What Can Happen When People Move to a Similar Rhythm?
Author turned record selector Tim Lawrence has been searching for the answer
Words: Jim Butler
“I’m interested in what happens when you’re dancing,” explains writer, academic, journalist, promoter and, latterly, DJ, radio host and label boss Tim Lawrence. “Particularly around expressivity, creativity, equality and collective power. What can happen when people move to a similar rhythm.”
For Lawrence, the dancefloor has alchemical properties. It is a refuge. A haven. It’s a place where ideas about life are acted upon and come alive. Read any mainstream coverage of dance music and club culture – and many specialist titles who should know better are just as guilty – and the way it’s portrayed is an escape from reality. Or that it’s merely hedonistic. Lawrence thinks otherwise.
“I’ve been thinking about this more and more recently,” he says. “There’s an idea that the day-to-day life that we end up leading, where we get caught up in power structures and where we’re framed in certain categories and we’re expected to behave in certain ways… in a sense the unreality becomes our everyday lives. And the place that we really get to explore what the world might become, or can be, is the space where parties are located. This idea has become more compelling.”
Lawrence has written three exhaustive books to date – Love Saves The Day: A History of American Dance Music, 1970-79; Hold On To Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92 and Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-83.
He cut his dancefloor teeth at the Hacienda in the summer of 1988, while at university in Manchester (“I’d never experienced anything remotely like it before. Within 10 seconds of entering the room I’d leaped onto the nearest podium and joined in the tribal ritual, as it were.”). It was when he moved back to his native London and attended Friday nights at the Gardening Club, in Covent Garden, he really started to embrace this idea of community. Both his parents had died in relatively quick succession and although he was working at the BBC on Newsnight, his professional life was unfulfilling.
“I was pretty traumatised,” he candidly recalls. “It’s a bit hyperbolic to say it [the Gardening Club] was lifesaving but it gave me a sense of community and a sense of hope.”
Following a Damascene moment listening to Louie Vega and a desire to study literature as a way of honouring his parents (his father escaped Nazi Germany via Kindertransport and went on to become an English teacher, while his mother was a lifelong advocate of literature), he moved to New York and began an MA in English Literature at Columbia University. Already a voracious cultural theorist – he wrote a dissertation on house music, postmodernity and post-colonialism – he eventually began his first book, Love Saves The Day.
Originally, it was intended as a history of house music but it mutated into a celebration of David Mancuso’s Loft club and a history of pre-disco. When Frankie Knuckles, David Morales and Tony Humphries all spoke of Mancuso in reverential terms – “Each one of them said David was the most influential person in their lives in teaching them about the potential of the party” – that was enough for Lawrence. He immersed himself in the story. How Mancuso directly influenced the opening of the Paradise Garage and the Warehouse and one chapter in his history of house music became the actual book.
“It was a story that needed to be told,” he explains. “I already had a sense of deep meaning in the dancefloor. I had felt – if it had not saved my life – it had given me a structure and a sense of meaning. David wanted to talk about this. How culture and community and participation and creativity and creating these alternative worlds is very important to our everyday lives and to what we want the world to become. And ultimately the organisation of society. This is what David wanted to talk about. His friends and peers too. They were interested in social transformation. They’d come out of the counterculture of the late ’60s: gay liberation, feminism, anti-war… they were out to change the world and build a mass movement.”
By the late ’90s and early ’00s vast swathes of dance music fans were becoming interested in Mancuso’s story. Nuphonic released the first of its two Loft compilations in 1999 (with the liner notes written by Lawrence at Mancuso’s request), and in 2001, Mancuso came over to host a Loft party in London. Just as Love Saves the Day was in production, Mancuso asked Lawrence and DJ Colleen Murphy (who was a musical host at the Loft in New York but who now lived in the UK) if they wanted to join forces and put on another Loft party in London.
Despite his initial reticence, Lawrence, by his own admission, had been seduced. Spiritually, culturally and ethically, Mancuso’s ideals resonated. So, in 2003, the first party was held upstairs at the simpatico space of The Light Bar in Shoreditch. It became, Lawrence freely admits, a deepening experience for him.
In order to replicate the sonic experience of the New York Loft parties, Lawrence, Murphy and Lawrence’s friend Jeremy Gilbert took out a loan to purchase three pairs of handmade Klipschorn speakers. This led to the formation of the Lucky Cloud (named after an Arthur Russell track) collective, who still put on four parties a year to this day.
In time, the prodigious Russell would become the subject of Lawrence’s second book. Russell, who had feet in numerous downtown New York scenes – disco, hip-hop, minimal composition and new wave – drew connections between all these fertile cultures and in doing so provided an alluring and elliptical history of New York at that time. “He was a figure that had been somewhat marginalised because he hadn’t followed a nice, easy-to-understand pattern,” says Lawrence. “He followed too much music. And put a value on collaboration. I was attracted to that. I saw him as a utopian figure – much like David. Through his life I was able to say something about New York.”
A third book, Life and Death…, followed in 2016. Again, it was meant to be something else – the rise of house music – but he became entranced by New York in the early ’80s. “It was that post-disco, pre-house period that didn’t really acquire a name,” he explains. “It was a time when disco and punk were looking for ways to reinvent themselves.”
On a 2017 book tour to the city he ventured upon the night Joy – another party based upon the ideals of The Loft – for the first time. He was transfixed by its intimacy, believing that such a quality allowed for a boundless musical expression. “It was the most incredible experience I’d had in years and selfishly I wanted more of it,” he says.
Hence his new party, All Our Friends (again referencing an Arthur Russell track). Run alongside Gilbert and his cohorts in Beauty & The Beat (an offshoot of the Lucky Cloud Soundsystem), Cedric Lassonde and Cyril Cornet, All Our Friends is a monthly party held at a community centre in Hackney, London. This time, Lawrence has started DJing.
“I’d always thought of myself as a dancer and I used to pity DJs a little bit because they were missing out on the party. The real fun was on the dancefloor. But it’s been enthralling and compelling. Obviously, it’s very different from writing but I’m more excited about music in the last year or so than I have been for quite some time. I’m buying an awful lot of music.”
And so the infinite loop of Lawrence’s musical career goes on. He’s the university professor that has co-founded a label, Reappearing Records (which released the companion albums to Life & Death on the New York Dance Floor); the party promoter that hosts a radio show on Worldwide FM and the writer of books that seemingly never follow their initial intention.
“The books aren’t just about The Loft or David Mancuso or dance culture or Arthur Russell, it’s about what New York was like back then. The cultural possibilities back then. So through writing it was also attempting to understand how the world we live in has changed. It’s critiquing the present by thinking about the past. Not about being nostalgic but historically aware.”
In short, it’s about community. It’s about the possibilities the dancefloor and culture offer.
“David once had a conversation with Jeremy,” Lawrence concludes. “He thought that what really happened at The Loft – but by implication all parties – was a way for people to tap into the essence of the universe. It wasn’t seeing The Loft as unique in its identity but rather seeing it as a time-space-continuum that exists as one tiny, minute expression of something that has gone on since the beginning of time.”