West End Records: Holy Ghost! on the iconic disco label that bucked all the trends

Disco-heads will know just how important West End Records was. While Casablanca Records (who released Donna Summer’s legendary ‘I Feel Love’) and TK Records (KC and The Sunshine Band) were having more commercial success, a not-so-quiet revolution was happening downtown.

Usually found pounding within the walls of TriBeCa’s Paradise Garage, cult label West End Records challenged the parameters of the traditional disco sound. Founded by Mel Cheren, the label had the odd mainstream hit (‘Heartbeat’ by Taama Gardner, for example), but their influence is largely felt in the sounds and possibilities some of the artists on the label experimented with.

Basically, they ended up creating disco songs that often sounded nothing like disco at all all. Tracks released by the label have since been sampled by artists like Notorious B.I.G, Ja Rule and Caribou to name just a few 

They’d play with with slower BPMs, utilise off-kilter electronic-drum beats and stray away from the chucka-chucka guitar work of the mainstream sound. It’s disco, but not as you might know it. A remix compilation of the labels biggest hits by influential DJ and producer Larry Levan proves just how subversive they could be. 

So it makes sense for New York electronic act Holy Ghost! to revive the label after decades of dormant activity. They’ve just released their superb new album ‘Work’ on the label, making it the first full LP of original music in over 30 years, and it fits the West End mission. On their third album, there’s forward-thinking grooves on the catchy ‘Do This’ and the shimmering ‘Anxious’, while they play into the labels weirder elements on the spacious ‘Heavens Knows What’. It’s their most consistent and enjoyable body of work to date.

We caught up with Nick and Alex of the duo to discuss the label revival, how their new album ‘Work’ fits in and where to start if you’re a beginner.

What are your first memories of West End Records?

Alex: “We used to go to dollar bins at record stores when we were growing up in New York, and they’d have all these old hip-hop and disco records we’d go through. West End Records was one that frequently emerged in those bins. We’d learn a little bit more and realise how much of a special place it holds to people and how influential it was to sampling culture.”

Was it a lot of pressure to get involved with a label this treasured?

Nick: “Some of the records from West End are incredible and the label has such a rich history, so from the beginning we thought: ‘Let’s try not to fuck it up.’ We didn’t want to throw ourselves to heavily into the revival and make us the focal point, we were just trying to do right by the music and the label. When we put out the first single from this album, ‘Epton On Broadway’ [paired with a remix of The Chuck Davis Orchestra’s ‘Spirit of Sunshine’], and with the iconic record sleeve, that’s when it kicked in.”

Did the knowledge that ‘Work’ was going to be coming out via West End Records impact the music?

Alex: ‘Work’ was relatively far along by the point where we got involved with label. We’d moved on from DFA Records [co-run by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy] and we were then brainstorming about what would be the dream label to release it with. West End Records was obviously it and then that became a very real possibility quite quickly. ‘Work’ actually was the reason that we decided to seek out this idea, not the other way round. I don’t go into recording expecting anything, I can never see the big picture from that far out.”

Explain the significance of West End Records to someone who might not have heard of it before…

Alex: “So here’s the simplest way to explain it. In the ‘70s there two big clubs in New York playing disco. In Midtown, there was Studio 54, which is a bit more mainstream, and you’ll hear KC and the Sunshine Band, The Bee Gees, and it all looks a bit like Saturday Night Fever.”

“In downtown New York, there was Paradise Garage. In there you’d hear Grace Jones, West End Records artists like Taana Gardner or NYC Peech Boys, and someone like Larry Levan is the DJ. It was almost like a punk or alternative version to mainstream disco. It had more of an outsider culture from the more mainstream sound happening across town.”

“When I think of West End, I definitely think of it as a disco label but I always think of it being as left of centre. They would have these big songs you know well now, hut it was definitely rooted in a more underground place.”

A beginner’s guide to West End Records, as chosen by Alex and Nick:

Taana Gardner – ‘Heartbeat’

Alex: “This an interesting place to start because it’s so slow that it’s not actually disco. Larry Levan had to slowly build that song up just by playing it over and over on the dancefloor. It’s very neat and a very weird intro.”

Loose Joints – ‘Is It All Over My Face?’

Alex: “The drumbeats are some of the most iconic work West End ever did. When people hear those records, they’ll recognise it being sampled by DJ Sneak, Caribou, Washed Out and load more.”

Taana Gardner – ‘When You Touch Me’

Alex: “It’s a spooky sounding song. West End Records’ hits were something else – they were hits almost in spite of themselves, they weren’t in line with what was happening at the time.”

Ednah Holt – ‘Serious, Sirius Space Party’

Nick: “If you’re coming to the label and your understanding of the label that its disco and you’ve listened to those four songs, you might be confused! They made disco, but it could be relatively slow and pretty weird, too.”

Holy Ghost’s new album ‘Work’ is out now via West End Records