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How Clubbing changed the world by Greg Wilson

Last month I was over in Chicago chilling out in my hotel room ahead of my first gig in the city, at Smart Bar, a venue with a rich tradition, which opened back in 1982. Chicago is, of course, along with Detroit, Philadelphia and New York, revered as a key US city when it comes to the evolution of dance culture (and, indeed, black culture, with, way before House, a deep heritage in Rhythm & Blues, Blues and Jazz, dating right back to the ‘great migration’ of black workers from the southern states, beginning just over 100 years ago).

Checking out my emails, there were a few messages from people who weren’t aware that I was out of the country, asking if I’d watched the Channel 4 programme, ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’, which had been broadcast that night, and pointing me to a Facebook thread where a heated discussion was taking place, some people criticising the show for what it had chosen to disregard, others enjoying the trip down memory lane, regardless of what might have been left out, thankful that there was something half-decent to watch on a Friday night. I also had a look on Twitter, where the majority of people seemed positive about the programme, although this was peppered with the odd dissenting voice, asking why this or that hadn’t been included in the show’s Top 40 key moments in clubbing history.

Even though it was available to view online, I wasn’t able to watch it until my return to the UK. In the meantime I had a look on a couple of the dance forums, to see what had been said, including Faithfanzine, the home of one of London’s key movers and shakers of the Acid-House / Rave movement, Terry Farley, who, as I’d expected, had been interviewed for the programme, and it was interesting to read what he had to say. He was particularly critical of fact that Hip Hop hadn’t been covered, asking ‘how the fuck can you do a show about dance music and not mention Hip Hop?’  He was then informed that the company behind the programme, Fresh One, had already produced ‘How Hip Hop Changed The World’ in 2011. This splitting of 2 previously firmly connected forms is, I believe, one of the main reasons that the early ’80s era, which I’m constantly banging on about as crucial to our understanding of how dance culture developed in the way it did, is continually miscomprehended and, as a result, totally underplayed, time and time again.

In reply to a complaint that ‘the whole programme failed to portray the mix of music that has taken place in dance music clubs’, Farley responded; ‘I did my best to keep on repeating ‘ nothing started in ’88 and explained how thousands upon thousands would be dancing in Warehouses in the mid ’80s BUT of course they have a show ready and just wanted quotes to fit the shows template.’ In defence of this criticism the producers of the programme would surely point out that they touched on a few things, like New York Disco and Northern Soul in the ’70s, as well as pirate radio in the pre-Rave period, but this was but a fraction of the overall content, the impression being that not a lot of note happened before the big bang of ’88, which would take what was previously the domain of the underground squarely into mainstream focus.

At this point I should explain that, although I hadn’t yet seen it, and didn’t know it was coming on that weekend, I was fully aware that ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’ was imminent, because back in April I’d been approached by the programme and asked to contribute, selecting, in order of importance, 25 ‘defining moments’ from a list they’d compiled. I was also invited to let them know if there was something I felt had been missed out. I agreed to look through the list, but with some trepidation; ‘On the surface the programme sounds brilliant, but it always concerns me that we’ll get the same old story – DJs go to Ibiza in 1987 and it all kicks in from there’. Having looked through it I concluded that this wasn’t a programme I wished to personally endorse, and I emailed to politely decline, explaining my reasons:

I have to say that it is largely the same old story – there are big gaping holes as far as the black / dance music scene of the ’70s / early-mid ’80s are concerned, and on that basis I wouldn’t want to participate in rating your selections. Apart from Kiss FM and Goldie, I don’t think that black culture in this country is covered at all. The biggest omissions in my eyes are (in no specific order):

1. The release of ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force in 1982, the record that split the atom as far as electronic dance music is concerned – its importance isn’t even mentioned in the entry about Kraftwerk, even though it pre-dates (and serves to influence) the Techno movement you do mention.

2. The Street Sounds Electro series, which set the standard with regards to UK dance compilations, and introduced dance music to a whole new pre-Rave generation – it was also the first series of mixed albums.

3.The Soul / Jazz-Funk All-Dayer scene of the ’70s and early ’80s, where people were travelling up and down the country to rave well before there were raves.

4. The magazines that promoted black / dance culture during the ’70s – Blues & Soul, Black Echoes, Record Mirror, and the specialist radio DJs who pioneered via the airwaves.

5. The explosion of breakdancing in shopping centres throughout the UK in ’83 and ’84, where many young white kids first met their black counterparts and discovered black / dance culture.

6. Cut & Paste – from NYC’s Steinski in the mid-’80s through Coldcut in the UK and via seminal UK dance releases like M/A/R/R/S ‘Pump Up The Volume’, Bomb Da Bass ‘Beat Dis’, S Express ‘Theme From S Express’ and Coldcut’s ‘Doctorin’ The House’.

7. The introduction of the 12″ single – a revolution in itself.

8. The mods in the ’60s, and their R&B All-Nighters in cities like London and Manchester, from which the Northern Soul scene would be born.

9. Tamla Motown – the UK’s greatest dance label of all (American music, but Tamla and Motown were, along with Gordy, Soul and others, separate labels under the Motown umbrella Stateside).

I concluded by stating; ‘I’m sorry I can’t be more positive, but from the list of stuff you sent, although I’m sure it’ll be a successful programme for Fresh One, it still falls well short in projecting the fuller picture, relying mainly on the tried and tested tales as is the norm, which is fine if you’re only interested in the surface of things, but it misses the mark with regards to depth.’

I suppose that this is the crux of the matter – do you want a show that will really get to the core of how club culture emerged, and subsequently changed the world, or do you want a couple of hours of quick-fire feelgood entertainment, which although somewhat disjointed, is pretty slick in its presentation and contains a little bit of something for everyone. ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’ was always going to be the latter, a fast-moving collection of clips that, even if you didn’t like / agree with what was being shown, you knew there was another ‘moment’ imminent.

Further to this, as I noticed someone point out on Twitter, the programme seemed to have a firm eye on the US, where dance culture, on a commercial level, has finally hit paydirt. This was illustrated when the narration stated that ‘our special relationship with the USA may have got just a little bit more special’ in reference to this development.  The choice of the presenter also suggests this intention – Idris Elba has major kudos across the Atlantic playing the drug lord Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell in ‘The Wire’. Away from acting, Elba DJs and records under the name DJ Big Driis, which, in his role as host, gave him a further level of authenticity / authority. Add the fact he’s regarded as something of a sex symbol, and it was a very shrewd choice (no doubt his own, given that he co-produced the show, so much so that its title was elongated to ‘Idris Elba’s How Clubbing Changed The World’, which is more likely to catch the attention of a largely indifferent US TV audience (‘How Hip Hop Changed The World’ was issued without the ‘Idris Elba’s’ preface, although, once again, he co-produced / presented the programme).

The premise of the show was that it all started in New York in the ’70s (with The Loft and Paradise Garage briefly name-checked), citing ‘Saturday Night Fever’ as the catalyst for bringing the movement to the UK, leading to Britain, as the programme asserts, taking its position at the vanguard of ‘modern club culture’. There is a level of truth in this, but only with regards to the mainstream experience – the underground scene in the UK goes right back to the early ’60s, with its own unique lineage, separate to what was happening in the clubs of NYC, which ultimately fuses with New York Disco culture in the late ’70s / early ’80s to create the alchemic conditions from which Britain would instigate the oncoming Rave era, taking the culture worldwide as a consequence. In short, club culture, as we know it, doesn’t only start in New York, but also in the UK, and, as some would argue, at an earlier point in time.

Once I would probably have been upset by a programme like ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’, which, apart from what it left out, contains far too much superfluous content for my liking, and a fair few inaccuracies to boot, but I’ve learnt, from experience, not to have any expectations and, with this in mind, I accepted the show for what it was, a populist take on the culture which has shaped so many lives, but largely without the roots apparent, just the branches. A documentary about the history of British dance culture that doesn’t include reference to the likes of Guy Stevens, James Hamilton, Roger Eagle, Jeff Dexter, Les Cokell, Ian Levine, Colin Curtis, Chris Hill, Bob Jones, Les Spaine, Richard Searling, Russ Winstanley, Mark Roman, Ian Dewhirst & Paul Schofield, Terry Lennaine, Greg Edwards, Robbie Vincent, George Power, Graham ‘Fatman’ Canter, Froggy, Mike Shaft, Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson, Norman Jay, Jay Strongman, Chris Sullivan, Hewan Clarke, The Wild Bunch, Trevor M,  Mastermind Roadshow, Maurice & Noel Watson, Paul Murphy, Mike Allen, Winston & Parrot, Stu Allan, Chad Jackson and others who made their mark in the pre-Rave era (apologies to those I’ve undoubtedly missed out), should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, such a documentary wouldn’t make it onto prime time Channel 4 – this used to be a cutting-edge station, but now it’s part of the orthodoxy. As someone said on the prior mentioned Facebook thread, ‘why didn’t they show something like ‘Maestro’ instead’ (‘Maestro’ is a gritty documentary about New York Disco culture, focusing primarily on Larry Levan, the fabled DJ from the Paradise Garage), to which someone answered ‘Channel 4 would never show something like that’, before a third person added ‘that’s exactly the type of thing Channel 4 used to show’. In essence, Channel 4 is a very different beast to what it used to be, and whereas once it was probably the station I’d be most likely to record something from, nowadays I don’t even check the listings (which is why I was unaware that ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’ was coming on in the first place). These days my stations of choice are no longer Channel 4 and BBC 2, but BBC 4 and Sky Arts.

In a certain sense it’s about getting older and realising that the era you hold most precious is, for the majority of the club populace, prehistoric, even the Acid-House period is ancient history for the majority of contemporary Channel 4 viewers, where the most popular shows of the past decade have included ‘Big Brother’ and ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’. The programme, in many respects, should have only covered what they regard as ‘modern club culture’, with its roots in House music, The Haçienda, and Ibiza, because the tokenism of mentioning just a few, and not all, of the key moments that came before, negates the efforts of all those, dancers and DJs, who really built this movement, establishing its firm foundations in the years when the mainstream glare was elsewhere.

It’s also interesting to see the omission of some DJs who very much made their mark on ‘modern club culture’. Jeff Young, for example, was the DJ who kicked off the BBC Radio 1 Friday night dance show that would later become the domain of Pete Tong, working at the station between 1988 and 1991, the peak years of the Acid-House / Rave era, before Tong took over (it was Young who also brought Tong in to work at London Records earlier in the decade). Another example would be that famous Ibiza trip itself – ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’ would only mention 2 of the group of 4 DJs who headed there in 1987, Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling, whilst the lesser known of the quartet, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker, were no longer deemed important enough to mention. Further to this, the ‘Ibiza 4’ was actually 5, for it was DJ Trevor Fung who facilitated the trip, Fung already working on the island for a number of years before the others came over, having previously holidayed there since 1977. There are other examples, but when it comes to history, not only the history of dance culture, but in general, you’ll find that the originators are more often than not usurped by those who benefitted most from their pioneering spirit, and who, in turn, are then presented themselves as the originals.

So, if post-House / Haçienda / Ibiza is ‘modern club culture as we know it’, what came before is something of a classical era, which needs to be understood in a different way. The thorough documentation of the Northern Soul movement means that any self-respecting dance chronicler has to tip their hat to it, usually focusing on Wigan Casino, its most popular venue, rather than those earlier clubs that many on the scene at the time may have cited as more influential, like The Twisted Wheel in Manchester and the Blackpool Mecca. The Casino is the epitome of Northern Soul to the casual observer, just as Studio 54 is the venue most associated with the New York Disco era…or at least it was. Nowadays, as ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’ illustrated, it’s cooler to reference The Loft and the Paradise Garage as the key NYC Disco venues. This was unlikely to have been the case in such a programme a decade ago, but the publication of Tim Lawrence’s ‘Love Saves The Day’ (2003), a widely acclaimed book that got deep into Disco culture, documenting the New York club scene of the ’70s to a level nobody else had come close to, shone a light on this previously forgotten era. Like Northern Soul, this can no longer be denied, too many people have come to realise that a documentary about the history of clubbing is going to be deeply flawed without reference to The Loft and the Garage (at the very least). That said, we still have a situation where the early ’80s, a period I maintain is perhaps the most pivotal of all, being the crossroads between the old (Soul, Funk, Disco, Jazz-Funk) and the new (Hip Hop, House, Techno, and all their subsequent mutant strains), is still very much the ‘missing link of dance culture’ I referred to in my article, ‘Electro-Funk – What Did It All Mean?’, which I wrote in November 2003, a month before I made my DJ comeback:
http://www.electrofunkroots.co.uk/articles/what.html

As I said in the piece at the time, ‘although this (the period) has been documented in a number of books and publications down the years, often with a fair degree of insight, the subject is rarely approached with any true depth and attention to detail, the information all in fragments.’ This is still the situation almost 9 years on, although my resurrected DJ career has helped me draw more attention to my own writings on this and related subjects, meaning that at least those keeping an eye on what I’m up to, and who like to dig that bit deeper, are aware that the post-Disco / pre-House period was anything but the tumbleweed strewn dance wilderness many club documentarians have projected by omission.

I’ve always believed very strongly that the truth will eventually out, and whilst TV shows like ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’ are but transient interludes, lasting testament to this culture will be found in the pages of books and the more serious minded films and documentaries from and about the era. The ‘same old story’ I mentioned earlier will come under increasing scrutiny as more information emerges with regards to those lost years between the so called ‘death of Disco’ at the end of the ’70s and the birth of House in the mid-’80s.

It’s those crucial early-’80s years that hold the key, but there hasn’t been a voice loud enough to really capture the imagination of that significant minority needed to change perceptions, in the way that David Mancuso and The Loft re-emerged, phoenix from the flames style, as fundamental to our comprehension of the Disco era, having previously been regarded, at best, as a mere side issue, and at worst not mentioned at all. Any book / TV documentary / film that professes to understand dance culture, but which has failed to reference The Loft, or the Paradise Garage, will be seriously flawed for those studying its evolution in the future, who’ll then question the entire content of the work on the basis that if the author can get it so wrong in this case, there’s a strong likelihood that there are other significant errors in their account. Something that might today be regarded as the final word on the subject may well, in 10 years’ time be dismissed as full as holes, something new coming along in the meantime that provides a more thorough account. With this in mind, Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton’s book, ‘Last Night A DJ Saves My Life’(1999), re-published with over 100 extra pages in 2006 with planned further updates in the future, adding fresh information they might have missed previously (and, no doubt, taking out what they now feel is expendable).

Whilst, as a somewhat lone voice, or so it often seemed, it’s been difficult to highlight the claims of the early-’80s, I’m confident that the era, at least from an NYC perspective, is soon to be finally opened up in all its hybrid splendour. In his follow-up to ‘Love Saves The Day’, Tim Lawrence is currently completing a book which will hopefully hit the shelves in around 12 months’ time, titled ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor: A History 1980-1983’:
http://uel.academia.edu/TimLawrence/Books

Before he wrote ‘Love Saves The Day’, Lawrence had originally intended to cover  the New York club scene at a later point in time, 2 decades on from David Mancuso’s original Loft parties, when Masters At Work (‘Little’ Louie Vega & Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez) were writing a new chapter in the NYC dance story. But what, for me, really sets him apart as a documentarian of dance culture is that, having heard Mancuso’s name come up in interviews one time too many, he saw the bigger picture, switching the emphasis to the ’70s, and set about unearthing the story that now underpins our understanding of New York Disco and its influence on all that followed. A cultural anthropologist, he restored Mancuso to his rightful place at the roots of the Disco movement, making a crucial contribution to our understanding of the era. Not only did he do this with his writing, but he was also part of a team of people who brought this seminal figure over to the UK for regular London Loft parties, which continue to this day.

In a similar way, when asked to write the sleevenotes to the 2006 ‘Discotheque: The Haçienda’ retrospective, rather than, as most writers would, concentrate on the post-’88 golden era, he asked the pertinent questions ‘why this club?’, ‘why Manchester?’, ‘how did it happen?’ and, for the first time, illuminated the period that led up to the club becoming a world-famous bastion of dance – his main focus being the period 1982-1988, before ecstasy made its impact, illustrating how the music was already well in place before the drug came on the scene. Incidentally, the #1 defining moment in dance history, according to ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’, wasn’t a musical movement, or a club, or a DJ, but the little pill itself. This is exactly why, for me, dance culture took a wrong turn in the ’90s – the music was already established when ecstasy appeared, and initially the drug enhanced the music, however, it wasn’t long before the drug became primary and the music supplementary, which is always the wrong equation.

As with ‘Love Saves The Day’, ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor’ was originally intended to be a very different book. Tim Lawrence had planned to cover dance culture, not only in New York, but Chicago, Detroit and the UK, leading up to the Rave explosion, but once he’d started writing he realised that there was so much that had happened in NYC during the early ’80s that this was either going to be an unfeasibly thick book or his sole focus should be on New York from ’80-’83. This is exactly the time and place that I’ve been banging on about for all these years, so needless to say that I’m hugely excited about this book, and itching to read it. It’s going to finally illuminate that missing link in a way that helps connects the dots and, for the first time, properly bridge a major gap in peoples’ understanding of how this most critical cultural juncture would inform everything that has followed.

After Chicago I travelled to Brooklyn, where I felt a real sense of history this time around, the area increasingly the cultural hub of New York. Manhattan may have held sway in the past, but Brooklyn has risen and is, I’m sure, about to hit full-tilt in the coming years. My gig at The Bunker, held in 12-turn-13, a loft space I’ve previously appeared at for a Mister Saturday Night party, was one of those occasions that will live in the memory for a long time – there was certainly that special indefinable something in the air, and the recording can be heard here: http://soundcloud.com/gregwilson/the-bunker-brooklyn-26-08-12. The following day I was the guest of Dennis ‘Citizen’ Kane for the 1st anniversary of his Disques Town podcast, in which we focused on the New York club scene 30 years ago, with all the music I selected coming out of the city in the 6 month period up to September 1982, providing a taste of just how prolific the dance movement in NYC was back then. To contribute to the discussion Dennis had invited his friend, Sal Principato, along, to add his recollections. Sal was the frontman with the influential 99 Records band, Liquid Liquid, best-known for their 1983 track ‘Cavern’, which was what Grandmaster & Melle Mel based their worldwide hit ‘White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)’ around.

It was great to talk with those 2 guys, both of whom experienced that period directly and have a wealth of knowledge between them. We got so deep into things that later, when I’d left the studio and returned to where I was staying, Dennis and I carried on discussing the era on the phone for over 3 hours, no longer conducting a radio interview, but simply indulging in our joint passion for what happened way back when, when Dennis was in New York, at the epicentre of things, whilst I was across the Atlantic in Manchester, fully absorbing the influences and inspiration of a city over 3,000 miles away.

There’s always going to be an element of subjectivity when someone writes a book, makes a documentary, or, indeed, does a radio interview, and nobody can produce such a thing as a ‘definitive account’, there’s always something they’ll miss – different people place different emphasis on different things, and often important aspects, sometimes vitally important, are overlooked as the emphasis is placed elsewhere, the elephant, as is said, not touched from all angles. It can take a long passage of time before someone suitably detached, as Tim Lawrence was with regards to New York in the ’70s (or The Haçienda in the ’80s), takes a more objective approach, seeing the bigger picture, and changing the general consensus as a consequence, this ‘new’ information becoming key to our fuller understanding.

Let’s hope that, on the positive side, ‘How Clubbing Changed The World’ served to whet the appetite of, at least, some of its viewers, parts of it providing them with a portal to a deeper appreciation of what went before. And it’s not just the younger generation of clubbers, even many of the older heads who were personally embroiled in the era of House, The Haçienda and Ibiza, E’d-up and enjoying those heady days to the full, have little knowledge of the records, clubs and DJs who laid the groundwork for them to subsequently experience what they now fondly recall as the greatest nights of their lives. As they say, we’re never too old to learn, especially when it comes to understanding our heritage, and whilst clubbing can lay its claim to helping change the world in which we live, some of its greatest treasures are still buried beneath the surface.

Written by Greg Wilson

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