Showing posts sorted by relevance for query new york. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query new york. Sort by date Show all posts

Sunday, November 06, 2011

New York 1977: when the lights went out

The Trammps' disco classic The Night the Lights Went Out (1977) commemorates an actual historical event in that year - the New York blackout. In The Trammps' account this was an occasion for sex in the unlit darkness:

Where were you when the lights went out
In New York City (I wanna know, I wanna know)
Where were you when the lights went out
In New York City

Don't you know that I was making love
(She was making love)

I remember on the 13th of July
The only light was the light up in the sky
New York had black-out for 25 hours or more
And nobody really knows the reason why...

Politicians said it was a pity
But that was the night they call it love city
So I took my lady by the hand
And led her to love me, love me, love me!

Where were you when the lights went out
In New York City (I wanna know, yeah)
Where were you when the lights went out
In New York City

But sex wasn't the only thing on New Yorkers' minds - the power cut also prompted mass looting. John Zerzan celebrated this aspect in an article published in the Detroit-based radical paper Fifth Estate (August 1977):

New York, New York

“Amid All the Camaraderie is Much Looting this Time; Seeing the City Disappear”, Wall Street Journal headline, 15 July 1977

The Journal went on to quote a cop on what he saw, as the great Bastille Day break-out unfolded: “People are going wild in the borough of Brooklyn. They are looting stores by the carload.” Another cop added later: “Stores were ripped open. Others have been leveled. After they looted, they burned.”

At about 9:00 p.m. on July 13 the power went out in New York for 24 hours. During that period the complete impotence if the state in our most ‘advanced’ urban space could hardly have been made more transparent. As soon as the lights went out, cheers and shouts and loud music announced the liberation of huge sections of the city. The looting and burning commenced immediately, with whole families joining in the “carnival spirit”. In the University Heights section of the Bronx, a Pontiac dealer lost the 50 new cars in his showroom. In many areas, tow trucks and other vehicles were used to tear away the metal gates from stores. Many multistorey furniture businesses were completely emptied by neighborhood residents.

Despite emergency alerts for the state troopers, FBI and National Guard, there was really nothing authority could do, and they knew it. A New York Times editorial of July 16 somewhat angrily waved aside the protests of those who wondered why there was almost no intervention on the side of property. “Are you kidding?” the Times snorted, pointing out that such provocation would only have meant that the entire city would still be engulfed in riots, adding that the National Guard is a “bunch of kids” who wouldn’t have had a chance.

The plundering was completely multi-racial, with white, black and Hispanic businesses cleaned out and destroyed throughout major parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Not a single “racial incident” was reported during the uprising, while newspaper pictures and TV news bore witness to the variously coloured faces emerging from the merchants’ windows and celebrating in the streets. Similarly, looting, vandalism, and attacks in police were not confined to the City proper; Mount Vernon, Yonkers and White Plains were among suburbs in which the same things happened, albeit on a smaller scale.

Rioting broke out in the Bronx House of Detention where prisoners started fires, seized dormitories, and almost escaped by ramming through a wall with a steel bed. Concerning the public, the Bronx District Attorney fumed, “It’s lawlessness. It’s almost anarchy.”

Officer Gary Parlefsky, of the 30th Precinct in Harlem, said that he and other cops came under fire from guns, bottles and rocks. He continued: 'We were scared to death... but worse than that, a blue uniform didn’t mean a thing. They couldn’t understand why we were arresting them'.

At a large store at 110th Street and Eighth Avenue, the doors were smashed open and dozens of people carried off appliances. A woman in her middle-50s walked into the store and said laughingly: “Shopping with no money required!”

Attesting to the atmosphere of a “collective celebration”, as one worried columnist put it, a distribution center was spontaneously organized at a Brooklyn intersection, with piles of looted goods on display for the taking. This was shown briefly on an independent New York station, WPIX-TV, but not mentioned in the major newspapers. The transformation of commodities into free merchandise was only aided by the coming of daylight, as the festivity and music continued. Mayor Beame, at a noon (July 15) press conference, spoke of the “night of terror”, only to be mocked heartily by the continuing liberation underway throughout New York as he spoke.

Much, of course, was made of the huge contrast between the events of July 1977 and the relatively placid, law-abiding New York blackout of November 1965. One can only mention the obvious fact that the dominant values are now everywhere in shreds. The “social cohesion” of class society is evaporating. New York is no isolated example.

Of course, there has been a progressive decay in recent times of restraint, hierarchy, and other enforced virtues; it hasn’t happened all at once. Thus, in the 1960s, John Leggett (in his Class, Race and Labour) was surprised to learn upon examining the arrest records of those in the Detroit and Newark insurrections, that a great many of the participants were fully employed. This time, of the 176 people indicted as of August 8 in Brooklyn (1,004 were arrested in the borough), 48% were regularly employed. (The same article in the August 9 San Francisco Chronicle where these figures appeared also pointed out that only “six grocery stores were looted while 39 furniture stores, 20 drug stores and 17 jewelry stores and clothing stores were looted”). And there are other similarities to New York, naturally; Life magazine of 4 August 1967 spoke of the “carnival-like revel of looting” in Detroit, and Professor Edward Banfield commented that "Negroes and whites mingled in the streets [of Detroit] and looted amicably side by side....”

The main difference is probably one of scale and scope — that in New York virtually all areas, even the suburbs, took the offensive and did so from the moment the lights went out. Over $1 billion was lost in the thousands of stores looted and burned, while the cops were paralyzed. During the last New York rioting, the ‘Martin Luther King’ days of 1968, 32 cops were injured; in one day in July 1977, 418 cops were injured.

The Left — all of it — has spoken only of the high unemployment, the police brutality; has spoken of the people of New York only as objects, and pathetic ones at that! The gleaming achievements of the unmediated / unideologized have all the pigs scared shitless'.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Dancing Questionnaire 5: Charles Donelan

Charles Donelan has sent in this fascinating questionnaire covering his dancing odyssey through some legendary clubs in New York and elsewhere with a cast including Madonna and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Charles writes regularly on arts and entertainment for the Santa Barbara Independent, but really should get working on that book on 1980s New York!

Can you remember your first experience of dancing?
First ever was probably to some classic rock cover band in the junior high cafeteria. Or was that the gymnasium? But really dancing—for me that started in New Haven , CT , USA around 1979. People danced to the new wave and punk music of the time, but that was where I also began to hear the first Sugarhill records, and to dance to James Brown, Fela, and Parliament/Funkadelic at parties in dining halls or at people’s apartments. This was fun but still essentially random, just college kids messing around.
By the time I moved to New York City in 1982 I had discovered the Mudd Club, Danceteria, and the Peppermint Lounge, where people were dancing to the Bush Tetras, the Feelies, James White, Konk, ESG, and other new wave bands of that era. But this was also when “The Message” broke, and a lot of other great early hiphop, and I can remember hearing it for the first time on club dance floors at places called things like “Fallout Shelter” that closed after a month and thinking this is big. At first people did the same new wave style dance to the hiphop beats, bent at the waist and knees, crossing their arms and legs rhythmically, low in front, and popping up at exciting moments, and spinning 360 or 720 degrees. When I started working as the elevator boy at Danceteria in 1983 (flyer left), the second floor dance area had a range of steady DJs who were all in Rockpool—Mark Kamins, Ed Bahlman, Walter Durkacsz, and Johnny Dynell—and they all had the signature New York sound—a mix of hiphop, disco, rock, funk, and what we now call “80s,” all filtered through these really loud, really noisy sound systems and mixed with way too much cheap phase shifting etc. All the kind of cheesy effects that you can still hear on something like Armand Van Helden’s New York a Mix Odyssey CD.

Around 1983 everyone started to go to the Roxy roller disco on Thursday nights to hear Afrika Bambataa. There was crazy break dancing going on there, with an “Everbody”-era Madge right in the middle of it [Madonna's was the last record played at the Roxy's gay club earlier this year - even if she didn't turn up personally - Neil] . Malcolm Mclaren hired young teenage doubledutch rope jumpers from Harlem to perform at 3 in the morning to premiere “Buffalo Gals.” My gf and I were in the Roxy VIP with Daryl Mac, Run, and John Lydon. If you want an idea of what the sound was like, think the loudest system ever, turned up. Each week they premiered a song—I can remember being there for the premiere of “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.” To make the people really dance, Afrika played just the first two bars of “Hey Mickey!” for five minutes.

2.What’s the most interesting/significant thing that has happened to you while out dancing?
Connecting with other people. There are certain things that only come out on the dancefloor, and great music takes people far out of themselves. I have met and befriended individuals through going out dancing who have changed my life, and my interest in nightlife has had an impact on my career. But the most significant things that happen while out dancing are the excitement of the moment and the intensity of the memory impressions that it leaves.

3. You. Dancing. The best of times…
Nell’s on West 14th circa 1986-90 had a great, small, dark basement dancefloor. It is perhaps best known as the place where Tupac’s New York sexual assault charges began. Nell’s had a really strict door policy, but it was still done by coolness, rather than how much money people planned to spend. The cover charge was $5, and they took it from pretty much everyone, at least for the first year. For at least the first two full years we had the run of the place on Thursdays, which was the best night. The DJ, who is still working, and is a wonderful dancer, was Belinda, and I am convinced that she was responsible for breaking Eric B. and Rakim to the right people in New York . Her signature song was “For the Love of Money,” she played a lot of hiphop, and it was the most exciting dance floor you could imagine. It often had combinations like Tupac, Kate Moss, a Haitian drugdealer, Prince, his bodyguards, the Beasties, and Linda Evangelista all dancing at the same time in a group of no more than 200. That was fun.

So was the next big place to open, which had a much harder edge to it. Mars was in the Meatpacking district and it was opened by Rudolf of Danceteria and Yuki Watanabe, his Japanese backer. This place looked out on the Hudson River through metal pilings and had a neon sign over the dance floor that said DRUGS. The records that broke there include the the late 80s Public Enemy hits, the Soul II Soul record, “Keep on Movin’,” which was incredibly influential in New York, and a whole bunch of other classic hiphop of the late 80s and early 90s.

The best of all New York clubs in the 1980s was the World. This was an abandoned Ukrainian dance hall in the lower east village that was 100 feet from the Toilet, the city’s most notorious heroin spot. The World had a super-strict, totally countercultural door policy, and hosted the U.S. debuts of such talents as the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Pogues. I think that dancing to Street Fighting Man at the Jesus and Mary Chain show at 3 am because the band still had not gone on, and being happy about it, might qualify as the best of times ever.

4. You. Dancing. The worst of times…
Afterhours at Save the Robots on Avenue B… with real vampires.

5. Can you give a quick tour of the different dancing scenes/times/places you’ve frequented?
New York City , see above, and in Southampton , New York , in the potato barns turned nightclubs of the late 1980s and early 1990s. These parties were good, with mostly pop music, but this is also where I got my earliest exposure to techno. Places I traveled to where dancing occurred include London, from about 1981 on, where I went to whatever clubs I could find in timeout; does anyone remember a place in an old theater that had a raked dancefloor? That was something. So was Leigh Bowery (pictured). I saw a very good Pogues show at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden in 1986 I think, and I danced to Haircut 100 at the ICA on or around New Years of 1981. Then there’s Los Angeles , where I went to a vintage warehouse rave in the early 1990s with people who would not do that today. LA has a funny dance club/nightlife history, with 80s hair metal giving way to hard house somewhere around 1993, and lots of the same people somehow attending. The most recent great dance scene I have witnessed was in South Beach Miami for Winter Music Conference 2007. Miami has some of the energy of New York back in the day.

6. When and where did you last dance?
I danced on Saturday night at the Wildcat Lounge in Santa Barbara , California to hard contemporary house. It was Memorial Day weekend, a big holiday here, and I felt I saw almost everyone I know, because Santa Barbara is a small town.

7. You’re on your death bed. What piece of music would make your leap up for one final dance?
Caravan by Duke Ellington.

1983 Halloween flyer for Danceteria, New York from the excellent Danceteria blog - where there is a whole archive of flyers from this period.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Anais Nin: Dancing in 1930s New York City of Rhythm

The writer Anais Nin (1903-77) lived between Paris and New York in the 1930s, and her diaries provide a vivid account of bohemian nightlife in this period. In the latter city, it was the clubs and rent parties of Harlem that were the big draw. The journals describe a 1934 trip with the psychologist Otto Rank:

"Harlem. The Savoy. Music which makes the floor tremble, a vast place, with creamy drinks, dusky lights, and genuine gaiety, with the Negroes dancing like people possessed. The rhythm unleashes everyone as you step on the floor. Rank said he could not dance. 'A new world, a new world,' he murmured, astonished and bewildered. I never imagined that he could not dance, that he had led such a serious life that he could not dance. I said: 'Dance with me.' At first he was stiff, he tripped, he was confused and dizzy. But at the end of the first dance he began to forget himself and dance. It gave him joy. All around us the Negroes danced wildly and grace­fully. And Rank sauntered as if he were learning to walk. I danced, and he danced along with me. I would have liked to dance with the Negroes, who dance so spontaneously and elegantly, but I felt I should give Rank the pleasure of dis­covering freedom of physical motion when he had given me emotional freedom. Give back pleasure, music, self-forgetting for all that he gave me".

A few months later (April 1935) she was back, this time with the writer Rebecca West and the actor Raymond Massey: 'to Harlem, first to a nightclub, to hear some singing, and then to a private apartment. Everyone was dancing and drinking. Half white people, half black, beautiful women, well-dressed men, and jazz, it was intoxicating and magnifiicent, the laughter, the dancing, but I miss the intimacy which grows out of such parties in Paris. Here it is all jokes, banter, evasion'.

Nin's descriptions of black people can certainly be read as patronising, but nevertheless in an era of segregation the very fact of mixed dancing was remarkable.

She perceived a clear link between music and the moods of a modern city. Her night out with Otto Rank concluded 'Driving home the radio in the taxi continues the jazz mood. New York seems conducted by jazz, animated by it. It is essen­tially a city of rhythm".

Later she writes "The radio plays blues. Paris, New York, the two magnetic poles of the world. Paris a sensual city which seduced the body, enlivened the senses, New York unnatural, synthetic; Paris-New York, the two high tension magnetic poles between life, life of the senses of the spirit in Paris, and life in action in New York".

Source: The Journals of Anais Nin, Volume Two: 1934-1939.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The House the Kids Built: The Gay Black Imprint on American Dance Music

Expect to read a lot this year about the 20th anniversary of acid house in the UK. There’s a new Danny Rampling '20 years of house' mix CD and a linked facebook group with 13,000+ members (worth a look if you’re on facebook as people have uploaded lots of great flyers). There’s also a planned flash mob event based around the premise of getting lots of people together to dance to acid house classics – on their headphones. Clearly 1988 was the year when house music really exploded in the UK, but house music itself goes back a few years further. The following article was originally published in the US magazine Out/Look in 1989, and looks at house music’s origins in the black gay clubs of Chicago in the 1980s:

The House the Kids Built: The Gay Black Imprint on American Dance Music - Anthony Thomas

America’s critical establishment has yet to acknowledge the contributions made by gay Afro-Americans. Yet black (and often white) society continues to adopt cultural and social patterns from the gay black subculture. In terms of language, turns of phrase that were once used exclusively by gay Afro-Americans have crept into the vocabulary of the larger black society; singer Gladys Knight preaches about unrequited love to her "girlfriend" in the hit "Love Overboard"'; and college rivals toss around "Miss Thing" in Spike Lee's film "School Daze."

What's also continued to emerge from the underground is the dance music of gay black America. More energetic and polyrhythmic than the sensibility of straight African-Americans, and simply more African than the sensibility of white gays, the musical sensibility of today's ‘house’ music- like that of disco and club music before it- has spread beyond the gay black subculture to influence broader musical tastes.

What exactly is house music? At a recording session for DJ International, a leading label of house music, British journalist Sheryl Garratt posed that question to the assembled artists. A veritable barrage of answers followed: "I couldn't begin to tell you what house is. You have to go to the clubs and see how people react when they hear it. It's more like a feeling that runs through, like old time religion in the way that people jus' get happy and screamin'… It's happening! ... It's Chicago's own sound.... It's rock till you drop… You might go and seek religion afterwards! It's gonna be hot, it's gonna be sweaty, and it's gonna be great, It's honest-ta-goodness, get down, low down gutsy, grabbin' type music." (1).

Like the blues and gospel, house is very Chicago. Like rap out, of New York and go-go out of D.C., house is evidence of the regionalization of black American music. Like its predecessors, disco and club, house is a scene as well as a music, black as well as gay.

But as house music goes pop, so slams the closet door that keeps the facts about its roots from public view. House, disco, and dub are not the only black music that gays have been involved in producing, nor is everyone involved in this music gay. Still, the sound, the beat, and the rhythm have risen up from the dancing sensibilities of urban gay Afro-Americans.

The music, in turn, has provided one of the underpinnings of the gay black subculture. Dance clubs are the only popular institutions of the gay black community that are separate and distinct from the institutions of the straight black majority. Unlike their white counterparts, gay black Americans, for the most part, have not redefined themselves- politically or culturally- apart from their majority community. Although political and cultural organizations of gay Afro-Americans have formed in recent years, membership in these groups remains very small and represents only a tiny minority of the gay black population. Lesbian and gay Afro-Americans still attend black churches, join black fraternities and sororities, and belong to the NAACP.

Gay black dance clubs, like New York's Paradise Garage and Chicago's Warehouse (the birthplace of house music) have staked out a social space where gay black men don't have to deal with the racist door policies at predominantly white gay clubs or the homophobia of black straight clubs. Over the last twenty years the soundtrack to this dancing revolution has been provided by disco, club, and now-house music.

Playback: The Roots of House

Although disco is most often associated with gay while men, the roots of the music actually go back to the small underground gay black clubs of New York City. During the sixties and early seventies, these clubs offered inexpensive all-night entertainment where DJs, in order to accommodate the dancing urgencies of their gay black clientele, overlapped soul and Philly (Philadelphia International) records, phasing them in and out, to form uninterrupted soundtracks for non-stop dancing. The Temptations’ 1969 hit “I Can't Get Next To You" and the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" are classic examples of the genre of songs that were manipulated by gay black DJs. The songs' up-tempo, polyrhythmic, Latin percussion-backed grooves were well suited for the high energy, emotional, and physical dancing sensibility of the urban gay black audience.

In African and African-American music, new styles are almost always built from simple modifications of existing and respected musical styles and forms. By mixing together the best dance elements of soul and Philly records, DJs in gay black clubs had taken the first steps in the creative process that music critic Iain Chambers interprets as a marker of disco's continuity with the rhythm and blues tradition: "[In disco] the musical pulse is freed from the claustrophobic interiors of the blues and the tight scaffolding of R&B and early soul music. A looser) explicitly polyrhythmic attack pushes the blues, gospel and soul heritage into an apparently endless cycle where there is no beginning or end, just an ever-present 'now.' Disco music does not come to a halt… restricted to a three-minute single, the music would be rendered senseless. The power of disco… lay in saturating dancers and the dance floor in the continual explosion of its presence.' (2)

Although the disco pulse was born in the small gay black clubs of New York, disco music only began to gain commercial attention when it was exposed to the dance floor public of the large, predominantly white gay discos. Billboard only introduced the term disco-hit in 1973, years after disco was a staple among gay Afro-Americans, but- as music historian Tony Cummings noted- only one year after black and while gay men began to intermingle on the dance floor.

By the mid-seventies disco music production was in high gear, and many soul performers (such as Johnny Taylor with his 1976 hit "Disco Lady") had switched camps to take advantage of disco's larger market. Records were now being recorded to accomplish what DJs in gay black clubs had done earlier. Gloria Gaynor scored a breakthrough in disco technique with her 1974 album, Never Can Say Goodbye. The album treated the three songs on side one ("Honey Bee," "Never Call Say Goodbye," and "Reach Out, I'll Be There") as one long suite delivered without interrupting the dance beat- a ploy that would become a standard disco format and the basis of house music's energy level.

As the decade progressed, disco music spread far beyond its gay black origins and went on to affect the sound of pop. In its journey from this underground scene, however, disco was whitewashed. The massive success of the 1978 film Saturday Night Fever convinced mainstream America that disco was a new fad),the likes and sound of which had never been seen before. While gay men latched onto the ‘Hi NRGEurodisco beat of Donna Summer's post-‘Love to Love You’ recordings and the camp stylings of Bette Midler.

Indeed, the dance floor proved to be an accurate barometer of the racial differences in the musical tastes of white and black gays and the variation in dancing sensibilities between gay and straight Afro-Americans. Quick to recognize and exploit the profit-making potential of this phenomenon, independent producers began to put out more and more records reflecting a gay black sound.

Starting in 1977, there was an upsurge in the production of disco-like records with a soul, rhythm and blues, and gospel feel: club music was born. The most significant difference between disco and club was rhythm. Club rhythms were more complex and more Africanized. With club music, the gay black subculture reappropriated the disco impulse, as demonstrated by the evolution in disco superstar Sylvester's music.

In 1978 Sylvester had a big hit with "Disco Heat"; in 1980 he released another smash, "Fever." "Disco Heat" was a classic example of the type of disco popular among gay Afro-Americans. At 136 beats per minute it combined the high energy aspect of white gay disco with the orchestral flourishes of contemporary soul. The song also contained the metronomic bass drum that characterized all disco. It was only the gospel and soul-influenced vocals of Sylvester and his back-up singers, Two Tons o’Fun, that distinguished the music from whiter genres of disco.

"Fever," on the other hand, more dearly reflects a black/African sensibility. To begin with, the song starts with the rhythmic beating of cow bells. Sylvester also slowed the beat down to a funkier 116 beats per minute and added polyrhythmic conga and bongo drumming. The drumming is constant throughout the song and is as dominant as any other sound in it. Just as significant, in terms of Africanizing the music, was the removal of the metronomic bass drum that served to beat time in disco. In African music there is no single main beat; the beat emerges from the relation of cross-rhythms and is provided by the listener or dancer, not the musician. By removing the explicit time-keeping bass of disco, Sylvester had reintroduced the African concept of the "hidden rhythm."

While most black pop emphasizes vocals and instrumental sounds, club music tends to place more emphasis on a wide array of percussive sounds (many of which are electronically produced) to create complex patterns of cross-rhythms. In the best of club music, these patterns change very slowly; some remain stable throughout the song. It is this characteristic of club music, above all, that makes it an African-American dance music par excellence. Like disco, club also moved beyond the gay black underground scene. Gay clubs helped spread the music to a "straight" black audience on ostensibly "straight" Friday nights. And some club artists, like Grace Jones, Colonel Abrams, and Gwen Guthrie, achieved limited success in the black pop market.

For most of its history, though, club music largely has been ignored by black-oriented radio stations. Those in New York, for instance, were slow to start playing club music with any regularity; finally WBLS and WRKS began airing dance mixes at various intervals during the day. In the early eighties, the two black-oriented FM radio outlets in Chicago, WBMX and WGCI, began a similar programming format that helped give rise to the most recent variation of gay black music: house.

Pumping Up the Volume

The house scene began, and derived its name from Chicago's now defunct dance club The Warehouse. At the time of its debut in 1977, the club was the only after-hours dance venue in the city, opening at midnight Saturday and closing after the last dancers left on Sunday afternoon. On a typical Saturday night, two to five thousand patrons passed through its doors.

The Warehouse was a small three-story building- literally an abandoned warehouse with a seating area upstairs, free juice, water, and munchies in the basement, and a dimly lit, steamy dance floor in between. You only could reach the dance floor through a trap door from the level above, adding to the underground feeling of the club.

A mixed crowd (predominately gay- male and female) in various stages of undress (with athletic wear and bare flesh predominating) was packed into the dance space, wall to wall. Many actually danced hanging from water pipes that extended on a diagonal from the walls to the ceiling. The heat generated by the dancers would rise to greet you as you descended, confirming your initial impression that you were going down into something very funky and "low."

What set the Warehouse apart from comparable clubs in other cities was its economically democratic admission policy. Its bargain admission price of four dollars made it possible for almost anyone to attend. The Paradise Garage in New York, on the other hand, was a private club that charged a yearly membership fee of seventy-five dollars, plus a door price of eight dollars. The economic barriers in New York clubs resulted in a less "low" crowd and atmosphere, and the scene there was more about who you saw and what you looked like than in Chicago.

For the Warehouse’s opening night in 1977, its owners lured one of New York's hottest DJS, Frankie Knuckles, to spin for the "kids" (as gay Afro-Americans refer to each other). Knuckles found out that these Chicagoans would bring the roof down if the number of beats per minute weren't sky high: "That fast beat [had] been missing for a long time. All the records out of New York the last three years (had] been mid- or down-tempo, and thee kids here in Chicago] won't do that all night long, they need more energy."(3)

Responding to the needs of their audience, the DJs in Chicago's gay black clubs, led by Knuckles, supplied that energy in two ways: by playing club tunes and old Philly songs (like MFSB’s "Love Is the Message") with a faster, boosted rhythm track, and by mixing in the best of up-tempo avant-garde electronic dance music from Europe. Both ploys were well received by the kids in Chicago; the same was not true of the kids in New York.

As Knuckles points out, many of the popular songs in Chicago were big in New York City, "but one of the biggest cult hits, 'Los Ninos' by Liaisons Dangereuses, only got played in the punk clubs there." Dance Music Report noted that for most of the eighties, Chicago has been the most receptive American market for avant-garde dance music. The Windy City's gay black clubs have a penchant for futuristic music, and its black radio stations were the first in the United States to give airplay to Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes." The Art of Noise, Depeche Mode, David Byrne and the Talking Heads, and Brian Eno were all popular in Chicago's gay black circles.

What's also popular in Chicago is the art of mixing. In an interview with Sheryl Garratt, Farley Keith Williams (a.k.a. "Farley Jackmaster Funk"), one of house music's best known DJ/producers, says: "Chicago is a DJ city .... If there's a hot record out, in Chicago they'll all buy two copies so they can mix it, we have a talent for mixing. When we first started on the radio there weren't many [DJS], but then every kid wanted two turntables and a mixer for Christmas... And if a DJ can't mix, they'll boo him in a minute because half of them probably known [sic] how to do it themselves."

What was fresh about house music in its early days was that folks did it themselves; it was "homemade." Chicago DJs began recording rhythm tracks, using inexpensive synthesizers and drum machines. Very soon, a booming trade developed in records consisting solely of a bassline and drum patterns. As music critic Carol Cooper notes, "basement and home studios sprang up all over Chicago."

DJs were now able to create and record music and then expose it to a dance floor public all their own, completely circumventing the usual process of music production and distribution. These homespun DJs-cum-artists/producers synthesized the best of the avant-garde electronic dance music (Trilogy's "Not Love," Capricorn's "I Need Love," and Telex's "Brain Washed") with the best loved elements of classic African-American dance cuts, and wove it all through the cross-rhythms of the percussion tracks, creating something unique to the character of gay black Chicago.

There are so many variants of house that it is difficult to describe the music in general terms. Still, there are two common traits that hold for all of house: the music is always a brisk 120 bpm or faster; and percussion is everything. Drums and percussion are brought to the fore, and instrumental elements are electronically reproduced. In Western music, rhythm is secondary in emphasis and complexity to harmony and melody. In house music, as in African music, this sensibility is reversed.

Chip E., producer of the stuttering, stripped-down dance tracks "Like This" and "Godfather of House" characterizes house's beat as "a lot of bottom, real heavy kick drum, snappy snare, bright hi-hat and a real driving bassline to keep the groove. Not a lot of lyrics- just a sample of some sort, a melody [just] to remind you of the name of the record."(4).

That's all you can remember- the song's title- if you're working the groove of house music, because house is pure dance music. Don't dismiss the simple chord changes, the echoing percussion lines, and the minimalist melody: in African music the repetition of well-chosen rhythms is crucial to the dynamism of the music. In the classic African Rhythm and African Sensibility, John Chernoff remarks that "repetition continually re-affirms the power of the music by locking that rhythm, and the people listening or dancing to it, into a dynamic and open structure." It is precisely the recycling of well-chosen rhythmic patterns in house that gives the music a hypnotic and powerfully kinetic thrusting, permitting dancers to extract the full tension from the music's beat.

Chernoff argues that the power and dynamic potential of African music is in the gaps between the notes, and that it is there that a creative participant will place his contribution. By focusing on the gaps rather than the beats, the dancers at the Warehouse found much more freedom in terms of dancing possibilities, a freedom that permitted total improvisation.

The result was a style of dancing dubbed "jacking" that more closely resembled the spasmodic up and down movements of people possessed than it did the more choreographed and fluid "vogueing" movement of the dancers at other dubs like New York's Paradise Garage. Dancers at The Warehouse tended to move faster, quirkier, more individualistically, and deliberately off-beat. It's not that the kids had difficulty getting the beat; they simply had decided to move beyond it-around, above, and below it. Dancing on the beat was considered too normal. To dance at the Warehouse was to participate in a type of mass possession: hundreds of young black kids packed into the heat and darkness of an abandoned warehouse in the heart of Chicago during the twilight hours of Sunday morning, jacking as if there would be no tomorrow, It was a dancing orgy of unrivalled intensity, as Frankie Knuckles recalls: "It was absolutely the only club in the city to got to… it wasn't a polished atmosphere - the lighting was real simplistic, but the sound system was intense and it was about what you heard as opposed to what you saw." (5)

No Way Back: House Crosses Over

Like disco and club, house music is rapidly moving beyond the gay black underground scene, thanks in part to a boost from radio play. As early as 1980, Chicago's black-oriented radio stations WBMX and WGCI rotated house music into their programming by airing dance mixes. WBMX signed on a group pf street DJS, the ‘Hot Mix 5’, whose ranks included two of the most prolific and important house producers/artists- Ralph Rosario and Farley Jackmaster Funk. When the Hot Mix crew look to the air on Saturday nights, their five-hour show drew an estimated audience of 250,000 to 1,000,000 Chicagoans.

Now in Chicago, five-year-olds are listening to house and jacking. Rocky Jones, president of the DJ International recording label, points out that ‘[in Chicago, house] appeals to kids, teenagers, blacks, whites, hispanics, straights, gays. When McDonald's HQ throws a party for its employees, they hire house DJs."

Outside of Chicago, house sells mainly in New York, Detroit, D.C., and other large urban/black markets in the Northeast and Midwest. As in Chicago, the music has moved beyond the gay black market and is now very popular in the predominantly white downtown scene in New York, where it regularly is featured in clubs like Boy Bar and the World. But the sound also has travelled uptown, into the boroughs (and even into New Jersey) by way of increased airplay on New York's black radio stations; house can now be heard blasting forth from the boom boxes of b-boys and b-girls throughout the metropolitan area. It has also spread south and west to gay clubs like the Marquette in Atlanta and Catch One in Los Angeles. Even Detroit is manufacturing its own line, tagged "techno-house."

House music has a significant public in England as well, especially in London. In reporting on the house scene in Chicago, the British music press scooped most of its American counterparts (with the notable exception of Dance Music Report) by more than a year. So enthusiastic has been the British response to house that English DJs and musicians (both black and white) are now producing their own variety of house music, known as "acid" house.

House music, however, is not without its critics. Like disco and club, it has been either ignored or libelled by most in the American music press. In a recent Village Voice article hailing the popularity of rap music, Nelson George perfunctorily dismisses the music as "retro-disco." Other detractors of house have labelled the music "repetitive" and "unoriginal." (6)

Because of its complex rhythmic framework, though, house should not be judged by Western music standards but by criteria similar to those used to judge African music. House is retro-disco in the same way and to the same extent that rap is "retro-funk."

The criticism that this music is unoriginal stems from the fact that many house records are actually house versions of rhythms found in old soul and Philly songs. Anyone familiar with African-American musical idioms is aware that the remaking of songs is a time-honored tradition. As John Chernoff has documented, truly original style in African and African-American music often consists in subtle modifications of perfected and strictly respected forms. Thus, Africans remain "curiously" indifferent to what is an important concern of Western culture: the issue of artistic origins.

Each time a DJ plays at a club, it is a different music-making situation. The kids in the club are basically familiar with the music and follow the DJ'S mixing with informed interest. So, when a master DJ flawlessly mixes bits and pieces of classic soul, Philly, disco, and club tunes with the best of more recent house fare to form an evenly pumping groove, or layers the speeches of political heroes (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, or Jesse Jackson) or funky Americana (a telephone operator's voice or jingles from old television programs) over well known rhythm tracks, the variations stand out clearly to the kids and can make a night at the club a special affair.

To be properly appreciated, house must be experienced in a gay black club. As is true of other African music, it is a mistake "to listen" to house because it is not set apart from its social and cultural context. "You have to go to the clubs and see how people react when they hear it ‘... people jus’ get happy and screamin’”. When house really jacks, it is about the most intense dance music around. Wallflowers beware: you have to move to understand the power of house.


1. Sheryl Garratt, "Let's Play House," The Face (September 1986), 18-23.
2. lain Chambers, Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture (New York: St. Martin's, 1985), 187-188.
3. Simon Wiffer, "House Music," i-d (September 1986),
4. Garratt, "Let's Play House," 23•
5. Wiffer, "House Music."
6. Nelson George, "Nationwide: America Raps Back," VillageVoice 4,19 January 1988, p.32-33.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dancing Questionnaire (25): Mark, New York

Mark is 38 years old and works as an Advertising Executive in New York, following an odyssey from Tamworth and London via Sheffield.

Can you remember your first experience of dancing?

I think the very earliest was bopping around to Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ with my grandma at a family wedding reception near Walsall, but the one that really stands out is headbanging to AC/DC’s ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ at a primary school disco in Tamworth, Staffs, where I grew up. I’d seen some older kids doing it at the previous year’s event - my first taste of youth rebellion aged 8! I remembered the names of the bands on the patches sewed onto their sleeveless denim jackets and over the next twelve months become an entry-level rocker, renting albums from the local record library and getting my own cut-off denim with patches and studs. Then eventually it was me and my mates’ turn to headbang at the disco when the token metal record was played. The DJ cut it off before the end as the teachers were concerned about potential brain damage.

What's the most interesting/significant thing that has happened to you while dancing?

Building a deeper relationship with music. I’ve devoted much of my life to music in all its forms and through dancing I enjoy exploring its qualities more deeply, amongst the thrills and spills. I remember dancing in Manchester in 1996 in the Village to ‘The Love I Lost’ by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and suddenly realizing that the dance music I enjoyed most had a particular combination of uplifting-ness and melancholy which then set the course ahead for many years.

You. Dancing. The Best of times...

New York 2007-2010. People say dancing in New York’s not what it was. Sure, over-zealous regulation has harmed the vibrancy and scale of the club scene but this has been replaced by an amazing DIY attitude for the past decade or so. This manifests in all-night semi-legal dance parties in lofts and warehouses mainly in Brooklyn often featuring an eclectic mix of music, DJs, performance and participation. There’s a real sense of excitement for me around something genuinely underground, unpredictable, community based and musically eclectic which has totally revitalized my love of dancing. It’s as if dance music has resumed its role in the city as outsiders’ music, which is how I’ve always most enjoyed it.

You. Dancing. The Worst of times...

When I first moved to London in the late 90s I found it hard to find a scene that satisfied me. DnB was too hard and fast, House had got too cheesy, Big Beat was too beery and everything was too segmented and focused on one style of music. Maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough though at the time.

Can you give a quick tour of the different dancing scenes/times/places you've frequented?

I started dancing regularly in 1987 at an under 18s discos in Tamworth at a club called the Embassy. It wasn’t really my scene though and things didn’t really take off until I discovered ‘indie’ music via John Peel and then started to make regular trips to Birmingham to indie disco nights and 60s psychedelic nights like the Sensateria at the Institute, as well as the odd hardcore rave. University in Sheffield in 1992 meant a headlong rush into house, techno, garage and funk with the poly-sexual scene around Vague [Leeds], Flesh [Manchester] and Sheffield’s Trash providing a little spice around the slightly-cheesy uniformity of the post-acid house scene up north at the time.

A move to London in the late 90s meant a hotch-potch of east-London fare – reggae, DnB, ragga, hip hop, a bit of house and the electroclash scene around Nag Nag Nag. Carnival weekend was always the highlight of the year, and I had a brief involvement with a north London pirate station. But gradually dancing died away. In 2005 the move to New York reignited it all again.

When and where did you last dance?

To a Robert Owens DJ set at Dalston Superstore, London last November.

You're on your death bed. What piece of music would make you leap up for one final dance?

‘I Want Your Love’ by Chic. The perfect combination of yearning, hope and melancholy that characterizes much of my favorite music to dance to.

All questionnaires welcome, just answer the same questions - or even make up a few of your own - and send to (see previous questionnaires).

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Nightclubs: from the Aristocracy of the Fabulous to the Decorative Dance Floor

'Once upon a time New York nightclubs catered to the aristocracy of the fabulous, to those with the looks, the style, or the connections to gain admittance to the world of the night. That all changed with the invention of bottle service. Buy a table for some astronomical sum, and mere money will admit you to this world which once excluded the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, with their real jobs and neat suits. Sucking the credit cards out of their wallets became the main game, and the nightclubs became big business. Nightclubs ceased producing their own kind of celebrity, and became dependent on attracting the sports and entertainment stars of their day. The nightclub became, in other words, just an enterprise dependent upon the spectacular, rather than one of its prime engines of efflorescence.

The game became one of attracting celebrities, who might in turn attract the bankers and hedge fund men for the VIP rooms. The general admission crowd down on the dance floor would be largely for decoration, The kinds of mixing of the classes that both troubled and thrilled Manet’s contemporaries* will now be carefully vetted. Managing such intercourse calls into being new kinds of labor. Rachel Uchitel was a VIP concierge director. She was an ambassador of client desire, making sure the big names and big spenders came to her club and kept on coming.... one of the roles of a VIP concierge director is to introduce people who matter to women they may find attractive. “It’s not our job to get anybody laid,” Uchitel insists. But it was her job to populate the VIP rooms with women as attractive as they are discreet. Models, perhaps. Or almost-models. And it is the job of club promoters to bring these almost-models in. The contemporary nightclub, in other words, is a sophisticated machine for the highly selective mingling of money and sex. Or perhaps just the promise of sex, and sometimes just the promise of money. Whether the girls put out or the boys shell out is none of the club’s concern’

*Wark is discussing here Manet’s depictions of 19th century café-concerts, ‘the beginnings of a spectacular industry that has since been perfected. Now that the threat of the dangerous classes seems half a world away, at least from a New York nightclub, the danger to guard against is not that the rabble might reject the desires on offer, but that it might rather embrace them with too much gusto. Leisure, sex and suburbia are no longer marginal sites within which new kinds of spectacular economy grow. They are the very center and essence of that spectacular economy'.

The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages out of the Twentieth Century by McKenzie Wark (Verso, 2013)

Studio 54, New York - a 1970s example of glamorous clubbers as celebrity bait?
[I think everyone will recognise this as one tendency - but not sure that it is something that has replaced all other forms of nightlife, or that it is new. I distinctly recall the horror I felt when VIP rooms became a thing in 1990s London clubs like the Ministry of Sound, something that seemed to totally contradict the egalitarian feeling on the floor. But there was always too a sense that those hidden in their VIP suites were actually missing the real experience. And celebrities 'slumming it' in 'lower class' clubs - and the management of these clubs catering for their wealth - goes back at least as far as the jazz clubs of the 1930s in New York, London and elsewhere]

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Arthur Russell

Thinking about this month's moon landing anniversary, I realized my post on this should have mentioned the sublime Arthur Russell track 'This is how we walk on the moon': 'Each step is moving, it's moving me up, moving, it's moving me up, Every step is moving me up... This is how we walk on the moon'.

There's a conference on Arthur Russell coming up in New York later this year:

'Kiss Me Again: Mapping the Life and Legacy of Arthur Russell
10 October 2009, NYU, New York

The composer and musician Arthur Russell lived and worked in New York between 1973 and 1992. During his time in the city he performed and recorded compositional music, pop music, disco, new wave, songs for the cello, and hip-hop-inflected electronic pop. As any listener of his music will know, he also liked to blur the boundaries of genre as he went about his work. Russell's open-mindedness and antipathy to being marketed contributed to his lack of recognition, and his music went relatively unheard outside of aficionado dance circles after his passing. But beginning with the simultaneous release of Calling Out of Context and The World of Arthur Russell in 2004, and culminating with the release of the documentary film Wild Combination in 2008, Russell's work has gained a new lease of life.

Acknowledging the newfound interest in Arthur Russell, New York University, the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London and Bloomfield College are organising an Arthur Russell conference that will take place at NYU on 10 October. The all-day event will be organised around four panels, two featuring invited speakers, two featuring speakers who respond to this call for papers. The conference will also feature a screening of Wild Combination, with director Matt Wolf answering questions, and (it is hoped) rare Arthur Russell footage shot by Phill Niblock and Alan Abrams. The evening event will feature musicians who worked with Arthur Russell. Tim Lawrence's biography of Arthur Russell, Hold On to Your Dreams, will be launched during the event. Attendance is free'.

The deadline for ideas for papers is 15 July; if you want to take part contact the organisers Sukhdev Sandhu (NYU), Tim Lawrence (UEL) & Peter Gordon (Bloomfield)- details here.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Roxy, New York

As previously mentioned the Roxy club in New York closed this month. It opened in 1979 as a popular roller disco and, since 1991, had hosted a gay club on Saturday nights. Now it has been sold to developers - as the New York Press notes: 'sprawling redevelopment has engulfed much of the neighboring land on West 18th Street in recent years, and Roxy’s prime location directly below the soon-to-be renovated High Line made the former truck warehouse an irresistible target'. As it came to an end, the DJ played as the final record 'This used to be my playground' by Madonna.

In the early 1980s, the club was a critical stepping stone for hip-hop from Bronx scene to global phenomenon. As Jeff Chang describes it in his essential 'Can't stop ,won't stop: a history of the hip-hop generation':

"When Kool Lady Blue finally found a new home for her "Wheels of Steel" night, her club became the steamy embodiment of the Planet Rock ethos… To its ecstatic followers, the Roxy would become "a club that changed the world." In June [1982], Blue hung out a sign at the rink: COME IN PEACE THROUGH MUSIC. Her gamble was immaculately timed. She opened the club with all of the scene's leading lights at the beginning of a hot summer when graffiti and b-boying and hip-hop music was on everyone's minds.

"The regulars were Bam [Africa Bambaataa ]and Afrika Islam, and then Grandmixer DST, Jazzy jay, Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, and I'd rotate them," she says. "We had no booth. The DJ would be in the center of the floor on a podi­um. Everyone could see what he was doing, and he was kind of elevated to rock star status." On both sides of the DJ, large projection screens displayed Charlie Ahearn's slides of Bronx b-boys, rappers, and scenemakers. Nearby, the Rock Steady Crew convened all-night ciphers on the beautiful blonde wood floors.'"

Although it was "billed as the anti-Studio 54", the club attracted David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Talking Heads et al, facilitating the cross over of the music to a wider audience. One regular recalled "The crowds were very diverse. That was why I was so excited to be there. Suddenly this racially mixed group was having a good time partying in a room, which was a very rare thing. On the level of music and art, people were able to bridge all these boundaries."

The club was used as a setting for the 1984 film 'Beat Street', including the classic break dance battle between the Rock Steady Crew and the New York City Breakers (see next post for clip).

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Once Upon a Time in New York

Excellent BBC4 documentary this week. Once Upon a Time in New York: The Birth of Hip Hop, Disco and Funk was only an hour long when any of the subjects are worthy of a series, or even a channel of their own, but it did convey a sense of the excitement of a very fertile time. It is arguable whether New York was singly the birth place of these genres, but it is undoubtedly true that in a 6 or 7 year period (approx. 1975-1982) the city was a sonic laboratory producing mutant musical strains that shaped the next thirty years of popular culture (so far). Not to say that New York wasn't important before or since - the film covered some of the pre-history with the Velvet Underground and the Stonewall riots (showing a contemporary newspaper report with the headline 'Homo Nest Raided. Queen Bees are Stinging Mad').

I liked the footage of the club scenes - Edie Sedgwick dancing at Andy Warhol's Factory, a packed David Mancuso's Loft, punters at CBGBs with John Cale, Debbie Harry (right) and Talking Heads in the crowd. Footage of DJ Kool Herc driving around with massive speakers in his car and block parties, an early Blondie performance at CBGBs doing a cover version of Martha & The Vandellas 'Heatwave'. Most hilarious was a TV report from the British 'News at Ten' direct from the dancefloor at Studio 54 with the hapless reporter saying that it was 'difficult to know exactly what it is that attracts people here'. Perhaps he should have asked Wayne County, Nile Rodgers or Nelson George who int he programme recalled sex and drugs on the club's balcony.
If you are in the UK and have freeview or cable, I think you can catch this programme repeated tomorrow (Friday) at 10 pm

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Discotheque enters the English language: 1960-66

Thanks to Google news and other archive searches it is possible to date reasonably accurately when words came to be widely used, at least in printed form. I believe the term discotheque (which literally means 'record library') to describe a nightclub where people danced to records dates back in French to World War 2. Several online sources mention that a club called La Discothèque opened on the rue Huchette in Paris in 1941.   

But it seems to have taken another twenty years for the term to catch on in English. The 
first newspaper references I have come across date to 1963-5,  with a number of items in The Times (London) referring to The Discotheque Club in Soho.

The paper reported on 18 October 1963 on the trial of Norbet Rondel, a former heavy for landlord Peter Rachman, who was accused of 'demanding menaces from Sergiusz Paplinski, proprietor of the 150 Club at Earls Court Road'. The court heard that Rondel had been a doorman at the Discotheque Club run by another associate of Rachman, Raymond Nash.

The following year the club was named in Parliament as the 'Soho nerve centre' of the 'purple heart racket' (Times, 10 June 1964), and a quote in the article suggests that the Discotheque Club was already open by 1961 .  In January 1965, five people appeared in court charged under the new Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964 after being arrested in a police raid at the club in Wardour Street ('Youths and girls on drug charges', Times, 26 January 1965).

Rondel died in 2009,  and I have written a bit more about La Discotheque Club here (incidentally Marc Bolan worked there as a cloakroom attendant in his early 'Mark the Mod' days). As well as being sometimes credited with being London's first disco, it seems to have acted as a bridge for the word itself becoming established in English. Before long there were other clubs with similar names, and the word was being used generically for a place where records were played to dance to. By 1966 there was a Discotheque club in Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford, where in September a crowd of youths fought with police (Times, 12 September 1966). The Times also reported that a plan had been approved at St Mary's church, Woolwich: 'In the crypt a discotheque will be established as  centre for youth work' (24 August 1966).

YeYe and New York Discotheque

Another route into the printed English language seems to have been via fashion writers at Associated Press (AP) at around the same time.  Elsie Beall, an AP Fashion Writer reporting on a New York Couture Group event, made the first reference I have found to discotheque in an American paper in July 1964 to describe a dress: 'There aren't many short evening dresses around for fall except for the discotheque - pronounced dis-co-tek, in case you are having trouble with that world as we did at first hearing. It is just a slip of a dress, almost always black and flaring, or ruffling out at the high knee, with plenty of whirl for doing those dances where the feet stay in one spot while the rest of the body twists in all direction. Discotheque, it seems, is the name of the little Paris dance halls where the whole thing started'  (Ocala Star-Banner 17 July 1964 - like other AP reports this would have been syndicated and probably printed in many local and regional papers, but not all of them are online).

On the same day an AP report of the same event printed in the Nashua Telegraph stated: 'The faithful and femme fatale black dress or suit will be on the scene next fall like a million shadows. It will be sleek and chic, dressed up with white for the day, but bare and naughty at night for wearing to the discotheque'

Another Associated Press Fashion Writer, Jean Sprain Wilson (1923-2009), used the word the following month. Reviewing a James Galanos collection noted that 'For the discotheque enthusiasts the dresses were barer, with V-plunges, halter necks or shoestring straps uncovering pale raw bones' (Owosso Argus Press, 14 August 1964 and other local papers)/

The same writer makes the first published use I have found of the word 'discotheque jockey' in the context of the influence of French 'Ye Ye Styles' in New York:  'YeYe, the French version of youth's rebellion against the stodginess of old folks over 25, is now going strong in the USA. Born in Paris as a hip response to songs with a beat, YeYe came to be a term for audacious styles worn by young misses, then grew in meaning to encompass the current mood of youth itself - lively and uninhibited. Ask a New York den what is YeYe in town, for instance, and she undoubtedly will describe a popular hamburger joint with juke box movies; or a discotheque jockey at one of the fancier hotels who keeps crowds gyrating frenetically by blasting not one but three jump-and-wiggle records at once' (Eugene Register Guard, 23 October 1964)

Associated Press also mentioned the word in the surprizing context of a report about a party at Windsor Castle with 16 year old Prince Charles as MC!:  'Like it was a rave, man... the first Beat Ball in the history of the British royalty... The castle's crimson drawing room was turned into a discotheque - a nightclub which provides only recorded music for dancing'.

(Miami News, 28 Dec, 1964)

After writing this I have come across a recent Oxford University Press article covering similar territory - and coming to similar conclusions. They also note the first printed references in 1964 to the abbreviated version 'disco' to refer to both the dress and the nightclub.

See also:

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dancing questionnaire 3 - Commie Curmudgeon

Bronx-based radical Commie Curmudgeon has completed our Dancing Questionnaire (also posted on his site), and very interesting it is too. Some threads and themes already emerging from these questionnaires, as well as documenting moments and places that don't deserve to be forgotten.

Can you remember your first experience of dancing?

Spinning around on the hallway floor to Meet the Beatles when I was about four or five years old.

What’s the most interesting/significant thing that has happened to you while out dancing?

Stopping traffic in the streets of Manhattan as part of a group that advocated for revolution (even if most of the gawking onlookers didn’t quite get it). All the while dancing. I did that a few times with the New York City branch of the global anti-capitalist-festival group known as Reclaim the Streets [RTS New York traffic sign pictured]. The best event was actually for a relatively small cause, to defend the community gardens, in the spring of 1999. We took over a street in the East Village for a while with little interference for a period that felt like hours. (Probably not as long – I forget how long it was.)

Whats the best place you’ve ever danced in?

Again, with RTS, in the middle of 43rd Street near Broadway, on November 26, 1999. (This was for 'Buy Nothing Day', but also as a prelude to the protests in Seattle that were scheduled for November 30. Somebody asked me if I wanted to join a bus out to Seattle, and I declined, because I didn’t think I should take off from work. Hmm, how many times did I kick myself for that decision later on?) Anyway, it was pretty impressive that we stopped traffic right near Times Square. Though it didn’t last very long – 15 minutes? And many of the people got arrested. I didn’t get arrested – I had a knack for being invisible to the police back then. (It might have helped that I was slightly older than the others and wore slightly less conspicuous clothes. But I happened upon a video later and, as several other people commented, I actually was the wildest in terms of dancing. Not meaning to boast or anything…)

You. Dancing. The best of times….

RTS was good, but golden moments of post-punk youth were better. So… Dancing to a live show by The Monochrome Set in the early ‘80s in a club called the Starlight Ballroom, which was a big, no-frills place in a rundown section of Philly (I think it was Kensington), with about 50 people in the crowd. It was my 18th or 19th birthday, I was blasted in a nice way, and I loved to dance to The Monochrome Set, even though they weren’t known exactly as a dance band [sleeve of 'Alphaville' single, right]. I had good friends there to dance with too. I think that was when I was dancing with all the members of an all-girl art school, toy-instrument kind of noise band called Head Cheese. I went dancing a lot with Head Cheese, and that was fun, if a bit weird. (By the way, brush with fame(?)… The singer of that band, with whom I was fairly good friends for a while (by which I mean just friends, though I wasn’t lacking in other ideas now and then)…went on to form a New York City synth-pop band that had a Top 40 hit in the ’80s. The band was Book of Love, the song was “Boy” (popular especially with the gay set). But I was no longer friends with Susan. We’d had some kind of falling out over…what?…I don’t know…looking back on it, seems like nothing, from what I can tell…) .

You. Dancing. The worst of times…

Some benefit for the Direct Action Network Labor Solidarity Group, in 2001. The benefit was a flop, and I was going through not-so-good times with different members of the group, for different reasons (no, not going to go into it here). The band was some Irish band; I forget who, but they weren’t bad. I sort of danced alongside a few people, activists, who were the only other people on the dance floor. I got drunk, but not for good reasons. Everybody was drunk, but it was a crappy time.

Can you give a quick tour of the different dancing scenes/times/places you’ve frequented?

Hot Club, Philadelphia, late ‘70s – a seedy little place, very punk, very intimate, and wild. That was great… Emerald City, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, late 1970s. Big, garish new wave club, very tacky, but with some incredible lineups and very underpopulated. Saw a double bill there of The Buzzcocks and The Fall in about 1979… Summer porch party in a five-person communal house in West Philly, 1981. One member of the house was in a band called the The Stick Men, who were like a rap-influenced version of the no-wave-funk band The Contortions. We were dancing to her record of The Sugar Hill Gang… Hurrahs, NYC, early ‘80s. Most outstanding experience was a Bauhaus show… Tier 3 and Mudd Club, NYC, early ‘80s. Both were clubs around Soho (if I’m remembering right). Tier 3 was much better, I thought, because it was more intimate and less trendy…. Little club in Tribeca (I forget the name), mid-late ‘80s; they were playing this stuff called “acid house” (loved it)… Limelight, a converted church in NYC, in the mid ‘90s. Not so great, and too trendy. Went to an Orbital show there, and did not have a good time – Orbital was OK, place was far too crowded, just not into pressing bodies with strangers (I can do that on the subway during rush hour)… Irving Plaza, NYC all the way from the mid ‘80s into the late ‘90s. Not a bad place. Had a lot of fun at a Chumbawamba show in about 1998(?) (though I’ve since then gotten very, very tired of Chumbawamba)… And, of course, dancing in the streets, and going to some small warehouse-type raves, with Reclaim the Streets…

When and where did you last dance?

The other night in my bedroom, with a wonderful long-haired cat (by which I mean, really, a cat – I’m not using slang). He clung to my shoulders while I danced around the room to “Sunshowers” by M.I.A [pictured left].

You’re on your death bed. What piece of music would make you leap up for one final dance?

Right now… Probably the song that I just mentioned.
If you want to complete the questionnaire please do, either post it on your own blog or send to

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Malcolm X and Lindy Hop

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on this day, 19th May 1925.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by him with Alex Haley, was published shortly after his assassination in 1965. Much of the book concerns his involvement with, and later break from the Nation of Islam. But the earlier part of the book contains some fascinating memories of nightlife in Boston and New York in the early 1940s.

In Boston, Malcolm worked as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland Ballroom and was clearly a big fan of the music played there. He talks approvingly of seeing Peggy Lee, Benny Gordman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and many others, and recalled the fierce dancing competitions:

'"Showtime" people would start hollering about the last hour of the dance. Then a couple of dozen really wild couples would stay on the floor, the girls changing to low-white sneakers. The band now would really be blasting, and all the other dancers would form a clapping, shouting circle to watch that wild competition as it began, covering only a quarter or so of the ballroom floor. The band, the spectators and the dancers would be making the Roseland Ballroom feel like a big rocking ship. The spotlight would be turning, pink, yellow, green, and blue, picking up the couples lindy-hopping as if they had gone mad'.

Before long, he was a zoot suit wearing dancer himself (and indeed had progressed from shining the musicians' shoes to dealing them 'reefers'), and describes with evident relish lindy-hopping to Duke Ellington: 'Laura's feet were flying: I had her in the air, down, sideways, around: backwards, up again, down, whirling... Laura inspired me to drive to new heights. Her hair was all over her face, it was running sweat, and I couldn't believe her strength. The crowd was shouting and stomping'.

Still for all its liberation, nightlife was completely racialized. At the Roseland, some white dancers attended the black dances, but no black people were allowed to dance at the white dances, even if the music was provided by black musicians. Moving to New York, black Harlem had been catering since the 1920s for wealthier whites looking for thrills but not genuine social equality. I was surprised to read the word 'hippies'' dates back to that period: 'A few of the white men around Harlem, younger ones whom we called 'hippies', acted more Negro than Negroes. This particular one talked more 'hip' than we did'.

During the war, resentment against racist treatment grew. 'During World War II, Mayor LaGuardia officially closed the Savoy Ballroom. Harlem said the real reason was to stop Negroes from dancing with white women. Harlem said no one dragged the white women in there'.  In his recent biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011), Manning Marable provides some background:

'Since its grand opening in 1926, the Savoy, located on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets, had quickly become the most significant cultural institution of Harlem. The great ballroom contained two large bandstands, richly carpeted lounges, and mirrored walls. During its heyday, about seven hundred thousand customers visited each year... In a period when downtown hotels and dancehalls still remained racially segregated, the Savoy was the centre for interracial dancing and entertainment. On April 22nd 1943, the Savoy was padlocked by the NYPD, on the grounds that servicemen had been solicited by prostitutes there. New York City's Bureau of Social Hygiene cited evidence that, over a nine-month period,  164 individuals has "met the source of their [venereal] diseases at the Savoy Ballroom". These alleged cases all came from armed services or coast guard personnel. Bureau officials offered absolutely no explanation as to how they had determined that the servicemen contracted diseases specifically from Savoy hookers... The Savoy remained closed throughout the summer of 1943' (it reopened in October).

During the period of the closure there there was a major riot in Harlem on 1 August 1943 after a black soldier was shot by a white policeman. 6 people died and 600 were arrested.

Marable reveals an interesting detail that Malcolm does not mention in the Autobiography - that under the stage name Jack Carlton, he performed as a bar entertainer at the Lobster Pond nightclub on 42nd street in 1944, dancing and sometimes playing the drums on stage.

Sadly it was another ballroom, the Audobon in Harlem, where Malcolm was murdered in February 1965 as he rose to speak at a public meeting there.

There's a great recreation of the Lindy Hop scene at the Roseland Ballroom in Spike Lee's film Malcolm X (1992).

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

'And I Dance with Somebody' - Diamonds are Forever & the Yokohama AIDS Conference 1994

In 'And I Dance with Somebody: Queer History in a Japanese Nightclub' (History Workshop Journal, Autumn 2020), Mark Pendleton  reflects on queer spaces, drag and HIV activism (among other things) through the prism of  'a drag-based club night called Diamonds are Forever' which was launched in Kyoto in 1989 and is still going. Pendleton frequented the club while living there in 1998-9 and returned to it recently.

The club was started by the 'artist and activist Furuhashi Teiji, also known by his drag persona Glorias' who while living in 1980s New York  became part of 'the East Village’s burgeoning drag and gay scene centred on the Pyramid Club'. Back in Japan he started the club in Kyoto as well as being involved in 'the radical performance art collective Dumb Type, which challenged social norms around gender, sexuality and identity'.

Pendleton honours the club founders but also warns against 'a narrow focus on creation.. A scene is created, sure, and that act of creation is fundamentally important, but what is created is also experienced by participants, who may or may not be known to the creators themselves and who make those spaces their own through their acts of resistance, or their dance moves'.

In Japan and elsewhere, Pendleton argues, queer spaces can be 'A retreat from the heteronormative world outside. A place to grow into cultures and histories marginalized from that world. That flash of bliss that gives a sense of a future beyond those dull places that fettered us. And a damn fun night of dancing, as a political act in and of itself'.

The 1994 International AIDS Conference in Yokohama

Pendleton highlights the significance of the Tenth International AIDS Conference held in Yokohama in August 1994, a decade into the AIDS crisis and the first event of its kind held outside of Europe or North America. The conference was attended by 10,000 people from 140 countries, with researchers, clinicians, policy makers, community workers, activists and others gathered under the slogan ‘The 
global challenge of AIDS: together for the future’.

Pendleton is critical of a framing of this conference as a culture clash between 'the conservative Japanese society and the western activists' (International AIDS Society), noting that it 'also featured Japanese artists and activists joining with those from elsewhere to remind scientists and policymakers that HIV positive people continued to live their lives through the crisis'. Specifically, Furuhashi and others involved with Dumb Type and Diamonds are Forever  intervened at the conference 'hanging red banners and hosting a party to reflect this insistence and the mechanism through which they understood that life could continue to be realized – collective acts of dancing and love. The AIDS acronym was stripped of its association with illness, stigma and death to become 'And I Dance with Somebody, accompanied by the slogans LOVE POSITIVE in English'.

Yokohama 1994 - image from Mori Art Museum

I attended the Yokohama conference and the party mentioned here so it was great to see this documented, and I thought I would contribute my fading memories of this event and my small collection of documents related to it (I wish I'd taken more photos now of course - I did take some of Yokohama street art which I've featured here before)

'Love Positive' with its slogan 'And I Dance with Somebody' was a series of cultural events, including a Symposium involving the US art critic and ACT UP activist Douglas Crimp. The Love Ball was an evening event taking place in the Plaza in front of the Pacifico Yokohama International Convention Center, the main conference venue. The Ball was described as 'A party to conference participants and the general public' with 'appearances by Diamonds are Forever's drag queens from the Kyoto club scene'. 

'And I Dance with Somebody' - postcard from AIDS Poster Project, Japan

More details are included on this fyler which lists DJ Lala and performers including Ms Glorias (Furuhashi), Simone Fukayuki, Maria Le Reina, OK Girls, Blue Day Girls and others:

As I recall there were a few hundred people there. It wasn't the wildest party, starting as it did in daylight in the humid outdoors, but it was a striking departure from the conference format of endless presentations. The drag acts would certainly have disabused anybody with misconceptions about Japan being a homogenously conservative nation! Of course I was familiar with drag, but I guess the mainstream UK conception of it at the time was of men dressing up as versions of women. If I had to describe it now I would say in Yokohama it was people (who may have defined themselves as men, women or neither) dressing up in outrageous costumes that were beyond anything usually worn by anybody and in a sense beyond gender.

There was a kind of utopian energy, captured in the slogan on this postcard featuring OK Girls, one of the acts participating in the Love Ball: 'O Developed Nations of Desire! O Superpowers of Fantasy' . As described by Pendleton, Japanese slogans on the banners 'imagined a dissolution of binary divisions, whether HIV+/-, man/woman or citizen/foreigner: "I have a dream that my status disappears. I have a dream that my sex disappears. I have a dream that my nationality disappears"'.

 After the performances everyone was invited up on the stage where we danced to disco.

The Plaza venue for the Love Ball (though this photo is of another event at the conference)

My encounter with the Kyoto crew was fleeting but it cheered me up, the conference itself was (understandably) a sober affair. At that point the World Health Organisation was estimating that 6000 people were being infected with HIV every day and that at least 17 million people had acquired HIV world-wide. Medical treatments had not progressed much beyond AZT, which had first been licensed in 1987. There was some positive news at the conference, such as a study that showed AZT could prevent babies being born with HIV to HIV+ mothers. But even the limited treatments available were out of reach of many in Sub Saharan Africa where the  majority of people living with HIV resided.  In her speech at the closing ceremony, 'Noerine Kaleeba from Uganda said that many young women there were asking why, if AZT was effective in reducing mother-to-child transmission, did they not have access to it' (quoted in Orr, Children, Families and HIV: The Global Picture, 1994).

It sometimes felt that such issues were as at risk of being sidelined in the increasingly professionalised AIDS industry of doctors, drugs companies and NGOs. Of course many of these people were doing good work and I was in the latter category myself. But there was a need for a strong activist challenge to put the lived experience of people with HIV at the forefront, and to maintain a sense of urgency.

There were some people in Yokohama from direct action group ACT UP, and they staged a protest at the closing ceremony focused on immigration restrictions on people living with HIV. New York activists reported that  'ten ACT UP members from New York, eight from Paris, and more than 100 members of Tokyo's OCCUR spearheaded several events during the week, including an unprecedented AIDS/coming out march in Yokohama on the opening day of the conference' (The Advocate, 15 November 1994)

ACT UP New York Press Release for Yokohama
(full publication here)

OCCUR (Association for the Lesbian and Gay Movement, based in Tokyo) had established  'The Executive Committee for Learn from PWA and Minorities' in May 1994 and had spent the months leading up to the conference lobbying against immigration restrictions on people with AIDS, sex workers and drug users that would have prevented many people from attending the conference. While some flexibility seems to have applied for the conference, the Committee continued to argue against discriminatory immigration laws and that 'The fight against AIDS has no border and so efforts must be made to assure all PWA/H's [People with AIDS/HIV] freedom of international mobility and to encourage solidarity through global networking, cooperation and actions of community-based organisations'. 

Newsletter published by 'The Executive Committee for Learn from PWA and Minorities'/OCCUR for Yokohama conference (full text of document here)

As well as discrimination against people with HIV, another big issue in Japan at the time was the blood products scandal. At least 1,000 haemophiliacs had been infected with HIV through blood products and those affected were taking legal action against the Government and drug companies for failing to take action when the risk was known. Japan did not switch to heat-treated blood products until more than two years after the US had taken this action.

With language barriers and time constraints I didn't engage with Japanese activists other than picking up their literature and attending the Love Ball. But with the visible presence of OCCUR, Love Positive and the large numbers of young people who acted as volunteers to help conference attendees, there was no sense that Japan was in need of enlightenment from outside. The issue of discrimination, including in relation to immigration, was one faced in most parts of the world.

I didn't do that much networking and socialising on my all too brief visit, I diligently spent my time in conference sessions as I was writing a report on it. I did meet some interesting people though, including hanging out with some folks involved in a HIV prevention project with young women sex workers on the German/Czech border (we went on a trip to see the Amida Buddha statue in Kamakura). With so many people present there must have been many connections made, some with lasting significance. For instance, a meeting in Yokohama led to the foundation of the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers.

[Mark Pendleton, a historian of Japan, is conducting research on the Yokohama conference, so I am sure would be interested in any memories or reflections - you can find him on twitter]

Commemorative stamp from Yokohama conference 1994