Few records define this period better than this. Brilliant.
At Least We Learned To Dance
Disco has never gone away. It was always there, in the bleeps and burps of those primitive early Chicago experiments and Frankie Knuckles' ill-disguised Trevor Horn tributes, in the cut and thrust of New York collisions between soul and technology and the Italians’ pneumatic tributes (somewhere between a French homage and a Blackpool Kiss Me Quick hat). And it never left the dancefloor, even if it sometimes wore a disguise (not for nothing did Frankie call house “Disco’s revenge”). Now it seems, it’s everywhere. Daniel Wang, a DJ not unfamiliar with the genre, celebrates it.
The good news is that the good times are back, at least when it comes to dancing. The bad news is that the good times are nothing new; just as EU policy-makers know from Roman chronicles that fiscal crises have come and gone before, so do we, the queers and music-lovers of this generation, know that we’re neither the first nor the only ones to undertake these rites of Saturday night and Sunday morning. It doesn’t feel like 30 years ago since Andrew Holleran’s immortal novel from 1977, Dancer From the Dance, described the goings-on in the gay clubs of New York, because those words are still so fitting today:
“It was extraordinary, the emotions in those rooms. At the beach, the music floated out of open windows, wandered over the bay, lost itself in the starry night, just as sexual desire on summer evenings in the city rose into the sky with the pigeons and the heat itself. But in winter, in those rooms in the city, with the music and the men, everything was trapped, and nature being banished, everyone was reduced to an ecstatic gloom. How serious it was, how dark, how deep - how aching, how desperate. We lived on certain chords in a song, and the proximity of another individual dancing beside you, taking communion from the same hand, soaked with sweat, stroked by the same tambourines.”
I haven’t been to Horse Meat Disco in London for at least a year or two now. I miss the casual, anything-goes atmosphere in the Eagle, the patio and pool table, the familiar faces... But this disco thing got bigger than we ever imagined, didn’t it? How did it happen? Is it just the law of free-market capitalism providing more parties for more leisure-class masses? Or - forget the crowds singing ‘Go West’ at Wembley Stadium - are we now in Phase 12 and a half of the Disco Revolution, proof being the mirror balls put up in Buckingham Palace by Prince Harry & Pippa, in spite of objections from the Queen?
No, I didn’t make it to the Glastonbury Festival in 2008, sorry to say. James showed me the pictures months later - their elaborate reconstruction of a ‘70s “New York” sidewalk complete with brick tenements, pimps and prostitutes, drag queens, and macho-men of all sorts getting down to Jacques Morali. They won a big prize for it too – after all, who can compete with queens out to make a statement? But I suspect that the punchline on this huge gag is really that London, and Berlin, are now what New York has long ceased to be, i.e. mad fun without a curfew. And since HMD got a monthly residency at the oceanside Lux Club in Lisbon too, the disco empire is now firmly anchored from the Atlantic coast through the middle of Europe deep down to the Mediterranean. (Sevvy and James met in Bologna, which is a bit like the San Francisco of Italy; Sev is originally from Mantova, where they bred English horses 1000 years ago, but you wouldn’t guess from James’ blue eyes that his mother came from a small town near Naples.) I did have the chance to DJ at Lux with the boys last year. It wasn’t my first time there, but it was probably more fun than I’d ever had in that club, which is not exactly dirty or intimate. Lux is lots of men and women dancing under state-of-the-art LEDs, and no one is wearing a leather harness or a wig. The sound is fabulous, it’s great fun all the same, but I’d better report on what I know best, which is the party in the city where I live.
These kinds of things are always hard to describe – in the end, they’re just a jumble of fleeting sensations. I don’t like taking drugs when I go out: if a party was really fun, I want to know that it wasn’t just a phantasm in my own mind. I want to know that it was something I shared with everyone there, that the mania in our eyes and in our feet was real. It was mid-July 2010, the weather service had predicted a sweltering summer night, and before we even entered Tape Club, we could feel the steam pushing its way past the entrance into the lines of people waiting. There’s that impatience of hearing the pulse of the bass from outside, from the corridor leading to the dancefloor, and then the moment of being confronted with a gay Circus Maximus: hundreds of men in a state of ecstasy and undress throbbing to the beat of Michael Zager and Madleen Kane. And the night had just started...
Everyone seemed to have agreed on gathering in this one place, even some of the boys who don’t usually go out to dance. We had to imagine that we were in either a rainforest or a sauna, because clearly no ventilation system could entirely diffuse the heat. The daytime had been so hot – were we only feeling the remnants of the sun, stored under our skin? Or was this from the collective effort of so many bodies in movement? Shoulders, forearms, half-naked legs on display in the coat-check area, in the lounge upstairs, filling the stairway. Hundreds more men, and even a few odd, stylish women, sat on the massive loading docks behind the club which had been especially left open for this night. Poetically, however, no one stepped down onto the abandoned industrial lot behind Tape, so that the landscape remained completely bare, with trees and buildings only far out in the distance. It would be no exaggeration to compare the scene to a post-industrial Katsura Palace right out of ancient imperial Japan - fallen aristocrats, drunken samurai and degenerate courtesans, sitting on a single, wide, raised terrace, overlooking an enormous, flat, and seemingly empty stone garden.
But the more we walked around, the more we realised that we hardly knew everyone. Berlin has three gay centres, maybe four (the muscle marys wearing Diesel are from Nollendorfplatz, the torn jeans might be from Kreuzberg, the cute students from Friedrichshain), and the funny thing is that HMD pulls its crowd from both west and east. I like the touch of trashiness, the two or three nameless working-class boys from Lichtenberg or Marzahn, who always dance alone on the stage in their jogging pants and trainers, thin gold chain on their naked torsos. Cruising seems to be the last thing on their minds; perhaps they live to dance more than anyone else. The Pantysniffers are a couple of drag queens who run around in crazy outfits - I’m not sure if they’re functional hostesses or just living decorations - but I especially admire that skinny boy with the pierced nose who always wears loads of makeup and spandex tights. He makes me think of a comical bird, with legs of a stork and colours of a parakeet, whose mission is spread good cheer by flapping around the club in circles.
It was one of those nights where you soon lost track of what the DJs were playing, but you kept dancing on and on because apparently nothing else could exist beyond this world of rhythm and music. As often before, Donna Summer’s anthem ‘Lucky’ broke in at some point, and the synthesizer’s shiny arpeggios seemed to perfectly mirror the pinpoints of green lasers scattering across the room. And if you stood in the right corner, the violin vamps in that Gregg Diamond anthem sounded like birds diving down from the sky, and that single funky note in the bass felt like some mystical morse code pumping a secret message through your veins.
This city has patched together its own little United Nations. In this corner or that, you hear French or Italian, sometimes Japanese, Polish, Greek, even Hebrew. (Club owner Yoni, adored by the boys for various reasons, is originally from Israel. He installed the acoustic enforcements in the club with his own hands.) Admittedly, Berlin doesn’t have so many Latin beauties as New York or Sao Paolo, nor the fierce, gorgeous African blood of Paris. Berlin is Europe north and south – its gruff beards and well-nourished musculature. But there is something more egalitarian and less anxious in its character than those other cities. If voguing resulted from the socio-economic deprivation of blacks and Latinos in America, then no wonder this event works in London and Berlin, in a contemporary European context - HMD’s dancefloor is much less a competitive arena (as it often was at clubs like Sound Factory in N.Y.) than a carnival, with a healthy touch of British camp and soul.
A DJ who doesn’t love to dance is simply a fake. (Quote me, please!) When I think of DJs I love to hear, I see them dancing. I see Jim Stanton flashing his naughty grin and tossing his hands up gospel-style as he played that extended re-edit of Thelma Houston’s ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, which could only be described as relentless and unforgiving (in the best possible way). And there’s a way some people dance which reminds me of how a great bass player is supposed to gently lag behind the beat, with a heaving-bouncing kind of syncopation. The way Severino moves when he really gets into the mix is exactly that - it’s as if his torso, his arms and his legs are running on three clocks, each set milliseconds apart from the other. Luke’s very long legs do the same. They’re actually so long that, when he brings his feet up to his knees on the one, they seem to already be shadowing the beat of the two and the three. (If you’ve ever seen him do the Bus Stop, then surely you know what I mean.)
We’re still at Tape Club on this endless morning – the sun rises so early here in July. Inside, the revelry goes on. Outside, in this broad daylight, the beautiful dark-eyed boy from Argentina (who happens to be a master dessert chef and a conga player) stands on the terrace wearing only denim shorts and crimson-red lipstick. I’m catching a breath of fresh air, astounded that no one seems to have gone home. Without saying a word, he holds me against the wall and smears his lips joyfully across mine for just a moment. I can’t recall what song Jim or James played after that, I can’t recall how much longer I stayed or (singing from My Fair Lady) what made it all so exciting. In fact, the images in my mind of all these good times are confused already. I sort of remember myself and a few die-hard fans jumping around at 9 a.m. when Sevvy played Jody Watley and ‘Chic Cheer’, but when I dug up the flyers, I realized that Sevvy played in August, not in July. As I feared – after the party, only fleeting impressions remain. Best that there are no videos or pictures of it, because how these nights looked in reality could probably never compare to how they felt while you were there. When I asked James his impression of summer 2010 in Berlin, however, he responded with no irony at all: “Of course it was amazing, but I don’t like it when it’s packed to the gills! Because then there’s no room for people to dance, not even room to cruise. And – citing Amanda Lear – Quality, of course, is always better than sheer Quantity...”
As I grow older, I feel the profundity of disco music both with more mental distance and more physical intensity. If bossa nova, as Antonio Carlos Jobim said, is the melancholy of Chopin cross-bred with a samba beat, then all those strings and horns which we love must be the symphonies of Strauss and Beethoven riding on the mulatto tikka-tok rhythms of salsa and the boom-boom of rock’n’roll. We live for the inevitability of tried-and-true chordal modulations (Bach wrote the book), and no doubt there’s always a hint of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ in those breezy, sighing chords in the late ’70s tunes of Ashford & Simpson. The voice of Celi Bee, a favourite disco singer of mine and Luke Howard, has the clarity of a silver flute. Get it rolling, and a good disco mix feels like mathematics in motion - a specific 2-4-8 kind of math, to be sure - but once the dancers’ bodies synchronise with the sound, then it all becomes automatic. That’s the distance vs. the intensity: as a DJ, you always have to think one step ahead, you have to be aware of what musical mechanisms excite the floor. Yet you also have to flash back to the present, constantly - to the force of the rhythm itself which, in fact, is telling you to stop thinking and lose control.
How did it feel in 1978? It can’t have been so different. The clubs must have been just as sweaty, the male smells from chests and underarms must have been just as intoxicating, the occasional nameless fart must been have been just as rudely funny. It’s a mystery why plaid shirts, beards and moustaches have made such an overwhelming comeback, and why the trend shows no signs of fading - even as pant legs puff up from super-skinny to wide again. Perhaps because facial hair is only the natural state of men, after all? Jerry, the ever enthusiastic host at Tape, always wears a plaid shirt. (To me, plaid evokes the beauty of Celtic and Germanic tribes and even the tall, blond, bearded mummies from 1800 B.C. dug up recently in the remote deserts of Xingjian, China were wearing tartan leggings.)
But let’s not romanticise. In some respects, the past was no better than the present - some nights must have been rainy and cold and dreary; some nights, you observed sadly as your sexy date got drunk and disappeared into the loo with an ogre offering a hit of coke. Just like today. House music was hot in ‘89, and again around ‘96 or maybe 2001; but even if some people won’t admit it, there’s nothing quite like disco music from around 1978. I say ‘78, not ‘81 or ‘83, because I’m occasionally haunted by the thought of how carefree things must have been until the AIDS epidemic suddenly struck. I imagine all these people which I’m looking at tonight disappearing over the next three or four years. I imagine going to the disco and dancing alone, or perhaps I’d be lying on a hospital bed with violet blisters on my arms, realising that all my hopes and dreams had been dashed by a meaningless one-night stand. And if I’d loved someone for more than a night, then surely I’d have dashed his hopes and dreams, too.
In the heyday of disco, gay people let themselves go because no one knew that a disaster was looming. (Nat King Cole croons: “There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance; let’s face the music and dance”.) And in year 2011, with HIV therapies effective enough to postpone thoughts of an early departure, the good times, in their own way, are back again. Some scary bugs still lurk in dark places, and things aren’t perfect; but they look much brighter than they did in 1983. Between awkward adolescences and the decay into senility, in the years where our heterosexual counterparts stay home to nurture their young, we find ourselves free to stay out late, to dress outlandishly, to explore the dark side of the moon. These are the years in which you go out to dance.
But once you’ve had a taste of real divas and violins and guitars, your appetite won’t be sated by iPods and techno. Being an idealist and a dreamer, you rummage through the past to find proof that the world was once different - things sounded better, they sounded more honest before laptops and MIDI replaced music played all in one irreproducible take. Music that still has the power to take you outside of yourself, music that makes you feel animalistic or electric or grandiose, in a club or tavern which reminds you that you’re no longer alone in some tiny conservative village in the north of Sweden or the south of Spain. (Your immediate family is far away, no matter how much you say you love them.) That’s why you’re here on a Sunday morning or evening in this city, in the company of all these men who want (more or less) the same thing as you. And if you can’t find a few souls here who feel the same way, then you might as well retire to a monastery. It’s great to be alive and dancing to disco again in 2011. We can’t take it for granted; we should treasure it for what it’s worth.
You go to the party and realise that there are too many faces and bodies on display, some you’ll never even speak to or ever see again. There are too many good songs and phrases; you can never own every record. It’s like going to the beach: you stare at the ocean, dazed by its immensity. But then you bend down and put a handful of pebbles and sand into a bottle, you take it home, and it gives you joy. Another disco compilation. Another fantasy soundtrack, another small capsule of madness and joy.
Speaking of Malone’s first boyfriend in New York, a working-class Italian who has blossomed into a Fire Island muscle queen, Sutherland sighs: “... He’s making twenty thousand a year now, and he’ll have a pension, too. And we haven’t got the price of a bus ticket to Denver. Oh well, we lived for other things,” he smiled. Malone put his arms around him and held him close. “At least we learned to dance. You have to grant us that. We are good dancers,” he said. “And what,” said Sutherland, “is more important in life than that? Nothing.”
© Danny Wang, 2011.
These sleevenotes form part of the package for the Strut Records compilation Horse Meat Disco III
Six From Danny Wang
Get huh?! We can feel it.
Despite the German title, it has a definite Italo feel, both cosmic and comic.
Disco library-style with an obviously kitschy Wang signature.
Bonkers electro-disco told through the crack-laden prism of Billie Jean.
Again Danny delves into the 80s for inspiration and comes up smelling of crackers.