Before Vince Aletti began writing about photography for the Village Voice and the New Yorker, he started his career writing about pop music for Rolling Stone, Creem, and Crawdaddy, before focusing on disco in a weekly columnRecord World (recently reprinted in The Disco Files 1973-78). Here he speaks to us about his experience with the 1970s disco scene, the importance of a good DJ, and what records he’s listening to at the moment. Vince has also put together a special playlist of his all time favorite disco songs.
Paddle8: Can you describe your first experience at David Mancuso’s loft in 1972 (considered to be the first disco party)?
Vince Aletti: No, but I can re-imagine it. The experience of going to a club at that point was very new to me. The loft was setup as a house party and it was literally in Mancuso’s loft in lower Broadway on Bleecker Street. It was like going to someone’s birthday party that you didn’t know but very convivial. His style of presenting the music and the experience didn’t change very much when he moved to a larger and better known space. He still had a table of pretzels, a punch bowl, fruit and snacks for people. There were balloons and streamers. It was like a kid’s birthday party. The experience of being in a childlike atmosphere with the adults who were totally there for the music and dancing — the intensity of that, the total immersion in the music was brilliant. It wasn’t a pickup scene. In spite of having gone to clubs before that, this experience was very new to me. The social scene was different. The music was different. It probably had something to do with the fact that it was someone’s loft. Clearly someone lived there, so that made it real.
P8: House parties are the best and there are so few of them in NY today.
VA: It’s true. And back then instead of having the regular house party where little by little, you got to know other people, you just started dancing.
P8: What’s happened to the former disco joints in NY? Paradise Garage, The Gallery, The Saint? Are they all gone? Do disco parties inhabit different spaces today?
VA: Those clubs are no longer around. The ones today are patterned on large public clubs like Studio that had a broad audience and were more about a commercial situation than a private club like the Paradise Garage was. It’s the same way a popular restaurant can only last a certain amount of time. With disco, one of the deciding factors was AIDS. A number of the DJs and people who went out dancing died. In the late 80s, it became very hard to support that kind of scene. When Larry Leven died, the Paradise Garage went with him. Crowds move on, crowds change; it will never be the same.
David [Mancuso] still throws occasional parties around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but he also DJs in London, Tokyo and other cities around the world. A lot of the DJs who were working at that time have become more internationally known.
P8: There are disagreements as to what was the first disco song. What was it in your opinion and why?
VA: For me, the first disco song was Eddie Kendricks “Girl You Need a Change of Mind.” It was a Motown song. Kendricks was the falsetto lead singer of The Temptations and this was one of his solo records. It had this great lyric about trying to seduce a girl into falling in love with him. But it also had this amazing break, which was really, I think, the defining characteristic of early disco records. The producer realized – the longer the record, the more successful it was on the dance floor. If there was a break in the record, it would provide this change in the music, giving it an instrumental boost in the middle. Eddie Kendricks’ song had one of the most killer breaks of all time. When it came on the dance floor, people would scream. People would also respond to the music not just by dancing, but by screaming. Disco music was designed to make people scream. All the other disco songs structurally shared strong lyrics but had this kind of song had a structure that allowed for big musical interludes in the middle that kept the music going and energized the crowd and after that, the vocals would return.
In 1972-73, most songs were still in the 3-4 minute range. Early disco records were all about making something last and a lot of them were created with a part 1 and a part 2 that a DJ could switch between and build upon.
P8: How long was Eddie Kendricks’ record?
VA: 6 or 7 minutes. Although the larger breakthrough was when Donna Summer came out with “Love to Love You Baby” and it was 15 minutes long. It got played on the radio and that was groundbreaking.
P8: This might be a hard question to answer, but why do you think certain songs stuck as emblematic of disco culture and other songs, which were possibly better or more interesting, didn’t? Why don’t we hear Voyage or Tavares or The Trammps on disco revival nights in clubs today?
VA: It’s a hard question because it gets down to the nature of pop music. Certain songs are hits. People remember them for various reasons. All the songs from Saturday Night Fever remain symbolic for people of disco. It’s the nature of pop music and pop audiences to latch onto certain things, which become touchstones. Those kinds of records that you can’t get out of your head, that you hate – those are the ones that last.
For Donna Summer, “Love to Love You Baby” was a turnaround record and deserves to be legendary in terms of disco. But I agree there are tons of other things happening simultaneously that are quirkier and more interesting but won’t be remembered for those reasons because that’s not what people latch onto.
P8: Can you speak about the transition from writing about music to writing about art?
VA: I’d been writing about music since I graduated from Antioch in 1969 and I started writing writing for a New York underground paper, The Rat, then Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Fusion and Creem magazines, so by the time I stopped writing, I had been doing it for more than 20 years. I had gone through this total immersion in disco for 4 years at Record World and worked as head of A&R for a record label and went back to writing at the Village Voice. At the Voice, I had a monthly column about the new pop singles and music videos. There, I moved through writing about music to writing about music videos and books. I had always been interested in photography and gone to galleries so it seemed like a natural thing to start thinking about. I had used every conceivable adjective that I could use to describe a record and I needed to move on.
When I started writing about photography at the Voice, I did brief reviews and profiles of artists I was interested in instead of long, critical pieces – similar to what I’m doing now at the New Yorker. At the same time, I was still reviewing Madonna and Arethra Franklin, but little by little, I felt my interest was turning more and more to photography and I was less involved in the music scene than I was before. It was very difficult to try and achieve that level of intensity again.
P8: What albums are you excited about today?
VA: Right now, my CD changer is stocked with Adele, of course, Lupe Fiasco, Moby, the recent Interpol album, Ne-Yo and R. Kelly. That’s what’s on there right this minute and that’s the range of what I’m interested in. One of my favorite recent albums is Drake. It’s the record I keep going back to. I also love Rhianna and I’m looking forward to the new Mary J. Blige.
P8: In what scenarios do you listen to your music? Do you still go dancing?
VA: I can’t write to music unfortunately, so this is what I listen to when I’m not writing. I don’t go out dancing anymore but it’s what I would be dancing to if I did. It’s what I listen to in order to get myself up in the morning.
An excerpt from Aletti’s article Disco Files: After Dark, “The Men in the Glass Booth,” 1976
But if disco DJing is an art, it’s solidly based on technology – not only on the mastery of elaborate systems of turntables, mixers, speakers, amps, filters, headphones and lightboards but on a sensitivity to the technical pluses and minuses of the records. DJs quickly develop a sharp critical ear for the quality of a mix or a pressing, if only because disco equipment is sure to exaggerate flaws. When record companies realized that a muddy studio mix or a drastically reduced sound level was keeping their records off disco turntables they snapped to with special pressings “For Disco DJs Only,” usually single long tracks on limited edition, high-quality twelve-inch discs. This past spring, a number of companies began commercially marketing these discs – the first new record format in decades – and found them selling briskly to people eager for the same full length and quality they had heard in the clubs.
STUFF: Still Life Photography, curated by Vince Aletti opening July 27