Review: Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day
Most people interested in the explosion of dance-oriented music in the US in the 1970s would have written a book about disco. Tim Lawrence hits a different groove. He explores disco but he presents it as the visible and industry-approved tip of the invisible and vastly more interesting underground dance scene. His primary focus is on the DJs and venues where the dancers of nightworld brewed a steaming mix of music, movement, drugs, sweat and sensuality that had and continues to have profound effects on dance-oriented music around the world.
Love Saves the Day (LSD – no accident there) takes its name from David Mancuso’s Valentine’s Day loft party in 1970. LSD (the book) is filled with interesting people and Mancuso may be the most interesting of them all. A firm believer in many countercultural ideas about personal freedom, transcendence, peace and love, Mancuso was one of the very few who found ways to make these ideas work. Lawrence looks to Mancuso’s invitation-only parties in what became known as the Loft as one of the foundations upon which the dance underground was built. It seems a good choice. Time and time again DJs who have become famous for their spinning and mixing talents and people who were instrumental in creating many of the best known dance clubs such as The Paradise Garage, The Gallery, Studio 54, and Chicago’s Warehouse refer to The Loft when explaining what they were trying to accomplish. Mancuso and the Loft were instrumental in introducing or developing such things as the invitation-only system that kept the scene manageable and off the radar, free food combined with no alcohol sales to avoid New York’s restrictive cabaret laws, a sound system of exceptional quality to drown the dancers in sound, an unending party atmosphere (balloons were ever present), providing an environment where everyone was free to relax and be themselves without fear of judgement or condemnation (innumerable people are quoted describing the Loft as being like “going home”), but most of all, the music. Mancuso was revered for introducing people to new and unheard music, for his extraordinary ability to sequence songs in ways that took his dancers to heights most had not experienced before, and for his exquisite relationship with the audience so that the musical experience became a shared interaction and a shared creation between the DJ and the dancers. Other venues and other DJs took pieces of the Loft experience and built on them or developed them but in reading LSD it sounds like none of them put it all together the way Mancuso did.
As fascinating as Mancuso and the the Loft are, they are only one thread among very many that Lawrence weaves in LSD. In addition to the famous dance venues mentioned above he tracks the development of places like the Sanctuary, the Ice Palace, the Sandpiper, Le Jardin, the Continental Baths and the Flamingo. He describes the careers of DJs like Francis Grasso, Nicky Siano, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons and many more. He discusses the roles played by many industry professionals including record company executives, sound engineers and recording engineers, most notably the superlative mixer Tom Moulton. And, of course, the musicians and producers: Donna Summer & Giorgio Moroder, Gamble & Huff, Gloria Gaynor, James Brown, Loleatta Holloway, Barry White, the Love Unlimited Orchestra, the Bee Gees and so many more.
Although the focus of LSD is clearly on clubs and DJs, Lawrence attends to many factors that influenced or were characteristic of dance culture. The result is a cornucopea of fascinating insights many of which contradict what is commonly believed about “disco”. A very small sample includes things like:
– How the 12″ single was “discovered” by accident when Tom Moulton didn’t have any standard 7″ blanks at hand and needed to save a mix. The increased size of the 12″ blank allowed for wider grooves in the record which produced a louder, richer sound which was perfect for the dancefloor and Mancuso’s state-of-the-art sound system.
-The strong gay aspect of the underground dance scene appears to have been less an issue for the participants than for outsiders who looked on with revulsion or non comprehension. For the dancers it was about the dance and although there was certainly a lot of sex of all kinds going on and even more sensuality, the dancers consistently report that sexuality at the favored venues just didn’t matter that much.
– Much of the resistance to disco and dance music in general came from the established radio DJs because the devlopment of the club DJ had the effect of taking some of the power of making or breaking records out of the radio DJ’s hands. When people go into record stores asking for records they heard the DJ play in the club last night, records that are getting no radio play, the radio DJ becomes markedly less important to the record companies who are all about moving product.
– The “Disco Sucks” phenomenon most notably exemplified by the riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago during the 7th inning stretch of a White Sox game when fans were invited to burn and blow up disco records had almost no effect whatsoever on the underground dance scene. Many in the underground were uninterested in the sterile and glittertastic disco of Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees and Studio 54. “Disco sucks” simply wasn’t about them and they viewed it with detached amusement.
There’s more, much, much more. LSD has a good index, bibliography, notes and an extensive discography. Of extraordinary value are numerous individual discographies scattered throughout the text which list what a particular DJ was playing at a particular venue at a particular time. These playlists alone provide deep insight into the essential nature of dance culture and debunk many myths about disco and dance. They are also an invaluable resource for turning on to some terrific music.
The book is not without flaws. Lawrence’s habit of switching back and forth between clubs and referring to people by first name at some times and last name at others can lead to confusion about who is whom and where is where. I just put the book down and picked it up later with a fresh head. LSD is subtitled “A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979”. It would be better if American were replaced by Manhattan. Lawrence gives substantial attention to Frankie Knuckles move to Chicago and his establishment at the Warehouse leading to the hugely influential Chicago House style but it is not nearly as closely considered as what was going on in Manhattan. The boroughs also don’t get much interest and people who are essential to the full story of dance music in America in the ’70s and beyond like Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa are only mentioned in passing.
These are small quibbles, however. LSD is a rich, detailed and much more often than not fascinating presentation of an underground culture in which, at its best and most exhilarating moments, music, people, venues and drugs combined to form an amalgam that transcended fashion, judgemental rejection and individual differences of all kinds in a communal and often tribal celebration of dance. Love Saves the Day indeed.
4 Comments »