BY Evan Moffitt in Culture Digest | 06 APR 16

Dancing in the Ruins

Larry Levan and the enduring power of disco

BY Evan Moffitt in Culture Digest | 06 APR 16

Courtesy GMHC

I may not have lived through the disco era, but every time I hear the funky bass and up-tempo snap of Syreeta Wright’s ‘Can’t Shake Your Love’ (1981), remixed by legendary DJ-producer Larry Levan, I’m convinced there hasn’t been as danceable a track released since. And I’m not alone in this: plenty of today’s New York clubbers still worship beneath the mirrorball. Just last week, three parties hosted by people too young to remember a Reagan or Carter presidency promised sets of ‘classic disco’, and every month the London DJ collective Horse Meat Disco packs the Williamsburg club Output with hundreds of shirtless bodies, each gyrating to the sound of Chic and Claudja Barry B-sides.

If disco was the gay gospel of the pre-AIDS era, Paradise Garage in Hudson Square was its church and Levan its high priest. (Loyal attendees even dubbed Levan’s infamous DJ sets ‘Saturday Mass’.) From 1977 to 1987, the club had the most diverse, vibrant dancefloor in New York. Unlike Studio 54, there was no door policy. Black, white, gay or straight, Paradise was true to its name, a haven for all types of urban hedonists. Easy sex and infectious music came to define not just the club, but also the era that ended at the same time that it closed its doors. The dancefloors emptied; most of the dancers had died.

Genius of Time, a compilation album of definitive Levan remixes released last month by Universal, proves true to its title. An essential bridge between disparate genres like soul, dub and experimental electronica, Levan was known to drop anything from Chaka Khan to Kraftwerk in a single set. This album shows that range: Levan favourite Gwen Guthrie features prominently, but lesser-known tracks by Jeffrey Osborne and Smokey Robinson appear as well.

Levan pioneered an effervescent electronic sound that gave rise to house music in late 1980s Chicago and Detroit. His return to popularity is perhaps not so surprising; after years of formulaic four-on-the-floor EDM, younger audiences now crave music that’s snappy and syncopated. Electronic music and rave culture, once essential forms of countercultural rebellion, have become engines for corporate profit at the same time that Manhattan has become a homogenous island for billionaires. (Paradise Garage is now an office of telecom giant Verizon.)

Levan’s disco snags at my soul with a heady mix of honey-sweet nostalgia and hazy hopefulness; it fills me with energetic optimism even as it reminds me of those who died too young. Sometimes a paradise lost can never be regained, but either way, I’m going to keep on dancing. 

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in London, UK.