Favourite compilation at the moment is The Loft,
a double-cd put together by David Mancuso documenting the sound of the parties he used to throw in New York during the seventies in the loft of his Soho apartment. Their hedonistic vibe and eclectic anything-goes musical policy apparently made them the parties-of-choice for the clubbing elite, and an immensely important formative experience for aspiring djs and producers who later ended up in New York's burgeoning garage scene. The booklet tells me so.
But frankly, who cares about the parties? Every city, every era, every bloody clique has its own "golden age" mythology, usually trumpeted repeatedly in order to disguise its increasing irrelevance (cough *Detroit techno* cough). All I care about is the music. Luckily the music on The Loft is generally to greater or lesser extent quite excellent, and so this is one golden age I don't mind paying homage to.
The period of time that the compilation covers is very broad, from War's bizarre 1973
country/jazz/afro/blues/folk/disco hybrid "Country, City, Country" to Karma's "High Priestess" from 1995.
Stylistically there's a huge variety as well - Resonance's "Yellow Train" seems to be little more than found sound, while Patti Labelle's "The Spirit's In It" is histrionic diva-disco. The bulk of the tracks come from the vibrant period between 1978 and about 1983; disco was dying commercially, house/garage had not yet solidified as its replacements and New York was awash with sounds and ideas both old and new - dub, worldbeat, post-punk and hip hop.
The resulting period of uncertainty saw dancers casting about desperately for anything to keep the fire
burning, and consequently made some surprising choices, ultimately adopting a stylistically schizophrenic "if it's got a groove it's disco" vibe. It was a time when polyrhythmic post-punkers ESG could play the last night of Lary Levan's Paradise Garage, and here it leads to some mystifying inclusions: the aformentioned "Country, City, Country" being a prime example of one I still can't get my head around. As a result, the (for want of a better word) "style" of The Loft can be summarised succintly by the term coined for a similar compilation just released - Disco Not Disco - which apparently has a Steve Miller Band track on it.
What unites all this music though is a fervent sense of spirituality, best expressed on the dramatic, stringswept Salsoul of Ashford & Simpson's "Stay Free", or Risco Connection's celebratory "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" with its undulating afrofunk rhythm and children's choir chorus. The almost gospel-like feel of many of the tracks ties in with their general diversity - both are a reflection of the discotheque/club's role as the church of the disposessed; for the congregation anything goes, musically and otherwise. Think of it as a precursor to Body & Soul, and you're on the right track.
As with Body & Soul however, the best stuff tends to filter the spirituality through a funktional understanding of groove-science; see the anachronistic inclusion of early house tracks like Fingers Inc.'s deeper-than-deep "Mystery Of Love", with its itchy bassline that resonates in your spinal cord. Even better is Bam Bam's remix of Ten City's "Devotion", a slice of shimmering heatwave house as hazy as Ron Trent's "Altered States" or Lil' Louis' "French Kiss", if somewhat more on the garage side of things.
When it comes to tracks from the era, well it's gotta be Loose Joint's "Is It All Over My Face".* At once both awkward and seamless, "Is It All Over My Face" is a polytendrilled disco masterpiece; all shimmying percussion, squawking bass, skittish flute, Chic-guitar and lackadaisickal vocals, its kitchen-sink production is ramshackel yet strangely hypnotic. Constructed by mad/brilliant classical/dub master Arthur Russell, "Is It All Over My Face" and his other classics "Go Bang" and Let's Go Swimming" strike me as the disco counterpart to the music by post-punk bands like ESG, 23 Skidoo and The Slits, who tried to overcome their punkish stiffness and groove. Failing, they ended up making fascinating and singular music that confuses and enchants even now. This track is like that too. "Disco not disco" indeed.
My sentimental favourite however is Ednah Howard's "Serious Sirius Space Party": a truly cosmic slice of robot-funk, with the most irresistable synth bass I've ever heard (like Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious" on
Quaaludes) and great over-the-top diva histrionics from Ednah - think "Knock On Wood" meets the porn-house of Screamin' Rachael's "Fun With Bad Boys". The lyrics are great too - "You're dancing on the Enterprise/Let your body work with Captain Kirk/groove along with Mr. Spock/C3PO and R2D2 in disguise!" Let's be brutally honest here; "disco not disco" whatever, this is still disco, and if you don't have a taste for cheesy, fun music, you shouldn't be hanging out where you don't belong. Go back to Mogwai and practice your frown in the mirror.
Listening to this, I realise why I'm often so ambivalent about "nu house", which is basically the same
"anything goes" policy applied to house. I reckon its because nu house producers are so suffocatingly reverent towards the music on display here that their piety blocks out their sense of humour and stifles their creativity. Most seem to forget how fun, wacky and just plain stupid a lot of the music from the period really was. The true modern day equivalent of "disco not disco" is not, say, Faze Action, who make a number of absolutely heartstopping Russell/Salsoul tributes, but also churn out less than inspired exercises in joyless antiquarianism in almost equal measure. Rather, its Basement Jaxx, with their cheeky, irreverent promiscuity, who best encapsulate the openmindedness of the Loft era. Or better yet, The Avalanches (had to get them in there somewhere). As happens so often, the big difference between the followers and the originators is the choice between following the conventions of your influences, or giving the musical middle finger to genre conventions, and your heroes too.
*About a year ago I heard an excellent cover of "Is It All Over My Face" with a low-voiced woman singing
instead of a man. I haven't been able to work out who made it, although I know it's not the Dajae version. Can anyone give me some help?