House music is disco’s revenge. So said Frankie Knuckles, reflecting on the charged history of the genre, which emerged in hometown Chicago in the middle of the 1980s. In this case home, to quote Gil Scott-Heron, is where the hatred is, or was. The disco sucks movement had its spiritual and organisational headquarters in the city, and the organisation’s campaign reached its vitriolic climax when the celebrity rock DJ Steve Dahl detonated fifty thousand disco records during the halfway break of a baseball doubleheader. Metaphorical retribution arrived, according to the Knuckles, when dance artists, revisiting the disfigured disco of Dahl’s melted vinyl, melded it into house. Revenge indeed. —Tim Lawrence
Recently I wrote a piece for Pacific Standard about how the Swedes conquered pop music—not so much their bands, though among them are excellent ones like the Cardigans and the Concretes, but the means of production. Max Martin is the most successful music producer since the Beatles’ George Martin, and his reach covers the span of time between Ace of Base and Katy Perry’s ongoing stream of hits.
But the man who really got it going was Martin’s mentor, Dag Volle, aka Denniz Pop, founder of the now-legendary Cheiron Studios. Volle died tragically early, in his mid-30s, when the new teen-pop movement led by the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears was breaking; had he lived, he’d probably be just as internationally famous as Martin.
Before Volle was a music maker, he was a tastemaker. Unlike Martin, who started in glam metal, Volle was a DJ in the cosmopolitan center of Stockholm. And in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the sound of European pop was being forged in the less cosmopolitan centers of the American Midwest, with Detroit techno and Chicago house. Eurodisco, the kind tamed by Volle’s countrymen in ABBA, was reinvented in underground clubs like the Warehouse and sent back, over the decades, to the next wave of European pop virtuosos, creating an international musical dialogue and making international stars of Chicagoans underappreciated within the city’s music scene.
As Frankie Knuckles, perhaps the greatest of them all, who died yesterday at 59, put it:
Knuckles would often joke that he could walk down the middle of the street in Chicago and not be recognized, yet would be greeted by cheering fans when he would arrive at European airports for overseas DJ gigs.
“I wasn’t frustrated by that, not at all,” he said. “I’m not the kind of person that lives for fame and glory. If I’ve got a nice, clean home and can put a meal on my table and can entertain my friends, I’m fine. I don’t need to see my face plastered everywhere.”
By 2004, he was recognized with Frankie Knuckles Day in Chicago and given an honorary street. It was, as Michaelangelo Matos wrote in the Reader, not without historical irony: “This is from the same city that passed an ordinance in 2000 all but outlawing underground dance parties–the kind that helped spread Chicago house across town and around the world–by requiring organizers to procure liability insurance and amusement licenses and shut down by 2 AM, under threat of $10,000 fines. The same town that, a year later, made building owners and landlords legally responsible for drug use at parties held on their property and promised them jail terms into the bargain.”
The victory of Frankie Knuckles’s friendly, danceable music was hard-won. The dumb beer-fueled stunt that was Disco Demolition Night, which quickly became a riot that forced the Chicago White Sox to forfeit a 1979 game, is now viewed as an ugly sociopolitical flash point. Jefferson Cowie, in Stayin’ Alive, his history of labor and class in the 1970s and 1980s, places the disco backlash in cultural context: “The ‘Disco Sucks’ rallies and the various burnings, steamrollings, and smashing of disco records (by the “Saturday Night Cleaver” no less) seemed like the last stand of white blue-collar Midwestern males against all that was cosmopolitan, urbane, racially integrated, and, most of all, gay.”
In its editorial chastising the Sox for their “irresponsible hucksterism,” the Tribune gave the game away:
It’s also possible that disco burned itself out, and, well, started to suck, as everything does eventually. Its louche excess—typified by Studio 54 and the appropriately titled Olivia Newton-John bomb Xanadu—was at odds with the collapsing urban economy of the late 1970s. “Disguised as liberation,” Cowie writes, “it was the ultimate triumph of capitalism over art.”
But everything that sucks someday comes back. The sound went underground again. Frankie Knuckles ended up in Chicago after the Continental Baths—where Bette Midler got her start—closed down. Chicago house DJs, part of a low-budget, gray-market musical economy, stripped the disco sound down as much out of necessity as anything.
“Looming over mid-eighties Chicago, disco was an impossible act to follow for the city’s producers and artists, who didn’t even bother to dream about pulling together the multi-tiered musical ensembles and studio time that was run-of-the-mill standard for so many disco productions,” Tim Lawrence writes. “It wasn’t just a matter of finances, or lack thereof. It was also about technical training. What would these young Chicago producers have done with all of these musicians and studio time?”
The music was given the chance to be reinvented, but it wouldn’t stay underground for long. As Matos points out in his Rolling Stone obit of Knuckles, the Warehouse was originally a members-only club catering to gay black men, but the DJ’s popularity attracted too big an audience for memberships to stay in place. This history of the Warehouse by Jacob Arnold is a look into the remarkable atmosphere of the period:
For its first couple of years, The Warehouse was one of Chicago’s wildest discos, but it wasn’t until 1979 or so that it began to embody a distinctive scene. Around this time, a black middle class “preppie” culture was developing in South Side private schools, including the Catholic high school Mendel. Teens who listened to Devo and The B-52s on Herb Kent’s Punk Out radio show began forming their own party promotion groups which rented spaces and distributed flyers, or “pluggers.” One such group was future producer Vince Lawrence’s Infinity Space Eclipse, which began throwing parties with an IZOD dress code.
As electronic music gained a foothold, Knuckles began to mix New Wave records with his usual soul and disco cuts. Knuckles’s top ten list for April 9, 1981 (published by Brett Wilcots in Gay Chicago) includes such unlikely records as “Jezebel Spirit” by Brian Eno & David Byrne and “Walking on Thin Ice” by Yoko Ono alongside more predictable choices by People’s Choice, Billy Ocean and Grace Jones.
Yes, Herb Kent, King of the Dusties, had a new-wave show. Here’s how he described it to Jake Austen: “It was as hot as any show I ever had, partly because it was on FM (WXFM). I was at a club and they were playing Devo, ‘Whip It,’ and the Black teenagers there were jumping up and down. So I tried it on my two hour show and it turned out to be one of my hottest shows.” Lee Bey confirms that Punk Out was ”huge.”
The Chicago house scene inevitably faded out, the victim of money and time. But giants like Frankie Knuckles could follow the spread of their music throughout the world, keeping the sound alive among receptive audiences in Europe. Once EDM became the coin of the realm Chicago house, and Frankie Knuckles, were still around for their rediscovery. Jonathan Gaukin of DFA—the label behind LCD Soundsystem—was a kid in Chicago in the 1980s, and one of Frankie Knuckles’s late works was remixing the brilliant DFA neo-disco artist Hercules and Love Affair. Another of their songs features the bass line from the house classic “Your Love”; the synth turns up in Animal Collective’s “My Girls.”
35 years after Disco Demolition Night, it’s rock that’s back on its heels, and EDM fans worry that the dude audience will kill dance music by embracing it rather than blowing it up. It’s that dance sound that’s ascendent, exchanged between Europe and America over the years, inherited, evolved, and saved by DJs like Frankie Knuckles.