In Defense of Disco
In continuing to follow my bosses' objective to hit controversy head on - this week the MusiCurmudgeon will examine one of the most maligned musical trends of the previous century - Disco - as well as the fervent backlash this form of music engendered.
To begin with, let me be frank with you - I was once like you were. I was a dyed-in-the-wool disco hater - dissing the fashions, beats and whole superficial scene with a heartfelt cry of "Disco Sucks!" Several things changed my mind. One was the release of the seminal Talking Heads album "Remain in Light". "Not disco!" I hear you cry - well perhaps not, but certainly influenced by the rhythms brought about by the disco era. Few musical releases can truly be called life changing, but "RIL" is certainly one that fits the bill - its Byrne & Eno led forays into African polyrhythms inspired everything from 80's dance (hello New Order) to the hip-hop, house & rap that followed, enabling a white boy from the burbs like me to obtain a new appreciation for the funky sound blaring from the dj's speakers.
Secondly - I read a quote by John Lennon where he stated he wrote and recorded "Fame" with David Bowie because he felt that much of the vehemence against disco was racist in nature. I generally take statements from artists with a degree of distrust, but subconsciously I felt in this case Lennon's take on the subject could possibly have some validity to it. I closely examined my own background and beliefs and came to the conclusion that without a doubt my reaction was based on cultural biases. For example - I am attracted to jazz in part for its sophistication in melodic and harmonic chord structure and rhythms. Disco came closer to providing these attributes than most popular rock music of the time, yet I rejected it.
Then (perhaps not in this exact order - my memories of this time are slightly hazy) an acquaintance loaned me Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" - another earth-shattering recording from an outstanding and unjustly dismissed songwriter - with the admonishment that "everyone needs a little funk". Needless to say - he never got his album back. (Sorry about that Ken - if you are out there somewhere let me know and I'll buy you a new cd of it to replace the vinyl I wore out long ago.) I'll admit it took time. I was a hesitant adherent, but I opened my ears, and my mind, and upon repeated listenings, the funk grew on me.
The final act of conversion came after nearly a decade of playing music in a semi prog-metal recording band (I almost hate to admit that part) led by a European guitarist. We all felt that something was missing from the vibe we were trying to achieve. Changing musicians, sounds and parts didn't seem to help - something still felt lifeless. Finally a change from a plodding " a one and a two" (reputedly) human drummer to a world music drum program did the trick - and quicker than a Buddy Rich paradiddle - the music felt alive (an interestingly contradictory paradox considering we moved from a human element to a machine) and opened up all sorts of new avenues for the rest of us to explore.
I again reexamined this love/hate relationship I have with "jungle music". After all - what was it exactly I had against disco. The disco clubs themselves provided a multi-cultural and relatively safe setting, with better sound systems, more comfortable seating, better drinks (and drugs - although the white powder has never been my drug of choice) and less skanky women then the poorly lit, dangerous, rock clubs - where 3 chord thrashers blistered eardrums and fights broke out on the hour. The codified mating dance rituals I once mocked while draped drunkenly over the jukebox, now seemed to be quaint and fun foreplay (with the opposite sex) when compared to the Fight Club, nearly all male melees that pass for dancing in the mosh pits. As for the fashion complaint - it is always the teen mob mentality to want to look the part of the group - if the disco crowd wore uniforms, at least they wore colors as opposed to the dull shades of the blue jean and t-shirted hordes I ran with.
Admittedly - there is some distance between the "Heads" and Donna Summer, but you get my drift. Music, like much art, reflects the society it exists in. The bright lights and nose candy crowd was bashed for being complacent - living in a mirrored Alice in Wonderland fantasy world while Reagan snoozed on outside, trading guns for hostages and running monstrous deficits; but on reflection it seems the shallow pleasure -seekers simply held up a mirror (ball) to show us all how we looked once we had won the freedoms (racial, sexual) we fought for in the 60's. If we didn't like either what we saw - or heard in a nasal Brothers Gibb falsetto - maybe it was that we were learning the hard truth of moderation in all things; and in retrospect - the mobs burning records now look like the reactionary ones - and dangerous ones at that.
Past, present & future
misguided ramblings of the MusiCurmudgeon
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