Disco! Fabulous? - Articles - Soundblab

Disco! Fabulous?

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

Disco. It's still something of a dirty word, isn't it? Sure, over the last decade or so - what with electroclash, cosmic disco, the whole 80s revival thing and acts as diverse as LCD Soundsystem and Toro Y Moi happy to sprinkle a little glitter-dust magic on their achingly hip tunes - disco has become something it's cool to be fine with, just as pop went from a dirty word in the late 80s to something desirable and achievable for 90s Brit bands. But, be honest, are you really down with disco? When 'We Are Family' by Sister Sledge comes on the radio, do you clap you hands and whoop along or do you curl you lip and start singing the words to The Smiths' 'Panic'?

Disco might be fine as a reference point, somewhere between Krautrock and funk in a healthily eclectic music taste, but as a genre it still carries the unappealing, terribly uncool stain of something which once held up John Travolta as its figurehead (see also: the Church of Scientology). However, if this is your perception of disco, Soundblab would like to give you a quick history lesson. Let's start with the fact that the Travolta-starring Saturday Night Fever was based on a 1976 Rolling Stone article written by British music hack Nik Cohn. 'Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night' lifted the lid on a street culture which had previously remained resolutely underground. It depicted a heavily competitive world of 'faces', big shots on the small scene who would live for the weekend when they could compete in dance contests to win the respect and adoration of their peers. Disco culture, wrote Cohn, was based on a hierarchy, with the people boasting the best threads and the best moves at the top.

This was utter crap. Disco, at that time, was still a smattering of interconnected, closely-nit scenes in New York and San Francisco, made up almost entirely of young gay black and Hispanic men from poor neighbourhoods who enjoyed the anonymity and non-judgemental attitude nurtured at nights such as The Loft, which was held by DJ David Mancuso in the distinctly un-disco fabulous environs of the loft space where he lived. Cohn later admitted his article had been entirely fabricated. He had never been to a disco. Instead, he had drawn on his recollections of the UK northern soul scene.

But here's the funny thing: the ripples sent out by that article single-handedly created what you know today as disco. The ostentatious outfits, the embarrassing dance moves, the fetishistic adoration of the tackiest symbols of success and wealth - by all accounts, these traits just didn't exist in disco before Saturday Night Fever became a global sensation. But once that became what disco was, it quickly became the stick used by small-minded people to beat minority cultures. This disaffection with the perceived effeminacy of disco gave birth to the 'disco sucks' movement (Dunder-brained pun intended? I'm still not sure). It's culmination was the Disco Demolition Night on Thursday, July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois, during which a crate filled with records was blown up on the field. The event, organised by 'shock jock' Steve Dahl, attracted an estimated 90,000 to the 52,000-seat stadium and culminated in a full-scale riot. According to Nile Rodgers, producer and guitarist in Chic: "It felt to us like Nazi book-burning. This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word 'disco'."

So now you're maybe more sympathetic to the disco cause, but you're probably still not ready to slip on your rollerskates and dance the hussle while belting out 'I Will Survive'. But never fear - you can still be a disco lover without cashing in your cool chips. Let Soundblab be your guide to a veritable boogie wonderland of disco tunes it's okay to adore:

Pink Floyd - Another Brick in the Wall Part II

Yes, that's right - noodling, tricky time-signature loving prog gods in disco shocker! You may have listened to this track hundreds of times and never clocked the disco influence, but just listen again to that locked-down groove, that funky wah-wah guitar, and Waters' icily detached vocal. Why, it's like a parallel universe version of Chic made up of public school boys! We have producer Bob Ezrin to thank for the genius of this song. Recognising a potential hit single, he badgered guitarist Dave Gilmour into incorporating a disco rhythm. He also added the song's master stroke - the school choir - expressly against the wishes of Waters. Waters later admitted Ezrin's instincts had been correct.

Lou Reed - Disco Mystic

By far the best song of Reed's 1979 album The Bells, 'Disco Mystic' finds the legendary curmudgeon and muso indulging in a spine-tingling groove smothered in squealing art-rock guitars and a tongue-in-cheek chant of the title. It is, to date, the last time Lou Reed has sounded like he's having fun.

Chic - Le Freak

It's New Year's Eve 1977 and Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, officially the coolest cats in town thanks to their party band Chic, are in line to get into Studio 54 at the invite of NY disco queen Grace Jones. Only one problem - they're not on the list. And if you're not on the list at this of all clubs, you are not getting in. But the doorman this night has unwittingly helped create music history, because Rogers previously served time in the Black Panthers and played with Edwards in a punk band named Allah and the Knife Wielding Punks, and these guys have no problem using music as a vehicle for disdain. Jamming that night, they vent their frustrations in a song called 'Fuck Off', which they later switch to 'Le Freak'. The name-change isn't a sell-out though; 'Le Freak's lyrics take a cold look at the elitist trap disco's once egalitarian culture had become, chucking in coded references to drug addiction and slavery ("Just one try, and you too will be sold") and a healthy dose of sarcasm ("Now we freak, oh what a joy," delivered with all the excitement of a frustrated bowel movement). The song, of course, hit number one and Rogers and Edwards could enjoy the sweet irony of their tune filling the dance floor at Studio 54. Revenge, as they never say, is a dish best served disco-fabulous.

David Bowie - The Secret Life of Arabia

Bowie first revealed his love of a good disco beat on 'John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)', a soulful reworking of his 1972 hit recorded during the Young Americans sessions. However, it wasn't until 1977 that Bowie delivered his deepest disco cut with the final track on his classic Heroes album. Working with probably the finest session musicians in the world at the time, Bowie and collaborator Brain Eno created a shimmering heat mirage which boasts a staggeringly perfect groove but, thanks to Carlos Alomar's minimalist guitar work and Bowie's gift for unconventional vocal phrasing, remains in a state of eternal possibility, never giving itself over to abandon. 'The Secret Life of Arabia' captures the heat of the desert, the chill of East Berlin and the sweat of the club dance floor all at once. Every post-punk act who would go on to fuse disco and art-rock, from Talking Heads to Gang of Four, was listening.

Amanda Lear - Follow Me

When it comes to the electronic revolution ushered in by disco, Donna Summer's Giorgio Moroder-produced master-work 'I Feel Love' usually gets all the props, and deservedly so (when it was released, an excited Brian Eno played it to David Bowie, declaring, "This is the future"). However, Soundblab would like to draw your attention to this overlooked gem from Amanda Lear. A former muse to Bryan Ferry, Bowie and Salvador Dali (she appears on the cover of For Your Pleasure and in Bowie's The 1980 Floor Show), Lear became a huge star in Europe in the late 70s. Her first single, 1977's 'I Am a Photograph' owed something to the cranky art-punk of Iggy Pop's The Idiot, but by '78 she'd gone electro for second album Sweet Revenge, a concept album about a woman who sells her soul to the devil and beats him at his own game. It's centrepiece, 'Follow Me', is a sumptuous, all-absorbing dreamscape of gliding synths and pulsing beats, the perfect synthesis of Moroder's futurist disco and Tangerine Dream's otherworldly, symphonic creations.

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