The Loft staff Thanksgiving party, 1979. Photo: Don Lynn
A number of disco revivals around at the moment – a four CD box set of Tom Moulton's remixes of tracks issued in the early-mid-70s by Philadelphia International; four new volumes in the Disco Discharge archive series; a ruffneck mix of vintage disco obscurities posted online by Chicago Footwork producer du jour Traxman – all serving to remind us that the more the world sinks into the mire of capitalist folly the more prominent disco becomes. As the breathless press release accompanying those Disco Discharge releases puts it: "The new installment couldn't have come at a better time as history repeats itself, when the going gets tough, disco gets going!"
But buried in that sentiment is the main reason disco is still derided by so many so-called serious music types. When the going gets tough, disco gets going – yes, but in the wrong direction. The wisdom (if we can call it that) on disco that prevails in multiple subcultural nooks and crannies from Noise to alt.rock to Improv is that it is suffocating escapist froth, a retreat from the frontline of the Real into a dressed up, dumbed down, perpetual denial state of corny, showbizzy razzle-dazzle, all flaunt and flirt, oblivious to everything other than the solipsistic desire to go bang with all your friends at once, night in, night out. (Is it necessary to point out that such judgments rarely seem based on close encounters with disco's actual milieu, let alone a close analysis of the actual music, which in its original state melted a complex of Afro rhythms – Bronx salsa, gospel and R&B, samba and Afrobeat – into a mix that was insouciant enough to suck up Broadway showtunes, Hollywood musicals, early synth experiments, jazz, minimalism and exotica? But then disco is the ultimate example of a genre whose complex reality and backstory has been obscured by its subsequent global commodity status, as the music that taste forgot, the sound that sucks.)
But as those revisionist disco historians Peter Shapiro and Tim Lawrence have already demonstrated, disco's detractors should consider a couple of other angles on its supposedly head-in-the-stars refusal to grapple with the issues, its decadent insistence on fun and frivolity in the face of all the urgent evidence to the contrary (and is it necessary to reiterate the WASP-ish dimension to so much anti-disco rhetoric?)
For instance, rather than 'speaking truth to power' in the nominally engaged manner of protest songs of all stripes (rock, folk, R&B) – songs whose visceral platitudes and patinas seduced their audiences into thinking they were right there on the barricades, fed their sense of moral superiority in the taxonomy of cultural consumers – what if in its original incarnation, disco's inclusive dancing-in-the-ruins vibe actively turned its back to the cynical machinations of prevailing elites and hierarchies? Consider the climate and conditions in which disco emerged, which is to say the dog days of the early 70s in the necropolis of Manhattan, when America was freezing in the chill winds of global economic meltdown and rampant political conservatism, and the pitiless systemic response to Vietnam protests, civil rights and the rise of identity politics. Now consider the possibility that, instead of knuckling under to this harsh 70s reality, disco proudly and defiantly resisted it by having the nous and the nerve to walk away, disappearing into a polymorphously perverse autonomous zone where none of it mattered, and where divisions of class, race, gender and sexuality were allowed to dissolve in a cavalcade of esoteric rituals that suspended time for as long as the night allowed.
Many of disco's pioneers (New York DJs-cum-club runners such as David Mancuso and Francis Grasso) had come of age during long strange trips through the 60s counterculture, and in quasi-legal private-public spaces like The Church and The Loft the prone hippie credo of turning on, tuning in and dropping out took on a whole other meaning, transmuted for harder times into a more complex mantra of silence, exile and cunning. In these and other out of the way places at the centre of it all, disco revolted in style by creating a series of occult enclaves where the young and the damned, the bad and the beautiful, the perverse and the perverted could congregate in mutually assured communion, away from workaday existence and the (hetero)normative scheme of things with all its persecutions and privations. What disco's detractors perceived as reckless hedonism, its initiates (and let's not forget who those early denizens of the disco night actually were: blacks, Latins, gays, women; the socially marginalised and maligned) understood to be a far more subversive process of self-determination and community solidarity.
The clothes and the drugs, the roleplaying and the rituals may appear poles apart, but really, when you get right down to it, is what was happening at a socio-psychological level at the dawn of disco any different to what now occurs in those subcultural scenes which emerged partly in opposition to everything that disco apparently promoted (irony rather than authenticity, the anonymity and mutability of the DJ mix rather than the fixed co-ordinates of authorial identity, music used and abused as instant hit and disposable commodity)? The rhetoric that surrounds supposedly uncompromising avant garde scenes such as Noise, Improv, DIY makes claims for them that weirdly echo the imperatives that gave rise to disco: a revolt against deleterious systems – social, cultural and political – which took the form of a retreat underground and the creation of new ways of being based on new sets of shared values. Whether you choose to frequent loft parties or basement jamz or Improv workshops has everything to do with where you as an individual feel warm and secure, cocooned by likeminds and familiar faces, free to go bang with all your friends at once, night in, night out. The differences can be measured in degrees, are mere semantics, surface details.
Undergrounds are formed out of necessity by individuals and communities that have historically been on the wrong end of economic and cultural isolation, fear and loathing, cynicism and ignorance, snide jokes and sneering asides – the deviants, the aberrations, the exiles, the dispossessed. As David Mancuso told Tim Lawrence in Love Saves The Day: "The underground was where it was safe. It was where you wanted to be." He's referring to the milieu of the lofts and warehouses of disco's first blush, but he might as well be talking from the perspective of the occupants of the basements and backrooms of contemporary Noise and Improv: the underground, and underground status, as an end in itself; not an interim step to aboveground integration, but a defence mechanism against it (as if integration was ever possible on anything other than their terms). Aboveground is mendacious, censorious. Of course it is where you have to return, and you negotiate its treacherous terrain as best you can, like a fugitive, ducking into doorways and shadows, lurking in cracks and crevices, detouring down back streets, keeping your head down, hiding away in the cold light of day. But it's the last place on earth you want to be, and you remove yourself from it at every opportunity, night in, night out.
Disco fermented far underground, but through a number of insidious processes became the embodiment of everything that, in the eyes of other subterranean enclaves, was abhorrent about what happened aboveground. But this was merely another example of the process in which countercultures are co-opted by capital and distorted into grotesque parodies denuded of their original vernacular power to suspend one reality and replace it with another (disco is no more, no less an escape from reality than, say, Noise; instead, both are the endorsement, the validation of anOther). Punk becomes New Wave, Metal becomes AOR, revolutionary gestures become stadium grandstanding, the disco mix becomes cheesy opportunistic chart pop. And what remains of the underground responds by burrowing deeper, until its vibrations are barely discernible on the surface.
Essentially (as in: this is their true essence), undergrounds such as Noise, Improv and DIY, or Bassline and UK funky (or whatever they are calling the latest troglodyte modifications of disco DNA this week) all serve the same purpose, providing a psychic and physical refuge for those looking for other modes of existence, a context in which to intensify marginal ideas and esoteric experience, ones that might carry them up and above and beyond all the bright lies and dull routines, the banal facts of a world on the brink, if only for a night.
A month ago a DJ set by Hieroglyphic Being (aka Jamal Moss) set my world on fire. It was in Berlin, at the CTM festival, and I can't stop going over it in my head, rerunning the maths to find the multiplying factor. It was the first time I'd seen Moss DJ. It started at 3am, following an impeccable set of tessellated Techno by Kassem Mosse. But Jamal Moss's set was a different beast entirely: loose, sloppy and incredibly ugly in some parts, but always giddy, impatient and unpredictable. It ran through pitched up and pitched down tracks, and too many genres and styles to count on one hand. At one point it got into a call and response dialogue between New York disco and Krautrock. The mixing was at times slick, incredible (an air raid siren threaded through three tracks, sewing them together). In other places it was a dirty hack made with a blunt instrument.
The constantly changing pace sent me nuts, for Hieroglyphic Being's disregard for the conventions of what constitutes 'good' DJing. In fact the performance capsized all the cliches that have built up around our idea of what makes a 'good' DJ set, ie that good mixing is a smooth segue between two tracks; that a set should move through styles in a gradual progression; that bpms shouldn't ramp up, plummet and shoot up again in the space of three minutes. Moss moved between sections full of sudden schizophrenic cuts from one track to another, and passages where he would let one groove run unmolested for almost ten minutes. Tracks were pulled after one chorus, played backwards, rewound. They were sped up to 170 bpm, then slammed up next to slow 80 bpm funk.
I laughed my way through it, half the time shaking my head in disbelief, frowning, puzzled. Admittedly, it pushed my buttons, that New York disco stuff always does. But it was done with such confident swagger – with Moss resplendent in Battlefield Earth leather chic – that it worked.
Some friends said they were finding it "very challenging". Why? Because what was expected (even given Hieroglyphic Being's diverse output) was not being adhered to. Descriptions of the mood in clubs and on dancefloors often resort to religious analogies, and this set required you to make a leap of faith, or find yourself at an impasse with regard to the sheer iconoclasm of it. CDJs are frowned on in some circles, but central to Moss's set was the way it foregrounded the sound of these tools – the fake scratching sound of the CDJs, the speed shifting (sometimes without pitch control), and brutal use of the fader.
Whereas Kassem Mosse's set felt like a perfectly calibrated clockwork model (not conventional, but certainly neat and tidy), Hieroglyphic Being's was the boss-eyed Frankenstein's monster you fall in love with precisely for his scars and club foot.
Not many mixes demand to be prefaced by an hour long documentary, but this is an exception. The BBC radio series Legends Of The Dancefloor: A Piece Of Paradise featured a four hour radio broadcast from the Paradise Garage's second birthday, recorded by the young Lenny Fontana and on his dad's reel to reel tape deck back in 1979. Tucked away on the BBC radio schedules in July to run through the night, it almost passed me by, although perhaps I thought that a four hour recording from the Paradise Garage was just too good to be true.
Amazingly, the set is just as good as you might hope, so much so that it begs the question of how the hell it came to light in the first place, and how it remained hidden for so long. The broadcast was accompanied by an hour long chat between Mike Morin and Lenny Fontana, the latter of whom recorded it from local radio as a teenage disco freak before he was even frequenting the club.
The set and the documentary has now been unofficially archived on the web by Belfast disco freaks Iso Disco and also on Soundcloud by DJ Mixes – now the recording is out of the bag it would be a shame if it were to disappear into the mists of time once again.
What's the set like? Well, the sound quality is fairly good, but more importantly it’s the early years of the Paradise Garage, so the relationship between the DJ and the audience was still in the honeymoon stage, and you can hear the crowd responding to the music and the sense of community. Live PAs come from Sylvester and Loletta Holloway, voices that are so familiar frozen on their landmark records that it's genuinely startling to hear them singing in the moment. You can also hear better than ever Levan's style on the decks. He was not a technically dazzling DJ, but he knew his records so well that the verse of one could segue into the chorus of another. The sensitivity to mood and theme makes the experience something like film or theatre.
Perhaps in a way this mix is too good to be true, because when you're at a club you don't tend to listen forensically for four hours non stop – you tune in and out, you socialise and experience the space. But listening to it now, 30 years later in the comfort of your own home, it's like discovering a lost brotherhood, a better, fairer society from times past.
At this year’s Mutek, the series of A/V performances (as well as Amon Tobin’s bombastic stage spectacle) were notable for treating visuals with an extra gravity that isn’t often extended to VJs and A/V artists. Across the festival schedule, visuals were brought to the fore and rendered in pin sharp graphics.
Here's a clip of Purform, whose set was most collaborative, with the audio visual elements merged into a coherent package, where neither medium is the prime mover. It's this duo that got me to thinking about the effect of hi res visuals on the audio in an A/V show. Here, the monochromatic visuals were rendered across a three screen array.
The effect of these super hi-res visuals is a sort of synthesthetic illusion, whereby the audio is exaggerated because of the visuals. There's a phenomenon like this in consumer technology: people watching a higher resolution screen think that they are hearing better quality audio than those watching a lower resolution screen, even when the audio is identical. The same phenomena seemed to be happening in the context of the A/V shows too, particularly at Amon Tobin.
Tobin's stage set up was one of the centre pieces of the festival: 3D projection mapping onto a stage set constructed from giant white stacked cubes. The visuals run the gamut from abstract lights and animated graphics to Transformer-like robots and enormous spaceships in starry skies. The extravagance of this spectacle appeared to give the booming of the bass an extra dimension, and at the very least the sound for Tobin was noticeably better than for other artists in the same venue.
The AntiVJ/Murcof collaboration benefited from a similar synesthetic illusion: flexing, angular, monochrome noodles, designed to react according to the frequencies Murcof was pushing, stretched their vibrating coils into the foreground of the broad screen, gave the bass an extra dimension, feeling like it got deeper into my head. It reminded me of the the Lustmord show at Unsound Festival in Krakow last year (also performed at Unsound New York), where curling smoke trails spiralled into blackness.
Whether the brain's mixing up of good sound and good visuals is a real effect in A/V performances or not, generally speaking visual artists at Mutek were treated as legitimate acts alongside their musical collaborators. This doesn't happen often - one reason suggested to me has been that great audio visual shows are suspicious: the more paranoid among us immediately ask what the visuals are distracting us from in the music, like the card trick that distracts you from the fact you've had your wallet nicked. Are the bright lights just a diversion from what's going on somewhere else in our senses, or are we just too used to music being performed with little or nothing in the way of visuals to be comfortable with it being done really well?
Still reeling from Dave Tompkins’ fantastic
presentation for his book on the vocoder How To Wreck A
Nice Beach, at The Wire salon last week. Both the
book and his talk are full of little coincidences and serendipitous
overlaps. One that was particularly mind-boggling for me was Dave
interviewing Florian Schneider and Wendy Carlos on the same day.
I’d be quaking in my boots at the thought of talking to even one
such towering figure in modern music, much less two in one day!
Naturally, ensuing office chat after the talk turned to Carlos’s Switched On Bach. Some (no names, ahem) don’t see the appeal, but I had to admit that I own the Switched On Boxed Set (you can listen to some audio clips from it here), which I bought a few years ago when I was listening to a lot of Bassline. That little revelation beggared another question: why would I make that connection? I had thought the answer to this was obvious and that I had addressed it already in my previous writings about Bassline. Well, actually, I hadn’t.
Bassline is a funny genre, and the music regularly makes me laugh. Its over-the-topness verges on the ridiculous and comes generally in two varieties. The first – which I’m not so keen on – is trashy pop mindlessness. The second – which I love – is pure unabashed rave abandon. But one of Bassline’s defining and most amusing traits is the use of arpeggiated synth lines, which regularly recall the Baroque melodies that Carlos was famous for recreating and amplifying. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself.
This Youtube clip of T2's "Oh Boy" (from his The Monster Dubz EP 12") was obviously taken from a mix, so the track isn't freed from the previous one until about the 30 second mark, exactly when those synths come in.
This is the b-side track to Dexplicit's Lifey 12", called "Over You Rmx" with Kasia. It's only the first half of the track, but you can hear the synths – a little more clumsy in this one, but still riffing Carlos-style – at around the 56 second mark.
This DJ Pyper track "What A Load" was only released digitally, and I first heard it on an excellent, short Bassline mix that Zomby did for Mad Decent. Look out for the synths around the 53 seconds mark.
While I'm only highlighting the Wendy Carlos synth connection here, the use of strings by quite a few of these Bassline producers is another (perhaps slightly more tenuous) link to the music of 'respectable' long-dead, white guys. Check out the T2 and DJ Pyper tracks again and listen out for that.
Quick (and late) notice for two gigs put on by friends and extended family of The Wire. Tonight (8 October) Jonny Mugwump's Resonance FM show Exotic Pylon holds its second live event at The Vortex in Dalston, with a rare UK performance from Black To Comm, plus Infinite Livez and much more. More details here
Then on 10 November, Mordant Music will be playing
live at Joseph Stannard's Outer Church in Brighton which moves to a
new home at Komedia in Brighton. There'll be MM films and much
Ah, Sonar. We love your beautiful home city of Barcelona – full of gorgeous people, delicious food and sunshine. We love the excellence of your stages' sound systems and the way you refute the notion that the clubbing/raving experience is necessarily depraved and dirty. We relish your stellar organisation and helpful, civilised staff. And even though – after 17 years of programming – there are now many hours of bland beats blanketing a few acts of interest, we still love to go to Sonar.
Ah, Hyperdub. We were surprised that your party was off-Sonar, but frankly all of the parties surrounding Sonar, not officially included with Sonar, are part of what make it such a great festival to go to. If you don't like the main course, you can fill up on appetisers and desserts and this party was one of the best things on the menu, even for tired old Londoners like ourselves. We were a little overwhelmed by the enormous crowd at your small venue and felt a bit bemused at how 'fashionable' it all was (has Hyperdub become style-mag fodder?). Unfortunately, not even the improved sound (yes, the same place as LuckyMe's party a couple years back) and your great line-up could keep us there when we can see you lot at home, with 50% less wankers and more room to dance.
Ah, Phill Niblock. We admire your history and were grateful that there was a nod to experimentalism on the bill, somewhere. But what, exactly, was special about this collaboration with Carlos Casas? There seemed little connection between his films and your music and frankly your own films would have served even better.
Ah, aging, reformed, once-popular band. This year you were Roxy Music and actually, we quite enjoyed it – although we were slightly disturbed at how lecherous Bryan Ferry looks, and how young suave becomes middle-aged cheese now that you're all so old. You musn't TRY to be sexy, you either are (like David Bowie) or you aren't. Maybe you should go for dignified instead. Despite that, you played as though you meant it, which we appreciated. However, sorry, no way did you top Dizzee Rascal, who has surprisingly retained his sense of self after spending so much time as a pop star. We can't remember hearing Grime at Sonar before this year, but he actually performed it and it didn't clear the (incomprehensibly large) room. In fact, we saw lots of non-English types enjoying it and dancing to it. But Dizzee, really, even if you have seized the energy of hiphop, must you use those tired old call-and-response tropes? When you exhort us like that, it perversely makes us NOT want to make noise.
Ah, laptop DJs. Please, can you remember that if you EVER get to play a large stage in front of thousands of people with a quality soundsystem (say, at a festival like Sonar?), you should make sure tunes are loaded at utmost bitrate quality? Otherwise, yr shit comes through flat and fuzzy with zero dynamic. FlyLo, we're looking in your direction! And really, you've played Sonar before, so you should know better.
Ah, Alexander Nut. We loved that you warmed up the crowd with Grime before Fatima came on. And dear, dear Fatima. We are actually quite fond of you. We like how you channel black American soul without artifice, although we think that you need to gain a stone and possibly tap into the blues to get more resonance in your wonderful voice. We hope that a producer we like more will make a good track for you! Now, we can't forget Moodymann. You provided us with the most spirited dancing, festival energy of the entire weekend. We love how you have the EQ skills of Theo Parrish, but keep it locked onto the party vibe and how you (like Theo) can make tracks sound completely different. You make us feel that Detroit must be a soulful place full of people who are sensually alive, and not the desolate shell that Julien Temple and others would have us believe (honestly, 8 Mile offers a more convincing portrait of the city).
Ah, Herbert. We just found your set bemusing. We didn't think you really went anywhere and we never figured out the point of your silly ladder or your goofy tent. We also think you heard a different set than we did, because your levels were very off and constantly changing, but we're also sure that it was your own fault and not the soundperson's.
Yes, sweet Sonar, we must say adieu for another year. Please, next year can you offer more experimental music (it might encourage music lovers to come again!) and bring back Jeff Mills? We know he's played every year for yoinks, but as a festival resident he is much cooler than Richie Hawtin.
Glasgow-based director, animator and sound designer Konx-om-Pax aka Tom Scholefield (designer/director for Hudson Mohawke and Jamie Lidell amongst others) has put together a club night as part of his Display Copy project (studio and record label). Forthcoming gigs scheduled are: Oneohtrix Point Never, Tomutonttu, DJ set from Konx-om-Pax and special guests. Glasgow Artschool, 29 May, 11pm–3am, £5/6. Gescom, Konx-om-Pax and Guy Veale, Glasgow Ivy Bar, 4 June, 8pm–12am, free.
1. City Scum Shot, “The Bamboo Vein”
2. Grippers Nother Onesers, “After Dark Cravings”
3. Ducktails, “Seagull’s Flight”
4. Dolphins Into The Future, “Lone Voyager”
5. Tod Dockstader, “Knockwhistle”
6. Tom Dissevelt & Kid Baltan, “The Visitor from Inner Space”
7. Bruce Haack (Miss Nelson And Bruce), “Mudra”
8. Conrad Schnitzler, “Trigger One 2″
9. Irsol, “Concentration”
10. Tolerance, “Sacrifice”
11. Stephen Mallinder, “Length of Time”
12. David Fenech, “Poteaux/Feux”
13. Coil, “Who’ll Fall”
14. Throbbing Gristle, “Painless Childbirth”
15. Team Doyobi, “Music For Cat”
16. Alan Sparhawk, “17.53″
17. Zoviet France, “Electron Gate”
18. Konx-om-Pax, “At Home With Mum & Dad”
19. Chris Carter, “Clouds”
20. Sir Richard Bishop, “Smashana”
21. Erkki Kurenniemi, “Sähkösoittimen Ääniä #4 (1971)”
22. The Goslings, “Overnight”
23. Konx-om-Pax, “Hurt Face”
24. Pocahaunted, “Chinatown”
25. Konx-om-Pax, “Jamie Mono Tape”
26. Current 93 & Nick Cave, “Patripassian”
27. Popol Vuh, “Through Pains to Heaven”
28. Alexandro Jodorowsky, Ronald Frangipane & Don Cherry, “Tarot Will
Teach You/Burn Your Money”
29. Nicholas and Gallivan with Larry Young, “Angles Wing”
30. Chris Corsano, “How Should You Throw It On Other Occasions?”
31. Androids Of Mu, “Atomic X”
32. Martin Creed, “Fuck Off”
The folks at Soul Jazz Records have organised a night at Cafe Oto to celebrate the life and work of the late drummer Steve Reid, who over the course of his long career worked with a wide array of artists including Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, James Brown, Fela Kuti and Sun Ra . Details on the flyer below.
The Wire’s monthly series of salon-type evenings continues with author and The Wire contributor Ken Hollings (author of Welcome To Mars and Destroy All Monsters and presenter of the Hollingsville series on Resonance FM) and Steve Goodman (Kode9, author of Sonic Warfare), discussing the uses and abuses of sound and noise from sonic bombs to soundclashes.
Below is a short online reading and listening list in anticipation of the event (mostly via Ken Hollings)
•Stream Hollings's Radio 3 programme From Gameboy to Armageddon on the Military Entertainment Complex
•PDF download of Theatres Of War: The Military-Entertainment Complex, an essay by Tim Lenoir and Henry Lowood.
•Projects page of the Institute For Creative Technologies - an institute set up to bring military planners, games designers, Hollywood SFX people and experts in interactive technology together.
•Give yourself an adrenalin buzz (or scare yourself silly) with Bohemia Interactive's Virtual Battlespace 2 promotional film.
The salon takes place at London's Cafe Oto, 6 May, 8pm, £4.