What does it take to turn a lifeless, concrete bunker into a legendary club that hosted some of the ‘80s and ‘90s biggest bands? What does it take to forge a thriving, vital scene in a downtrodden, dangerous and marginalized city like Trenton, New Jersey, with nothing but flyers, postcards and pre-internet word-of-mouth? It takes passion, vision and, above all else, a dedication to the independent spirit that drove the underground music scene. It requires the ear of someone attuned to diversity and a set of balls big enough to book the envelope-pushing bands that most promoters wouldn’t touch. That man was Randy Now, and this is his story.
Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens is a feature-length documentary from director Steve Tozzi that features the unblinkingly stark and iconic photography of Ken Salerno and is told through an oral history format of in-depth interviews and archival footage. It tells the gritty story of one of New Jersey’s most infamous clubs and its larger-than-life promoter through the recollected memories, stories, photographs and memorabilia of the people who lived for and by the music. City Gardens was New Jersey’s premiere venue for underground music throughout the 1980s and well into the ‘90s, and New Wave DJ Randy Now was the guy responsible for booking all of the music. It was a rough club from its inception; located across the street from a housing project in one of the worst parts of Trenton.
A squat, warehouse covered in layers of mangled graffiti; City Gardens was larger than a club (it held almost 1,100 people) and smaller than most theaters. During its time it hosted a multitude of live events that traversed the entertainment spectrum; everything from the comedy of Henny Youngman and Sam Kinison to the raging chaos of bands like The Butthole Surfers and The Exploited. Punk, Hardcore, New Wave, Heavy Metal, Hip-Hop, Ska, Reggae, Oi!, Industrial, Alternative, Funk, Goth… all these influences converged perfectly under the uncanny direction of Randy Now to form a perfect storm of seminal, historic moments. Over the course of a decade-and-a-half, City Gardens played an active part in the rise of bands like Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction, Sinead O’Connor, Green Day, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, The Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, Joan Jett and dozens of others who went on to international success while, at the same time, providing a home for the music that never made it to commercial radio. The list of performers who graced the City Gardens stage is long and varied, and includes legends like The Ramones, Iggy Pop, Agnostic Front, The Circle Jerks, Cro-Mags, UK Subs, The Pogues, The Mentors, Joe Strummer, Fugazi, The Toasters, Dead Kennedys, Sham 69, Peter Murphy, Soundgarden, Slayer, Black Flag, The Bad Brains and literally hundreds more. These monumental shows are recalled by the people whose lives were indelibly touched and forever altered by the experience. The voice is given to the people: the bouncers, the stage managers, the sound techs, the bartenders (including former booze-slinger and current host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart); the roadies and, most importantly, the fans.
Riot on the Dance Floor tells a series of parallel tales. While at once chronicling the rise of several different scenes, it is also the story of a music business lifer; a road warrior, part-time musician, radio host and former postal worker who went looking for a place to spin his New Wave records and ended up building an independent movement out of nothing in a dead city stuck between New York and Philadelphia.
Randy’s story mirrors that of the music, and Riot on the Dance Floor captures the past by following the present-day endeavors of both Randy and the bands. It is the story of the unheard underground and the collective creativity that came out of it: the artists, the writers, the photographers, the ‘zines and labels. It is the story of how hoards of misfit kids found an unlikely home and the inspiration to go out and challenge the world around them. It’s a universal tale of violence and unity; of champions and underdogs and, above all, the freedom and liberation of complete creative control.
-Steven DiLodovico / Writer & City Gardens Regular.