I think it was Laurent Garnier who started it all. There had been a history of long sets before, of course; Legendary Larry Levan and François K sessions stretching from Friday nights to Monday mornings; sweat drenched weekends in the humid darkness of clubs in Chicago and New York and escape from the strictures of 70s and 80s conservatism. But for us, weighed down by house and techno records in little towns, it was Laurent Garnier that started it all.
It had been a flier, or an ad for a forthcoming night somewhere down south, which had been clear about the main attraction. A Garnier set. Eight hours of the master banging out tune after tune. For those of us use to the tight licensing of British clubs and pubs it seemed like something utterly alien and paradigm shifting, a real change in how things could be done. For Garnier I’m sure it was business as usual. But for everyone else it was an eye opener.
The problem was that back then, as now, I remain unconvinced that extended DJ sets are anything terribly exciting. I’m not even sure that they are often all that great in a musical sense. Nowadays, when the number of DJs willing to stand up in a booth and play for a dozen hours – if not even more – are increasing exponentially, A bit of opposite thinking may be in order.
Let us get this out of the way first. I know I’m probably not going to change many minds here. I’m sure I know scores of people who would get dizzy with excitement of spending 60 or 70 hours in Berghain listening to Ben Klock playing one of his extended sets, and I can see from the internet that people playing upwards of 24 hours seems to be a Thing now. I’m just not entirely sure why.
Coming from Glasgow where you were lucky if the club had a licence to remain open past two or three AM there simply wasn’t time for a DJ to play for more than an hour, maybe an hour and a half. And if you have three DJs playing across a four-hour period it becomes essential to be on top of your game from the word Go. To those used to clubs which last for days this probably seems incredibly restrictive, as if there isn’t even enough time to warm up. Well, that’s the thing: it creates an energy all of its own and I’ll take that raw Glaswegian club energy over a lot of other places any day of the week. From a technical point of view, these shorter nights are anything but easy. In many ways they are far harder for a DJ to get used to. You have to judge the mood quicker and have your mixing and tune selection down pat. Not that this means ‘All The Hits’. The idea that only a longer set affords you the time to experiment is a myth. If you need four hours to play ‘interesting’ records we may have a problem, and too often ‘Interesting’ is a euphemism for indulgent.
I’ve seen more than a few guest DJs coming north who simply can’t get into the swing of it, so used they are to the luxury of time. Glasgow crowds won’t let you away with fannying around. It’s one of the few places I’ve been where a call of ‘Change The Tune’ is a demand and a threat rather than a bit of matey banter.
A second influence was the good old C-90 tape cassette. learned behaviour more than likely, but 90 minutes as always seemed a damn good length for a decent set with more than enough time to build and fall, more than enough to tell a story and create a vibe. These days, when there are podcasts out there that take longer to get through than War And Peace, my interest can vanish before I reach the end of the second track. I don’t need, or want, a wandering skank through all sorts of vaguely tangential sights. Finite time creates a need for focus and restraint. Like in the days of the Hollywood Golden Age where censorship was so tight that scriptwriters and directors worked so hard to get around it there was an explosion in news ways of doing things, in the language used, and in the cadence. Limitations force people to up their game. Used properly, restraint and restrictions are important creative tools.
My third reason is a particularly personal one based on a background of soul music and punk rock. Coming from genres where tunes could be as short as 40 seconds and pack one hell of an emotional wallop, I basically feel uncomfortable with spending an eternity to get anywhere. It’s a feeling I get now when I hear people getting excited by a 40 minute long Villalobos remix. The longer it goes on, the more it collapses under the weight of its own self-importance and self-indulgence.
And this is the crux, the thing that makes me uncomfortable: Day long sets make me think of superstars and the masses paying fealty at their alter. 24 hours of filler and long mixes don’t suggest excitement to me, it suggests doing it because you can, because you can get away with it and because people will still come and name you a genius. Have all night gigs, sure, have clubs that remain open for days at a time by all means. But instead of one man being the centre of his and everyone else’s hedonism let’s have a bunch of DJs playing shorter sets and playing off each others energy. Instead of indulging the big guys, lets give more room to the little guys, the ones who are coming through. They’re the ones who might actually do something unexpected, something special, something new.
House and techno weren’t really built on the big events and the superstars, regardless of what the official histories say, they were built on little nights in basements and rooms above pubs where a few dozen people came together to hear some chancers with boxes of records change their lives. Lets get rid of the 40 minutes remixes and the two-hour ambient warm ups, lets strip it down, cut out the crap, get back to some sort of basics and have more of those little bits of wax that light up the room for a few hours and make you feel alive. I’m pretty sure that, and not an act of worship, used to be the point.