Clubs that changed the world: New York’s Sound Factory

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.

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