His work was by no means leftfield or underground -- Tom Moulton mixed the treacly disco anthem "Love Is the Message" after all -- but A Tom Moulton Mix offers evidence that it was nonetheless revolutionary.
"Í always wanted to make songs sound like a suite. Each record would go through different movements to produce a mini musical masterpiece."
-Tom Moulton, quoted in Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 by Tim Lawrence
Tom Moulton was the first master of the disco remix, and the UK reissue label Soul Jazz has just released a double CD of his best work. Soul Jazz needed the room; disco remixes were long. Moulton constructed his remixes by extending the instrumental sections of records, repeating the musical passages that dancers liked best. His work was by no means leftfield or underground -- Moulton mixed the treacly disco anthem "Love Is the Message" after all -- but A Tom Moulton Mix offers evidence that it was nonetheless revolutionary.
A music executive turned male model, Moulton was an unlikely disco hero. His story starts with a 1972 trip to Fire Island, a gay resort destination near New York City where amenities ranged from drug-fueled dance parties to drug-fueled sex parties. The island was a haven, a place where gay men could escape discrimination and develop their own culture. It's no coincidence, then, that Fire Island was an incubator for the underground dance scene that became known as disco.
Early disco on Fire Island was basically a matter of gay white men dancing to Black music: Motown R&B, Philadelphia soul, and even African pop. Moulton had never seen anything like it. His fascination with the phenomenon led him to record reel-to-reel tapes to be played at the Fire Island nightclubs. On these tapes, Moulton meticulously mixed one song into the next, sustaining beats with far more precision than a live DJ could. The tapes made his name among disco DJs and club owners and suggested the shape of his disco remixes to come.
Moulton became convinced by his mixtape work that the standard three minute long dance single was too short to sustain dancers' interest. He envisioned lengthy, technically precise dance suites, grandiose works of pop that mimicked the formal characteristics of symphonies. (In this respect, his work shares something vital with David Axelrod's.) When the single for Don Downing's "Dreamworld" hit the racks in 1974 with Moulton's disco remix on the B-side, DJs and dancers had their first demonstration of his theories.
"Dreamworld" has the easy swagger of a late period Norman Whitfield tune (the Temptations' "Law of the Land" was an early disco staple). The disco remix, included here, is twice as long as the original; in effect, Moulton doubled the song back on itself. Doing so was tricky, as music historian Tim Lawrence described in Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Around the middle of the remix, most of the instruments drop out, leaving the percussion as a bridge between the first iteration of the tune and its return. It was a sleight-of-hand, which, according to Lawrence, represented the first studio-engineered break.
By 1976, Moulton had remixed hundreds of tunes. In the course of one experiment, he inadvertently invented the twelve inch "super single", which became the industry standard for disco releases. (His studio had run out of seven inch blanks. To avoid a delay, he mixed his work onto a spare blank twelve inch.) The larger medium did more than simply allow for longer songs. The size of a record's grooves determines both its volume and its fidelity; the larger the groove, the louder and better the record. Stretching a single song across twelve inches of vinyl gave its grooves a lot of space, and the new disco singles were louder, crisper, and longer.
Moulton's finest material depended on this new format. A Tom Moulton Mix offers impressive examples of Moulton's long form craftsmanship. Take his remix of "Keep on Truckin'", which had been a smash hit for former Temptation Eddie Kendricks in 1973. Moulton took advantage of the fuzzy, loping bassline to seamlessly repeat musical passages for a steady but thrilling eleven and a quarter minutes. The tune builds momentum for nearly two minutes before Kendricks's vocals even make an appearance. And when they do, they sound huge.
In fact, Moulton's mixing is so subtle and his mixes so technically accomplished that it's hard to hear where his work begins and the original recording ends. Overall, however, his tracks sound thoroughly processed, thoroughly unlike live music. The effect, as on Andrea True Connection's surprisingly resilient "More, More, More", is a sinuously organic dance groove that, on further inspection, turns out to be mechanically precise.
And then there's Orlando Riva Sound's "Moonboots". Almost completely devoid of lyrics (two female singers casually intone the words "Moon" and "boots!"), the tune is a distillation of Moulton's process. (One often gets the sense that the vocalist, or, at least the song, keeps getting in Moulton's way.) The live drums get a boost from an odd electronic percussion sound, which resembles a funky faucet dripping, to sustain nine and a half minutes of brightly colored synthesizer loops. Released in 1977, the same year as Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer's landmark "I Feel Love", the song sounds to modern ears like electronic disco from an alternate universe, one where Emerson, Lake, and Palmer head the world's superpowers.
All told, this is a fascinating look back at the origins of dance music and the impact made by one unlikely but incontrovertible artist.