You know the cliché about the bit-part actor who lands a role in a Shakespeare production and describes the play as being about a grave digger meeting a prince? Well, what if he were right? What if Hamlet were the story, not of a preening prince, but of a grave digger who talks to skulls? Or, even better, what if disco had more to do with the record-needle cartridges used by a private-party thrower than it did with all the white-suit-and-gold-chain combinations in Christendom? Halfway through his exhaustive new history of disco, British dance historian Tim Lawrence spends not one, not two, but five pages describing the overhaul of David Mancuso's sound system at the Loft, the hugely influential, invite-only New York club that Mancuso continues to run to this day. At one point during the treatise, Mancuso brags about spending $3,000 for a record needle— during stagflation, mind you. Ah, disco's reckless excess!
Mancuso is the central figure of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979 (Duke University Press, $23.95), which is named after his Valentine's Day 1970 party. That event was, in Lawrence's retelling, ground zero for the rise of New York's disco scene as a self-sufficient entity. Soon, the scene would be able to elevate record spinners into local superstars and, in a couple of cases (notably Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa"), set a scarcely noticed record on its way to being a national hit. In Lawrence's eyes, Mancuso is plainly a heroic figure: a DJ, promoter, tastemaker, and dogged purist who stuck with the Loft when he could just as easily have taken over the decks at a larger club. Here was a man so obsessed with music that he'd pay the equivalent of Neil Bogart's martinis-and-blow bill during a long weekend in the Alps just to make his records sound, as Mancuso puts it, "like a feather floating in the air."
Bogart was the head of Casablanca Records, home of Donna Summer. He doesn't get anywhere near as much space as Mancuso and DJ contemporaries like Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan, Nicky Siano, Michael Cappello, and David Rodriguez. Lawrence's focus is firmly on the underground jocks who first blended a mélange of genres into a seamless whole, then stretched the increasingly formulaic style out at the edges. But Bogart is a paradigmatic figure in the book anyway, because he's the one who first figured out how to exploit the music and its attendant style to the fullest. The launch party for Summer's Love to Love You Baby album, for instance, featured a life-size cake of the singer's likeness carted to its destination in a hospital freezer truck. Of this fabulously inane excess, Lawrence writes: "Unbounded extravagance, incalculable sugar, and a waiting ambulance—the cake was nothing less than the perfect metaphor for what disco was about to become."
Lawrence consulted on the Experience Music Project's recent disco exhibit—he'll return there this Saturday during the Pop Music Studies Conference, presenting his paper "Kiss Me Again: The Half-Decade That Dance Culture Almost Forgot" at a panel I'm moderating—and his sympathies lie with disco's subcultural end. He's not a snob, though—unlike a lot of disco purists, for instance, he has no trouble giving it up for Saturday Night Fever (both film and soundtrack), even if he sees through the inaccuracies of its depiction of disco culture. There are lovingly detailed evocations here of the early Loft and other important early-'70s clubs like the Gallery and the Sanctuary. In the end, though, it's when the underground goes over that the somewhat stiff Lawrence limbers up. He's excellent on the machinations that felled disco: the gross, often clueless overproduction by major labels like Warner Bros. and independents like Salsoul, as well as the take-the-records-and-run greed of many of the scene's DJs. Mancuso isn't immune from criticism, either, particularly in the section about the rise and fall of the DJ association called the New York Record Pool, which depicts the Loftmeister as a temperamental control freak. Disco would go back underground and sprout under a thousand aliases—house, techno, rave, rare groove, you name it. But Lawrence's astounding research and wide focus make this the music's definitive chronicle so far.
Tim Lawrence appears at the Experience Music Project's Pop Music Studies Conference at 9 a.m. Sat., April 17. Full conference pass (admission to all panels, the museum, Thursday evening meet-and-greet and keynote address, and Saturday evening reception): $35 members and students/$55.