Written by Ian Hough
Illustrations by Kelly Angood
I never stood a chance, really. My own family is split between Salford and Liverpool. From a young age I’d lived for their night life tales. Racing up and down the East Lancs Road in old fashioned cars, eager to sample the beat music proliferating in and around the coffee shops of both cities circa 1960. “We didn’t even drink, much,” my dad once told me. “We just went for the dancin’, it was that good.” Indeed. And just as their little scene exploded into something of gargantuan proportions, so would ours.
We all have an arc; a journey we’ve made that leaves us richer for the experience. If we’re lucky that journey might take us from the mundane to the extraordinary – burning emotive trails deep in our brains. My own fantastic voyage, like my father's, had music at its heart. Music which made people step outside their egos and dance. My progression from ‘cider-behind-the-bike-sheds’ to ‘pints-in-the-pub’ to ‘going-on-to-a-club-at-last-orders’ circa 1983, saw me blown away on acid, gasping on a synthpop animated dancefloor in a short-lived Manchester club called The Zoo. “Seriously, what the fuck?!” I shouted to my mate Sean, his eyes almost completely black as we hit the peak. “Are they hearing this like we are?!”
That was the start of it. The combination of LSD – a drug previously associated with spirituality and gentle retreat – and pounding electronic music. It delivered us from Evil again and again. As Trax god Adonis would later put it, we were too far gone. No way back. I wanted this honeymoon to last indefinitely.
I willingly flung myself into the sweating euphoric kaleidoscope. New clubs emerged, each that little bit closer to perfection, the rhythmic beat ticking towards the detonation of a love-bomb called Ecstasy.
When Disco, World Music, Synthpop, Soul and a dozen other genres melded into the monster that was Acid House, it transformed the entire musical landscape like a primeval aural flood. It’s still hard to believe its authors could be counted on the fingers of your hands; an elite group of American DJs in New York and Chicago, with a little help from their friends in Detroit. Without these altruistic titans of the turntable, hip-hop, house, techno and rave culture would never have happened. Next time you’re on holiday in Sydney, Stockholm or San Salvador, and you pass a throbbing nightclub, tip your drug-addled hat to the dudes I’m about to tell you about. For they created a monster. A dirty great big multi-billion dollar monster that wants to love you. All. Night. Long.
The legend has it electronic dance music began in Chicago in 1984. I believe it’s more complicated than that. So let’s start somewhere filthy, shall we?
New York City
Imagine a cavernous preternatural grotto in 1960s-70s New York City. Music throbs. Naked men cavort in saunas, steam rooms and swimming pools. Psychedelic drugs pervade this, a homoerotic reconstruction of Ancient Rome beneath the sidewalks of Manhattan. This was the Continental Baths, located in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway. Deep in the bowels of this intoxicating fleshpot, the fate of acid house music may well have been sealed.
The Continental Baths DJs, Brooklynites Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, had been mentored by electronic fuckwizard David Mancuso. Mancuso’s invitation-only ‘Love Saves the Day’ parties debuted on Valentine’s Day 1970 at The Loft on Broadway. They swiftly became the coolest gatherings on the planet. Of course Frankie and Larry were regulars. They listened and learned. Private mobs of gay black disco connoisseurs would take acid, disrobe, and go cock-wild on the dance-floor, assaulted by pinpoint lasers. Mancuso has said, “First of all, music came before the word; music is a gift from the gods… a very powerful force for healing. When everyone in the room is in the same place you get to a psychic level, you know what I mean? You can't explain it. There’s a higher level, a higher power. I’m not preaching or anything – this is about music.”
According to sandwich shop lore (yes, it’s a thing, so don’t fucking start), the name of former posh Manchester butty bar, Love Saves the Day, was inspired by NYC graffiti. But that graffiti itself was surely inspired by Mancuso’s Loft house parties. Was the butty shop owner, Simply Red drummer Chris Joyce, aware of this? Was he knowingly concealing some earth-shattering secret of Da Vinci Code proportions? No, you’re right. Probably not ...ANYWAY...
Mancuso was fascinated by what he called “the playback side” of recorded sound, i.e. DJ-ing. Audio engineer extraordinaire, Alex Rosner built Mancuso the ultimate Hi-Fi assemblage. Arrays of tweeter clusters, sub-woofers, Japanese moving-coil cartridges and, of course, dual turntables. The record needles were made by a Japanese craftsman who also made Samurai swords. Mancuso would switch old needles for new ones mid-set with a strobe-lit flourish. Zen and the Art of Stylus Maintenance, you might say.
His DIY audiophile system was to feature in as many LSD experiments as disco dance parties, a dark marriage of freaked former flower children and the Big Apple. The no alcohol and (just say yes) drugs policy ensured every party was an all-nighter. Mancuso’s associations with Timothy Leary’s League of Spiritual Discovery, during which his sound systems launched trippers deep into the psychedelic experience, lead one to conclude that Rave was perhaps inevitable.
A few dozen blocks uptown, DJ Kool Herc was a Jamaican immigrant living with his family in a Bronx tower block. Mancuso's artsy exploits were unknown to Herc, who already owned two copies of every record Mancuso had, and a thousand more. He could stretch out the beat breaks on his double turntable – an innovation that earned him the title, 'Originator of Hip-Hop'. Transferring the beat break from deck to deck, a “five-minute loop of fury”, as Herc called it, gave rise to the expression “break dancing”. It was a way to showcase the drummer’s skills while the rest of the band took five, or fuck it, ten. Herc’s tendency to “toast” his audiences in the fashion of raucous Jamaican dancehall DJs, chanting over the endless beat breaks, spawned the birth of Rap MC-ing.
Those few dozen New York City blocks represented an economic mountain range, but a musical collision of tectonic proportions happened there. Mancuso’s Loft at 647 Broadway and Herc’s high-rise flat at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue remained cardinal points in the Rave odyssey – like cosmic lighthouses amid incoming oceans of sound.
In 1972, Nicky Siano was the best DJ in New York City. He was 17 years old. Nicky presided over SoHo’s Gallery but was destined for a place called Studio 54. Alex Rosner struck again, building Siano’s Gallery sound system in similar style to Mancuso’s. Siano mentored Levan and Knuckles. He hired them to drop acid tabs onto the tongues of arriving guests. When Siano had quit a side-gig at the biggest gay bathhouse on Earth, it was Larry Levan who replaced him, alongside lifelong friend Frankie Knuckles.
In time, Levan had an idea to move to Chicago with Knuckles. The tumbleweed clubland of America’s second city needed a boost, and their disco-soul-funk style would bring it. For whatever reason, Knuckles went west alone in 1977. Levan remained in NYC, becoming the legendary DJ at West SoHo’s Paradise Garage. The ‘Garage Music’ (distinct from the sixties Amercian genre of Garage, a scuzzy post-Stones sub genre) originated here. Levan became the innovator of the dub-synth-drum-machine hybrid that defined the post-disco world.
House, another even more significant and ultimately lucrative term, was about to be coined around the work of Larry‘s friend Frankie. Just as soon as he arrived in Chicago.
That‘s Chicago. Shithole extraordinaire. Birthplace of the skyscraper. It was a dismal hole compared to New York – narrow residential streets hemmed in by macabre shops and darkened bars sporting ornate muted street lanterns. Despite being a big city, Chicago was steeped in provincialism.
Frankie Knuckles confronted those slaughtered alleyways head on in 1977. He was invited to preside over the brand-new Warehouse club at 206 South Jefferson Street. Leaving New York and Larry Levan back east, Knuckles hit the Windy City like a tornado. He blew the Warehouse apart with aural combinations completely alien to the music scene of the staid Midwest metropolis.
Knuckles’ Warehouse music – or simply HOUSE – bloodied the nose of disco like a wild new kid in the schoolyard. Frankie’s innovations – pre-programmed drum tracks and reel to reel tape edits – were bold and innovative ways to energise the dancefloor.
Knuckles has reflected, “I was born in New York and I was raised in New York, but I grew up in Chicago – that’s what I like to tell people anyway…I moved to Chicago when I was 20. I brought the whole concept of The Warehouse to Chicago. There had never been anything like that there before, so it was new. For the most part I was on my own in a lot of different situations. I connected with a couple of other DJs and became close friends with them, Ronnie Hardy being one. But for the most part Chicago really didn’t have anything before I got there.”
By the time Knuckles had left The Warehouse in 1982 to DJ at The Power Plant, Kool Herc’s influence had taken hold of the Bronx. Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang were among the rap groups employing his techniques. Despite being a 6’5” mountain of a man, Herc was knifed by gang members during an altercation at a club door. He slid into reclusiveness and let his disciples take up the mantle. Further downtown, Larry Levan was now famous as DJ at the Paradise Garage. In Chicago, Warehouse customers were wondering, was there night life after Knuckles?
DJ Ron Hardy replaced the rightly revered Frankie. He created whopping high-concept mixes that took Knuckles‘ ideas and launched them into the sonic stratosphere. DJ and author, Bill Brewster has written, “If Frankie Knuckles is the Godfather of House, Ron Hardy was its Baron Frankenstein”. Chicago’s Muzik House (formerly The Warehouse) had now transcended the niche limitations of the previous era, wrecking heads with mixes that pulled sounds from Philadelphia soul, British New Romantic, Motown, German industrial, chic gay disco and much, much more. Hardy was a master reel-to-reel editor who messed with equalisation and even played tracks backwards on occasion by placing the needle on the underside of the record. Don't try this at home.
12" extended play singles had been changing the complexion of clublife for years, but the 80s ushered in synthesisers by the truckload. DJs now universally applied Kool Herc-type elongated beat breaks, which dancers loved. Being young, gay and black (or white, red, brown, purple or yellow) in late-70s Chicago or New York wasn’t a bad gig. Especially if you liked Class A drugs and hardcore clubbing. Chicago’s was now host to an emerging constellation of House DJs. Ever-larger numbers of its citizenry demanded House music when they hit town. But House was about to become Acid House, an important distinction and a sound which infected the music world like an irresistible virus. It mutated in many different ways. Even today, should you have the misfortune to hear David Guetta bleeding out of a radio, it‘s clear that evil pseudo-replicants are still adapting and surviving. It‘s remarkable to think back to the small dark corners where this multi-million dollar EDM industry began.
Chicago’s DJ “Wild Pitch” Pierre, Spanky and Herb J were collectively known as Phuture. They claim to have invented Acid House in 1985. Their Roland TB-303 synthesiser oozed its signature squelching sound on the defining 12" single, Acid Tracks – an absolute mindshag of a choon. A copy of Acid Tracks was acquired by Ron Hardy. It became an anthem in the Muzic Box after just four plays. Ironically, during its first airing, dancers walked off the floor. Pivotal moments in an arc, a story, you might say. All truck stops on the long road to our own British warehouses full of sweaty and beautifully naive believers in masks jerking the night away. Just like my dad had done thirty years earlier.
As for me, I’d started the journey as a crew-cut scallywag who prized Yardbirds records and colourful training shoes. By 1984 I was a shamanic wild-haired acid head who lived to devour sounds like Talking Heads’ I Zimbra, avidly watching their frenetic concert movie Stop Making Sense over and over, like some carnivorous CIA mind-control victim. My descent into the acid house was perhaps deliciously inevitable. Too far gone, no way back, indeed.