How Montréal Became Disco’s Second City

August 19, 2014

Since the early ’00s, the city of Montreal has been known as the epicenter of Canadian musical experimentalism. Post-rock, the Godspeed scene, chamber pop, free improv, the half-underground/half-academic experimental thing called musique actuelle – all of these have given Montreal its present-day musical identity and made it Canada’s hipster mecca.

Most of the time, the interesting music in Montreal now happens out of sight, in lofts or repurposed and unspectacular back rooms or community centres. For two decades, however – from the early 1960s through the early 1980s, to be exact – the spaces that best exemplified Montreal music were discothèques, many of them spectacular and most of them above ground. Long considered a weak market for rock music, Montreal was judged the second biggest disco capital in North America, right behind New York, in the late ’70s.

“Montreal’s music is disco,” the Toronto Star claimed in 1977, “in either language.”

This status signalled the large number of clubs in the city, but had more to do with the extraordinary sales of disco music in Montreal, particularly in the 12-inch vinyl single format. During the ’70s, Montreal was home to a richly-layered disco industry in which label heads, remixers, musicians and DJs mediated the flow of records and influences between North America and Europe. “Montreal’s music is disco,” the Toronto Star claimed in 1977, “in either language.”

It makes sense to distinguish between two phases in Montreal’s history as a disco capital. One of these began in the early 1960s, and was marked by the influence of ideas and people coming from France. In the beginning, the discothèque was a European invention, born in Parisian cellars during World War II and then spreading – in the late 1950s – through the nightlife of the Mediterranean Riviera and other vacation spots. The idea of the discothèque was first brought to Montreal in the early 1960s, by locals who had seen this kind of nightclub on visits to Europe. By the middle of the decade, entrepreneurs from France moved to Quebec to open clubs and French youth came to work in them. Quebec’s hasty modernization in the ’60s, which produced a new middle class drawn to the signs of chic cosmopolitanism, nourished a discothèque boom which first peaked in 1966 and 1967.

Rightly or wrongly, local journalists have long claimed that the first discothèque in North America was La Licorne, which opened in Montreal in 1963. (Believing this claim means accepting that the Peppermint Lounge, which had operated in New York City since 1958, wasn’t really a discotheque (perhaps because it relied more on a house band for its music than on the playing of records.)) La Licorne was launched by two entrepreneurs, Claude de Carufel and Gilles Archambault, who quickly became major players in Montreal’s nightlife scene, opening some of the best-remembered clubs of the ’60s and early ’70s.

By 1966, when the Quebec entertainment tabloid Echos Vedettes published its Guide des Discothèques de Montréal, it could list 15 clubs operating within a few blocks in central Montreal. These establishments settled into what had long been the heartland of Montreal nightlife, along streets just west of downtown, in close proximity to predominantly English-speaking parts of the city. Unlike other venues for popular music, like the boîtes à chansons which showcased solo French-language singers and poetic, often political songs, discothèques drew their customers from both the English-speaking and French-speaking populations of the city.

The most spectacular of the clubs listed in Echos Vedettes’ guide was la Mousse Spacthèque, launched by the aforementioned businessmen Carufel and Archambault in collaboration with one of Quebec’s most daring artist/designers of the period, Jean-Paul Mousseau. (The club’s name was a contraction of the artist’s last name with the words “spatial” and “discothèque”.) Designed to offer the same multi-sensory experience as Andy Warhol’s Plastic Exploding Inevitable, la Mousse Spacthèque featured hundreds of mobiles suspended from the ceiling and dozens of department store mannequins, usually missing limbs, scattered about the room.

This was one of several Montreal discothèques (or “boîtes à go-go,” as they were also known) which would experiment with outlandish architecture and décor over the next five years. Another was the Alti-thèque 727, which opened in 1971 on the 44th floor of Montreal’s Royal Bank building, with windows like those on airplanes and the logos of international airlines decorating the walls. The explosion of fancifully designed discothèques took place against the backdrop of Expo ’67, the futuristic and highly successful World’s Fair which opened in Montreal in April 1967. The millions of tourists who came to Expo filled Montreal’s dance clubs, but the Fair itself, with its light shows and experimental soundscapes, had a direct influence on discothèque design.

This was also the period when records displaced live bands in Montreal clubs, all but killing off the cabarets and dance halls which had made Montreal a mecca for American tourists since the U.S. Prohibition of the 1920s. In 1968, the French-language Montreal newspaper La Patrie described the ways in which disco patrons now saw records as more authentic than live brands, particularly when those discs carried the latest sounds from England and France.

In discothèques, you will find neither orchestras nor music-hall acts. Boys and girls, alone or with others, crowd around a dance floor the size of a handkerchief to chat and dance and breathe in the latest hits by the stars of the moment: the Beatles, Richard Anthony, Petula Clark, Alain Barrière, Johnny Hallyday, France Gall, the Rolling Stones and the rest. This is the triumph of records (imported directly from France) over orchestras which are unable to renew their repertory fast enough. The result is a greater freedom; in any case, originals are now preferred over bad imitations. (Translated by Will Straw)

The police reported in 1970 that 80% of Montreal’s missing young people could be found in discothèques.

The two phases in the history of Montreal disco divide quite neatly along the line which separates the ’60s from the ’70s. In the ’60s, the discothèque seemed European; by the middle of the ’70s, it had come to evoke New York. Discothèques continued to open in Montreal in the early ’70s, but the chic glamour and technological futurism which had marked Expo ’67 were fading. Political and economic conditions in Montreal toughened in 1971-1973, while organized crime reasserted its presence in the nightclub sector after a slight loosening in the ’60s. In 1972, Quebec’s Minister of Justice claimed that 400 nightclubs in Montreal were controlled by organized crime, and that 50% of all the city’s murders over the previous year had taken place in bars or clubs. Straining belief, the police reported in 1970 that 80% of Montreal’s missing young people could be found in discothèques.

Montreal’s discothèques of the ’70s continued to occupy the same parts of downtown as their predecessors, and they attracted a similar mix of socialites and young club kids. What changed in the ’70s was the involvement of Montrealers in the flow of music. Those who played records in clubs during the ’60s had relied almost exclusively on 45’s which featured artists from elsewhere (usually France) and were mostly available on major labels. By the mid-’70s, people in the Montreal scene were producing their own records, remixing imports for local consumption and building a market for music which had little public profile outside of clubs. All of these activities linked the Montreal scene to key tastemakers and industry professionals in New York and European capitals.

Robert Ouimet & Pierre Gagnon Lecture (Montréal 2016) | Red Bull Music Academy

The best remembered of these discothèques was the Lime Light, which opened in 1973. Located on Stanley Street, in the centre of Montreal’s shopping district, the Lime Light was one of the many discothèques which kept Montreal’s downtown lively and attractive during a period in which the central cores of other North American cities were declining. Put simply, the Lime Light was Montreal’s Studio 54.

The club inaugurated a new era in several ways. Its DJs, Robert Ouimet and Gil Riberdy, worked with double turntables and were in on the very beginning of DJ mixing. Ouimet, in particular, would come to be known as The Godfather of Montreal DJs, with a career extending over the next four decades. The Lime Light’s design, with its “disco balls,” mirrors and elaborate lighting system, looked back to some of the most extravagant of ’60s clubs but with an air of decadence that would become typical of its decade. In a practice that became common in the ’70s, performers with a current disco hit would make in-person appearances at the club to sing against a recorded backing track. It was easy, in 1973-1974, to see the disco world as having its own stars and its own hits, with little impact on the worlds of Top 40 radio or the mainstream record industry. This would soon change.

By the mid-’70s, in Montreal as in New York and other cities, it became clear that discothèques were now playing a major role in popularizing new records. Billboard reported in 1975 that Montreal clubs like the Lime Light were responsible for the sales success of songs like “Pepper Box” by the Peppers, “Do It (Till You’re Satisfied)” by BT Express, Bimbo Jet’s “El Bimbo,” and Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” (In an online documentary on the Lime Light, DJ Robert Ouimet proudly displays the gold records earned for his role in breaking some of them.) Music retail stores rushed to meet a demand whose source was at first not entirely clear to them.

Clubs became important in launching new disco records in part because radio stations were slow to jump on them. And so, as discothèques became key testing grounds, music labels sought ways of getting their new releases quickly to disc jockeys and DJs looked for ways of getting access to the hottest records. In 1976, two former DJs based in Montreal, Dominique Zgarka and George Cuccuzella, formed the Canadian Record Pool, which would “service” clubs and club-based DJs by ensuring that they received new records as quickly as possible.

In 1977, the first issue of the Pool’s bilingual magazine, Le disco, described how the Canadian Record Pool would work. DJ’s would pay $15 per month, in return for which they would receive promotional copies of new releases, distributed by labels through the Pool itself. In return, DJs were asked to fill out “response” sheets, indicating audience reaction to a record; these sheets were used to compile a weekly chart showing the decline and fall of particular titles. DJs, particularly those who were not themselves taste-makers, could use these charts to plan their playlists. Record labels and retail stores could make use of them in allocating their promotional resources. As the article in Le disco claimed, “the Canadian Record Pool Chart has linked all the stages in marketing disco records.”

Guy Lafleur - Lancer

As these mostly invisible networks were laying the infrastructure for Montreal’s disco industry, disco music was exploding across Quebec’s mainstream media culture. Disco Tourne, a television program set in one of Montreal’s discothèques, was broadcast from 1976 onwards on one of Quebec’s major television networks. As happened across Europe, celebrities in other media or musicians with fading careers moved to cash in on the disco fad. Quebec hockey star Guy Lafleur made a disco record which taught listeners how to play the game; popular variety singers like Ginette Reno rushed out disco albums.

Well-respected landmarks in the history of Quebec popular music were redone as disco songs, shocking a local cultural establishment which already saw disco as a dangerously seductive alien force. To great controversy, the bilingual singer Patsy Gallant reached the Top 10 in several countries with “From New York to L.A.,” her disco reworking, in English, of “Mon pays,” one of the key anthems of the Quebec independence movement. In 1976, a Montreal-based disco studio group named Toulouse had a Number 1 hit with “Lindbergh II,” their club-friendly remake of a milestone of 1960s Quebec rock originally recorded by Robert Charlesbois.

Toulouse - Lindbergh II

Toulouse consisted of three Montreal-based session singers brought together by one of Montreal’s key disco labels of the 1970s, Magique (part of the larger entity Les Disques Parapluie.) Convinced that Montreal musicians could not provide the funky musical backdrops needed for successful disco records, Parapluie started sending singers to Alabama to record with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. “Lindbergh II” mapped the Montrealers’ vocals onto backing tracks recorded in Alabama. So, too, did the first, best-selling album by Afro-Quebecois singer George Thurston, who recorded as Boule Noire for the Musique label. In turn, Boule Noire was one of the artists contributing to a milestone disco album, La Connexion Noire (1978), which brought together many of the major black figures in the Quebec disco scene, such as Alma Faye Brooke and Pierre Perpall.

Of the various Montreal musicians who passed through the city’s disco scene, Perpall has had the longest and most varied career. Touted as the “Quebec James Brown” in the mid-’60s, he sang with soul cover bands who performed French language versions of Anglo-American hits. As the market for French-language covers of English songs dried up in the late ’60s, Perpall toured as a back-up and session musician, before the rise of Montreal’s disco scene in the mid-’70s offered new opportunities. Perpall’s current cult reputation rests on a series of 12-inch singles, some of them hits and all of them highly collectible, which he released between 1978 and 1984. Two of these, “World Invaders” (1981) and “We Can Make It” (1984) have surfaced several times on CD compilations, often as proto-techno tracks and sometimes inserted loosely into the history of Italo disco.

Pluton and Humanoids - World Invaders

It is customary to say that disco died in the late ’70s, the victim of a post-Saturday Night Fever backlash or a music industry slump prompted by too many sound-alike records. In fact, in Montreal as in so many other cities, club music simply fragmented while clubs themselves persisted. In Montreal, where punk had been weak, New Wave dance music thrived, in worldwide hits by Men Without Hats (“Safety Dance”) and respectable showings by a wave of synth pop groups. While the downtown discothèque scene shrunk a little in the ’80s, the slow growth of a gay club scene further to the east of downtown produced new clusters of clubbing venues. Over the next 20 years, the same trans-Atlantic tastes that fueled Montreal’s lively disco scene of the ’70s could be heard in the Hi-NRG, Euro house and Italo-inflected music so popular in the city’s clubs and the playlists of its dance music radio stations.

While Montreal music now seems to consist of experiments playing out the various end-games of rock and jazz, it is not as if its disco heritage has been forgotten. A 2011 feature film, Funkytown (set in a fictitious version of the original Lime Light), a lengthy 2013 radio documentary, Disco Lives!, and recent festival tributes to figures like Pierre Perpall all testify to renewed interest in this glorious period in the city’s musical history.

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