"It is doubtful whether many habitués of Studio 54 could have named the club DJ, Richie Kaczor. Levan, a gay black man, was probably the first DJ to be recognized not as a "star" precisely...but as a creative force in making the music. Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, says, 'You couldn't buy the music. It wasn't purchasable. You'd think you'd been there (at Paradise Garage) one hour. And it would be four.'"
-Anthony Haden-Guest, "The Last Party" (William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1997), p. 211.
"The beginning of the eighties witnessed a musical and demographic meeting, particularly in New York, that will never happen again. There was little musical difference between disco, hi-NRG, hip-hop, electro, and freestyle, yet their core audiences of gay men and black and Latino teenagers couldn't have been more divergent."
-Peter Shapiro, "Disco: Playing With A Different Sex" in "A History of Electronic Music" (Caipirinha Productions, Inc., New York, 2000), p. 45.
"Punk rock you could pogo to, but it wasn't sexy. It wasn't like you could fuck a chick to it..." -Billy Idol.
XIX. DISCO BECOMES "DANCE MUSIC"
In a matter of months after the "Disco Sucks" movement began it was anathema to use the term" disco" in the music industry. The correct term for music that people could dance to was called simply "dance music" and, eventually, EDM.
Thus dance music was divorced in mainstream America's collective consciousness from its association with the gay, black and Hispanic underground. David Bowie, Madonna, the Eurythmics, the Go-Go's, B-52's, Michael Jackson and the like all produced danceable music in the early eighties, but they were not "disco" artists. Semantics, yes, but an important distancing in the culture from dance music's roots.
The "disco sucks" rebellion, however, had a very important effect on the development of house music and EDM in general. Much product had been produced by the music industry in the disco years that was designed specifically for DJs and the dance scene. As that market declined dramatically in the early eighties and one disco music producer after another went down there was much less vinyl in release. And little money and industry support available to hire orchestras, high-priced vocal talent, and the like to create the heavily produced disco releases of the seventies. So the dance scene was forced to innovate. No budget for live recording -- use synthesizers, drum machines and sampler technologies to transform worn "disco" templates into remarkable new music that could be created inexpensively in an apartment or garage studio. Tired of the disco formula -- look to the many genres of music that were evolving at the time: electro, post punk rock, world music, hip hop, Italian imports.
Everything was changing musically at the time, and it was exciting. Quite honestly those of us passionate about music had tired of the disco formula years before. Larry Levan had never been an exclusive disco DJ, and the gifted in the underground scene had begun experimenting with new sounds well before the jocks in Chicago burned disco. Larry's sets at the Garage were always eclectic and they became more so in the eighties as he incorporated punk, hard rock, new wave, reggae and other world beats into the mix.
I certainly was on a quest for something new at the time. The first wave of punk was pretty much over. After Cookie Monster, Oscar and Big Bird cut their disco album my feelings about all commercial disco had turned to loathing. I was much interested in the hip-hop scene in Brooklyn. Many of us had started listening to Jamaican dub music. And I had discovered industrial music after meeting Genesis P-Orridge and listening to some Throbbing Gristle releases. The beginning of a long musical relationship for me.
As a gay dancer in mostly underground clubs in NYC, I was not at all affected by the end of disco for it really didn't seem from my perspective to be over at all. Paradise Garage was packed. In fact the gay dance scene in general was flourishing. So was the gay subculture. The homophobic "Save the Children" campaign and the anti-gay jock element of "disco sucks" only served to unite the community. 1979 through 1981 were really the zenith of urban gay culture in America. Sunshine before the black clouds of AIDS ended things as they were forever.
A THE SAINT
The only venue I danced at regularly in NYC other than the Paradise Garage was the Saint. The two were at opposite ends of the spectrum: the Garage was underground, tribal and mostly black; the Saint was a masterpiece of high tech psychedelia that attracted the gay "A" list, mostly white, and was exclusively private (and very expensive) membership until 1985.
I am ambivalent these days about my enthusiasm for the Saint back then. I feel now I had in some ways betrayed my underground idealism by dancing there but, by heavens, the place was truly astonishing in design and execution. Even now there are many -- who didn't die in the plague -- who still have a connection to that place.
I would have never have attended the Saint if I had had to pay the membership fee of $250. Since I knew several people involved in its creation, and folks on the crew like Richard Sabala, the genius lighting designer, I got a free membership.
The Saint was Bruce Mailman's concept. Bruce was the owner of the St. Mark's Bathhouse (where my partner used to be manager), and his vision was to build the greatest gay dance/sex venue that NYC or the world had ever seen. I have much information on the Saint because I have in my possession copies of the original plans and other specifications.
The Saint was constructed out of Bill Graham's old Fillmore East location at Second and Sixth Streets. Mailman spent over $5 million dollars ($3 million on sound) renovating the space and it was indeed "...a stately pleasure dome..."
The venue had three levels. The first was the main bar done in concrete, crystal, copper and mirror. Above the bar were an array of video screens that broadcast either underground conceptual art or live shows from the dancefloor.
On the second floor was the most electrifying dance space I have ever experienced. Without drugs it was a Fantasia trip; with a hit of acid it was like dancing in outer space...really. The dancefloor was 4,800 square feet. There were no pillars or walls to separate the dancers. Over the dancefloor was a 76' by 38' perforated aluminum dome that could be transparent or opaque depending on the source of light. And -- the glory of it all -- there was a hydraulic lift system that supported 1500 lights and a planetarium starfield projector, just like the kind that would put on those cool space shows you went to see as a kid at the local planetarium. The lighting system projected from the center onto the dome's inner surface. The planetarium projector was ten times brighter than the standard so that the heavenly projections were visible even with the other lighting effects. The projector could tilt, rotate or turn the hemispheres upside down.
The sound system. 630 drivers, 32 amplifiers and nearly 500 speakers. The heart of this system was an Audionics Space and Image Composer that separated the music signals into the dome's quadrants with 14 channels of amplification in each. The turntables were set on top of a 1500-pound concrete slab suspended by pneumatic isolators so that the tables were isolated from the vibration of the dancefloor. In order to minimize echo high frequency speakers were mounted on acrylic and sealed 1.25 inches from the dome with rubber gaskets. They were aimed directly at the dancers.
A stage with performers would appear from a 20-foot section of the dome that was designed to open so that the live acts would appear to materialize out of space.
Mailman, I guess because he was in the sex business, was the first to actually create a space for sexual encounters in a dance club. While it is true that folks often had sex on the premises in other clubs, he was the first to design sex into dancing. The sex could be had on the third floor balcony. The balcony was dimly lit and carpeted, with couches and such, and overlooked the dome-encased dancefloor. When the light was right you could look down through the heavens, as it were, and watch the dancers dance while you and the other dancers upstairs had sex.
Getting up to that balcony was, to my mind, a treacherous journey. One moment you were dancing literally under the heavens. The next, you were climbing up these steel, Bauhaus-like unenclosed industrial steps that took you on a breathtaking journey above the heavens. It was impossible to negotiate these steps gracefully when one was stoned. I had many attacks of vertigo going up and down and felt literally like if I missed a step I would drop off the face of the earth.
The Saint. Decadent. Probably. Organic. Certainly not. But the larger question for me is: when do the special effects overwhelm the music? The music and effects worked together by design here so that it was impossible for me to separate the two. All I can remember is being completely engulfed by the visuals, and I think if there had been a train wreck or ten I wouldn't have noticed them.
Although the Saint was the crown of the gay "post-disco" era, straights in NYC were still dancing in the early eighties in places like Xenon, Bond's, the Funhouse and Danceteria. Now they were dancing to "dance music", and that music was to evolve in the next few years into house music as we know it today, as well as the rest of EDM. Even a terrible plague couldn't stop the dancing.
NEXT: DUB AND HERPES