Classic: PARADISE GARAGE, The Beginning & The End Of An Era

The building that was once the legendary New York club Paradise Garage has been demolished in the beginning of 2018. Although now reduced to a pile of rubble, the memories and musical imprint left behind forever etched into the consciousness of music fans worth its salt.

The Beginning

84 King Street is the address of the new nightclub in Greenwich Village, Manhattan in January 1978. About a year from now, the Disco Demolition Nite would take place in Chicago, but that’ll be another story. As disco became mainstream and saturated by numerous copycat pop, it was at clubs like The Garage that the underground sound and the scene’s strong sense of community were preserved. Michael Brody started the project and throughout the years, remained the only owner of the club. Before this, he experimented with another space on 143 Reade Street from 1974 to 1976, before it was forced to close. It was at Reade Street that he found full confidence to build a new club. Yet, Brody wouldn’t have been able to do this without the financial backing of Mel Cheren, the co-founder of West End Records. This is where the club, music and record label forms a holy trinity in creating a subculture. Cheren helped Brody transform a seemingly boring two-storey trucking garage into a meaningful space, with “construction parties” starting as early as 1977 when the renovations begun.

One thing that many people might not know, is that Paradise Garage started off horribly. During the opening night, the sound system was stuck at an airport due to a blizzard and people were kept waiting outside in cold winter temperatures. Many people never came to the club ever again, the target group didn’t. The group they originally targeted, white males, didn’t show. But because of this disastrous night, Paradise Garage drew a different public, in the long run their absence was the making of the club.

Paradoxically, had The Garage opening gone smoothly, it may have ended up as chi-chi as Studio 54 or with the hi-NRG music tastes of The Saint. Instead, rather than being an instant hit with the in-crowd it was forced to grow organically, filling up gradually with dancers looking for music. A more diverse crowd of alternative people, of all colours, eventually started coming, and the club finally took off.

The Sacred Space & Sound

The club was only open during the weekends, Friday and Saturday, and it would not close until noon the next day. To enter, you had to walk up a long ramp to the second floor where you would find a 5,000-square-foot dance floor with room for 2,000 people along with a 2000-square-foot lounge. There was no liquor sold at the bar, soft drinks, coffee and bowls of punch are self serviced. There was also an 80-seat cinema in the club and they would play movies through the night to give a place for the punters to take a break from the dancefloor! In the summer, the club will open the roof and the punters will climb through from the cinema to take a breather, before rushing back to the dancefloor when they hear a popular track being played.

When you talked about The Garage, you must talk about the sound system. Designed by Richard Long of Richard Long & Associates, he was an apprentice of another famous sound system designer Alex Rosner. When he built David Mancuso’s Loft’s system, it was a case of the student becoming the master. Richard went on to put his stamp on the sound systems for clubs where modern dance music was beginning everywhere - Studio 54, Zanzibar, The Box and Warehouse in Chicago, even Dorian Gray in Frankfurt. He differentiated himself from his teacher by emphasising on the low end so that the music will be felt rather than heard.

People often talk about The Loft having the best sound system, but The Loft had a sleek sound, and the difference is The Garage’s system was hard-hitting. As the night progressed, as the sound system warmed-up and people filled the room, the acoustics in the room changed. Levan would tweak the sound throughout the night, every once in a while he'd run into the middle of the dancefloor to listen. The next day it had to be EQ'd again, and this is an ongoing process week after week the whole 10, 11 years the club existed, such is the respect given to the sound system and enjoyment of music.

The lights and sound were fitted in such a way that the DJ would have total control of it to create moments through the night. There are times the entire club will white out, including essential lights just to create an absolute intensity, and with some sound effects, a dramatic breakdown and when the lights hit, the whole room will be screaming in ecstasy!

All these are the elements that have made Paradise Garage sacred to the people who built, maintained and came to the club. There’s so much care that goes into the details that ensures The Garage is blatantly superior to anything else going on at that time.

Diversity In The Family

Paradise Garage was known for the diversity of people. Even though touted as members-only, one was able to get in when they came along with a member or when you had ‘the look’ as it is called. A members-only club doesn’t really sound like a place where everyone is welcome, but the diversity that it created formed a unique atmosphere found nowhere else in New York. In a city which usually decides a person’s importance by their money, their clothes or their race, The Garage became a rare place of equality. It was a place where everyone would mingle together – whether you were a superstar or you just happened to have a regular job. No heavy door scene. There is no alcohol for sale. The point of the club is dancing. The club regularly welcomed stars like Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Eddie Murphy, Boy George, Mike Tyson and Stevie Wonder; but when celebrities came to the Garage they didn’t draw attention to themselves the way they did at Studio 54, they dressed down and joined the crowd. This is unlike any other clubs anywhere at that time. It was simply a place where, unlike most well-appointed New York nightspots of the time, skin colour was no barrier to admission.

So, this was where you found the city’s most devoted clubbers: kids who danced for seven, eight hours, or more every week. They knew the records that were played, they screamed with excitement for their favourites, and they booed with contempt at visiting performers who didn’t cut it (including the young Madonna, who bombed badly when she first performed at the Garage).

This dancefloor singlemindedness was possible because only members and their guests were admitted. Prospective members had to turn up in person and submit to an interview before they were accepted into the Family.

The Music

In a club where no alcohol or food were sold, it will all have to come down to letting the music be the main draw. The Garage has its own sound that was only found there, and the DJ, which was Larry Levan a big part of the time, was the centre of attention. A lot of huge artists played there including Madonna, Chaka Khan, Evelyn King, Grace Jones and Whitney Houston at the early days of their careers. Music in Paradise Garage has an evolution of its own completely separate from what was going on in the rest of the music world. This is what makes The Garage special.

To put into perspective, this were the time when genres like House, Hip Hop, Electro or Techno have yet to exist as this is the beginning when all these new sounds are being delineated. While down in Chicago, new young producers were experimenting with drum machines and synthesizers, Disco was the sound of New York is more sophisticated, rooted from Funk and Soul music which featured live orchestras and instruments. This is when bands like Salsoul Orchestra and MFSB reigned supreme, and everyone in NYC knew their anthems, and each borough even has their own. Say a song like “Love Is The Message” by MFSB was the signature groove of Brooklyn, “The Hustle Borough”, it was a funky soulful groove; whereas Hip Hop was breaking in the Bronx with more hard-hitting sounds, songs like The Incredible Bongo Band’s “The Apache”, James Brown’s music and “It’s Just Begun” by The Jimmy Castor Bunch where the tracks of choice for the DJs playing for B-boys.

A melting pot of bands of the who’s who of disco and 80s R&B played live shows at The Garage; Sylvester, Konk, Peech Boys, Positive Force, Diana Ross, Loose Ends, Arthur Russell, New Order… all of whom made essential records that made up the soundtrack of the club and 80s New York, defining the moment when modern dance music and club culture at its rawest.  

McFadden & Whitehead - Ain't No Stopping Us Now (Long Version)

Roy Ayers - Running Away

The Garage made stars, straight off the dancefloor. Loleatta Holloway is probably one of the biggest of them all. She was a regular performer around NYC but it was said she had the most performances at The Garage. If Levan was the King, Holloway is definitely the Queen of The Garage. Started as a gospel soul singer in Chicago, she got signed to Salsoul Records’ subsidiary Gold Mind, and the first release from her album ‘Loleatta’ "Worn Out Broken Heart" reached #25 R&B, but it’s the B-side, "Dreaming" that climbed to #72 on the pop chart and launched her as a disco act. Her place in disco was reinforced with hits like “Relight My Fire” and “Love Sensation” that gave her her #1s, as well as lasting power with those tracks heavily sampled, covered or stolen in later years of house and pop music (as in the case of UK’s Black Box’s hit “Ride On Time”, the band being sued by Holloway for unpaid royalties and writing credits). As her music became Garage anthems, she was so well-loved and recognised as an important part of the club that whenever another act performed successfully there, they said they’ve had “Loleatta’s Blessings”.

Larry Levan

“People came to the Garage, but it was Larry that took them to Paradise.”, said close friend of Levan, DJ David DePino. To sustain all-night dance marathons: often, songs with a thumping mid-tempo pulse keeps time, while the DJ combines bits and pieces from various records, sometimes adding electric keyboards, to create a seamless piece of music to keep the dancefloor in groove. He has broken ground of the role of the DJ to be beyond just the equipment he used, as some DJs swears by the turntables to be their instrument, Levan used the entire sound system and the room that holds it.

The Garage holds a supernatural place in the history of dance music, and it would be pointless to try and separate the myth of the club from the legend of its controlling genius. Larry Levan is regularly hailed as the world’s greatest ever DJ, some go as far as calling him the "Messiah", and there's good reasons to. On a balcony above the dancefloor, he was the centre of attention and during the taking-off of his career he was loved for his diva persona. "Saturday Mass" is what people called Levan's DJ sets at the Garage. "Larry would preach through his music from the DJ booth, just like a minister or priest does from a pulpit," said DePino. Fellow disk jockeys from in and out of the city, producers, radio programmers and musicians would come to Garage to listen to Levan create a vibe that is a summation of what American dance music has been. After all, he learned from a bunch of the greatest DJs in and around NYC - Nicky Siano of Studio 54, David Mancuso of The Loft, Steve D’Aquisto of The Haven, Michael Cappello of The Limelight, David Rodriguez from The Ginza – this is the school Larry Levan came from. His sense of drama, his obsessive control of all aspects of his clubbers’ experience, and his heightened ability to transmit his personality through the very grooves of his records was what he distilled from watching those before him. “I’m going to get two more turntables so that as the night goes on, I can upgrade the sound. So I use cheap cartridges in the beginning and upgrade – I have $150 Grace cartridges which I’m really into but you can’t backcue with them. At 5am you’d say ‘what is that?’ because a record should sound as good as a tape.”, said Levan. He alternated these songs with the dub side of disco records on the de facto three turntables, utilising a spare bassline here, a sound effects record there, all twisted and forged through the simple control of the Bozak mixer into gigantic tangible dub waves flooding every crevice of the huge room. As the personality of the club, he would even be there when he was not performing, often tweaking the sound system to completely match the conditions of the club, and has even been seen to grab a ladder and polish the disco ball during peak hour himself if he thinks it was not shining the way he liked!

Music, is just music if you listen to them as individual records, but Levan seems to be the first DJ to obviously use songs, most times as with most disco or rock records with lyrics to tell stories from the DJ booth to the his captive audience. Levan said, ‘Out of all the records you have, maybe five or six of them make sense together. There is actually a message in the dance, the way you feel, the muscles you use, but only certain records have that.’ Sometimes he was upset or moody, and he will play records that actually sounds angry.

Next-generation 80’s NYC House DJ Lenny Fontana featured in BBC 6’s Legends of the Dancefloor program “The Larry Levan Story.” recounted, “I went to the club but I never played there... Originally my friend David Lozada who is no longer with us brought me there and my world changed and from that first moment I knew I wanted to play at the same level that Larry Levan conducted that audience. His taste in music ranged from Funk, Disco, African and beyond. He even would play even rock, for example Pat Benatar “Love Is a BattleField” to a widely diverse crowd.”

Beyond DJing and vibe creation at The Garage, Levan produced music, probably one of the first few with who took the DJ/Producer role to a new level of recognition. He remixed influential records by Class Action, Taana Gardner and Instant Funk, but his work with the Peech Boys was the result of his collaboration with Michael deBenedictus, a talented keyboardist who played synthesiser along with Levan’s records mixing. Their product was the Peech Boys anthem ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’, with singer Bernard Fowler and guitarist Robert Kasper as the earliest incarnation of the band. That song, played at The Garage for months before its release, moved The Peech Boys from ole-time NY disco-indie West End to major Island Records, having polished and refined their production for their debut album. When dance records known as house music began to appear in mid-80's New York that is becoming more musical than early Chicago imprints, it was clear that Levan's "Garage" style had influenced innumerable musicians and dancers. These were the records that was exported across the Atlantic to Britain, giving foundation to the UK House and rave scene.

House & Garage Music

In America, when one says “Garage Music” today it means the type of R&B influenced, soulful, gospel sounding House music, but back in the days of The Garage, it just meant the eclectic but all danceable brand of music played there. It is not about genres but just good music played vs not so good music not being selected. That is the true spirit of House Music culture.

But crossing the pond to UK, Garage Music morphed into UK Garage which is an offshoot of disco and house music with influences of ragga, jungle, 2-step and drum & bass. Today, UK Garage further expanded into a myriad of sub-genres including UK Funky or Speed Garage, and Dubstep - a unique scene and sound of its own, far from the early NY influences but you will hear the sped up R&B and House signatures in most of the tracks.

So, the term “House” derived from “music they played at The Warehouse”, a club helmed by Frankie Knuckles, a childhood contemporary of Levan, and widely recognised as the "Godfather of House". House Music, as defined by these DJs, are like they said, “more about a feeling”. And when defined in New York, it is a melting pot of sounds and soul in the music. This is the culture that was being exported to the world, first through UK and Europe. A DJ who truly understands the roots of the music they called House, they should understand eclecticism, digging far and wide for the beats but yet still observing the tradition of where the music came from - funk, soul and jazz; afro, latin and rock music.

The End

Paradise Garage closed its door in 1987. The club ended with a party that lasted 48 hours. Two months later, Michael Brody died of AIDS. Mel Cheren eventually became an AIDS activist. . Larry Levan was devastated by this news, as many club owners would not have accepted him. Levan afterwards also helped build up the first UK club dedicated to the American house music in 1991, only a couple years after the closure of Paradise Garage. This was Ministry Of Sound, largely inspired by Paradise Garage, where the sound, space, music and label came into play.

It’s safe to say that the decade Paradise Garage was opened, it has influenced the house music scene immensely. It even became an entirely own music genre that shaped into something we still hear today. The building may be torn down this year, but the memories will never go away. The club even reopened its doors 3 years ago in 2015 for a reunion of its members. Memories were revived and the people partied as hard as they did in the 1980s for one last time, although the imprint that Paradise Garage and Larry Levan left on the music scene will be forever and will be hard to be replicate, until we see the right conditions of the space, selector, punters and culture comes together once again.


Picture: Lenny Fontana