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Staying Alive

Two New Compilations Celebrate Disco Before And After The Fall

Deanna Staffo

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 5/31/2006

Disco never really died, but you’d have a hard time proving it on the facts. The genre utterly dominated Billboard’s Top 100 for 1979. By 1981, it had all but disappeared from the charts. Yet some of disco’s greatest records were still to come—just on independent labels like West End and Salsoul, labels that catered to DJs and hard-core fans rather than the America that sang along with the Village People. But, accurate or not, disco’s phoenix myth is handy. Nothing helps a narrative along like a line in the sand, something to divide things into “before” and “after.”

That’s precisely how two brilliant new double-CD compilation play out. Soul Jazz’s A Tom Moulton Mix covers 1973-’82, but mostly sticks to the mid-’70s. Rhino’s Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story spans 1978-’84 about evenly. The Moulton anthology is a definitive “before” snapshot—disco at its most opulent and optimistic. The Levan anthology is decidedly “after”—tougher, leaner, and more guarded. Its knifelike synthesizers cut through disco’s pillowy orchestration.

Paradise captures disco at the moment when its massive mainstream success suddenly created a schism between overground and underground. Levan, the resident DJ at New York’s Paradise Garage club from 1977 to ’87, was definitively underground. But he was hardly a snob—by all accounts, Levan was as fond of commercial cheese as he was of the harder stuff. On Live at the Paradise Garage—the 1979 reel-to-reel recording of Levan in action that West End issued in 2000—he cuts into the rising tide of an obscure Shalamar track with Cher’s “Take Me Home,” a Top 10 hit.

Levan was nobody’s populist, though. He was among the first disco DJs, a regular at New York’s Continental Baths, an underground gay bathhouse that was also the early home of Bette Midler and her accompanist Barry Manilow. He eventually had the Garage’s massive sound system built to his exacting specifications. Personally and as a DJ, he craved drama, often creating train wrecks by playing records out of sync. This chaos grew out of his need for excitement as much as his copious drug use—which helped kill him in 1992, at the age of 38. At a time when disco was mechanically precise, Levan cultivated a funky looseness.

That’s certainly how Journey Into Paradise sounds, even if Levan had little to do with it. While most Levan compilations of the past few years have featured tracks he produced or remixed, only eight of Journey’s 22 tracks are his handiwork—the rest were favorites at the Garage. Given the club’s decade-long run and Levan’s sprawling tastes—not to mention the licensing constraints of the Warner Bros. conglomerate of which Rhino is part—Paradise could have ended up a grab bag. It doesn’t follow a specific arc, and it lacks the florid thematic tension Levan craved above all.

But that’s what ends up working about Paradise: Producers Johnny DeMairo and Manny Lehman don’t fancy themselves DJs on a mission so much as fans who can’t wait to play you the next great song. A climactic, classic, 10-minute monster tune like Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat (Club Version)”—remixed by Levan—is on equal terms with the shorter, sharper likes of Change’s “Paradise”—which features a bass line that rips off Chic’s Bernard Edwards with more flair than maybe any other. (And Edwards got ripped off a lot.) The tracks don’t build to a climax, as Levan might have made them do, but mingle leisurely. Journey Into Paradise is disarmingly friendly history lesson.

A Tom Moulton Mix, by contrast, is sequenced chronologically and definitely means to gather momentum. Moulton was never a DJ, but he may be disco’s single most crucial figure. He had unique dual careers as music industry A&R man and male model. Moulton first gained notoriety in disco circles when he spent hundreds of hours crafting perfectly beat-matched reel-to-reel tapes of current dance hits that he sold to gay clubs in the early ’70s. He also invented the 12-inch single when the pressing plant was out of smaller discs.

And he was pretty much the first modern remixer of note, beginning with his 1974 reconstruction of B.T. Express’ “Do It (’Til You’re Satisfied),” which expanded the groove into something even more dance floor-friendly than the band had made. (Another B.T. Express track from the same year, the stomping single entendre “Peace Pipe,” is included on the Soul Jazz collection.) He soon became a full-time freelance remixer. The 16 tracks on A Tom Moulton Mix barely scratch the surface of a discography numbering in the thousands.

Still, it’s difficult to imagine a better collection of his work than this one. The opening track is a previously unreleased 11-minute re-edit of Eddie Kendricks’ 1973 disco monster “Keep on Truckin’.” The title is certainly apt: Moulton’s mix runs you down like an 18-wheeler. The song’s producer, Frank Wilson, stuffed the original mix to the gills. At the five-minute mark, he dropped everything except congas and Kendricks’ chants of “Diesel power straight to you, I’m truckin’,” while strings and clavinet float in the background. It’s very psychedelic, and very of its time.

Moulton strips the mix down without losing anything. He punches up the brass and turns down the clavinet. He cranks the organ, which gives the whole track more definition. Where Wilson brought Kendricks in right at the top, Moulton teases out the introduction for a couple minutes; by the time Kendricks arrives, he’s John Wayne leading the cavalry. And Moulton layers Kendricks’ chanting over a rising rhythm vamp with a slithery wah-wah guitar rumbling below. It’s clean, taut, and almost unbearably powerful.

“Truckin’” is followed hard by Al Downing’s “I’ll Be Holding On,” also from 1974. The banjo and flute give the song an oddly rustic air, as if it were anticipating America’s Bicentennial fever by a couple of years. And if Moulton goes full-blown epic on Kendricks, here he improves Downing by cutting his song from six minutes to just over four. (A brazen edit is audible at 1:28.)

Moulton’s m.o. is sonic luxury; he clearly revels in details. Take the opening of Patti Jo’s “Make Me Believe in You,” a slow-burning track that opens with spare drum, bass, and piano. Moulton isolates and repeats the opening a few times, in part to escalate the tension, and in part because he simply adores the subtle attack and decay of each instrument. Ditto the spongy, undulating electric pianos that dominate disc two. They conjure not just ’70s nostalgia but the idea of the decade, the “before,” as an alternate universe of opulence. And—given the gas shortage, civil unrest, economic downturn, and aftermath of Vietnam—maybe it was one. But, true or false, it’s an idea that refuses to stop giving.

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