The Downtown Scene & the Sound of Mutant Disco
In the first issue of Punk magazine, which became the house newsletter at the New York club CBGB, John Holmstrom wrote an editorial that proclaimed, “DEATH TO DISCO SHIT!” Dance music, he sniffed, was “the epitome of all that’s wrong with Western civilization.”
Downtown rockers in 1976 thought boogie oogie oogie was vapid, frivolous and thoroughly incompatible with punk. But soon after, two worldly New York hipsters, Michael Zilkha and Michel Esteban, had a perverse idea: What if, rather than sneering at the elitist escapades at Studio 54, we assaulted disco and dragged it down into the filth of the Lower East Side? Zilkha, who was heir to a fortune, thanks to his aristocratic family’s retail empire back in England, and Esteban, a Paris boutique owner who moved to New York to study graphic design, founded ZE Records in 1978. The label benefited from their social connections and conceptual smarts, starting with the satirical “Disco Clone,” sung by Zilkha’s Harvard-educated girlfriend (and, later, wife) Cristina, who called it “the worst song I have ever heard.”
The ZE trademark sound was a rhythm track full of disco elements — open hi-hat and quarter-note hits on the bass drum — disrupted by amateurish singing, distorted guitar or both. After the debut single by Cristina (who was born Cristina Monet-Palaci and died on March 31, 2020, after testing positive for the coronavirus), ZE released eclectic records that crossed racial divides, mixed genres and set dilettantes on an equal plane with professionals. Zilkha and Esteban did everything with disobedient glee; they even occasionally had some hit records.
By 1981, ZE had earned a compilation album called Mutant Disco: A Subtle Discolation of the Norm, which cemented Mutant Disco as the genre’s name. ZE wasn’t the only Mutant Disco label — 99 Records and Celluloid Records both released great music — and it lasted only until 1984. Zilkha later went to Texas and, with his father, started an energy company they sold in the late ’90s for a little over $1 billion. But ZE’s influence hung in the air, and 20 years later it spawned bands like the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, who took the propulsive beat of disco and roughed it up.
Was (Not Was)
Out Come the Freaks (1981)
This big, shifting assembly of punkers and funksters, founded in Detroit by brothers David and Don Was (they weren’t actually brothers, and neither was named Was), became the valedictorians of Mutant Disco. In 1987 they released the zany hit “Walk the Dinosaur,” which reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1989. (Around that time Don Was produced Bonnie Raitt’s hugely successful Nick of Time album, and a few years later he became the Rolling Stones’ go-to producer.) Their ZE debut, released in 1981 as Was (Not Was) and rereleased in an expanded edition in 2004 as Out Come the Freaks, gleefully combines tight horn charts, popping bass and droll, absurdist wisecracks, creating an intersection between Dada and Otis Redding. “Out Come the Freaks” describes a variety of unfortunate and lonely outcasts, and was embraced by downtowners as an anthem about themselves.
James Chance & the Contortions
Buy Contortions (1979)
James Siegfried, an alto saxophonist and singer from Milwaukee, moved to New York, the city of self-invention, took up with dominatrix Anya Phillips (who designed the shredded bikini that sadomasochism scholar Terence Sellers wears on the cover of Buy Contortions) and renamed himself, at various times, James Chance, James White or James Black. Chance thought punk had run its course, so he formed the Contortions, with Phillips as manager, to pursue punk’s logical next step: a style called no wave, which mixed the atonality of free jazz with punk’s guitar aggression and hostile themes. Chance’s lyrics were tossed-off insults (“You’re useless/Ain’t got no excuses”) and Contortions shows became infamous for his habit of shoving or slapping fans who weren’t appropriately enthusiastic. Beyond the mannered obnoxiousness, there’s a hardscrabble beauty to Buy Contortions, especially in the cascading slide guitar runs of Pat Place, one of many women who were prominent in Mutant Disco groups.
Soul Jazz Records Presents New York Noise (Dance Music From the New York Underground 1977-1982) (2016)
After the Contortions, Pat Place cofounded the Bush Tetras, whose 1980 single “Too Many Creeps” is one of Mutant Disco’s legitimate masterpieces, a snarled description of Manhattan nighttime streets over the sparest type of funk. (It was released by 99 Records, which also issued great music by ESG and Liquid Liquid.) The title of this excellent NYC compilation by Soul Jazz Records, a savvy London label, promises noise, and the tracks deliver: “Helen Forsdale” by Mars is two and a half minutes of indecipherable terror, but elsewhere you can enjoy the snapping bass of Dinosaur L, the nom de disco of avant-garde composer Arthur Russell, on “Clean on Your Bean #1,” and Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s “Wawa,” an instrumental dominated by her simple, self-taught scrubbing guitar style.
Ze August Darnell Sessions (2018)
August Darnell was a rarity at ZE — a talented, accomplished musician. In 1976, with Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, he’d cowritten a Top 30 pop hit, “Cherchez La Femme,” which paired big-band swing with disco. But he wasn’t a pop musician by nature; like the rest of ZE, he was loaded with ideas. He led Kid Creole & the Coconuts, a great band that mixed Caribbean rhythms with disco wallop, and he worked on enough side projects to become ZE’s in-house producer. This collection gathers his work with a dozen groups; among the many highlights are the dazzling and sleek “There But for the Grace of God Go I” by Machine; Cristina’s clever, cynical cover of “Is That All There Is?”; and a remix of James White’s S&M anthem, “Contort Yourself,” that somehow finds sweetness in the song.
One Down (1982)
Behind the blank, cynical name Material was a core of downtown experimentalists, bassist Bill Laswell and keyboard colleague Michael Beinhorn, who had a futuristic bent and great taste in guest stars. Chic’s Nile Rodgers, on guitar, brings authentic disco flow to “I’m the One” and “Come Down,” which showcases avant-garde saxophonist Oliver Lake. The dramatic ballad “Memories” pairs free-jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp with a teenaged singer named Whitney Houston who was three years away from superstardom.
The reissue of One Down closes with an extended mix of a song that preceded the album, “Bustin’ Out,” which is not just a top Mutant Disco track but one of music’s all-time great singles. Over a locked-down groove, singer Nona Hendryx — an original member of Labelle who’d recently recorded with Talking Heads — sermonizes about strength and resolve, and Ronny Drayton axes through the groove with a distorted guitar solo that decimates the barrier between rock and funk.
Rob Tannenbaum is the co-author of the acclaimed book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. He’s been a contributing editor at GQ, Playboy, DETAILS and Rolling Stone.
Image: Kid Creole performs in the U.K. in 1982. Credit: David Corio/Redferns.
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