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Turn the Beat Around by Peter Shapiro
Disco, the glittering beast on sateen wings
Sunday 31 July 2005
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.
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