’s a respect for people, and the greatest disco DJs also had a respect for music.
If you look at David Mancuso’s set lists from the early days of The Loft, he’d mix up Aretha with The Beatles, James Brown with Van Morrison, or Curtis Mayfield with Traffic. He was passionate about music, and he wouldn’t hesitate to play whatever song needed to be played, regardless of what genre it was.
Mancuso wasn’t the only guy who who took his influences from all over the musical map. Nicky Siano was dropping Kraftwerk and Exuma in with Donna Summer and the Salsoul Orchestra. There was a dude named Tee Scott who, in his early days, would play Nina Simone or Bach in the middle of his disco sets. And then, of course, there was Larry Levan.
Larry Levan was arguably the most important DJ in the 1970s. (Of course, you can’t really say any one person was the most important, but if there’s one thing that us music people love, it’s ranking the unrankable. If God didn’t want us to rank musicians, He wouldn’t have invented lists.) Levan’s club, the Paradise Garage, was the dark underbelly to the glitz and glamour of Studio 54. The Garage was where you went if you wanted to hear great music and dance without a lot of bullshit. Long after Studio 54 had succumbed to its excesses, Larry Levan was making magic at the Paradise Garage.
Levan, like nearly all of the great disco DJs, loved music. He was a guy who would walk out onto the dance floor in the middle of a song so he could feel what the audience was feeling. He’d cut a record off and let the room sit in silence for 5 minutes. He’d play the same song 10 or 15 times in a single night. He’d treat his sets like poetry, making sure every word and every sentence flowed properly into the next one. He loved music, and he did whatever he could to make sure that, by the time you walked back into the real world, you were in love with music, too.
Let me interrupt my little story and ask you a question. Have you ever been dancing? Not dancing at your Aunt Bessie’s wedding, but dancing — sweat dripping off your body, your feet moving with a life of their own, a smile plastered to your lips, your blood pounding through your heart at 116 beats per minute because the crowd and the DJ have connected in the beauty of a shared moment? Yeah, I know, that sounds like some totally stupid hippie fantasy, but if you’ve experienced it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
On that Valentine’s night back in 1970, David Mancuso didn’t set out to be the DJ. But he knew the crowd, he knew the music, and he knew how to bring them together. In an interview from Love Saves the Day, Mancuso said, “There was neither the DJ nor the dancer. Someone would approach me to play a record and I would already have it in my hand or it would already be on the turntable. We would look at each other in recognition. It got very psychic because we knew we were following a sonic trail.”That is what happened to people who heard Larry Levan spin at the Paradise Garage. It’s what happened to people who went to David Mancuso’s parties, and it’s what happened to people who heard Nicky Siano at The Gallery.
This, my friends, is what disco was all about. It was music of empathy, of sharing, of connections. It was music that followed a sonic trail. It was music of love.It’s been 30 years since disco’s peak. Disco was an underground revolution that was never meant to be a superstar. It wasn’t supposed to be the voice of the everyman, and it wasn’t supposed to resonate with angry white kids from Midwestern suburbs. It wasn’t supposed to revitalize the careers of once-great has-beens like the Rolling Stones or Rod Stewart, and it wasn’t supposed to spark the careers of never-great clones like The Bee Gees. It wasn’t supposed to make millions of dollars for asshole record execs at Warner Bros. or asshole club owners on 54th St.
Roy Thode’s remix of “C Is for Cookie” from a promo-only 12″ for Sesame Street Fever. The remix on the A-side was Larry Levan’s first remix.
We asked disco to do all those things, and when it failed, we got pissed at it. We burned records at baseball stadiums and blacklisted our whitewashed superstars. We scrawled our hatred on our notebook covers, and we laughed when our mediocre on-air personalities smashed records. Even Bianca Jagger wanted to forget all of her antics at Studio 54.
We tried to kill disco, but disco wouldn’t die. It simply went back where it belonged, to the underground, where people loved it and respected it. DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan held disco’s hand as it grew up and became house music. Hip-hop took the innovations of guys like Nicky Siano and ran in an entirely new direction. In the early ’90s, people like Kerri Chandler, Armand Van Helden and Felix Da Housecat helped house blossom into countless new forms of dance music. Many of the early innovators continue to create incredible events, such as Mancuso’s ongoing Loft parties and the Body & Soul events in New York (an alcohol-free party that brings together an incredibly diverse crowd with a motto of “check your attitude at the door”).
Most importantly, though, disco helped bridge the gap of homophobia by bringing gay culture into the living rooms of straight Americans in a safe and relatively inoffensive way.
So next time some DJ plays “YMCA” or you overhear someone taking a cheap shot at disco, think about Larry Levan and David Mancuso and Tee Scott and Nicky Siano. Think about the music that these guys were sharing with the world, and why they were sharing it. Think about why this music evolved in the first place, and how it kept thriving after the world tried to kill it. Next time you think about disco, think about music that held the power to take us to a world filled with love.
If you’re interested in hearing more, you should definitely check these out. A few of them are out of print, but they’re worth tracking down.
Nicky Siano’s Legendary The Gallery
Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story
Body and Soul NYC, Vol. I
David Mancuso Presents The Loft, Vol. I
Lazy Dog: Deep House Music Mixed by Ben Watt and Jay Hannan
And if you actually want to read something by someone who knows what the fuck they’re talking about, these are all awesome.
Love Saves the Day by Tim Lawrence (Duke University Press)
Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton (Grove Press)
House: The Rough Guide by Sean Bidder (Rough Guides Ltd.)