Answering the call of the dancefloor

He was playing Donna Summer records at his sister’s house parties when he was still at primary school, won a DJ contest when he was still a teenager in Italy, and has been spinning at Horse Meat Disco for more than a decade. Who better to DJ our preview party than Severino Panzetta?

Severino crop

From the moment we started organising the preview night for We Raise Our Hands In The Sanctuary at The Albany this summer, our first choice to DJ the after-party was Severino Panzetta, the languidly approachable resident at Horse Meat Disco, the south London gay night that no less an authority than legendary promoter Wayne Shires calls the “ultimate London queer club”. Like almost everyone else we have approached to help develop the project, the 45-year-old DJ and remixer said Yes immediately. And when he kicked off his set after the curtain call with Cheryl Lynn’s Got To Be Real, what had been a theatrical preview transformed itself into the kind of dancefloor that had originally inspired the piece.

We Raise Our Hands In The Sanctuary is a gay friendship story set in 1980s London, when the post-Stonewall generation was exploring exactly what their new liberation might mean. In an era when many LGBT people still had to pass in their workaday nine-to-five world and discrimination remained a brutal reality, the dancefloor was a communal space in which to celebrate survival from racism, homophobia and (often) social deprivation, inspired by New York parties and clubs such as David Mancuso’s The Loft, Nicky Siano’s The Gallery, Tee Scott’s Better Days and – most famously – Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage – spaces in which Black, Hispanic and white LGBT types (and their friends) could make new friends, find love, get high and above all dance together. The music that drew them all onto the dancefloor might have been called ‘uptempo r’n’b’ at the beginning of the 1970s, but by the end of the decade, it bore the name it still carries to this day – disco.

Paradise Garage

Around the same time that the Paradise Garage was opening in New York, thousands of miles away, in Mantua, northern Italy, a very young Severino was already feeling the call of the dancefloor – and he hadn’t even left primary school. “One of my older sisters was already collecting lots of records and doing some house parties and I fell in love – I was fascinated by vinyl and started playing records at my sister’s parties when I was seven or eight,” he recalls. “We’re talking 1977, 1978, and my sister had this very wide-ranging collection: she liked Italian music, obviously, but also the Rolling Stones and lots of disco: I fell in love with Giorgio Moroder, Cerrone and then Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor – all the gay stuff!”

It was not long before his sister’s collection was not enough for him and when he was nine or ten he started building his own collection with a little pocket money from his parents. The shop he frequented in Mantua was called Dimport, which, as its name suggests, made a specialism of importing records from the US, the UK and even South America. And Seve wanted them all: Italian and American disco, English new wave, German electronica, Brazilian samba. “By the time I was nine or ten, I was buying everything that was coming out, Gino Soccio, Japan, Gilberto Gil, Touré Kunda from Africa via France,” he says. “I love the fact that I grew up with this 360 degree view of music: it can be disco, it can be world music, it can be German electronic music – I grew up in all of that mix of everything.”

The Italian maestro of the dancefloor of the era was, of course, Daniele Baldelli, the equal of his first-wave Italian-American counterparts in New York such as Francis Grasso, Nicky Siano and David Mancuso. In 1979, Baldelli opened his landmark Cosmic club at Lazise on Lake Garda, less than 30 miles north of Severino’s home town, where he created his signature cosmic disco sound. “This movement by Daniele Baldelli was mainly slow disco fused with early electronica like early Tangerine Dream, but also highly influenced by Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango, and all played in this very slow, very weird way,” Seve explains.

When he was just 16 years old, Seve got his first gig in a local disco called La Taverna. “I used to go every week, making friends with the local DJ: he knew I was already practising at home and he offered me a warm-up set: it was heaven – imagine, my first time playing for people in a club with a proper sound system and lighting system,” he says.

Within a couple of years, Seve had won a DJ contest in which the prize was a fortnight in the Alps playing every night at a club called Coliseum (remember the name) and he had managed to secure a couple of two-hour slots on a local radio station in addition to his club bookings. “I was doing radio shows on Mondays and Fridays and clubs on Fridays and Saturdays, I was sorted, I was happy, making my money and it was all great,” he recalls. Nevertheless, he began to feel a little frustrated with the local scene, especially after he started making annual trips to London in his early 20s. “I usually came at the end of August and I was really into everything so I would spend a day at the Reading Festival and see Bjork and Rage Against The Machine, and then go to Carnival at Notting Hill and then stay for a couple of weeks, buying records and checking all the clubs like Bar Rumba (home of Gilles Peterson and James Lavelle’s eclectic night, That’s How It Is) and The Loft (Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson’s equally long-running US garage mid-weeker).” There was also the pull of the capital’s ’90s gay scene, bigger, broader and brasher than anything at home. “I knew I was gay since I was a kid but in Italy I would hang out only in straight clubs, there were no gay clubs at all, not so much of a gay culture. When I came to London when I was 22, 23, I discovered amazing clubs like Queer Nation where they played mostly US garage, which I loved, lots of vocals, the continuation of disco in a way.”

At the age of 26, Severino decided to definitively move to London. “Italy is a great country for some things but not for everything: people care about music but not so much as they do in this country and I couldn’t see any future or development of my career in north Italy, so for me it was very important to move. I thought, ‘I am 26: if I don’t move and do something now, maybe I will never do it’ – and I am glad I did.” Staying first with a half-Italian, half-English family near Clapham Junction, he would spend his days trawling record shops, calling record labels and nagging distributors to get promo copies of 12”s to mail back to the specialist record shop in Modena where he had been buying most of his vinyl before he left. “Every week I was sending these records to Italy and Disco Inn were selling them to the DJs,” he recalls.

Always keen to check out what was new, Seve started to hear about the Twice As Nice parties in nearby Stockwell and thought the garage that they were playing was the same as the New York strain that he loved. The first time he went he realised his mistake. “I read about these parties and thought they are probably going to play something I like, but this was the beginning of UK garage and they were playing lots of Todd Edwards who I was already into but not so speeded up! It was crazy, all this fast music, the crowd was mainly Black. I loved the energy of it.”

It was while he was still record-buying for Disco Inn that Seve met Jim Stanton, then working for Sleazenation and Jockey Slut magazines. Jim introduced him to Wayne Shires, who started him DJ-ing at Crash (the club that shifted the axis of London gay culture from Soho to south of the river around the turn of the millennium) and from there he became one of the residents at Wayne’s gay after-hours night Beyond. “It’s a weird connection that the club where I went to DJ in Italy when I won the contest was Coliseum and one of the first parties I went to after I moved to London was Twice As Nice at Colosseum and then three years later I became resident DJ for Beyond at Colosseum – spooky!”

Seve first travelled to New York, the wellspring of so much of the music he has grown up with, at the very beginning of the noughties. “When I was in Italy, we had our own thing, the cosmic sound, so I didn’t know so much about the Paradise Garage – it only became important after discovering Black gay parties here, so when I went to New York I thought, ‘This is amazing, I wish I had been to these places like the Paradise Garage because it looked like there was such an amazing energy: it’s still there in some places, but it’s different because everything has changed – the world has changed and we all change, even if you don’t want things to change, everything keeps moving.” The eye-opener on that first visit was a night at Timmy Regisford’s Club Shelter, another long-running night in the Garage tradition where the Trinidadian-born DJ mixed deep soulful vocals and afro stompers for a predominantly Black crowd. “I saw all these people dancing with no alcohol and no drugs, just getting high to a record the same way I do and I thought, ‘Wow! I’m the same!’’

It was 12 years ago now (can it really be that long?) that Jim Stanton and James Murphy invited Seve and Luke Howard to help them launch Horse Meat Disco. He didn’t need asking twice. “At Crash I was playing less soulful, more tribal, very current house, that’s what it was in Vauxhall, and in East London there were the fashion kids and electroclash and there was a gap: nobody was playing disco, so we said, ‘Let’s do where disco starts, and the whole idea was for us about the Paradise Garage, underground gay disco, that was the history, so I had the chance to play stuff I hadn’t played in ages, since I was in Italy, which was brilliant.”

A dozen years on and Horse Meat is still going strong, not only at its south London eyrie at The Eagle, but also in Glastonbury, Berlin, New York and across the world, in addition to its collection of four big-selling compilations, and the club has showcased performances by many of the greatest of today’s DJs working in and around that Garage tradition, including David Morales, Kenny Dope, Daniele Baldelli, Dimitri From Paris and Joey Negro. “Horse Meat is a gay night but women love to come and dance and straight people like it and the new generation are all keen to discover and mix it up – that’s why it was great to see those kids at your preview at The Albany, the new guys who want to know what was happening in the ’70s, who want to know about Paris Is Burning, who want to explore everything in the past.” Which is what We Raise Our Hands In The Sanctuary is all about: reconnecting with a lost era when ‘freedom’ had not yet become a synonym for ‘the free market’, and when dancefloors were not awash with the same beats, drugs and lasers but populated instead by a genuine melting-pot of experimental inclusive camaraderie. Love must still be the message.

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© Martin Moriarty

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