Better Days—the now long forgotten 70s New York club that played a crucial role in establishing house music in the city—is getting a new lease of life as a club night at one of Manhattan's newest night spots.
The venue, which was called home by some of the central figures of New York's house scene in the 70s and 80s, was an unsung pioneer of clubbing from the very beginning. When the club opened in 1972, the first DJ to take the tables for a spin was a woman. Bert Lockett would play out to a mainly gay and black crowd in the venue that was little more than a glorified dive bar, dominated by a 50 feet dancefloor.
It was on that unassuming dancefloor, however, that magic—and vital pieces of dance music history—happened. The late Chicago house godfather Frankie Knuckles, New York's longtime DJing stalwart François K, early house champion Tony Humphries, and Fingers Inc-affliated vocalist Robert Owens all played the club over the course of its 18 year run. Resident DJs, 2 Puerto Ricans, a Blackman, and a Dominican, conceived their iconic track, "Do It Properly" at Better Days.
The club—tucked away on 49th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue, then a part of town known for strip clubs and rat infestations—also held a residency of the one of the era's most influential players. Bruce Forest, who's credited for being an early adopter of using studio gear in the booth, played at Better Days throughout the 80s. Forest would bring his homemade samplers to use in his sets, which David Cole (half of dance music duo C+C Music Factory) would play live keyboard over. Better Days closed in 1990 (it's now a Brazilian steakhouse), and a few years later Forest laid down his decks—at least in a professional capacity—in order to explore his interest in tech.
That slice of New York glory, however, is being revived more than a quarter of a century later, courtesy of Manhattan's newest megaclub Flash Factory. Forest and his house protege David Morales, are bringing back the Better Days brand and reimagined it as a series of events, the first of which will be held at Flash Factory, on April 2. Forest and Morales will headline, with support from Brooklyn-based deep house producer, The Wig. The event is currently slated at Flash Factory as a one-off, but Forest and Morales promise more yet-to-be-confirmed parties are in the works.
THUMP caught up with Forest and Flash Factory's owner Michael Satsky via email, to talk about their plans for the night and the future of Better Days, and to reminisce about New York's bygone clubbing days.
THUMP: What have you been up to since Better Days closed?
Bruce Forest: Soon after Better Days closed, I went to the UK, ostensibly for a week to evaluate an artist named Titiyo. I listened and it was so gorgeous, that I told them not to touch it. Before I could head out, ABC called me to remix some track so I stayed. I didn't leave till December 1995 after producing/mixing a few hundred tracks, working with Elton and Sir Paul, getting married to a beautiful British woman and having my first kid. I also came back as a hardcore geek, having dropped music as a vocation the day Marc Andreessen sent me a beta copy of Mosaic. I knew what was in store, and headed back to the US to share the fun. Within six weeks I was VP, technology at AOL's NY office, building AOL as a web property, not an Internet Service Provider.
Why did you decide to revive Better Days as a club night at Flash Factory?
I've produced some of the greatest artists in the world, have a wall of platinum, a bunch of tech patents and a large body of work in both technology and music. But nothing (short of having my kids) ever equalled the feeling I got looking over the heads of a thousand sweaty Better Days children screaming my name, and they in my utter benevolent control. I made them think, I made them laugh, I made them cry, I made them scream in delight, I made them shake in terror—I made a bunch of urban street people realize that a skinny white straight kid from Queens actually loved them and cared that they loved him back. They taught me how to affect emotions with sound and music, and nothing before or since ever gave me that huge rush of emotion I got every night at that club on 49th Street.
After everything I've done, after all the stuff I've built that people use daily, nothing was ever as much simply fucking FUN as playing to a crowd and teaching them—making music live on stage, not just "playing the hits," but really affecting people and their emotions.
Where did the idea to revive Better Days come from?
Michael Satsky: Kevin McHugh [New York nightlife staple and artist manager] was searching for the perfect location, came to me, and explained what this meant to New York City. I saw his passion and believed the only way we could do this is if was done in a truly authentic way. Flash Factory's dedication to the local underground scene is a very important focus of ours and Better Days fits that profile.
I remember a moment—just a second—where the entire building was moving as one, the crowd were all facing me, yelling my name and punching their fists in the air in what seems near-orgasmic frenzy.
What is your fondest memory of the original Better Days?
Forest: We were always crowded. Sunday nights were mobbed and Sundays before a Monday holiday were insane. But there was one. July 4th weekend (Sunday night) 1986. The new sound system (hybrid: Richard Long/Alex Rosner/Bruce and Shep) was finally kicking full strength, I had 1500 people stuffed into a club that fit 800. It was 130 degrees and even at 110dba, the crowd was louder than the PA. I mixed into a First Choice record, and David Cole started jamming hard over the bass break. I remember a moment—just a second—where the entire building was moving as one, the crowd were all facing me, yelling my name and punching their fists in the air in what seems near-orgasmic frenzy. I froze for a sec, looked at David, he extended his fist and I punched the top. I remember distinctly thinking "It does not get better than this."
That moment was like church and I will never forget it.
There's a lot of talk of today's clubbing scene being in crisis, do you think clubbing in New York really has seen better days?
Forest: Well yeah, sure it has. Surely what we have now is not anything close to that which we aspired. DJs as gods rather than the guys who work their butts off to provide special moments for the crowd? Bottle service? Tiny spaces with shitty sound, or bigger spaces with meh sound and fake-ass Studio 54 attitude?
You know what people cared about at the Garage? At Better Days? At The Saint? At The Ring? At Mudd, Area, Danceteria, Ritz? The music. Better Days was 85% dance floor. $3 to get in included two free drinks. People who come in drink down two bottles of water and get on the dance floor for six straight hours. Nothing else mattered, not getting laid, not meeting people, not social chit chat—music.
Flash Factory is the first club I have seen in decades that is clearly focused on music. Probably 80% of the floor space is within the sound system. THAT blew me away and immediately I knew Kevin was right, and this was the place to change New York.
Why should today's clubbers care about a party that happened before a lot of them were born?
Satsky: Any purist cares about the history of their passion. Flash Factory is a haven for these individuals.
How will the reimagining of Better Days at Flash Factory be different—what can clubgoers expect from it?
Forest: The exact same thing they got at the old Better Days, though they may have been unaware. Innovation, "what's next," technology beyond other clubs, music no one else has yet, experiences involving technology and music that have never before been tried. Live performance, a la what David Cole and I did back in the day. A constant state of "what's he gonna do next because the last thing was insane!" Just like the old Better Days, the audience will walk out wondering "how did they do that?" We have concepts and plans for clubber interactivity that no one has even suggested, much less built and tested. Our unofficial credo will be "how are we going to make you think and feel tonight?"
Better Days will launch at Flash Factory on April 2. Tickets and more information available here.