Dominatrix ‘The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight’

A huge hit on New York’s 80s club scene, Dominatrix’s ‘The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight’ was an irresistible combination of new wave and electro. Mastermind Stuart Argabright tells us how it all came about

“I had a relationship with a dominatrix back in 1977. I’d graduated from High School in Virginia in 1976 and already had my first group, the Rudements, going on. Me and my friend had won tickets to see Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ tour in Washington DC, but we didn’t drive so we hitched. On the way back, this red Corvette pulled up and a very mysterious, sweet perfumed lady was driving. She was the dominatrix, who I discovered was involved with a Soviet defector at the time, so there was a whole lot of intrigue going on. I only met her that one time then, but when I moved to New York in the spring of 78, I was having a drink, turned around, and there she was.

“I went to West Berlin after my group Ike Yard [who released a lone album on Factory in 1982] split up. I’d gotten stabbed in the East Village and took off to recover. I was thinking about the dominatrix and that whole world. She told us stories about how her and her friends would get hired to do jobs for music business people. They were getting paid to pee on them! I was into the whole idea that normal people don’t see that world, but I’d seen the whole backside, who the men were. It was funny because of the whole power re-balance when these ladies did their thing.

“I made a demo of ‘The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight’ while I was in Berlin with just a keyboard and some effects, and I played it on a tiny cassette player for the DJ Ivan Ivan, who played in New York at the Pyramid Club the early Mudd Club in the early 80s. He loved it, and got the demo to Joel Webber, who was head of Uproar Records.

“I knew Ken Lockie, from [synthpop band] Cowboys International, so we worked with him to take the demo from the abstract, dreamy version that I did into something sharper and more danceable. Ivan then had the idea to go to the studio of his friend Peter Baumann, who was from Tangerine Dream. It was on 23rd Street in New York and he had amazing gear like a 16-channel mixing desk that also had oscillators built in. I think it was built by Conny Plank.

“After we’d used all of Peter Baumann’s 16 channels, we took it to Unique Recording Studios, which was the hip place in town by Times Square where Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ and many other records had been made. It was a high-end studio with all these new toys and we had a great engineer, Jay Burnett, who totally rocked up the song, adding another 24 tracks, a DX-7 keyboard and Syndrums.

“I could tell it was going to be a hit. We had a great song and scenario, the dominatrix staying home tonight to rest, but it was also based on the old song from the 50s called ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’.

“The vocalist Claudia Summers was brought in by Ivan. She was from a group called Walter Steding, a downtown, no-wave, totally art damaged kind of group. I never saw her doing a live show. When we started to make a music video, the director Beth B, definitely from the no-wave scene, found the 18-year-old Dominique Davalos, who became the vocalist and the woman in the video. So you had one woman on the cover, another woman sang the song and another performed it.

“The record label had the wherewithal to hire booking agency Norby Walters for the live shows. Actually the woman who was head of booking our shows, Cara Lewis, is now managing Rihanna and Kanye West.

Dominatrix was one of her first gigs. Eventually we made it down to the Paradise Garage. That was a killer show where we performed alongside DAF’s Robert Görl and Run DMC.

“The record did well and I recorded other tracks looking to do another EP. I recorded ‘Mr Dominatrix’, two versions of ‘City That Never Sleeps’, one version of which appears on ‘New York Noise 3’, a compilation I produced for Soul Jazz in 2006, and was also recently re-released on Berlin label Instruments of Discipline.

“Dominatrix was already getting a little bit attenuated and it wasn’t an original band. With the success of the track, people started arguing about publishing. We didn’t sue each other, but some of the original members got angry and it was clear we were never going to get together again.”

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