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A Night in Orbit 

Gay music? It's a body/soul thing

Wednesday, Dec 22 1999
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syndicated columnist Dan Savage once argued, ”We are sex,“ referring to himself and the rest of the gay population. While a statement like that, narrow-minded as it is and certainly not the whole picture, could possibly infuriate upstanding queer folk -- who‘d probably react with terse replies like ”I am not what I do in bed“ -- the guy has a point. After all, it is the act andor desire to have same-sex intercourse that for the most part makes gay people not straight people. Savage goes on to say that sex is the cornerstone of gay culture. Which is why there are gay magazines, gay beaches, gay bed ’n‘ breakfasts, gay bars, gay Web sites, gay pride, gay anything. Even with regard to the current political battle for same-sex marriage, when it comes right down to it, it’s all about sex.

But what about gay music? A recent article in The New York Times stated that for the first time since the death of disco, with the emergence of electronica, dance music has finally shed its image as a gay art form. Yet if sex is also at the root of gay music, then one has only to take a peek at the shirtless hordes of glistening, pumped-up abs, pecs and biceps air-humpin‘ on the dance floors of gay disco palaces, circuit parties and underground club havens from West Hollywood to West Palm Beach to get a clue of what homoeroticism at the fin de siecle is about.

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Which is something Neil Tennant and Christopher Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys might have considered investigating prior to the release of their latest CD, Nightlife (ParlophoneSire). Tennant and Lowe wanted this record to have a nocturnal feel; the cover shows them in blond fright wigs, sitting blank-faced on a train that’s presumably rushing them to wherever the after-dark action is going to happen. But the problem with Nightlife is that the Pet Shop Boys never get there. The album makes a lot of nods to clubland and is marginally up-to-date in its trance stylings -- without ever requiring you to move a toe. At its worst, this means the backing tracks on ”Vampires“ are restrained with a politeness more supper club than super club, a tepid take on dance-floor energy the younger Pets would never have settled for. Listening to these tracks, one can only wonder why they didn‘t cull top remix talent from their own back yard, utilizing the trancy remixer skills of trendy electronica giants like fellow Brits Paul Oakenfold or Sasha.

The downbeat new disc, spearheaded by the clunky Village People--y ”New York City Boy,“ showcases collaborations with producers Rollo, Craig Armstrong and house-music warhorse David Morales, but even their mix magic can’t bring this thing to life.

For the sake of at least appearing to be in the know, the Pet Shop Boys should have tried to emulate the pot-o‘-gold fag-hag prowess of Madonna, who since her early days with Jellybean Benitez, and most recently with DJ Victor Calderone, has kept a finger on the pulse of mainstream gay club culture and sexuality. Still glowing from Madonna’s commission of his remix services for her ”Frozen“ single, with his new house-music compilation e=vc2 (Tommy Boy), Calderone succeeds for the most part in re-creating the hard-bangin‘ club sounds of New York with a cadre of garagy house anthems.

Calderone, who currently holds residencies at Liquid in Miami and the Roxy in New York, offers a mixed bag of heavy dance grooves and dramatic vocal workouts. The 12-track set includes Pete Heller’s ”Big Love,“ Veronica‘s ”Someone To Hold,“ Basement Jaxx’s ”Fly Life,“ Deborah Cox‘s ”It’s Over Now,“ Kim English‘s ”Unspeakable Joy,“ Garbage’s ”Push It“ and an exclusive Calderone restructuring of Madonna‘s ”Sky Fits Heaven.“ But the highlight of the compilation is the remake of the early garage house classic ”Do It Properly,“ originally recorded in the mid-’80s by house act 2 Puerto Ricans, a Blackman & a Dominican. Collaborating with Club 69‘s Peter Rauhofer and vocal powerhouse Deborah Cooper, Calderone gives a rare nod to the early days of house music in gay culture, before it assumed the whitebread aesthetics of the Hi-NRG sound now popular at mainstream gay dance clubs and circuit parties.

Much like the current watered-down euphemisms of the circuit-club scene, where people don’t do drugs anymore, but they ”party,“ or, no longer having sex, they ”play,“ L.A. DJ Manny Lehman essentially euphemizes house music on his recent dance-mix compilation A Night in Orbit. Named after the now-defunct weekly event co-produced by himself and circuit-party titan Jeff Sanker on Saturday nights at Circus Disco, the CD features 12 tracks that more or less re-create the circuit events without the aid of Special K, poppers, crystal meth or GHB. Fact is, minus the enhancement of dance-floor drugs, circuit-party music sucks. And the well-intentioned efforts of Lehman, who ironically is one of the most sought-after circuit DJs around today, unfortunately don‘t help matters. Opening the set with the violin swirls of Jeanie Tracy’s ”Can‘t Take My Eyes Off You,“ Lehman meanders into middle-of-the-road jungly tracks like disco diva Linda Clifford’s ”Wanna Give It Up“ and a pointless remake of gay white-boy dance classic ”High Energy.“ Lehman does make good with the funky track ”Feels Good,“ as well as the beat-savvy ”I Don‘t Want Nobody (Tellin’ Me What To Do),“ featuring Cheri Amore. But with the exception of these two, most of the tracks, including Deborah Harry and Groove Thing‘s ”Command & Obey“ and house diva Shawn Christopher’s ”Don‘t Lose the Magic,“ sound schmaltzy, mechanical and weighed down in a nelly queen’s lost and overembellished reveries of a good time.

Where Lehman smoothes it over, East Coast DJ Terry Hunter pays homage to the gritty gospel and R&B roots of old-school house music with far better results. Back in its early days in largely black gay clubs such as Manhattan‘s Paradise Garage and Chicago’s Warehouse, house music achieved an inspirational yet humorous duality of blending together the simplest and sometimes most stereotypical of black rhythms and vocals, then purposely heightening them to the point of caricature. In so doing, house was often send-up, mocking African-American culture while exalting it via the tribal energy of the dance floor.

This is what‘s good about Hunter’s House Volumes 3. Starting off with an outstanding remix of Patrice Rushen‘s early-’80s funk instrumental ”Number One“ retitled ”Numero Uno,“ the jazzy peak-hour groove sets a back-jackin‘ four-to-the-floor pace for the rest of the CD. Featuring cuts like Donna Allen’s ”He Is the Joy,“ DeepZone‘s ”It’s Gonna Be Alright“ and Platinum Dolls‘ ”Believe in a Brighter Day,“ Hunter is easily able to showcase gospel’s role as a staple ingredient in classic house. Gospel‘s influence in house derives from the burning I-gotz-the-spirit-in-me screams of the late Sylvester, whose tabernacle-charged disco hits set the stage for gospel’s preternatural journey from the church to the hedonistic havens of gay underground club culture.

Embracing the sounds of black America is nothing new in underground club culture, gay or straight, but whereas gay clubland in the States has maintained relationships with only a select few black divas, e.g., Diana Ross, Shawn Christopher and Martha Wash, DJs like George Morel and Junior Sanchez with their Zenith Ibiza double-CD import do a good job of bringing it all together on a multiethnic dance floor while delivering a brilliant slice of late-night house. Featuring the finest in garage house, disco, salsa and soul, both discs find these DJs kicking things off in a sweaty dance-till-break-o‘-dawn pitch -- and staying there. As any good DJ knows, it ain’t just the records you play, but how you play. On disc one, Morel seamlessly weaves foot-stompin‘ samba cuts back to back, workin’ up a lather of tight after-hour tango tracks like the White Horse--sampled ”Crazy Horse“ and ”Hold On,“ each blissfully rolling into a groove alongside each other without beginning or end.

Sanchez works magic on disc two, taking on a trancy edge with tracks like ”Burning Dub“ and ”Back & Forth“ before descending into the murky depths of undiluted carnal garage funk. Prime cuts include Sanchez‘s own ”Rock Bottom,“ Eddie Amador’s ”House Music Rmx,“ and the resplendent ”I Know,“ mixed by DJ Sneak. Laced with the chant ”Not everyone understands house musicit‘s a spiritual thinga body thinga soul thing,“ the latter track is followed up with the equally havoc-wreaking ”Things We Used To Do.“

Dan Savage makes too much noise about gays and sex, capitalizing on a shock-value sensibility not that far removed from the extreme right’s self-serving fear of open acceptance and expression. Truth be told, sexuality plays itself out in all forms of dance, whether through the ritualistic tribal communions of the aborigines in Australia or the well-muscled and tight-jeaned throngs of boys at Miami‘s annual White Party. And the question remains: Do you have to be gay to get off on high-energy dance grooves? Why, of course not, Miss Thang.

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