Love is the Message by Phil Thornton
In the last issue of Swine we reviewed Tim Lawrence's superb history of disco, 'Love Saves The Day'. Tim kindly agreed to answer some of our questions and we will hopefully be getting him up to the north west to talk about 'Love Saves The Day' and his other projects; he's currently writing the eighties follow-up to LSD and a biography of Arthur Russell as well as leading the BA Music Culture : Theory & Production at University of East London. Tim has also written liner notes for the likes of David Mancuso, Marshall Jefferson and Masters At Work LPs and helps co-ordinate the London Loft parties. He's also just had his second kid. In short he's a very busy fellar, so we'd like to extend our porcine thanks to him and wish him all the best with his future projects.
Swine - Disco has been a much maligned and misunderstood musical genre, what gave you the impetus to write LSD?
Tim - The initial plan was to write a book that focused on the late eighties and nineties. Then I was introduced to David Mancuso - who nobody had really heard of at the time - and he introduced me to this whole world of underground parties that I'd never heard of. Initially I was reluctant to get into the 1970s. Like so many early UK house heads, I just equated disco with cheese, but the more I found out about the downtown scene of the 1970s, the more I realised this was where nucleus of contemporary dance culture was formed. Plus nobody had ever written about the era. By the time I was done I realised that a great deal of contemporary dance music culture - DJ-ing techniques, remixing aesthetics, sound system technologies, etc - were established during this much-maligned era. I ended up getting so into the seventies that, after some 500 odd pages, I realised that the eighties and the nineties would have to wait for another book. My editor agreed!
Swine - How on earth did you manage to track down all the big players in the early disco scene and more importantly persuade them to talk to you?
Tim - I had moved to New York to get closer to my favourite DJs in the mid-nineties. I started buying records like crazy and developed a few useful "ins". Stefan Prescott at Dance Tracks suggested I talk to David (Mancuso) and David then put me in touch with loads of other people. At the same time I was independently contacting the likes of Tony Humphreys and Frankie Knuckles. They were all happy to talk with me, probably because I already had a book contract and nobody had really given the scene any serious coverage at this point. I suppose it also helped that, having arrived from London, I was an "outsider" to the New York scene. If I'd lived through the seventies in New York, I would have become associated with one crowd or another. Coming from across the Atlantic, I was able to evaluate the history of the scene as an unencumbered outsider.
Swine - You make a big point of the Italian ethnic origin of many of the first important disco DJs. Did this surprise you and why do you think so many of the DJs came from Italian backgrounds?
Tim - Yes, this did surprise me. Like so many others, I assumed that all of the early important DJs were African American. DJs like Tee Scott and Larry Levan were extremely influential in the seventies, and Frankie Knuckles became a significant figure in Chicago at the end of the decade, but these DJs were very much part of a second wave. I write about the reason the Italian Americans were so prominent in the discos in "Love Saves the Day". The most obvious answer is that a lot of the clubs were controlled by the Mafia and therefore Italian Americans found it easier to get employment. But there was also something about the Italian American community in the early seventies that encourage them to get into DJing. In terms of class, the Italian American community was more upwardly mobile than the African American community, yet it lacked the established professionalism of other ethnic groups such as the Jews and the Germans. So the "semi-skilled" and unrecognized profession of DJing suited a lot of Italian American kids quite well. As it happens "Love Saves the Day" is being translated into Italian independently - it'll be out there by the end of the year - so I'm very excited about that.
Swine - In light of the gay sexuality of most DJs and therefore their experience of discrimination and oppression, were you shocked by the overt white/black schism that developed with the disco scene of the mid-seventies?
Tim - I don't know if I was shocked. Race divides America, and I was already aware that it was a divisive factor in the gay community. The idea that these racial differences should also be felt on the dance floor was disappointing, but hardly shocking. I'm an idealist when it comes to integration but I don't think this separation really kicked in until the mid-seventies. Before that, party spaces - the Sanctuary, the Loft, the Haven, Tamburlaine, the Limelight, the Gallery, etc - were extremely mixed. Plus I'm not sure the racism was ever particularly explicit, even from the mid-seventies onwards. What I did find slightly shocking was the idea that some clubs that have developed a reputation for being racially progressive in fact attempted to introduce some form of racial separation. That was why I wrote a fairly detailed analysis of the aborted attempt to make Saturday nights a white-only night at the Paradise Garage. The Garage eventually got over that sorry episode, but I thought it was instructive vis-à-vis the way in which great clubs don't just appear out of thin air but have to be built, and this building process can be a struggle. What took place at the Garage was a mistake, and I felt it was important to highlight this mistake if we are to avoid these kinds of pitfalls in the future.
Swine - Was this primarily fuelled by simple economics - white wealth ghettoising itself to its elitist enclaves?
Tim - It has always been difficult to disentangle race and class in the United States (and, indeed, beyond). To be white signified a certain class status, which in turn could signify a certain social status. I don't think any black men were ever considered to be part of the so-called "A-List" - the elite white men who populated parties such as Flamingo and then, in the eighties, the Saint. Many of these white men were wealthy and some of them just had the "talent" (good looks or creativity of whatever) to pass into that elite strata. Because white gay men owned the white gay party spaces, it was much easier for them to become exclusive. The most famous black gay (or I should say predominantly black gay, because there weren't really any exclusively black gay clubs, save perhaps for Better Days) party spaces were all owned by white men: David Mancuso lived in the Loft, Nicky Siano (and his partners) owned the Gallery, Richard Long lived in the SoHo Place, and Reade Street and then the Garage was run by Michael Brody. I think that it follows that these party spaces would never be as exclusive in terms of race as their white gay counterparts because the owners themselves were not black and gay.
Swine - In many ways, the likes of David Mancuso were operating along hippie collectivist ethics yet disco was so often portrayed as the ultimate 'narcissistic' musical genre - do you feel the likes of the record pools were entirely altruistic or just ways of grabbing freebies 12 inches?
Tim - Disco - or pre-disco - was heavily influenced by the politics of the mid to late 1960s. The materialistic aspect of disco didn't really emerge until the second half of the 1970s, when it became synonymous with venues such as Studio 54. So disco started out as an idealistic movement and then, as the seventies progressed, became more complicated. The record pools followed an almost identical path. In the beginning they were an attempt by DJs to eek out some sort of justice - DJs had little money and, through their selections and influence, were making the music industry millions of dollars. So it was only fair that they should at least receive free promos. In the second half of the seventies the record pools started to divide and compete, and some "abuses" (the selling on of promos to record stores, etc) became more common. Still, I think the initial idealism remained dominant, and disco's crisis of the late seventies can be linked to the record companies moving away from the pools and back to radio. They thought they could make their money without the DJs, and that was one of the main reasons why so much drivel was churned out.
Swine - The various charts you provide in LSD are intriguing in that they display an open-minded approach to 'dance' music that has often been ignored by the media and indeed the dance music scene itself. Did you deliberately want to showcase the eclectic tastes of these DJs as a rebuke to the cynics?
Tim - Absolutely. It's fascinating to see the early pre-disco charts, which contain an amazing mix of music. Initially disco simply referred to music that was played in a discotheque - and that, in the early seventies, would be anything that was danceable, from funky rock to African imports. Of course a number of DJs continued to maintain an eclectic range of music throughout the decade, and the cheesier end of disco didn't really get much play at all in the downtown clubs. Then again, there were some surprises, with underground DJs playing more commercial records if they were good. David Mancuso played Taste of Honey, "Boogie, Oogie, Oogie", and why not? It' s a great record! And the likes of Nicky Siano, Richie Kaczor and Bobby DJ actually created disco hits by playing marginalized soul records in their clubs. These records would have stayed underground if they hadn't been broken by these spinners. Overall I suppose I appreciated this open-minded approach to playing records - playing records that worked on the dance floor, without pre-judging them. Plus I thought this was worth highlighting as I knew that the collectors would be intrigued by the lists.
Swine - It's taken for granted now that DJs beat mix and use re-edits but back in the early seventies this was revolutionary and equipment and technology wasn't up to speed with the creative process. What did you learn about the evolution of DJing as art-form in its own right?
Tim - This is one of the central questions I address in "Love Saves the Day" and I don't think there's any quick answer to this. I certainly tried to map very carefully the contributions made by the likes of, in particular, Francis Grasso, David Mancuso, Michael Cappello, Nicky Siano, Walter Gibbons and Larry Levan. These, for me, were probably the most influential spinners of the seventies and I define what each of them contributed to the art of DJing. The thing that I found most interesting was the emphasis these DJs gave to the music they were playing, plus the message in their music. For sure, the likes of Grasso, Siano and Gibbons were very important in terms of developing the techniques of DJing, but I was equally impressed by the more profound approach these and other DJs took to their music. The mix was usually less important than the way in which the records were juxtaposed and developed. At the time of writing I was becoming increasingly bored with the process of mixing - the magic had certainly disappeared for me by the late nineties - so it was refreshing to learn about DJs who were more interested in programming the music across an entire night than focusing on the relatively brief moment of "the mix". I thought we could learn something from these spinners.
Swine - As disco became swallowed up by the corporate music and leisure industries, the likes of the Paradise Garage and the Warehouse forced the scene back underground to its gay roots. Do you feel this saved dance music and indeed lead to today's vibrant house scene?
Tim - Again, this is a big question. I don't think the Paradise and the Warehouse forced the scene back underground. That's where these and a host of other clubs were situated, and they simply continued to do what they were doing. Much has been made of the disco sucks phenomenon - and I write about it extensively in "Love Saves the Day", because it was influential and also quite fascinating - but in a way it didn't really impact on the hardcore urban club scene that much. These venues and DJs were already growing tired of the commercialised end of disco (and therefore had certain sympathies with the "disco sucks" brigade, even if they didn't like their overall politics. So when disco finally self-combusted it didn't really make a huge difference. There was certainly a period - it might have last six months, maybe a couple of years - when there wasn't much dance music coming out from the majors, but the independents didn't really miss a beat and the early eighties was one of the most exciting and creative periods for dance music. The Garage and the Warehouse certainly became important incubators for dance music - especially the Warehouse in Chicago, I would say, as there wasn't a whole lot else going on there between 1980-83 but there's every reason to believe that dance would have survived without the Garage and the Warehouse. For me, the most important thing about these venues is they provided a link between the downtown party network of the early seventies (the Loft, the Gallery, etc) and the clubs that have continued this ethos in the nineties and beyond (Shelter, the Underground Network, Body & Soul, 718, Deep Space, etc). The Garage and the Warehouse maintained these standards, these ideals.
Swine – There is a parallel with disco in that the UK soul scene's own obsession with black American music divided between northern/60s soul and jazz-funk/disco. The two scenes evolved in isolation yet there are so many similarities. Was this something you were aware of when writing the book and were any of the US DJs aware of what was happening over here at the same time?
Tim - I'm not an expert in the British dance music culture scene of the sixties and seventies, but don't think the Northern Soul scene was anywhere near as musically developed in terms of DJing or musical variety as the downtown New York scene. One of my first interviewees was Ian Levine, one of the key DJs from UK in this period, and he said he discovered the DJing wheel when he visited the Saint in the early eighties. UK DJing before then was fairly Neanderthal, I think. Reinforcing the point, some relatively unknown DJs (such as Dan Pucciarelli) created a huge splash when they came to Britain because of their "mixing skills" -- something that was, by then, considered pretty rudimentary in the States. So my impression is that the States was significantly ahead of Britain in terms of forging new ground in dance culture. That's not to say that Britain wasn't interesting, or innovative, etc. but I never felt it was as central. To answer the second part of your question, nobody in America was aware of what was happening in Britain!
Swine - "Love Saves the Day" is a marvellous account of, not only of the disco movement, but the state of American society and attitudes during the seventies. Obviously AIDs and Reagan were just around the corner, but do you feel that the seventies was the last great decade of American cultural achievement?
Tim - Many thanks for the warm words about "Love Saves the Day". Yes, I was keen to situate dance culture within the wider context of American society. I think this makes dance culture more interesting and relevant. The eighties were certainly rougher than the seventies and the music, which became darker during that decade, seemed to reflect this. I'm not really sure I see any of this in terms of "American" achievement, though. I don't see the pioneers of disco as somehow representing American values, even if their labour was very much bound up in the experience of living in the United States. And I would also say that, against the odds, the eighties were also an incredibly creative and important time for dance culture. The closure of the Garage and the Saint at the end of the decade more or less coincided with the explosion of dance culture in Europe, so from this point on the centre of gravity of dance culture begins to shift across the Atlantic - or at least divides itself between the States and America. But, as with the seventies, American DJs, dancers and remix-producers seemed to lead the way for much of the eighties.
Swine - Are you planning a film of the book and if not why not? Miramax I'm sure would bankroll it.
Tim – VH1 are thinking about making a documentary about the book but nothing has been confirmed and, to be honest, I'm doubtful anything will happen. Let me know if you have any contacts at Miramax! (me and Harvey Weinstein are like that kidda! PT)
Swine - Thanks for your time Tim.
Tim - Thanks for asking, Phil.