Archive for March, 2008

GLENN BRANCA

Posted in GLENN BRANCA, Post Punk on March 9, 2008 by bangtheparty

Lesson

Glenn Branca’s first solo album could hardly have predicted the raw, unfettered trajectory his career would take throughout the rest of the 80s, when his rock “symphonies” splattered feedback and amplifier buzz all over the modern composition palette. In comparison to the blurting dissonance of Symphony No. 1 or the elongated drone of Symphony No. 3 (both recorded just three years later), Lesson No. 1 is a simple but vibrant album that provides only a skeletal blueprint of where Branca would be heading.

This reissue gives this material, at last, a much-deserved return to the spotlight for curious Branca fans who weren’t around to snag the original vinyl. Revisiting Lesson No. 1 almost 25 years later, the opening title track is revealed as the most poppy and accessible 8 minutes of Branca’s career. Alan Licht’s informative liner notes draw parallels to Joy Division and U2 as well as the obligatory mentions of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, and the connections are obvious in the chugging melodic drive of the dueling guitars.

The guitar sound is uncharacteristically chiming, and settles more often than not into traditional rock riffs, rather than the blurry feedback grind of later Branca compositions. This is a crystal-clear rock song, stripped down to the barest element of a denuded riff, cycling around and around and building intensity as the pounding drums ascend into a motorik rhythmic pulse. The music stays the same, but escalates in emotional intensity: the basis of rock from its earliest days to the present, and here it’s only translated into a slightly more avant-garde (but never academic) context than usual. Hardly Branca’s most complicated work, but right there at the core is the essence of everything in his music, offered in its most accessible form.

The second track, “Dissonance,” lives up to its name by presenting the more confrontational aspect of the composer’s music. Taken together with “Lesson No. 1,” these two tracks—the two sides of the original vinyl album—complete the picture of Branca’s rock deconstruction. Whereas the “Lesson” taught the pure cathartic power of a poppy guitar motif, “Dissonance” strips away such songwriterly concerns, concentrating on the raw unmelodic potential of the electric guitar, reveling in its string pile-ups and escalatory flights of uncontrollable feedback chaos. Unfortunately, this piece presents too incomplete a portrait of Branca, and it ends up sounding a bit empty and sluggish when placed against the gleaming liveliness of “Lesson No. 1.”

Thankfully, the CD reissue adds a third track, “Bad Smells,” which was originally released in 1982 as one side of a split between Branca and the poet John Giorno. This piece is similar in sound to the first two, positioning it closer to Branca’s early experiments than to the more assured work he would do later on. Accompanied by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, among others, Branca charges through an ever-shifting collage of styles and sounds.

After about six minutes of thrashing pop-punk that bears a close relation to the glorious thrust of “Lesson No. 1,” the music utterly shifts gears into a more threatening riff-fest, as slow-moving chords gather into dense clouds of feedback over the fast drumming. Then the composition unexpectedly segues into a funky interlude of spastic stop-start rhythms and elastic guitar bends, before an extended ambient break gives way to another dissonant explosion at the end. It’s a chaotic and fractured piece, a true departure from Branca’s usual coherent build-ups.

This album is primarily interesting as a historical curiosity that provides deeper insight into the genesis of Branca’s music—though “Lesson No. 1” itself would certainly be an unqualified joy in any context. This is the music of a punker trying his hand at composition, filtering primal rock fury into extended suites of beauty and impact, forging battles and unlikely alliances between rock’s twin impulses of melody and dissonance.

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GLENN BRANCA – Lesson No. 1

A CERTAIN RATIO (Tony Wilson’s Group?)

Posted in A CERTAIN RATIO, Punk Funk on March 9, 2008 by bangtheparty

A Certain

You sure don’t hear many people talking about A Certain Ratio these days, and it’s a shame. The Manchester six-piece was one of the first bands signed to the legendary Factory label, contemporaries to Joy Division/New Order, the Pop Group and more. They were a pioneering force in the post-punk dance movement, perhaps more so than any other band commonly associated with it. They toured with Talking Heads, who conveniently started to show some of the same influences shortly thereafter. And of course there’s the fact that they made some really excellent records.

Sextet is one of these. It’s a masterpiece, in fact—a mesmerizing blend of ethnic rhythms and ghostly production that really sounds like nothing else. Picture Chic covering Unknown Pleasures for a simplified starting point. But that doesn’t quite capture how alien sounding it actually is—it isn’t quite funk, but it is funky, full of slap bass, slashing guitar riffs and loads of percussion. It’s almost like looking at third-generation Xerox copy of funk—you can certainly recognize the original artifact in there, but the toner has made it all gray, detached and distorted, leaving you with an entirely new piece of art in its stead.

Propulsive opener “Lucinda” features the vocal talents of Martha Tilson (as does much of the rest of the album), and you can practically smell the pasty Britishness coming out of the speakers. She is quite possibly the polar opposite of the token soulful female vocalist, like Martha Wash kept in a dark basement for 40 days and 40 nights. It doesn’t stop her from trying, and in my view, succeeding in putting across the soul of the music. In fact, her voice is almost a perfect reflection of the music. You can see the soul in it, albeit through a fun house mirror. When she duets at various points throughout the album with the doom-voiced Simon Topping, the dourness is almost overpowering, and yet they seem to complement each other perfectly. Hey, peanut butter and chocolate probably sounded weird once upon a time as well. For his part, Martin Moscrop’s trumpet owes far more to Jon Hassell or 70s Miles than to any Motown or Philly horn charts.

As the record moves forward, the grooves become more and more otherworldly. “Knife Slits Water” features Tilson’s already-hollow voice run through treatments and all manner of echo effects for a truly individual construction that has a charm all its own. The fact that it was the single released from the album speaks volumes for where ACR were coming from. Elsewhere, the group take on (and suitably, wonderfully mangle and make their own) Latin, African, Brazilian, and Jamaican sounds and techniques for a propulsive mix that still manages to leave the listener off-balance, if not downright baffled. And through it all, impossibly, your feet will not stop moving. The bonus tracks (“Kether Hot Knives” and “Funuzekea”) take the grooves even further into leftfield, if you can imagine that.

ACR take the funk blueprint and add (or subtract) “something” to arrive at a totally fucked-up version of the original formula, and one gets the impression that they had no idea that it wasn’t right the whole time. Like they carved a square wheel, but somehow got it to roll and just went with it. To me, however, it’s that “something” that gets lost in the translation that makes Sextet so compelling. It’s fascinating in the way that one of those tiny “superdeformed” Japanese figures of Godzilla is. It looks like Godzilla, possesses all of the key attributes and physical characteristics, but you would never think that it was going to destroy Tokyo. You just hold it in the palm of your hand and marvel at the craft and ingenuity of it; the distortion is the key. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

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A CERTAIN RATIO – Gum

MAXIMUM JOY

Posted in MAXIMUM JOY, Punk Funk on March 9, 2008 by bangtheparty

Maximum Joy

Now that the “post-punk revival” has reached critical mass and we can safely declare it ever-so-over, it’s nice to know that as briefly as it lasted it managed to uncover a couple of great forgotten bands, and perhaps inspire the genesis of one or two new ones. Quite an accomplishment, really, when you consider that the transition from ‘edgy’ to ‘played-out’ occupied a little less time than a couple seasons of The O.C..

That might have something to do, of course, with our complete self-awareness, our up-to-the-millisecond cultural meta-criticism, and our inability to focus on anything for more than one or two… where was I? Oh, right. Welcome to the future—we were so over this whole post-punk thing before it even started. Well, good. So were Maximum Joy. In fact, to throw around the p-word (punk, not post) in the direction of this band is to miss the point entirely.

These guys (and gal) are about as punk rock as Herbie Hancock, King Tubby, Larry Levan and that naked chick who danced at all the Hawkwind shows. True, they sprung from the ashes of the semi-infamous Pop Group (which combined the confrontational aesthetic of punk rock with the avant-garde approach of Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle), but the only thing they seemed to have taken with them was an utter disregard for the conventions of rock music and a working relationship with the Y Records label.

More rooted in jazz than rock, Maximum Joy delved into all forms of groove-based music, from reggae to afrobeat to post-Miles fusion to proto-disco and so on. Interestingly, and quite unusually for the times, they did so not in the manner of the Clash (who absorbed the same influences into a rock context), but as musical dilettantes who desired nothing more than to see this whole ‘funky’ thing through to its apotheosis, along the way embracing as many different styles as possible.

Despite being white kids from Brighton, Maximum Joy sounded a good deal more pre-disco Kool and the Gang than post-disco Gang of Four, like an 80’s indie version of a 70’s jazz-rock or 90’s jam band. But what sets Maximum Joy apart from the handful of bands (A Certain Ratio in the UK, Konk from New York, maybe one or two others) they could be musically or stylistically compared to was the sheer exuberance with which they created their music.

You would have to be a total Scrooge not to get a rise out of the positivism, freedom, and electricity of this band’s playing—coupled with utterly, well, joyous sentiments (“Get into it!”) and a completely non-ironic celebration of life. Remarkably, this happened during a time in which even the most crossover-friendly acts carried with them a certain weight, darkness, and cynicism—Maximum Joy took the expected negativity of the whole late 70’s indie music scene, answered it, inverted it, and blasted it back out onto a hotbed of funky rhythms, free-jazz rooted improvisation, and a spacious but exciting instrumental framework on which the sparse vocals ride but do not dominate.

Unlimited (1979-1983) marks the first time the music of this relentlessly obscure band has been available on CD. Included are the majority of their 7″ and 12″ single tracks as well as about half of their sole LP. The liner notes are terse but informative (they sadly lack a discography—the one on discogs is fairly complete), and although I am not familiar with the original recordings, the quality of the CD transfer sounds pretty outstanding to me.

Nearly every track on here is a winner, but “Stretch” is the standout amongst the harder funk jams, a minor classic in the early-eighties NYC dance underground. Janine Rainforth’s vocals (“Don’t say maybe / Call me yes!” / “Pulsate! Pulsate!”) demand rather than request your enjoyment over a skanky bass, accompanied by Tony Wrafter’s trumpet, which travels between horny horns-style riffing and bursts of pure skronk.

The LP track “Where’s Deke?” is probably my favorite amongst the moodier, more downtempo numbers—a densely populated dub landscape of city sound effects, echoed-out horns, and spooky walking basslines. When bringing in “world” music influences, as on the afro-carribean “Silent Street,” or the Dennis Bovell-produced reggae of “Man of Tribes,” Maximum Joy exhibit a stylistic freedom rare in similar British acts, many of whom exhibited such a stilted take on imported sounds that the end results were more often cod-reggae than not.

“Man of Tribes” in particular is a standout, not just because Bovell joins in on vocals, but because it also shows Maximum Joy in critical mode—”Money dreams / Give you heartache / Let money be / No part of you and me”—which, typically, they turn into a wake up call (“People everywhere / Open your eyes if you dare”). This leads nicely into the final tracks of the disc: the modern-world manifesto disguised as funky afrobeat of “All Wrapped Up!” (“Before they dump you on the street / They ought to give you sharper teeth”), followed by “Dancing on My Boomerang,” a sweet, genre-traversing instrumental that exists in the previously undiscovered grey area between Don Cherry, Duane Eddy and Bow Wow Wow.

One of the axioms of our current reassessment of the state of late 70’s/early 80’s independent rock is that the era was concerned with dissolving barriers between rock and other genres of music, that the cultural exchange rate was free-flowing from all sides and that the rulebook had, for all intents and purposes, been discarded. While mostly a load of crock, it just happens to hold true in a few isolated cases. Happily, this is one of them.

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MAXIMUM JOY – White And Green Place

BRAINSTORM…are on their way home

Posted in Boogie, BRAINSTORM on March 9, 2008 by bangtheparty

brain.jpg

Many bands have taken the moniker BRAINSTORM in an effort to be cool. In fact there was a late 1960’s early 1970’s German Brainstorm and there’s an Australian group that started in the 1980’s that’s still going strong today. But the one that matters to us is a homegrown band of Motown funksters that formed in 1976 and had a brief three album four year career.

1976 was the year that Belita Karen Woods, Charles Overton, Jeryl Bright, Larry H. Sims, Deon Estus, Trenita Womack, Lamont Johnson, Willie Wooten and Renell Gonsalves got together in Detroit. R&B music in 1976 was under siege with disco grooves and nobody could be easily pigeonholed into one category. Brainstorm straddled both quite well.

With their 1977 debut release “Stormin” Tabu Records couldn’t decide which direction to market the group. The first single was “Wake Up And Be Somebody” a powerful R&B inspirational number reminiscent of Philadelphia Internationl numbers from the previous few years. It missed the pop charts but grazed the R&B chart peaking at #-48. A change of direction was chosen when the label remixed and released the 12″ single of “Lovin’ Is Really My Game.” The song peaked at #-14 on the R&B charts but soared to #-1 in the clubs. The song is without a doubt a genre defining gem that would be hard to top for any group. Belita’s urgent vocal pleas over crisp horns and a rumbling bassline played at a breakneck energized pace has made this one enduring classic. The album also featured “This Must Be Heaven” a quiet-storm ballad that seems to be a highly sought-after late night gem.

After the groups’s debut success there was reason to believe that Brainstorm might go on to become huge, but regrettably, its sophomore effort, “Journey To The Light,” was a commercial disappointment. The album didn’t provide any major hits, and the only people who bought it were the group’s hardcore followers. Regardless it is generally excellent. Brainstorm had a gem of a lead singer in Belita Woods, who really soars on tunes that range from Stevie Wonder’s funky “Every Time I See You, I Go Wild!” to the quite storm pearl “If You Ever Need To Cry” and the jazzy, Roy Ayers-ish “Brand New Day.” Nor are the lead vocals of Trenita Womack (who is featured on the slow jam “Loving Just You”) and Deon Estus anything to complain about. The reasons this album wasn’t as successful as it’s predecessor was the lack of any remarkable disco numbers or any radio hits. Still the album is worth owning.

When Brainstorm’s second album failed to sell, some people reasoned that it was due to a shortage of up-tempo disco material. So with its third and final album, “Funky Entertainment,” the band decided to go for maximum disco appeal and make up-tempo songs a top priority. While their second release was primarily an album for listening, “Funky Entertainment” is very dance-oriented. In fact, the ballad “You Put A Charge In My Life” is the only thing on the album that isn’t aimed at the dancefloor. The song was released as a single but failed to chart higher than #-84 proving that the groups appeal came from a club based set of fans. A second single remixed and released on two different 12″ singles did bring the group back up the disco charts peaking at #-21. “Hot For You” was fun and in many ways superior to “Lovin’ Is Really My Game.” The album could have had several more club hits with remixed versions of album tracks “Popcorn,” “A Case Of Boogie” or “Don’t Let Me Catch You With Your Groove….” or even the title track.

After the bands breakup in early 1980 the members went on to other projects. Belita Woods went on to do vocals, both lead and background, for Parliament, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Prince. Trenita Womack wrote songs for Sylvester, Enchantment and Betty Wright among others. Renell Gonsalves, the son of longtime Ellington sax great Paul Gonsalves, kept a lower profile but has done work for Bobby Murray and Sheila Landis. Charles Overton appeared on a 1981 Mitch Ryder album and has since disappeared. Jeryl Bright joined Cameo and went on to enjoy a greater success with them. Larry Sims had already had success with Loggins & Messina prior to Brainstorm and has since found happiness as part of the Sounds Of Blackness group. Lamont Johnson continued to record for Tabu Records and had a minor 12″ hit with “Sister Fine.” Willie Wooten had worked with the Dramatics prior to Brainstorm and afterwards he can be heard on Enchantment, Gene Dunlap and L.J. Reynolds records to name a few. Deon Estus has had the most prolific and successful career, besides his own releases he can be heard on Elton John, George Michael, Mica Paris, Aaron Neville albums and countless others.

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BRAINSTORM-Everytime I See You I Go Wild

CYMANDE (hey is that Santana?)

Posted in CYMANDE, Soul/Disco on March 9, 2008 by bangtheparty

Cymande

Cymande is one of those bands that defy easy description. Though their records are coveted by the funky crate diggers of the world, they are not really a funk band (though they were certainly capable of creating some very funky music).

Those of you that had your ears pressed to the radio in 1973 may recall that they actually had a Top 40 hit that year, with ‘The Message’ and their follow up (and coincidentally the selection du jour) ‘Bra’ made it to number 51 on the R&B charts. To most others – aside from the aforementioned crate diggers, DJ types* and other associated members of the cognoscenti – who generally happen to be possessed of a certain musical hipness not found in the general population – they are pretty much an unknown commodity, which once you’ve listened to ‘Bra’ you will likely agree is a damn shame.

The band Cymande was formed in the UK in the early 70’s by a group of West Indian immigrants (hailing from Jamaica, Guyana and St. Vincent among other locales), who described their sound as NYAH-ROCK (the NYAH no doubt derived from the nyahbingi chants of the Rastafarians**).

Despite the invocation of Rasta, Cymande were hardly a reggae band. Their music was a sophisticated mixture of American soul and funk, African pop, Latin sounds, rock and all of the various and sundry intersections of those sounds. A close listen to their first LP is like a drive through Harlem in the early 70’s with your car windows down, letting snatches of Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Santana and a thousand lesser groups (woven securely into the fabric, but essentially lost to the ages) drift through the windows and into your ears.

There are elements of early-70’s prog-cum-stoner rock guitar, hard drums, jazzy bass and horns as well as a bedrock of polyrhythmic percussion.

The most important element of their sound, and the one that runs through almost every one of their songs (whether fast or slow) is the groove. There are elements (similar in some ways to the sounds of Manu Dibango and Fela) that presage the more interesting aspects of disco, but unlike those artists Cymande were essentially a rock band, in the way that the Band of Gypsys was a “rock” band, i.e. working with rock-based motifs and settings but always infused with an essential “blackness” you’d never be able to locate on a Pink Floyd record (no matter how many times you played it backward or changed the speed).

It was the kind of blend that was all over the place in the wake of the 1960’s (employing different elements of course, but in essentially the same spirit) yet is rarely heard today, unless you’re familiar with the stylistically fragmented “jam band” scene in which a seriously diluted but no doubt related vibe rears its head now and again.

Though Cymande hailed by and large from the West Indies, they did come together in the UK, in an atmosphere in which groups like the Soft Machine and Mighty Baby were building with similar materials (those including but not restricted to marijuana, borrowed copies of Bitches Brew, sax-o-ma-phone freakout and a certain all encompassing mellowness we may never see the likes of again). Where those groups leaned in a largely soul-less direction (often dominated by pretension and artistic over-reach), Cymande were always soulful, buttering their popcorn with groovy Mayfield-isms (JEEBUS…check out ‘Brothers on the Slide’ from their third LP which sounds like Curtis himself) viewed through a ganja haze.

If you haven’t already scored the LPs, Castle/Sequel in the UK put out a 2CD set that includes all three of their LPs (Cymande, Second Time Round and Promised Heights as well as a couple of previously unissued tracks) and is absolutely essential, and you should get it while you can.

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CYMANDE – Getting It Back

KELLY POLAR…loves songs.

Posted in KELLY POLAR, Leftfield House on March 9, 2008 by bangtheparty

kelly.jpg

On hearing the more introspective songs of his friend and famed German composer Robert Schumann, the Austrian dramatic poet Franz Grillparzer said: “He has made himself a new ideal world in which he moves almost as he wills.”

Kelley Polar’s debut full length Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens is one of those new ideal worlds, a hand-stitched homage to the Romantic era’s lieder with roots in the melancholia chic of 17th century England. Whereas Schumann went wild with syphilis, threw himself into the chilly Rhine river after it all got a little too much to bear and later died alone and irrecoverably insane in an asylum near Bonn, Kelley Polar has sopped up the dreaded black bile with the glowing synchronicity of early 80’s R&B, Italo Disco and Moroder-like future dreams that spin the loneliness of alienation into the poetry of simply being alone, ravished by one’s own thoughts and feelings.

The ten four-minute nocturnes on Love Songs successfully map a path between the introspection of the bedroom and the group ecstasy of the dance floor; between the seemingly insurmountable distance of outer space and the inner space of the dream or the terrestrial space of the country yard. After recently attending the prestigious Julliard School of Music as a viola student and releasing a handful of alluring singles on New York’s Environ Records over the last few years, splitting his time between deep solitude on a New Hampshire farm (where Love Songs was recorded) and the bustle of Manhattan, he has pulled these tensions taut in his music.

Rather than sounding muddled or overextended, though the album’s conceptual contradictions are often its most enchanting assets, making constellations out of street lamps, transforming disco-influenced string passages into coiling vines wrapping around your waist, morphing the moon into a mirror ball, ripping the roof off dance night at the planetarium and letting the starlight spill in, a warm, crisp bliss.

Kelley Polar’s shy vocals at times recall Arthur Russell or a more sheepish Junior Boys, but without the primordial wonder of the former or the plastic tear anomie of the latter. Once they sink in, however, Polar’s vocals and lyrics prove to be something entirely different.

Repeated lines like “I can’t wait until you’re back here in the dark with me” or “I’ll love her ‘til she makes me lose my mind” are romantic to the point of asexuality, transcending our messy bodies, invoking trance-like cosmic passions verging on obsession; when he sinks into terrestrial love on “Ashamed of Myself,” he does it with a quietly cathartic disgust, confessing “I don’t want to share you, I just want to possess, you make me ashamed of myself” against a stiff-necked Prince-like beat that diffuses into polyrhythmic percussion and string flourishes, an eerie blend of the orgiastic and tightly restrained.

Produced by Environ label founder and Metro Area member Morgan Geist, Love Songs falls perfectly into the Eviron Records aesthetic: a highly detailed but economical pastiche of organic-sounding disco and dance lightly carbonated by electronics but more concerned with harmonic richness and subtly intoxicating textures. Still, the difficulty of assigning Love Songs to any particular category is that it’s too “acoustic” and strongly song-based to fit comfortably alongside contemporary electronic dance music and too moody and sincere to resonate with the fixed-pose meta-referential dance pop of say, Annie, Robyn, or the Knife.

Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens is the sound of disco falling asleep in an open copy of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, bloodied hearts splashing in the milky way, and the comforts of the resolutely melancholy, a dream all to itself; semper Polar, semper dolens.

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KELLY POLAR-Ashamed Of Myself

LARRY LEVAN

Posted in Boogie, LARRY LEVAN on March 8, 2008 by bangtheparty

LARRY LEVAN

Larry is revered primarily as the DJ and driving force of the famous gay disco “Paradise Garage.” With engineer Richard Long, he custom-designed the Garage’s monster sound system and DJ booth, complete with audiophile Thorens turntables.

Larry’s brilliance lay not only in his technical skill and audio expertise, but also in his unique and eclectic taste. He confounded and greatly broadened the “rules” of what “dance music” could be, mixing everything from gospel, reggae, Philly soul and Euro-disco to rock (“Stand Back”/Stevie Nicks and “Eminence Front”/The Who, to name but two), post-punk (“The Magnificent Seven”/The Clash, and Talking Heads), ambient/environmental music (Klaus Schulze and Manuel Gottsching, for example), and just about everything else.

He augmented this aural collage with disorienting sound effects and mind-expanding audio manipulations, working the crossover and balance controls to throw sound around the room as if it had a will of its own. Larry was a shaman who opened a sonic Pandora’s box when he D.J.’ed, with all kinds of beautiful, scary and indescribably bizarre sounds careening around the room like spirits flying out of the Ark of the Covenant.

Larry cut his musical teeth at The Loft, essentially the first underground, afterhours disco. Started by David Mancuso at the advent of the ’70s, The Loft combined psychedelic culture with proto-disco music, which then consisted of longform, psychedelic-influenced soul (“Melting Pot”/Booker T. & The MG’s, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”/The Temptations, etc.), jazz-funk like The Blackbyrds, funky rock (“Woman”/Barabas, for example) and trippy head music like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon.” When “Paradise Garage” opened in 1976, Larry added gospel-and R&B-flavored disco to his musical menu.

With Larry at the helm, the Garage embodied all that was beautiful about disco: glamour, unpretentiousness, excitement, hedonism, epiphany through music, black/white and gay/straight harmony, and the general concept of the dancefloor as family. Celebrities like Grace Jones, Keith Haring, Nile Rogers, Chaka Khan and Madonna hung out and danced the night away along with thousands more of Larry’s dedicated flock.

As a remixer, Larry applied his inimitable touch to countless all-time club classics, including “Got My Mind Made Up”/Instant Funk, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”/Inner Life, “Can’t Play Around”/Lace, “Heartbeat”/Taana Gardner, Gwen Guthrie’s “Should Have Been You” and “Nothing Going On But The Rent” and many, many others. As a writer and producer, he helped create the sound of the innovative New York Citi Peech Boys and their seminal club hits “Don’t Make Me Wait”, “On A Journey”, “Come On, Come On” and “Life Is Something Special,” a joyous, mesmerizing celebration of life, love, and music. Larry’s work has a spacious, epic, atmospheric quality, with a haunting blend of joy and pain.

After the Garage closed in 1987, Larry kept a considerably lower profile, doing guest spots at various clubs, including “Studio 54,” “Palladium” and “Mars,” and D.J.-ing regularly at “The Choice,” arguably the inheritor of the Garage’s underground legacy. “The Choice” didn’t have the grandeur of the Garage, but Larry made it his home, casting his psychedelic spell on a diverse crowd of devoted Garage heads and various other afterhours types.

Although his remixing work (and, according to some, his spinning ability) diminished, there’s no doubt that Larry, even on a bad night, was still infinitely more creative, interesting and unpredictable than any other jock around. It was that unpredictability that was the reason for many of his followers disenchantment by the mid-and-late ’80’s: it was also the reason that legions more literally lived to hear him play, or were inspired to make their own careers in music and the music business.

Larry’s legacy is more than just a legendary nightclub and a fistful of club classics. Larry Levan was the ultimate DJ: he didn’t just excel at his job, he reinvented the concept of the DJ, blurring the boundaries of music, race, sex, sexuality, and changing thousands of people’s perception of music, sound and the world around them. For those reasons alone he is still revered and talked about to this day. Larry…..we miss you, the club world has never been the same!

Larry Levan: Jockey Slut Article (1998)

“Was This Man the Best DJ in the World?”
By Kelvin Lewis, Jockey Slut Magazine (UK), 1998

Larry Levan, who died six years ago, is still considered to be the most influential DJ ever. At the height of his popularity at the legendary Paradise Garage he was like a god for the 2,000 regulars, the creator of skills and tricks that elevated Djing to the artform it is today. Kelvin Lewis traces his history and speaks to the passionate people behind the club. All wannabe DJs and promoters: Take note!

Talk to any New York producer old enough to have been to the Paradise Garage in its heyday, and they’ll swear that there never has, and never will be anything like it. Ask any of them from Danny Tenaglia to Dave Morales, and they’ll all say the same thing. The Paradise Garage was a one-off. And resident DJ, Larry Levan, was probably the greatest DJ ever to stand behind a set of turntables.

From when it opened in January 1977, to its last party in the Autumn of 1987, the Paradise Garage was the clubbing focal point of New York. A place where dance artists like D-Train and Loleatta Holloway would come to perform. And the place where people like Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Grace Jones and Keith Haring would all hang out. It was the testing ground for labels like West End and Salsoul and producers like François Kevorkian and Levan himself. It was all these things, and much much more. For the 2000 regulars, Larry Levan was like a god. They even tagged his late-night sessions as “Saturday Mass.”

He did things with records that other DJs just didn’t do. He would tell a story with his music. Sometimes sending the crowd crazy and minutes later making them break down and cry. There was, and still is, no DJ like him. He was an insanely talented genius, both behind the turntables and in the studio. And he made the Paradise Garage the legend that it is. “He was the inspiration for all the important DJs in New York today,” says Mel Cheren, owner of West End Records and executor of Levan’s estate.

“People like Junior Vasquez, Frankie Knuckles and David Morales became DJs because of Larry.” Judy Weinstein, director of Knuckles and Morales’ Def Mix organization agrees: “He was brilliant. A true genius. He was, and still is, the best.” And, as for why, six years after his death, Levan and the Garage are still placed at the pinnacle of the clubbing world, fellow disco producer and regular guest DJ at the Garage, François Kevorkian, says this:

“The reason why it is so important is because everyone and their mothers were there every weekend checking it out. It was so obviously and blatantly superior to anything else going on. You had the best sound system around, the most talented DJ you can imagine with amazing records that no one else could get. Things he’d made himself and things others had made exclusively for him.”

And yet it was more than just that. Levan was obsessed with perfection. He would spend hours re-arranging the speakers in the club until the sound was absolutely perfect. Then change it all again the next week so that the crowd didn’t get bored. “He was a technical wizard,” explains Weinstein, who got to know Levan working at David Mancuso’s NY Record Pool. “He could re-build a radio from scratch. He helped Richard Long create the Garage sound system. Larry would tell Richard what he wanted and if Richard told him that they couldn’t do it, he would keep on at it until it was invented for him.

Larry would always find a way to make things happen.” David Depino, Levan’s best friend and the DJ who used to warm up for him, remembers his perfectionism on a different level: “He never wanted it to become stale, he never wanted it to become regular. He always said, ‘The people won’t come. They’ve gotta know it’ll be different.’ And they did. People never came into a stale place. I’ve seen nights where everyone was rushing around to get things open and they’d forget something like cleaning the mirror-balls.

It’d be one o’clock and Larry would run on to the dancefloor with a ladder to clean all six mirror-balls. The record would run out and everyone would be standing there, just waiting. Not booing, not mad, just waiting. And when he finished, he’d go up and put the next record on the people would go mad. They loved that. The fact that even though he was the DJ, he’d spend half an hour cleaning all the mirror-balls.”

He produced his music with a similar passion. There were times he would be in the studio weeks as he tested new versions of songs on the Garage crowd. Some records took over two years to complete.

His passion for Djing lead him to play on three turntables working studio effects and his own special edits into the mix. He invented the now commonplace trick of a cappella mixing.

The presentation of the music and the pure entertainment of his crowd were paramount. He would use video clips and the huge screen above the dancefloor to accentuate certain records, and, as the night wore on, he would upgrade the turntables to ones with state-of-the-art needles for the ultimate experience on the floor.

Communication with the dancefloor was his motivation. His message was one of love, hope, freedom and universal brotherhood. And the set of songs he played was the dialogue he used. He’d even leave gaps between certain parts of the journey. So if he played three songs in a row about music, and the next one was about freedom, he’d leave a short pause or drop an effect.

“He built sets with stories that went into one another,” explains Kevorkian. “I’m not saying that he only played vocals, but there was a concept there that he studied and became an amazing practitioner of. He was able to truly use songs, and when I say songs, I mean songs. I’m, talking about songs with a voice speaking to you and inspiring you, sot some crappy sample repeating 175 times until you’re made to feel like you’re every bit as stupid because it has to be repeated that many times until you understand it.

Songs with lyrics. And he used those lyrics to talk to people. It was very, very common for people on the dancfloor to fell like he was talking to them directly through the record. And was a two-way thing. Not just the DJ saying, ‘Here is the law,’ or the crowd saying, ‘We’ll only listen to this,’ there was an unspoken mental energy flowing back and forth. I think, more than anyone else I’ve known, he was the one that could pick this up more than anyone else.”

That ability to talk to the dancefloor is one of the main reasons why Levan is still revered today. He created something so special between the hours of midnight on a Saturday night and whenever the club closed on Sunday afternoon, that the crowd came back religiously, week after week, for more.

“You had 1000-2000 people actually on that dancefloor communing together, continues Kevorkian. “Sharing their energies together to the music. Singing the lyrics and ad-libbing on top of the music. Today I see 1200 people on the dancefloor each in their own little mental headspace. Isolated from each other most of the time. Sometimes clubs get of al little, but not at the level of the Garage. And if you haven’t seen it, I’m sorry to say, but you can’t understand it. It’s like telling me you’ve seen a bicycle ride and I’ve seen racecars and rockets. It’s a whole different thing.”

“If there were 2000 people in every Saturday,” adds Depino, “A good thousand of them knew each other by name. And it was the same, year after year.”

The one thing, however, that really made Levan different from DJs today was that people actually loved him. Not just the hero figure. They love Levan the person. They loved the fact that he would stop the music and spend half an hour cleaning the mirror-balls. They loved the fact that on membership days, when Michael Brody, the owner, would hold interviews for those wishing to join the club, Levan would open the back door, let the huge queue of hopefuls into the club and start playing the biggest records of the week (much to Brody’s annoyance).

They loved the fact that he would put on a record, then run straight down to the dancefloor and join in the party. They loved it when he hooked up his radio to the sound system and play the Garage mix show on WBLS back to the crowd. The loved the fact that his passion for the party was completely all-consuming and that sometimes, he was just plain crazy.

“There was one time when the owner of the club had a brainstorm,” remembers Weinstein. “He tried to make it a very white gay club and kicked Larry to the curb for three weeks. And so Larry freaked out at the owner and bit his leg. It was a very traumatic moment. And then the nights became Larry’s again. I guess he just didn’t like getting bitten.”

Harvey, the resident DJ at Ministry Of Sound when Levan played there back in 1991, remembers a similar kind of madness: “One time Larry came back to my house, leaping around, which he had a tendency to do when he was excited, smiling and bouncing and screaming, ‘I’ve found it. I’ve got it. This is the one, Harvey. You gotta come with me. I’ve found this boutique that’s got the best style and fashion around. Will you come with me?’

So We go all the way done to Croydon High Street into this ‘Everything Under £20’ boutique that specializes in snow-wash denim. And he bought half the shop to take back to New York. Stuff like jeans with gray snow-wash on the back and red snow-wash on the front, and leather jackets with studs and padded shoulders. He was over the moon and I just thought it was rather amusing. Basically, he was just right out there.”

As a venue, the Paradise Garage was awesome. A converted parking garage situated at 84 King Street in the SoHo area of Manhattan, it featured a movie room, changing area and cloakroom, two chill-out rooms (one with music, one without) and a roof garden that opened up in the summer. Maximum capacity was near to 4000. It took quite some time to build from January ’77 until it opened fully in late ’78, they held construction parties in what later became the cloakroom. And, as things were tight, Levan and Michael Brody actually lived in the Garage in those early years.

However, what made the Garage completely out-of-this-world, was the way it was run. From the very start, it was never looked upon as a business venture. It was about dancing. Pure and simple. And it was that reason alone that made it such a success.

“This is not like the small-minded, profit-oriented club promoters that we’re seeing today,” explains Kevorkian. “This was about someone who said, ‘I’ll give this money to these people. Let them do what I think they can do because I think they really have the talent and Let’s see what happens with it.’ That’s what Mel Cheren did. There was no one at the cash register thinking, ‘How can I save money? How can I make it busier? How can I sell more drinks?’

It was a real, true, private club. In other words, if you don’t have a membership, you cannot come in. You are not allowed to come in. We don’t care if you have money. Please don’t come in. This is a private club. A house party. It might be a house party with 2000 people. It’s a big house.

And from the day it that it opened until the day that it closed, it stayed true to that motto. It was a party. And the point of the party was dancing. You had the best sound system money could buy. The best lightsÑthere to enhance the dancing experience, not to perform flashy shows. There was free food: 10 different flavors of lemon-ice and all kind of fruit in the summer, freshly baked brownies and doughnuts in the winter. Coffee and soft drinks were free too.

Because if you’re going to dance for 12 hours, you’re going to need to replenish you energy at some point. The even served turkey with all the trimmings at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Yet there was not alcohol. And if you ask Kevokian why, he simply replies, “That was not what it was about.”

Drugs, however, were a different matter. “Sure, there were lots of kids there that took drugs,” states Depino quite plainly. “And there were a lot of kids that didn’t. In the early days of the Garage though, they’d do things like spike the punch. But only for the first three of four years. After that point, the Garage was too big for us to do that. You too a chance that someone would get hurt or OD.

There was too much of a risk. Three thousand people dancing and tripping insanely was too much to control. So when the Garage got that popular, they stopped doing that. But in the early days, you took a glass of electric punch and you were going boy. It was never enough to actually make you trip, just enough to make you have a fantastic time and not know why. I mean, we knew what was in it, so we’d drink 12 or13 cups of punch and we’d be flying.”

The Garage was all this and much more. There was the time Michael Brody spend $20,000 putting on Patti LaBelle only just to break even. There were all the other amazing artists that played there: Chaka Khan, Gloria Gaynor, The Jones Girls and Billy Ocean. In the days when it wasn’t just about a pretty singer and a DAT machine in the back, but a full live band. And the days when you couldn’t just hire a big name DJ and wait for the cash to roll in.

“They did have some guest DJs,” offers Kevorkian. “I was lucky enough to be one of them until I stopped Djing in ’83. But there was no large billed Seb “Pleased” Healy kinda thing. All those interchangeable figureheads. It was just a home crowd that kept themselves to themselves and it grew international because Larry was making all these incredible records that all of us would come and listen to know what time it was. That’s it.”

Yet even once it had become a phenomenon, and people traveled all over the world to experience the magic of the Garage, it was never commercialized.

“They never tried to blatantly and grossly exploit it,” agreed Kevorkian. “There were no new compilation albums advertised in the press every two weeks of things of that nature. Because that was against the nature of the club staying like a house party.”

“We were so close to Frankie Crocker (the programmer at WBLS, a big [R&B and] disco station) that we could have had so much publicity out of it,” adds Depino. “But we didn’t. Sure Frankie used to talk about it, but only from a personal viewpoint as something fun to do because he actually went himself. And even then Michael Brody used to get so mad about it. He’d be like, ‘Frankie, please don’t talk too much about the club. I don’t want people just coming because they hear about it on the radio.'”

It’s hard to imagine any club of the same size today having a similar standpoint. Imagine Cream without the car-stickers and the bomber-jackets. Or the Ministry of Sound without ‘Dance Nation.’

“If people go to clubs today and think that what they’re experiencing might be somehow like the Garage,” states Kevorkian, “then that’s bullshit. They’re nothing like the Garage at all. They’re just commercial operations where everything is done for profit. You serve liquor until a certain time and then that’s it, you get the people out of there. I remember playing at Bar Rhumba and the security got really upset because the customers wanted more music. Their attitude was, ‘We’re not getting paid, so it’s time to close the party.’ This is NOT what the Garage was about. You have to understand the basics of it.

“Everyone who worked there form the guy that swept up the floor all the way up to the general manager where people that really understood the party. I can relate to the fact that security people want to get paid by the minute and that the party had to end because people have better things to do. But when that kind of atmosphere happens, what you DON’T” get it the magic that used to happen at the Paradise Garage. The basis of the party was that you stayed open until the people left, You didn’t clear people out. So the party lasted until 10, 11, 12, whenever. And over the course of months or years of thing like that happening, you give opportunity for something to develop. A philosophy, an attitude, a way of seeing things.

“And to explain this you have to understand that there is no place like this now. You can’t get it. And if there is, tell me where it is. Tell where there’s a club where people do what they do and they’re just in control? Where the DJ takes care of the music. He decides who plays. If he wants to play the whole night, he plays the whole night. If he doesn’t want to play, he’ll call his friend to play for him. He stays open as long as he wants. Where they don’t have to sell alcohol and the owner is on the floor dancing. Please tell me where there’s a club like this?”

As incredible as the Garage was, however, it had to close. The owner, Michael Brody, was too ill with AIDS to go an and on September 26, 1987, Larry Levan closed his final set, rather fittingly, with The Trammps “Where Do We Go From Here?” It was the end of an era. For people like Mel Cheren, it meant that all the kids that had been brought off the street into the warmth of the all-consuming groove inside were left to the crack-infested neighborhoods of New York. No longer could people dance away their weekly stresses in such a welcoming world,. The magical domain of the Garage where race, wealth, color, and sexual preference meant nothing, and the dance meant everything, had ceased to exist.

For Levan, it seemed like the end of the Garage marked the beginning of the end of his life. His rock-star style addiction to cocaine and heroin took over. Record companies lost interest in his productions and nightclub owners sacked him for his brattish tantrums. He was like a king without a crown, and despite the fact that he had known he had a heart condition since he was a child, he continued to take the drugs that he must have known would eventually kill him. And on the 8th of November, 1992, Levan died of endocarditism and inflammation of the lining of the heart, spurred on by his excessive narcotic intake.

“People should remember the positive things, though,” cautions Cheren. “Of course he had a drug problem, like many people do. But he was a genius and people should remember that first and foremost.”

Depino agrees: “He was such a brat, but people loved him. They loved him for his insanity and his genius. And they loved the Garage too. I’ve heard mothers today with little kids telling them about the Garage. And there’s these little Garage babies running around with the little Garage t-shirts from their parents screaming ‘My Mommy used to go to the Garage. My Daddy used to go to the Garage. Patti LaBelle played there.’ And they don’t even know who she is. It was just such an amazing place. I miss it and I miss him very much. It was just like going over the rainbow. Every Saturday night.”

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NYC PEECH BOYS – Don’t Make Me Wait