Album Reviews

Various – Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story

(Donald Byrd) UK release date: 8 May 2006

Traversing the high commercial watermark of disco to the dayglo-daze of acid house, New York’s Paradise Garage was mecca to connoisseur clubbers world-wide. And if the dancefloor at 143 Reade Street was the promised land, the late Larry Levan laid claim to be its Muhammed.

For many, The Paradise Garage was a way of life, something this quality controlled compilation aims to reflect throughout its 22-point sojourn

Born Lawrence Philpot, Levan’s disco credentials were impeccable. With odd jobs at Nicky Siano’s The Galllery in Manhattan’s early disco scene, he took up a residency at the Continental Baths, the Caligula-like domain of pre-AIDS gay hedonism.

By the mid-’70s, Levan partnered the dawn of the Paradise Garage, expertly advising on a sound system that would fully exploit tape and the gain-friendly dimensions of the 12-inch format, transporting dancers to a level of orgiastic delight.

Such was its impact that some say it was responsible for a whole new genre, being the original source of ‘Garage’ music – in the US House sense, not the Nuggets Rock ‘n’ Roll variety, or the UK Twice As Nice style.

Perhaps its entirely in keeping with Levan’s spiritual legacy that this set arrives unmixed, each track smooth and levelled out in the original intentions of the original mixer / producer / remixer.

As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton reported in Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, Levan’s Loft idol David Mancuso would leave tracks isolated, unmixed in his set – a brave move, and one unimaginable in the zombie-rallies of hard house venues and its trancey aftermath that persists to this day.

So what of that music? Levan’s sets were initially built on a bedrock of Salsoul, the post-Philly home of the Cayre brothers upscale mix of Soul and Salsa. Ever obsessed in exploring the possibilities of sound, Levan was occasionally wont to play an hour of Jamaican dub when it suited his mood to the delight / dismay of his parishioners.

These obsessions led into his ever-increasing remix commissions, (resulting in the very first DJ-led compilation, Larry Levan’s Greatest Mixes, for Salsoul in 1980) and working with JA’s premier rhythm section, Sly & Robbie.

Change‘s Paradise sets the tone – with its ‘houses of ecstasy’ and invitations to ‘paradise’ – but Weekend, Phreek‘s ultimate promise of cathartic thrills is the disco era’s rosetta stone. The dance era’s pleasure principle and problem-amnesia is codified in every iota of Patrick Adams’ production, from surf of string to bump of bass, Christine Wiltshire‘s perfectly-pitched holler just reining in and letting go at precisely the right moments.

Levan’s own West End label’s best-selling 12″ was Taana Gardner‘s Heartbeat, reproduced here in all its space-disco glory. Levan’s dub-conscious mixes for David Joseph and Man Friday speak of disquiet and an arresting uncertainty – an aftermath of the racial and homophobic overtones of the Comiskey Park Disco Sucks campaign or the comedown from Levan’s prodigious drug habits? Who’s to say?

Other picks of a ripe bunch – Linda Womack’s voice reinventing melody on Baby I’m Scared Of You, the super lungs of Jocelyn Brown on Inner Life‘s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, and Levan’s own short-lived band, the Peech Boys proto-electro Don’t Make Me Wait would grace any decent sound system. And indeed, a few rubbish ones as well.

An excursion into a weekend’s worth of versions, Levan’s Journey Into Paradise speaks of a time when the weekend offered a sanctuary from slumping economies, the working week, and for some, a shelter from persecution. And whatever skin you’re in, surely that’s something everyone can identify with.

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