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.
The Bee Gees become the first recording act to stage a career comeback on a disco bandwagon with the chart-topping "Jive Talkin'" paving the way for future crash-and-burn disco hopefuls like the Beach Boys, the Hollies, Gene Pitney and even the Singing Nun. One of the biggest disco success stories is Harry Wayne Casey. In 1974, he wrote and produced George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby" which puts the Miami Sound on the map. This year his group KC and the Sunshine Band scores two number ones with "Get Down Tonight" and "That's the Way I Like It."
Casey has a fondness for two syllable words like "uh-huh," "booty" and "oooawwww-babe." Talk about your mirror-ball minimalist, it's as if a three-syllable word like ecstasy would irreversibly disconnect the brain from the boogie shoes.
If disco offers sheer escapism as opposed to the harsh realities of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," there are few disco recruiting posters as compelling as Tavares' "It Only Takes a Minute." Here Tavares makes light of unemployment woes with "winter's gonna turn to spring/and you haven't accomplished a thing/so baby leave a little time cause you never know what's on my mind." Answer: a minute of quickly sex.
1976: Disco is here to stay and to prove it, "Disco Lady" is awarded the first platinum single and "Disco Duck" is awarded the fourth.
Giorgio Moroder figures out that what this country needs is a female Barry White and finds diva Donna Summer to moan her way to stardom with "Love To Love You Baby." Incoming imitators include Andrea True, the only one uniquely qualified to moan in public because she actually is a porn star. Even her stark, lousy singing voice can't 86 one of the year's biggest singles, "More More More." Curiously, True is depicted on both sides of The Andrea True Connection's lone album cover with more clothing on than a rack in Bloomingdales. What happened to less, less, less?
In the year that "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" reaches number one, white boys such as Paul McCartney, the Eagles, Rick Dees and his Cast of Idiots, Elton John, the Bee Gees, the Bellamy Brothers, the Four Seasons and Walter Murphy reach the pop summit appropriating the disco beat. Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven" opens up a Pandora's box that will soon have greedy producers scrambling to put every public-domain copyright to a pulsing disco beat. This year's most reprehensible exhuming will be a studio concoction called The Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corp. and its thump, thump, thumpitization of the 1926 hit "Baby Face." The following year it'll be studio concoction Wilton Place Street Band's "Disco Lucy" (the I Love Lucy theme). And the year after that, hooo, don't get me started on screechin' Ethel Merman disco's moment.
1977: Elvis dies without ever giving us a disco hit, but teen idol Frankie Avalon revisits "Venus"--and it gets played! The week Elvis leaves the building for good a new teen idol emerges at number one--Andy Gibb, the Bee Gees' younger brother. As if we didn't hear enough of those guys already. Still, the records are masterfully produced and Barry Gibb's falsetto has not yet become the universal irritant that sends God-fearing people screaming for mercy.
The Bump reintroduces the idea of dancing apart again and is a boom for chiropractors everywhere. Disco's first BUPPIES, Chic, begin their hit streak with Nile Rodgers literally defining disco rhythm-guitar playing. But the best record of the year comes from Donna Summer with the electronic "I Feel Love." Her fourth album I Remember Yesterday demonstrates her versatility. Side one includes a suite which links masterful pastiches of big-band music, Phil Spector/Crystals and the Supremes. Meanwhile back in Sweden, where Headbangers Against Disco is still an ideal waiting to happen, ABBA is ruling the pop world. Even though the group is selling more records than God, The Beatles and Boxcar Willie combined, it is only able to accrue one number one in America. How? By digging the "Dancing Queen," natch!
1978: The Sex Pistols tour the US and implode during one sixth of Saturday Night Fever's 25-week stand at number one. Yet it's Donna Summer's "Last Dance" from that Fever knockoff Thank God It's Friday that wins an Oscar. America rejects punk until it's named new wave, and pop charts reject new wave until Talking Heads and Blondie record disco hits.
At first I was afraid, I was petrified that "I Will Survive" was about a rapist continuing to stalk poor Gloria Gaynor, especially when she keeps going on about changing that stupid lock. Turns out I was hearing "weren't you the one who used to break me" differently. Nope, it's just disco's first "I Gotta-Be-Me-Coz-You-Hadda-Be-You" anthem.
That campy men's chorus known as the Village People filled a void pop music never realized it had--a paucity of songs about the navy, hot cops and doing whatever you feel at the Y.M.C.A. The joke gets even better when mainstream Middle America somehow misses the point that these men are gayer than a parasol. Then again, it's not impossible to find people over 50 who still think that Liberace went to his grave a bachelor because he never found the right girl.
1979: Rock audiences decide they can no longer passively reject disco. As a publicity stunt, DJs stage disco bonfire rallies at sporting events; but even with people buying disco albums just to burn them, Rolling Stone reports that the disco boom may be over, noting the sharp recent decrease in the number of disco albums being sold.
This couldn't have come at a worse time, since the dollar bins are already filled to capacity with Candi Staton and Disco Tex albums. Soon joining them will be Patrick Hernandez, whose lone hit "Born To Be Alive" smuggles background vocalist Madonna into American homes for the first time.
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"I Will Survive" is the first winner of the Grammy's newly instituted "Best Disco Recording" this year, although the murmurs are getting louder that disco's had its day. Neither the category nor Gaynor's career will survive into the '80s. Odder still, Donna Summer wins "Best Rock Female Vocalist" for "Hot Stuff." Her crossover to rock comes when rock acts attempting to cross over to disco--including Rod Stewart, the Kinks, ELO and Kiss--is at its peak. "Enough Is Enough" we plead, which tragically gives Barbra Streisand the idea to duet with Donna Summer. And there's Sesame Street Fever and that screechin' Ethel Merman disco album to deal with! Annie get your gun and put me out of my misery.
1980: The year the boogie died for sure. Studio 54 shuts down. The Village People's Can't Stop the Music stops their career cold. The Bee Gees, too busy suing their management for fraud and misrepresentation to record, threaten that their next record will have no disco. And no sales for that matter. We get our first indication that rap will be replacing disco as urban-dance music when Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" reintroduces politics to the R&B chart and reaches number four.
The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" does even better and is the first rap record to go gold. There'll be other disco records in later years like Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots" and the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" (co-written by Paul Shaffer) in 1982, but they defiantly will be called "dance records"-- or in Rick James' case, "punk-funk" records. Stars on 45, which incongruously stitches together seven Beatles songs with the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and Shocking Blue's "Venus," is a shocking success. Disco failures the Beach Boys finally get a disco hit in 1981 by overdubbing a metronomic drum click across eight of their old recordings.
Perhaps the loudest death knell was Donna Summer transforming into a humorless born-again Christian in the early '80s, denouncing homosexuality as a sin against God. Becoming Anita Bryant for the Studio 54 set wasn't the shrewdest career move, especially since her core following was bottom heavy with rump wranglers. She'd have to work harder for the money, and less of it, from here on out.