The Last Days of Disco

Open playlists. Mixed audiences. Women's mud wrestling. Ample coke. What ever happened to the Minneapolis club scene?

It's 1981, and the record industry is facing a crisis. The late-'70s boom heralded by multimillion-selling "blockbusters" like Saturday Night Fever and Frampton Comes Alive has given way to a music-biz recession. Nearsighted, overbudgeted record labels are responding to plummeting sales by laying off thousands of superfluous employees. Oversaturation has killed disco. Punk is on a road to nowhere. And rock 'n' roll is looking more and more like a dinosaur.

At the ailing heart of the music-distribution business lie the Twin Cities, a surprising mini-mecca that distributes a third of all recorded music in the U.S. Nary a local band has produced important music in years. And despite the national breakthrough of Dirty Mind, it's inconceivable that the artist soon to be known the world over as Prince is on his way to reviving Top 40 radio.

But at a downtown club that has only just changed its name from Uncle Sam's to First Avenue, a new breed of Midwestern clubrat is filling the floor. Kids without a need for concept albums, cover bands, or hokey disco are looking for something new--or at least newer than the Saturday night women's mud wrestling that had served as Uncle Sam's featured attraction. Unlike classier local joints like the Rickshaw, First Avenue doesn't have a dress policy.

Looking for the perfect beat: Kevin Cole
Greg Helgeson
Looking for the perfect beat: Kevin Cole

It's cliquish, but it attracts a wide variety of cliques: You can come across disco holdovers decked out in polyester; second-generation punks with neon hair, ripped suits, and T-shirts festooned with anarcho-slogans; flocks of "New Romantics" sporting angular haircuts and puffy blouses; and African Americans in slick suits and skinny ties. Dance styles are less rigid than disco's dork calisthenics, taking cues from punk's pogo and the emerging pop-and-lock break-dance styles coming out of New York.

Walk into the club on a given night in 1981 and you can witness a small, wiry Gustavus graduate named Kevin Cole working the crowd with mixes that transcend the standard safe pairings of disco. Every disco DJ played Chic, and most punk DJs played Public Image Limited. Cole plays them on top of each other--slowing down PIL's pushy post-punk until it morphs gorgeously into Chic's florid anthem.

"I thought DJing was an open canvas," Cole says over the phone from Seattle, 17 years later. "I had no experience in clubs whatsoever. When I started at Uncle Sam's in 1979, I was into the Ramones and the Suicide Commandos. I hated disco, which was ignorant. But I gave myself a crash course in dance music, and I learned to love it."

One of the cuts Cole and the other new-school DJs of the era learned to love was "Moody," a 1981 single by an underground New York punk-funk band called ESG. Throughout the early '80s, it filled floors with its metronomic double-time pulse-beat, cyber-funk bassline, and bad-ass female vocal. Its cavernous atmospherics had nothing to do with disco's gloppy string cheese, and its robotic pulse was light-years from Parliament's mothership conventions--space vibe notwithstanding. Cheaply recorded, cerebral and proud of it, the cut was an antidote to disco's orchestral decadence and dominated the first wave of First Ave. playlists.

"Moody" and cuts like it appear on Tommy Boy's new four-CD series, The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip Hop and Underground Dance Classics, 1980-1985, a compilation of the kinds of music that regularly found their way into Cole's sets. Compiled largely from the DJ playlists of New York's innovative club the Funhouse, The Perfect Beats is the most definitive aural portrait of clubgoing in the early '80s. And now that its influence can be found in everything from Timbaland's chilly minimalism to the Aphex Twin's synth-symphonics, the records sound as influential as the Purple One himself.

At its best, electro was the sound of Mr. and Ms. Pac-Man doing the nasty on the dance floors of urban America. Disco's utopian vibes offered connections to the community politics of '60s soul and '70s funk. Electro severed any ties with those idealistic delusions, making it the perfect black music for the dawn of the Reagan '80s. After years of faux-sensual schmaltz, here was a sound that made no bones about deriving its heart and soul from an android's artificiality. If disco was Guido trying to pass for Romeo, electro was C-3PO with a libido.

Gloom-ridden synth patterns pierced the percolating high-hat pattern of a Roland 808 drum machine. Above this mix, computer-mangled vocals often spouted sci-fi futurist babble. This could be dark and dreamy. But in the hands of the right innovators--Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa, funk-influenced British popsters Heaven 17, disco ass-shaker Shannon, dance-rockers New Order--electro hip hop could be made to sound as euphoric as any funk to come before it.

"This is like a New Year's Eve mix of each era," says Paul Spangrud, a DJ who has worked the turntables at First Avenue since 1982, as he surveys the track listings for the four discs. "People screamed for this stuff"--just as they did in urban clubs from Detroit to London.

Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" leads off the collection, and it's impossible to imagine the last 15 years of dance music without it. Producers Arthur Baker and John Robie (whose work dominates Perfect Beats) grafted the melody of Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" onto a beat taken from the same band's maxi-single "Numbers/Computer World." Above it Bam and the Soul Sonic Force floated an infectious party rap.

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