3.1.4. Larry Levan
Larry Levan was born in Brooklyn in 1954. He had taken up playing records at the Continental Baths with his friend Frankie Knuckles. The many bathhouses that opened up in the wake of the Stonewall Riots offered the prospect of anonymous gay sex or even orgies. The Continental was more sophisticated than most: a complex that included a dance floor and Olympic sized swimming pool and bars, shops and even apartments. Levan and Knuckles were ‘Loft babies’ (Bidder, 2001, p. 8). They were influenced deeply by David Mancuso parties: the attention to sound quality (created by his custom-built sound system), the intimate and open atmosphere and Mancuso’s ability to spellbind his revellers with emotive musical journeys. Levan was not a great mixer but would mix if it added to the musical journey he wanted to take that night. Nevertheless, like Mancuso, it was his programming of the music that made his sets so engaging. He would program all his music to tell a story of how he felt that night or at that time. It almost goes without saying that over Paradises Garage’s ten-year existence, Levan’s music changed significantly (Bidder, 2001, p. 9). His sound is essentially underpinned by underground disco. He would play tracks that diverged from the lush music of Salsoul to the more Electronic sound of D – Train. However, his sets could incorporate anything from rock and reggae to strange electronica and upbeat R&B from artists such as Chaka Khan and Gwen Guthrie. He did not play one sound; he played what he wanted to hear, shifting between different rhythms and tempos, bringing people down and lifting them up so high to a point where they were stretching their bodies this way and that way. He was like a snake charmer (Bidder, 2001, p. 10). This unique non-dogmatic style of music differed from other clubs considered purists as they only played one style of music. It was akin to a spiritual experience the patrons remembered, needed and brought them back weekly (Bidder, 2001, p. 16). Levan, like Mancuso, can be understood here through many philosophical and subcultural lenses at once. Levan was initially modern as he went against the music style of purist clubs. He self-developed in the way he wanted to or needed to and expressed and played the music he liked. In doing this, Levan separated the style of Paradise Garage from the mainstream. In modern self-developing social behaviour, Levan helped created a subculture. However, due to the social and cultural environment of racial and sexual oppression in which Brody and Levan came from, their point of departure to self-develop was wanting to feel a unified liberated response from the people on the dance floor. Through Levan’s dedication to finding the right type of music and with the sound quality of the speakers that influenced his public to create ‘the spirit’ of Paradise Garage that led Leven into many different collaborations.
According to Levan’s assistant, David De Pino, Levan paid great attention to the sound and worked closely with sound engineer Richard Long and even had a bass speaker named after him called Leven Horns (Bidder, 2001, p. 10). He had complete control of all the speaker stacks from the DJ booth, and with the advancements of vinyl, he used the speakers like an instrument generating the perfect sonic environment that drove the crowd crazy.
As the seventies rolled on and with Levan’s popularity rising amongst record labels, and with the arrival of new technology such as computerised electronic sounds with it came more influences to the music, Levan would play or remix for Paradise Garage. An influx of computerised electronic records, most notably from Germany, started to arrive, which changed the pace and texture of the music. Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, who provided huge hits for disco diva Donner Summer and Düsseldorf’s pioneering four-piece experimentalist group, Kraftwerk, set the trend for ‘electro’ but also radically influenced the New York Disco scene. In the dawn of synthesiser technology, small independent labels such as Prelude and Chernes explored the possibilities of this new technology and produced records as Loose Joints’ ‘Is It All Over My Face?’, mixed by Levan. This track provided a link between Disco and ‘House music’, which can be heard in the high hats 4/4 steady rhythm, typical of ‘House music’ (Bidder, 2001, p. 12).
In the early eighties, Paradise Garage became the place to hear new records. Independent producers would beg Levan to play their records. Once Levan played them, they would become big hits. In 1981 Taana Gardners’s ‘Heartbeat’ sold an estimated 100,000 copies due to Levan playing it repeatedly. Even though people walked off the dance floor at first because the song was so slow, people knew that if Levan played it, there must be something special about the song (Bidder, 2001, p. 13). What the increase in record sales reveals, like in many other cases in subcultures such as Punk fashion, “[the music] eventually becomes coopted and commodified”(Haenfler 2014). Even though commodifying the music was not the original ethos, something special emerged from the Paradise Garage subculture that the rest of the world wanted to have. Before Paradise Garage entered into a realm of world fame, it was closed due to Micheal Brody’s near-death due to an AIDS-related illness, a disease that had already claimed the lives of thousands of Americans (Bidder, 2001, p. 13). Based on the different influences that came together to make Paradise Garage a success, one being Brodie's inner compulsion for how he wanted his club to be, what type of person could come into his club, entwined in Levan’s choice on musical creativity, created a unique environment in which a subculture arose. People would change how they looked and talked to get in. In this sense, the environment at Paradise Garage incubated a spectacular fashion and music style. The club itself became a symbol of a different type of possible worlds: a counter-culture against the political, social and cultural hegemony. Still, mostly it was a symbol of the intimate glue of a community. Musically, disco was the underpinning sound of Paradise Garage. However, Larry Levan took that disco sound and merged it with many other types of music from around the world. Levan found new ways to musically structure tracks to create the best atmosphere on the dance floor and, in doing so, created the link between Disco and ‘House music’, with the track ‘Loose Joints', ‘Is It All Over My Face?’. Paradise Garage created a unique, life-changing environment for so many people that those who went there tried to take that experience and create it in other cities like Chicago in the US.