Attack editor Greg Scarth calls one of the true pioneers of dance music for an in-depth chat about sound systems, drug addiction and his memories of Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan.
Sometimes reputations are exaggerated over time. In the case of Nicky Siano, the opposite is probably true. Having been a mainstay of the New York disco scene throughout the 1970s, Siano all but retired from music in the mid 1980s, first to overcome the drug addiction which played a role in his termination as resident DJ at Studio 54, and then to spend time working with people with HIV.
While his friends and contemporaries – including Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles – rightfully took credit for the role they played in shaping club culture, it’s only more recently that Siano has received his acknowledgement as one of the architects of dance music. That contribution can’t be underestimated, given that Siano was commissioning custom-built sound systems, experimenting with three-deck setups and exploring the potential of beat matching at his Gallery club back in the early 1970s.
We called Nicky to discuss his forthcoming birthday celebrations – which include a party in a Coney Island bumper car disco and an appearance in London alongside Danny Krivit – and hear why he believes his work with people with HIV is much more important than anything he’s achieved in music.
Attack: You’ve got your birthday coming up. Tell us about the party you’ve got planned.
Nicky Siano: March 21st, I’ve rented out the Eldorado disco in Coney Island to give myself a 60th birthday party, along with my friend Diane who’s also celebrating 60. The reason I wanted this space so badly was because it’s got a Richard Long sound system. It’s got components in there that no one has seen in years, like this specific bass horn called the J-horn. Everyone knows the Bertha that Richard made, which is all over, but the J-horn, which he designed for the Roxy, goes deeper in the bass than the Bertha. These things go down to 28 Hertz. Funktion One speakers are designed to go down to 50, OK? Below 20 you can’t hear, so 28 is a preeettty low reading.
these were Richard Long’s favourite bass horns. We had a guy there doing an article and when we turned on the system I swear to god he almost pissed his pants.
These horns are taller than I am and the speakers sit at the top of the cabinet, then they baffle down and the sound comes out at the bottom scoop – it sort of looks like a letter J – so that’s why they go down so low, because there’s enough chamber that the speakers can do a more efficient job.
Danny Prosseda, who’s the sound man now and was friends was Richard, said that these were Richard’s favourite bass horns. They sound incredible. We had a guy there doing an article and when we turned on the sound system I swear to god he almost pissed his pants. You hear these new systems today with all these front-loaded speakers and then you go in a room where there’s speakers in cabinets that have baffles and chambers and the sound comes out very different. It’s much smoother. A lot of these sound systems today push you around, but this sound system makes love to you!
How long has this system been in place in the venue? Is it original?
Since 1981, but it was almost totally destroyed… when? Do you have any idea?
Oh, was it the hurricane?
Hurricane Sandy, very good! Coney Island is right on the water. The water level was above my head in the venue, the speakers were floating. The cabinets were so well made that with a little glue and a few more screws they were good to go.
This stuff was all hand made in the first place, of course.
Back then there was no one making commercial bass horns. I was the first person to have them in a club, in Gallery. Alex Rosner built them for me and then shortly after that Richard starting building them, and then met Larry and got a completely different idea about what they should be. [Laughing.] Larry wanted a very specific kind of bass sound, he wanted a very big sound, and Richard got that for him.
Was that not a sound you liked?
Larry went for a sound that he needed for his space. He had Reade Street first, and when he had Reade Street he approached it totally differently; he had a couple of Klipschorns and small bass speakers. The Garage was so big that he needed these massive Berthas. With the Levan extension!
For those of us who didn’t get to experience these spaces, can you explain the difference? How much bigger was the Garage than the Gallery spaces you had?
Gallery was 5,500 square feet, the Garage was about 30,000. His dancefloor was huge; I think four or six of my dancefloors would have fit in his dancefloor.
I’m hesitating to use the word disco to describe these spaces because I know you’re not keen on it. Can you explain why you don’t like the term?
Because when I started there was no term ‘disco’. What happened was that disco – the term and how it was utilised – was built around making money. That was the whole reason they wanted to label it, put it on records and sell it. They made money off that term and it eventually ruined it too. What they did was… You’ve seen the old Atlantic records that say ‘DISCO’?
So they took these record covers that were selling 300,000 copies without anyone hearing them, and they started putting all their garbage in there because they would sell blind. And they fucked people and it killed the genre, so I get really mad at what the term was used for. It was used to make money and ultimately to cripple the industry. And radio never liked the disco scene because it was disc jockeys in clubs playing the records and making them popular, not them. They lost their payola. It was a big deal. That’s why the whole attack on disco and the whole movement to kill disco, “disco sucks”, was done by a radio disc jockey. Very calculated.
Eddie Kendricks, ‘Girl, You Need A Change Of Mind’. By the time it gets to the end of that record I’m usually having an orgasm.
So given that you started before the term disco had been inveneted, what did you call the music at that time?
R&B. I remember it well: “WBLS, the home of R&B.” Now R&B means a different thing, but that was the chart that you’d look at in Billboard, too: the R&B chart.
What was the music that got you hooked?
One of the greatest records ever: Eddie Kendricks, ‘Girl, You Need A Change Of Mind’. I mean, absolutely a brilliant piece of work. So exciting. By the time it gets to the end of that record I’m usually having an orgasm.
Anything Gamble & Huff. ‘The Love I Lost’, that has to be the perfect record. Even Earl Young, who drummed on that, says it’s the quintessential MFSB performance.
Those records turned out to be life-changing for you. Did it feel at the time like it was something huge?
Music had messages, it was about social commentary, getting people to unify, and they did.
No. It started to, but in the beginning it just felt like we were trying hard to give a party that was really good, and that was it. The only thing on our mind was to create a space where people could dance and really experience and enhance the music to the point where they would have the best time of their life. It was always a happy time; today a lot of people go to clubs and it’s a chore. Back then, oh my god, you’d look forward every day of the week to Saturday night and to go to The Gallery or The Loft. You were gonna hear music for the first time and you were gonna dance to songs with a group of like-minded people who’d be screaming and yelling and tambourining all around you. It was happy, it was exciting; today it’s none of those things. But my party will be like that, absolutely!
In the Love Is The Message movie you speak quite eloquently about the social situation around at that time and the fact that the music played into a bigger picture of social unrest and a society which still had hugely racist and homophobic elements and that you were trying to change things.
It was the height of the Vietnam War. A lot of the songs were about stopping the war. There’s a song called ‘Little Bit Of Love’ by Brenda & The Tabulations and the words are just calling out. Sisters and brothers, we’ve got to join together. All we need is a little bit of love to make things work, you know? To make this whole thing better. Music had messages, it was about social commentary, getting people to unify, and they did.
Did people discuss these things at the parties?
They discussed them but it wasn’t just like, “Oh this is what this song is saying,” it was like, “We have to go to the protest because the war is wrong, and maybe we can play this song while we’re walking and sing along because it really means something to us”. It wasn’t a huge connection between the music and social change, but we all knew that’s what it was about.
It’s quite striking to see the archive footage from The Gallery in the movie and see just what a racially and sexually mixed crowd it was.
Right. You get to spend an hour in The Gallery. You really get a sense of what it was like.
You shared a mix this week, recorded at The Gallery in 1976. We don’t often get an opportunity to hear recordings from these iconic clubs.
Did you listen to it?
Yeah, of course.
I loved that part.
I did that live.
That must have been fairly soon after you first started using three decks?
Right. I had the three things set up together. I would dream these things, or say this bassline sounds like that bassline, or that horn part sounds like this horn part. It was pure inspiration. I amazed myself when I listened to that. That’s what a DJ’s supposed to do, not just sit there and beat match. If you can create new music by combining several songs together, that’s the art of DJing.
Before I came back on the scene and started talking, everything that I did was credited to Larry! the facts aren’t out there correctly, that’s what bothers me.
This all relates back to the way you were pushing the technology as hard as you could, with things like the three turntable setup, or experimenting with beat matching.
Actually, I also had a little drum machine that I used to mix into. On the other side of that tape I mix into the drum machine at one point. It was a very early, simple drum machine – this is 1975, it was a very basic beat box – and I would mix into it on the fly and create a little drum track and then mix out of it.
You need to dig that one out, because other people get credited with doing that first!
A lot of things are credited to other people. Before I came back on the scene and started talking, everything that I did was credited to Larry! It was like, “Larry discovered ‘Love Is The Message’…” Larry wasn’t even playing records when it came out! [Laughing.]
Do you feel any bitterness or resentment about the way those stories have been mixed up over time?
[Long pause.] I wouldn’t say bitterness or resentment. It’s definitely like being angry that the facts are not being portrayed correctly, that’s what it is. It’s nothing to do with Larry or anything else, it’s just the facts aren’t out there correctly, that’s what bothers me. But now I think most people pretty much get the idea.
I’ll never forget one time I was playing at this party we did at Sound Factory Bar, and I was playing ‘Love Is The Message’ and this jet plane sound effect that I discovered and played at The Gallery all the time. This person comes over to the booth and says: “You’re doing a Larry Levaaaaan…” I almost lost it. No, Larry learned that from me, honey. He hung out at The Gallery and heard these records. I was the one who put them together. You’ve gotta try to be calm in those situations, but sometimes my Italian blood, ooh I could go off!
I can imagine. So, are there any big differences between the crowds that come to see you now compared to the crowds you played to in the 70s and 80s?
I stayed clean for six months, and then I went to the Garage, someone handed me angel dust and I smoked it. I had to stay away from the clubs, so I tried producing
It’s more white. I used to play to predominantly a Hispanic and black crowd. It was only 25% white back then but now it’s tipped the other way. But thankfully I have a lot of fans who are just as interested in the music as people were back then and who know the music just as well. It’s amazing to me, and they’re young people usually.
Do you still have people who come to see you who used to come to The Gallery?
My circle of friends, about 20 people, all came to The Gallery. Diane, who I’m celebrating with, was a Gallery member. They all will be there next Saturday.
So it’s not the kind of crowd that just wants to hear oldies, is that correct?
Yeah. They do wanna hear some classics but they wanna hear classics that they don’t hear that much. They don’t wanna hear ‘Relight My Fire’ or ‘Funkytown’, they wanna hear ‘Prophecy’ by Margie Joseph, ‘Common Thief’ by Vicki Sue Robinson, off the beaten track.
This is where your problem with disco comes into it. A lot of people’s perception of disco is…
All that commercial garbagey stuff. Right.
But what you were playing wasn’t the obvious stuff.
Even in that tape, it’s not the run-of-the-mill things that were out. ‘I Feel Love’ was out, ‘Spring Affair’ was out, and I played those records, but they weren’t played to death on my dancefloor, whereas other dancefloors, that’s all they played.
I wanted to talk a bit about your break from the music scene, in the 80s.
This is the most important part of my life. In ’83 I was having a terrible time with drugs. Drugs were the most important thing to me. Playing music wasn’t, just getting high was the only thing, and I knew I had to get clean and in order to do that I couldn’t go into clubs. I tried, I stayed clean for six months, and then I went to the Garage, someone handed me angel dust and I smoked it. I had to stay away from the clubs, so I tried producing – that’s when I put out ‘Pick It Up’.
I was about a year and a half clean and David Rodriguez, my best friend, was dying. I had been to a healing circle for people with AIDS and I wanted to bring that to a facility. They said it was a little bit too progressive but there was a drug counsellor position opening so I went there and no one wanted to deal with HIV people. This was 1983, no one would even be in the same room with people who were HIV positive. I became the AIDS coordinator, then I went back to school and got my degree in social work, became the AIDS supervisor at another programme, then I became the director of education at a big new nursing home that was opening for people with AIDS, and then I wrote the book No Time To Wait.
That was the most important work I did in my life. Just two days ago, I got a letter from someone who used to come to The Gallery who said that my book saved their life. They didn’t have medication then, so what I tried to do for people was offer them alternative therapies until the good medications came out. One very famous person who’s still around, an actor, came to me in ’93 and I saved his life. You can’t compare. In the beginning, in the 80s, it was horrible.
I can only imagine. Are you still involved in that world at all?
No, I’m not, but on a personal level someone very close to me is dealing with it and it’s still in my life.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Well, the medications we have now work well, but we’re seeing people failing on them too, after being on them 20 years.
To go back to what you were saying about your problems with drugs, do you think they were triggered by your involvement in clubs, or did it just exacerbate them?
Frankie brought in a whole new style of music. That is amazing. And he was such a sweet, lovable person. He was a doll.
You know, drug addiction is like a disease. It runs in the family. It’s a disease of the attitudes. When I was a kid growing up, I swore I would never do heroin. I thought it was repulsive that someone would put a needle in their arm. One day my best friend came to me and said: “I tried heroin and it was fantastic.” I put my arm out and turned my head, and the first time they did it to me right into the vein – no snorting or skin popping – and I felt like a piece of me that was missing was filled in.
I think it’s a hereditary thing, almost a deficiency in drug addicts of the endorphin production. They’re constantly in pain or uncomfortable. A lot of people are against methadone but I think it’s one of the greatest things. I think there should be something else that you can give these people.
So you realised that you had to get out of that situation for your own good, and you’ve spoken about your disillusionment with what disco was becoming, but one thing I’ve never heard you speak about is what you thought of what was going on with Frankie and the development of house music at The Warehouse.
You know, I lost touch with Frankie for a long while. In those early years of him really becoming the Godfather Of House… Which he certainly was. I mean, Larry was a great DJ but Frankie brought in a whole new style of music. That is amazing. And he was such a sweet, lovable person. He was a doll. It ruined me, that day [he died]. I remember it because I was in bed sleeping. I went to bed about 9.30 that night, I wasn’t feeling good, and my phone started ping ping pingping and I was just not looking at it. Finally I looked at it and I was just like, “Frankie?!” so I called his house right away. The people who found him [later] said: “We saw your call come in, thanks a lot, we couldn’t answer it, the police were there, da da da…” It just… You know, only the good die young. I don’t know. Frankie was just such a sweet man, so gentle, so real.
I’m sorry that it’s obviously still quite emotional for you to talk about this, but I wondered if there’s anything you could tell us about your life with Frankie and how you knew him, something that really sums up his character for those of us who didn’t know him personally?
I said: “Larry, come to a meeting with me.” He said, “I can’t... I’m going to get high.” He had got to that point with drugs.
My friend Donald introduced me to Frankie. Donald struggles sometimes – he’s a hairdresser, and he struggles sometimes to meet his bills. Frankie was talking to him one time and said: “What do you do in the shop? Do you not have a tablet or something to check your emails?” Donald says: “No, my computer is really old.” Three days later he gets an iPad delivered to him, inscribed on the back, “Love, Frankie”. That was Frankie Knuckles. You didn’t have to ask for something, he just was there. That’s the kind of friend he was.
I want to ask the same question about Larry. We have the perception of who Larry was and his legacy, how about your personal memory of him?
The last time I saw Larry, I was already sober and I was going to meetings. It was in a record store and he came in. He was dishevelled, filthy. I said: “Larry, come to a meeting with me.” He said: “I can’t… I’m going to get high.” He had got to that point with drugs.
I recently did a tour in Japan and the woman who brought him over showed me pictures of his first tour there. She had told him he couldn’t have any drugs in Japan, so he got on methadone and he came and he was sober except for methadone. You have to see these pictures. Larry had his hair combed, his face wasn’t ashen, he looked like Larry at 17 years old. Beautiful and glowing.
So finally I want to ask about you. How would you like people to see you? Where should we position you in the history of dance music?
[Pauses.] All I can say is there’s only one person who was there before me, and that was Mancuso. I mean, there was Francis Grasso, but let me put it this way: there’s only one person still alive who was there before me, and that’s Mancuso. I was there in ’71 playing records and I don’t know of any DJ playing now who goes back that far.
I love that people call The Gallery the first disco. That, for me, is a real honour.
What I did at The Gallery was I changed the way people designed clubs. Not only was I a DJ, but I designed the lighting, I designed the sound system. The way people did clubs back then was they had a bar and they put two speakers in. I took a blank loft space, I put in walls, I put in lighting, I put the DJ booth over there because it was better in that space, I put in perimeter seating, I made the dancefloor totally dark when the lights went out because it made the lighting look better… After that, people designed their clubs instead of just adding two speakers. I love that people call The Gallery the first disco. That, for me, is a real honour.
Well, I want to thank you on behalf of all of us.
Nicky Siano’s 60th birthday party will be held at the Eldorado Auto Skooter, Coney Island, New York, on Saturday March 21st. Tickets are available here. Nicky also plays The Loft, London, alongside Danny Krivit on Easter Sunday, April 5th. Tickets available here.