At Probe, owner Mark Hundahl was smart enough to resist until it became ubiquitous
Coauthored with Stewart Barkal
First published in Frontiers Newsmagazine, January 22, 1986
Not available online, but check out Frontiers. Click the image
American television audiences were treated to a new passive entertainment thrill in 1980 with two 2-hour prime-time TV specials entitled “The Radio Picture Show.” Produced by Mark Hundahl, one of the owners of Probe, “The Radio Picture Show” for the first time blended currently popular music with totally new combinations of visual images and transmitted them to living rooms across the country, sweeping the ratings and spawning a host of imitators, the most successful of which has been the Time-Life, Inc. creation Music-Television (MTV), now comparable to Muzak in its sales and audience size.
It took almost two years for the leading gay dance clubs (which, generally, are trend-setters for all dance clubs and discotheques) to catch on to this new entertainment medium.
“I remember it clearly – February 1984,” says Scott Forbes, owner of Studio One, describing when he installed his first video equipment and introduced video as an integral element in the show provided to dancers by only a DJ and lightman. “Today, video is just as integral to our show as the lights and music,” Forbes says. “It’s just another medium of entertainment, and helps enhance the mood and atmosphere of our club.”
Ironically, in 1986 Studio One has an advanced and expensive video system for its dance floor (a system which, however, like much of modern technology, is rapidly becoming obsolete as new features are added), while Probe has no permanent video either on its dance floor or in its bar area.
The extremes represented by Studio One and Probe in their divergent approach to video as an element of the total entertainment program are indicative of the widely different viewpoints on most aspects of video and other new visual art forms held by club owners, leading DJs and those on the frontier of the new entertainment medium, the Video Jocks.
There are probably only two points on which all concerned agree with the impact of video on entertainment in dance clubs: that in four short years, video has become an integral part of most dance club’s entertainment program, and that it is here to stay. Further, most agree it is developing more rapidly than any other aspect of the shows seen in dance dubs throughout America, partly because of technological advances but also because of the creativity of those programming this new combination of visual and performance art.
The power of television has been well documented; the affect of video on dance music and its audience is yet to become clearly evident. There is considerable disagreement between club owners, and between their DJs and VJs; widely different viewpoints become apparent when one compares those of the programmers/operators and those of the club owners.
“Dancers here seem to be paying more attention to the music because now they can see it, too,” says VJ Jimmy Bartlett, of Dallas, Texas, who is probably one of the leading exponents of video art in the country. “Until the introduction of video, the mental images created in the minds of the dancers were entirely the result of the music – with a little help from the light show.
“In those days, the DJ and his music, both what was played and how it was played, its tone, mood and lyrics – all created ‘mental visuals’ in the minds of the dancers.”
“Our audiences are definitely watching the video more, but I’m not sure they are actually paying more attention to either the pictures or the music,” says Lewis van der Wyk, DJ at Studio One who had been involved with video for about seven years before he began spinning at this nationally known club.
Bartlett and Van der Wyk themselves, although unaware of it, provide a study in the contrasts to be found when exploring the impact of video on dance music. Whereas Bartlett, 33, spent seven years as a DJ in Houston and Dallas before becoming involved with video just over a year ago, Van der Wyk, 24, although a professional DJ for six years, has spent the last three years dividing his time almost equally as a VJ and, more recently, a DJ at Studio One.
Bartlett has spun records in some of the top gay dance clubs in Texas, working at Numbers and Parade in Houston for four years, before moving to The Saint and Box Office in Dallas, where he has worked the last three years.
We found him and saw his show for the first time last June at Club Delman, then one of the most popular (certainly the largest) gay dance clubs in Dallas. At Club Delman, Bartlett had been provided with a video mixing system so advanced we have seen no other like it in the country
Today, Bartlett is performing at the hottest new gay dance club east of the Rockies: Baby’s opened in Dallas November 7. In both its audio-video equipment and the talent of those running the show, Baby’s is probably the leading club – gay or non-gay – in America today. The control booth (which resembles the cockpit of a Jumbo Jet more than a DJ booth) from which the show is produced is as big as an average West Hollywood apartment. It is raised some 20 feet above the dance floor, in a corner of the massive building (about the size of Studio One), and completely enclosed with curved, soundproof glass. Side by side, in the front, are the DJ (on left) and the VJ. Behind them, and slightly above them so he can see over them and their equipment, is the lightman.
“The arrangement of the equipment in the booth is almost as crucial as the amount of cooperation – rather than any sense of competition – required between all three of us,” Bartlett says.
Between the turntables used by the DJ and the Video Cassette Recorders (four in all) used by Bartlett, is a five-channel video mixer with an additional channel for a live feed from a video camera. Mounted against the glass above the mixer (which is about six feet wide) are five 9-inch video monitors: one for each VCR and a master monitor showing what is actually being seen by dancers and others in the bar. Even with all this equipment and its precise arrangement, the show can be as exciting or dull as the three operators care to make it – or are capable of making it.
With his knowledge of music gained through seven years as a DJ, Bartlett and his teammates, including DJ Jim Griffith, extend their creativity to its outer limits and appear to be leading most others at introducing creative new concepts and techniques into the overall music-lights-video combination.
Apart from remarkably creative and skillfully edited master video tapes which form the core of his show, last June Bartlett introduced the live camera feed as a new element. While many VJs do indeed have a live camera feed capability we have seen none utilize it in the same way as Bartelett. While aiming the stationary camera at a chrome-key board (which the camera cannot “see”) he quickly slipped on a glove puppet he had made himself and which resembled an eccentric old lady. Within seconds he had her on the video screens live, singing “It’s Raining Men!”
The lip-synch was perfect … and the audience never knew it was live nor even how it was done.
While we’ve seen live camera feeds used in video dance clubs like the one at Studio One, no VJ in the Los Angeles area that we know of has used it the same way as Bartlett. And it is this constant creativity and innovation which keeps him ahead of all competitors. Most often the camera is simply aimed by the VJ at the dance floor, projecting images of the dancers onto larger-than-life video screens.
“Our audience gets really excited when we do this,” says Studio One’s Forbes. “They’ll even perform when they see themselves on the screen.”
“Before video was introduced on the dance floor, it was easier to let vour imagination take you on a trip to anywhere – you could almost get lost in your own fantasy world, created by the music and light show,” Bartlett says. “Now dancers are increasingly being asked to pay attention to someone else’s interpretation of the music.”
“Perhaps dancers are relying more on someone else’s creativity (to interpret the music),” says Van der Wyk, “but whoever is interpreting it for them – whether it be the producer of the video track for a popular song like “Call Me Mr. Telephone,” or whether it be the creativity of the VJ during a live show – we must be doing it right because our audience would not tolerate it if we were not!
“The dancers are accepting, and enjoying, what we’re putting out – if we were doing a bad job we’d soon know about it: our dance floor would be empty. The bottom line is – video enhances the music: dancing to a song that you can also see makes it much more exciting.”
There are currently two major types of video being programmed at gay clubs: the lack of precise jargon to define them is indicative of the novelty of the medium. Music Videos is the name given to the products coming from the major studios – video images and story lines created specifically for one particular song, group or individual artist. All other video programming – from cartoons, to newsreel clips to computer-generated graphics – is lumped together and called Ambient Video.
The essential difference between the two seems to be in the amount of attention each demands from the audience. Utilizing various techniques, such as showing the artist actually singing the song with lipsynchronization, producers of current Music Videos are demanding – and apparently getting – much more attention than producers of Ambient Videos, which more closely resemble Muzak in both the amount of attention they demand and, in most cases, the amount they get.
“Music Videos really help new songs,” says Van der Wyk. “The video can often keep dancers on the floor, even if it’s ambient when we play new song.” As a result, video is beginning to have a dramatic impact (which is likely to increase) on what types of music are being played, and how it is being played, in gay dance clubs.
“From a DJ’s viewpoint, music videos can to some extent limit creativity,” Bartlett says, mainly because, until very recently, no DJ or VJ had found a way to re-mix both the audio and video tracks simultaneously during a live show.
One of the most creative aspects of playing records – spinning – in a dance bar is to extend both the life-span of particular songs and the willingness of the audience to listen to (and dance to) them, by creatively re-mixing them, using two, or sometimes even three, copies of the same record. The better the re-mix, the less the audience is aware of it.
What they may notice is that a song they’ve heard often and perhaps thought was becoming old and tired, suddenly sounds fresh and new again – different, yet it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why or how it is different. Until only a few weeks ago, no technique for re-mixing Music Videos in the same way – or to the same extent – as their vinyl cousins, had been developed.
There are many variations possible when re-mixing records: an echo can be added, the music can be phased (by running two copies of it simultaneously at the same volume and speed) or certain sections of the lyrics or music can be highlighted, repeated or excluded. A conscientious DJ can through re-mixing, freshen up even the most over-played and worn out song.
“We believed we couldn’t re-mix music videos” Bartlett says, “certainly not to the extent we could re-mix records.” The result: Music Videos currently have a much shorter life span – audiences tire of them much faster than records. Depending on the amount it is played, a Top 40 hit can disappear from a progressive DJ’s playlist as quickly as six weeks after its release; the average is about three months.
But during the Christmas season just past, Bartlett and Griffith developed at Baby’s their own, highly complex method of live re-mixing of Music Videos – both the music and video tracks.
“Re-mixing the audio was the easy part, and many of us have been able to do this for quite awhile,” Bartlett says. This is confirmed by Van der Wyk, who recently demonstrated how the audio track from a Music Video and its corresponding record can be mixed and re-mixed without the audience ever being aware that the record is or was playing. Of course, with a VJ running the video, this would be much easier on the DJ.
But even at Studio One, re-mixing is limited to the audio track only; at Baby’s now, Bartlett and Griffith can re-mix the visual (video) track as well. The most important requirement for the success of this technique is that the DJ and VJ be hearing the exact same audio track at all times throughout the show, whether it be on the monitor speakers or headphones.
“We use two copies of both the record and the Music Video,” Bartlett explains. With most re-mixing spontaneous, or planned with only minutes advance warning from the DJ, Bartlett will cue both video tapes as the DJ begins, most often, with the instrumental version of the record. While the instrumental is playing, Bartlett will start the Music Video and the DJ then mixes from the record into the audio track of the Music Video. This is the first stage of a four-part procedure, but is usually the only part that is truly planned.
“From here, it could go anywhere – and does,” Bartlett says.
Mixing smoothly from a record to a Music Video audio track may sound simple, but even for experienced and talented DJs it is a relatively new skill all have had to learn, and it is much more difficult than the result sounds when done well by an expert. The reasons it is much harder to mix from a record to a Music Video (the other direction is slightly easier, as will soon become apparent) are because the quality of the sound reproduction from vinyl (records) and tape is totally different, in almost every case with the reproduction from tape being inferior.
Also, with current technology (but not for long, we’ve been told) the speed of the tape cannot be adjusted to match that of the record, whereas standard DJ turntables have had pitch controls (speed adjustment capabilities) for more than a decade. The art of mixing music is in matching both the beat (rhythm) and sound quality: generally the DJ will adjust (cue) the record being mixed into because any major adjustments to the one playing would roughen the mix.
The lack of pitch controls on existing VCR’s in use in all dance clubs and the difference in sound quality between vinyl and tape is what makes mixing from the record into a Music Video so difficult. Yet it is being done every night with increasing expertise by DJs and VJs in dance clubs and stand-still video bars. The DJ is forced to make slight and gradual speed adjustments to the record being played – so slight in fact most listeners would not notice the difference – until it is matched to the audio track of the music video. This is the easy part.
Once the rhythm is matched, the DJ can mix rapidly from record to tape, but at the same time (using only his two hands and 10 fingers available) he must quickly and accurately re-set his equalizer so there is not a significant – therefore noticeable – difference in the quality of the sound as the mix is completed. Add to this the matching or mixing of video images, and it immediately becomes apparent how difficult and complex it is to re-mix a Music Video.
“Once we’re into both the audio and video tracks of the Music Video,” Bartlett explains, “we have several options. Only one, though, can truly be called remixing.” The first set involves the DJ mixing back from tape to record. While the record is playing Bartlett starts the second (but identical) video at a point where there is no lipsynchronization required (usually during an instrumental segment). As soon as the second video is running (perhaps at a point two to three minutes behind the first) the DJ will mix from the record into the video’s audio track while the VJ simultaneously, if possible, mixes from the first to the second video track. This sequence can be done several times, differently each time, and it is the only way we’ve found that live re-mixing of Music Videos can be accomplished at all.
As with records, the better the mixing the less the audience will notice it. According to Bartlett, audience response to both the audio and video presentations of the three Music Videos they have been truly re-mixing for several weeks has increased dramatically since they began.
While they definitely appear to be helping new releases gain wider acceptance faster, Music Videos are affecting the music being played in gay dance clubs in another significant way.
“If I consider a new release marginal (for his audience), and if it has a Music Video, I’ll be much more likely to play it than if that same release did not have the video,” Van der Wyk says. Part of his reason is that the song, brand new to the audience, is far less likely to make them stop dancing if it has a Music Video than if it does not.
“The Music Videos seem to make new releases far more acceptable to a large majority of our audience,” he says, quite possibly because they’ve seen and heard the video on MTV or in a stand-still video bar before they heard (and saw) it for the first time on a dance floor .
While progressive gay clubs more often than not play Top 40 hits long before they’re heard on radio and make it on to the charts, when a Music Video and a new record are released simultaneously, this speeds up the rate at which the song reaches the airwaves – either on television or radio – and then the Top 40.
Some are predicting that the already frenetic rate of change in dance music charts – in what is accepted by dancers and what clears the dance floor – will become even faster as the impact of Music Videos begins to spread. But, they add, this will be a temporary phenomenon, continuing only until it becomes mandatory for every new record released by a major producer to be accompanied by a Music Video, or it will be doomed to failure. This is inevitable, most agree. Those on the production and programming side of the music and video industry don’t need a crystal ball to see how soon it will be mandatory .
Perhaps that is why major manufacturers of video hardware like Sony and RCA Corp., are scrambling to add pitch controls to their existing VCR’s. Not only will this greatly ease the mixing of records with Music Videos, but it will also make the mixes smoother and accessible to many more DJs.
Additionally it will become far easier to re-mix first the audio and later the video tracks of Music Videos – thus extending their life span and perhaps even creating “classics” as has happened over the last decade with certain dance music recordings.
In terms of developing creative visual images to accompany previously released music, the European video industry seems to be quite far ahead of its American counterpart. One need only look at what may indeed become the first gay “classic” Music Video, “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat, to see how far ahead the Europeans are in the creative video department. The song itself, now almost six years old, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity especially in gay video bars because of the Music Video that has been created to interpret the song visually.
But we will have to catch up, as we’ve done in the past with music, because American audiences will increasingly demand to see their favorite stars as well as hear them. Requests for specific music videos have already occurred, but infrequently, at Studio One. They’re likely to increase significantly, says Van der Wyk, as audiences become more familiar with them.
Disco music and variable light shows changed the entire spectrum of entertainment available in gay dance clubs more than a decade ago. The addition of video, both Music Video and Ambient Video, as an integral part of the entertainment program in gay dance clubs promises – or threatens – to change once again, and permanently, the ever-increasing smorgasbord of programmed live entertainment.
Warren Swil was at this time a freelance writer. Stewart Barkal RIP had been the lead DJ at Probe since 1981.