The Twilight Zone first opened it’s doors in 1980 in the nearly empty, factory filled, garment district of Toronto’s downtown, which years later became zoned as the city’s Entertainment District. During it’s incredible nine year run, the Zone became a mecca for a dedicated, eclectic clientele that included a solid mix of straight and gay; a multi-cultural movement where only the music mattered.
Saturday nights at the Zone featured co-owners Albert and Tony Assoon on the decks, along with some of the world’s biggest disc jockeys spinning funk and house records on a now legendary sound system to a religious, cult-like following, laying the underground foundations for many to follow. Guest writer and Toronto area DJ Mitch Winthrop graciously fires up his DeLorean to take us back into time and smack dab in the middle of the Zone’s crowded dance floor, one more time.
1. Strafe – Set It Off
The first time I ever heard that record was on the Zone’s legendary sound system. Those hi-hats and the kick from the b-side mix before the vocals were played was like hearing God’s heartbeat.
2. First Choice – Let No Man Put Asunder
As was often the case, the club would be pitch black. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face… all the lights were out. And I couldn’t see who was in the booth. For a few seconds there’d be dead air, so the assumption was there was a technical problem, but then the acapella would ring out “I’m surprised to see your suitcase at the door!” – the crowd would go insane. And whether it was Tony or Albert Assoon playing, they’d play this part of the record over and over, teasing everyone who by now is in hysterics until finally playing the actual full version with all the lights finally coming on. At the time this was pure magic. (for the Frankie Knuckle remix go here.)
3. Marshall Jefferson – Move Your Body
What can you say? The record was produced like a DJ was playing it. Just put it on and stand back. Let the crowd go mad, at a time when people were just starting to realize house was something to take seriously. This was our House Music Anthem.
4. Hanson & Davis – Tonight
Nothing quite shook the building like this record did. I often found myself in the back parking lot or on the roof when this came on and the way the plate glass windows of the warehouses across the street from the club would vibrate to this song was as much a part of the Zone experience as being in the middle of the dance floor was.
5. Master C&J – Dub Love
The wail of the synths in this record, on many nights, was outdone by the wail of the crowd. This is very much a Zone record to me. It epitomizes the dark, often scary vibe the club had on nights just before the peak, before the music would turn over to become more of a celebration in the later hours of the morning.
6. Sequal – It’s Not Too Late
Some of the best years and best experiences at the Zone happened before the house music explosion, when the club’s music featured a lot more freestyle, electro and funk.
7. Phyllis Nelson – I Like You
Speaking of… another big record from the pre-house music days at the club. The truth is, everything sounded good on that sound system.
8. Nu Shooz – I Can’t Wait
A lot of commercial hits were played at the Zone months if not years ahead of radio and Muchmusic. And I’m including this to illustrate that the music at the Zone was not 125 beats per minute all night long. When this record came out no one knew anything about the band. We just knew the bass alone was perfect for the Zone, and when it was played the room blew up.
9. Beastie Boys – Cookie Puss
It’s often noted that Keith Haring painted the Paradise Garage. The Twilight Zone’s décor was courtesy of the Beastie Boys, who went to town covering the walls with graffiti after they were in town to perform there. I’m not sure if that had anything to do with “Cookie Puss” being featured in the middle of some sets, but the song is nuts and a lot of nutty records were played either for their sound quality or their strangeness. File this one under “Planet Claire” by the B-52s too.
10. No Smoke – Koro Koro
For me nothing had me screaming over the system like a great tribal record. The vocal grunts and chants rang out around the room as if Tony and Albert were controlling which of the horns hanging over the dance floor would play them, all while the percussion shook the floor loose from the support beams. Sometimes you felt like any night could be the night the place came crashing down from the vibrations of the sound and the footwork, but no one cared because what a way to go!
Mitch Winthrop is an internationally recognized producer, dj and radio host for several notable shows, including The Rhythm Method, which is largely credited as Canada’s first dedicated House music show. Look out for his new podcast coming soon called The Boogie Politix Show. Mitch will also be featured in the upcoming film, Back To The Zone; a documentary about Toronto’s Twilight Zone nightclub, and the birth of House music culture in Canada.
The Twilight Zone’s former owners, the Assoons, have recently opened up a new club called Remix, located in the city’s West end.
For more on Toronto’s club history, check out Denise Benson’s Then & Now series, soon to be available in book form.
Top photo from Back To The Zone, dir. by Colm Hogan, Footage courtesy of Marla Rotenberg.