The sound that Grand Central Station emits on a national holiday is a curious hush of reverberating air, rather than the usual, manic rush-hour orchestrations. Which means that while seated across from legendary Latin/jazz/funk/disco/No Wave/pop recording engineer Bob Blank at a nearby restaurant, I’m able to hear him clearly as he recollects his days documenting the sound of New York from the mid-’70s on through the ’80s. Much like the painted Pegasus above our heads that looks ready to jump out of a cloud, Blank is a few minutes away from hopping on a train back to his home in Connecticut, as he has to practice for an upcoming dance tournament.
As he’s the two-time winner in national competitive Latin ballroom dancing, it’s ironic that the man most responsible for expertly capturing disco’s le freak in his studio rarely ventured out onto its dance floor. “I went to hear François K in the club just after finishing the acetate for Musique’s ‘In the Bush,’ ” Blank recalls of that 1978 disco-napalm track, his fine features and eyebrows scrunching up in recall. “I looked around and said, ‘I had no idea any of this existed!’ I felt about two inches tall and like I had four feet. I felt such great affinity for that music, yet I never lived that life myself.”
Originally a session guitarist, Blank’s childhood fondness for taking apart and reconfiguring tape recorders led him to sit behind the glass instead: “Every time I got involved on the technical end of it, I instantly felt comfortable.” The Blank Generation, a Strut Records compilation released last month, culls a baker’s dozen worth of tracks recorded at his Blank Tapes studio on West 20th, where Blank’s converted loft space and handcrafted console (“right down to the circuit boards”) was a nexus of activity for a decade.
The label credit “Recorded at Blank Tapes” triggers the same reverence that “Van Gelder Studio” inspires in jazz heads or “Fame Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals” suggests to soul aficionados—a sure sign that whoever the artist and whatever the cut, it’s worth a listen. His touch can be heard on everything from Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” to Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” to Instant Funk’s “I Got My Mind Made Up,” which was particularly memorable. (“I literally spent two years working on that record. If I never hear that thing again, I’ll be relieved.”) But even the most rabid of discophiles might not truly grasp Blank’s breadth, which roves from Lydia Lunch’s No Wave cocktail on “A Cruise to the Moon” to the buttery vocals of Gladys Knight’s “It’s a Better Than Good Time” to the outermost reaches of Sun Ra’s space jazz. “To me, it was all music,” Blank says.
One of Blank’s closest working relationships of that era was with downtown cellist/visionary/enigma Arthur Russell, whose legendary indecisiveness would max out recording budgets for the likes of West End and Sire Records. Blank, by contrast, would always allow Russell into the studio to air out his fecund ideas, be they disco, folk, or pop. On Blank Generation, Russell can be heard via the New Wave strums of his old group the Necessaries, as well as in collaboration with Blank’s then-wife Lola and their seven-year-old son, Kenny, for the percolating exuberance that is “Wax the Van.” Russell’s 21st-century resurgence makes Blank proud: “What made me excited for him was you could never predict where it was going to go. So many people of that era dismissed him. I’m so happy he’s being seen for the genius that he was.”
That same label might be applied to Blank as well, as the music here attests. And while his studio work now mostly involves the karaoke market, he still gets to work with great players. “I don’t think I ever lost my enthusiasm,” he says. “I love that interaction with the musicians—the fact that you are all playing and working together.”
If there’s anything he misses about that era, it’s the blank tape itself: “I miss analog recording, when you had to rewind the tape to listen back. Only then would everyone exhale.” With that, he breathes aloud into my recorder, for emphasis.