Wednesday, 28 April 2010
Interview: Tim Lawrence, author of Love Saves the Day
Given the widespread acknowlegement of the importance of the 1970's disco scene now its hard to beleive that a few years ago the influence of this genre was not really acknowledged. UK writers such as Bill Brewster have had a key role in ensuring that the legacy of Larry Levan, Francis Grasso and of course David Mancuso have been recognised for the massive impact they've had on the world of modern music. One of the most important writers is undoubtedly Tim Lawrence. His Love Saves the day is the definitive account of 1970's New York, featuring scores of interviews with anyone but anyone who mattered. I, like many others, have used this text not only to understand disco's cultural context but also to track down the key songs of the era. Tim has gone on to write a fantastic biography of Arthur Russell and has found time to co found the Lucky Cloud Sound System which even now hosts parties with David Mancuso in London three or four times a year. It is a huge pleasure therefore to have been able to track Tim down and get some insight into his work...
How did you first get into disco yourself?
I got into dance music during the "house music all night long" era, so came to disco vicariously through that. But I must admit that I didn't really get disco for quite a long time; the synthetic quality of house music was so compelling it made the live instrumentation of disco sound a bit weak. I started to hear more disco when I lived in New York between 1994-98, and it was during that period that I set out to write a history of house music. In the end I didn't get very far with that project; Stefan Prescott arranged for me to interview David Mancuso, and David quite correctly persuaded me to begin my history not in 1985, but in 1970. Initially I was unsure about the idea of having to write about a period I wasn't that into musically, but David, Steve D'Acquisto, Nicky Siano and many others introduced me to this extraordinary range of instrumental music that was recorded in the 1970s, and in the end I became so absorbed with the 1970s I had to wrap the book up in 1979. So that was my journey into disco, although I should probably note that I've always approached it as just one of a whole range of sounds that I'm into. I'm not really into hearing disco all night long, just as I'm no longer into the idea of hearing house music all night long, either. I like a sonic spectrum, and that's what David, Steve, Nicky and the rest set of the 1970s spinners were all about. When these guys were playing disco, it was new music, not nostalgic music, and it was always just one element.
Which club had the single biggest impact on your life?
I'd say the Loft, but the Loft is very specifically set up as a house party and not a club. David revealed the sonic and social possibilities of the dance floor, and that had a huge impact on my approach to partying, on the way I wrote Love Saves the Day, and on the way that I've become involved in helping put on parties with David in London. In terms of clubs, I'd have to say the most influential was Feel Real at the Gardening Club, which I went to every Friday for about three years before I moved to New York in 1994. The Rhythm Doctor, Evil Olive, Femi B and Rob Acteson were the DJs there, and I ended up buying records with Chris, the Rhythm Doctor, every week. I heard Louie Vega play for the first time at the Gardening Club, and that pretty much led me to decide to go and live in New York. Once I was there , I danced at Louie's Wednesday night parties at the Sound Factory Bar on a regular basis. Then I started going to the Loft in 1997...
Everyone has their own favourite disco DJ – Mancuso, Levan, Siano – who is your personal favourite?
I love David's range, his approach to programming, and his emphasis on sound and the centrality of the dance floor, but I probably shouldn't include him in this list because he's really not a DJ, and has never described himself as such; he's more of a musical host. I never got to hear Larry Levan play live, but I've managed to accumulate quite a few tapes, and they're special. As with David, I appreciate the way Larry prioritises programming over mixing. I used to be quite obsessed with mixing, and was very into the way Louie Vega would do these amazingly long and creative overlays. Beyond those guys, I really appreciate Danny Krivit's party sensibility; the celebratory atmosphere at 718 has a lot to do with his selections. For the longest time I've also been very taken with François Kevorkian's range and dynamism and philosophy. I should also add that Colleen Murphy played a tremendous set when she had to fill in for David Mancuso at the last minute at one of our Journey Through the Light parties in London. I'd always known that Colleen had a great record collection, but that was the night that she was able to play with fully expressivity. The experience confirmed something I think I've know for a while; that the crowd, the sound system and the room set-up are just as important if not more important than the actual DJ. It was because of the setting that Colleen was able to play such a great range of records. So while I'm happy to name DJs that I'm into, I think the question risks placing too much emphasis on the individual. Parties are social-technological settings, and DJs are people who engage in a musical conversation with dancers. The most effective DJs are the ones who appreciate this.
What single song to you best encapsulates the spirit of disco?
I don't really think of myself as being a "disco guy". I deliberately didn't use the word "disco'" in the title of Love Saves the Day because the book begins in 1970s, and disco didn't really get going as a recognisable genre until 1974, so there were four long and amazing years to cover before I even got to that point. It's also worth bearing in mind that the word "disco" initially referred to the music that would be played in a "discotheque" (or a private party), and therefore referred to the full range of music that early spinners were drawing on. A lot of great conventional disco music followed. I'm not sure I could pick out one song that encapsulates the spirit of disco, but I love the Walter Gibbons mix of Hit and Run, Larry Levan's mix of I Got My Mind Made Up, T-Connection's Do What You Wanna Do -- there are so many...
Why, of all the disco legends, did you choose to write a biography of Arthur Russell?
Because I wanted to find out more about the person who was the key influence behind Go Bang, which is one of my favourite dance records. (I'd have listed it above, but it's not really a conventional disco record.) I was also done with Love Saves the Day and wanted to find a way to continue to explore New York music culture in the 1970s and 1980s without becoming a train--or a historian who had to write a book about the 1980s and then the 1990s and then the 2000s just because my first one covered the 1970s. I knew I wanted to get on to write about the 1980s at some point, but I was also interested in the way that the rise of disco was paralleled by equally dramatic developments in hip hop, new wave and new music (or post-minimalist compositional music). All of these breakthroughs happened in New York during the 1970s and early 1980s, so I wanted to be able to write a book that reexamined disco not as an isolated phenomenon, but as a musical movement that was matched by other musical movements. I also wanted to get beyond the limitations of genre and see how these musical movements didn't just evolve separately, but also came to interact with each other. Go Bang was an example of that because it incoroporates disco, rock, dub and orchestral music. It soon became clear that Arthur Russell would be an amazing person to write about in this regard, because his itinerant sensibility led him to record not only disco but compositional music, new wave, pop, and folk, often with more than half-an-ear tuned towards developments in hip hop, dub and funk. Because Arthur operated in all of these scenes more or less simultaneously, it meant that a biography about him could also double up as a biography about New York during one of its most sonically and socially dynamic periods.
What’s your favourite Arthur tune?
It has to be "Go Bang", but there are so many others.
Disco has been ‘reclaimed’ as a credible genre in recent years – do you think your work and that of others like Bill Brewster has contributed to that?
Bill and Frank's "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life" is definitely the most popular DJ book out there, and they brought some important and belated attention to the "disco" DJs by including two chapters on disco. I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the impact of Love Saves the Day.
Do you still go out dancing yourself? What is your reflection on today’s scene?
I go to every party we put on with David Mancuso at the Light, of course. They happen four times a year and are so strong it can sometimes be quite difficult to go into a different environment. But when I went on a two-week research trip to New York at the beginning of 2009 I went out every other night and had an amazing time -- the Loft, Libation at the Sullivan Room, Deep Space at Cielo -- these were all great parties. I seem to have slowed down in terms of going out in London, so maybe it's a bit of a London thing. The fact I've got two young daughters doesn't make it easier to go out (and I was free from the responsibility of getting them to school when I went back to New York). Then again, I'm not that into a lot of the party settings in London, where there's too much emphasis on alcohol, multi-DJ platforms, and ear-ache sound. But I'm always asking people to advise me on good places to try out and have a couple of visits lined up.
What’s next for Tim Lawrence?
I'm writing a book on New York club culture 1980-84. In a way it's the continuation of Love Saves the Day, but through the prism of Arthur Russell. To put it another way, I'm continuing the narrative of the first book, but lots of different elements come into the New York dance/club scene in the early 1980s, so I'm having to write about rock, hip hop and dub as well as pursue the legacy of the venues I charted in Love Saves the Day. It's proving to be quite captivating.
For more on Tim's work go to www.timlawrence.info
For more info on David Mancuso's loft parties go to www.loftparty.org
Both Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Culture 1970-1979 and Hold on to Your Dreams:Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene 1973-1992 are available online at Amazon and elsewhere. If you have any interest in New York's music scene, buy these books - you won't regret it.