As he gets ready to play Electric Picnic, clubland pioneer Nicky Siano tells Ed Power how dance music was born on the mean streets of New York amid the ashes of the Stonewall riots.
Nicky Siano was there at the start of it all. He was resident DJ at Studio 54, the notorious temple of late-1970s New York excess, and, prior to that, the founder of The Gallery, the legendary downtown club credited with bringing disco out of the fringes of gay and black culture and into the mainstream.
When the sounds streaming out of Manhattan clubs were changing the face of popular music, Siano — who plays a rare Irish set at Electric Picnic next weekend — was one of those fanning the flame.
“It was a bad time,” says the now 61 year-old of 1970s New York when, as a wide-eyed kid from Brooklyn, he crossed the river to Manhattan and set about making something of his life.
“This was just not a good period. I remember the Stonewall Riots [the iconic gay uprising of 1969], at which I inadvertently ended up. Me and my friend were going to the Village and there were tons of people blocking Sixth Avenue; we thought it was a Vietnam protest.
“Then we saw all these people screaming “change the law, changing the fucking law”. Back then, two people of the same sex could not dance together if the venue had a liquor licence.”
Stonewall was the moment queer culture put itself about the parapet in Manhattan. As a young gay man, Siano was a beneficiary of the era of relative tolerance that followed. In 1973 he and his older brother Joe opened The Gallery on West 22nd Street (it would later relocate to nearby Houston Street). He had just turned 18.
The music Siano played was escapist and rhapsodic and came to be known as “disco”, a designation Siano hated on the grounds that it had been cynically bestowed by record labels trying to exploit something they had no hand in creating.
The club was a magnet for freaks, outsiders and visionaries. DJs Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan worked there; it was here a young Grace Jones performed in public for the first time.
“It was special. The Gallery was so over the top. Every person on the dance floor was singing along. I could turn off the music and people would be singing to the song — just raising their voices to the beat and clapping.
“I’m often asked to explain what it was like back then and it’s hard to put into words. It was so much more than going to a club — it was like going to a party with your extended friends and family.” His feelings towards Studio 54 were more complex.
Steve Rubell, the club’s owner, had pleaded with Siano to become the resident DJ. But, once aboard, he found the excess distasteful.
Siano witnessed Bianca Jagger’s notorious May 1977 birthday bash, at which she sat astride a white horse while Mick Jagger, her then husband, and various luminaries applauded (Bianca Jagger has since stressed that she did not ride the horse into the nightclub — it was there when she arrived).
New York was knee-deep in squalor and Siano found the spectacle distasteful and contrary to his egalitarian principles.
“Studio 54 came along and was over the top… For me, it was just showing off. The Gallery had a much more down-home feeling Studio 54 was all this fake shit.”
He still DJs around the world and seems genuinely keen about playing Electric Picnic, where he will headline the Casa Bacardí stage on Saturday night.
Siano finds contemporary club music generally soulless and unfulfilling. His job, he feels, is to remind people how great it used to be.
“Sometimes when you go to a club with these new [DJs] it doesn’t seem very involved. When I play, people are much more into it.
I’ll reach for the rarest soul jam from, say, 1971, and people will be singing along. When I come, it’s always a party.”
Nicky Siano headlines Casa Bacardí at Electric Picnic on Saturday.
The Gallery was so over the top. I could turn off the music and people would be singing raising their voices to the beat and clapping
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