Arts & Entertainment
3 min

The disco revolution

Hipster DJs rekindle a love for flaming queens

In a video posted on London, UK-based promoter Jim Stanton’s YouTube channel, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy pumps his fists in the air. Swathed in red light on the dancefloor at East London gay bar The Eagle, he’s singing along soulfully to a ridiculous 1984 Pocahontas-goes-Italo gem “Comanchero.” A stocky man wearing a police hat occasionally turns around to join Murphy in belting out the chorus, “A pretty squaw!”

Three months ago Murphy and LCD bandmate Pat Mahoney were at The Eagle to DJ the fifth birthday party for the bar’s weekly Sunday night mixer Horse Meat Disco (HMD), billed as the “queer party for everyone: homos and heteros, club kids, bears, fashionistas, naturists, guerilla drag queens and ladies who munch.”

As a 38-year-old straight dude in a rock band who enjoys incredibly gay disco music Murphy is used to drawing blank stares from below the DJ booth. After wrapping up an LCD Soundsystem tour in support of the band’s sophomore album The Sound of Silver last year he and Mahoney opted to spend much of 2008 DJing their “Special Disco Version” party every second Wednesday at Andrew WK’s 8,000-square foot Manhattan club Santos Party House.

“There’s a pretty big benefit to being from a band that people know about,” says Murphy over the phone from his home in New York, “but there’s also a drawback to it. We’ll DJ parties and people are like, ‘Why aren’t you playing any LCD music?’ Why am I not also wearing a shirt with my face on it? That would be humiliating.”

Better known as the indie hipster guru cofounder of DFA Records, Murphy is a disco fan looking to recapture a time when New York nightlife wasn’t segregated along lines of sexual orientation. To date, he says his party hasn’t been so successful in attracting the older gay, black and Latino crowd that would’ve attended legendary clubs Paradise Garage and The Loft. He’s hoping to change that by bringing Horse Meat Disco resident DJ Severino to gigs in New York, LA and Toronto’s Wrongbar on Thu, Dec 11 for Jaime Sin and Will Munro’s  Seventh Heaven party.

In London dissatisfaction with hard electro music among DJs combined with  gentrification around the city’s east-end gay ghettos gave birth to HMD, which attracts a mix of fashion scenesters, drag queens, bears and hetero music heads. Started by gay scene promoter Jim Stanton, HMD has gained cult status among DJs, hosting everyone from Lady Miss Kier to Dmitri from Paris. It’s also organized a “travelling homo nightclub” called NYC Down-low at the Glastonbury and Lovebox Weekender festivals, with stages styled as a New York disco club circa 1978.

Murphy also hopes to bridge the gap between not only gay and straight but lovers of traditional disco and the coolly detached instrumental dubs favoured by nu-disco converts — many of whom edit out the hallmarks of gay disco, like the strings and female vocals. Like those “hipster DJ dudes,” Murphy admits he too wrestled with “a fear of strings.”

“I used to say people who don’t like bongos — that’s a subtle form of musical homophobia,” he says. “Disco really became a dirty word because people [would] immediately just see afros and bell bottoms; it became a cartoon. And that’s what happened to me. Originally, most of the disco I liked was the very weird stuff, the leftfield stuff like ‘Dancing in Outer Space’ by Atmosfear and Eddy Grant’s ‘Walking on Sunshine.’ I had to listen to it for a while before I could hear through the sonic cartoons.”

HMD resident Severino Panzetta, 38, a regular at mega-clubs Ministry of Sound and Fabric, learned to DJ in the ’80s at Colosseum, a small disco club near his hometown Mantova in northern Italy. His own playlists are similar to Murphy’s — a mix of classic throw-downs and below-the-belt hitting dubs.

As the economy spirals downward, Panzetta expects disco to become all the more relevant — on both sides of the Atlantic. “Back in the early ’80s, everybody was poor, had no money or job,” Severino says. “Artistic inspiration is better when there’s a recession because everybody is more motivated to make something. Disco music reflects that because you have to be so up and so cheerful. It’s all about having fun.”