Disco Redux

A new boxed set argues that disco didn't suck after all.

Time may have healed most of the wounds opened by the backlash against disco, but not all of them. Although the frequently bashed genre is enjoying a revival of late, thanks in part to the boom in throwback nightspots (such as Polly Esther's), the popularity of these joints owes more to nostalgia and camp than it does to a sudden realization that the style wasn't all that bad. Moreover, scads of old-school rockers still view disco as evil incarnate. If the album-burners of old suddenly decided to start some more bonfires using Sylvester platters as kindling, a lot of the classic-rock crowd would be right behind them carrying cans of lighter fluid.

The reasons for this continuing enmity aren't much of a mystery. The disco era, which sparked to life during the first half of the Seventies, sprang from an especially urban scene that encouraged both hedonism and pan-sexuality. To put it another way, disco gleefully pushed the hot buttons of puritans, racists and homophobes alike and ultimately paid the price for doing so. Contrary to erroneous news reports, the music never actually died; rather, it returned to the underground that spawned it and mutated into strains like house, jungle and electronica that are flourishing on the fringes (and sometimes beyond the fringe) to this day. But among those in the mainstream, disco is more apt to earn laughs than respect.

The Disco Box, a four-CD disco history just issued by Rhino Records, probably won't change that. The liner notes, mainly penned by veteran journalist Brian Chin, offer some interesting behind-the-scenes insights about, for instance, the session players who helped give disco its sound, but they give short shrift to producers, who truly ruled the medium, and substitute rah-rah enthusiasm for any attempt to understand what the hell the revolution meant in the grander scheme of things. Fortunately, however, the eighty selections that appear on Box allow open-minded listeners to fill in the gaps. Sure, much of this mostly well-chosen material is cheesy (that was part of its appeal even during its heyday), and the essentially formulaic nature of many of the tunes suggests a hit-making factory on automatic pilot--which was pretty much the case toward the end of disco's run, in particular. But as machine-tooled as some of it seems, the choicest disco succeeds as pure and simple pop music: disposable fun whose mindlessness is overwhelmed by its eagerness to please.

In 1979, during one of his approximately ten million comeback attempts, James Brown released an album whose title declared him to be The Original Disco Man, and this contention isn't mere hyperbole. Beginning in the Sixties, Brown began stripping his R&B of more and more melodic substance until virtually all that was left was a highly percussive groove that became more hypnotic with each passing minute. These innovations provided the impetus for funk, which combined Brown's do-it-to-death rhythms with streetwise grit and, in the case of Parliament- Funkadelic, an acid-gobbling sensibility culled from psychedelia. But the funkateers were so far out, by and large, that marketing them to the masses via Top 40 AM radio was all but impossible, and FM radio didn't present many more opportunities; within a few short years after their late-Sixties rise, many of the most powerful FM signals were narrowing their focus in order to concentrate on rock, thereby leaving other music out in the cold. However, DJs loved the four-on-the-floor beats, and they began using their turntable skills to stretch out the best parts to seemingly absurd lengths. The results were simple and accessible--the type of sound capable of inducing even the stiffest sorts to cart their keesters to the dance floor.

A great many producers understood the commercial ramifications of this combination, and they promptly began incorporating it with elements that had already proven their mettle, including the ornate string arrangements associated with the O'Jays and their Philly International brethren. The first song on Box--"Love's Theme," by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, a collection of studio types working for love god Barry White--is awash in keening violins, and if it's not a disco number through and through (its wocka-wocka guitar lick is straight-up Shaft), it contained most of the ingredients that would later become absolute requirements. That it also blossomed into an enormous smash (as well as the theme music for golf broadcasts on ABC) didn't hurt matters, either. Soon, producers such as Freddie Perren (an associate of the Sylvers and Gloria Gaynor), Jacques Morali (the twisted brain behind the Village People) and Meco Monardo (who'd go on to scale charts under his first name with disco-fied versions of themes from Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) were cranking out thumping salvos at a dizzying rate. And most of them didn't slow down until long after the public stopped caring.

Like plenty of producer-driven music (e.g., the kiddie fodder of the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync), early disco exuded an overtly bubblegummy feel: Disc one offerings such as the Jackson 5's "Dancing Machine" and the Hues Corporation's "Rock the Boat" stick smiley faces on standard soul and funk conventions to achieve guiltily pleasurable effects, and Gloria Gaynor's dopey but irresistible "Honeybee" actually kicks off with a distorted guitar meant to mimic the sound of a hive full of stinger-shakers. But it's Carol Douglas's "Doctor's Orders," from late 1974, that first combines such pop instincts with the musical bits and pieces that made disco so immediately identifiable. The cut begins with a percolating intro over which Douglas simulates a phone call; with as much bogus sincerity as she can generate, she purrs, "Hi, honey. It's me. I went to see the doctor today, because ever since you've been gone, I've had a pain deep down inside. He says there's nothing really wrong with me. I'm just missing my man. So, honey, please, come on home as soon as you can." That's followed by a rudimentary verse decorated with whimsical doggerel ("In my condition/Love's the best physician") and background ooh-ooh-oohs that anticipate an appropriately string-laden hook. Meanwhile, the bass line shimmies and the high-hat cymbals hiss with what was then surprising regularity. By the following year, though, any disco song lacking this trademark would be deemed booty-unfriendly.

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