Featuring The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, Cool Herc, John Cale, Afrika Bambaata, Fab 5, and more.
“If it doesn’t work in New York, we’re in big f**king trouble,” New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain says in the fascinating BBC 4 documentary Once Upon a Time in New York, about the creativity generated in a mid-1970s Lower Manhattan realm that Lenny Kaye calls “far from the glitz of Times Square.”
The doc dives into the cultural stew that across five shocking years became the birthplace of punk, disco and rap. It’s worth an hour of your time.
“With California taking center stage, New York felt like an abandoned city,” the detached narrator says of the period, when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, entire blocks were dense with boarded buildings and much of lower New York was an open-air heroin bazaar.
Chris Stein of Blondie recalls being able to buy cocaine in “at least ten different little stores” near his flat. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale says that so much space was empty in the area that City Hall offered dirt cheap housing to anyone who presented a painting and declared themselves a working artist.
Once Upon a Time in New York notes the many historic connections that gave rise to the music — and to club culture in general. The Stonewall Riots, for example, emboldened the LGBTQ community to protest on and off the dance floor; prior to the era-defining event, cops would regularly enforce a law that forbid same-sex couples from dancing together. The weekend-long uprising caused New York mayor John Lindsay change the law, which propelled a revolution that begat disco. “It gave everybody free reign to open someplace to dance for gay people,” says DJ Nicky Siano.
That allowed for people like David Mancuso to transform his loft space into a dance Mecca. Mancuso, a student of Timothy Leary, notes of the Loft’s birth: “Certainly LSD had a role in it. But not entirely.”
Siano explains his aim when he built loft space the Gallery: “We created and designed a space within this empty loft space — within this blank canvas — we created an environment specifically geared towards dancing and blowing your mind.” The story later moves to explore the legacy of Studio 54, with Public Enemy’s Chuck D describing the disdain that Black New Yorkers had for the star-studded, mostly segregated (unless you were famous), notably classist version of the Garage.
Once Upon a Time in New York seamlessly presents the rise of rap, disco and punk as part of continuum, with each culture informing, reacting to (or against), and absorbing messes of rhythms, textures, and approaches of the others. In that sense, it’s a great companion to Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, writer Will Hermes’ definitive account of New York in the mid- and late-1970s.
… amid the skyscrapers we marveled at from the Thirteen-Story Building, down on the streets, artists were breaking music apart and rebuilding it for a new era. Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash hot-wired street parties with collaged shards of vinyl LPs. The New York Dolls stripped rock ‘n’ roll to its frame and wrapped it in gender-fuck drag, taking a cue from Warhol’s transvestite glamour queens. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, both bussed in from Jersey, took a cue from the elusive Dylan, combining rock and poetry into new shapes.
Downtown, David Mancuso and Nicky Siano were inventing the modern disco and the art of club mixing. Uptown, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, and the Fania All-Stars were hot-rodding Cuban music into multiculti salsa, making East Harlem and the South Bronx the global center of forward-looking Spanish-language music. In the wake of Miles Davis’s funk fusions, jazz players were setting up shop in lofts and other repurposed spaces, exploding the music in all directions, synthesizing free-jazz passion with all that came before and after. Just blocks away Philip Glass and Steve Reich were imagining a new sort of classical music, pulling an end run on European tradition using jazz, rock, African and Indian sources, and some New York hustle.
Divided into 20-minute suites, the Once Upon a Time in New York documentary moves from disco’s birth to punk’s, interviewing the New York Dolls’ David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, Richard Hell, Lenny Kaye, and other figureheads. It also features thrilling footage of pre-fame Deborah Harry and Blondie ripping through a cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” at CBGB. Also worth it: Talking Heads drummer Chris Franz telling the story of asking CBGBs owner Hilly Kristol for an audition. His response, according to Franz: “Well, I could put you on in front of the Ramones tomorrow night.”
Moving to the Bronx and the rise of rap, Once Upon a Time … features typically thoughtful analysis from Fab Five Freddy, present-at-the-creation recollections from DJ Kool Herc, Chuck D, writer Nelson George, Grandmaster Flash, and others.
Blondie’s visit uptown to a late 1970s hip hop party is one focus. Told by Grandmaster Flash, the story involves Deborah Harry and Fab Five Freddy approaching Flash, who was DJing. She told him that she was going to make a song about him. He dismissed the comment. That song, “Rapture,” became the first No. 1 record to include a rapped verse, what Freddy calls “probably the first time most people heard this idea of rapping.”
Said Blondie’s Chris Stein near the end of the documentary, “One of the guys from Wu-Tang told me it was the first rap he ever heard — so that’s kind of a mind-f*ck.”
Watch it here.
And a shout-out to Todd Burns at Music Journalism Insider for the tip on this. His newsletter is recommended reading for anyone who digs writing (and podcasting and posting) about music.