Dancing music in the C20: house (1982-83)

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Before house was a style of music, it was a style of partying. Of course, it wasn’t called house – a weird name, attributed to an array of sources – but the genesis of the scene was in exclusive, invite-only early 70s discos-slash-listening parties like David Mancuso’s Love Saves The Day at his illegal club space named The Loft. Mancuso would invite a diverse group of gay men to his parties, where he played the black dance music that he had such affection for to the young, black gay men that he had another kind of affection for. Mancuso had an eclectic DJing style, mixing diverse Dancing music in the C20 heroes like Babatunde Olatunji in with James Brown, Cameroonian jazz and obscure Congolese hymns. Alcohol was not served at The Loft, just punch, fruit and candy – and the space was adorned with children’s party and Christmas decorations. Central to the experience was Mancuso’s state-of-the-art, boutique soundsystem.

Two regulars at The Loft were a pair of teenagers named Larry and Frankie, who had bonded through the New York drag scene over their shared ambitions to become fashion designers. Larry briefly dated Mancuso, but it wasn’t until another Loft regular, future Studio 54 DJ Nicky Siano, employed Larry and Frankie to decorate his new club, The Gallery, and distribute punch and acid to partygoers, that the two youngsters  began to take an interest in being behind the decks themselves.

Siano – who also had an affair with Larry – had an experimental DJing style that he taught the pair involving three turntables, which he would use to extend tracks in bizarre and imaginative ways while re-pitching and segueing other records seamlessly in and out of the mix.

This was the time when Frankie – Francis Nicholls – became Frankie Knuckles, and Larry – Lawrence Philpott – became Larry Levan. Levan in particular quickly became known around the city thanks to his flamboyant, personality-driven style of DJing, eventually leading another Loft fan, Michael Brody, to open a club specifically built around the cult of Larry Levan as a DJ.

Levan was the house DJ at this club, the Paradise Garage, from 1977 to 1987, and this is exactly where and when house music germinates. Levan channelled his ‘diva’ personality from his drag days into his sets. He wouldn’t just take risks with mixing weird combinations of dance records, he would toy petulantly with the controls at his disposal – rolling off all frequencies except the bass, which he would yank all the way up to 10 so that the walls shook, only to then do the same with the treble until the clubgoers had piercing headaches. He might loop a small vocal segment of a record for hours on end, forcing his captive audience through the pain of the repetition until it became something transcendent and mantric. If he was heartbroken, he would make sure his audience knew it, slamming huge tearjerker ballads or acapellas down in the middle of peak dance sets. If he was angry, he could also smash records together in a discordant, aggressive manner that would disciples of beatmatching feel queasy.

Spotify playlist: early house (1982-83)

For almost any other DJ, this mercurial trickery would cause walkouts, but Levan would play to an always sold-out crowd for 12 hours at a time. The awe that surrounded him bordered on the religious, so much so that his sets became referred to as ‘Saturday mass’.

Levan also began to introduce synthesiser players and drum machines to the Garage, which he would mix in and out of his DJ sets as they were playing, eventually leading to the formation of a Paradise Garage house band – the Peech Boys. The Peech Boys recorded the house classic Don’t Make Me Wait, built around Levan toying with studio delay and the then-rarely used ‘handclap’ sample on the LinnDrum.

Levan’s heroin problems, bust-ups over credits and money, and the fact that he spent a year tinkering with the mix of Don’t Make Me Wait until it was finally ready for release in 1982, caused the group to implode. But that one single suggested a template for house – percussive, uplifting, soulful electronic dance music – that drew musical inspiration from Levan’s record box, which contained everything from disco to gospel, Manuel Gottsching to Smokey Robinson.

Levan would go on to make a series of classic dance record, producing and/or remixing the likes of Arthur Russell and Loose Joints, Chaka Khan and Gwen Guthrie. The point to observe here, is that this was a music producer who learnt his craft and pushed forward his own innovations not by learning instruments or theory, but purely by playing records to people in nightclubs.

Gwen Guthrie – Padlock (Larry Levan mix)

In parallel to Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles New York house productions, another kind of house was leaking out of Chicago. The Chicago based Trax Records released Knuckles’ music. Whereas the Detroit sound was all about the 909, and the Paradise Garage had its LinnDrum, in Chicago they had another toy – the Roland TB-303 bass sequencer.

Many of Trax Records biggest singles were built around the singular sound of the 303, a machine that had been developed by Roland for guitarists to use as bass accompaniment when they were practising alone. It was not successful at this purpose, and production lasted for just 18 months, between 1982 and 1984. In 1984 though, a Chicago DJ, Jesse Saunders, used a 303 to make a  house track – the influential, hypnotic and minimal On and On. When the local Trax crew got their hands on the machine, they got the 303 to do weird shit.

In particular, they found that by holding down a repeating note pattern on the 303 and – rather than playing traditional keyboard-y notes – fiddling with the cutoff, frequency, resonance and envelope modulation filters on the machine instead, the 303 would make unusual, distinctive squelching noises. This sometimes harsh and disturbing, sometimes liquid and rippling machine noise didn’t sound like anything else and so of course this alone was enough to make it the basis for a whole new kind of music.

Spotify playlist: early acid house (1982-87)

The 1987 Trax 12”, Acid Tracks by Phuture, gave this new music – acid house – its name and sound. Instead of NY house’s disco-influenced bass and and gospel vocals, this new house was moody and alien, often lacked identifiable key changes and the only singing was that squawking, chirruping, ever-modulating 303 talk.

But Acid Tracks was not the first acid house record. And in classic Dancing Through The 20th Century style, the first acid house record wasn’t an acid house record, it was an Indian classical record made in 1982 with one fatal, prescient gimmick – it was an album of ragas done in a disco style.

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Synthesising – Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat was a one-off novelty album by an Indian film composer and wedding musician named Chanarjit Singh. In the early 80s, producers were starting to use Indian disco songs as Bollywood film themes. Singh decided he should therefore branch into electronic music and bought three Roland machines – a 303, an 808 and a Jupiter-8 keyboard almost on a whim.

Charanjit Singh – Raga Bhairav

He found that the 303’s glissando lent itself well to performing ragas – the six tonal frameworks associated with different times of day that form the basis of Hindustani classical music. Because the three Roland machines could be synced together, and sounded good together, Singh realised he could set the machines up like a mini automatic orchestra and record his electronic ragas – his ‘disco’ ragas – in real time, so he recorded them and released them as 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat.

The album failed to make any impression in India and was quickly forgotten about by Singh himself, who continued his work as a film composer. In 2010, a Dutch record collector who had picked the LP up randomly in a record shop while visiting New Delhi, reissued Ten Ragas, positioning the collection as “the first acid house record.”

Like Ryuichi Sakamoto’s proto-grime and proto-electro songs, Ten Ragas is only acid house by pure coincidence. But it’s more intriguing, because Sakamoto was a recognised taste leader who would have understood modern dance trends, whereas Singh – a jobbing musician who usually recorded elevator renditions of popular tunes and who was perhaps clumsily trying to make a kind of spiritual music here – was bluntly unaware of electro, house or anything.

Yet Singh had abused the 303 and 808 in a way that was far enough out of the machines’ intended remit to accidentally sound like the repetitive, unintentionally raga-like acid house sounds coming out of Chicago, but 5 years earlier.

The reissued Ten Ragas became an instant cult hit and Singh was bemused to find himself sharing the stage with modern dance music heroes like Lindstrom, Carl Cox and Caribou in his last few years before his death in 2015. A true outsider dance innovator.