Last Night a Disco Compilation Saved My Life: A Chat with Bill Brewster

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Bill Brewster ranks among the world’s most learned musical selectors. Having started his career in the ‘80s with UK football fanzine When Saturday Comes, Brewster moved to New York in the mid-‘90s to run DMC’s US office back when the DJ remix label published dance music’s reigning magazine Mixmag. Having realized most British DJs didn’t know their own history, Brewster and pal Frank Broughton wrote 1999’s key club culture tome Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and fathered the popular website DJHistory.com to share their outtakes. Since then, he’s compiled countless club collections while DJ-ing, co-authoring books like How to DJ (Properly), and writing scholarly liner notes to For Discos Only, a splendid 30-track collection that skims the disco cream from Berkeley’s Fantasy and New York’s Vanguard labels. We spoke to Bill in his Bedford home office 50 miles north of London via Skype’s free transatlantic magic.

What did you learn while writing your notes?

I got to dig into the careers of people who I’ve never had the opportunity to write about before, like Bobby Orlando. For me, he’s a kind of fascinating and iconic character and so archetypically New York as well. There’s something very hustler-y about him, but also talented. American musicians, they do have that hustle British musicians often don’t, and I admire that. They’d see a kind of gap in the market somewhere and they’d fill it; all these little Jewish mom and pop organizations out of New York and other big cities where they’ve been working out of one little studio, and end up building a mini-empire.

The downside of that hustle is that Orlando spread himself so thin that within a few years the quantity of his output dwarfed the quality of much of it.

You’re absolutely right. I think it was [Vanguard engineer] Mark Berry who told me Bobby O’s aim was to produce a song every day. That’s admirable, but also completely insane. He made some great things and kind of under-produced them, and made loads of other things that he shouldn’t have bothered with.

British disco tastes tend to favor small jazz-funk ensembles, like the Players Association, who even had a UK Top 10 hit, as opposed to huge symphonic things, like Boris Midney. I was amazed to read in your notes that Alphonse Mouzon looped a Boris Midney drum track for Poussez!

It makes sense because Midney’s kick drums are unbelievably huge. Our club scene revolved around the straight crowd; blacker-sounding records, jazz fusion. Roy Ayers was always much bigger in the UK than he was in the US, and the Players Association fit into that.

Fantasy had a natural entry into disco with fusion acts like the Blackbyrds and Pleasure, which weren’t quite disco, but people danced to them. Once Sylvester hit, Fantasy ran with disco, even if many of their marquee signings failed – Martha Reeves, the post-Teddy Pendergrass Blue Notes, Ike Turner. Even jazz drummer Idris Muhammad bombed on Fantasy before he recorded something in the same league as “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This.” I’m so glad For Discos Only includes “For Your Love.”

I actually like that more. It’s got that big orchestral swell and really works as a set opener. So many jazz guys were clearly doing disco for money and because some of them were great musicians they could probably get away with it.

You’ve been putting together compilations and writing liner notes for a couple decades now. How has that changed after a shift away from physical product?

I’ve always had a great deal of affection for compilations because they were so important when I was 11, 12, 13, and didn’t have a lot of money. I put the maximum amount of effort and love into them because I’m hoping there are kids who start investigating the artists on them they like the most. Plus there’s an age group who still wants to own something tangible. I love when you’ve got a compilation, and there’s a half-hour’s reading on the sofa while you’re listening. I can’t get enough of it.

We had TV-marketed labels like K-Tel and Ronco in the ‘70s, but compilations have never been as big in the US as they are in the UK.

Do you think that’s to do with the general nerdiness of British music collectors? There are just more slightly insane people in the UK who end up living in a shed just so they can put out compilations of music they love.

I do think there’s some truth in that. The UK had those obsessive Street Sounds compilations of funk, electro, and early hip-hop, which must’ve countered the expense of US import 12-inches in the ‘80s, when the pound was weak.

Street Sounds was an incredibly important compilation label when I was in my early 20s. So many people who ended up being house music DJs got their start buying those compilations. [Founder Morgan Khan] put on concerts in London’s Wembley Arena where there’d be like 7,000 kids all going mad to electro. We never had the disco crash that happened in the US. Disco in the UK was probably at its biggest in ’80, ’81, ’82 when all of the weekenders were happening, where there were 2-3,000 people regularly.

Living in New York, I never felt an anti-disco backlash because you would still hear it everywhere in the ‘80s, even blending in with new wave. The big dance stations KISS-FM and WBLS would pay things like [ex-Buzzcocks] Pete Shelley’s “Witness the Change” or the Clash’s “The Magnificent Dance” and kids would breakdance to them.

The UK held onto that black music snobbery for quite a long time, and that didn’t break down until house music arrived. I preferred what was happening in New York, although I didn’t realize it at the time – things like Kid Creole & the Coconuts, Ze Records, 99 Records; that mishmash of styles.

How has this eclecticism shaped your DJ sets?

I try to play one or two new tracks every week. I’ve never felt there was one era that was so amazing that you couldn’t pick from other eras to make your set better. It’s exciting when there’s a great new band I’ve never heard of. You have to dig through a lot of stuff to find things you love, but they do come up, like an Australian band called Mildlife. They’ve got one album and it’s a bit like jazz-funk, but really good.

British music fans were traditionally very tribal. Right back to the late ’40s, you could absolutely tell what kind of music someone listened to by the clothes they were wearing. I look on the streets now in [London’s trendy] Shoreditch, where there are loads of young students, and I’ve got no idea what they listen to. I think that’s a bit of a shame, but the fact that they’re open-minded means you can play a lot of different music and they’ll go with it. I played a very electronic festival last Sunday with “Coming Up” by Paul McCartney as the last record, and it went over well. And the great thing about For Discos Only is that the production and musicianship and remixing on many of these records is top-notch. It’s music that can be current.