Dancing In Outer Space - In Conversation with Bill Brewster (FoH2016)
We chat to everyone's favorite UK firebrand DJ/writer/historian/collector Bill Brewster. We talk the history of disco and house's evolution from that source, the quasi-religious overtones of disco bleeding into house, the death of gay clubbing, and how all you really need is a spaceship to take you away to a better place.
FoH: Is there anything left over in house from disco in terms of its ethos or in what it's trying to achieve? Or is it just a genre that's borrowing musical elements?
BB: Well it completely owes its existence to disco, there's no question about that. And Frankie Knuckles described house as disco's revenge, and I think that's a really good description—you know, you have to remember that even though disco never crashed in the UK because the Jazz Funk scene was really massive during that period so there was never really the backlash against disco that they had in America. So we kind of embraced all of those styles and they went a little bit more underground during the 80s but essentially it never really crashed in the UK. In the US however, it did and that's why I think Frankie saw it as the revenge of disco, as almost getting its revenge on rock music and the rest of music industry. But yeah it's fundamentally a rewriting of disco's tropes on a budget. So you know, suddenly you didn't need a choir, you didn't need a string section, you just needed an 808 and 909 and maybe a sampler and you were started to make the kind of music that would have been made 5, 10 years earlier in big studios in New York and Chicago and LA and so on. So it's all of those things. And obviously you look at the lyrical content of early house disco and it is still all very much... not religious, but it has those ideas of collectiveness, of brotherhood, of all of the kind things that were evident in disco were very much part of the early years of house music. You know Promised Land and things like that, they really are... there is a quasi-religious element to the lyrical content of a lot of early house records. Obviously Promised Land is the best example but there are others as well. And you look at the names of all of the kind of clubs that people went to; The Shelter, The Loft, The Paradise Garage, The Warehouse, they were all to do with home and house and the home is where people get together and live together and... so it's all about that collectivism.
FoH: Is there a link between idea that house or disco was a gay thing at certain points, and that utopian ideal or that kind of togetherness?
BB: I think the utopian aspect of it was there at the very beginning of disco, that's for sure. Just thinking of some of the records that David Mancuso used to play, if you wanted to encapsulate all of those records into a simple story it's basically "let's all live together in harmony and get in a space rocket and find a place where we can all live together". I mean essentially that is—there's records like... let me think... Dancing In Outerspace by Atmosphere, I need to think more about this because I'm making it up on the spot. But there were a lot of records that he played that were really about either dancing or getting together or being a family or going off into space. Serious, Serius Space Party by Ednah Holt is another one. There's a number of things: Friendship Train by Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Spirits In It by Patti Labelle, The Land of Make Believe by Chuck Mangione, you know there's Could Heaven Ever Be Like This by Idris Muhammad, so there is very that kind of story in a lot of the records that they played that is about getting together and forming an alternative family that lives in a space ship somewhere. Getting away from the bad things of the world, and those things did transmit themselves in early house records. I don't think you could really say that that's the case with house music now because firstly, there are very few vocal records around these days. I mean you really notice when there’s a good vocal house record because there just aren't that many that exist anymore. But certainly in the early days of house they definitely did have that. I think we've probably lost it but then it's 30 years down the line now.
FoH: I suppose if house had a message to begin with, whatever that might have been, has that message shifted?
BB: I don't think house necessarily has a message other than "cut loose and let yourself go" these days. I'm not sure that anyone is necessarily going to Corsica on a Friday night because they don't want to go to church on Sunday for example. I think those sort of links would be very tenuous now. I'm sure some people somewhere see it that way, maybe kids that are dancing in South Africa to house music, maybe it has different connotations for them? But I think in the western world that has largely disappeared partially because it's been around a lot time, and partially I guess there's been more acceptance, certainly in the UK, of the gay community. A lot of gay clubs are a lot less interesting now than they were 25, 30, 40 years ago and I think that's because there's more acceptance with gay men and women. And so there's less need for those sacred spaces for them.
FoH: I wasn't actually gonna ask you this but with clubs like Trade or something like that, has the need that that fulfilled at the time waned a bit? Is it not as important as it used to be?
BB: I don't want to say it's not important because it is. But the pulling elements of going to gay clubs, which is obviously a significant part of it, that function has been taken over by app like Grindr now more than anything. And lots of club promoters have complained about the effect that Grindr has had on people going out. However, I think a lot of gay men and women want to go out and dance, it's not simply about pulling. And there's lots of really good gay clubs still. It's had an impact, and I was there the first night Trade opened in September 1991 so I remember well what it was like. And it was about hedonism more than... I'd say with Trade you'd be hard pressed to make a link between religion and Trade. It was much more mischievous I think.
FoH: I'm not trying to draw a link there but it's... I'd be remiss if I didn't explore some of the things that are related to gay clubbing given where I'm going with this stuff even if it doesn't directly link, it shows the flip side of the coin I think.
BB: No absolutely. And I guess with spaces like Horse Meat Disco, in some ways they're reinventing or reimagining that original disco space in the modern era. And also providing an alternative. I think when Horse Meat Disco started gay clubs were really quite shit to be honest. Just they were very... how can I phrase this... There wasn't a lot of variety in gay clubs when Horse Meat Disco started. There were a few interesting places generally that were things that Mark Moore and Princess Julia were involved in. There used to be a really good night on a Friday called Cock that Jim Stanton was the promoter for. So Jim was involved in that and then started Horse Meat Disco. So there were a few things happening but generally it was fairly boring in the type of night, there was very little variety in the type of nights you could go to on the gay scene. It had become a bit boring and I think Horse Meat Disco was a reaction and an antidote to that.