- Tim Lawrence successfully captures the essence of New York's fertile '80s downtown scene.
- In the preface to Time Lawrence's Life & Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983, the author all but waves his hands in surrender to the subject at hand. "Sanity dictated that this book should have told the history of 1980s dance music culture in the United States," he wrote. "But sanity failed to anticipate the way the early 1980s would reveal themselves to be one of the most creatively vibrant and socially dynamic periods in the history of New York. Nor did it foresee how those superficially amorphous years contained some kind of coded lesson about creativity, community and democracy in the global city." The creative foment of that time remains unmatched as the seeds of hip-hop, house, electro and more took root both uptown in the Bronx and in Lower Manhattan, soon cross-pollinating with rock, punk, new wave, Latin music and pop.
Any successful compilation of that era must do like Lawrence did and throw up its hands in futility. There's no way to capture it all. There are decades of New York compilations that have trodden similar ground as Life & Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983, a two-volume compilation that follows on from the book of the same name. But Lawrence puts the set together in a way that, in addition to touching lots of bases, feels at once frivolous and riotous, like a blurry night out that can encompass an art gallery, dive bar, concert, a random street encounter and an illegal party into the wee hours.
Lawrence kicks off the first volume with Arthur Russell (as Dinosaur L) and his epochal "Go Bang! #5." Russell, the subject of a biography by Lawrence, serves as a spiritual guide with his ability to traverse Manhattan's many musical worlds. Lawrence opts for the album version of that track, which slightly dials down the vocals while playing up the rubber-band bass and dizzying organ swirls. All the while, Russell keeps the groove as he subtly shifts the music every few bars. After that we get tracks from Tuxedomoon and Jean-Michel Basquiat's short-lived band, Gray, the comp moving from intimate Loft-style party to punk club to gallery space in three tracks.
From there, the first volume takes a few thrilling detours, like opting for the Mark Kamins-touched remix of David Byrne's "Big Business," as fidgety as the Dinosaur L track (coincidentally or not, Byrne and Russell had already worked together). But the most curious selection for me is Johnny Dynell & New York 88's "Jam Hot," which somehow makes sleazy saxophone, Latin percussion, female group vocals, 8-bit keys, hipster rap and slinky street funk hang together. It makes perfect sense next to the similarly slack yet still-astonishing "Beat Bop," the legendary hip-hop track produced by Basquiat. Peer closer at the compilation and such connections continue to crop up.
John Robie's synth epic "Vena Cava" starts volume two. Originally tucked away on a Disconet promotional 12-inch, Robie's name might not ring any bells. But his keyboard work underpinned every seismic Arthur Baker production of the era (including "Planet Rock"), not to mention his collaborations with New Order soon after. Kamins appears again with his percolating mix of Quando Quango's leftfield "Love Tempo," which manages to shoehorn jazzy sax, fidgety synth solos, and shoutalong choruses without ever feeling cluttered. While Kamins may go down in history as the man who brought Madonna to Seymour Stein and produced her first single, his remixes show his deft touch in the studio.
As the second set plays out, the delineations between punk and dance, art and cheese, jazz and rock start to blur, anticipating the type of fusions that would later come from DFA Records and LCD Soundsystem. The mix of Material's crunchy rock guitar and irresistible agogo bell groove—all topped by Nona Hendryx's powerful vocals—make "Bustin' Out" feel like the mother of all future disco-punk. Does the manic, Dadaist energy of George Kranz's "Din Daa Daa" draw from punk or Italo? Hard to say. Is Russell's "Pop Your Funk" a visionary noise / dance hybrid or just a goof? Each successive spin lands on a different answer. The set itself straddles such worlds, visionary and messy in equal measure, just like the city that incubated it all.
01. Dinosaur L - Go Bang! (LP Version)
02. Tuxedomoon - Desire
03. Gray - Drum Mode
04. Alan Vega - Saturn Drive
05. David Byrne - Big Business (Dance Mix)
06. Johnny Dynell & New York 88 - Jam Hot (Rhumba Rock)
07. Rammellzee Vs K-Rob - Beat Bop (Original 12" Single)
08. 3 Teens Kill 4 - Hold Up
01. John Robie - Vena Cava
02. James White & The Blacks - Contort Yourself (August Darnell Mix)
03. Quando Quango - Love Tempo (Mark Kamins Mix)
04. George Kranz - Din Daa Daa (Trommeltanz)
05. Loose Joints - Pop Your Funk (Instrumental)
06. Material - Bustin' Out (Long Version)
07. Peech Boys - Dont' Make Me Wait (Extended Version)
08. Edwin Birdsong - Rapper Dapper Snapper