New York in 1984 was the time, and the place, dance music became a culture – Features – Mixmag

New York in 1984 was the time, and the place, dance music became a culture – Features – Mixmag

Soon after ‘High Energy’ made its impact, the production team of Stock, Aitken & Waterman upped the ante. Mike Stock, the trio’s ideas man, wanted to make “technologically brilliant” records, modeled on Motown, and when he heard Hi-NRG, he recalls, “I knew I could give them exactly what they wanted, with quality.”

Their first salvo of ’84 was a taunt: ‘You Think You’re A Man’, a British Top 20 for Divine, the American drag star of John Waters’ underground films. When the gothy-trashy Liverpool quartet Dead Or Alive approached S.A.W., Pete Waterman recalled, “Pete Burns actually said, ‘Make me sound like Divine!’” The result, ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, reached No 1 in the UK in March 1985 and remains a dancefloor go-to – not to mention a karaoke standard. S.A.W. would dominate the rest of the 80s: 13 No 1s, 35 million records sold.

Reactions to this stuff in big, macho America were decidedly mixed. That December, a radio tipsheet said that the London synth-pop trio Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’ – singer Jimmy Somerville’s autobiographical tale of a young gay man’s coming out to, and subsequent rejection from, his family and city – “weaves a touching tale”. Two weeks later, the same tipsheet trashed Bronski Beat’s album, ‘The Age Of Consent’, in decidedly homophobic terms: “This English trio of limp-wristed boys are among the leading gay wavers in their home country… It’s a shame that some wonderful music must be so lyrically radical.”

If anyone defined the 12” as the site of aggressive experimentation that still went pop, it was Trevor Horn. That January, the British producer had simultaneous No 1s in the US (Yes’s ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’) and the UK (Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’). ‘Relax’ then re-entered the chart and peaked at No 2 in July, behind its follow-up, ‘Two Tribes’. By the end of the summer, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were estimated to have sold between five and six million records – the vast majority on 12”s. They hadn’t even released an album yet.

On August 6, Horn delivered the keynote address at New York’s New Music Seminar (NMS). That morning, New York Mayor Ed Koch declared it the city’s official ‘New Music Week’, an honour essentially bestowed at the recipients’ request: “Our PR company just went to the city and asked for it,” says NMS co-founder Tom Silverman.

It wasn’t an altogether unreasonable ask. Since 1980 NMS had grown to become the premiere US music biz confab: the 1984 edition had a paid attendance of 3,800. Silverman, who ran rap label Tommy Boy Records, had hit paydirt in 1982 with ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa And The Soul Sonic Force, which ushered in the next three years’ worth of jittery electro-funk. (Bambaataa was once a marquee participant in the ’84 NMS). Silverman’s partners in NMS were Mark Josephson, who’d co-founded the college-radio trade sheet Rockpool, and Joel Webber of the dance label Uproar. In addition to publishing, Rockpool also “distributed records to DJs that specialised in danceable rock,” says Silverman.

Rock ‘discos’ aimed at the post-punk diaspora had picked up in the US through the early 80s. When Rockpool began, Josephson said, “Most of our DJs were actually anti-mix; they used no cue-phone and jammed records together… rock DJs chose shorter mixes, so you’d hear about 12 songs or three, four, five sets an hour.” A ‘set’ was a collection of songs of the same genre – but a headline DJ was expected to play all night long. John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez of New York’s Fun House played for 11 hours a night. “I’m in and out of a peak all night. I sometimes let the record end, play a sound effect and go into another trip,” he said.

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