The Last Days of Disco

Looking for the perfect beat: Kevin Cole
Greg Helgeson

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.

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.

For years "Planet Rock" provided a palette for DJ experimentation. The Perfect Beats moves gracefully from the pre-house of Straif's slip-and-slide soundscape "Set It Off" to ESG's double-time diva anthem "Moody" to Liquid Liquid's minimal post-punk trance pop. When Grandmaster Flash appropriated Liquid Liquid's rhythm track and lyric "something like a phenomenon" for its anti-anti-coke classic "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)," the punk-meets-hip-hop summit was de rigeur for an era typified by crossover. And juxtapositions like that served as selling points, reproducing the catholic musical tastes of First Ave. clubgoers. (I currently work as a bar-back and occasional DJ at First Ave.)

"You have to remember that it was a totally different atmosphere downtown," says local DJ Rod Smith. "There was Goofy's Upper Deck, a punk-rock club above a working-class bar a couple blocks from First Ave. And there was Zoogie's--half punk-rock club, half gay bar--on Fifth Street, again within walking distance of the club. Downtown encouraged clubhopping and a natural fusion of all these forms of music for these varying audiences. It was not uncommon at the time to go to three different places and two parties in a five-block area," he remembers.

"This was also when the area that is now occupied by the Target Center was a neighborhood populated by artists, musicians, DJs, and writers. I can't help but think that First Ave. suffered after the decline of that neighborhood."

Kevin Cole lived across the street from the club during the early '80s, and he had firsthand experience watching it shift from a decaying disco joint to a progressive dance club. "Uncle Sam's was much more of a mainstream, Saturday Night Fever type of suburban disco before it became First Avenue," Cole says. "We went through a transition from that into a club that was more underground. We wanted to be open to anybody: black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody just freakin', as Prince put it. We tried to create an environment that was open to progressive music, but didn't have any pretensions attached to it. We wanted a secure base, and hoped to draw a diverse mix of people."

DJs like Cole and Spangrud were sitting on the brink of a new era, and they knew it. "During the late '70s, everything got fat and excessive," says Brett Edgar, a DJ at Williams nightclub, an Uptown competitor to First Avenue during the period. "So, in the '80s, the minimalism of punk was extended to dance music. A lot of people were spinning music from a rock perspective--and then there were the old disco people, and people from the black end. There was a lot of cross-pollination."

At the dawn of the '80s, New York's snobbish Studio 54 was supplanted by clubs like the Funhouse, the Ritz, Peppermint Lounge, and Danceteria, where DJs mixed post-disco with post-punk and the doorpeople let in anyone willing to pay admission. In Minneapolis, nightclubs like Sutton's Place and Schiek's (which was then, as now, a strip club) gave way to First Avenue's everything-goes ethos and open-door policy.

Roy Freid (a.k.a. Roy Freedom) began spinning for rent money during disco's mid-'70s ascent. He went on to do a stint at the Longhorn with Twin/Tone co-founder Peter Jesperson, whose eclectic rock sets flowed seamlessly from the Clash to Donna Summer to Bob Dylan. In 1979, Freid was working at the upscale Rickshaw club when he was hired to help change the direction of Uncle Sam's. "People were dressed to the hilt at the Rickshaw," he says, "and when I went to Uncle Sam's, people were more middle-class or working-class."

"You could tell the disco guys didn't understand that times were changing," says Edgar. "The people who tried to dance that way just weren't cool. Bell-bottoms and satin shirts were not happening. Hip-hop culture was starting to happen, and punk culture was overthrowing disco. Hip hop, new wave, [and] punk were simple and straightforward. The clothes and style were, too.

"This town is pretty white-bread, always has been," Edgar continues. "But there wasn't as much racial segregation back then. If anything, it was more harmonious than it is now. It's become much more polarized. The DJs and crowds never thought of things in racial terms. Joy Division after George Clinton was what you wanted your party to be."  

For the people on the floor and those involved with the club itself, "the party" often meant much more. "Coke was gigantic," says one former clubgoer. "First Avenue was like a microcosm of the '80s philosophy--excess." That could mean anything from a steady flow of drink tickets, to drug-fueled, disco decadence.

"It was fun, pure fun," Spangrud chuckles. "Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll--that was it, right there. I don't know how much more graphically I want to put it.... Studio 54 was in New York, and First Avenue was here. Put it that way."

If Spangrud shares a pervasive sentiment among First Ave. staffers that the excesses of the past are best left in the past, few downplay the huge influence the era's DJs had on the emerging "Minneapolis Sound." Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's mid-'80s productions of Janet Jackson share some of the same stylistic tics as records by Perfect Beats producers like Arthur Baker, John Robie, and Jellybean Benitez. Back in the day, they threw every imaginable percussion effect, bell-and-whistle sound, and sudden, single-note orchestral hit into the mix. Janet's "When I Think of You," to name one obvious example, is a streamlined version of that aesthetic.

"Eventually, a lot of the English bands came to Minneapolis to record at Flyte Time," Edgar notes. "ABC wanted to do stuff with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; they even did a B-side called 'Minneapolis' that was just like the [Jam-and-Lewis-produced] SOS Band."

About 10 years later, in the early '90s, a new "Minneapolis sound" would make waves in English dance circles as the analog, synth-heavy techno of local producers such as Woody McBride and Freddie Fresh helped put Minnesota techno on the map. For years Fresh has been concentrating his DJ sets on the funky music he cut his teeth on in the early '80s, playing roller rinks and nightclubs in both Minneapolis and the Bronx. And McBride's acid sound--made possible by the pitch-bending of Roland's TB-303 bass synthesizer--has direct antecedents in the twisting crunch and snarl of electro's crisp, warped textures.

Ultimately, the genre's eclecticism continues to guide the spiritual fabric of local dance culture. Unlike many major cities where all-night parties feature one specific genre, the raves McBride threw in warehouses during the mid-'90s were carefully programmed to move from house to techno to gabber to drum 'n' bass--much in the roller-rink tradition of spinning a couples dance, a rocker, and a novelty tune. "The goal," as Kevin Cole puts it, "was to get away with as much as possible."

Fifteen years after the heyday of Minneapolis club life, world dance culture has become increasingly fragmented. In 1998 every stripe of the dance spectrum has its own specialized audience, stylistic boundaries go up like track housing, and a separate-but-equal mentality keeps different audiences at a safe distance. Although many of the different dance camps will listen to the seminal Perfect Beats, they won't be doing it together.

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