Melodies from the past
by Jim Piechota
Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983 by Tim Lawrence; Duke University Press, $27.95
On September 13, the Legends of Vinyl institution held its awards ceremony in New York City in a hall-of-fame tribute commemorating legendary DJs, recording artists, remixers, record promoters, and panels of distinguished music industry professionals and performers. In ways too numerous to count, these talented artists greatly contributed to dance and nightclub culture from the early days of disco to splashy contemporary EDM dancefloors across the country.
Another unforgettable nod to the evolution of dance music and club life is a new book by Tim Lawrence, a professor of Cultural Studies at the University of East London. He has had his finger on the downbeat of the music scene for decades. His previous book published in 2004, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, was named in honor of private party innovator David Mancuso (the so-called father of the Disco revolution), whose underground, invitation-only galas were held at The Loft in Manhattan in 1970. This book was a groundbreaking commemorative volume of "NYC's Disco Decade," and is now thrillingly followed up with Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, marking the party days of the early 1980s. Through a comprehensive and lushly detailed text stuffed with original photos from dance floors, DJ booths, and parties, Lawrence imparts the mood, the music, the faces and the places from that remarkable era, with a nostalgic nod to nights where "a new kind of freedom was set to rule the night."
He begins with the "recalibration of disco" in 1980 and continues through the Electro-Funk and Punk Funk fusions, which changed the way DJs programmed, dancers danced, beats reverberated, and heads nodded. Danceteria, The Roxy, Arthur Baker, Larry Levan, Afrika Bambaataa, The Pyramid Bar, Mark Kamins, Sylvester, Grandmaster Flash, Fab 5 Freddy, and many more are spotlighted. This kaleidoscopic, diverse musical tapestry takes readers from the B-52's in 1979 to the flashy "techno funksters," and describes how the party was soon blighted by the specter of AIDS, originally dubbed "the Saint's disease" due to the rapid decimation of that club's members from the plague.
Even for those who aren't into reading about the history of dance music in the early 80s, this book is invaluable for its wide array of portraits and DJ playlists. A casual flip through this scrapbook shows Ann Magnuson bloodied after a "Ladies Wrestling Night," Klaus Nomi on stage, Grace Jones mugging for the camera with Keith Haring, and the biggest hits played by John "Jellybean" Benitez from The Funhouse club, who helped launch Madonna's career by producing "Holiday."
There are ghosts galore within this literary rosette to the New York dance floor of 1980: many of them stare out from black-and-white photographs or voice perspectives and opinions. Dance music historians will want this book for reference, while others who recall these days with a sense of longing will close its covers and dream of the days when nightlife amounted to a line of cocaine, a Madonna remix, and a dark, packed dance floor in a basement club in the Village.