There are certain songs that represent a time and a place perfectly. Not just for one person, but for everyone who was there. Without question, one of those songs is “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” a 1984 dancefloor smash that is probably THE most emblematic song of New York City nightlife circa 1984. Probably? I’m stumped for any other example of a song that was so large and in charge that year, but nothing else comes to mind. It was pretty much THE song. Any “period piece” film about the East Village in 1984 that left this song off the soundtrack would be remiss in their duty to be historically accurate.
By the time I personally parachuted into NYC in Fall of 1984 “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” was already quite the omnipresent dance floor staple. There’s no doubt in my mind that it provided part of the soundtrack to my first night out in the city (an evening that saw me nearly knock Andy Warhol on his ass after being shoved into him by a future murderer) and for many nights afterwards. The song never really faded away but while it was HOT you heard it nightly at Danceteria (where I hung out several nights a week), at Limelight (where I worked), at the Pyramid Club (where one of the producer’s had a Monday DJ residency) and just about every downtown club or party where you might find yourself. You couldn’t escape it if you wanted to. While the rest of America was listening to Billy Idol, Madonna and Phil Collins, NYC was all about “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight.” Even if you never consciously thought about it, you got it via osmosis if you were out at night.
I’m sure that some of you reading this could “name that tune” with but a single note, but if the song title doesn’t immediately call to mind the music, stop reading, scroll down a bit, hit play and then come back.
Defying any easy category—was is synthpop? electropop? freestyle? Latin-influenced? Euro-disco?—with what sounded like synthetic steel drums and one of the first uses of a newfangled keyboard effect called the “Emulator,” “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” was the product of Stuart Argabright, formerly of Ike Yard (who were signed to Factory Records); vocalist Claudia Summers; Ken Lockie of Cowboy International (who’d also played drums for Public Image, Ltd.); and producer/remixer Ivan Ivan (who would go on to work with Depeche Mode, DEVO, New Order and many others). Composed by Argabright, with Lockie, about an actual dominatrix he once dated, the song’s initial sessions were recorded at the New York studio of Tangerine Dream’s Peter Baumann on gear that had been built by Conny Plank, the German producer of Kraftwerk, Ultravox, Eurythmics and many others.
Producer Arthur Baker heard the song and wanted it for his Streetwise Record label, where it was released in Spring of 1984. But when the group began to play live in clubs around the city to promote the record, Claudia Summers was replaced with model Dominique Davalos after she was cast as the dominatrix in the music video by underground filmmaker Beth B. Although the video is actually pretty tame (see for yourself) it wasn’t played on TV at the time, but is now a part of the permanent collection at MoMa. The song had a second wind after it was used on the soundtrack of the 1997 John Cusack movie, Grosse Pointe Blank.
The group itself was ultimately short-lived, while “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” is now considered a stone classic.
If you are one of those intrepid crate-diggers making the rounds this weekend for Record Store Day, you might want to make a beeline for Get On Down‘s special deluxe pink vinyl repressing of “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight.” Like all of Get On Down‘s high quality “for the discerning collector” products, it’s an especially nice trophy to bring home today, a heavy, sturdy recreation of the original 12” (down to the labels) with a glossy 16-page book that includes press clippings about the song and input from Argabright, Ivan Ivan and Dominique Davalos.
The Beth B directed video for “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” below: