It all started at the Paradise Garage, 84 King Street, New York. In a converted parking garage in downtown Manhattan, Larry Levan and his friends and associates built one of the mightiest club legacies ever to have existed. Opening in 1977 and lasting fortune years, Levan’s tenure had a lasting impact on the musical life of its home city with a wildly varied selection of music that ran the gamut from the gospel sounds of the Joubert Singers to the wayward post-punk of German chanteuse Nina Hagen.
“Garage is the main thing in the States, and I’m the grandaddy of it,” claimed Levan in 1983. However, if you name a genre of music after a club which was open for ten whole years and which was known, not for one style of music, but for its eclecticism, you’re going to run into problems of definition pretty quickly.
What ‘garage’ meant to Levan was very different from how we understand the word today. What we now call ‘garage’ – most likely pronounced British-style as ‘garridge’ – is music which has evolved from the more soulful, more gospel-inspired parts of disco: soaring vocal tracks with lush, melodic production, or jazzy instrumentals with a good deal of sizzling hi-hat cymbals. This was but a tiny part of the broad range of music which Larry Levan played at the Paradise Garage.
In fact, the meaning of the word has slipped dramatically. Today’s garage sound was born 25 miles away from the Paradise Garage in the city of Newark, New Jersey. It is more accurately called ‘the Jersey sound’ and owes its emergence to the tastemaking of DJ Tony Humphries at his club Zanzibar. “I would focus on more of the gospel part or more of the jazzy part or melodic part,” says Humphries, describing his very particular style. “The closer it sounds to a real band or something from the past then the more I’m going to lean towards that.”
In the UK, amid the 1988 boom of interest in US music sparked by house, ‘garage’ became a convenient shorthand for ‘current New York dance music’, a way of distinguishing the city’s more vocal, more soulful take on things from the more minimal and robotic house tracks flooding out of Chicago and Detroit. Originally to British ears ‘garage’ just meant ‘housey stuff from New York’.
To anyone pedantic enough (and to most American DJs), Adeva and her cohorts were actually flowerings of ‘the Jersey sound’. However, thanks to their success on British shores, and thanks to a number of compilation LPs with names like ‘Garage Trax’, on which they were featured, they were firmly ‘garage’. The name stuck and a generation of UK music journalists spent a decade being confused about the geography of east coast America. Some even told their readers the Paradise Garage had been in New Jersey. (Just to add even more confusion, Larry Levan actually played at Zanzibar on several occasions, as did renowned remixer Larry Paterson.)
When, around 1997, some London DJs took the descendent of this music and latched it to some cavernous half-tempo basslines ‘speed garage’ or ‘UK garage’ or ‘two-step’ was born. Just to make things even more complicated, this actually took its first steps thanks to records by New Jersey producer Todd Edwards and adopted New Yorker Armand van Helden. Now you wish you’d never asked.
Former Zanzibar resident Tony Humphries is in no doubt as to what garage music signifies. “You can’t even define garage music,” he says, “because it was music that was played at the club at that time in that era; but we’re talking about a ten year span. Records by the Rolling Stones (‘Too Much Blood’) and Talking Heads (‘Once in a Lifetime’) were played. If you played them now, people would say, ‘that’s not a garage record’. But it was.”
For our Garage issue of Pause, we’ve got the lengthy, classic sleeve notes to the Strut Larry Levan compilation written by Frank Broughton and myself, we’ve got some great in-depth interviews with Joey Negro, Victor Simonelli, Danny Krivit, Todd Edwards and DJ Q. We’ve got some great scene reports from the frontline of the developing UK garage scene by Anna Chapman, Hattie Collins and former Mixmag editor Dom Phillips. There’s some classic audio from the final night at the Paradise Garage in September 1987, Tony Humphries recordings from his show on New York’s KISS FM and perfect viewing material in the Brandy & Coke UK garage documentary and a brilliant Todd Edwards interview.