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 …’