Don’t believe what cultural history books tell you. Disco didn’t die at the dawn of the ‘80s. (I guess that means you probably shouldn’t believe what I tell you, either, since I recently wrote that it did die in my review of Thank God It’s Friday.) If the genre even merits a time of death, you’d probably have to seriously consider September 26, 1987: the day New York’s preeminent disco club, Paradise Garage, closed its doors. But even if the club’s passing signaled a sea change in club culture (there’s currently a Verizon Wireless store in its old haunt), the Garage’s founding DJ-cum-music producer Larry Levan, who himself died in 1992 after years of indulgent self-medication, had already laid the foundation for the genre’s resurrection, making disco one of the only Phoenixes on record to rise majestically without having even left any ashes.
Levan’s Paradise Garage fostered a musically eclectic identity, mixing genres up even as they emerged: Philly soul, funk, Latin jazz, dub, and eventually giving way to electro, boogie, and even early new wave. The blend worked because of the unprecedented force of will that Levan built with his faithful regulars and the trust they, in turn, returned to him. Levan isn’t considered among the greatest DJs because he had otherworldly scratch skills, because his sets blended songs so seamlessly you wouldn’t know the difference, or because he lifted throngs of drug-addled ravers into fits of ecstasy. Sometimes his mixes were club-footed and random, even dark and petulant—he was known for playing a single record over and over for up to an hour if the mood (or the moodiness) struck him. And beatmatching, when it occurred in a Levan set, was a fringe benefit and never the given. No, he was a great DJ because, as his disciples are fond of repeating, he understood the art of constructing a set as a first-person communiqué with the gathered crowd below his DJ booth.
Larry Levan: Live At The Paradise Garage, a recently reissued two-CD set of a Levan set from 1979, makes the case for Levan’s worth as an original turntable talent. (Here he is, in the middle of the official “Summer of Disco,” and he doesn’t play a single crossover hit! Cher’s Casablanca one-off “Take Me Home” is as close as he gets and it’s easily the laziest moment in the entire set.) But Levan’s work as a remixer and producer has never been given anything like a definitive release. There are a number of hastily assembled comps focusing on his work with West End superstars (most notably, Taana Gardner) or remixing Salsoul, but nothing that gives a broad survey of his growth as a dance music innovator. Rhino’s new compilation Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story rectifies that. It’s the first compilation that truly compares with Live At The Paradise Garage to even begin to suggest the club’s diverse, inclusive aesthetic. The two releases form a neat pair, especially since the only song that manages to appear on both is his mix of Janice McClain’s punchy “Smack Dab In The Middle” (heretofore unreleased as a standalone track on CD).
The two-disc set was compiled by Johnny “D” DeMairo and Manny Lehman, an ambassador between the Garage and the Vinylmania record store that sold many of Levan’s most popular spins, with one eye toward the Garage’s touchstone favorites (Phreek’s slippery “Weekend,” Positive Force’s laidback-but-rigid “We Got The Funk”) and the other on Levan’s work as a producer. On the latter front, there are a few obvious givens, particularly Inner Life’s shimmering workout on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which probably now appears on more compilations than “Brick House,” “I’m So Excited,” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” combined, and Taana Gardner’s langorous, monolithic “Heartbeat.” But even the obvious choices are the right ones: the reverberating, stripped-down Peech Boys hit “Don’t Make Me Wait,” Levan’s production from the bottom up, is one of the seminal examples of how disco shed its frilly orchestration in order to burrow its way back to the underground.
In fact, like one of Levan’s own DJ sets, the compilation is structured with surprising attention to the narrative momentum of Levan’s own career. The opening shot’s hyperactive BPMs and lush palate—Chaka Khan’s “Clouds,” which was probably as much a Garage favorite for its atmospheric thunder as its reliable Khan-Ashford-Simpson-Mardin professionalism—eventually give way to Levan’s increasingly broad taste for futuristic sonic effects. (To hear the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” in the context of this compilation is to hear it again for the first time.) Live At The Paradise Garage is an invaluable document that allows a peek into history from the present tense; no less invaluable (in spite or maybe even because of some its most oddball selections), Journey Into Paradise puts that history back into motion by extending garage music’s momentum. Does it play to the crowd a little? Yeah. That’s what DJs do.