This long-running London party descended from David Mancuso's legendary Loft parties and embodies its core values: incredible sound, an inclusive atmosphere and a timeless soundtrack. Tom Faber tells its story.
The hall looks like a school gym: scuffed wooden floors, high ceilings, a long wall of dusty windows. It's midday on Sunday, and around 20 people are lugging concrete slabs up the stairs, positioning vintage wooden speakers, inflating and tying together trains of multi-coloured balloons. It could be the preparations for a child's birthday party.
A few overzealous volunteers are overfilling the balloons and they're popping with brutal regularity, but the room slowly begins to fill with colour. I had only planned to observe, but before long I'm drafted in to help, climbing rickety ladders and positioning hi-fi equipment under meticulous instructions. When a man fixes a disco ball in the centre of the room, everyone pauses to watch. There's a sense of ceremony to this finishing touch.
Lucky Cloud Soundsystem is now in its 14th year, and the autumn party is almost ready to open. It's a space where people of all ages and backgrounds come together on a Sunday afternoon four times a year. They dance to life-affirming music on an audiophile soundsystem. It feels more like a celebration than a club night.
It's also a party with serious pedigree. Lucky Cloud is a descendant of David Mancuso's legendary Loft parties in New York. The Loft played a vital role in defining modern club culture and continues to this day—in February it will celebrate its 49th birthday. It inspired many of the most important figures and venues in club history, including Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, David Morales and François Kevorkian, Paradise Garage and Studio 54.
The story of The Loft and its influence are mapped in Tim Lawrence's definitive account, Love Saves The Day. When Lawrence first met David Mancuso, in 1997, he was off the radar. "The Loft wasn't just underground, it was barely open," Lawrence remembers. Lawrence had gone to New York to research a book on the history of house music, but a meeting with Mancuso introduced him to a narrative of American dance music that had been largely forgotten. "David had drifted out of historical consciousness," says Lawrence. "He felt there was a need to tell his story."
This story wound up at the heart of Lawrence's book, which re-examined disco culture and the early club scene with a new origin story: the private Loft parties Mancuso hosted in his own apartment. His door policy was one of radical inclusion. Unlike other New York night spots at the time, all dancers were welcome regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, education or class. This attitude was likely forged during Mancuso's involvement in the social activist movements of the 1960s. "I was on the streets and in the party," he recalled in an interview with Lawrence. "Dancing and politics were on the same wavelength, and The Loft created a little social progress in tune with the times."
Inclusivity was only one of the ingredients that made The Loft so special. There was Mancuso's obsessive quest for the perfect soundsystem, the free food and fruit punch, the décor and lighting, and, of course, the music, a blend of jazz, funk and other styles connected by spirit rather than genre, including a sound that would later be known as disco. "David's music selection was phenomenal," says Lawrence. "I'd need to go for a pee and I just couldn't tear myself away from the dance floor."
Another dancer with strong recollections of The Loft in the 1990s is Colleen "Cosmo" Murphy, who became a close friend of Mancuso's and later co-hosted the party. "When I first walked in I was blown away," she tells me, "it was like an Alice In Wonderland moment." When Mancuso later fell on hard times, Murphy helped him arrange a pair of compilations for the UK label Nuphonic, David Mancuso Presents: The Loft. With the compilations and the publication of Lawrence's book in 2004, Mancuso began to reemerge on the dance scene. He had claimed his place in history.
In 2001, Mancuso played at a London launch party for the first compilation, a rare appearance outside of his own private parties in Manhattan. Excited by the experience, he approached Murphy, Lawrence and Lawrence's friend and colleague Jeremy Gilbert with the idea of starting a party series in London. The group found a venue in Shoreditch, The Light Bar, a former power station that had a loft space flooded with natural light. In organising the event, they realised the celebrated atmosphere of Mancuso's parties was no accident. It was the product of rigorous experimentation, both social and sonic, the analysis of decades of parties and constant tweaks to decor, lighting and sound. It was precision-engineered to feel free and spontaneous.
Assembling the soundsystem was particularly arduous. Mancuso had embarked on an odyssey of sonic perfection at The Loft, buying equipment for hundreds of thousands of dollars and ultimately designing his own speaker arrays. His ambition was perfect sonic clarity inspired by nature; Mancuso apparently took sound equipment to an aviary, attempting to play pre-recorded birdsong so clearly that real birds would respond. His final setup included Mark Levinson amplifiers, handmade Klipschorn speakers and Koetsu turntable cartridges, crafted by the Japanese sword-maker, artist and hi-fi aficionado Yoshiaki Sugano.
Mancuso's expectations were just as high for the sound at the London party. The sound rental companies "worked their arses off to get David good equipment, but they didn't really understand what he wanted sound-wise," recalls Lawrence. "There were just different planes of communication going on. He would be reducing these sound guys to tears at the end of a party, he could be merciless. David was very focused on the party. Although it was a great expression of humanity and collectivity and friendship, the means by which David sometimes got there could be single-minded and harsh at points."
Mancuso's ultimate realisation was that in order to achieve the purest possible sound, he needed to strip elements away. "The more components you have the more you hurt the original sound, so the system should contain the least amount of electronics possible," he told Lawrence. Murphy recalls a phrase Mancuso would often use, one of many quotes that are passed around the Lucky Cloud team like mantras: "good sound is a human right."
The London parties were held on Sunday afternoons four times a year, close to the equinoxes and solstices of each season. After a few years they had built a regular community of dancers and a thirty-strong team of volunteers. The team took out a business loan to invest in their own soundsystem and established themselves as a not-for-profit enterprise with a name of their own: Lucky Cloud.
Named after a song by Arthur Russell, "Lucky Cloud" echoed the airy quality of the Klipschorn speakers as well as several core Loft concepts: innocence, nature and a childlike spirit. There were also personal connections to Russell. Lawrence published a book, Hold On To Your Dreams, about the musician in 2009, while Mancuso had known him personally. When Russell was composing he would listen to his own music on Mancuso's Loft soundsystem, the best in New York.
At Lucky Cloud's autumn party in 2017, the preparations are finally finished. The ceiling is strung with balloons and paper lanterns. The turntables are stabilised on towers of concrete, glass and rubber squash balls. The Klipschorn speakers are supported and angled by Black Ravioli isolation pads, which soundman Andrew Pirie tells me are made from a material also used by nuclear submarines to avoid radar detection. Simon and Guillaume, who will be the afternoon's musical hosts (the team don't use the term "DJ"), are warming up the soundsystem with soft jazz. Most of the volunteers have gone home to change or nap before the party begins. A few stragglers, like myself, linger in the hall with a sense of serene anticipation.
I slump on a sofa next to a man dressed so psychedelically he could have just walked out of a cartoon acid trip. Four heavy crystals hang on necklaces at his chest, swaying hypnotically as he moves. He introduces himself as David, a veteran of the New York scene. He doesn't remember me, but we'd actually met before. At the spring party, he approached me in the smoking area and sat beside me, saying the acid he'd taken was stronger than expected and asking if I'd help him roll a joint. He told me about going to The Loft in 1974, the Warehouse in Chicago and later Paradise Garage. ("Larry was a motherfucker!" he'd lovingly exclaimed when I'd asked him about Larry Levan.) But today David won't be dancing. He had a motorcycle accident in August and injured his collarbone. I ask if he should be at home to rest and heal. He takes a long look at me, leans back and says: "There's nowhere that I can heal better than here."
A few friends of mine are coming to Lucky Cloud for the first time. Around 6 PM they arrive and each is surprised by something different. Some comment on the vegan buffet and cloakroom, both of which are free. Others note how friendly the security are, with no aggressive search on entrance. "No one was checking your identity at the door," Mancuso once told Lawrence. "As long as you act like a human being you can do what you want. That's the deal…that tells you something. People can be trusted."
What stands out most is the quality of the sound and the track selections. The music isn't played too loudly, carefully capped at 100db. Secretsundaze cofounder James Priestley remembers the first time he heard music through the Lucky Cloud speakers: "For someone who has suffered from tinnitus for the best part of 15 years, being able to enter a club space without having to first don earplugs was pretty mind-blowing for me. The clarity and detail were out of this world. I left thinking this is how all clubs should be."
There's another Mancuso line about sound levels that I've heard: "We practise safe sound." Lawrence expands on the idea: "David's philosophy was that his guests should leave the party with more energy than when they arrived. If you've been bombarded with sound you go out exhausted, your ears ringing, you're physically shattered." It sounds improbable, but when people emerge from the party at midnight, there's a freshness to their step that's hard to deny.
Of course, the audiophile setup isn't only to protect people's hearing. Records that I know well sound completely different at Lucky Cloud—fuller, closer to the experience of live music, with layers of instrumentation I'd never noticed before. At Colleen Murphy's house in east London where we had talked, surrounded by high-end audio equipment, she told me about the pleasure in hearing productions through an audiophile system. "It could be a Trevor Horn production, it could be 'Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zeppelin, it could be Henrik Schwarz. You're enveloped by the sonics as well as the music. You just get lost in it."
Murphy is the sole musical host at three out of Lucky Cloud's four annual parties. The exception is autumn, when Guillaume Chottin and Simon Halpin take the reins. Today the pair play a superbly varied set over seven hours, moving from cast-iron disco classics like Dan Hartman's "Vertigo / Relight My Fire" to Gat Decor's 1992 rave anthem "Passion." But they don't mix songs. Each track is played in its entirety. When one ends, the crowd applauds and the selectors start up the next one. It gives the party constant micro-doses of celebration, and determines the tracks chosen to play. Murphy tells me the questions that run through her head when she's selecting a track, counting them off on her fingers: "Is it great from beginning to end? Is the mix really great? Is it produced well? Does it have life energy?"
Little about Lucky Cloud's hosts is comparable to contemporary big-name DJs. This goes back to Mancuso who, despite hosting a beloved party, was a social introvert. "One of the first things that drew me to David in a profound way was his absolute desire to militate against the ego of the DJ," Lawrence tells me. "He had this belief that the energy needed to be concentrated around the dance floor. If all the dancers are facing the DJ you're basically dancing with the back of someone's head. All the energy is leaving the dance floor and going to the DJ."
Mancuso had a few tricks to encourage dancers to be with each other, rather than being individually with the DJ. He positioned the turntables in the corner of the room, so the first thing people would see when they entered was not the DJ, but the dance floor. He also calibrated the speakers so the sound was best when people faced the centre of the room. "I'm just part of the vibration," Mancuso told Lawrence. "I'm very uncomfortable when I'm put on a pedestal."
At its heart, Lucky Cloud is about community. There are the dancers, who are so enchanted with the party and its principles that some come from as far as Brazil and Hong Kong. There's the team of volunteers, who offer a day of their weekends to make it happen. Even the musical selectors are volunteers, and only the cloakroom and security staff get paid. Many here have known each other for 14 years, have seen each other grow, change and have children. During the setup of the party, there's a moment when everyone takes a break to eat bagels brought from Brick Lane. Watching the team catch up is like attending a family reunion. "I always think that Lucky Cloud is my longest commitment and my longest relationship in life," says Alejandro Asencio, a volunteer who has been coming since the early days. "Even though I don't live in London anymore I will never stop coming to the parties. I need them."
Over bagels a 13-year-old girl tells me that guinea pigs need only six minutes of sleep a day. She's the daughter of Colleen Murphy. During the party's early hours more children will arrive, dancing with abandon to low-slung funk grooves and playing with stray balloons. Most are children of Lucky Cloud regulars, encouraged to join the party for its first two hours. Murphy's husband, Adam Dewhurst, remembers a few "disco hipsters" turning up to early parties and looking horrified when they saw children dancing to Mancuso's selections. "They didn't get it," he said, "but once you've been hit on the head a few times by balloons, you see those barriers just drop. They're playing balloon volleyball with the kids, accessing their inner child."
The inner child was a key concept for Mancuso. Explaining the pivotal role of balloons in the party, he told Lawrence: "It was a childlike experience, not childish. You could let yourself go… People could regain what might have been lost." The setup also had personal echoes for Mancuso, who spent some of his earliest days in a children's home, where a nun named Sister Alicia would bring children to a party room where they played with balloons and listened to records. It's an oddly domestic source of inspiration for one of dance culture's most influential parties, yet it makes sense in the context of The Loft. Mancuso wanted his venues to be "comfortable" and "homey." In order to decide whether he could hold a party in a space, he would question whether he'd be happy to sleep there. "I think people respond to the environment because it's gentle," says Asencio. "It's gentle, but it's powerful."
Mancuso also drew from principles of Buddhism and Timothy Leary's LSD rituals (themselves based on The Tibetan Book Of The Dead), structuring the night's music into three phases, or Bardos. "The first Bardo would be very smooth, perfect, calm," Mancuso told Lawrence. "The second Bardo would be like a circus. And the third Bardo was about re-entry, so people would go back into the outside world relatively smoothly." Though based on spiritual principles, the formula is perfectly suited to playing records. Lucky Cloud parties reach musical boiling point before slowing down, preparing dancers to leave the unburdened headspace they inhabit over the evening.
These spiritual ideas are not without a sense of fun. Murphy showed me an email that Mancuso sent her full of cosmic meditations on sound and space. He had given the email a rainbow background, and attached a butterfly emoji to the text. "How many life legends would be sending a rainbow butterfly email? How did he even do that?" She read the email aloud, which ended with the line: "May the tracking force be with you." Murphy threw back her head and laughed.
In 2011 Mancuso became ill and stopped making the trip to play in London. Though the team were saddened, this shift was in some ways a liberation for the party. Murphy took over hosting duties, bringing a fresh edge to the musical selection. "He wanted the party to go on without him," she says. "For him it wasn't about worshipping David Mancuso. It was about the party and he wanted it to continue." In 2014 the team discovered that their home, The Light Bar, was going to close and become an office block, a familiar London story. They soon found a promising space, a community centre in De Beauvoir. It reminded them of The Loft's most recent home, a Ukrainian community centre in New York.
Lucky Cloud isn't the only party that draws direct inspiration from The Loft. Mancuso set up a sister party in Sapporo, Japan with the same audiophile soundsystem and ethos, which is still running to this day. "David started to realise that The Loft was almost a transferable concept," Lawrence says. Over the past decades, other notable parties have sprung up with echoes of The Loft, such as Joy and Mister Saturday Night in New York. Even beyond the direct lineage of The Loft, it seems there is an enduring appeal, even a need, for dancing spaces that are inclusive, relaxed and defiantly non-commercial.
In turn, Lucky Cloud has borne its own fruit. Part of the team runs Beauty & The Beat, a more regular party with a psychedelic music policy. Volunteers Alejandro and Ben run Lady Olé and inner u, respectively, which expand the Loft principles to queer Spanish pop and intimate techno nights. Murphy hosts Classic Album Sundays, a deep-listening event where the crowd sprawl on beanbags and soak up classic LPs. Since Lucky Cloud bought its high-end soundsystem in the mid-2000s, "audiophile" has become a buzzword donned by London venues like Spiritland and Brilliant Corners, which is itself part of the extended Lucky Cloud family. The Loft was always part of a greater tapestry. "As far as David was concerned," Lawrence explains, "The Loft simply took its position in a universal dance that dates back to the beginning of time."
David Mancuso died on November 14, 2016, aged 72. A memorial was held in London, where Mancuso's friends and loved ones honoured him the only way they knew how: with a party. Murphy played only Loft classics. "It was intensely uplifting, traumatic and cathartic all at once," she says. Mancuso withdrew and became "part of the vibration," just as he always wanted. His principles and ideas, energy and aura are still ingrained in the party.
That vibration is still palpable almost a year later, as today's party comes to its peak. The community hall is hot and dark, the dance floor frothing with energy. Even now, each person has space to dance expansively. A few liberated balloons bounce across people's heads. Simon and Guillaume play Mary Clark's "Take Me I'm Yours," which somehow brings the energy even higher, prompting a singalong in my corner of the dance floor.
For the final moments, the musical hosts slowly bring the energy down. The strutting plea of Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes' "Don't Leave Me This Way" fades into the celebratory soul of Blood, Sweat & Tears' "You've Made Me So Very Happy." The song ends and the dancers clap for a long while. The lights come up and they drift around, unwilling to let go of what they've shared and who they were over the last seven hours.
Eventually people do start to trickle out. The tireless team of volunteers gets to work dismantling the soundsystem and loading it onto vans. Some of the crew have been working and dancing for 15 hours. Outside there's a chill in the air, but it's a small mercy after the heat of the dance floor.
The long strands of balloons are dragged down from the ceiling and burst. It's a jarring moment, watching the colours explode with nerve-shredding pops. But there will be more balloons. I'm reminded of another Mancuso idea, something he once told Jeremy Gilbert: that there is one big party going on all the time, and occasionally we manage to tune into it. We did. It may be time to tune out, but we'll be tuning in again before long.