Here’s an only slightly wonkish story about a car-beholden city and how a moment of its media history moulded part of the popular culture artefacts I sometimes curate as a distraction from the real work I should be doing. This essay was unintentionally inspired by a recent conversation with Shawn Micallef.
Introduction: The cusp between decades is also the most culturally misunderstood.
Beginning around 1990, there was a place in Houston which ever-briefly left a tiny, but fascinating cultural impact on Houston’s nightspace. It was actually two discrete places, sited side by side, at the secondary intersection of Westheimer Road and Yoakum Boulevard, in the inner urban neighbourhood of Montrose. One was the dance club Deca/Dance. The other was the independent record shop Noo Beat.
Deca/Dance was located at the Tower Theater, an old art deco cinema built during the Great Depression. At the time, it was serving a transitional role of hosting dance venues and concerts between its golden years as a cinema and its undignified (if not mildly ironic) fate today: as a stucco-cladded façade for a franchised video rental outlet.
In Toronto, we can genuinely lament the demolition and “accidental” losses of historic buildings to acute ailments such as the “New Years Weekend Infernoitis” or “May Two-Four Tissue Disintegration“. In Houston, however, that the Tower Theater structure — what remains of it, at least — still survives is, by Houston’s amnesia for architectural history, something extraordinary, even if now grotesquely unrecognizable. It’s not exactly what Jane Jacobs had in mind when she argued that new ideas need old buildings. Houston’s meagre approach to preservation is a bit like the architectural equivalent of a Borg assimilation: that which is not destroyed will be unrepentantly brought into line with everything else to function like everything else. Even in 2011, old habits never die.
Houston: a cultural hotbed for international dance music? Impossible.
In 1990, the Tower Theater was the site for Deca/Dance, previously known as Clubland. In Houston’s constellation of underground dance venues, Deca/Dance — alongside other venues Xcess, Power Tools Live (aka., PTL), The Ocean Club, and Numbers — was somewhat of a secondary to Houston’s supergiant: Club 6400. By contrast, Numbers, which survives today, is the white dwarf that will burn dimly and steadily until probably the end of time.
During the late 1980s, this space helped to shape Houston as an improbably North American locus for transacting the cultural currency of international dance music. Along with Houston, one could make a case for San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Dallas, Detroit, and New York as this continent’s key generators of cultural exchange for an international discotheque sound, between circa 1986 and 1992.
Houston was a cultural generator if but for the sole reason that a hand-picked selection of very obscure dance tracks from abroad were remixed, mastered, and pressed to “white label” bootleg vinyl 12-inch singles locally, sold for hefty sums, and played in local clubs. These pressings, while technically circumventing copyright rules of the day, generated a cottage economy for these cultural commodities. Songs from cult artists made it onto these “white label test pressings”: (UK) Vision, Colm III, The Big Supreme, Nick Heyward, and Ho Ho Kam were just a few.
Club 6400: a life larger than itself
Over a brief, bright existence, Club 6400 — so named for its location at 6400 Richmond Avenue — created a soundscape for other local clubs to mimic in both format and audience share. The venue, itself a physical, but cultural medium, filled a vacuum for younger adults during what was a culturally starved moment just prior to the spread of decentralized internet technologies. “6400″, as it was informally known by most, was a successive brand name for an otherwise nondescript discotheque and watering hole called the Hippo Club.
As this cultural medium, 6400 owed much of its creative content inspiration and existence to an antecedent discotheque in Dallas called the Starck Club — so named after a young, then unknown industrial designer named Phillipe Starck. Starck’s extraordinary interior design for the club was not only one of his early centrepieces, but at the time was also an emblematic work of architecture: it was one of the first spatial examples which fused together modernist and post-modernist cues. By contrast, 6400 was a sparse commercial structure built for drinking, some dancing, and hosting live tours.
Facilitators of cultural commodity: the DJ booth and the indie music retailer
For Houston, 6400 was briefly the uncontested nexus of the city’s underground dance universe, and it informed how the demand for other venues like Deca/Dance later came into being. As a key arbiter for tracking down and disseminating hitherto unknown cultural content from elsewhere, 6400′s deejays pulled together dance songs which would have never otherwise found their way to Houston’s music bins, much less onto local radio broadcasts. The word “import” — as in “import 12-inch single” — was endowed with a kind of mystique ridiculously disproportionate to the intrinsic value of the materials on which the still-newish singles were pressed:
“Hey, did you hear the Record Shack got in the import for Telekin’s ‘Imagination’?” [cue Pavlovian look of excited astonishment on person #2′s face] “It’s the first copy in two years they’ve had in stock.” The Record Rack, infamous for its seedy co-owner, was known by many names — some less kind than others. Unbeknownst to most, Telekin were from Los Angeles but managed to record a total of three songs at Brian Wilson’s studio in Santa Monica, which was then distributed for the Benelux market.
“OMG really? Wasn’t that the wickedly rare 6400 song?” Since 1989, the metonym “6400″ had come to signify an ad hoc, though largely frozen playlist of songs heard first (if not exclusively) on Club 6400′s radio simulcasts. A handful of these songs still linger in the collective consciousness of Houston’s commercial radio “retro” playlists.
“Yeah, the Dutch pressing. Bruce wants $125 for it.” Bruce was the notoriously shady co-owner and general manager for this shop. If you can somehow visualize a roly-poly, red-faced, middle-aged gay man who spoke with a ridiculous drawl, owned a newish sports car (with vanity plates), and was anecdotally infamous for his sexual advances towards teenaged boys who shopped in his store, then you’d be off to a pretty decent start.
“$125? That’s highway robbery!” It was.
The letters X, E, and the number 6400: a fine time?
Less considered is how Club 6400 was Houston’s de facto homologue to Fac51: The Haçienda — or just The Haçienda: a live performance discotheque created in Manchester in 1982 by Factory Records. Factory were best known as the now-defunct recording label for, amongst others, Joy Division, New Order, and the Happy Mondays. The shared functionality of these otherwise different venues — in addition to being physical entertainment spaces — was their shared currency as city-specific cultural mediums, both in terms of being a site for cultural production, consumption, and dissemination. The same can also be said about Dallas’s Starck Club, whose business model and spacing more closely resembled The Haçienda than 6400′s did.
Unlike the Haçienda, which was also a live performance space for Factory artists, Club 6400 lacked a recording label. One could make a marginal case for Oak Lawn Records (a Dallas-based importer of European dance music) as a workable substitute, given how regularly Oak Lawn 12-inch singles made the rounds on 6400′s playlists. 6400 more than made up for this by allowing the deejays to season their sets with a remarkably varied, globally-geared selection of dance music, letting them explore and find this music of their own accord — be it through subscription-based DJ record pools or from travelling abroad.
Meanwhile, a myriad of ingestible chemicals openly coursed through 6400′s lounges and washrooms. For a time in the early 1980s, MDMA (“X”, as it was then known in Texas as shorthand for “Ecstasy”) was as accessible as candy from a confectioner’s jar — and sometimes almost as cheap. By the late 1980s, obtaining X had become a bit more challenging due to U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency raids, but it was still relatively easy for someone willing to track down a clandestine source. This phenomenon is notable because it preceded the 1990s rave culture that migrated from the UK, wherein “E” (also short for “Ecstasy”) had a much broader following and reputation. Around this time, 1988 and 1989, “raves” were still the confined domain of Thatcher-era, abandoned factory warehouses — in particular (and not surprisingly), around the Manchester area.
On the dance floor and on the air: the emergence of the simulcast
Club 6400 left an indelible mark on southeastern Texas because it was one of the first discotheques in Houston to simulcast its DJ booth programming live to FM radio — what we know here as “live-to-air” (such as what was once regularly heard on the Spirit of Radio CFNY). During the years between 1986 and 1992, three Houston radio stations — 93Q, Energy 96.5, and Power 104 — could be heard transmitting simulcasts direct from a night club, usually on weekend nights.
In what was probably an unintentional side-effect, such simulcasts empowered the geographically isolated and the car-less (in a poorly planned city where the latter barrier virtually guaranteed the former situation): it gave them a shared experience of a cultural activity occurring live within the city as both a real (physical) and imagined (broadcast) space, where musical content from origins well beyond Texas, the United States, or major American recording labels was being transacted between deejay and audience. 6400 simulcasts enabled those who were too young to enter the club with a means to sample what the dance floor was experiencing. For casual radio listeners thumbing across their dial, they tapped into what was happening within 6400′s frenetic, hormone-charged, often cocky, and undeniably heterosexual spaces.
These spaces were, in retrospect, largely separate from (and elevated over) the “urban”-, Tejano-, and gay-oriented dance clubs. The irony that much of the music simulcasted from 6400 was being marketed otherwise to a predominantly gay demographic was probably lost to many of 6400′s patrons, but this mattered little so long as the songs were readily catchy, upbeat, and even anthemic. Good tunes is good tunes. It’s also reasonable to argue that some suburban teens might have made sense of their own sexuality as a function of hearing this simulcasted dance music: some lyrics could confront the anomie of their isolation (“How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths, “Smalltown Boy” by the Bronski Beat, and “Waterfall” by Wendy & Lisa were probably the better known of these).
Because of Club 6400 simulcasts on radio station 93Q FM, it became possible to hear the 1986 Italian dance import of Taffy’s “Midnight Radio (I Love My Radio)” on, well, the radio at just after midnight — despite the song’s limited availability at only one or two independent shops found along lower Westheimer.
[As a side bar for those around the GTA who recall the Guess Who’s Domenic Troiano and the 1979 disco remix of his song, “We All Need Love“: is it just me, or do you happen to notice the uncanny resemblance between it and “Midnight Radio”?]
Imprisonment of mythos: the cultural trade-off when stubbornly trying to hold a Zeitgeist in place
This on-air accessibility to global dance music also made it feasible for imported acts to be heard in the unlikely paved world of urban Texas: from West Berlin (Mysterious Art, Umo Detic, the Michael Cretu oeuvre); the UK (Section 25, Baby Ford, The Big Supreme); Sydney (Big Pig); Montréal (Trans-X); Antwerp (Poesie Noire, Dirty Harry, Front 242); Tel Aviv (Ofra Haza); Chicago (Lil’ Louis & the World, Die Warzau); to San Francisco (Until December, the Maharg/Watt oeuvre).
This particular collection of names is forgotten now by all but a few people: predominantly ageing Gen X’ers in Texas who like to play a kind of “Reminiscing Game”. Anecdotally, if not statistically, this game appears to be played most often by men. The Reminiscing Game is now manifest through banal YouTube comments about “them good ol’ days“, revivals, proprietary web sites, vain profiteering efforts of re-selling the 6400 brand, and “club class reunions“.
This combination of post-Zeitgeist activities is endemic to Texas, and each facilitates the mythology and periodicity of an era now elevated to something sacred. To challenge it is to blaspheme. This of course sets up a situation wherein external changes are received poorly: to enhance or expand the 6400 oeuvre of music content is to challenge the putatively sacred cow. In Houston, that is generally still frowned upon, despite the several other speciality dance clubs whose niches were relevant to those regular audiences. After the tsunami of 6400, the content of little else was remembered. We are still left with the “6400 songs” — not the “Xcess songs”, not the “Some songs”, not the “PTL songs”, and certainly not the “Deca/Dance songs”.
Beginning at the end: Deca/Dance after 6400
Then some eight months after it opened as Club 6400, the building burnt to the ground. The cause was cited as accidental. Despite efforts to temporarily move to and re-open in a nearby building, 6400 was unable to retain the draw of people it once managed. By 1990, Club 6400, at least as a venue, was done. Nevertheless, descendants of Club 6400 around Houston — some distinctive and innovative, some unapologetic copycats — lingered for a few more years until grunge and 1990s-era techno sent the mass-culture Zeitgeist spiralling off in a completely new direction.
6400′s cultural impact, in a city starved of seeing its own creative diversity or means for cultural expression, cannot really be overstated. Its presence explains why subsequent spaces, such as Deca/Dance, enjoyed a fairly steady following by those weaned on the 6400 format.
My own walk through the moment
As a cultural event, this music obviously impressed me — even if at first I found the 6400 simulcasts to be very disorienting and even grating: I had never before heard songs being beat-blended with one another. I always wanted to reach the end of the song! Worse, with club deejays being fairly lax about mentioning what they had played, it made the riddle of deciphering what was being heard even more difficult.
By 1990, once I was old enough to enter the all-ages nights at some of these post-6400 clubs, I tried to find my way into also becoming a deejay. The problem with this was the ever-present barrier of the glass ceiling (or in this case, a glass turntable platter): every deejay back then was a guy. The presence of women behind the booth in Houston would not happen for several more years and long after I had moved away. In this nightspace, women were still regarded as ornamental objects; as tag-alongs for gay men maintaining a straight cover (i.e., the “fag hags”); and as the exhibitionistically enthusiastic dancers. There wasn’t really a lot of space for lesbian women to speak to the appeal of this culture — that is, where their own participation was concerned.
The economics of cultural symbiosis: Deca/Dance and Noo Beat Records
At Deca/Dance, there was an added amenity unique to its location: an adjacent indie record store named Noo Beat. Noo Beat not only obtained content for (and probably even informed) DJ playlists, but it also remained open on weekend nights until Deca/Dance made its rounds for last call. This made it possible for the first time in Houston to shop for music during a time of night when retail was otherwise closed — and right when this flood of imported dance music was being aired on radio simulcasts.
Deca/Dance’s simulcasts in turn attracted teen- and twenty-something nighthawks to Noo Beat — most of whom were willing to pay premiums for imported 12-inch singles and professionally mixed subscription CDs. It was a highly symbiotic relationship: commercial radio needed the club for advertising revenue; the club needed the record store for content; and the record store needed both the club and commercial radio for listeners to buy their inventory.
What kept this from being a tidy operation was a reputedly steady haemorrhage of cash by one of Noo Beat’s co-owners and the siphoning of store revenue to finance a coke habit. It was also said that this eventually effected a parting of ways between the co-owners, which in turn led to the eventual closure of Noo Beat. The visibly (and openly) gay co-owner moved to the Bay Area for a change of pace. The other partner, the one with the reputed taste for coke, more or less faded into the background.
To walk into Noo Beat around midnight on a Saturday was a fascinating experience. With exception for a few nearby dwellers, it was compulsory to drive “into town” from some post-1960 suburban outpost of unincorporated Houston — be it Kingwood, Katy, Pasadena, Sugarland, or Clear Lake City — to spend an inordinate amount of time finding a place for on-street parking. Luck permitting, one could find a place not terribly far away, but this was exceptional.
Beers, steers, queers, fears, and tears: the perils of articulating sexualities in the Montrose area
This car-based migration (and the frustration of having to park these four-wheeled metal horses) was a bona fide safety concern: housing stock in this central ward, the Montrose neighbourhood, was fairly run down and still years away from contemporary gentrification.
Off-street parking was scarce. While it was principally inhabited by a working-class gay community, a few pockets of upscale houses were pristinely kept behind wrought-iron-and-sod moats. Street lighting, meanwhile, was abysmal. Proprietor surveillance away from Westheimer was generally sparse to non-existent. And this environment imbued a founded sense of risk for someone braving travel after dark by foot — especially for women travelling alone.
Vice crimes, crimes against property, and index crimes were a normative part of life in the Montrose portion of lower Westheimer. Statistically speaking, while this might not have been exceptional when compared alongside crime statistics from other parts of the city, the drug sales, sex work, and property crimes (usually car break-ins) were largely framed within a socially marginalized context highlighting Houston’s virtually absent social welfare infrastructure.
Further, the stigma of homonormativity in Montrose by its openly queer residents was for many Houstonians a point of discomfit within a deeply conservative region. Targeted violence against visibly queer people was fuelled by an age-old, broad-stroked animus that reached from the city’s most powerful down to suburban teenagers living in mortal fear of being found queer.
In 1985, this animosity infamously erupted when a multi-term mayoral candidate was caught by a live television microphone. Just moments before Channel 13′s “Live at Five” broadcast was to begin, Louie Welch grinned while telling a reporter that one way to stop the AIDS pandemic would be to “shoot the queers.” Surprisingly, given Houston’s storied hostility towards the sexual diversity of its citizens, Welch lost the race and soon faded to grey obscurity. In 2009, Houston elected its first openly queer mayor, Annise Parker, whose own political activism began partly in response to Welch’s remark.
Death to queers: Paul Broussard and Phillip J. Smith
During summer 1991, a banker named Paul Broussard and his two friends left a gay-themed dance club located in the Montrose neighbourhood, just a few blocks away from the Deca/Dance-Noo Beat complex. The venue, Heaven, was sited just off Westheimer. Broussard was mercilessly beaten to death with a variety of crude implements wielded by a mob of ten young men. Many of them were still in high school. They had piled into a pickup truck and driven down into the city from the rural hinterlands of Spring and The Woodlands — both just beyond Houston’s unincorporated limits and some 40km north of Montrose.
The incident was provoked by a deliberate baiting: one of the “Woodlands Ten” asked Broussard and his friends where Heaven was located. When Broussard and friends gave directions, the ten guys felt this was sufficient to jump out of the truck and fly into a violent rampage. Broussard’s friends managed to escape with minor injuries, but his wounds were fatal — partly because paramedics hesitated to treat Broussard over dubious fears of contracting HIV and partly because he was sent to a general hospital, not to the nearby trauma care centre. In death penalty-savvy Harris County, none of the Woodlands Ten was sentenced to capital punishment. One still remains in prison.
A few months after Broussard’s death, another gay man, Phillip J. Smith, was shot and killed. The unprovoked shooting occurred just outside of Heaven.
This historical context offers an added dimension and significance to a space where proprietor surveillance — the presence of an open, active store front like that of Noo Beat — probably helped to foster a sense of highly localized safety relative to a perceptually volatile geography.
The sensation of a moment: a night inside Noo Beat
In May 1990, during what was probably my second or third visit to Noo Beat, I walked into a vibrant, lively space where the co-owners, plus an additional staff member, were handling customer requests for new music. The activity was frenetic: patrons streamed in from Deca/Dance, while others had come in from elsewhere. The blasting music within Noo Beat’s open door varied between a direct feed of the Deca/Dance simulcast (causing a simulated echo chamber effect) and from customer requests who wished to preview items for purchase.
On that evening, the sounds of “It’s Alright” by the Pet Shop Boys, a new remix of “White Horse” by Laid Back, the Beloved’s “Sun Rising“, and an imported remix of “Strawberry Fields Forever” by Candy Flip (itself a drug reference) drew people inside. The co-owners knew — the sober owner in particular — that as a patron, I was there as an impressionable music researcher (and consumer) whose interest in “the scene” was at best an observational one. I was not part of the overarching club-attending demographic, but I could still appreciate the culture both consumed locally and produced elsewhere during this period.
Noo Beat’s owners were a respectful management team who welcomed all clientèle — not just the professional deejays and socialites. Smokers congregated just outside the shop’s front doors, which faced a wide parking driveway. Beers and other obscured activity transpired at the back of the store, just behind a crudely-mounted curtain (probably a glorified blanket, actually).
The weather by this time of the year was already hot and muggy, as summer arrives both early and mercilessly so on the Gulf Coast. The air was characteristically thick and heavy with moisture and occasional breezes. These weren’t exactly cooling winds. They usually carried along the odorous stew of car exhaust (from sulphurous new cars and cars burning motor oil to old cars leaving behind un-burnt hydrocarbons); the distant cooking of fast food; fragrant perennials in yards; and the occasional waft of garbage or an unwashed person. The sounds of lower Westheimer were cacophonous: a mixture of partiers, cruising cars, staccato shouting, and the occasional cluster of visibly queer people making their way: these were predominantly fey and macho gay men, as well as effeminate crossdressers — all of whom were articulating very distinctive dialects and accents of gender. Lesbian women, not surprisingly, were seen far less frequently.
As a suburbanite, this experience was my first taste of an unregulated, unfiltered, even verboten culture. It seemed dangerous and intimidating. It was also utterly mesmerizing, even addictive.
Conclusion: remarks on Houston’s dance scene as a social-cultural phenomenon
Once Deca/Dance shut down sometime in 1991, Noo Beat’s traffic dwindled as each of the independent record store competitors further specialized with increasingly obscure niches. There was still a mainstream independent — the Record Rack, which drew in general buyers willing to pay extra for what could be had more cheaply at one of the other shops. For the more devoted and patient shoppers, there was a host of other specialities.
There was the venerable, punk- and indie-oriented Record Exchange. There was a tiny house crammed with cult European dance singles called Sound Plus, which was managed by a husband-wife team from Buffalo, New York (they had moved to Houston because they hated winter). There were a couple of austere shops staffed by aloof co-workers; these were off the beaten path of Westheimer and typically costly. When all else failed, there was a cat urine-saturated hellhole called Infinite Records. It made the incredible compactness of Sound Plus feel like a pristine cathedral by comparison. If you couldn’t find it elsewhere, then braving Infinite’s stench and lecherous co-workers was often where one would inevitably end up to find the nigh impossible. At least Infinite’s aircon, a necessity in Houston’s subtropical climate, was ice-cold.
How I departed from Houstonians (that is, from those of whom also cognizant of this moment in the city’s cultural history) was that Houston was never going to be my site of destination. It was the place to leave as quickly as possible; once done, it would be forever. I saw how rough it was for white gay men, which hinted at how much more difficult one was if queer and ostracized in any other way (such as being a Latina dyke). I could only imagine how rough it was for the transgender people who were often seen at night, many of whom seemed relegated to doing just sex work, not bar-hopping leisure. They were not people you saw at the record stores or in the dance clubs. As a young dyke not quite out yet, I knew I had to go elsewhere to find a generally improved public safety, personal security, and sense of place. None of this was to be found there.
In 2011, I can go online and pick through Web 2.0 content reminiscing over that era of Houston’s club music culture, where it seems as if time — and any awareness for similar music taking root in other cities — has stopped wholesale for those speaking (always fondly) of it. This is the problem, I found, with the nostalgic lure of re-living the “good ol’ times” in only one geographic area: as mentioned earlier, it confines one’s world view for popular music culture unfolding elsewhere during the same moment. To wholly understand how and why certain songs did well in Texas clubs and why the broader dance music culture was so vibrant at the sunset of the 1980s, it helps to realize what else was looked over in other places and why.
In some cases, it was probably because Texas club deejays had never visited cities with their own music culture hotspots — quite possibly because they were unaware of those places (before the World Wide Web, crowdsourcing and collective knowledgebases were unheard of). Some dance tracks skipped over by Houston-area deejays were, perhaps not surprisingly, politically charged beyond the acceptance or tolerance of many Texans. This went for music which: confronted South African Apartheid or racism; boasted an ethnically varied lineup (for some reason, the Thompson Twins and The Specials seemed to be glaring exceptions, though both were inclusive to the second British invasion of early 1980s new wave); clearly appealed to non-heteronormative sexualities; or advanced women as autonomous artists beyond the trope of the diva.
Despite macro-level similarities in the variety of content heard most frequently from city to city — often the province of major recording labels with the means to distribute across several national markets — the cross-pollination between, say, the Toronto club music scene and Houston’s was largely absent. Few, if any, Houstonians were ever made aware of Blue Peter, Strange Advance, Thomas Leer, Martha + The Muffins, Hugh Masekela, or Images in Vogue, just as few Torontonians knew of The Hunger, the Uptown Girls, T-4-2, The Judys, or Until December. Was there a shared cultural experience? In Vancouver-based Nettwerk Records, curiously, yes: Moev, Skinny Puppy, MC 900 Ft. Jesus, Manufacture, and Sarah McLachlan were well known in both geographies. And in The Bolshoi? Absolutely.
It was this geographical heterogeneity of a particular cultural moment which has made the research, comprehension, and synthesis of these temporally parallel events a fascinating topic for comparative review — even if these hold little academic currency and are best left for the armchair of a historian. Music — as much as physical artefacts, geographic landmarks, and urban morphology — immensely informs one’s psychogeography and geographic memory of place, space, and time. Its very intangibility holds the means to bind together tangible artefacts with a comprehensible cohesion.
For this essayist, the personal impact produced by cultural nightspaces across several cities from just over two decades ago — and how this was manifest in their nocturnal geographies — has been an incredible influence on my cultural literacy of the period, although to speak of it now with others is to acknowledge that the pertinence of this knowledge is quickly being lost to both a faded collective memory skewed by rose-tinted nostalgia and the uniform run of time.
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About Astrid Idlewild: Astrid (@accozzaglia) is an urban design candidate from the School of Urban Planning at McGill University. She completed her HBA in Canadian and urban studies at the University of Toronto in 2009. She is a film photographer, bike courier, creator of the TTC subway shirts, and researcher for the Kodachrome Toronto: 1935–2010 project.