Monday, 5 March 2012

Disco vs. Punk? - time to don the white flares and fluff up the afro!

I should have hated Disco, really - I’m a guitar-playing roots music fan who isn’t much interested in “production values”; I loathe music clubs of all kinds; I find the hedonistic attitudes encapsulated in Disco repellent; the clothes and the hair-dos were beyond ridiculous, even allowing for the generally abysmal standards of the 1970s; when Disco emerged around 1976, I was heavily into “Outlaw” country music – possibly the form’s direct antithesis; Disco was quite gay, and I'm generally not into campness; and, as a committed Eurosceptic, I should have despised it for being the first form of pop music which not all mainland Europeans were hilariously useless at.

Furthermore, it’s dance music – and when it comes to dancing, I’ve always displayed all the lithe grace you’d expect from an 18½ stone Scots-Norwegian. Some big men are light on their feet - I am not one of them. Despite that, I’ve always been a sucker for pop music which is meant to be danced to. When Punk and Disco went head to head in the late 1970s, I made a lame attempt to favour the former, until I realised that the only genuine punk groups I could stand were The Jam and The Clash, and that all my other “punk” favourites – The Stranglers, Blondie, early Elvis Costello – were nothing of the kind: most of them were either accomplished musos or, in the case of Debbie Harry, so glamorous that she represented the very antithesis of the punk “everyman” ethic.

Of course, the UK music press went overboard for Punk, on the basis, I suppose, that some of the performers were genuine proles (though Joe Strummer, as we now know, went to a private boarding school – good show, Strummer!) and they were generally so incoherently disgruntled and anti-establishment in a teenagery way that young middle class journalists could vicariously diss their parents and teachers by lauding mannerless morons who followed no rules (apart from looking, sounding, dressing and behaving exactly like all their contemporaries). It must be fun getting praised and paid for being a whining, spotty little nihilist (until the fatal heroin overdose, of course).

By the time America’s paunchy red-neck rockers launched a “Disco Sucks” campaign I was ready to declare for the opposition, on the basis that disco performers had much nicer manners, were all undoubtedly getting ready to vote for Thatcher or Reagan, and because for every decent punk record, there were at least ten great disco numbers. 

BBC Four (whom God preserve) are currently showing a slew of programmes about Disco, following the excellent “Top of the Pops: The Story of 1977”, in which one contributor pointed out that Disco had been massively more influential musically than Punk. And how! Early Rap and Hip-Hop seemed to live on samples from disco hits (mainly the bass riff from Chic’s “Good Times” – the one Queen semi-pinched for “Another One Bites The Dust”), Michael Jackson’s 1980s’ mega-selling albums were just an extension of his disco-era Jacksons hits, and every form of 1980s club music was basically electronic disco given a variety of silly names. Disco must have outsold punk a hundredfold in their heyday, and a thousandfold since then. 

And it deserved to.

Yes 95% of Disco was awful – but 95% of anything is awful. And while the endless espousal of a hyper-hedonistic lifestyle, including industrial quantities of cocaine and casual sex (until nasal septums started collapsing and AIDS got into the act), eventually began to sound somewhat desperate, at least Disco wasn’t insulting our intelligence with the sort of cosmically silly sub-teen political posturing that Punk went in for - in fact, Disco bypassed one's intelligence altogether.

So, having donned my white party suit and adopting the familiar raised-arm John Travolta pose, I shall one-handedly type out a list of my thirteen favourite Disco tracks, in no particular order:

“Spacer” by French chanteuse Sheila B Devotion. Produced by Chic, the backing track was subsequently “sampled” by Swedish group, Alcazar, on “Crying at the Discotheque”, which I also love. Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards were musical geniuses, and the true colossi of the Disco era. (I was intrigued to discover recently that my 18-year old son is busy perfecting the Chic guitar style.)

“Miss You” by the Rolling Stones. Charley’s good tonight, inne?

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man after Midnight)” by Abba – possibly their finest hour. Madonna pinched the exhilarating keyboard section for some piece of tosh twenty years later. 

“The Model” by Kraftwerk. I used to laugh at these chaps  – now, they sound wonderful. 

“You Should Be Dancing” by The Bee Gees. Magnificent. (You can find an excellent BBC 4 programme about them on iPlayer here). I still have no idea what they’re singing in the twiddly high bits on this record.

“A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band. (I know I should be ashamed – and I am!)

“Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae – the lovely record many critics reckon started the whole disco movement.

“Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind & Fire – a splendidly upbeat masterpiece: fresh, joyful and musical.

“Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Jr. Okay, he only had one hit – but he made it a good one.

“Rasputin” by Boney M – yes, I know! But it’s just so funny. “But to Moscow chicks, he was such a lovely dear”! "In all affairs of state, he was the man to please, but he was real great when he had a girl to squeeze" Genius! (And this video doesn't feature the fantastically  irritating Bobby Farrell, the bloke with the crap hair-do who couldn’t sing or dance. Don't worry - I've got your back.)

“I Feel Love” by Donna Summer – Italian record producer Hansjörg “Giorgio” Moroder invented Euro Disco and changed the direction of popular music everywhere (for good or ill) with the compelling, sticky electronic backing on this number (Bronski Beat’s later reworking was also superb, especially with “Johnny Remember Me” thrown in - I'm not that anti-camp).

"Blue Monday" by New Order - at last, something for Nazis to dance to! But great, despite that.

I'll end with Sister's Sledge's haunting "Lost in Music", one of Rogers and Edwards's finest productions, superbly sung by one of the genre's best acts.


  1. Absolutely spot on. Who can hear the line 'Clams on the half shell and roller skates, roller skates' and not feel that times are indeed going to be good. Does any one other than music journalists of a certain age still listen to punk. I'm sure it had to happen as a reaction to triple concept albums and King Arthur on Ice but it was always more protest movement than anything significant musically.

    See you in Studio 54.

  2. "....and, as a committed Eurosceptic, I should have despised it for being the first form of pop music which not all mainland Europeans were hilariously useless at."

    Bert Kaempfert, James Last, Katarina Valente, Renee and Renato, Johnny Hallyday, Francoise Hardi, Sylvie Vartan, Nana Mouskori, Demis Roussos? The list of European pop music "Greats" is endless.

    I was once mistaken in Cairo for Roussos by a group of small boys who followed me down the street chanting his name. A proud moment.