(FABER £12.99 £11.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

Turn the Beat Around by Peter Shapiro

Disco, the glittering beast on sateen wings

While the period of dancefloor evolution which culminated in The Village People tends to be remembered for its "cheery music of air-headed levity", Shapiro portrays it in rather more formal terms. At once "the last gasp of the integrationist drive" and a sybaritic jig on the grave of unfulfilled Sixties dreams, disco was, he argues, "both utopia and hell". And while Shapiro is not immune to the temptations of writerly overkill which are opened up by such grand dualities (at one point he describes his subject matter as "this glittering beast that eventually rose on sateen wings from the burrows of the Big Apple's worm-eaten core"), the great strength of his fascinating and authoritative book is the extent to which it eschews such baroque flourishes in favour of meticulous specificity and the unfashionable urge to be objective.

Shapiro wisely opts to treat disco as a monument to be excavated rather than a blank canvas to be daubed upon. He first uncovers some entertainingly strange foundations, in the form of late-Sixties New York nitespots like Salvation! - where "women sporting Native American chic attempted to do the boogaloo to The Doors" under the watchful eye of a limbo instructor from Trinidad - and, better still, Cerebrum. On arrival at the latter unlikely pleasure palace, someone dressed in a space suit would ask to you to remove all your clothes before supplying you with a silken hooded toga, a glass of water and a large plate of marshmallows.

The temperature gradually increases as Turn the Beat Around moves smoothly from the dying embers of the hippie counter-culture to the white heat of gay liberation. Shapiro guides the reader with an admirably steady hand through the "coitus cloisters" of the sexed-up New York and San Franciscan undergrounds which provided the launch pad for disco's increasingly frenzied pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. Even the arresting vision of Bette Midler performing salacious old blues numbers to an orgiastically inclined bath-house with her pianist (the young Barry Manilow) clad only in a towel, cannot faze him.

However amusing the potential distraction - from the wife of Canadian prime-minister Pierre Trudeau losing her underwear, to gay disco overlord Sylvester's formative years in a cross-dressing hippie revue called The Cockettes, whose bearded constituents attired themselves as "bizarre combinations of Carmen Miranda and Robinson Crusoe" - the music always comes first. While the wealth of technical detail Shapiro supplies about vari-speed turntables and experimental remix techniques at the Paradise Garage can sometimes be a little intimidating, it is certainly good to know that the unique sound of the Philadelphia International rhythm section was dependent on a rubber band wrapped around the bass strings and a wallet left on the snare drum. And the author's determination to ground such sonic developments in the sobering economic and social realities of the Seventies gives his musicological insights an additional kick.

The chapter tracing the development of the Smiley Face from morale-boosting initiative at the State Mutual Insurance company of Worcester, Mass, to stark emblem of repressive Nixonian consensus, recurring throughout the lyrical landscape of Seventies soul like some awful grinning spectre, is a particularly masterly piece of exposition. And once this book starts to tug away at the ironies with which disco's history is replete - such as the fact that Chic's Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers originally wrote glitterball anthem "Le Freak" as a protest after being refused admission to Studio 54, or the revelation that the original inspiration for the Nik Cohn magazine article which became Saturday Night Fever was actually a mod from Shepherd's Bush - they unravel faster than a pair of macramé hotpants snagged on a broken roller-skate.

Though he writes as a fan, Shapiro is by no means blind to the absurdities of his subject matter. Hence his memorable definition of Eurodisco as music in which "the nightmare vision of a unified Europe was realised: the Germans were the drummers, the Belgians were the bassists, the Swedes were the singers, the French and the Italians were the producers, and every- one but the British wrote the English-language lyrics."

Of course, there's no easier indulgence than laughing at the excesses of the past, but by boldly outlawing that ever-present "I" which currently underpins so much lazy critical writing, Turn the Beat Around also turns a much-needed spotlight on to the narcissism of our own times. And the fact that you don't know if Shapiro personally danced at all of the places he describes or none of them only intensifies the pleasure generated by the immediacy of those descriptions.

Suggested Topics
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy