Al Kent: “If people danced, great; if they bought drinks, even better”

Ahead of the Glaswegian DJ’s new disco compilation, The Men in the Glass Booth, we get an insight into the significance of the DJs that inspired him

Mention the names Walter Gibbons or John Luongo to your average club punter and you’d be lucky to receive more than a blank look in return. This might be about to change: Al Kent, the Glaswegian DJ and founder of Million Dollar Disco, has curated an enormous compilation celebrating the evolution of the 70s disco seen. Released on BBE, The Men in the Glass Booth explores a sound that has influenced hundreds of DJs and musicians over the decades.

Gibbons and Luongo were among disco’s musical pioneers, responsible for the development of the role of the DJ and disco’s evolution into house and dance music. The compilation features five LPs of remixes and re-edits from likes of Bobby DJ Guttadaro, Tom Savarese, Jellybean Benitez and of course Walter Gibbons, featuring his revolutionary disco remix of Double Exposure’s Ten Percent.

A 40-page coffee table book is included in the album and delves into the history of the scene and the DJs that influenced it. The detail that The Men in the Glass Booth goes into is comprehensive to say the least, offering first hand accounts of intimate interactions between DJs and producers, the industry reactions to the spike in disco popularity and a series of gritty anecdotes from those within the scene.

We spoke to Al Kent prior to the release to get some perspective of how Gibbons and co have been in influencing today’s DJs, their unorthodox mixing methods and the nature of the scene in the 70s.

How have the likes of Walter Gibbons and John Luongo influenced the next generation of DJs?

In every way imaginable! Before these guys a DJ was simply employed to play records. If people danced, great. If they bought drinks, even better.

Starting with Francis Grasso, through John Luongo to Nicky Siano, Walter Gibbons and all the DJs represented on this album, the role of the DJ changed dramatically. The art of mixing began in this era, when DJs learned to keep a dance-floor moving through a combination of seamless blending and, in many cases, almost dramatic musical statements.

The current penchant for editing was also born in this era as a way of extending songs or creating unique versions to make an impression on the dance-floor. And, though he wasn’t the first DJ to be involved in mixing records, Walter Gibbons was the first DJ to be credited with creating a 'disco version' of a song.

Everything today’s generation of DJs is accustomed to can be traced back to the disco era.

Are they well-recognised for the work they've done?

I think they’re beginning to get that recognition. Books like Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and Love Saves The Day have been important in telling the story. I’m not sure people will ever realise quite how significant these DJs were though.

What was Gibbons like in the recording studio?

He was very positive, very imaginative and extremely tenacious. He pushed engineers out of their comfort zone, which they enjoyed. Apparently he’d often bring friends into sessions as he respected the opinion of people who understood his music, rather than record label types. He was also a master at cutting tape. Some of his remixes are made up of several different passes of the track, recorded to tape then spliced together by Walter.

You can hear how much fun he had in the studio on his mix of The Salsoul Orchestra’s 'It’s Good For the Soul' – the voices and whistling you hear on that record are Walter and his friend Andrea Fiume, who he’d invited into the session.

What kind of physical cutting and editing did Gibbons undertake when performing?

Walter’s DJing style has often been compared to early hip hop DJs. But since he was doing this quite some time before the likes of Flash, it’s hard to know where he got the idea and how he developed the skill.

He was known for finding these really short tracks, or just intros in some cases, and extending them infinitely with two copies of the record ('Two Pigs and a Hog' and 'Happy Song' being the most obvious examples). François Kevorkian recreated Walter’s live cut of 'Happy Song' which he pressed on a Sunshine Sound acetate based on his memory of what Walter did live. If you compare the section of music from the original track with what François recreated, you’ll get a good idea of how good Walter was in the booth!

What was so special about the release of the 12-inch single?

Initially the 12-inch single was simply an accident. Tom Moulton had to cut a test pressing and no 7-inch discs were available. So a short song was spread over a larger surface, which had a remarkable effect on the sonic quality of the pressing. This was obviously a DJ’s dream at the time. Some labels started pressing up promotional copies of certain songs to give to DJs only, but Salsoul took it a step further and released 'Ten Per Cent' by Double Exposure as a commercial 12-inch.

As mentioned above, Walter Gibbons was credited for the 'disco blend' on this record, which opened doors for countless DJs who’ve followed.

What affect did the nature of the disco community have on DJs?

It’s fair to say that the disco scene in it’s heyday was extremely hedonistic. There is a massive gay element to the development of the scene and there’s a school of thought that says that after Stonewall there was a feeling of liberation which led to the kind of debauchery disco has become synonymous with. And of course there was an undeniable influence of drugs at play too.

It’s difficult to separate the DJs from the 'disco community' as they were a massive part of that. The two are intertwined. They came from the same backgrounds, lived the same lifestyles, took the same drugs. They just happened to have good records too.

What were the differences in the sounds produced by the Philadelphia and New York scenes? Why were they different?

Philadelphia, or specifically the records on PIR, were the blueprint for disco. The strings, the uplifting vocals, the solid productions all fitted the brief perfectly. What happened in New York (though not exclusively in New York I hasten to add) is that tracks were tailored more for a club environment.

While Gamble and Huff were producing songs that may or may not cross over into the clubs, certain labels were making records specifically for those clubs. The involvement of DJs in the production process was a massive factor here. The DJs knew what the crowd reacted to and applied their theories to their remixes. So tracks became longer, breakdowns were created, effects applied, all with the specific intention of exciting a dance-floor.

How did the 70s, a decade of social and political change, influence disco and the style of music created?

As I mentioned above, gay liberation had a massive influence on the development of disco. There was a lot of poverty, a lot of social unrest, a lot of discrimination in the air. Whether disco would have happened as it did without that sense of oppression or exclusion is hard to say, but people feel liberated when they dance!