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Clubs that changed the world: New York's Sound Factory (2014)




I attended the Sound Factory half a dozen times in late 1994. These were the last months that Junior Vasquez's legendary after-after-hours gathering existed, before it was shut down by Mayor Rudy Giuliani's "quality of life" forces - a fate also shared by most other New York superclubs of the era, including Tunnel and Limelight.

I should tell you right now I'm probably not the best authority on the Sound Factory. Not only did I just witness the last flush of the club's fabled six-year run, but I'm... well, straight. And the Sound Factory was, of course, an establishment run by and for gay men. I'm sure someone else could tell you more about the party's glory years of the early '90s, and how monumental it was for gay culture in New York and around the world. Much like its direct forebear the Paradise Garage, it had an international cult following based mostly on word of mouth. Among the devotees were a who's who of elite players in the underground on both sides of the Atlantic, along with Junior's famous friends like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.

So I may not have an insider's perspective, but my handful of excursions to the Sound Factory were life-changing experiences for me - as was the case for so many others who made the same pilgrimage. I hadn't seen anything like its throbbing, stomping intensity before, I haven't since, and I don't think I ever will again.

The Sound Factory manifested itself to me at just the right moment. I'd been in New York for a year and was frustrated in my search for the heart of the city's house-music scene, which seemed fragmented and directionless. The superclubs bored me to death, despite their carefully marketed reputations for wildness and debauchery. The dominant style of music was a bland breed of hard house that was sorely lacking in soul; the dancefloors were so crowded with preening club kids and poseurs you couldn't actually dance.

The various rave parties that flourished after the NASA weeklies ended tended to have much better music (jungle, techno and progressive house), but the clientele were mostly glowstick-toting teenaged ravers with unfortunate facial piercings, absurdly ill-fitting jeans and awkward dance moves. I couldn't really relate to them or even hold a conversation with most of them. Though I was only in my early twenties they made me feel old and cynical.

There were plenty of good times; but the vitality, diversity and inspiration of the first house explosion seemed to have departed the city. Or was I looking in the wrong places? In those years I was still pretty much on my own whether shopping for records or hunting for parties; I was an outsider, a small-town kid from very far away, and had a lot to learn about the music and its history. I felt like I was chasing a mythical beast without being sure what it looked like.

The Sound Factory was, if not exactly what I was looking for, then a crucial piece of the puzzle. It was also a clue as to what the city was all about. Much like my first baseball game at Yankee Stadium, the Sound Factory made me feel like I suddenly "got" New York. Epic downtown afterhours parties in shady locations are as much a part of New York as bagels and bad coffee, and have been for decades, if not centuries.

Still, the Sound Factory was something special. I'll never forget the scene I witnessed when my buddy Ryan and I first stepped inside the cavernous club at 530 West 27th Street early one Sunday morning in August. (Ryan was a Cooper Union student and musician, who was also straight and also from a small town on the West Coast). It was about 2am and the party was just starting to get going (it wouldn't reach its peak until 6 or 7 am).

The huge dancefloor was packed with men (and a few women), but it was completely dark except for a couple of strobelights, and I couldn't make out much detail - I couldn't even see the other side of the room; the steel columns and the hundreds of dancers just sort of faded off into the foggy distance. In the darkness overhead loomed what is surely history's biggest disco ball; the shroud of fog and flickering strobes made it seem like a hovering spacecraft. There was a powerful sensation of movement - the mysterious but unified movement of a tremendous mass of people, like a tribal ritual, individual identity and desire absorbed into something much bigger.

The key to this was the overwhelming sound of course. The party was aptly named; the sound system was world famous for a reason. If you know of a better system anywhere, any time, please let me know. But though the sound was gigantic, monumental, it was perfectly tuned and adjusted for comfort - nowhere on the floor was it too loud or overbearing. It was all-encompassing, but you could also hear the person next to you, and hear each clap, whistle or foot-stomp from the dancers.

When we first arrived, 'Clashback' by Sharkimaxx (one of Felix Da Housecat's early guises) was filling the vast room with massive, pulsating noise. 'Clashback' is a weird record, even for Felix - not really house in any familiar sense, not really techno, some bastard industrial offspring of the two - but on this system it was completely insane; its buzzing synths, alarm sounds and repetitive mad-villain spoken-word creating a feeling of sustained panic. It didn't even seem like music, but pure sound beaming from some other dimension. I'd been looking for what I thought would be a very gay, very fabulous and fun after-hours party, but had stumbled onto some dark, strobelit future-tribal proto-rave that was scary in its intensity - and made most of the other parties I'd ever been to seem weak by comparison. The fact that most of the revelers were gay men made it even more primal.

I looked up at the huge DJ booth, which was suspended high overhead in the corner near the entrance, and there was Junior Vasquez, lit from beneath, intently surveying the scene, as if determining how far to push us, and directing the light show. The moment seemed to go on forever. 'Clashback' is a long record anyway, and he may have pitched it way down and played with two copies of it to prolong the madness; in any case time had already lost its meaning on that dancefloor. And Junior had no intention of disrupting this feeling by anything so pedestrian as mixing two songs together. The record played all the way out. When it ended, the speakers filled with silence and the strobes went out. The darkened room was overcome with an astonished, whispery buzz.

Then the intro of the next record started - just a simple high hat, but the effect was powerful in that heightened state, and the packed floor started rippling with movement again, soon followed by the thunderous sound of the dancers stomping their feet on the hardwood floor - anticipating the kick long before it dropped. The light show changed dramatically; colour and melody returned to our lives.

And so the party proceeded until almost afternoon - each new record feeling like a new impossible peak, each one stretched out into a timeless time, exploring different moods and feelings from blissed-out trance to pure joy, with the crowd carried along on a wave. Junior never once mixed two records that night, yet it was one of the strongest dance vibes I've ever experienced.

As I explored the club that night. and over the next few months as I returned with Ryan and other friends, I was fascinated by the crowd. The Sound Factory seemed to be its own world, with its own rules and hierarchies in place below the surface of the ecstatic sense of togetherness on the floor. I noticed most of the muscle boys with no shirts on were clustered together in one quarter of the dancefloor - later I found out this spot was called "Muscle Beach."

The drag queens had their own thing going on in another area; I tended to shy away from their glittering fierceness. The grittier and more street-style banji boys were interspersed on the rest of the floor with wildly costumed club kids (including girls in skimpy burlesque costumes), the more conventionally attired, and oddballs like us, the whole thing forming a colourful Mardi Gras effect.

The crowd was predominantly white, with some black and Hispanic guys in the mix. (Despite his Hispanic DJ name, Junior himself is a white guy from Allentown, Pennsylvania.) In the party's earlier years there were far more black guys in attendance; some demographic shift had taken place before my time. House clubs were often a refuge from the problems of the world, but of course they weren't completely immune to its tensions and prejudices.

If you watched the crowd closely, you'd see some unusual things, even by New York nightlife standards. Once, very late in the morning, I saw a young guy in a sailor suit - a real sailor suit, apparently belonging to some foreign navy. He approached the dancefloor with painful shyness, staring wide-eyed at the scene. Soon after, a middle-aged Hasidic Jew in full traditional garb walked in, slowly making his way around the dancefloor with a big smile. To this day I can't figure out how he got past the doormen. I wondered out loud if the two were somehow connected - a theory that my friends laughingly shot down.

The overall production was superb. At times there would be muscular go-go dancers, naked except for white terry loincloths, performing on each of the four giant speaker stacks - twirling glowsticks on ropes as if they were flaming torches, enhancing the Dionysian mood. The service was top-notch - the staff were all super-professional, the dancefloor and restrooms were immaculately clean. There was no alcohol available. I'll repeat this in case it's hard for contemporary clubbers to believe: there was no alcohol available. The bar served only juice and water; late at night there would be copious bowls of strawberries, orange slices or chocolate mints to refresh the revelers.

There was original artwork hung around the common areas (including paintings of Junior himself, affirming his status as a superstar, if not object of worship), along with great little touches like fresh-cut flowers. This attention to detail extended to the technical side of things; Junior's custom setup, featuring three suspended turntables, as well as the sound system, were impeccably maintained to maximise the impact of the aural environment. I never heard any hint of feedback, audio hum, scratches, pops or skipped records.

Let me be clear that, though we were straight (probably comically so to any observer), at no time did we feel unwelcome or in the way. It was not a hookup joint or a sex party. For the most part, guys came to the Sound Factory to dance all night; and the inclusive spirit of house was a fundamental part of the vibe. Though we were surrounded by hundreds of gay men dancing sensually and ecstatically, some of them with not much on, no one tried to hit on us or touch us - and in general there was nowhere near as much groping or fondling as you'd see at a straight club. (The lack of alcohol may have had something to do with this too.)

To this day, these experiences are a potent reminder for me that all the distrust and suspicion bred by a homophobic society are actually quite flimsy when people make genuine efforts to overcome them. Beyond that let's just say that, having seen the Sound Factory, I'm not easily intimidated by any social setting.

True, I didn't feel it was "our" party, and it would have been wrong to try to claim it as such. If anything I felt like we were the lucky ones invited to share something special as long as we behaved - not stupidly hitting on the few women; not reacting adversely if a guy smiled at us. Anyway, we were pretty clueless about the goings-on in that world; the back-room dramas that were part of any club eluded us there. We just minded our business and danced.

Of course, if there'd been many more of us straight boys, it would have spoiled the mood; and to this end the doormen were notoriously strict. Once when we came with a larger group, we were turned away because there were too many women with us, and a couple of us were wearing sneakers (raver alert!). Having anticipated the party all week, we were gutted - but there was no sweet-talking or bribing the stern doormen.

Fortunately we usually got in. It was the one-of-a-kind musical experience that kept us coming back. A bit like the Garage, the Sound Factory was not only a party, but its own style of music that was hermetically contained within that world, made up of other styles and strands that were transformed when presented to that crowd on that system. Like Larry Levan before him, Junior didn't play anywhere else and didn't tour; he was content to be the king of his realm on 27th Street.

I can't emphasise enough how devastating almost any record seemed within those walls, and Junior was a diabolical genius at programming the midnight-to-noon marathons. He was already 45 years old then, and had decades of experience, not to mention records, to draw on; but he played mostly new music, often making records into hits singlehandedly.

Earlier in the morning he favoured edgier stuff: the druggy, hypnotic tribal-tech "Wild Pitch" sound developed by DJ Pierre and his protege Felix Da Housecat; tech house from Europe as well as American producers like Josh Wink; or the booming, funky New York hard house "Sex Tracks" sound epitomised by DJ Duke. As the party wore on he'd get more melodic and vocally, with fun Italian and English progressive, or the quintessential soulful sounds of New York from the likes of David Morales or Frankie Knuckles, whose remix of 'Pressure' by the Sounds of Blackness was a Sound Factory standard.

Junior's own productions and remixes of everyone from Ce Ce Peniston to Madonna - custom-made for the Factory floor, always epically long and characterised by a super-saturated, baroquely layered sound - were crucial to any given set. Towards the end of the morning he'd drift away from house and play anything from Garage classics to corny and obvious gay anthems like 'It's Raining Men'. In one of my favourite late-morning moments, he dropped Tears for Fears' 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World.'

But Junior worked hard to be enigmatic and unpredictable. If you thought the mix was getting too pop, he'd drop some breathtaking soul. Just when you thought you'd never hear him beatmatch, he'd spend an hour doing just that and it was surprisingly smooth. Even when not mixing, as was much more usual, he made each record his own by switching between two copies, playing with the EQ, cutting in sound effects or spoken word, and above all letting the silence between records create drama.

Some of what Junior played would be pretty cheesy in any other context, or in the light of day. The Hed Boys' handbag-house anthem Girls and Boys had me singing "Girls and boys are dancing on the floor!" along with the rest of the crowd when I first heard Junior play it; but when I listened to it in the shop soon after, I realised what a horrible record it really was. The more mediocre of his productions, especially in later years, tended to sound too busy on smaller systems, too overarching, with flabby kicks and harsh strings.

Quite a few Sound Factory classics haven't stood the test of time for me; like many of my generation I was eventually pulled in the direction of deeper and more soulful house. However Junior was and remains a huge influence on me as a DJ - for the control he had over his crowd, the wicked glee he took in manipulating people with pure sound, and the powerful and cinematic sense of narrative he created over his long sets. Any DJ who experienced the Factory would probably say the same thing.

It couldn't last. The Sound Factory was busted up by NYPD one Sunday morning in March of 1995; undercover cops had made a series of drug transactions. The owners were soon evicted. Though I can't agree with Giuliani's draconian approach, the scene wasn't all fun and games. Many revelers at the Factory were on some pretty hard stuff. Some dark stories have emerged from those times; witnesses have described seeing people overdose in the back rooms or on the streets outside the club. Junior himself struggled with an addiction to crystal meth.

The space eventually re-opened in 1996 as Twilo, aiming at a larger, mixed clientele, booking international talent - including part-time residents Sasha and Digweed - and becoming a destination in its own right until it too, was shut down by the authorities in 2001. Twilo could be rocking at times, and I had some memorable nights there with amazing guest sets from the likes of Josh Wink and Stacey Pullen. But it was nothing like the Sound Factory, which even then seemed like a dream. That dream remains vivid for me, permanently burned in my mind as a reminder of the heights a night out could attain.



© 2014 Jim Poe (inthemix.com.au)