"House comes from a soulful, R&B-gospel-based background, and, of course, disco. That's the foundation. But the elements on top can be anything, from classical to new wave to rock. If you understand the roots of house, it's not far-fetched to relate it to other things. Musically, we're only dealing with twelve notes. Somewhere down the line, certain things are going to sound similar, even if they seem to be out in left field."
- Jesse Saunders, the "originator" of house music.
"It wasn't a polished atmosphere, the lighting was real simplistic, but the sound was *intense* and it was about what you heard as opposed to what you saw. Comfortably, the place held about 600, but coming and going we did about two thousand to two and a half thousand people. The crowds came in shifts."
- Frankie Knuckles on the Warehouse in Chicago.
XXXI. FRANKIE GOES TO CHICAGO
When we last left Frankie, he was on his way to Chicago from NYC in 1977. He had been offered the job as resident DJ at a new Chicago club, the Warehouse, after his pal Larry Levan refused the position to stay in NYC and make his mark at the Paradise Garage.
Frankie, however, was in constant communication with all of his friends in NYC, and Larry was always shipping him the latest dance records from the Big Apple. At the time there were no record stores in Chicago that carried the kind of sounds that were originating in the New York underground dance scene, so Frankie pretty much had a monopoly on fresh dance music for a time.
Frankie told us that dance club culture was pretty moribund when he arrived in the windy city: mostly bars with jukeboxes and a couple of venues with live DJs. So Frankie had an opportunity to bring new beats to Chicago as well as recreate the energetic gay NYC disco subculture in a town that was, it turned out, hungry for a Dionysian dance floor experience.
1. THE WAREHOUSE
The Warehouse was in every respect as "legendary" as the Paradise Garage.
The Warehouse was located in the western part of Chicago's Loop. These days the area is populated with high rises and such, but back then it was mostly lofts and industrial warehouse space. The club building was three stories. As I recall, the top floor was a kind of lounge affair and to get to the dance floor, which was the second floor, one had to go down through a sort of trap door. That top floor could be like an oven at full throttle at times, because the heat would rise up from the dancers' bodies below.
Like the Paradise Garage, the Warehouse didn't serve booze to so that the club could run from dusk to dawn and avoid the restrictive 2 AM closing time that the liquor laws required. Instead of alcohol, the club served juices and various snacks like its sister in New York.
Most people who are passionate about dancing loath the idea of packing it in at two. One has a couple of hours of frenzied movement followed by house lights going up and the grim reality of nothing to do and lots of energy to kill for the next four or five hours. So in order to avoid the Puritanical liquor restrictions many clubs, and the later rave culture, eliminated booze so that dancers could greet the sun on the floor. The amusing thing about all this dancing around the anal retentive, grim-minded Puritans and their anti-pleasure restrictions is that these alcohol-free venues, in my opinion, actually facilitated the use of various stimulants and other pleasure-oriented drugs. Many people require something to dance to dawn, and coffee just doesn't do it. And they didn't have Red Bull back in the day. But whatever one's view on this controversial subject, most humans need a little intoxication to go along with the rituals of the night. One of my favorite passages from Irvine Welsh's "The Acid House" (London, 1995) is Lloyd's anti-Puritanical rant:
"Drug and club money is not a fuckin luxury. It's a fuckin essential... Because we are social, collective fucking animals and we need to be together and have a good time. It's a basic state of being alive. A basic fuckin right. These Government cunts, because they are power junkies, they are just incapable of having a good fuckin time so they want everyone else tae feel guilty, tae stay in wee boxes and devote their worthless lives tae rearing the next generation of factiry fodeer or sodgers or dole moles for the state."
Night is a special time, a time when social constructs lose their force. Yes, the Puritans know all about the night.
The Warehouse was every bit the tribal, ecstatic experience that defined the Paradise Garage, albeit on a smaller scale. The space was, to my mind, a bit cramped -- but it certainly fostered intimacy. The dancers would "jack" their bodies to the music, often with sexual intent, some holding on to the drainpipes running around the floor, others sliding up and around and against neighboring dancers. Wild and sweaty: sensual leaping to the spiritual.
The Warehouse, like the Garage, attracted mostly African American and Latin gay males, although management encouraged inter-racial mixing -- not the usual thing in Chicago. The cost was minimal, three or four dollars, so that one had the pleasure of dancing with a diverse socioeconomic clientele.
2. CHICAGO BOYS LIKE IT FAST
Right from the beginning, Frankie sensed that the Chicago boys liked it faster and beefier than their New York counterparts. The New York disco sound was a bit too down-temp for these kids -- they liked the tempo up around 120 bpm. So Frankie was accommodating.
He took the disco coming from Larry and used rhythm and drum machines to beef up the tempo and pump up the bass.
Frankie also re-edited new and old disco sounds for this new environment. For example, "Let No Man Put Asunder" was one of the big hits at the Warehouse, and Larry cut it up and reformed it and played it back on reel-to-reel recorders, a technique he learned in NYC from the early masters. He would also record special effects sound tracks on tape that he used throughout the night to alter and reshape the music and sound.
This was the beginning of the music we call "house" -- gay men fiercely jacking their bodies at the Warehouse to restructured 120 bpm+ disco.
Frankie soon developed a wildly enthusiastic audience for his music and Warehouse vibe. Even "straight" folk like Jesse Saunders were deeply impressed and much influenced by these new housey beats. Jesse first ventured into the Warehouse when he was 16. Like many straight men in a gay club for the first time, he was fearful that someone might grab his ass or somethin'. But he soon found himself mesmerized by the music and the dancers.
And he wasn't the only one...
NEXT: MORE OF THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT IN CHICAGO.