This history of dance music has no deficit of shaggy dog stories – but Moulton’s tale is a zinger.
A male model withan ear for black music and a clutch of music industry odd-jobs under his belt, Moulton had a Eureka moment during a trip to gay clubbing spot Fire Island in the early 1970s. Bothered by the DJ’s inability to keep momentum going on the dancefloor, he painstakingly cobbled together his own unbroken mix on reel-to-reel tape. His experiments proved the jump-off point for an illustrious career as a go-to mixer for generation after generation of disco artists, and set in motion a series of happy accidents that would permanently alter the face of club culture.
Installed as an A&R at Scepter Records, Moulton devoted himself to finding ways to modulate and extend dance to maximise their potential, alchemising soul singles into driving disco tracks. His edits are are often fingered as the first dance remixes; indeed, his elongated version of B.T. Express’ ‘Do It Til You’re Satisfied’ (1973) has a good claim for being the first stop on the disco-house-techno continuum.
A shortage of 7″ acetates when pressing Al Downing’s ‘I’ll Be Holding On’ (1974) led to another inadvertent innovation: the 12″ single, AKA the basic unit of currency in almost every strain of dance music which emerged over the next three decades. That’s far from all: Don Downing’s Moulton-assisted ‘Dream World’ (1974) contains the first ever ‘disco break’, and Moulton was also behind the remarkable Side 1 on Gloria Gaynor’s 1975 LP Never Can Say Goodbye, credited as the first continuous megamix ever committed to wax.
Inducted into NYC’s Dance Music Hall Of Fame back in 2004, Moulton’s contributions to club culture match – and you can argue, outrank – those of Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, Ron Hardy or DJ Kool Herc. His insignia of choice, ‘A Tom Moulton Mix’, has become one of dance music’s most iconic phrases – an Abraxas for diggers and disco heads.
A figure as monumental as Moulton never really disappears from the conversation, but he’s been a particularly conspicuous presence in recent months: the third instalment in Harmless’ fine Philly ReGrooved retrospective series arrives later this month, and the Red Bull council of elders picked him to deliver the inaugural lecture at this year’s RBMA New York. What follows is a selective – and, considering Moulton has “way over 4000 mixes” under his belt, we mean selective – primer to his greatest innovations and creative high watermarks.
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1. THE SANDPIPER MIX
Having put in time as a teenager grafting for RCA and United Artists in the 1960s, Moulton waited until the 1970s to take his fateful trip to Fire Island – a 10-mile-square islet just south of Long Island, and a honeypot for New York’s holidaying gay community. Moulton found himself frustrated by the way in which the dancers’ energy would dissipate in the gaps between the tracks; as he put it in an interview with music magazine Black Music: “I figured, God, if people get off that much on music, there’s got to be a way to take them from where that peak is at the end of a record, and hold them, and take them up another level.”
Inspired, Moulton began stitching together recordings of 45s on reel-to-reel tape using a Revox machine. As labours of love go, it was a particularly arduous one – it took over 80 hours to process, cut and arrange the fragments. Moulton’s mix landed its maiden play at The Sandpiper on a Friday night and got an iffy reception, with Moulton being sternly advised not to “give up the day job” by the DJ. A looser Saturday crowd, however, went wild, leading to further mix commissions. Above is one of Moulton’s classic Sandpiper sets – a 52 minute session recorded in 1974, with cuts ranging from South Shore Commission to The Temptations.
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2. B.T. EXPRESS
‘DO IT ‘TIL YOU’RE SATISFIED’
With mix commissions mounting up, Moulton found himself in a pickle – he needed fresh records, and lots of them. In order to meet deadlines and keep revellers interested, he began interpolating special extended versions of tracks into his sets. Before long, record companies caught wind of his collages, and started looking for a way to bring Moulton’s extended edits into a studio setting.
Moulton’s take on B.T. Express’ ‘Do It Til You’re Satisfied’ – extended from 3:00 minutes to 5:35 – was his first successful attempt. A randy ode to the Epicurean lifestyle, ‘Do It Til You’re Satisfied’ is the ideal advert for Moulton’s modus operandi – its lyric sheet (“make it long as last as you can”, “go on and do it some more”) reads like an unofficial manifesto for his strategies of sustain and release. Moulton recalls that B.T. Express “absolutely hated” his version, although they changed their tune when the public begged to differ: “It became a number one record and they were on Soul Train. And Don Cornelius interviewed the band and asked them about the length: Oh yeah, that’s the way we recorded it. I was so fucking mad.”
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3. DON DOWNING
For all his impact on DJ culture, Moulton never self-identified as one: “I want to be better than a DJ. I want to capture what I call a suite. Start here, and for 45 minutes I would literally have them. Control them. So you could peel them off the walls by the time that 45 minutes was up. Screaming and yelling. I wanted them to get off on the music like I got off on it.”
Moulton’s taste for regulated frenzy is present and correct in his work on Don Downing’s ‘Dream World’ – the record credited with originating the ‘disco break’. Moulton’s aim was to avoid staying stuck on the “same plane”, and the ‘Dream World’ break served a double purpose – adding an unexpected twist into the song’s narrative, and providing a Ground Zero from which he could incrementally up the ante. Head to 2:40 to hear one of the most thrilling and important 90 seconds in modern music – an abrupt flurry of kick and bongo, with Moulton slowly nudging bringing the elements back into play bit-by-bit.
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4. AL DOWNING
‘I’LL BE HOLDING ON’
As with so many major innovations, the development of the 12″ single was a result of contingency rather than strategy. Mixing Al Downing’s disco classic ‘I’ll Be Holding On’, Moulton discovered that the studio had burned their way through all their available 7″ blanks. Mindful of impending deadlines, Moulton asked the engineer to cut the single onto 12″ as a provisional stop-gap to play to executives. Cue revelation:
“We cut it in spec, where it looks like a 45 — you have this little section of grooves and all this blank [space, for the run-out groove]. It looks ridiculous. I say, “Can we start it here and spread it [out]?” He said, “It looks like we’re going to have to raise the levels.” I said, “Then do it, I don’t care.” I didn’t think the record was going to sound like that. But I got it [and it] just knocked me out. The dynamics and the levels — just spectacular. I thought, “Hmmm — there’s an advantage here.” And of course they loved the record instantly and put it out when they heard what it sounded like.”
As it happens, ‘I’ll be Holding On’ – an endlessly driving bit of avant la lettre disco – is a great candidate for the widescreen treatment, notable for its twangy rockabilly solo and a heavyweight turn from Big Al, apparently in possession of the lungs of an elephant.
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5. GLORIA GAYNOR
NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE
Working in association with legendary producer and engineer Tony Bongiovi, Moulton started looking for ways to energise the LP format. “I had this idea, to make this medley, because the disc jockeys would play it, because then they could go to the bathroom and it would be eighteen minutes long; one song straight into another.”
Moulton’s Newtonian idea bore fruit: the first side of Never Can Say Goodbye arranges ‘Honey Bee’, ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ and ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ into a laminar 18 minute track, the first extant example of the megamix on record. The moment where ‘Honey Bee’ vertiginously crashes into the rollicking ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ is eyebrow-raising, but the pounding drum fill of ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ is the real sweet spot – two seconds of clatter that sound like Moulton hammering on the door of the future and demanding to be let in. Never Can Say Goodbye might have provided an early template for the mix album, but Gaynor was less than enamoured: “I remember sitting in the office and Gloria hearing it and the first thing out of her mouth – I’ll never forget it – ‘I don’t sing much’. I felt so hurt over that.”
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‘CHINESE KUNG FU’
(DISQUES FLÈCHE, 1974)
Moulton was at the mixing desk on a stash of capital-C classic disco singles: The Trammps’ ‘Disco Inferno’, People’s Choice’s ‘Do It Any Way You Wanna’, and Andrea True Connection’s ‘More, More, More’ all bear his fingerprints. First Choice’s sweeping, melodramatic ‘Doctor Love’ also deserves a special mention – frustrated at the record’s tricksy drum pattern, Moulton had an actual heart attack midway through the mixing process, and refused to seek medical assistance until it was finished.
Picking a highlight amidst all the riches is a fool’s errand, but we’d kick ourselves if we didn’t rep Banzaii’s ‘Chinese Kung Fu’ – a bizarre disco project from France, and a disc Moulton described at the time as “the hottest record I ever mixed.” Spawned from the deeply odd mind of electronic producer Bernard Estardy, ‘Chinese Kung Fu’ is a grin-inducing meeting of disco rhythms and experimental synthwork. It’s also infinitely superior to Carl Thomas’ karaoke fodder ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, released the same year.
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Moulton has always self-identified as a mixer, but his musical CV is long and diverse. He scribbled a regular disco column for Billboard magazine, still circulated by disco fiends on message boards, and set up the Tom N Jerry disco label with his brother. He was also involved in the important mid-1970s record pools, and dabbled in production proper too (including a fractious couple of years working with a young Grace Jones). TJM is another one-off in the Moulton canon – his first and only solo LP, released in 1979 on Casablanca.
Strictly speaking, the four-track TJM is only nominally a Moulton effort: the tracks are essentially half-finished Arthur Baker originals, given some polish and some Philly International flavour by Moulton and friends. Still, with a guest appearance from The Temptations’ Ron Tyson and a clutch of ace productions to recommend it, TJM remains a meaty full-length proposition (it didn’t do half bad in the charts either).
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‘LOVE IS THE MESSAGE’
(FROM PHILADELPHIA INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS: THE TOM MOULTON REMIXES, HARMLESS, 2012)
Moulton’s never stopped working, but his name returned to prominence in the mid-Noughties thanks to Soul Jazz’s excellent 2006 retrospective, A Tom Moulton Mix. Further reissues followed courtesy of Harmless Records, who kicked off the Philly ReGrooved series and dropped last year’s ace Philadelphia International Classics: The Tom Moulton Mixes set, which substantially expanded PIR’s 1977 Philadelphia Classics compilation. His vintage mix of MFSB’s ‘Love Is The Message’ is the stand-out – one of his longest edits, and one of his most carefully calibrated.
‘Love Is The Message’, like so much of Moulton’s work, is avowedly in service of the song. Like, say, Markus Popp, his music can be formally daring, but his tastes are unapologetically conventional. Polish, precision and melody matter above all (for an entertaining 15 minutes, hunt down his withering appraisals of rap, house and dub). Similarly, his remixes have always been attempts to enhance rather than subvert his source material. What better way to close, then, than with that old journalistic cliche – the illustrative Chumbawumba anecdote?
“When HMV was still open, I bought the CD single of that “I Get Knocked Down” song. I took it home, listened to it, and it was a remix. And they took the “I get knocked down” part out of the song! I took it back to the store and was yelling, “What is this shit? This is shit! Where is the song? How can you sell this? The goddamned song is gone!”
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