Long before raves, superstar DJs like Paul Oakenfold and even Studio 54, disco balls were erected, strobe lights flashed and little men in glass booths blended songs together with mixing boards and double-deck turntables.
At the midtown nightclub Better Days, dancers got turned out in 1974 to Labelle, Gloria Gaynor and Barry White. At the nearby Liquid Smoke, it was the sounds of B.B. King, the Jackson 5 and Chicago.
Among those gallivanting around New York at all hours of the night to hear the era’s soundtrack was a young man named Vince Aletti, who wrote a weekly column for a trade publication called Record World and freelanced reviews and criticism for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. Now he’s collected his writings from the period and put them in a coffee-table-like book called “The Disco Files 1973-1978” (Distributed Art Publishers), which hits bookstores in Manhattan next month.
His book is a throwback to a period before AIDS, when the party in New York went all night and all morning, when HotPants were everywhere, and the old game of telephone — rather than an appearance in Time Out’s listings pages — got the word out on a new club.
Yet if you ask Aletti what he’d really like the book to accomplish, he says he’s after a reappraisal of the music itself. He wants to win over those who wrote disco off, the ones who failed to notice that what was playing at nightclubs during the era was sung not just by divas feeling the love and professing a will to survive, but by Stevie Wonder and James Brown.
“Disco was incredibly broad,” Aletti says. “There was a lot of unusual and odd music, though it became more and more narrowly defined the more successful it became. In people’s minds it was Donna Summer and not much else. But if you look week by week, there were great records all the time. There were weird, left-field records, sort of hard R&B, pop things and imports.”
Encompassing everything from his definitive article about the first days of disco for Rolling Stone to a Village Voice piece from 1976 that reads like a manifesto extolling the importance of dance music to indifferent rock critics, “The Disco Files” is a tour of the Seventies complete with almost 400 pages of playlists from the DJs back then, from Nicky Siano at the Gallery to John Benitez at Sesame and Experiment (before he assumed the stage name Jellybean and got involved with a girl from Michigan who became his “Lucky Star”).
Aletti certainly has the background to put the disco scene into its musical context. Now 64, he grew up outside of Philadelphia, moved to New York after college, and easily found work reviewing black music because, he says, “almost no one else was interested.”
He started reviewing records from labels such as Motown and Stax, then moved on to funk with the arrival of Parliament-Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone. In 1970, Aletti discovered The Loft, an invitation-only Saturday night dance party in SoHo that served as the first real stomping ground for serious disco aficionados. “It was like a family party,” he says, sitting in his East Village apartment amidst stacks of fashion magazines and coffee-table books. Most of the vinyl is gone. “At least five years ago” he gave it to a museum in Seattle called the Experience Music Project. (Aletti currently works as a curator at the International Center of Photography and writes reviews of photography exhibitions in the “Goings On About Town” section of The New Yorker).
“David Mancuso, who DJed and threw the party in his apartment, called people his guests,” Aletti continues. “The place was full of balloons and streamers. Every week it felt like a birthday party. And you could depend on running into a lot of people that you knew to dance with and hang out with. The music was great and nonstop and really unpredictable.”
That’s where he first heard tunes like Bonnie Bramlett’s “Crazy ’Bout My Baby,” The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’” and the Spanish rock group Barrabás’ big percussive number, “Wild Safari.”
From there it was on to virtually every place with a smoke machine — 12 West, Flamingo, Infinity, Tenth Floor and beyond. In 1976, Aletti discovered the Paradise Garage, which, for 11 years, was to disco what Gray’s Papaya is to hotdogs — widely accepted as being New York City’s finest. Keith Haring designed flyers and frequently did installations there. The main room’s stage was reportedly where Madonna shot her first video, “Everybody.”
“The Garage was in many ways a counterbalance to Studio 54,” says Aletti. “It wasn’t about the velvet rope and people going to the basement and doing cocaine.”
It was about the music, which (played by DJ Larry Levan) was incredibly diverse, ranging from R&B tinged disco anthems by Loleatta Holloway and First Choice to the dancier records of the Talking Heads (“Once in a Lifetime”) and The Rolling Stones (“Miss You”).
Today, every master mixer from David Guetta to Danny Tenaglia cites Levan as an early inspiration, which means the Garage is also partly to blame for the DJ-as-superstar phenomenon, a phenomenon this book will do little to mitigate.
This doesn’t bother Aletti at all. As he says, “DJs were my rock stars and remain my rock stars.”