According to legend, it took Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan several weeks to break Taana Gardner’s surprisingly slo-mo single Heartbeat in 1981. Certainly there are many witnesses who remember things that way. Yet not everybody does. Which is not really that surprising, since ‘memory’ is probably less of a personal database of objective events and more of a function that alters our realities every time we store and retrieve anything from our experience. And that might be why Paddy McAloon was on to something when he wrote in 1988 (entirely coincidentally shortly after the Garage closed), ‘Nothing sounds as good as, “I remember that”/Like a bolt out of the blue, did you feel it too?’ Because shared memories might actually feel as thrilling as they do simply because they are as rare as a rumble of thunder from an azure sky.
‘When he put [Heartbeat] on,’ Danny Krivit tells Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton in Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, ‘a full club of people left the room to get food.’ To a lesser DJ, that might mean disaster. But clearing the dancefloor was no mis-step for a taste-maker like Levan, who had more than a little non-conforming steel in his disco soul. So he kept playing the track, sometimes several times a night, until the dancers changed their minds. ‘By the end of the month, there was no-one left off the floor when they played that record,’ Danny says.
Mel Cheren, who financed the Garage and founded West End Records, remembers things pretty much the same way in his memoir Keep On Dancin’ (New York: 24 Hours For Life, 2000). He says he was mesmerised when producer Kenny (Kenton) Nix first played him the instrumental demo in the West End office. ‘It was like no other disco song I had ever heard – slower, dreamier, more alluring than anything on the market.’ They decided to use Taana Gardner to add a vocal (she had already given the label two uptempo hits in 1979, Work That Body and When You Touch Me) and hand the final mixing work to Larry himself.
But when the Garage DJ started playing the finished vocal version a few weeks later, Mel says the same thing as Danny, that the dancers didn’t feel it at all. ‘At first, they would leave the floor,’ he recalls. But Larry knew he could change their minds, however long it might take. ‘Kenny and I agree that if it weren’t for Larry’s persistence in playing Heartbeat until his audience finally got it, nothing would have happened with it,’ Mel says. (Whenever you have 80-odd minutes to spare, you can find out more about the late Mel Cheren, West End Records and the Paradise Garage on the absorbing documentary below.)
The story rings true because it contains a number of elements that chime with everything we know about Larry Levan, even those of us who have only read about him, played his mixes and listened to Live At The Paradise Garage, the only official record of his work at the club whose name he would bequeath to an entire sub-genre of dance music. He was as stubborn as he was inspired, and almost supernaturally connected to his dancers. But there’s another aspect of his personality that often features in the testimonies of those who were closest to him, his gut instinct for dancefloor drama. And it’s that drive that underpins a contrasting story about his connection to Heartbeat, as recalled by producer Kenny Nix in the sleeve notes to the snappily-titled compilation, Larry Levan’s Classic West End Records Remixes Made Famous At The Legendary Paradise Garage.
In this version, Kenny drops off an acetate of the instrumental in the booth one night, and watches Larry check it out in his headphones while Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) thumps through the Garage system. But although the two songs share the kind of common lyrical space that Larry seems always to have been attuned to (Sylvester: ‘I feel your body close to mine’; Taana: ‘My heart beats for the one I love.’), Sylvester’s scurries along at 134 bpm, while Taana’s slinks around at 98. Others might have clocked the massive tempo disparity as a problem, but Larry spotted an opportunity for making mayhem. ‘Go downstairs,’ he tells Kenny. ‘ You’re not going to want to see what I do with this record.’
To accommodate the sudden change of pace, Larry could have faded Sylvester away under the eponymous heartbeat that ushers in the Taana Gardner track. Or he might have used the pitch adjustment on his turntable to slow down Mighty Real stepwise in order to clue up the dancers to grind down through their gears. Either way, the segue might have been smoother. But Levan wasn’t the technician that his contemporary Walter Gibbons was and didn’t hold beat-matched perfection as the ne plus ultra of the DJ’s craft. And even if he had, seamless transition isn’t necessarily the only way to go, especially when you have the kind of sixth sense for the theatrics of the dancefloor that so many anecdotes indicate was second nature to him.
‘Right at the peak,’ Kenny continues, ‘just before the chorus [of Mighty Real], he hit the stop button. Nothing happened for 30 seconds – it was dead quiet.’ Anyone who has been on a dancefloor when a DJ does something similar knows just how disorienting this is. The sudden withdrawal of the sound that has been flowing through your body wrenches you out of your disco dreams (‘What happened to the music?’ to re-quote The Trammps). You don’t want to wake up but you also recognise you have no choice. We’re on the move. Myself, I remember Joe Claussell surprising the main room at The End during a Need2Soul party in 2008 by interrupting what had been an hour of so of mostly soulful vocal house with 30 or even 60 seconds of silence, into which he first triggered a rain effect and then cued in some African drumming and chanting that allowed him (and us) to head off in another much deeper, more abstract direction, which would later include a preview of his own deranged 2009 creation, Disorganized Corruption, whose screeching processed horns, Fela-style guitar riffing and wildly sustaining organ solo should stand as a rebuke to anyone who remains imprisoned by the myth of him as no more than a noodling flute merchant.
Back in 1981, Larry decides the silence has gone on long enough. ‘People started screaming Larry’s name – they knew something was up.’ Kenny recalls. ‘He dropped into the intro beats and worked them for about a minute. We had background vocals, but Taana was not on the record yet. When the track finally kicked in there was a line-up to the booth of people trying to find out what the record was.’
I love this story. I read it and I wish I could have been there screaming Larry’s name, handclapping along with the other 2,000 queens on the Garage floor, trying to remember how to dance to something so darn slow or queuing up outside the booth to ID the track. But is it wholly incompatible with Danny Krivit and Mel Cheren’s version? Do we have to shrug our shoulders and echo Taana’s ‘You know, this don’t make no kind of sense?’ Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s still entirely possible that, having thrilled everyone with his introduction of the demo, the DJ still needed to give them some time to come to terms with Taana’s wonky vocal once the record was finished.
That said, trying to blend the two stories into a single, seamless narrative stream seems almost as challenging as bridging the gap in pace from Mighty Real to Heartbeat. Yet what feels important to me is that both accounts share components that demonstrate Larry’s ability to lead, not follow, the crowd, and showcase the real relationship he maintained with his dancers. And if he could find a way to make two such contrasting pieces of music work side by side, we should follow suit and embrace the drama in the clash. Personally, I wouldn’t want to want to live in a world without both takes on his anarchic, wilful, contrary, occasionally crash-mixing brilliance.
Last word to Larry’s friend and fellow DJ David DePino (quoted in the Brewster and Broughton sleeve notes to Live At The Paradise Garage, available on the DJ History website here). ‘He was able to get 2,000 people to feel the same emotion and peak at the same time [‘Like a bolt out of the blue’]. He could make them feel like one [‘Did you feel it too?’]. They loved him for his insanity and his genius. [‘I remember that.’] I miss him, I miss him very much. It was just like going over the rainbow every Saturday night.’ In the era of the first onslaught of HIV/AIDS, the racist and homophobic backlash kicked off by Disco Demolition Night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, worldwide recession and home-grown Reagonomics, the dancers of the Garage were very lucky that they had Larry Levan for the best part of a decade to allow them to become – at least for a few sweat-drenched hours any weekend they wanted – such happy little bluebirds.
Philly soul group The Trammps released The Night The Lights Went Out (source for the first Black Science Orchestra hit, Where Were You?) just a few months after the calamitous 13 July 1977 blackout in New York when lightning struck two Con-Ed power stations and plunged the five boroughs into darkness for a full 24 hours. What happened next wasn’t pretty. While sections of the NYPD were deployed to protect the high-end stores in Manhattan’s shopping districts, riot, arson and looting tore through some of the city’s poorest communities: crowds attacked and raided 1,600-plus neighbourhood shops while more than 1,000 fires lit up the darkened streets in an eruption of impoverished rage. The police arrested so many people in the aftermath (3,700-plus) that the jail system couldn’t cope and hundreds had to be held in the basements of police stations and other improvised cells.
As with the English riots of August 2011, none of this chaos descended out of nowhere. The areas that suffered the most that night – parts of Harlem, Brooklyn and the South Bronx – were the ones worst affected by the public service cutbacks the City Council had voted through in an attempt to solve its almost overwhelming financial problems earlier that year. And these were the parts of the city most easily recognisable in The Philadelphia All Stars’ Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto, which appeared in September 1977, meditating on what to communities can do when the city is broke, the garbage is stacked two and three stories high and ‘you can no longer depend on the man downtown/To take care of business like he’s supposed to.’
But while the Kenny Gamble-Leon Huff supergroup took to the consciousness-raising trail in response to the bigger-picture crisis (‘The only way we can clean up the physical Ghetto is to first clean up the mental Ghetto,’ Gamble wrote on the sleevenotes to the PIR LP), The Trammps seemed to take an entirely different, apparently apolitical, approach when they recorded their blackout track around the same time, even though they were using many of the same musicians and were working inside the same, already world-famous, Sigma Sound Studios.
For starters, composers Allan Felder, Norman Harris and Ron Tyson lifted their title and refrain from the cheerfully comic film Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?, set in the 1965 New York blackout, a daytime event that occupies much more innocent mental space in the collective New York consciousness than its 1977 counterpart. The narrative is mostly concerned with what sounds like a rather sweet nocturnal escapade: ‘I took my lady by the hand/And led her to loveland.’ And the music itself sounds supremely celebratory, unlike the atmosphere of dark threat that drives the Gamble & Huff track.
Yet The Trammps’ lyrics (brilliantly projected by lead singer Jimmy Ellis, who left us for the celestial dancefloor last year) are not entirely without social content. They make reference to the atmosphere of insecurity (‘For safety’s sake, I went to the door to lock it’); nod to the city leadership’s voices of disapproval (‘Politicians said it was a pity’); and even wonder if the numbers of ‘innocent girls … robbed of their hearts’ while ‘ Central Park was jammed after dark’ might not lead to a mini baby-boom down the line (‘Population’s going to grow in nine months or so/Where will all the little-bitty babies go?’).
That said, the song doesn’t really have social and economic issues on its mind. In response to the repeated question about everyone’s whereabout on ‘this dark and humid night’ (New York without air conditioning in July would have been pretty unbearable), Jimmy sings, ‘Don’t you know that I was making love?’ and his fellow Trammps reply, ‘She was making love’ (‘she’ presumably meaning his girlfriend, although the mostly black gay patrons of the SoHo club space that was in the process of becoming Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage – where the track became an instant hit – might have taken the pronoun differently, girlfriend).
But does all this mean that the song is nothing more than what contemporary chronicler Vince Aletti called ‘a highly romanticized vision of last summer’s New York City blackout’ in his Disco File/Record World review of the album it came from, The Trammps III (reprinted in The Disco Files 1973-1978)? Personally, I think there’s more going on. The key is the repeated question, Where were you? It’s asked so many times that it becomes something more than a simple enquiry. Where were you? What were you up to? And how do you feel about that now? The very activities the lyric is silent about – riot, arson, looting – are the ones it is quietly rebuking.
Listen to the conversational breakdown. I was going to make what I thought was an entirely personal evaluation of it being the best example of its kind since the The Intruders’ Philly disco hymn to motherhood – until I read to the end of Vince Aletti’s ’77 review and saw he made the very same point at the time (‘the best spoken interlude out of Philadelphia since I’ll Always Love My Mama’). The thing is, it is. And possibly even better. Because while The Intruders take a break simply to reminisce about their childhood (‘When I got home, the first thing I would hear is, ‘Where you been, boy?”’), The Trammps use their breakdown – the segment where typically most of the instruments drop out to leave nothing but the drums – not only to enact their own blackout but to formulate a dancefloor response: when the strings cut out and the guitar skronks in a mini electrical storm, the track is only kept going by the relaxed but relentless pulse from Earl Young’s drum set while different voices try to work out what to do. ‘What happened to the music, what happened to the music, man?’ someone asks; ‘The electric went out, man,’ someone else explains. ‘Check the plug,’ another voice else helpfully suggests. ‘Oh, that was my foot!’ another complains. But between them, they come up with a compelling alternative: ‘Keep grooving to the drums: come on groove, baby, groove. The electric be on in a minute, y’all.’ And that’s what happens: the drums keep everyone together until the bass can cue back in the joyful rising and falling string figure and the party cranks back into life.
And this is not entirely fanciful, because not everybody was burning and looting that night. While all five boroughs lost electricity, there were parts of the city that kept their cool: according to the Blackout History Project, Greenwich Village, for instance, broke out into a kind of spontaneous community festival, an expanded version of the dancefloor drama improvised through the breakdown on The Night The Lights Went Out. Rage, then, is one way to go. But rage that isn’t harnessed to political objectives or even Gamble & Huff-style consciousness-raising can end up damaging vital material and spiritual components of a local community: ‘I watched as our neighborhood was destroyed by the people that lived in it. They wrecked and looted our supermarkets, our shopping centers, our clothing stores and department stores,’ an eye-witness who was a teenager at the time told the Blackout History Project. ‘That was the first and only time that I was actually ashamed to be African-American.’ And although festival might be an easier route to take in a community like Greenwich Village, many of whose members were probably less economically hard-pressed than some of their counterparts in other areas of the city, it’s a response that is rooted in the social liberation that’s available in the darkened communion of the dancefloor (I’m tight for time and space, so I’ll just refer any non-believers to the entry for ‘dancing’ in the index of Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves The Day – ‘… and communality … as counter-cultural practice … as empowerment’ ). And if that doesn’t work for you, there’s always the bedroom. As Jimmy chats through the fadeout in defence of his particular blackout strategy, ‘there’s nothing else to do: you can’t take no shower, you can’t watch TV …’