Disco Infernal

Rhino's new collection proves that you have no hope of getting disco in a box without leaving something out

Disco dead? Hardly.
According to Headbangers Against Disco (or H.A.D.) it's still alive and sucking. This self-proclaimed "idealistic organization that works to prevent the spread of disco and all it stands for" wants to sell you $24 tee shirts advising you to "burn down your local disco now!!" The headquarters where they bang their heads? Sweden, the cuckoo-clock capital. Obviously they missed the transmissions that also declared headbanger music deceased, yet the encroaching disco lifestyle ("short hair," "trendy clothes," "low-calorie diets," and, ugggh, "keyboards") still poses a vital threat to it remaining a neutral country.

We here in the United States have long since left the "Disco Sucks" bonfires behind us. On the contrary, it's mandatory that every wedding band and cruise-ship combo include at least a dozen disco evergreens. To accommodate that wanna-still-be sector, Rhino has issued this four-CD made-for-dancing set, packaged in eye-catching mirror-ball mylar to refresh our memories.

But like most anthologies, it is one of selected memories. All the usual one-hit suspects are here, but, with few exceptions, you won't find any superstar names from the pre-disco era, even if it was someone who started having hits in 1972. And yes, we have no Brothers Gibb.

Don't worry--it's not all Ritchie Family and White Cherry here. Disco stars like KC & the Sunshine Band and Donna Summer raise their hands and yell "present" several times. Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of the Chic organization place seven cuts.

Disco was largely a producer's medium, dominated by people like Giorgio Moroder, Peter Bellotte, Jacques Morales, Freddie Perren and mixers like Tom Moulton. The Disco Box tells their stories without letting us know whatever happened to fly-by-night chanteuses like Alicia Bridges or Vicki Sue Robinson. Other names turn up multiple times, which makes the annotation less interesting than other star-driven boxes. Still, disco is about a sound, and this box follows the winding path of that sound but leaves out the distracting sociological history.

So when did the last dance whirl to a halt? You can hear disco morph into rap by disc four's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," but you don't see a dividing line the way you did when "Rock the Boat" and "Rock Your Baby" became back-to-back number ones in 1974. Much has been written about how these two songs with "rock" in the titles spawned a music that rock fans hated as viciously and with as much racist intent as early rock 'n' roll opponents rallied against R&B.

The public that boogied to it loved it, and then suddenly didn't. Which is why we've devised this time line of forget-me-nots--to help you remember! Admittedly, many of these records are not to be found on The Disco Box, but that's not to say it isn't a worthwhile purchase. It's probably a more accurate barometer of what you heard in clubs when DJs steered clear of playing predictable music. But if I pad this story with no-names like Arpeggio and the B.B. & Q. Band, you gonna leave!

1974: One glaring omission in The Disco Box is "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" by MFSB, the disco instrumental that served as the Soul Train theme throughout the '70s. Soul is a word that boogie people will quickly distance themselves from, as disco begins slowly filtering out every defining feature of soul besides sex and danceability from black music.

By 1975, most surviving soul stalwarts are left standing outside of Studio 54 and unable to get a record into the Pop Top-40. In early summer of '74, just as Hues Corporation begin to "Rock the Boat," her majesty Aretha, the Queen of Soul, bestows on her fickle subjects her last Top-20 hit for the next 11 years. Also getting off the good foot is the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. The Man Who Came Back does it again, but not until 1986, and it takes former Edgar Winter sideman and disco refugee Dan "Instant Replay" Hartman to remind us that Brown is still "Living in America."

While gruff, impassioned voices don't disappear altogether, gruff, impassioned voices singing about the pusherman, back stabbers with smilin' faces, welfare mothers and living impoverished in the ghetto do. Barry White is way gruff and impassioned but exhibits no political or sociological concerns outside of eliciting a population explosion with his sex-dripped records. As writer, producer, arranger and performer of these musical obscene phone calls, White emerges as the first disco do-it-all.

1975: This is the year disco broke and no one fixed it. Most of last year's disco up-and-comers fizzle out by mid '75 but there are plenty to take their places. Van McCoy's smash "The Hustle" sells 12 million in the next two years and reintroduces young people to the idea of dancing together. Unlike Judas Priest, McCoy experienced no frivolous lawsuits, despite "The Hustle" advocating that listeners "do it! do it!" ad nauseam. "Fly Robin Fly" is the first disco number one to come from Munich with love, and spawns the term "Eurodisco." The song consists of only seven words, but the anonymous background vocalists of Silver Convention insist on being paid too much per word and are systematically replaced by more cooperative silver conventioneers.

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