JUST AS I WAS PUTTING AWAY MY BEASTIE BOYS RECORDS, after meditating on MCA and percussive, poppin’, funny jams in general, Donna Summer died. Jamais deux sans trois, as the French say, never two without three, and now Robin Gibb is gone. These two deaths have reminded me just how awesome disco is, and how bereft we are without such a tangy flavor of radness on the radio and in the clubs.
If you take a few choice examples of disco tunes and let them stand for the genre, it’s the most innovative work in organized sound the world has ever seen in a pop music context, I shit you not. Is there any way of explaining how this space race of musical envelope-pushing came to pass in the 1970s, a time that also saw the birth of two runners up for most innovative new styles, metal and punk? Was it the drugs?
My favorite Bee Gees album is Cucumber Castle (1970), which is not a disco album. It’s a collection of slightly tongue-in-cheek love songs (the single was “Don’t Forget to Remember Me”) that sound like country music. But not like real country music, more like the country music you’d make for a scene in a musical that calls for a “country song”. It’s not crusty and dusty, it’s delivered with ladlefuls of delicious schmaltz. Robin was out of the band then, his terrible solo hit “Saved by the Bell“ hit number one a month before “Don’t Forget…” did in the UK. All I can think of is bad teeth when I listen to “Saved by the Bell”.
“Saved by the Bell”
Thankfully he rejoined the band, and when you imagine the transition from these two singles to disco, it’s hard not to conclude that some of the best practitioners of the style they call disco were confectioners, conjuring together this frilly sweet cake in their minds and dressing it up in way that makes it look like it’s not an honest progression from where they were before, not a product of everyday cultural evolution. It makes sense that disco came out around the same time as metal and punk, because all sound like something people came up with to be deliberately weird and different, not the natural weird awesome outcome of a simple mixing of genres like bluegrass musicians deciding to play rock.
“If you take a few choice examples of disco tunes and let them stand for the genre, it’s the most innovative work in organized sound the world has ever seen in a pop music context.”
It has a complex provenance, of course… a combination of Parliament-Funkadelic, Miles Davis’ evolving sounds at the time, Stevie Wonder growing up and finding his voice, and Les Baxter/John Barry style film scores mixed with a ’60s bliss hangover. Maybe Stevie Wonder LPs played at 45RPM is where disco came from. The music has his complex harmonic structures, with all these diminished and augmented chords resolving each other, and the uber-percussive salad where every instrument is kind of popping and crackling like a hot fire. It also has this new, melancholic vibe which is awesome and tragic. The technology played a role in the confection too, synthesizers were more and more available, with envelope filters being a big part of getting a dynamic, frequency-based response out of otherwise dull, on/off electronic sounds.
And when the Bee Gees get to making disco, man, I feel like if aliens came to earth, invited me into their spaceship and sat me down to play me their jams, I would not be surprised if “Stayin’ Alive” came out. All the popping, slapping, frilly orchestral strings, those falsettos, it sounds like the instruments are having tantric laughing sex with each other.
So is disco dead? These technologies and sounds are definitely alive in the hot new sounds of today. But what about the wacko alien sound, why doesn’t this new shit give me that same feeling of being in some intergalactic orgy?
Donna Summer had one of those totally amazing American lives that’s just mind-blowingly weird and twisty and turny. She started out the way so many successful musicians do, in church; pretty soon it was off to Munich to be in a hippy musical, then starting a family, and finally dropping her first album and getting noticed for making the kind of music Belgians and Dutch people went for back then. One of the things I really like about this video is how many good looks you get of her amazing profile.
“I feel like if aliens came to earth, invited me into their spaceship and sat me down to play me their jams, I would not be surprised if Stayin’ Alive came out.”
You can see how quickly things changed with her first U.S. single. “Love to Love You Baby“ is a classic in the school of dusted-out bliss-banged 17-minute songs with moaning. It’s like it came out of nowhere in terms of where her career was so far.
“Love to Love You Baby”
I first heard her music in the form of “I Feel Love“, in a loft venue after a noise gig; the youth hosting the avant-garde show threw this on as soon as the nerds left, and danced on tables, waving their arms in the air in striped shirts, totally trippin the cliche right out. I think this song is the peak of Donna’s disco days. She discovered her love of singing in church, and that supernatural alien love vibe is all up in these vocals. It inspires these amazing stereo pinging synths that give me vertigo, and the lush-ass soaring harmonies that are friggin celestial.
“I Feel Love”
Her first record of the ’80s marked her transition to Geffen, and the single pretty much sums up how things changed for disco when that decade started. It’s like Regan got elected and someone threw on bright-ass fluorescents in every club at once. Ouch, my eyes.
The situation has not changed much. I was in a night club in Rome, and the awful shit that DJs and labels pass off as dance music today had my posse and I extremely despondent. My friend Monica was saying she wished they’d just play Motown. But where’s some good filthy eurotrash when you need it? Daft Punk and their ilk made great music to dance to, sure, but it’s grandiosity makes me self-conscious, which I don’t need when I’m dancing. I need something that sounds about as weird as my dancing looks, you feel me? Jungle is weird, but no one can actually dance to jungle unless they’re on something pretty strong. There is definitely some good older dance music being revived by DJs, but it’s not disco. It’s not nearly trashy enough.
For the moment, disco is definitely dead. Disco is named after discotheques, those first dance halls with no live band because a lot of musicians got killed in World War II, and cheap record players got invented. Discotheques invented the DJ, and today’s DJs, as dance music’s curatorial class, are overpaid hacks for what they contribute to the genre as far as I can see. Too much of the new stuff they play is made by someone sitting in front of a computer, not real musicians with real chops shaking their asses playing a bangin tambourine or getting off on an insane synth patch. DJs should take note on this grave occasion that if the best of this genre is not revived, pretty soon we’ll be dancing to robot music, and they’ll be cruising the classifieds looking for jobs coding it.
I leave you with a song to appreciate the fucking beauty of disco. Because not only was it all of the sonic innovations mentioned above; there were also great songs with good lyrics that meant something. Saturday Night Fever is a messed up movie, but this song brings a tear to my eye. Lifelong love and taking it slow. This song has class. I’ll dance to that.
“More Than a Woman”