Thursday, June 26, 2008

'Sound of the City' column, Village Voice, June 1st, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

During VH1's rock history series, Tom Petty (historically speaking, a louse on Dylan's scrotum) declares: "Our goal in the Seventies was to destroy disco". VH1 clearly endorse Petty's view of disco as "a terrible menace to music." Blissfully unaware that their culture is still being written out of history, a thousand mad-for-it dancers gather every Sunday evening for Body & Soul at Vinyl, and celebrate disco as a living musical tradition.

Like many in the crowd, resident DJs Francois Kevorkian and Danny Krivit are middle-aged veterans of Manhattan's 1970s underground disco scene; B&S is modelled on the legendary Paradise Garage, right down to the alcohol-free juice bar and fabulously crisp sound system. The crowd--a utopian mix of black and white, male and female, straight and gay, drugged and undrugged, shirted and shirtless--clearly don't recognize the rockist version of disco as the death of community and meaning. Soul classics by Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield are dropped next to Nineties deep house anthems, as if they're all part of the same sonic/spiritual continuum. Krivit sometimes cuts out the testifying choruses so the audience can participate, call-and-response style.

This can get a bit too Pentecostal, though, and I prefer it when vocal-free house tracks are meshed into a redemptive flow of ambient gospel. The combination of the club's sweat-stippled humidity and the spongy, succulent sound creates an intimate pressure, amniotic and baptismal. Often, I'm reminded of Talking Heads at their Steve-Reich-meets-King-Sunny-Ade peak--like Remain In Light, the music's built from onionskin layers of melodic-percussive pulses. Afro-funk is actually a major fad in house at the moment, with Masters At Work reworking Fela Kuti tunes.

If anything, B& S set a tad too much store in vocal accomplishment and live instrumention (chickenscratch guitar, horns, etc), not enough on disco's plastique fantastique side. To my rave-glazed ears, the most exciting stuff at B&S is what house heads call "tracky" as opposed to "songful"--instrumental rhythm tracks that are dub-spacious and FX-addled. But even spinning a hoary slice of faux-disco like the Stones's "Miss You", Kevorkian will use the mixer's EQ switches to cut out whole frequency bands, creating violently lurching, staccato dynamics. It's like a latent house track is fighting its way out of the original song, Alien-style. The phuture manifesting itself through the past's flesh---this is how disco/house culture evolves, honoring its ancestors even as it bastardizes the legacy.

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