The return of disco

Dust off your medallions, sequins and mirror ball, disco is staging a comeback. By Marcus O'Dair
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The Independent Culture

From supplement front covers to a breathless 9.1 out of 10 from otherwise austere webzine Pitchfork, the self-titled debut from Hercules And Love Affair caused something of a sensation upon its release this spring. In part, this was because it featured the voice of one Anthony Hegarty in a setting markedly different from the fractured torch songs he created with his Mercury-winning Johnsons. Yet a good deal of the fuss was simply because the album was picking up critical plaudits despite being, to all intents and purposes, a disco record. Wasn't this the wedding-fodder genre also called home by Gloria Gaynor, John Travolta, and even the Village People?

Indeed it was – and it's been a no-go zone ever since the genre's late 1970s. Consumed by a virulent "disco sucks" campaign, that decade actually culminated with the destruction of thousands of records at the so-called Disco Demolition Night in Chicago's Comiskey Park. "It went out of favour in an extreme way, in a way that you never really found in other musical forms. So as modern listeners, a lot of us were set up to write it off as cheesy, hokey whatever," explains Andrew Butler, the brains behind Hercules And Love Affair.

In fact, Radio 1 DJ and self-confessed disco-lover Rob Da Bank explains, there's a big difference between "your Sister Sledge disco and your pop, Kylie Minogue disco. There's disco and there's disco." Yet while the likes of DJ Harvey, Daniel Wang, Lindstrom, and Morgan Geist have kept disco's more eccentric tendencies alive underground, the genre lives on as the soundtrack to nights out in flares and Afro wigs. As far as contemporary acts go, it remains untouched outside the fluffy pop of Scissor Sisters, Mika or, indeed, Kylie Minogue.

It's easy to see, then, why Hercules And Love Affair came as a surprise. The greater surprise, however, is that their open-armed disco embrace is far from an anomaly.

Disco really began to lose its dirty word status last year, when credible, high-profile acts started to reclaim the term. Scottish 1980s fetishist Calvin Harris' album, I Created Disco, appeared at the same time as records from London producers Simian Mobile Disco and French duo Justice, who called their music "2007 disco". Truth be told, they were less rooted in disco than in electro, techno and even big beat, although disco was responsible for all three through its direct descendants: house and hip hop.

Subsequent artists, however, actually sound like disco, if rather edgier and less relentlessly upbeat than the genre's kitsch, borderline self-parody end game. The new album from Heloise And The Savoir Faire, for instance is tinged with punk and 1980s electro pop. Like Hercules And Love Affair, they hail from New York, as do the neo-disco Holy Ghost!. Indeed, disco fever knows no national boundaries, stretching from Australian intergalactic disco trio Midnight Juggernauts to the Norse disco of electro-loving diskJokke. In England we have hipster disco house acts like Mock and Toof and, most extraordinarily, Chromehoof, whose unlikely fusion of disco and progressive metal shows that disco's class of 2008 is also sonically varied.

Watch the video for Hercules And Love Affair's track 'Blind'

Fundamentally egalitarian music, disco united people in a manner rarely found in rock'n'roll. Jazz, Latin and even classical elements have always sat alongside funk and soul as disco's basic ingredients – though you might not guess it from Ottawan's hit "D.I.S.C.O.". Remember, there's disco and there's disco.

It's a sentiment echoed in the title of achingly hip compilation series Disco Not Disco, whose third installment, "Post punk, electro and leftfield disco classics 1974-86", arrived with the assertion that, after bands like LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture, "the compilation is more timely than ever in 2008 as a reference point for a burgeoning mainstream scene".

There's truth in this, and also a clue as to why now might be the time for disco's much-delayed comeback. Andrew Butler – whose Hercules and Love Affair are signed to the label that launched both The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem – sees the punk funk with which both those bands are synonymous as "a back door" to disco.

Strangely, at least according to this theory, this need wasn't readily met by contemporary dance music, largely because it has all too often lost sight of its most basic ingredient: fun. "Disco is really sexy within the dance music genre, it's not like techno: it's smoother and slinkier and there's a bit more sophistication to it. And the beat is fun to dance to, that's the bottom line," says Heloise, of Heloise And The Savoir Faire.

Though reluctant to be grouped under the "nu-disco" tag that is already rearing its head, Duncan of London's Mock and Toof concedes: "There appear to be a lot of records and a scene being firmly established around the 'disco' tag. There are great nights, zillions of disco re-edit 12"s and acts like Hercules and Love Affair gaining lots of attention."

Does he have any idea as to why this might be happening, or what might come next? "Probably best not to dissect and try to understand it," he replies, consciously or not, preaching the disco gospel like a true devotee. "Just dance."

Hercules And Love Affair's self-titled album and their new single 'You Belong' are out now on DFA. 'Trash, Rats and Microphones' by Heloise And The Savoir Faire is out now on Yep Roc. diskJokke's album 'Staying In' is out now on Smalltown Supersound.

Gavin Cumine: 'I think I'm tapping into forgotten genres'

We should be in a mirror clad club with glitter balls falling from a red velvet ceiling with fountains of vodka teeming down golden stairways. There should be drag queens, and asexual Andy Warhol lookalikes wandering around with cigarettes dripping from their white fingers. People should be getting lost in a jazz electro odyssey and the afrobeat infused brass duels, smouldering beats and spiralling synths as they watch furiously voguing dancers. Instead we are in an empty tent in Hyde Park, carpeted with mud, poppers and discarded bits of clothing waiting for people to realise they are missing the greatest disco on earth.

On stage transexual vocalist Nomi strides around in black lycra hot pants, high heels and a white leather basque as co vocalist Kim Ann Foxmann delivers soft and longing vocals. In the wings a brass section, bassist and drummer all play their respective instruments as Andrew Butler, architect of New York disco futurists hides behind a bank of keyboards and wiring.

Butler's pan-sexual project, Hercules and Love Affair's attempt to apply an intellectual aesthetic to disco, a brand of music with the simple intention of sustaining people's feet seems like a tricky pursuit. However, the pedigree of nerdy musical historians stuck in small rooms conjuring up addictive melodies and rhythms people across the world dance to is a long and glorious one.

Andrew Butler is one such person, whose musical career began at 15 DJing at a Denver leather bar run by a hostess called Chocolate Thunder Pussy and flourished in Brooklyn club scene. Butler's futuristic take on pop's most questionable genre, disco, has led to critical acclaim and a record that reconfigures the musical references alongside which Butler has evolved. "I think I am tapping into genres that may have been forgotten by the mainstream so it does feel that they are new, but also familiar which can be exciting for people," he says.

An aspect of Butler's music is his interest in minimalism. "The power of three of four notes and the placing of them over different harmonic progressions can make something fresh and new."

Towards the end of the band's set the tent is full, people are dancing and for a moment we could be in a debauched club in the East Village. This love affair is just beginning, so get ready for the birth of a new disco fever.