On Brewster & Broughton’s ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’ (LRB, Feb 2001)


A review of five club culture books (Adventures in Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture by Sheryl Garratt / Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton / Saturday Night For Ever: The Story of Disco by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen / DJ Culture by Ulf Poschardt / Energy Flash: A Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture by Simon Reynolds / More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction by Kodwo Eshun). This review first appeared in the London Review of Books in Feb 2001.

The artistic and creative importance of hip hop, house and techno has been clear for over a decade, but its more recent commercial strength has made dance music unignorable. Money talks. Hip hop was recently the subject of a three-part TV series which made much not just of the creativity and longevity of the music – it had its origins in New York in the late Seventies – but also its current position as the highest grossing music genre in the world. In Britain, big business has profited from the cultural changes brought about by the ‘rave revolution’: during the Nineties dance music magazines have gone from being small subscriber-only affairs to paper shop bestsellers; a premier league of DJs have made fortunes; some nightclubs have become brands worth millions of pounds, others have been catalysts in the regeneration of British cities (the Hacienda in Manchester and ‘Cream’ in Liverpool being the two clearest examples). So much has changed that the leading lights in dance music – especially top DJs – who were once considered outsiders in the music business have become a new establishment, holding on determinedly to their powerful positions but ripe for removal; like those who controlled the Light Programme in the years before rock’n’roll.

Several novels and short stories have absorbed and portrayed the rave revolution over the years, and now raving is being given a history. There’s no consensus about its origins: to some of the writers discussed here, there’s a clear break between the rave days of 1988 and what went before; to others it’s a continuum. While she acknowledges the importance of acid house, Sheryl Garratt resists the tendency to see 1988 as year zero. She goes back to earlier forms of dance music and soul, like funk and disco. Especially disco.

Some of the great days of disco, in 1976 and 1977, coincided with punk, but if you read any received history of popular music, you wouldn’t know it. The inveterate rock bias in the music papers, magazines and academia has left much dancefloor history still undocumented. The trad agenda set by commentators in the Sixties, heavy with value judgments – glorifying the work of the Velvet Underground over Motown releases, the production skills of Brian Wilson over those of Norman Whitfield, and the social significance and songwriting talent of John Lennon rather than James Brown – persists. Clearly, too, most rock writing foregrounds lyrics, whereas most dance music works through texture, beats and effects. Back in 1976, punk set itself against disco wholeheartedly. Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen describe an occasion in July 1979 at the home stadium of the Chicago White Sox baseball team when thousands of disco records were set alight while the crowd chanted ‘Disco sucks, Disco sucks!’ The 1989 edition of the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes disco as ‘a dance fad of the Seventies with a profound and unfortunate influence on popular music’.

The rise of club culture through the Nineties has unlocked interest in older club music. Now everybody is coming out about going out. One sign of change is the renewed fascination with Northern Soul: stomping, emotional, rare Sixties American soul cuts that soundtracked a club scene in the North of England in the early Seventies. In Last Night a DJ Saved My Life Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton put Northern Soul in a historical context, not just as the ‘first rave culture’ but also ‘a vitally important step in the creation of today’s club culture and in the evolution of the DJ’. Now, when, in the words of one Mixmag writer, ‘raving is as English as fish and chips,’ all kinds of dance halls and dance music are being rehabilitated. Ulf Poschardt invests the disco boom of the Seventies with political significance, describing it as ‘a new strategy of resistance’. For Jones and Kantonen disco is ‘bigger than life’. For Kodwo Eshun it is ‘audibly where the 21st century begins’. So, at last, disco and funk, as well as house and hip hop are getting their dues.

Saturday Night For Ever: The Story of Disco is a frenetic back-flip of memories and namechecks, a breathless, eager attempt to disinter some of the buried moments of mid-Seventies disco. Jones and Kantonen write about musicians and producers – from Giorgio Moroder to Patrick Adams – as well as influential record labels (like Casablanca and Salsoul) and clubs. Early in the book the authors make an effort to distance themselves from Abba and the Bee Gees (a strategy recommended to all serious advocates of disco) – those regrettable outfits, the platform shoes, the flares, glitter and afro-wigs were, they inform us, just a part of the ‘mainstream surface’. As Josh puts it in Whit Stillman’s 1998 film, The Last Days of Disco: ‘we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco . . . Disco was much more and much better than all that.’

Discotheques originated in occupied Paris during the Second World War. The Nazis banned jazz and closed many of the dance clubs, breaking up jazz groups and driving fans into illicit cellars to listen to recorded music. One of these venues – on the rue Huchette – called itself La Discothèque. Then Paul Pacine opened the Whiskey a Go-Go, where dancers would hit the floor accompanied by records played by disc jockeys on a phonograph. Pacine went on to open other clubs in Europe, while in Paris Chez Régine opened in 1960, catering to the self-styled beautiful people. The upmarket thrills of Régine’s enjoyed by the American jet-set in turn inspired New York’s Le Club, although it didn’t last long, closing soon after a new venue in New York took off in 1961: the Peppermint Lounge.

The Peppermint Lounge featured live bands – usually Joey Dee & the Starliters – and despite its rough edges, began to attract celebrities to its dancefloor, where everybody was doing the Twist. Tennessee Williams, Merle Oberon and Noël Coward were regulars. Norman Mailer did the Twist with Lord Beaverbrook’s granddaughter. High society enjoyed slumming it, and the socialites, sailors and salesmen sweated it out together in the noisy gloom, posing, cruising, ogling. Press fascination with the Peppermint Lounge and numerous releases (from Chubby Checker, especially), reissues and reworked songs eulogising the Twist made it rock’n’roll’s first dance craze. It was shortlived and Chubby Checker went looking for the next big cash-in. In 1965 he released ‘At the Discotheque’ on the B-side of ‘Do the Freddie’. Checker got it wrong: the Freddie disappeared to whatever heaven dead dance crazes go but, by the end of 1965, five thousand discotheques had opened in America.

Although live bands still played in clubs, pre-recorded music played by DJs had become an accepted part of a night out. In the Fifties an infrastructure of record hops, platter parties and juke-box joints had developed in America, and Jamaican sound systems had served Britain’s black communities with Nat King Cole, calypso and early forms of reggae. In Britain, by 1960 La Discothèque had opened in Wardour Street, and clubs such as the Place in Hanley and the Plaza in Manchester had instituted disc-only sessions. In the early Sixties the demand for such sessions in Britain was fuelled by a desire to hear music from abroad; American rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues weren’t being played on the radio or TV, so British teenagers took to dingy cellars, coffee bars and Co-op dancehalls to hear their samizdat sounds. The notion of a generation gap, and of teenage rebellion, became important; going to clubs was a secret adventure. Mods were the clearest example of club culture’s thrilled addiction to clandestine activity.

When Jacqueline Kennedy was pictured in newspapers dancing the Twist, its street credibility dissolved. Dance halls and discotheques – like pop music in general – gain little energy from the patronage of high society but have always relied on the enthusiasm of the young, the working class and the marginalised. Most important dance venues have been away from the mainstream, towards the edge of town. Brewster and Broughton are good at illuminating the obscure gay clubs of Eighties New York and the essential sites of Northern Soul like the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, the Blackpool Mecca, Wigan Casino and the Pier at Cleethorpes: this is pop history that travels further than Carnaby Street and the Cavern.

What drew clubbers to these venues was the soundtrack, but also the buzz; key to the discotheque experience is the atmosphere, the community feeling generated in the halls and clubs. Discotheques began to boom as the Sixties ended: in an era of fragmentation and isolation – and a retreat into private lives and private housing – the dance hall and the discotheque became increasingly valuable, a rare public space. According to Truman Capote, ‘disco is the best floor show in town. It’s very democratic, boys with boys, girls with girls, girls with boys, blacks and whites, capitalists and Marxists, Chinese and everything else, all in one big mix.’

Other clubs, though, were home to more insular, tribalised communities reflecting a desire for entrenchment, or secrecy. Clubland is still very stratified: critics can concentrate too much on the cutting edge, ignoring the existence in most towns in Britain of at least one commercial high street disco – featuring potted plastic palm-trees and wet T-shirt competitions – as well as a beer-sodden studenty dive, or a semi-secret strobe-filled ravers’ sports hall. All these books, though, acknowledge that the history of discotheques includes dank Northern Soul haunts, South London sound systems and Harlem rent parties. It’s often been the small, unprepossessing venues that have nurtured innovations which, in less pure forms, have gone on to feed the mass market.

In the early Seventies black music emerged into the mainstream. Big soul and funk records – from Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Dance to the Music’ (1968) to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ (1973) – began winning over a constituency of fans who fell for the sharp, funky rhythms and filled the charts, particularly with Motown. In 1971, after a long struggle, Soul Train appeared on American TV, marking the moment when the sound of young black America crossed over. But the Seventies also witnessed the flowering of gay clubbing, especially in post-Stonewall New York. For the gay community in this decade, clubbing, according to Garratt, became ‘a religion, a release, a way of life’. The most notable New York venues in that era were probably the Sanctuary and the Loft, home to DJ David Mancuso. Saturday Night For Ever includes some enthusiastic reminiscences of the gay scene in London: the drugs, the songs and the very late nights. The camp, glam impulses behind the upsurge in gay clubbing influenced the image of disco in the mid-Seventies so much that it was often perceived as the preserve of three constituencies – blacks, gays and working-class women – all of whom were even less well represented in the upper echelons of rock criticism than they were in society at large. The ‘Disco Sucks’ campaign was a white, macho reaction against gay liberation and black pride more than a musical reaction against drum machines. In England, in the same year as the ‘Disco Sucks’ demo in America, The Young Nationalist – a British National Party publication – told its readers: ‘Disco and its melting pot pseudo-philosophy must be fought or Britain’s streets will be full of black-worshipping soul boys.’

Dancers and music fans, however, continued to be captivated. The singles market catered to them, leaving LPs at the mercy of self-indulgent progressive rock bands. In Philadelphia the producers Gamble and Huff didn’t worry about radio play and aimed straight at the dancefloor with tracks like the O’Jays ‘Back Stabbers’ (1972) and MFSB’s ‘Love is the Message’ (1973). The Philadelphia sound dominated the dancefloor in the mid-Seventies and Gamble and Huff’s lush strings, surging rhythms, instant choruses and positive messages were the formula others followed. A demand for longer versions of hit songs followed, remixes that the DJs could use to maintain the momentum, or ‘ride the groove’ as they put it; the LP version of ‘Disco Inferno’ by the Trammps was 11 minutes long. When 12-inch singles became available in the mid-Seventies, record labels began commissioning long disco mixes not from the artists themselves but from DJs like Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons. Many of the successful DJ remixes in this era were relentlessly percussive, often incorporating salsa or African rhythms. Ironically, the longer mixes were rarely played in full: DJs using two copies of the record would just repeat the percussive break, or mix straight into the first chorus, or miss out the introduction and go straight to the climax.

There were still some remnants of formal dance-hall traditions in the Seventies, including a lingering obsession with named dances. It was one of these, the Hustle, which Van McCoy, and then the Fatback Band, helped popularise. The Hustle did for discos what the Twist had done for the Peppermint Lounge, and the Charleston and the Black Bottom had for jazz in the Twenties. Step-by-step, Saturday Night For Ever endearingly details the various Hustle routines. Kantonen, it transpires, was the Latin Hustle Dance Champion of Finland in 1979 (although the obvious question – just how many other exponents of the Latin Hustle were around in Finland in 1979? – isn’t answered).

Despite their avowed intent to avoid the worst aberrations – or Abba-rations – of disco, Jones and Kantonen can’t conceal their soft spot for some of its more kitsch moments. Some key creative figures – Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, and Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, for instance – deserve more space than they get, but Jones and Kantonen are as indiscriminate as Capote’s dancefloor, celebrating even the less illustrious careers of Amanda Lear and the Village People. Their unembarrassed trawl through the hits of Eurodisco, however, at least acknowledges Cerrone, a French disco star who released some of the era’s best records in some of the era’s worst record sleeves. The book doesn’t have much to say about DJs: Larry Levan is described as ‘one of the most influential DJs of the disco era’, but rates just one paragraph. In a sense, they relinquish their story just as it starts to get interesting. Disco had stagnated by the middle of 1978, just as the hit film Saturday Night Fever was filling cinemas worldwide. Contrary to the claims made for it, Saturday Night Fever didn’t create the disco boom, it commercialised a culture that had already lost its vitality. Late in 1978 the music that filled the discos was formulaic, dull and, on occasion, scarily bad: Andy Williams made a disco record; Rod Stewart co-opted the sound for ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’; Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster made a disco novelty record called ‘C Is for Cookie’.

Since then a clubbing underground has always managed to survive. Under the direction of Larry Levan, the Paradise Garage in New York thrived after the disco boom, and Levan himself has since become not just influential, but mythologised: he died in 1992 but there are Levan worshippers almost anywhere you can find two decks and half a crowd. His work fed into early house music, most obviously via DJ Frankie Knuckles, who had worked with Levan in New York before taking a residency at the Warehouse in Chicago, along with DJ Ron Hardy. As Chicago music-makers like Marshall Jefferson, Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk and Joe Smooth started making records that filled the dancefloor there, so, locally, their music began to be described as having a ‘Warehouse’ or, simply, a ‘house’ sound. House music evolved out of disco and relied on the same basic 4/4 beat, but gone were the frills and glitz, and a rawer, unpolished music was championed in stripped down, intense, unsophisticated (but loud) clubs. Poschardt puts it like this: ‘House arose out of the legacy of disco, and was a reaction to the dead end in which disco found itself after its sellout.’

The most significant asset enjoyed by the house music pioneers was the new computer trickery that provided the throbbing beats and squelching basslines. Dance music producers had been among the first to use synthesisers and drum machines in the late Seventies. Giorgio Moroder, whose production skills on Donna Summer’s ‘Love to Love You Baby’ marked the advent of the computer as a dance music tool, presaged a host of (mainly European) sound experiments by the likes of Alexander Robotnik, and established the kind of bassline that hits like ‘Blue Monday’ by New Order would later be built on. His influence is still clear on the dancefloor every Saturday night – last year’s big Euro trance hits by ATB and DJ Jean have more than a touch of the Giorgio Moroders about them. There’s been a continuing and defining connection between technology, dance music and DJ culture. Technics 1200 decks became as iconic as electric guitars and Marshall amps had been in previous decades, as the house sound increased the demand for clubs, and the chaotic dancefloor action at acid house parties put the person playing the records centre stage; by the beginning of the Nineties DJs were becoming highly paid stars, and the focus of huge interest.

DJs have always had a significant role in pop history: ‘The DJ is more than someone who spins records,’ Poschardt writes. ‘He is one of the new “culture makers”‘ (Poschardt is quoting Tom Wolfe writing about Murray the K in 1964). The first DJs to influence the history of music were the big personality jocks of American radio in the 1940s and 1950s, men like Jazzbo Collins and Alan Freed, who wielded huge power over trends, sales and the hit parade. Freed has been widely credited for popularising rock’n’roll. Or, as Poschardt puts it: ‘Rock’n’roll began with a DJ, and pop music began with rock’n’roll.’

Since the Sixties DJs have become entrepreneurs, pop producers, song writers and label managers. B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and Sly Stone were all radio DJs before they were recording artists, but it’s the story of the DJ as ‘producer-artist’ which concerns DJ Culture and Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. Both books tell how DJs went from playing records to influencing trends and remixing tracks, to producing, composing and somehow rewriting the rules of musicianship. The birth of hip hop out of Bronx street culture in the late Seventies is the most conspicuous contribution made by DJs to pop music: the turntables became an instrument, and segueing, mixing, back spinning, cutting and scratching produced clear changes in the sound of the records being played, and in their effect. Hip hop gave the underground new sustenance after the sell-out of Saturday Night Fever, and those early Bronx block parties were part of a hardcore culture a world away from the glitz of disco. Both these studies are good on the sense of discovery and excitement generated by DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash; Brewster and Broughton clearly admire the original mavericks more than some of the chancers turned star names of today.

Poschardt’s history of DJ-ing is tainted by his desire to subject his material to what he calls the ‘disciplined struggle’ of ‘theorisation’; his attempts to underpin his coverage of hip hop with references to Foucault, for example, are misguided. He’s gathered some rich and illuminating material which can do without the supposed gravitas or intellectual kudos provided by references to Adorno, Benjamin and Guy Debord. Unnecessarily, Poschardt also insists on invoking Pink Floyd as a touchstone for the progressive and creative: the group gets 17 mentions in a book about DJs (more than Paul Oakenfold, Todd Terry, Grooverider, Sasha and Derrick May put together). Possibly he hopes sceptical readers will be comforted by comparisons with a rock band. It’s like the prevailing wisdom about hip hop: ‘it’s the new rock’n’roll,’ people say, avoiding the more challenging idea that it’s actually the end of rock’n’roll.

Brewster and Broughton let the culture speak for itself, and are far more at ease, more grounded. In insisting that DJs have ‘turned their faces from the mainstream and conformity’ Poschardt is trying too hard to turn them into progressive cultural icons, and undervalues the showmanship DJ-ing entails. He seems unwilling to compromise the credibility of his enterprise by acknowledging any ignoble motives DJs might have for pursuing their profession – money, or to pick up women, or because they wanted to be in a band but were too moody or not musical enough. If he’d been to some of the clubs and bars I’ve been to recently, he’d also have had to acknowledge that plenty of DJs are better at imitating than innovating. Furthermore, if he had been a little more cynical he might have asked why there are so few female DJs, and acknowledged the extent to which remixing has become commercial: less a way for a DJ to display creativity than simply a ploy to sell more records.

Garratt’s frame of reference is less ambitious, but more to the point. As an eye-witness to some of the key moments of the last dozen years or so, she has a good understanding of the divergent paths dance culture in Britain has taken since acid house, and her attempts to square the ideologies of the early rave scene with the huge commercialised dance culture that now exists are intriguing. The cyclical nature of trends in music and kinds of club emerges, as the focus shifts from illicit cellars to opulent pleasure palaces, and glamorous clubs big on glitz in turn trigger a desire for intimate venues. In clubland, as elsewhere, the much-touted big new things are often recycled versions of old things.

Garratt gives an unabashed account of the part drugs have played in clubland. Their presence is far from new: Mods took black bombers, purple hearts and other amphetamines, and the Studio 54 set were heavy cocaine users. But the blatant part played by ecstasy in the story of acid house undoubtedly raised the stakes. A good proportion of last year’s front-cover stories in dance music magazines like Mixmag and Ministry have been about drugs. Mixmag each month carries a scathingly sardonic column charting the activities and pronouncements of drug tsar Keith Hellawell. Rave brought drugs into the mainstream, and fed a different kind of high society. Reynolds, too, has some good thoughts on this, particularly when he provides evidence of the way the textures and development of post-rave dance music mirror the rush and come down of ecstasy.

He meticulously namechecks hundreds of releases, dubplates and mixes, and includes a huge discography and a 17-page index. Even so, Energy Flash has a looser, more relaxed feel than Reynolds’s previous writing. He is all in favour of taking music away from what he calls the ‘tyranny of good taste’, and this is his value as a critic. In the mid-Eighties he was championing bands like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, and he clearly still regards music as a visceral pleasure – noise rather than poetry. He discusses some previously neglected artists, clubs, moments. His coverage of breakbeat-driven happy hardcore and drum ‘n’ bass is exemplary, and enthusiastic; he loves those impure, hybrid forms, especially the tracks which have not been sanitised and served up for the safer demands of the mainstream. He goes way beyond the usual key DJ names in Detroit, New York and Britain to make clear the international nature of rave culture. The comparisons and contrasts Reynolds makes as he goes from Detroit to South London to Amsterdam and on to California colourfully detail the way dancefloor sounds cross boundaries, evolve, loop, fuse.

Kodwo Eshun doesn’t share quite the same degree of enthusiasm for the clubbing experience. He seems aloof, a hi-fi listener rather than a sweaty Saturday night dancefloor devotee. His intention is to celebrate black artists who have flown free from the stereotypes of black creativity (an obligation to reflect a prosaic, circumscribed street-level reality, racial or ghetto roots: to ‘keep it real’). For Eshun’s favoured musicians, the street isn’t the limit, isn’t the point. Eshun is concerned with a different but just as persuasive tradition: black science fiction. More Brilliant than the Sun searches out artists who have discovered what Eshun calls ‘new sonic territories’; music-makers like Bootsy Collins, Sun Ra, Lee Perry, 4 Hero, Dr Octagon and Tricky. In their hands, sonic fiction replaces lyrics with ‘possible spaces’.

Eshun asks that you should ‘trade everything you know about the history of music for a simple glimpse of its future’. He wants us to acknowledge the difference between the modern era and what has gone before. For instance, one of the techno musicians who emerged in Detroit in the mid-Eighties was Juan Atkins. He was unenthusiastic about the past, unfazed at living in the city that delivered Motown: ‘I’m probably more interested in Ford’s robots than Berry Gordy’s music,’ he says. Stripped-down to a breakbeat, a percussive beat, a sample wrenched out of an old record, machine music has no context, but limitless possibilities. Eshun sees this newness, this separation from what has gone before as the key attraction, because it provides an escape route from the suffocations of a black history that is rooted in slavery, and moulded by white society. He is undeterred by the fact that his view casts much music of black origin into the wilderness. You can’t escape the feeling that Eshun doesn’t enjoy half the music he’s writing about (two releases from Underground Resistance are praised thus: ‘techno becomes punishing, a barbed-wire warzone of voltage endured and inflicted’) and you yearn for him to write about the female voices that have done so much for modern music – soul sisters like Loleatta Holloway, Chaka Khan, Lauryn Hill. But they’re nowhere to be heard.

Eshun’s amazingly ambitious writing is the most pronounced feature of the book. His assertions about the changed grammar of music-making and new possibilities afforded by computer technology – ‘ordinary language is dead’ – are skilfully, and often playfully underscored by the way he writes: with sampled snippets, loops, breaks and byte-sized sentences. He is fond of coinages, too: this isn’t new, of course – George Clinton and Hawkwind both favoured lycergically enhanced space vocabulary – but you are too entertained to complain that it’s hard work to make meaning out of his writing. Pioneering graffiti artist and rapper Fab Five Freddy once described the driving force behind hip hop as a desire to develop a ‘style nobody can deal with’. Eshun’s writing is like hearing Public Enemy after a lifetime of listening to Elvis Presley.