Richard Hell Fights the Repression of NYC’s Bohemian Scene

For years now there has been a lot of wistful, sometimes bitter nostalgia amongst artists and adventurous youth for the New York of the ’70s and ’80s—Cookie Mueller’s era. She has become legendary as an emblem of a period of bohemia perhaps only rivaled here in freedom and inspiration by the ’50s, when Pollock and DeKooning were making New York the capital of the world for painting, Miles Davis and John Coltrane et al. were doing the same in music, and John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were holding up their end in poems and novels. In Cookie’s time, the painters were Basquiat and Clemente and Haring and Schnabel and Wool and Prince; the musicians the Ramones and Patti Smith and Television and Blondie and the Contortions and Sonic Youth; the writers Eileen Myles and Gary Indiana and Kathy Acker and Rene Ricard; the photographers Nan Goldin and Peter Hujar and Jimmy de Sana. To name a few.

Cookie was a muse, housemother, and salon hostess to the artists, as well as an irresistible writer and actress herself. She increased the happiness of everyone who knew her. She was not only classically supportive and encouraging, but she was hilarious and otherwise entertaining, and she usually had drugs too. She also was sexually uninhibited. She was the archetypal gutter bohemian heroine at a time when it was still possible to concoct a life in New York that more or less worked in that mode. She’s probably best known now to the uninitiated as the central subject of the photographs that made Nan Goldin famous. She also had memorable roles in John Waters’ early films, and her writings were published by such landmark small literary presses as Top Stories, Semiotext(e), and Hanuman. She wrote a column about art for Details magazine and one about eccentric health for the East Village Eye. But she made her living from welfare checks, dealing drugs, and go-go dancing in strip clubs.

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I knew Cookie, and, like hundreds of others, I loved her. I don’t mean loved her “romantically” necessarily, but just for what she was like and the kind of friend she was. I am also one of the 80-plus people interviewed for the book, though my contribution is meager. I regret to say I was skeptical of the undertaking, not knowing Chloé Griffin, the woman behind it, who hadn’t known Cookie. But the book is a kind of masterpiece. Chloé nailed it; her commitment and devoted effort, not to mention her style, in creating this book, do Cookie justice, which is saying a lot. Cookie was unique and so, similarly, is this great book.

The book sumptuously relates Cookie’s entire life, from her trailer-camp style childhood in Baltimore, to her cheerful bad-girl teenage years there, interrupted by an escape to San Francisco at the height of crash pad drug-soaked hippiedom where, still a teenager, she narrowly escaped a run-in with Charles Manson. It then turns back to a more happily sex-and-drug crazed communal life amongst the denizens of John Waters’s circles in Baltimore and Provincetown, and onto the center of the wildly flourishing art precincts of New York, and regular impoverished but fun-filled jaunts to Europe, most habitually Positano, on the Italian coast.

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Edgewise gives us Cookie’s life and world in epic 3-D detail by seamlessly weaving together the loving and astonished testimony of most of the people who knew her. And she was nothing if not social. She and they exemplify the nobility and soul of this messed-up species. They exist for joy and art in active defiance of convention and authority. I mean, fuck the police. Even possibly, literally, fuck them.

As I was saying, there’s a lot of nostalgia for those days now. New York has become like a theme park for the smug and arrogant wealthy. I’m ambivalent about that nostalgia. On the one hand it’s good that people recognize the ways of life depicted in this book as desirable; on the other hand it’s depressing that the ideal is relegated to nostalgia, as if it’s now out of reach. Granted, there’s a lot of repression and those resources appear to be dwindling, but you know it’s not too late yet. Fighting for the right to party is a profound objective in the right hands.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.

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Mr. Style Icon: Holly Johnson on David Bowie

Before he became the brash and unabashedly gay singer of British eighties concept poppers Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Holly Johnson was growing up in Liverpool and struggling with his sexuality. That is, until a television documentary would lead him to the work of Andy Warhol and, in the same year, David Bowie’s glambiguity as Aladdin Sane. Johnson’s double epiphany was as musical as it was sexual and helped shape not just Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s explicit debut Welcome to the Pleasure Dome, and Johnson’s lifelong committment to LGBT rights, but also his first solo LP in fifteen years, 2014’s Europa (Pleasuredome). Max Dax got the skinny.

There were a handful of musicians in the seventies who encouraged me as a teenager to live my homosexuality more or less openly—amongst them Marc Bolan, Lou Reed and Andy Warhol. In 1973, when I was thirteen, I saw David Bailey’s famous TV documentary about Andy Warhol. Literally overnight I became his biggest fan. The film was extremely controversial at the time. There was talk of the “impending brutalization” of the British youth, whatever that was supposed to mean. That’s also the moment in my life that I realized I wasn’t the only one different from other boys. Soon after, I also started reading everything by Warhol I could lay my hands on. I devoured his diaries as well as anything else he did. That was also pretty much the reason that David Bowie eventually became my idol and my role model.

Aladdin Sane, Bowie’s follow-up LP to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, came out on RCA the same year, and it hit just the right spot for me. See, Bowie spoke to me directly. When he publicly came out as being bisexual, I, too, could admit to myself and eventually to others that I am like Bowie, that I too love men.

For Frankie Goes to Hollywood [FGTH] I adopted the stage name Holly Johnson, in reverence of Holly Woodlawn—the Factory superstar who Lou Reed sang about in the famous opening line of his song “Walk on the Wild Side”: “Holly came from Miami F-L-A / Hitchhiked her way across U.S.A. / Plucked her eyebrows on the way / Shaved her legs and then he was a she.

Even though I was equipped with a role model and a new name, the success of Frankie Goes to Hollywood came as a bit of a surprise to me. I had been playing in a more or less unsuccessful band called Big in Japan with Bill Drummond, who later formed The KLF, for eight years. Then I started FGTH, after which Trevor Horn discovered me, and the rest is history. Suddenly I was a pop star, and I loved that role. But it was like playing a part in theater. Or to be more specific: Frankie Goes to Hollywood was my interpretation of Ziggy Stardust. Looking back, I think you could describe us as a truly conceptual eighties pop band. Frankie was a cartoon character I had shaped. Those super aggressive vocals are not my natural singing voice either, but I considered the piercing, siren-like quality a necessity. And, of course, my fake hyper-confidence was totally exaggerated. I’m not that confident in real life. We’ve all read Freud: The best way to mask your internal insecurity and sensitivity is by being loud and dominant on the outside. Everyone knows that. As Frankie, I was also England’s first openly gay pop star. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who interviewed me for Smash Hits in 1984, could never forgive me for that. He couldn’t acknowledge that we were successful with Frankie before they were and so effectively paved the way for the Pet Shop Boys. Neil—I always call him Nelly, but for some reason I don’t think he likes it—only came out in 1994 during an interview with Attitude Magazine. As a music journalist, he knew about the advantages of gaining respect as a musician first and only then planning the how and when of your outing. Because from that point on you become someone else: you’re not a pop star anymore, but a “gay” pop star. It becomes a stigma. In that sense, Neil Tennant—unlike us—had a master plan.

The only plan we had, if any, was this: I’d consider FGTH a success as soon as parents of the world would lock away their sons whenever we played a show. I wanted Frankie Goes to Hollywood to be just as much a threat to the perfect world as David Bowie once was by being openly bisexual. That was pretty much our whole objective. But by leaving behind the “bi” part of my sexuality, I aimed to take it one step further than Bowie. At least I set my sites pretty high.~

This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 39 (Fall 2014). You can purchase the new issue, and back issues, in the EB Shop.

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How a Bunch of Belgian Teens Rewired Techno

The link between industrial and Belgian techno were the sounds. Acid house was a great in-between for those two things. It had more of a disco-y four-to-the-floor beat that was much straighter and better to dance to, but it still had those dirty sounds, which came from the Roland TB-303. Same thing when you listen to early Nitzer Ebb; it’s techno made before the genre existed, we just didn’t call it techno then. There are lots of cross over things going on rhythmically between industrial and techno, but the reason I started making a fairly hard style of techno was because I was inspired by those really dirty, crunchy noises you heard in industrial. That’s what tied it all together.

It was us kids who were going out to see industrial music when we were 13, 14, 15 who really started the Belgian techno scene. I don’t think a lot of those old school boys like Patrick [Codenys] got really involved in techno. It was the next generation. In Belgium, we took techno and made it harder. What was coming out of Detroit was funky, clever and intelligent. We grabbed all of it and added our dirtier touch. From day one, Belgian crowds were into techno. Actually, they went apeshit. I will never forget hearing my very first release on R&S records in Boccaccio. It was called “Do That Dance” and it had a big looped guitar sound from Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.” Frank De Wulf sampled it on “Acid Rock” and I nicked it with my sampler and made it longer. It just had this sound going on the whole time, and the place went mental. It was pretty instant because it just smacked you right in the face.

The sound was so big, people were excited and it soon went abroad. People picked up on it. Germany was pretty much the first. I wouldn’t like to say anybody was before anyone else, it just felt like it was happening in Belgium before anyone else got it. At the time, I had about 20 aliases, and we would release at least one record a week. That’s two or three tracks on a 12-inch. But we were kids. We didn’t go to bed, we worked. The best part was on Sunday nights when we’d be working in the studio until four or five in the morning and then we’d bring our tapes to the club, stick it on the reel-to-reel, play it and see how high people jumped. If they didn’t jump high enough we’d head on back to the studio and tweak it a couple more times, take it back to the club to test it again and say, “Yup, this is good, you can press this one tomorrow.”

The music didn’t require huge amounts of production and attention. It was basically find one good element, slap a beat around it, see how long you want to dance to that part and then stick it on a piece of vinyl. That’s how simple the music was back then, not that it’s that much different now. But we took it very seriously. I wouldn’t have released anything I wasn’t behind. Although when I listen to some of that older stuff now I doubt that a little. But at the time I thought, “This is tough, this is how I want it to sound.” There was definitely quality control; it was just the music in itself that was basic. It didn’t require a high level of attention. We didn’t even use compressors. You couldn’t imagine that nowadays. You couldn’t imagine that ten years before and you can’t imagine it now, but for some reason it suddenly didn’t seem to matter anymore.

But as simple as the tunes were back then they were still distinct, and you could tell them all apart. That’s a problem with techno nowadays because let’s be honest: a lot of it sounds exactly the same. Back then a track had it’s own little gimmick, it’s own little sound, something that made it that track, even if it was a silly little vocal sample. You could tell them apart. People would recognize it after one listen. Of course, there was a lot of sampling. People were always pinching each other’s sounds. I remember an interview with 808 State where they talked about how influenced they were by what was coming out of Belgium. Every record that would come from here they’d buy without even listening, take it home and sample the hell out of it.

R&S was my first record deal. For me it opened all the doors. Suddenly I had this studio I could work in with more gear then I could possibly dream to afford. Also, it brought me together with a lot of people. It was Renaat [Vandepapeliere, R&S label owner] who introduced me to Dave Angel, Richard D. James, all these artists whose music he was licensing from abroad and then flying here to hang out in the studio. It was like a whole big family. We’d fly in Jeff Mills, Juan Atkins, Dave Clarke, Mark Spoon, Laurent Garnier…I mean, I would have met these people in clubs at some stage but it all happened quite early on and you were meeting them outside of the club in the studio where you can have a proper chat about things. It brought a lot of people together. On the one hand you had Belgians dancing to new beat at 110 BPM in their clogs versus these guys from Detroit doing this crazy shit. I knew where I was going.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine and the interviews were conducted by A.J. Samuels. Read part one, part two and part three and part four of the 72 Hours in Antwerp feature. All photos by Elena Panouli.

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Front 242 Pioneer Describes the Early Days of New Beat

Belgium is a sort of cross on a battlefield. Also, the “capital” of the European Union is here. There are the highways, too, and apart from flows of traffic, these were also the media highways in the early ’80s that were very interesting for sampling. We were among the first ones to have TV channels from all over Europe, and that shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of importance. See, I like Anglo-Saxon music, I like reggae music too, but I’m not a Rasta guy, I’m not American, I’m not English. So although I appreciate that stuff, I don’t really feel it.

In my opinion, you look for what you have inside. We called our style “electronic body music” because the body is also the brain. It’s not only about groove, swinging and dancing. It’s enjoyable but it’s also mental. Our body is also a great instrument that uses the senses. I think when you work with a machine you create an interface between yourself and the machine. I could symbolize this by a big arrow from the machine to you and you to the machine. You try to understand and manipulate the machine and try to get something out of it. The machine is giving it back to you.

In the early days the interface was very tough, very difficult, very mathematical, very hostile to the human body. The body needed to make an effort intellectually and emotionally to create. At the time, this notion of interface, to imaginatively manipulate the machine, was extremely complicated, mainly because there was no aesthetic for it but also because the manuals for those machines were terrible. It was a fight all the time. The notion of the body was important for us, especially live because we were one of the rare electronic bands that had a very physical presence, like D.A.F., for example. It’s not like Kraftwerk with some guy standing still behind the machines.

When I was 18 I would go to a club called Cinderella in Antwerp. It was an amazing place with a David Lynch atmosphere. This was the club that would have all the transvestites from the red light district arrive at two, three o’clock in the morning. There was leopard print on the walls, velvet couches and they’d play only glam rock like Roxy Music and Bowie. Eventually it switched to post punk and new wave, and during that time Antwerp’s fashion designers haunted the club. You could tell that the spirit of these people was feeding from those musical genres. I was going out to Antwerp because it always was a city where there was a lot of fun, a lot of clubs, a lot of animation. It was a city that would live until six in the morning, no problem. So there has always been a sort of dance culture, a night culture in Antwerp.

However, when we were starting out, electronic bands at the time were kind of meek—ABC, Spandau Ballet types. And other electronic bands that were successful like Depeche Mode were kind of quiet on stage. There was no muscle behind electronic music, although you could easily put distortion on synthesizers and have really tough sounds. When you listen to industrial music it’s very tough. So we wanted to force things with the military outfits for instance, and try to make a break through. People could identify with us more easily because that army gear was cheap and easy to buy.

Regarding the press, you will not find a lot of positive reviews of Front 242 between ’81 and ’85. Most people hated us. But generally in the early ’80s there were many Belgian bands and interesting things happening in Belgium, so Swedish, French and Spanish people would come to Antwerp and Brussels to look for records and buy stuff, the same way you would go to Kings Road in London to buy your punk items.

But when new beat DJs started out, they would take a 242 track and play it very slow, so it was flattering in a way. It’s also a different way to listen to your music. Now it’s true that compared to what we were planning on doing in our lives, regarding electronic music and research and trying to find sounds and directions or structures, new beat was a quick artistic approach because the productions were made in a day. We would take two years to make an album.

It was a different world, but I enjoyed it very much. Nights at the Boccaccio in Ghent were a blast. What I like is that it goes to the primal core of the electronic music genre. New beat is leisure. It’s fun. But we never collaborated with new beat artists. We never changed our style of music because of it; we wanted to keep our integrity since the first day. See, if you take the English language, it’s based on consonants like, t, k, p; that’s why it’s more rhythmic. French for instance is based on vowels. It’s more poetic and lyrical. That’s why you have those Italian and French songs that are more melodic and you have English songs that are more rhythmic. But it’s all mixed here. You take what you want.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine and was compiled by A.J. Samuels. Read part one, part two and part three of the 72 Hours in Antwerp feature. All photos by Elena Panouli.

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A New Beat History Lesson From Record Shop USA Imports

A few months ago we revealed the first monologue from the five-part 72 Hours in Antwerp magazine feature, a Belgian history lesson from techno producer Peter Van Hoesen, and this week we’ll roll out the remaining parts one at a time.  This installment features an interview with the Pascual family, who are pictured in the photo above; going clockwise from the top, its members are José, Frie, Daphne, baby Lucien and Nikolai. José and Frie founded the influential new beat and Belgian techno record shop and studio USA Imports, and the family is also responsible for the printed slipmat. If you owned a slipmat with graphics in the ’90s, dollars to donuts they printed it.

Frie: José and I met partying on the Belgian coast. Every weekend we would meet there—he came from the south of Belgium, and I came from Antwerp. I remember he was leaving one discotheque and going to another called Groove. He and his friends turned around and followed us. We were going to a lot of soul and jazzy soul parties in Ostend, where we danced the jive, which was fun to watch. The music was all about totally obscure jazz, R&B and funk records, and around 1969, the club Popcorn opened, where they played similarly hard to find soul records but which were slowed down to be a bit sludgier, so everybody could dance together. It was slower than rock, more like northern soul in the U.K. But popcorn was the first genre to properly slow records down. This goes from the late ’60s to the early ’70s. All of the records were hard to find and all the artists were American: Billy Butler, Motown, jazz instrumentals like Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father.” Then it branched into cha-cha-cha, which the DJs also always slowed down. Of course they also hid the labels, so nobody would know what the tracks were. It was incredible.

That’s when the record stores sold vinyl by auction. When José and I became a couple, we would buy lots of rare records, and that’s when we decided to open our shop. But in the French-speaking part of Belgium, they didn’t play American or British records, which is why José and his friends came to Antwerp—to listen to those records, James Brown and all that stuff. Back then he didn’t know any of the record titles—I knew all the titles! But once we started the record shop, José would go into the clubs with all of his records and sell them to DJs as special “USA imports.” And the name stuck to our shop, which we opened in 1973 in Antwerp, so José and I could live together.

This was also the beginning of the popularity of Barry White, whose records we had exclusively in Antwerp because we bought them from the U.S. At some point there was a strong overlap between popcorn and disco as club music, so that’s also what we sold. Every week all of the owners of the discotheques in the city came to the shop bringing gin, whisky and orange juice. We had really big speakers, I mean really big, and it was as loud as a disco in the store. It was a party everyday, and this made us very popular. But an important development for us was the first 12-inch. There was lots of publicity for the better sound quality and what it can do for your speakers. The Salsoul label always put on the label, “Warning! This song can blow your speakers.”

José: At the time, all of our contact with foreign labels was done on the phone. They would literally play the record into the receiver: “Groove one? OK, I’ll take 35 of those. The second track? No, I’ll pass.” Our phone bill was 100,000 Belgian francs! This was 40 years ago, so we’re talking around 2000 euro. Because our specialty was dance music from the very beginning, we played a central role in new beat, both selling records and producing them ourselves. The music we started selling became electronic around the time of Kraftwerk, although before that I would also consider Pierre Henry to have played an important role. We sold all of his EMI records. When the DJs started to play it, we sold everything. Human League’s “Being Boiled” was an important one. The bass sound in the beginning worked perfect with the lasers in the club.

Daphne: But electronic dance music was a bit after. I would say it started with Front 242. That was an important foundation.

Frie: But with new beat, like with popcorn, it was all about looking for rare records that nobody could find. Max Berlin? You couldn’t find it! And here in Antwerp there was the discotheque AB—Ancienne Belgique— where Dikke Ronny was DJing on Sunday. And all the DJs from Ghent and Brussels came to see what he was playing. We knew what he was playing from other clients, so we were lucky. It all started in Antwerp, even though people from Ghent might tell you otherwise. Of course, one of the most important discotheques for new beat, Boccaccio, was in Ghent. But that was later.

José: The big time was Saturday. It was impossible to come into the shop because it was completely full. People would line up waiting in the street with food and alcohol.

Nikolai: There is the classic story of how new beat started, how DJs played 45 rpm records at 33 rpm and pitched up +8 on the turntable. That was Dikke Ronny. What people don’t know is that it was an error. He was too fucked up, and that’s why it was too slow. True story!

Frie: We preferred the beginning period of new beat because later, for me, it became too commercial. New beat in the beginning was mainly instrumental tracks, not like the productions they made later on Antler House. Those labels made thousands upon thousands of productions. We sold it because the people wanted it. It’s what was being played in the discotheques. It started in Antwerp, went commercial in Ghent and it then came back to Antwerp to die. So you see what was really going on.

José: With new beat it was that classic combination; you have the music, the artist, the look and the dance. It was the same with rock and roll, the same formula as Elvis and punk.

Nikolai: The clothes were a big part. People were wearing bomber jackets with these patches stitched on of cemeteries and tombs or old pictures of their grandmother, sepia tinted images of old people dancing. Ecstasy was the main drug. Huge tablets of ecstasy. They would steal the emblems off of BMWs and Mercedes and wear them as necklaces. Also they would bring suitcases to the club, like silver Samsonites. And they’d dance with a suitcase.

José: Cocaine used to come in from Studio 54 in New York. Two or three people risked the journey every week to fly there. Also they would come back to the shop on a Monday with cassette recordings taken from New York radio. For me this was fantastic because these tapes would include promotional copies of brand new records that we couldn’t hear otherwise in Belgium. I’d catch these tracks one month before the release; so every day these cassettes arrived I’d be phoning New York to order them.

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It’s not uncommon in Antwerp for entire families to do back-to-school shopping at Raf Simons’ pop-up shop.

Frie: There was always a lot of sexuality in the music but some of the new beat labels really pushed it. All the young people followed it and over time the crowd got younger and younger. So there were all these DJs who helped start new beat but when it became too commercial they naturally moved on to something else. And they automatically came to techno, gabber, hardcore, and especially terrorcore.

Nikolai: There again, the same thing: the Nike Air Max, the bombers, the certain styles of dance. The entire package of the looks, music and dancing was part of those genres too. There were certain class distinctions between them. Terror was like the intellectual alternative to gabber; it was for the really weird ones that needed this extreme music to get calm. The dress code of hardcore techno from our point of view as a 17-year-old child was like…

Daphne: …white, working-class, suburban. These scenes were a way of life for people. There were these huge parties for terror music. There would be 10,000 people wearing the same clothes doing the same dance. In a way it was beautiful to see. You had the DJ on the stage; he was like the god, and all the people were dancing the same dance toward the DJ. It was rave but more…uniform. See, at first the DJ was a small thing, unknown. Then he was on a stage with fire and lasers.

The early ’90s was a crazy time in Belgium. You had these extreme new styles and trance, but remember that this is also the same time as Nirvana. Growing up in a record store was pretty specific, but for us it was normal. I was a kid or an early teenager and you had all those colorful people around. Those beautiful guys also! All of the DJs, they looked beautiful. We came back from school to this. See, we listened to electronic music as kids, but I had a period as a teenager where I listened to grunge. There was a time when I was into rock music because I wanted to rebel against the techno music of my parents!

Frie: We came home late when the shop closed at 7:00 p.m. and then we would eat together. Afterwards, we’d watch television or something.

Daphne: Or we would listen to tracks Frie and José were going to release over and over again—CJ Bolland, Pink Poodle, Christ of Noise. Though in the beginning, it was new beat artists like Confetti’s, Max Berlin…

Frie: Yes, because we ran a recording studio also, out the back of the shop. But years passed, things changed and the record store closed in 2009.

Nikolai: The Internet didn’t kill it but the fun went out of running the store. Then there was the rise of CDs and later MP3s. So I said, “It’s normal that this is happening, I’m not going to fight it because it’s impossible.” I would be stupid to tell DJs, “Guys, you have to keep buying vinyl!” They pay ten euro for a record and they only play one track off it. So why not pay 99 cents?

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. To read more from this issue, click here, and click here to read Part 1 of 72 Hours in Antwerp, which features a lesson in Belgian history from techno producer Peter Van Hoesen. All photos by Elena Panouli.

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