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Lost in Music: An Oral History of Disco

The Dancing Machine: An Oral History
Rock & Roll Quarterly, Summer 1993

GLORIA GAYNOR: I started out singing jazz, singing top 40 in clubs, and between sets, disc jockeys would come in to play and I knew that was the next storm coming; I saw that we were going to be phased out. We saw disco coming and decided we were going to furnish music for that.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: Disco was the greatest time ever, and I am happy that I experienced it. When they went out, they went out with one thing in mind, and that was to party. Today it seems like there’s always a lot of fights. People had no hard­ness or no bad thinking on their mind, and everything was free. And it seemed like the peak to me.

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BARRY WHITE: The ’70s was very glamor­ous — the very first time I ever saw regular jeans go from $5 to $250. The consumers dressed up like they were the stars.

FELIPE ROSE: Disco was like a sense of youthfulness and decadent innocence that the era had. It was just a hot, hot, hot time.

KATHY SLEDGE: I honestly saw it happening but I wasn’t allowed to go out dancing. We were minors at that time period.

BARRY WHITE: It was a freedom time­ — more people experienced things and tried new things, whether it was drugs or whatev­er. It wasn’t about sex but love and sensual­ity, communicating, relating. There’s a world of difference between making love and having sex, and the ’70s was ap­proached as if it was a woman being ro­manced and made love to.

FELIPE ROSE: You wanted to look your hottest, and damn if you forgot your tam­bourine when you got that hit of acid. (I stole that from David Hodo who says it in the show.) You were going to meet fabulous people and you were going to party not just for that night, you were going to party for days.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco snowballed the way it did because it got to be not just music, it got to be peoples’ social lives. People got to be stars and shine on their own.

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FELIPE ROSE: Every night was a different club, one after another, and there were real­ly no barriers in the clubs. There were blacks and whites, gays and straights — it was really more a harmonic thing. You never felt threatened when you went to a club. It’s not like today when you have to wonder who’s carrying a gun or something.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were very fond of disco because every artist needs some sort of movement to make them larger than they really are, and disco did that for us. It sort of gave us a niche, if you will, and a place in history. Some radio stations were calling us Dr. Buzzard’s Original Disco Band, and we never had a problem with that because we were all disco children. We used to hang out at Studio 54 so much that we should have been paying rent.

KATHY SLEDGE: When our song “He’s the Greatest Dancer” came out, it was after the Saturday Night Fever trend and everybody thought they were the greatest dancer. We literally had people come backstage and say, “I am the person you’re singing about.” They were definitely not introverts.

RAY CAVIANO: With disco, you were not an observer, you were a participant. You weren’t going to the party, you were the party.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: In a word? Drama.

RICHIE RIVERA: Party.

AUGUST DARNELL: I’d describe it as pas­sion or, better, neopassion — a passion for the modern times.

BARRY WHITE: Explosive, mystical, magi­cal. Disco brought a lot of smiles to peo­ples’ faces and I saw it everywhere in the world.

RAY CAVIANO: A disco record doesn’t let you dance, it makes you dance.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: The producers, like Norman Harris, took the music and stressed it in the studio; when they started playing they never stopped. When I put down the vocals on “Hit and Run,” they told me to come back the next day and just work out on the break and I thought, This is the longest song I ever sang in my life. The music just went on and on.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco music to me was musical elation. I think people forgot who they were for a minute: it had a way of lifting you, making you forget about your worries or your problems — almost like mesmerizing you. It was another way of reaching out and feeling like you’re a part of or belonging to the crowd.

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AUGUST DARNELL: Hurrah’s was one of the first clubs I went to, but I frequented Danceteria, the Mudd Club, Studio 54, the Continental Baths, Electric Circus — and there were at least a dozen after-hours places that  we used to hang out at. I’d have to look into my diaries to find out their names.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The first club I ever went to was in downtown Brooklyn, called COCP; it was all black and I snuck out there on the weekends. I was like 16. Then there was Salvation, Sanctuary, Tarot across from Max’s, and Max’s for a minute. The Loft, 12 West, Flamingo once or twice. The Gallery, the Garage, Better Days, Infinity, Le Jardin, Studio 54, but those were work-related — the other places I lived at. I was a Loft baby.

RAY CAVIANO: The first club I can remember going to was the Firehouse, early in the ’70s. It was the first place where gay people could get together in an uninhibited way away from the bar scene.

RICHIE RIVERA: The first club I played at was the GAA Firehouse, on Wooster Street. Then Footsteps, Buttermilk Bottom, the Anvil, the Sandpiper on Fire Island, Fla­mingo, the Cock Ring, the Underground, 12 West (which became the River Club after the Saint opened), Studio 54, and back to the Cock Ring.

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FELIPE ROSE: We were like G.I. Joe action dolls under the strobe lights. The intensity back then was stronger, the volume was bigger. We were one of the only groups to go live with a band into the clubs, and when we appeared in stadiums, we brought motorcycles, a tepee, a Jeep, and Portosans — for the construction worker — on stage.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were a band with a mission — to bring dance music back to the world — and we felt like the crowds almost lived by a credo that dance is everything. In England now they have all these rave par­ties, but when people say there’s nothing like a rave, I say I saw all this in 1976 at Studio 54. Studio 54 was like ritual escap­ism to the max.

RAY CAVIANO: There was no question about it: the DJ was in full control — almost mind control — of the dance floor, and he had the capacity to take you on a trip. In some cases people felt it was a religious experience of sorts. It was almost a physical thing too — quasi-sexual. The DJ was ma­nipulating the dance floor through a whole steeplechase of sounds. I wanna take you higher.

RICHIE RIVERA: People got to trust me and we bounced off one another. I had a feel for what they might like so I’d go two or three degrees further, and they usually went along.

DAVID MANCUSO: Rule number one: Don’t let the music stop.

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RICHIE RIVERA: It was difficult for me to accept [Donna Summer’s] “Last Dance” when it came out. It was such a drastic change. For years, everybody had been refining their style so the music flowed non­stop. And all of a sudden here came a song where it stopped — and people needed that. They’d been dancing nonstop for years at that point.

RAY CAVIANO: Never speak to a DJ when he’s got the earphones on and mixing. Know when to talk to the DJ, not to inter­rupt his artistic flow. You’re talking to him during his performance.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: A DJ should always pay attention to his dance floor and entertain­ — that’s his job, to read the audience and react to what they want. Make them scream when they’re good and punish them when they’re bad.

DAVID MANCUSO: A night at the Loft was like three bardos. There was the coming together, calmness. In the first two hours, it starts out very smoothly, gathering. Second bardo would be like the circus: music, lights going, the balloons. Third bardo would be the reentry — going back to where you came from, maybe not the same person, but you land back on your feet gently, a little wiser and a little more sociable.

RAY CAVIANO: Every club was different. At Flamingo the DJ was like the Svengali of the dance floor, the maestro. Funhouse was a little more casual; Jellybean was looser.

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RICHIE RIVERA: At Flamingo, it was like Moses in a scene from The Ten Command­ments. At the Anvil, the booth was right in the middle of everything and people’s faces were like three or four feet away from me, so it was really like being in the heart of the whole proceedings.

RAY CAVIANO: The most famous booth in the industry was at the Paradise Garage. It was literally a who’s who of the music business in New York — from Frankie Crocker to any number of record company promo people. If a hot new record got played, word would spread like a bullet from that booth and within 48 hours you’d have a hit.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: At the Garage, I was the godmother of the booth. As the evening progressed from midnight on, there was a pattern as to who showed up. Early on, it was members of the music industry who came to promote their records but not necessarily to dance. They’d try to set up the DJ, Larry Levan, with a test pressing. After two, those people would disappear and the serious record people would show up. That’s when the party would start. After four or five, the booth would be void of anybody who wasn’t there to seriously dance or listen to music, and those people stayed until closing, sometimes until noon the next day.

RAY CAVIANO: The Infinity booth was famous for DJ groupies. The booth was high above the floor at one end of the room and Jim Burgess ruled. But the groupies had a certain amount of influence; they could get the records they liked played when some promo person didn’t have a chance.

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AUGUST DARNELL: I’d have to say my favorite club was Studio 54, it was so deca­dent and so exciting in that period to be part of something you knew was a world movement. It was a bit magical and the music was devastatingly loud. I was never into the alcohol or the drugs, so the appeal of the club was different for me from its appeal to other members of Savannah Band who will go nameless here. I went primarily for the glamor of it — so many beautiful women hanging out in one place. Steve Rubell did make it ridiculous after a while. He could stagger around higher than any­one I ever saw and still be coherent.

RICHIE RIVERA: In the course of a night, the tempo would generally curve downward, but sometimes the manager thought it was too gradual. People needed a remind­er when it was time to take the downs. They told me, You’ve got to do something to make them realize it’s time to start com­ing down — something dramatic. Some peo­ple showed up at four because they wanted to hear all that down stuff, what came to be known as sleaze music. They didn’t blend in with the earlier crowd, who were like Saturday Night Fever and just wanted to take speed and fly.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Leaving the club, we’d hit the streets looking terribly ugly because we were all very worn out and soiled and everybody out there was fresh. We’d go out to breakfast and talk over the records, the show, the dish of the night, then go home and try to sleep. Come Sunday night, you were fried but not ready to call it a week­end, so Better Days was the dessert when Larry Levan had been the appetizer and dinner.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: I was working this gay club, right? And I talk a lot before I start to sing. And I said I want a lady to come up onstage that don’t mind being a bitch. I told her to look around for whatev­er man she wanted and I’d bring him up. And then I brought a guy — he was gay — up and instructed him to call up whoever he wanted and put his tongue way down their throat. He looked around for a minute and then grabbed me and turned me way over — you know how you do — and kissed me! The audience went crazy, but I never did that again.

FELIPE ROSE: In different clubs they would throw different things on the stage. Girls would throw bras, and guys would jump on stage and take off their shirts and flex for “Macho Man.”

KATHY SLEDGE: We did the club circuit in New York, and during the Son of Sam period, I learned how much people looked forward to going out at night and when they couldn’t how much they missed it. I re­member so clearly Disco Sally was at one of our shows. I saw her in the bathroom with this long brown fall on. They said Son of Sam was preying on women with long brown hair, and when I told her that, she just whipped it off and put it in her bag.

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BARRY WHITE:  I loved the people, the attitude of the people. The consumer participated not only listening to the music but dressing to the music.

GLORIA GAYNOR: I kind of liked trendy and funky clothes. I don’t like women showing more of their body than is really necessary, but I like fun clothes — sparkle blouses and all.

AUGUST DARNELL: The thing about the style of disco, in retrospect it was quite ridiculous and laughable. To be quite hon­est, I didn’t think much of the clothing, but the Beautiful People who came to 54, they did have style. The good thing was it gave people a reason to say “Let’s get dressed up and go out.”

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The downside was monotony — how a certain style of music I would be totally driven into the ground before a change would come. Like the whole Eurodisco thing: no change, no growth.

RICHIE. RIVERA: It did get a little repetitious. It became so “in” that everybody did it, or thought they could. I mean, Ethel Merman doing a disco album?

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KATHY SLEDGE: There was less pressure then. People came out to dance and have a good time, but it was kind of a double­-edged sword. Especially when the hustle came out, you could feel the cohesiveness on the dance floor, but it was also a lonely time. Like the place would be crowded with people, but a lot of them would be dancing alone.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: My best memory is standing in the middle of Paradise Garage in the early evening before the club filled up. Larry Levan was playing the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” and I was totally straight and just about totally alone and dancing by my­self and actually got lost in the music, trav­eled with the music and within the sound system — just me and the club.

DAVID MANCUSO: The night of the black­out, people stayed over all night. We had candles and played radios and people were sleeping over, camping out. It was very peaceful, a little Woodstockish. The party still went on.

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GLORIA GAYNOR: Disco started out as a sound and unfortunately evolved into a lifestyle that Middle America found dis­tasteful — and that was the demise of disco. It got into sex and drugs that really had nothing to do with the music but that was the lifestyle that identified with disco.

AUGUST DARNELL: The most decadent I got was dancing with two girls simulta­neously, but the decadence of it was great to observe. In the bowels of Studio 54, there was a higher high. But I was like an observer more than a participant. I was like a journalist witnessing a national event.

DAVID MANCUSO: If people were using drugs, they were mild and recreational, where today it’s all about economics. But three-quarters was purely spontaneous energy.

RAY CAVIANO: In hindsight, the experience was exhausting and the lifestyle was obvi­ously way beyond the call of duty. We were going to have a good time even if it was going to kill us. We wanted to take the trip as far as we could take it.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: What killed disco? The people behind the desks. They do what they wanna do. They changed disco into dance and they changed dance into house. But when you listen to it, it’s still all the same.

AUGUST DARNELL: I would imagine what happened is the same thing that will kill every innovative form: greed — people who don’t have the heart and soul of the music but just want to cash in on it. They think they have the formula without realizing that disco was much more than that at the beginning.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Disco killed disco. The word disco killed disco. Like pop will eat itself, disco ate itself. Anything that be­comes too popular is apt to be destroyed by the same people who gave it the name.

AUGUST DARNELL: The music today — I call it disco part five.

BARRY WHITE: Disco was a sexy smooth era, very chic era. Now things are mechani­cal, more raw, closer to the streets. The attitude in America is distrust and disillu­sion. Now it’s time to rip, take the money and run, sell the country, sell your mother.

AUGUST DARNELL: It was a good period to go through because it was exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you find your balance eventually. ♦

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THE PLAYERS

RAY CAVIANO: Parlayed his success as disco’s most persuasive promo man into a high-powered but short-lived deal for his own RFC label at Warner Bros. Al­though cocaine abuse left him broke and in jail (and landed him on the cover of the Voice in 1986), he bounced back to become a perennial promotion man of the year, most recently with MicMac, the New York freestyle indie, which let him go in March. Since then, Caviano’s dropped from sight.

AUGUST DARNELL: Cofounder of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, lead­er of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, whose 1992 album, You Shoulda Told Me You Were… was their last for Columbia; since being dropped by the label, the group’s been without a deal. Darnell spends much of his time these days in Manchester, England “playing daddy” to two children, Ashley and Dario.

GLORIA GAYNOR: Crowned the first Queen of Disco after “Honeybee” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Gaynor orig­inated one of the most imitated disco formulas but faded from the American scene after “I Will Survive.” Her recent work has been in Italy (where her Gloria Gaynor ’90 album went gold), the Middle East, and Asia, but she says,”I think I’m ready to come home.”

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: One of the clubs’ fiercest ruling divas with “Hit and Run” and her Dan Hartman duet “Re­light My Fire.” She still rules, both as sampled wail and featured vocalist, most famously on Marky Mark’s “Good Vi­brations.” She’s currently preparing a second single for the Select label, due early fall.

DAVID MANCUSO: Mancuso turned his lower Broadway loft into a balloon-filled private party once a week in 1973, play­ing both DJ and host. One of the earliest New York membership clubs, the Loft has moved twice and shut down periodi­cally since then but remains a fixture, with Mancuso in full effect.

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RICHIE RIVERA: One of New York’s most popular and powerful DJs during the disco boom, Rivera last played at a club in 1983. He’s currently working in the chart department at HMV’s Upper West Side branch.

FELIPE ROSE: Discovered dancing on platforms in New York clubs by French producer Jacques Morali, Rose, a Puerto Rican Native American, was recruited to play the Indian in the Village People. Still wearing a feathered headdress, still singing “Macho Man,” he’s among the original People celebrating the group’s 16th anniversary this year.

KATHY SLEDGE: Thirteen when Sister Sledge was formed, Sledge “grew up in the business.” “We Are Family” remains the group’s anthem, but Kathy, now mar­ried with children, went solo last year with the album Heart.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The cofounder of New York’s influential For the Record DJ pool in 1978, Weinstein is partners with DJ/remixer/producer David Mo­rales in Def Mix Productions which rep­resents Frankie Knuckles and Danny Madden.

BARRY WHITE: His “Love’s Theme” was the first disco single to top the pop charts in 1974. White continues his reign as king-size pillow talker with a retrospective boxed set on the market to be joined by a new album, Love Is the Icon, in September.

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Maleficent: Jolie the Great and Powerful

Boil Maleficent down to one newt’s nose-size piece of advice and you’d get this: Don’t dump Angelina Jolie. It’s not a problem most mortals will face, but as seen through director Robert Stromberg’s lens, the antlered arch-villain of Sleeping Beauty is a sympathetic scorned woman, equal parts Gloria Gaynor, Princess Diana, and Lorena Bobbitt, with a dash of Euripedes’s Medea thrown in for class.

The cad is an ambitious thief named Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who befriends Maleficent when she’s just a naïve fairy who doesn’t realize that humans are jerks. He romances her for several decades before betraying her for the chance to become king. The bad news comes as a shock. Alas, though Maleficent’s magical forest is equipped with stomping tree beasts and squat, mud-slinging gnomes, she has no Top 40 station to teach her that her lifelong boyfriend should have put a ring on it. And so she does what any wounded woman would: curse his baby daughter to a perpetual coma.

Like Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent considers itself a revisionist fairy tale that spins a demonized witch into a feminist icon. Hardly. Both movies hinge on a man, as though the sheer power of being rejected by one dude is enough to make any girl nuts. Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of the West can terrify armies, but they cede their emotional strength to a mortal twerp. At least in Wicked, the topsy-turvy retelling that started the trend, the witch turned evil because of her politics. As did Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past, who would respond with a sneer if invited on a manicures-and-ice-cream girl-power date with Maleficent.

Still, Jolie carries her embittered witch with the dignity of Nefertiti. She rarely speaks, preferring to sulk and scream. Stromberg and his effects team have enhanced the actress’s otherworldly beauty to monstrous perfection: The cheekbones jut out like cliffs, the green eyes glow, the full mouth stretches over an impossible number of teeth. For a children’s movie, Maleficent makes one hell of a Vogue pictorial, eschewing the breakneck pacing expected of a PG Disney flick for the stern art-house rhythms of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast.

Yet Maleficent suffers from the same problem that’s sandbagged Jolie’s career: Her directors shoot her like a goddess, but set her in a world that treats her like an urchin. Jolie’s films never hurdle that key contradiction — the filmmakers’ joy at photographing such beauty versus her need to prove that she’s more than a pretty face. As a result, Jolie picks scripts where her characters are rejected or victimized (A Mighty Heart, Salt, Beyond Borders), only to wind up looking so gobsmackingly gorgeous that the plot no longer makes sense.

Clint Eastwood’s Changeling was the most preposterous offender, a period piece about a stunning single mom who begs a dozen men to help find her son and gets every door slammed in her face. (You think they’d at least weasel a consoling hug.) Stromberg has the sense to recognize that onscreen Jolie is no mortal, but then she still gets dumped by the dweeb from District 9.

It’s not impossible to reconcile Jolie’s too-pretty paradox. Here, the plot could be rescued with just an eyebrow, a glimmer of regret on Copley’s face that he has to give up this magical creature for a kingdom. I’d prefer to see her sink her teeth into the sexy, goofy, terrifying roles that made her famous, the fully alive Girl, Interrupted who embraced her powers instead of apologetically tamping them down. Instead, Jolie’s taking her serious-minded talents to the director’s chair. Which, if you’ve seen her stilted Bosnian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, isn’t a fair trade.

For now, Maleficent is Jolie’s last scheduled on-camera performance, and despite its eye-rolling silliness, it certainly sends her out like a star. It’s less kind to the promising Elle Fanning, whose Princess Aurora is a grinning, passive fool. We’re meant to love her for her innocence — even Maleficent herself slowly comes around — but with the grown woman hogging the show, she never resonates as anything more than a lunatic toddler. In inverting the classic tale like a sock, the maternal red, blue, and green pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple) have been recast as negligent babysitters, who, worst of all, prove immune to the film’s Girl Code of Honor by staying friendly with their friend’s evil ex. (And when they pressure a cute stranger to kiss their comatose 15-year-old, they almost come across as criminals.)

With more actual grrrl power, Maleficent would be a bold redo. Instead, it’s a beautiful snooze, a story that hints at the darkness underneath our fairy tales and tarnishes the idea of true love without quite daring to say what’s really on its mind: that even the best of us might not live happily ever after.

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Morgan Geist Compiles and Remixes Eurodisco Wonders

The scampy dance collection Unclassics: Obscure Electronic Funk & Disco 1978-1985 presents tracks that once showed up on international dancefloors and charts. The set is compiled and mixed, as well as lightly re-produced here and there, by Morgan Geist, who, as the liner note maintains, understands that these are “weird tracks that remain too earnest to be pure camp, yet are too ‘out there’ to be considered serious.”

The CD is programmed to dart and soar and jump and relax as a DJ set strong on melody. The sequence crests on a Canadian ’84 instrumental, “We Can Make It” by Purple Flash Orchestra, that’s like New Order gone to heaven—and which turns out to move like Ravel, swing like Malibu, and glisten like Euro Disney. Yet Unclassics functions equally as a stellar anthology of electronic disco. The compilation argues that the familiar tracks of ’70s hall of famers (Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees) are now exactly as exciting and overexposed as the Beatles. So Geist offers something fresher, less vocal-determined, and spookier.

Most tracks inevitably read somehow as cute and boppy. The genius of Unclassics, though, is that it is not a collection of cute little boppy weird-disco tunes; unfailingly, Geist’s selections find Italians, Russians, Canadians, and others using low disco to attain distinguished results. The effects are rarely achieved with song lyrics or, for that matter, chords; these are songs in love with single-note synth melodies leanly phrased and recorded. They take dulcet neon-analog shape in the air above the beats as though they were previously silenced singers who’d just commandeered microphones and burst free. In Zodiac’s “Pacific,” an ’80s Russian hit, the synth begins with a meek chirp, then keeps going until it streams with a fine athletic confidence; in Pluton & Humanoids’ “World Invaders”—a key track that DJ IF included on his great Mixed Up in the Hague a few years back—a vocoderized chorale warns about something ominous so urgently, against thrashy underlying beats, that the piece comes to be about the anxiety of warnings themselves. Unclassics is not Eurodisco lost in its own obscurity. It upends the rule book of taste.