Defying death: Disco has a life of its own

Towards the end of Whit Stillman’s 1998 movie, The Last Days of Disco, Matt Keeslar’s manic depressive character, Josh Neff, stands on a Manhattan street corner and delivers an impassioned monologue on the importance of a form of music that, at the time of the movie’s early 1980s setting, seemed to be fading into history.

“Disco will never be over,” he begins. “It will always live in our minds and hearts.

Something like this, that was this big and this important and this great, will never die. Oh, for a few years — maybe many years — it’ll be considered passé and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at, or worse, completely ignored. People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits and platform shoes and people going like this …” He thrusts a Travoltaesque arm in the air. “But we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco. Those who didn’t understand will never understand: disco was much more, and much better, than all that. Disco was too great and too much fun to be gone for ever! It’s got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetime.”

His friends look at him as if he is crazy but, whether you saw the movie in 1998 or just the other week, you knew he was right. Disco came back all right and it is hard to believe it ever went away. Just look at the size of the coverage afforded to the deaths of Donna Summer and Robin Gibb. It is not just because they did some wonderful things 30-odd years ago; it is because those wonderful things are always with us, on the radio or at weddings and hen nights, an element of pop’s vocabulary that is as ubiquitous as the Beatles. Furthermore, its ideas and innovations have metastasised throughout pop music, inspiring new iterations every year.

When disco crashed in the early 1980s it lost the battle, but it went on to win the war.

Last weekend, producer Giorgio Moroder discussed his work with Donna Summer and contrasted the backlash against disco with the charts in 2012: “It’s really funny because dance music now is pop music.”

To understand the scale of disco’s triumph, you have to appreciate the magnitude of its initial rise and fall. Pop music has always been susceptible to fads, but disco’s imperial phase is the closest it has ever got to the irrational exuberance of a stockmarket bubble.

Between July 1977 and August 1979, 30 out of 38 US Billboard no 1 singles were disco records, whether by titans of the form (Chic, the Bee Gees, Donna Summer), canny dilettantes (Blondie, the Rolling Stones) or corny opportunists (Meco with his glitterball Star Wars medley). The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack remains the seventh biggest-selling album ever made. Passengers on the bandwagon included Kiss, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman and the Cookie Monster.

At the same time it was hated: by older black artists who resented the way it replaced the muscle and grit of funk with a mindless, frictionless groove; by punks who saw it as crass, bubbleheaded capitalism incarnate; by macho rock fans who believed its effeminacy was infecting even some of their favourite artists; by pundits who made it a cultural lightning rod for their growing angst about national decline and the United States’s place in the world.

Getting over it

In a telling coincidence, the summer of 1979, when baseball fans trashed disco records at Chicago’s Comiskey Park and the Knack’s My Sharona ousted Chic’s Good Times from the top of the Billboard chart, also saw the launch of Jerry Falwell’s ultra-conservative lobby group, the Moral Majority. And of course some people hated it, as people tend to, simply because it was everywhere.

To Chic’s Nile Rodgers the backlash “felt like it was racism, like it was book-burning”, but a more potent driver than prejudice was embarrassment. To some longstanding opponents it might have been too black, too gay, too European or too female, but it only lost the public when it became too naff. The industry’s attitude was, roughly: “Let us never speak of this again.”

“Disco was dead by 1981,” says pioneering house DJ Frankie Knuckles. “Overnight it went from disco to country and western and heavy rock. The industry was trying to get 180 degrees from what was going on the day before and they did not want anything that in the slightest way resembled disco.”

Knuckles and the other gay African-Americans who invented house music began the process of rescuing disco from its own excesses by ­stripping away the clichés and reconnecting it with its subversive ­countercultural roots.

Tough and electronic, house was disco in the raw. But disco bounced back quickly in the mainstream, too, just with a different identity and updated production. Michael Jackson’s Thriller retained the lessons he learned on Off the Wall, and Madonna approached Nile Rodgers to produce Like a Virgin. Like beneficiaries of a musical witness relocation programme, Billie Jean and Into the Groove were disco records in all but name, as were the early Hi-NRG productions of Stock Aitken Waterman. “No one has named the dominant trend in 1980s music because they’re afraid to: it’s disco and all the critics know it,” wrote proud fan Bentley Boyd in 1987. “They know it and fear it. It is the strange uncle who lives in the attic and can’t be acknowledged.”

This was the strange thing. Disco had so thoroughly reconfigured pop that even as some of the biggest musicians of the 1980s assimiliated its tenets — the synthetic four-to-the-floor beat, the celebration of dancing and community, the dominance of black and female artists, the hints of sexual ambiguity in someone like Prince — audiences regarded their music as a different entity because nobody was wearing polyester jumpsuits and employing a Barry Gibb falsetto. It was just a matter of time before the spectre of ridicule passed and the continuum became more obvious.

During the late 1980s, acid house’s chart invasion, Theme from S’Express and Deee-Lite’s Groove Is in the Heart, blatantly updated disco’s gluttonous, ultra-bright hedonism.

Throughout the 1990s disco anthems provided hits for Take That (Dan Hartman’s Relight My Fire), the Pet Shop Boys (the Village People’s Go West) and All Saints (Labelle’s Lady Marmalade). Meanwhile, house music’s disco lust grew ever stronger with the likes of Daft Punk’s Around the World, Stardust’s Music Sounds Better with You, Spiller’s Groovejet and Madison Avenue’s Don’t Call Me Baby, all built on whacking great samples from the late 1970s.

Offshoots and curios

Sampling is one way of illustrating the breadth of disco, not just in the familiar smashes (you could never say Donna Summer’s I Feel Love sprang from the same mould as the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive), but in all the myriad offshoots and curios that thrived in the genre’s heyday. It was not one sound but several different ones running in tandem. Take two consecutive Kylie Minogue singles: Your Disco Needs You is as camp as the Village People’s wardrobe and  Can’t Get You Out of My Head has an airy European minimalism, but both are doing disco’s work. You can hear yet another dimension in Hercules and Love Affair’s Blind, which captures the tingling melancholy of many of the best disco records — the sense that you can escape for a night, but you still have to come to terms with the world in the morning.

Sometimes that melancholy had a political context and Scissor Sisters are unusually alert to the deeper meaning of disco. The period they most admire — roughly 1975 to 1985 — began with even Freddie Mercury and Liberace in the closet and ended with Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat in the top 10 (the British one, at least) and disco was the engine of change.

Uncloseted homosexuality in pop still is not universally accepted, but much to the horror of the vengeful meatheads who once thronged Comiskey Park, it is now a major part of the conversation. The Scissor Sisters can be witty about such developments. Their disco version of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb plays out like a retrospective peace treaty between the two perceived poles of music in 1979 — earnest, weighty rock and flibbertigibbet pop — which demonstrates that the distance between them was probably illusory anyway.

Disco has become, in its many forms, a musical Esperanto that creates a dialogue between multiple genres. If you see the recent infiltration of hip-hop and R&B by dance music (think Rihanna’s We Found Love) as one of its legacies, then there is pleasure to be had (from the concept if not always the actual music) from cultural collisions such as rapper Flo Rida sampling Dead or Alive’s camp Hi-NRG. Or take Lady Gaga marrying disco with E Street Band man-rock on parts of her Born This Way album. Moroder is right: dance music now is pop music.

Now, as then, the children of disco do not always get it right and sometimes you get a record such as Snoop Dogg and David Guetta’s Sweat, which is the modern equivalent of the Ethel Merman Disco Album. But then the utopian promise of disco was always compromised, whether by the snobbery and partial segregation of New York club land, the unrepresentatively straight, white milieu of Saturday Night Fever, or Andy Williams’s dance version of the theme from Love Story.

It is the promise that matters: a vision of the dance floor as a multiracial, pansexual, empathetic space where you can be who and what you want to be. It is a vision that musicians continue to chase, from Gaga to Hot Chip. So Josh Neff’s optimistic street-corner prediction came true and will continue to be so, because disco was too big and too important and too great to let go. Its most beloved practitioners may die but, like Gloria Gaynor’s indefatigable heroine, it will survive. — © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Dorian Lynskey
Dorian Lynskey works from London. Writer for Guardian, Q, etc. Columnist for New Statesman & GQ. Host Remainiacs podcast. The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984 out 30 May. Dorian Lynskey has over 31434 followers on Twitter.

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