Various Artists - Chris Sullivan Presents The Wag (Harmless Records)

Various Artists – Chris Sullivan Presents The Wag (Harmless Records)

The story of a music scene – especially dance music and its roots – can often be linked to a particular venue. The stories of The Paradise Garage and Studio 54 at the birth of disco have been told so many times, while modern ravers have their own memorable moments tied to London’s Fabric or Berlin’s Berghain. The Wag club doesn’t quite have the same legendary status, but based on this 4CD compilation helmed by club founder Chris Sullivan, it’s a story that’s been overlooked.

The Wag opened in 1982, which was one of the most volatile periods in musical history. Disco wasn’t quite dead yet, but it was rapidly mutating into different strains: from soulful r&b to loose-limbed funk, drawing on influences from jazz, Latin music – even the primitive origins of house music and the lingering attitude of punk. The compilation only spans the club’s first four years, but with such a fertile climate to draw from, the compilation feels hugely varied, full of unexpected turns and surprises. The one constant is energy: from the high energy disco stompers to the louche, sensual slow-downs, The Wag is relentless, the music in pursuit of hedonist celebration and joy at all times.

At four discs, its length can feel excessive in one go, due to its non-stop vivacity. But compilations like this are as much designed for cherry-picking as they are for entire consumption, and The Wag has plenty of highlights. There’s offerings from top-tier stars, such as James Brown, Earth Wind And Fire, and Nina Simone, but The Wag plays cleverly with expectations, choosing lesser-known cuts by such acts to render the familiar unfamiliar. Then there’s the cult classics such as Cerrone’s ‘Supernature’ and Dinosaur L’s ‘Go Bang’, both of which would be consider over-played if they weren’t such reliable, enduring anthems. But there’s also some undiscovered gems: for example, the ever-rising ‘I Got It’ from New York Port Authority throbs with urgency, while Linda Clifford’s diva turn on ‘Runaway Love’ is wailing dancefloor bliss.

The Wag was designed to be exclusive: attended by superstars such as David Bowie, Joe Strummer and Keith Richards, its strict door policy was designed to lend it an air of indulgence and prestige – simply put, it was to keep out the undesirables and the philistines. While there’s a sense of decadence at the heart of The Wag’s lush disco selections, there’s also a sense of over-indulgence at times, particularly the jazz-leaning selections. In the context of disco’s brazen emotional intensity, the off-kilter oddities of tracks like Ray Baretto’s Latin-funk ‘Pastime Paradise’ feel like vibe killers, designed to provoke a reaction than any kind of communal pleasure. Sullivan claims to have sacked DJ’s who played any song from the charts, but set against the obtuseness of moments such as this, it feels like elitism at the expense of atmosphere.

A compilation of this scope is never going to be able to be all things to all people, but while some parts feel like misjudged filler and poseur taste-making, it’s better than the sum of its parts. The easiest thing to admire about it is its vision: for better or worse, it’s the story of a club that set its own terms and refused to compromise. Beginning Of The End’s ‘Funky Nassau’ puts it best: ‘people doing their own thing but don’t care about me or you.’ The Wag doesn’t feel like an invitation or a flyer, but a velvet rope along a red carpet.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.