…check our recommended holiday reads 

WORDS: NICK GORDON BROWN

For almost as long as there has been music, there has been writing about music. Much as the two art forms have a lot in common, they can often be uncomfortable bedfellows. How can mere words capture the indefinable magic of music, or even hope to convey the multitude of emotions experienced by the listener or dancer? Many different paths have been trodden by authors in an attempt to solve this conundrum – (auto)biographies, lists and charts, scene defining tomes, coffee table glitz, and journos trying to live out their rock star fantasies. Talking of rock, that format has, unsurprisingly, been well served by the written word. Blues, jazz and soul have been the subject of many a scholarly study, as increasingly has hip hop. Dance music by contrast has arguably been undervalued by the publishing world, but with a little digging, we have found you a selection well worth tucking into a spare corner in your suitcase…

Last Night A DJ Saved My Life 

(Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton)

This piece is an overview not a chart…but hey, this is Number One With A Bullet. Twenty years on from when it was first published, it may seem odd that we reached 1999 without a book that aimed to untangle the web that is the history of DJing. But we had - so Frank and Bill wrote it. Crucially, they wrote it so well, that it quickly became both the gold standard for dance music writing; and the definitive reference book for anyone who wanted to get to grips with the whys and wherefores of DJing.

It has often been said that the best DJ sets strike the perfect balance between entertaining and educating – so it seems apt that this celebration of the art does exactly that too. The authors are frequently laugh out loud funny, yet there is barely a wasted word in the book. Charting the DJ’s gradual transition from radio to clubs, every key scene from northern soul to techno (and up to EDM in the most recent US version), and concluding with a succinct summary of the DJ state of play, it’s a rollicking good read. 

It is also worth noting that by joining the dots between northern soul, disco, reggae and hip hop as well as house and techno, the book gave the lie to the oft-held view of the time that “1988 and all that” had appeared as if from nowhere, and the superclubs of the 1990s were the be all and end all of dance culture. The history, of course, had always been there – Brewster and Broughton were the excavators.

By the same authors:

How To DJ Properly A handbook that is equal parts instructional, thought provoking and amusing.

The Record Players Full transcripts not only of the DJ interviews the duo conducted for Last Night…, but a shedload more that featured on their trailblazing ‘00s website DJHistory.com.

Altered State(The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House)

Rave On(Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music)

(Matthew Collin)

 

Credit where it’s due, Altered State was out of the blocks a couple of years before Last Night…, and as Bill Brewster tells us below, was an inspiration. The first book to go deep into this subject matter, it has the sure touch of a seasoned journalist (Collin was a regular contributor to The Face, i-D and Time Out). This is arguably both its strength and its occasional weakness. The attention to detail is laudable, and as a social history it hits the spot, but in places it errs on the side of reportage, a communique from the rave zone – clearly sympathetic to its subject matter, but written from the edge of the dancefloor rather than its beating heart. 

By contrast, Collin’s 2018 Rave On strikes a different chord. The strapline on the cover credits the author with having “a reporter’s eye, a critic’s erudition and a fan’s passion” – and it is the fan’s passion added to the mix that makes Rave On a more instantly engaging read than Altered State, whilst no less informative. In looking to come up with a unifying theme with which to piece together how the dance scene has developed globally since Altered State, Collin came up with the brilliantly simple idea of focussing on the scene in ten different locations worldwide. These range from established party zones like Ibiza, New York and Berlin to more intriguing spots such as Shanghai and Israel. It’s an expertly crafted page turner.

Disco dissertations

Love Saves The Day (Tim Lawrence)

Turn The Beat Around (Peter Shapiro)

The Disco Files 1973-78 (Vince Aletti)

Le Freak (Nile Rodgers)

   

Disco has enjoyed a turbulent relationship with the world outside it’s glitterball-lit walls. A brief spell of world domination was swiftly followed by an unremittingly fierce backlash, arguably with disturbingly racist and homophobic undertones. Forced back underground, the music only got better, and the genre had the last laugh when it sired the global phenomenon that was house music, knowingly dubbed ‘disco’s revenge’ by Frankie Knuckles. This led to a re-evaluation of disco as a genre, and the fact it is now so revered is due in part to a number of 21stcentury books that have shone a light not only on the hedonism, but also on the unbounded creativity of disco’s masters at work.

2003 saw Tim Lawrence’s epic Love Saves The Day. Lawrence initially set out to use disco as first base for a story that would go on to examine the birth and subsequent growth of house and techno. However, his disco research revealed such rich pickings, that the book became a paean to disco alone. Awash with insightful interviews with key players, charts and discographies, rare photos and more, it is a stunning achievement. However, be warned – this is NOT a light read. At times the prose verges on the impenetrable as Lawrence takes an unashamedly academic approach to his subject. However, if you are prepared to dive in headlong, you will be rewarded.

Alternatively, try Peter Shapiro’s Turn The Beat Around(The Secret History of Disco). Shapiro covers much of the same ground as Lawrence, but with interesting diversions along the way (northern soul; hi-nrg; even punk); and with a lighter touch (albeit equally well-researched). As the review from the Independent newspaper quoted on later re-prints rightly states, “at first glance, disco might appear to be the last pop phenomenon to require a detailed socio-cultural history. And it’s exactly this apparent resistance to analysis which makes Peter Shapiro’s in-depth study of the medium so valuable.”

If you want to go straight to the heart of 1970s New York and beyond, not via an academic’s studious history lesson, but rather on the spot reporting, head straight for Vince Aletti’s The Disco Files.This book is nothing less than a disco goldmine, gathering together as it does five years’ worth of weekly columns from the journalist who had his finger glued to disco’s pulse. Each week chronicles the ebbs and flows of the scene, with the core column supported by DJ charts and feedback. First published by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s DJHistory.com, and now available via DAP, it is THE essential read for both disco trainspotters and the merely curious.

Our quartet of disco dissertations is completed by the autobiography of arguably the greatest disco producer of them all, Nile Rodgers.Le Freak is sub-titled An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny, and shows Rodgers to be as deft with a pen as he is with a guitar. From growing up with well connected, music-loving junkie parents, via a flirtation with the Black Panthers, before a brush with UK glam rock dons Roxy Music provided the unlikely inspiration for Chic, it tells the fascinating tale of a life well-lived from well before his collaborations with David Bowie and Madonna. You may well find you read this in one or two sittings.

The Scholar Sessions

Energy Flash (Simon Reynolds)

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (Will Hermes)

Superstar DJs Here We Go (Dom Phillips)

  

Simon Reynolds has written several acclaimed books on music and pop culture, covering scenes / eras as diverse as post-punk, glam and, with Energy Flash, dance music. His works are often deemed ‘definitive’ – always a heady aspiration, but one that, despite its several updates and revisions, Reynolds argues is not his aim here. He freely admits to focussing on his favoured genres (notably hardcore) at the expense of being “more even-handed and authoritative.” He summarises his methodology thus: “I throw myself wholeheartedly into the rituals while standing outside them”, resulting in “neither an academic study nor a ‘Generation E’ memoir but some impossible mish mash of the two.” As with Collin’s aforementioned mix of fan’s passion and reporter’s eye, it’s a tightrope worth treading; as with Brewster and Broughton, it’s akin to the DJ trying to balance entertaining with educating. Mind you, this may not qualify as a holiday read – clocking in at a whopping 700+ pages, there’s every chance it’ll tip you over your luggage limit.

Love Goes To Buildings On Fireis not strictly speaking a dance music book, its brief is wider – but it has much to recommend it to fans of numerous genres. Author Will Hermes puts the spotlight on a five year period in 1970s New York which saw not only the rapid growth of disco, the birth of both punk / new wave and hip hop, but also major shifts in jazz, salsa and minimalism. “In the mid-1970s, New York City was a laboratory where all the major styles of modern music were reinvented – all at once, from one block to the next, by musicians who knew, admired and borrowed from one another.” The book’s title is lifted from a song by Talking Heads, arguably the band who most effectively straddled this musical melting pot (also the band who coined the phrase “this ain’t no disco” as used by Glitterbox). The book skilfully tells the tale of a fascinating watershed period in the development of modern day music. (Tim Lawrence’s Life and Death on the New York Dancefloor 1980-83 acts as de facto sequel).

As first assistant editor then editor of Mixmag through the 1990s, Dom Phillips had a front row seat for the boom years of club culture – a time when, to use one of his own front cover straplines at the time, everything went nuclear. As Miranda Sawyer opines in the intro to Superstar DJs Here We Go, “from Miami pool parties to a club in a Russian nuclear fallout shelter, wherever dance music took him, Dom was there. And when he wasn’t, he’s talked to someone who was.” This vantage point, together with a contacts book that was a who’s who of 1990s clubland, enabled Phillips to craft this tale of “the people who landed on that acid house mothership.” Researched in 2008 and published in 2009, the decade that had elapsed since the period covered by the book is key to its success, giving the author and interviewees like Sasha, Jeremy Healy and Fatboy Slim the opportunity to step off the mothership and make sense of it all. By turns entertaining and sobering, it creates a vivid snapshot of an (in)famous chapter in clubland history.

Coffee table culture

  

A large, expensive, lavishly illustrated book, intended especially for casual reading,” – so reads the dictionary definition of the coffee table book. Maybe dance music, with its love of excess, of glamour, of invention, of visual as well as aural stimuli, was always destined to deliver some coffee table classics. The very nature of a coffee table book dictates that our selections here are not really practical as holiday reads…but when you’re back home and those treasured memories are fading, you may find solace in them.

Logo Font Rave Type / Clubbed 

Two recently published collections of club and dance music related art – flyers, adverts, 12” and album sleeves and more. Both are beautifully presented; and both double up as tear-inducing memory jerkers and documents of cutting-edge design from the past 30 years.

Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960-Today

Placing nightclubs and discotheques as “centres of the avant-garde that question social norms and experiment with different realities”, this heavyweight crackerjack of a book is coffee table +. It has been published to tie in with an exhibition of the same name, developed by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany and ADAM - Brussels Design Museum, which includes films, photography, posters, flyers, and fashion, as well as light and music installations. The book features much of this as well as essays and interviews. Most stunningly, it showcases a seemingly never-ending gallery of beautiful pictures of empty nightclubs both inside and out, as designers and architects visualised them.

Mute: A Visual Document From 1978-Tomorrow

Factory Records has long been celebrated for its design ethos, and you could build a small wall from the books relating to the label, its bands, the Hacienda, and designer Peter Saville. So instead we want to draw your attention to Mute: A Visual Document, which gathers together the design history of that other electronically-charged independent behemoth between the covers of just the one book. Even if you have only ever dipped a toe into the vast Mute catalogue, you will find something to make you smile here.

Boy’s Own: The Complete Fanzines 1986-92 / Raving ‘89 / Catch the Beat: the Best of Soul Underground 1987-91

We finish as we started, with Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. After the success of first Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, and then the DJHistory.com website, the intrepid duo briefly but influentially started a boutique publishing house under the DJH moniker. As well as being the initial home of both The Record Players and The Disco Files, the pair arguably pioneered club culture coffee table books via their collections of both Boy’s Own fanzines and Soul Underground magazines; and Neville & Gavin Watson’s truly evocative photo diary, Raving ’89.