Justin Smallbridge: New York City Noise

justin_Smallbridge_headshot_01All the sins blamed on “disco” (such as it was at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s) — cocaine, amyl nitrate, sexually transmitted disease, The Ritchie Family, Andy Gibb — are nothing compared to the ugliness of “Disco Sucks.” The stigma’s so powerful that even now, nobody would dare call it disco. It was “house” for a while, and these days people call it “EDM,” a clumsy catch-all acronym that stands for “electronic dance music,” although it sounds more like another disco-era sexually transmitted disease. (“I’m sorry, but the only remedy for EDM is a series of painful injections, taking this foul-smelling tincture six times a day and applying this stinky salve to the affected area…”)

70s-disco-deckAt least partly because of its African-American and Latino roots, not to mention its early underground association with gay clubs, “disco” became an increasing loaded and pejorative term as it made its way out of until July 12, 1979, when Chicago’s WLUP FM staged its “Disco Demolition” promotion and the special mix of Caucasian male stoner homophobia, racism and resentment that had been festering for a couple of years boiled over into an ugly riot. (Beer helped.)

 Chicago’s disco demolition. July 12, 1979

In the late 1970s, it seemed for a while to matter very much which side of a particular line you were on. Disco persons disdained and despised punks. On  the “rock” side of things, it was de rigeur to hate punks and disco folks. And if you were a punk or “new wave” type, well, then the “rock” crowd was all wrong and the disco people were awful for any number of completely obvious reasons.

drop dead daily news frontAll those things seemed so different from each other when they were ascendant. Of course, the differences were social and tiny. (“The narcissism of small differences” is even a recognized Freudian concept; Sigmund came up with it based on the work of British anthropologist Ernest Crawley.) The small differences are amplified and funnier because disco, punk and hip-hop  grew up within blocks of each other at the same time — Manhattan in the 1970s. They were different responses to essentially the same stimulus: civic bankruptcy and social collapse. Disco was developing in SoHo and Midtown as a kind of glammed-up escapism. The New York Dolls, Ramones, Television and Talking Heads were at CBGB on the Bowery, making music that expressed fury, disgust, a nihilistic shrug or some combination. In vacant lots and community centers in the south Bronx, transplanted Jamaican DJ Clive Campbell was playing obscure funk records so people could dance under the name “Kool Herc.” And it wasn’t long before some party MCs adapted the Jamaican crowd-exhortation gambit known as “toasting” and mashed it together with the rhyming insult game “the dozens” to create rap.


Kool Herc sets up his system in a park

Disco was a result of a couple of New York City ordinances. People of the same gender couldn’t dance with each other in public (one of the regular police raids predicated on that law at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 sparked a riot that lasted all weekend and started the gay rights movement). The only place gay folks could dance with each other was at private parties. David Mancuso had a loft at 647 Broadway and a fascination with high-end audio. He grew up in an orphanage in Utica, NY, fondly remembered the parties one of the nuns there had organized for the children and wanted to recreate that mood and celebration. He had a couple of Acoustic Research turntables and a McIntosh pre-am/power amp set-up driving two pairs of Klipschorn speakers. On February 14, 1970, Mancuso threw a party titled “Love Saves The Day.” — invitation only, no food, or beverages sold, although guests were free to bring pretty much whatever they wanted.

David Mancuso explains the fundamentals of disco audio

If you could dance to it, Mancuso played it: each record start to finish, no beat-matching, no pitch control, no mixer, going from one turntable to the other using the McIntosh’s Phono A/Phono B switch. The range of material is demonstrated pretty well by the selections on “The Loft” compilations. Just a few from The Loft’s early days: “Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys” by The Equals (led by Eddy Grant), War’s “City Country City” and Dorothy Morrison’s “Rain,” to cite three.

“Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys.” The Equals

 “City Country City.” War

 “Rain.” Dorothy Morrison

The Loft’s crowd at both its original Broadway and subsequent 99 Prince Street locations was just as eclectic as the music. Part of the crowd was gay, but the clientele wasn’t exclusively so. People showed up for the music. Mancuso’s decision not to sell alcohol or food proved crucial in 1975 when the city said he needed a cabaret license and he was able to prove he didn’t — after what was, at the time, the longest cabaret license hearing in New York history. “For me, the party is about social progress,” he told disco historian and author Tim Lawrence. No alcohol meant no last-call laws. Once the party started at midnight Saturday, it could just keep going as long as people wanted it to — more often than not until around noon Sunday.

Mancuso’s Loft was the template for a series of imitators. The first wave occurred when he stopped throwing the parties over the summer of 1973. Loft regular Nicky Siano rented a similar space at 132 West 22nd Street and opened The Gallery with many of the same principles as The Loft: private party, invitation only, no alcohol. Siano wound up DJing at Studio 54. Francis Grasso took things he’d learned at The Loft to The Sanctuary. (His innovation was mixing one record into the next. He called the mixes “changes.”)

“Who is Francis Grasso and what did he do?”

Mancuso pretty much built what came to be “disco” from scratch. In addition to the rent-party/eclectic-crowd idea, he put together the first record pool along with fellow DJs Vince Aletti and Steve D’Acquisto as a way for DJs to get promotional copies of records to play in clubs and for sharing information about music among each other and the record business. He worked with audio engineers to design, build and constantly improve club sound systems.

Nicky Siano, then…and somewhat more recently.

nicky siano 01


==========================================================The invitation-only party ethos persisted right up through the Paradise Garage, where Siano also DJ’d along with another Loft and Gallery regular, Larry Levan. Again, no alcohol; the music and dancing were the draw, and again, a gay contingent, but the venue wasn’t exclusively gay.

Larry Levan DJing at the Paradise Garage on its final night

At this remove, it’s tough to say whether the persistence of that model was a matter of simple imitation and a lack of imagination among the imitators, the necessity of skirting certain city regulations or some combination. A lot of those elements stayed in the underground clubs by the time disco was “above ground” at Studio 54. And it was the very excesses that weren’t part of the underground scene that took that place down. What started as invitation-only became Steve Rubell’s capricious “you…not you…you if you take your shirt off and ditch your girlfriend” door policy — the opposite of the kind of inclusivity Dave Mancuso insisted on at The Loft or that Siano maintained at The Gallery.

A bemused take on Studio 54 from a British television reporter


Country, bluegrass, blues, other music for uplifting gourmandizers

Blocks away from The Loft — less than a ten-minute walk — at the same time, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Television and various other bands were playing to small crowds whose music of choice wasn’t available anywhere else. From here, it looks like a pair of slightly different means to the same end. In one case, dancing the night away in a loud, thumping haven, a sanctuary from the mayhem outside. On the other hand, if the city’s broke and going to hell anyway, why not go down swinging as some kind of three-chord thrashing nihilistic update of The Bowery Boys, also known as the Dead End Kids? For all the slinging of vituperation and professed mutual dislike between the punk and disco camps, in 1979, both strains collide in “Heart Of Glass,” a disco record by a band that started out as a punk outfit.

“Here are some bright young men I’m sure are gonna go far. Ladies and gentlemen — The Ramones.” —Waylon Smithers. Joey, Tommy, Johnny and Dee Dee at CBGB in 1974

“A Girl Should Know Better.” Blondie. CBGB, 1975

The New York Dolls in Toronto in 1974, baffling and unnerving an anonymous CBC reporter

Kool Herc invites you to a “Back To School Jam,” August 11, 1973, in the 1520 Sedgwick Avenue rec room. Ladies’ admission: 25 cents. Fellas: $0.50

kool herc party invitation 1973

Get on the 4 train not far from CBGB and ride uptown for about 55 minutes, and you’d be at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Clive Campbell moved into that building when he came to New York from Jamaica, and he brought the idea of a sound system with him, and in 1973 he hosted and DJ’d a party in the community room there.  But the party people didn’t want the dub sides of reggae records. They wanted funk. So that’s what they got. Kool Herc wanted the three-minute records that filled the dance floor to last longer. So he put two copies of the live version of James Brown’s “Give It Up (Turnit A Loose)” on both turntables, and kept cutting from one to the other to extend its break. Then he got the idea of mixing a couple of different records with similar breaks together. He called it “a merry-go-round.”

Kool Herc advances a disco mixing technique to keep the dance floor full

And two years after “Heart Of Glass,” punk, disco and hip-hop meet up in another Blondie record: “Rapture.”

“Rapture.” Blondie

“Once Upon A Time In New York.” BBC4 documentary detailing New York and its music in the 1970’s, narrated by Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien

 “Maestro.” Disco history


DBAWIS ButtonJustin’s column appears here every 4th Monday

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

Justin Smallbridge is, among other things, a writer, producer, broadcaster, voiceover artist and record collector.

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