Sleeping Bag went bang

From its early days as a conduit for the out-there ur-disco of Arthur Russell and the innovative electro of Mantronix to house era hits with the likes of Dhar Braxton and Dionne, Sleeping Bag was one of the most influential New York labels of the 1980s. They saw themselves as the anti-Studio 54 kids coming to shake up the music establishment, and for much of the decade they did. Eventually, the label became mired in vicious disagreements on direction, building up insurmountable debts in the process, a tale as old as the industry itself…

1981 was the year that the movie Escape From New York was released, an apocalyptic vision of a future in which Manhattan had become a high security prison. On the real streets of New York, things were equally grim. ‘Back then, I had no dreams: I had nightmares,’ said Curtis Sliwa, who had recently formed the Guardian Angels to patrol crime-ridden neighbourhoods. ‘I was a night manager of Mickey Ds in the Bronx. I had crime problems in the restaurant. I had to go over the counter and deal with them individually. I was getting rheumatism arthritis from dialling 911. It was a joke. Instead I had cops coming in and tryin’ to scam me for free food.’ There were 2,166 murders in 1981 (in comparison with 648 in 2013) and reported felonies had reached a record level of 637,451. 

But things are not always necessarily as they seem. Escape From New York was actually shot in St Louis in Missouri and amid the desolation were explosive pockets of activity that made New York City arguably the most creative musical place on the planet.  ‘I liked the bleakness, because you could dream in that,’ said Andy Warhol collaborator Penny Arcade.  ‘You could dream new things. The Lower East Side was like a marketplace. All the sidewalks were covered with blankets and people were selling things like broken light bulbs.’

The disco scene, which had begun in the downtown area of Manhattan in the late 1960s had, by 1981 (despite the crash of disco elsewhere in the US), blossomed into a vast array of clubs from the artful and grubby, to the glamorous or sanctified: Danceteria, Mudd Club, Paradise Garage, The Loft, Better Days, The Funhouse and Studio 54. At the start of 1981, the original owners of Studio 54, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were released from prison after serving sentences for tax evasion. 

Dance music was in flux. No longer dominated by disco, DJs’ playlists had opened up to include Latin, early hip hop, rock, post-punk, funk and pop music. Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ was one of the big hits of the year, there were also unlikely club smashes for Modern Romance, former Buzzcock Peter Shelley, Ian Dury, ESG and Talking Heads’ offshoot Tom Tom Club. Club music had not been so varied since the early days of disco. 

Enter Sleeping Bag Records. With its cute koala bear logo and off-the-wall name, few record labels epitomised the straitened, evolving circumstances of the 1980s than Sleeping Bag. It was born in total opposition to the slick business operations at Salsoul and Prelude and its output couldn’t have been more different, either, taking in the leftfield manoeuvres of Arthur Russell, Konk, Class Action’s nifty reading of ‘Weekend’, Mantronix, Joyce Sims’ electro-swoon, Nocera’s freestyle, Dhar Braxton and Hanson & Davis’ house-not-house and, if you include sister label, Fresh Records, EPMD, T La Rock, Todd Terry and Just Ice. 

Jump to the beat

It all began on the corner of Thompson Street and Prince Street when Will Socolov and Arthur Russell bumped into each other. They had originally met through the Loft, where they were both regulars (Will’s father was David Mancuso’s lawyer). When Arthur’s Loose Joints project had run into financial difficulties, Will had persuaded his father to lend them some money to finish it. Will had recently returned from a sojourn in Hawaii.  ‘We started talking and after about half an hour Arthur said, “Would you like to start a label?” And I said, “Sure.” It was as simple as that.’ 

They both agreed it wasn’t going to follow the rules of other leading labels in the city – and with Arthur Russell’s involvement, there was little chance of that. ‘It was a reaction to the smooth disco look of Nehru collars and Jheri curls. Arthur and I never fitted into that and never wanted to fit into that,’ says Socolov. ‘We were young kids who were into dancing. We hung out with friends who were very hippie-ish in their mentality. I wasn’t but I was a New Yorker and I really enjoyed a lot of different things and different cultures and I wasn’t going to be stereotyped. So we made Sleeping Bag as a reaction to that whole Salsoul, dressing sharp Studio 54 thing. We wore dungarees and sneakers.’

Their first breakthrough single, ‘Go Bang #5’, certainly delivered on that promise. Written by Arthur Russell and culled from his Dinosaur L album, 24 —> 24 Music, and remixed by François K, it had an immediate impact on the city and carried on the trajectory that Russell’s previous explorations in disco (Dinosaur’s ‘Kiss Me Again’ and Loose Joints’ ‘Is It All Over My Face’) had begun. ‘My view of what I had to do with those tapes is organise and focus them,’ recalls François of the ‘Go Bang #5’ sessions. ‘I had to give it an appeal where at least people would listen to it and get into the marvellous and incredible things he had in there. As a mixer, I feel that when I did ‘Go Bang’ I really focused that record. I stripped it down. I spent hours and hours going over each track until I found the elements that were really strong. And the less things that were around them, the better they sounded.’

François gets extra bang for the buck

Will Socolov remembers the first time he took an acetate to the Loft.  ‘I went to get in line with everybody else and one of the guys called me over: “Hey Will, David’s been waiting for you.” He opened the door and said, ”Come in.” I went in and said hello. David was cueing up the next record, but he took it off and he was very particular how he played and how picked his music so this was unusual. He put “Go Bang” on, and people were just coming up to me, one after another saying, “Fuck Will, this is incredible”. They loved it. So of course I called Arthur and he came down.

‘When he heard it, he came up to me and said, “I’m ruined!”
“I’m ruined. Did you hear those drums? They’re muddy.”
I just started laughing. He laughed too. Arthur was kind of like that. He would say very dramatic things but he would either realise or know what he had said or he had done it for effect. He started laughing and I started yelling at him, “You’re out of your fucking mind! Have you ever seen this place go as crazy?”’

Hot on the heels of ‘Go Bang #5’ came ‘Weekend’, a cover of the Phreek tune that Larry Levan had made massive at the Paradise Garage. ‘Bob Blank knew I went to the Garage and was friends with Larry and he said let’s do a cover of “Weekend”,’ recalls Socolov.  ‘I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ I wasn’t really into the idea of doing covers generally but the reason this was so appealing was because Atlantic Records fucked up the original release. They didn’t do the right version and they just fucked up constantly. So we were like let’s do this. Everyone wants to the right version of “Weekend”. I asked Larry about it, he flipped out, he was excited about it.’

‘Class Action was my production,’ claims Blank. ‘I’d engineered the original Phreek version in 1979 with Patrick Adams. Anyway, Chris Wilshire, who was the backup singer on the original sessions, one day said, “You know, we do ‘Weekend’ and it’s a big hit in the clubs”. So I got together with Fred Zarr, before he worked with Madonna, and we put it together. It was very Prince derivative, it really sounded like Vanity 6.’ With a Larry Levan remix and full support from the Garage resident, the new version of ‘Weekend’ became a big New York hit. 

Sleeping Bag’s greatest hits

One of the reasons for the success of these two singles was the support they both received from the doyen of New York R&B radio, Frankie Crocker, whose show on WBLS was instrumental in breaking many new dance records (Crocker was a regular patron at the Paradise Garage and friend of Levan). One of the legends of the New York recording industry, Juggy Gayles, had been assisting Socolov in promoting the records to radio. Gayles was already in his late 60s when he first met Socolov and had been promoting records since the early days of the record industry, working as a song plugger on hits like Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, before setting up his own publishing company United Music and scoring further smashes (though whatever profits he made often disappeared down the race track). Juggy was also a regular fixture at disco clubs in the 1970s, working on hits like ‘Fly Robin Fly’. 

 ‘I met up with Juggy a couple of times and paid him,’ says Socolov. ‘He really liked me and we ended up starting to talk a lot and when “Weekend” was the next release and he came up to me and said, ‘I’d really like to be involved. I think you’re gonna be great, kid, you got great ears, you really understand it.’ He really knew how to rub my ego up. So I got involved with him. One thing I knew about the business was that neither myself nor Arthur really liked the record promotion side, because I was very ignorant about it.’

Will Socolov’s business relationship did not last long with Arthur, primarily, according to Socolov, because Arthur seemed incapable of delivering music for the label. For his part, Russell felt he was being frozen out of the label when songs such as ‘In The Light Of A Miracle’ were not deemed suitable for release. However, Russell did have a problem with finishing songs. ‘When a song was done and it was a record and it was out and was successful, he would be saying, “Now we have to work on it and improve it”,’ remembers Blank. ‘He had no perspective that it was done.’ Even though Sleeping Bag was delivering interesting leftfield music, it was essentially a dance label and Arthur’s work was veering off into all manner of interesting directions, few of them capable of moving a dancefloor. Not a bad thing, for sure, but not necessarily something that would enable the label to stay afloat. Despite this, Socolov and Russell maintained a relationship. 

After Gayles joined the label, he bought into the company as Socolov’s partner and shortly after brought in his son Ronald Resnick, who he had been rescued from drug problems in Los Angeles.  ‘Juggy would tell people: “I’m bringing him back to save his life”,’ says Socolov. ‘My joke would be: “And yeah, to ruin my fuckin’ life!” He was a real fuckin’ asshole. He’s dead now and whatever but he was a really bad guy and theirs was a fucked up relationship. We’d be having meetings and they’d get into screaming fights. It would be so embarrassing for me to be in a meeting and completely oblivious to the fact we’re sitting with other people and how embarrassing this is.’ This dysfunctional partnership would eventually cause the company to implode. 

The next phase in the company was driven by a teenager Will Socolov met through Danceteria DJ Freddy Bastone. His debut single sold 70,000 copies and launched the career of one of the most influential producers of the 1980s. ‘I was with Freddy Bastone and Mark Kamins and this kid is talking to Freddy and says, “Please Freddy can I come?”,’ remembers Socolov.  ‘Freddy’s looking to me to make the decision. I turned to him and said, “What’s your name?”’
“I’m called Kurtis but they call me Mantronix.”
‘I said, “Come on, you can hang out.”

‘He told me he had a demo he was working on, it was just an instrumental, and so he said, ‘It’s really hot and people love it.’ 
“Is that true Freddy?”
‘He said, “I’m telling you the truth. Everytime I play it in the club people go crazy.”
‘That’s all I needed to hear.’ The following week, Socolov came down to Danceteria to hear Bastone play the demo. ‘Freddy put on the track, an instrumental of “Fresh Is The Word” and the place went crazy. I turned to Kurtis and said, “How soon do you wanna do the record?” And that was it. We went in the studio and started recording.’

Fresh is the wuuuurd

Kurtis Mantronik’s impact was immediate. His hand was on many of the big records enjoyed by the label over the next three or four years: Just Ice’s ‘Put The Record Back On’, ‘Hungry For Your Love’ by Hanson & Davis, Joyce Sims’ ‘Come Into My Life’ and the Lyrical King (From The Boogie Down Bronx) LP by T La Rock, as well as an amazing run of his own productions that brought a brave new approach to hip hop and electro. (Interestingly, Socolov tried to get Russell and Mantronix to collaborate, but the partnership never really yielded anything:  ‘Arthur had met Mantronix, they didn’t work together at all well. Kurtis was a kid and Arthur was too… esoteric. ‘) 

Sleeping Bag began to compete with other labels in the field like Def Jam and Profile, led by the inspired hand of Mantronik. ‘It’s important to us to break apart the stereotypical notions surrounding hip hop,’ Kurtis told Jack Barron in the NME. ‘That’s why I say we aren’t simply a hip hop group. We’re into hardcore confusion and we’d like to be as influential and groundbreaking as Art Of Noise or Kraftwerk were in their day. ‘

In the dance world, as disco became memory and the electronic instrumentation on Italo-disco and forward-thinking labels like Prelude began to dominate, so a new sound emerged. In Chicago, they called it house. In New Jersey and New York, they simply called it club. Whatever it was called, Sleeping Bag were on it. Dhar Braxton’s ‘Jump Back’ was one of them. Although the production was credited to Jhon Fair, who’d had a hit the year before with Chocolette’s ‘That East Street Beat’, much of the work was done by a young kid working in the office packing records. ‘Robert Clivilles was the guy that really made that a hit,’ says Socolov. ‘It wasn’t Jhon Fair. He was furious because he said he produced the record. But it was one of those situations where I couldn’t give Robert credit, because it was Jhon’s record.’

There were other hits for Sleeping Bag as it glided through the post-disco period into house music, aided by producers and remixers like Timmy Regisford, Frankie Knuckles, Bruce Forest and Bob Moss and Jerry Ferrer, who delivered one of its greatest singles, Kariya’s ‘Let Me Love You For Tonight’, a club smash in the States and minor chart hit in the UK. Although it went on to be sampled heavily (most notably by Bizarre Inc’s ‘Playing With Knives’), it proved to be one of the label’s final hurrahs.

‘I know why the label collapsed,’ asserts Socolov. ‘I stopped working there. Ron would talk his father into stuff then Juggy would start busting my balls. It was two against one. We bought a building in Fulham. We spent a ridiculous amount of money. None of my other friends had opened up a company there. We were licensing our records and people were putting them out. We were making a lot of money. But Ron said we were going to have our own label but we didn’t have the infrastructure. We didn’t need it. Anyway, I asked Juggy to buy me out for $400,000 and he said no. So I offered him the same and he said, “Fuck you. This company is worth £20m. Give me $20m for my half.”
I said, “Juggy you’re crazy.”

‘He tried to get people to back him but nobody did because they knew I ran everything. They fucked everything up. I said to Juggy look I’m gonna stay home. I’ll come in and sign the cheques but I’m going let the company go. I stopped working and that’s what happened.’

Sleeping Bag continued trading for a while, releasing music that was already on the schedules. They released a new Joyce Sims album but without Mantronix’s sure hand on the tiller, there was no hype and no interest. ‘Ron freaked out and started screaming at his father: “We’re gonna ship 50,000 copies!”, recalls Socolov. ‘His father went back and did these deals, they took tons of product and then they returned it all. We lost a fortune on that. All of a sudden the European operation was eating up money like crazy so we had to shut that down. From being a thing that was supposed to produce money, it became a disaster. Believe me a record company can fall apart quickly, especially when the main person is just not involved anymore.’

To make matters worse, Mantronix jumped ship and the label became embroiled in a law suit, which they eventually won, but at great cost. ‘It fucked up my relationship with Kurtis because he said, “Get rid of Ron, get control of the company and you run the label and I’ll make the records”’, says Socolov. ‘I didn’t want to do it. We ended up winning. We spent about $100,000 and we won about $20,000. That’s how we won on that lawsuit. It was a mistake but Ron kept pushing it.’ Shortly afterwards, Sleeping Bag folded. 

Success in the music industry is built on confidence and sand. It’s surprising how quick that can disintegrate. Sleeping Bag was no exception. It all ended suddenly and acrimoniously. Socolov went on to found Freeze with former Sleeping Bag cohort Todd Terry (where, among other things, they released Jay Z’s debut album), Juggy Gales died in his sleep, aged 86, in early 2000. Ron Resnick also died later in the decade. 

What is left is a treasure trove of music that perfectly plotted New York’s development in the 1980s, from the post-disco sounds pioneered by Arthur Russell, via Mantronix’s re-imagining of the nascent hip hop scene, to the last cries of club and house by Kariya and comrades. It’s all in here.
Bill Brewster

This piece was originally included with the The Sleeping Bag Records Anthology, which came out in 2015. You can buy the compilation here >

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton