Disco balls

Rock’s his­tory of tak­ing it to the dance­floor

The Guardian - The Guide - - Inside - writes Alexis Petridis

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few weeks ago, Noel Gal­lagher an­nounced that his forth­com­ing al­bum would have a “70s disco” feel. No one bat­ted an eye­lid. Here was more ev­i­dence of Gal­lagher’s new­found spirit of bound­less mu­si­cal ad­ven­ture: a man who has spent years stick­ing rigidly to the ac­cepted canon of clas­sic rock delv­ing out­side of it, into a genre that still never makes the 100 best al­bums lists in the her­itage rock mags and whose prac­ti­tion­ers strug­gle to get elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, how­ever suc­cess­ful and in­flu­en­tial they were. Why wouldn’t an artist who ap­pears to have fi­nally tired of mak­ing the same record over and over again – “There’s only so many times you can write a song about the rain or use the word ‘shine’,” he sagely noted, “and I’ve got away with it a fuck­ing shit­load” – sig­nify that he’s broad­ened his mu­si­cal hori­zons by dab­bling in disco?

How dif­fer­ent things were in 1979, when the Beach Boys re­leased their new sin­gle, the first fruit of an $8m con­tract with CBS Records: it was a freshly recorded, 11-minute-long disco re­work­ing of their 1967 hit Here Comes the Night. A record clearly in­tended to rein­vent the Beach Boys for a new era, the disco ver­sion of Here Comes the Night alas had rather the op­po­site ef­fect. It wasn’t just that it was an ig­no­min­ious com­mer­cial fail­ure, although it was. It didn’t even make the Top 40, while the ac­com­pa­ny­ing al­bum stiffed so badly that the boss of CBS, Wal­ter Yet­nikoff, be­gan to re­gard the $8m con­tract with a cer­tain rue­ful air (in fact, Yet­nikoff’s ac­tual words were “I think I’ve been fucked”, but you get the gen­eral gist). Worse, their fans ac­tively hated it, clearly view­ing it as an en­tirely un­ac­cept­able ca­pit­u­la­tion to mar­ket forces, a be­lated bit of band­wagon-jump­ing be­neath even a band whose stan­dards had slipped so badly they’d re­cently re­leased a ten­nis-themed song called Match Point of Our Love. Ac­cord­ing to the jour­nal­ist Nick Kent, the band “felt obliged to apol­o­gise when­ever they played it live”. They even­tu­ally stopped per­form­ing it al­to­gether af­ter what Wikipedia de­scribes as “ad­verse au­di­ence re­ac­tion” at a New York show.

Crit­i­cal op­pro­brium, a col­lapse both of sales and artis­tic cred­i­bil­ity, fans who paid good money to see you bay­ing for your blood: you couldn’t wish for a more vivid il­lus­tra­tion of the risks await­ing the late-70s rock artist who chose to go disco at disco’s height. It was a hell of a gam­ble. There was al­ways the chance of some short-term com­mer­cial gain but the odds were stacked against you: the back cat­a­logues of umpteen 70s artists are flecked with ig­nored at­tempts to cash in on the suc­cess of Satur­day Night Fever, re­mem­bered largely by fans as cat­a­strophic ca­reer aber­ra­tions. Even if you did get a hit out of it, your suc­cess would al­most in­vari­ably be ac­com­pa­nied by mock­ery or even anger. “Rarely has any­one be­trayed his tal­ent so com­pletely,” thun­dered Rolling Stone, per­haps a tri­fle melo­dra­mat­i­cally, of Rod Ste­wart not long af­ter Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? went to No 1.

If the stakes were so high, why did many 70s artists feel im­pelled to do it? There were def­i­nitely artists who went disco be­cause they loved the mu­sic. One of the rea­sons El­ton John’s Are You Ready for Love and Queen’s An­other One Bites the Dust are great records is be­cause Fred­die Mer­cury and El­ton John knew of what they spoke: they were both reg­u­lars in the New York gay clubs that were disco’s nat­u­ral habi­tat. But you get the feel­ing that most of the rock bands who went disco had some­thing rather ba­sic and craven on their minds.

Ini­tially, it was largely to do with op­por­tunism: if a bunch of no-hop­ers like the Bee Gees – so washed-up be­fore writ­ing Jive Talkin’ that they were re­duced to play­ing Bat­ley Va­ri­ety Club and ap­pear­ing on a lo­cal TV sta­tion in Sheffield that only broad­cast in black-and-white – could sud­denly be­come the big­gest band on the

Rolling Stone melo­dra­mat­i­cally claimed Rod Ste­wart had ‘be­trayed his tal­ent’ af­ter Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?

planet, then it was surely a sig­nal that disco was a world in which all bets were off, where vir­tu­ally any­one could rein­vent them­selves. And af­ter Satur­day Night Fever be­came a multi-plat­inum phe­nom­e­non, there was clearly a sense that mak­ing a disco record was al­most im­per­a­tive to com­mer­cial suc­cess. For nine solid months in 1979, ev­ery sin­gle that topped the US charts was a disco record. Ra­dio sta­tions across the coun­try al­tered their out­put com­pletely, fol­low­ing the lead of New York’s WKTU Mel­low 92, a fail­ing soft rock sta­tion that re­branded it­self as Disco 92 and swiftly be­came the most pop­u­lar ra­dio sta­tion in the coun­try. The spark for the in­fa­mous Disco De­mo­li­tion Night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park was DJ Steve Dahl be­ing fired from his job at the city’s WDAI sta­tion be­cause it was chang­ing its for­mat from rock to 24-hour disco.

The re­sult was that a vast num­ber of wildly im­prob­a­ble artists gave disco a try, with some fairly mind-bog­gling re­sults. The Grate­ful Dead went disco on 1978’s Shake­down Street. So did the Kinks, whose sin­gle (Wish I Could Fly Like) Su­per­man sounds oddly not un­like Blur’s Girls and Boys. So did Kiss, ap­par­ently much against the bet­ter judg­ment of bassist Gene Sim­mons: “I hate play­ing that song,” he said of 1979’s I Was Made for Lovin’ You. “Sta­di­ums full of peo­ple jump up and down like bi­b­li­cal lo­custs … kill me now.”

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, you would po­litely de­scribe the re­sults as be­ing of mixed qual­ity. There seemed to be a gen­eral feel­ing abroad that mak­ing a disco record was straight­for­ward. Kiss’s Paul Stan­ley sub­se­quently claimed that I Was Made for Lovin’ You was the re­sult of a bet to show how easy writ­ing a mere disco track was, as op­posed pre­sum­ably to the di­vine in­spi­ra­tion and hours of sweat re­quired to write more heavy­weight, mean­ing­ful ma­te­rial such as Love Gun, Lick It Up and Rock and Roll All Nite. But if it had been that easy, there wouldn’t be so many ter­ri­ble disco records made by rock bands. There were cer­tainly in­spired rock/disco crossovers: the Rolling Stones’ peer­less Miss You, ELO’s bril­liant Shine a Lit­tle Love and Last Train to Lon­don, and Blondie’s Heart of Glass. But there were also scores of records that, in ret­ro­spect, beg­gar be­lief. Who wouldn’t want to hear a disco ver­sion of Gersh­win’s Rhap­sody in Blue by cape-sport­ing prog rock key­board wizard Rick Wake­man? Who wouldn’t find the idea of a disco al­bum by Ringo Starr (1977’s Ringo the 4th, fea­tur­ing the un­speak­able, cas­tanet-heavy Tango All Night) any­thing other than de­light­ful? And who among us can hon­estly say that their heart doesn’t beat a lit­tle faster at the thought of Jethro Tull record­ing a Gaelic-themed, bag­pipe-heavy disco num­ber called Warm Spor­ran?

In ab­so­lute fair­ness to the Beach Boys fans howl­ing their dis­ap­proval at Here Comes the Night, there was some­thing deeply un­cool about much of the rock/disco crossover. Clearly, no self-re­spect­ing DJ in a hip gay disco was go­ing to play this stuff, so it was mu­sic aimed at the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor: the naff sub­ur­ban­ites who’d be­lat­edly got their Tra­volta on, the peo­ple for whom disco meant, as the writer Peter Shapiro put it, “hear­ing YMCA six times in one night at the Rain­bow Room of a Hol­i­day Inn … while do­ing line dances with a bunch of trav­el­ling sales­men”.

That is not what disco means to­day. Any­one with a brain views it the way Brian Eno did at the time (“I have heard the sound of the fu­ture,” he breath­lessly told David Bowie dur­ing the ses­sions for “He­roes”, be­fore play­ing Donna Sum­mer’s I Feel Love) – as rad­i­cal, ground­break­ing, rev­o­lu­tion­ary mu­sic that per­ma­nently changed how we think about pop, filled with dar­ing sonic in­no­va­tions and ex­per­i­ments. It in­vented the 12-inch sin­gle and the remix, turn­ing a song into some­thing mal­leable and un­fixed, which could be re­leased in umpteen dif­fer­ent ver­sions, al­tered ac­cord­ing to the whim of which­ever pro­ducer or DJ to which you handed remix du­ties.

That is why no one gets up­set when a rock artist says they’re go­ing disco in 2018, and that’s pre­sum­ably the spirit that Noel Gal­lagher thinks he is tap­ping into. Un­less, of course, his next al­bum sounds like YMCA.

Who wouldn’t want to hear a disco ver­sion of Gersh­win’s Rhap­sody in Blue by cape­s­port­ing prog wizard Rick Wake­man?

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