It will survive
At first we were afraid, we were petrified. But soon we couldn't live without disco by our side. On the 21st anniversary of the film `Saturday Night Fever', Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen recall the years of sequins, mirror balls and roller-skates
Saturday 10 April 1999
Up until this seismic turning point, the generally accepted idea of a night out dancing was dinner at the Copacabana or the Cafe de Paris and then a quick quick-step to an on-stage band. Replacing live entertainment with records merely being played in succession was seen as perplexing.
Le Club was the first disco on the New York scene in 1960 but Arthur (or "Arfer" as the expatriate glamour set called it) was the Big Apple's first really chic disco, and opened on Manhattan's East Side in 1965. Its reputation was quickly established when it turned away Hollywood hunk Rock Hudson.
Before long everyone was following the Arthur beautiful people and the jet-setters of St Tropez, who were deserting their usual glamorous watering- holes in the glittering playgrounds of the monde and the demi-monde, to join the in-crowd at hip Euro haunts. She was frugging wildly in her hip- hugging yellow capri pants, matching chain belt and knee-length white vinyl go-go boots. He was the epitome of cool in sharp Italian suit, Cuban heels and shades, snapping his fingers along to the bossa nova beat.
Soon it was all happening at the discotheque. It became the place to go to see and be seen. Chubby Checker's early-Sixties anthem "At The Discotheque" did much to put the new word on everybody's lips. The wild, the cool and the crazy were drinking warm white wine and twisting along to Little Eva's "The Locomotion" or doing the pony to The Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself" as the Sixties geared up to full swing, spurred on by Twiggy, Alfie and James Bond. Now that the beautiful people had found their feet, however, it became clear that an appropriate soundtrack was needed. Top 40 hits were rhythmically inadequate and didn't provide a conducive backdrop to the easy promise of la dolce vita ...
Summer Fever There are two distinct disco time zones. One is before the first orgasmic gasps of Donna Summer's gigantic club smash "Love To Love You Baby" began its startling aural assault with a thudding bass augmented by slippery strings. The second is after her series of climaxes had seduced the satiated sweat-soaked masses into becoming her besotted love slaves.
The age of disco innocence was over. In the summer of 1975 you couldn't go far without hearing the erotic moans of this mini-masterpiece, which was banned by the BBC and burned by preachers in the American heartlands. It made Donna Summer undisputed Queen of Disco, a title she held for over a decade, and established the Casablanca record label as the premier exponent of dance music.
LaDonna Andrea Gaines was born on 31 December 1949 and grew up in Boston as part of a large family of five sisters and a brother. Her father, Andrew, was a janitor, butcher and electrician at different times in his life, her mother a schoolteacher, and her strict church upbringing banned her from even wearing make-up. Inspired by the gospel vocals of Mahalia Jackson, Donna took the first steps towards her singing career at the Grant AME Zion Church where she would often lead the congregation. Lured away from the Lord by white Bostonian rock musicians, and influenced by Janis Joplin and The Velvet Underground, she contemplated a singing career and, as was often the case during this era, also set her starry eyes towards the Broadway stage.
This ambition led her to Manhattan and an audition for the hit musical Hair as an understudy for Melba Moore. While appearing in Hair in Munich, Donna often did the odd studio session for extra cash. During one of these gigs she was introduced to the man who would turn out to be her Svengali and make her an international singing sensation. Producer Giorgio Moroder, owner of Oasis records with his partner Pete Bellotte, hired her to sing on a disc by the group Three Dog Night ("Mama Told Me Not To Come"). Once they heard her voice they promptly signed her up and then searched for suitable songs to show off her talent.
Moroder knew their first recording, geared to vital American and British airplay, would have to be special, so he decided to write something evocative of the steamy numbers much in vogue during the late Sixties, such as the controversial Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin duet "Je t'aime ... moi non plus".
The result was the playfully seductive "Love To Love You Baby", which Donna found so lyrically embarrassing that she could only sing it in the dark when it was first recorded. On its initial European release the single was only a hit in Paris. But Moroder refused to give up and included it in a package of three tracks he submitted to the Los Angeles-based Neil Bogart, who was in the process of setting up a new record label named Casablanca. Bogart loved the "Love To Love You Baby" track and sensed immediately that it could be a massive hit if it got plenty of what he termed "bedroom play". The problem was that the cut lasted only three minutes so Bogart asked Moroder to extend its coitus interruptus duration to a more pleasurable length.
Few had ever pushed a pop song beyond the eight-minute mark, but Moroder went back into the studio and, with Donna in the dark again, engineered an unheard of 16-minute-plus version of the song. What was mildly sexy in its original form became a hypnotically erotic tour de force, a magnum opus of carnal abandon. Densely orchestrated and deliberately accenting rhythmic thrusts, "Love To Love You Baby" invited dancers to participate in the sexual ritual of foreplay, fulfilment and post-coital trance. And then held dancers enthralled as it all began again.
Conceptually brilliant, and with an album cover suggesting masturbation, "Love To Love You Baby" was a formula that would be worth repeating. In the rush to get the album into the shops, no one had bothered to check the spelling of Donna's surname, so Sommer (she was briefly married to one Helmut Sommer) ended up as Summer and that became the professional name of the Queen of Disco. "Love To Love You Baby" not only pushed the limits on the dancefloor; it was so often played on the radio that it set a precedent symptomatic of the anything goes spirit of the Seventies. The first rumblings of the disco revolution that had been bubbling underground were now felt beyond its appreciative subculture.
Parlez-Vous Francais?: Eurodisco America may have invented disco, but it was the European connection which expanded its repertoire with a coolly refreshing sound filtered through years of the Eurovision Song Contest, European Union debate and Eurotrash culture. The Eurodisco style evolved from a confused desire by the "big fish in a small pond" to be as fabulously feted internationally as they were on their home turf. But their desperate attempts at "Americanisation" were usually so wide of the mark that they appeared more European than ever. This gave Eurodisco its clearly identifiable sound - one where the producer's role was the most important and the singer relegated into second place. Often the results of this mind-bending Common Market melding of foreign accents, bad diction, bizarre arrangements and lightweight production, usually top-heavy with strings, were headache-inducing (Germany's Dschinghis Khan with "Moscow" and its gob-smacking chorus "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha", for example) or hilariously funny (like Holland's Luv and their pedantically enunciated "You're The Greatest Lover").
But sometimes signature melody, production zing and mesmerising power would unite to hit the irresistible D spot of electric ecstasy. A prime example is the Spanish duo Baccara with their enormous pan-European hit of 1977 "Yes Sir, I Can Boogie". It was the Seventies disco era which gave rise to what is still termed the "summer hit" in music business-speak. More people were travelling to more exotic places and dancing to a wider selection of music than ever before. When they returned home they wanted to relive their holiday memories as a sonic postcard and the pop charts reflected this taste. Other instances of this phenomenon were "Magic Fly" by Space, "Y Viva Espana" by Sylvia, "Dolce Vita" by Ryan Paris and "Bimbo Jet" by El Bimbo.
Baccara was the brainchild of Dutch producer Rolf Soja. He put singers Maria Mendiola and Mayte Mateus together and, with co-writer Frank Dostal, crafted some of the most memorably Kontinental Kitsch Klassics of the decade. "Yes Sir, I Can Boogie", with its instantly engaging harp opening, breathy lyrics, anti-feminist subservience, peripatetic violin cadences and daft lyrics, meant the Baccara formula was set in stone. It was one Soja would mine for all it was worth over three albums and a Eurovision Song Contest entry for Luxembourg in 1978 with "Parlez-Vous Francais?" (it came seventh).
The most famous German disco group of all would be put together by producer/composer Frank Farian, the man behind Gilla, Eruption and, in the modern era, ace mimers Milli Vanilli. From the very beginning, in the looks department, Boney M were always a source of cringe-inducing embarrassment. Not since Abba had a group edged so close to self-parody. Three girls and a guy outlandishly abusing gold lame, steel chains and winged silver spacesuits in an attempt to acquire an air of international sophistication, Boney M always got it wrong. They always got it wrong in exactly the right way, however, and no one could ever hope to match the jolly-holiday mentality and brain-curdling catchiness of their songs, which won them grudging respect from some of the harshest of the rock press critics.
The Boney M success story came about because Farian had thrown the song "Baby Do You Wanna Bump" together in 1975 and performed the lead vocals himself. When it became a surprise hit in Holland, he quickly needed to form an actual group for those vital television appearances. After careful consideration he selected four attractive West Indians in search of a German career. Liz Mitchell came from the Hamburg production of Hair, Marcia Barrett and Maizie Williams hailed from London, and the gruff-sounding male vocalist Bobby Farrell was recruited from a local soul group.
It wasn't until late in 1976 that Farian came up with "Daddy Cool", their first international smash. Radios around the world repeated its maddeningly nagging refrain for months on end and, when New York's prestigious Paradise Garage club included it on its playlist, Boney M's disco career was assured.
Just as they left their indelible mark on the pop charts of every country in the world, the Swedish supergroup Abba would invade dancefloors with their particular brand of pure Eurodisco. Although not a disco hit per se, Abba's "Dancing Queen" would often be used by DJs as the wind-down song at the end of a frantic evening. The Scandinavians' only American chart-topper had actually been inspired by George MacRae's "Rock Your Baby". Their serious forays into disco mainly emanate from their 1979 Voulez-Vouz album and include "Summer Night City", "Angel Eyes", "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" and the title track. However, Abba's disco masterpiece is "Lay All Your Love On Me" from the Super Trouper album. It's also the purest slice of Eurodisco it would be possible to find anywhere in the Common Market of clubland.
Hell On Wheels: Roller-Disco It all began with Rollerina, one of the most celebrated of the disco fantasy folk to grace the dancefloor of Studio 54 and put on an ego-show. On Halloween night 1977, the terminally eccentric male clubber appeared at Manhattan's top nightspot wearing a chiffon ballgown, school-marm glasses and a flowered hat. In his hand he waved a glittering fairy wand and on his feet he wore roller-skates. The way the lawyer-by-day/fairy-godmother-by-night glided, spun and manoeuvred around the floor stopped trendsetters dead in their tracks - and roller- disco was born.
Soon everyone was doing it in America. Skates cost $30 (pounds 20) a pair, and new technology meant their polyurethane wheels lasted for ages. New York's Central Park was the place to be. It was packed with amateur skaters learning how to keep their balance, while the more proficient practised nifty moves they were desperate to dazzle the crowds with later that night.
Brooklyn's Empire Roller Rink turned Rollerdrome disco to attract hip customers. Bonds and the Roxy opened in Manhattan soon afterwards to mop up the roller masses. The Roxy was the poshest place in the world to skate. Located at 515 West 18th Street, it had an enormous 60,000sq ft rink and a raised dining/relaxing area with spotlighted red roses on each table. The red brick walls were covered in neon artwork and the place oozed style. "Relax!" said the fun in-house flyers, "stretch your leg muscles ... keep your knees bent ... centre your body weight, lean slightly forward ... if you feel you are going to fall forward, sign up for lessons!"
In California, Venice Beach fulfilled much the same purpose as Central Park, as did Battersea Park in London and the Trocadero in Paris. Disco producer extraordinaire Alec R Costandinos immortalised the latter area situated close to the Eiffel Tower in the dance soundtrack to the French documentary film Trocadero Bleu Citron.
Then the stars got in on the act, Diana Ross had roller-skates custom- made to match different outfits. Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter wore skates in one of their famous Campari commercials. 10cc's rock video for "125 Beats To The Minute" featured skaters in Carnaby Street. Even the character of Mrs Slocombe kept mentioning it on the BBC TV sitcom Are You Being Served? The reason for the latter? Gordon Elsbury, one of the producers of the show, ran central London's best roller-disco, the Electric Ballroom, and couldn't resist the chance of a plug. Everybody was willing to have a go, from Prince Andrew to Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford to President Jimmy Carter, Jack Nicholson to Christopher Reeve and, most importantly, Cher.
The former Mrs Sonny Bono was so enamoured of the craze she not only added the track "Hell On Wheels" to her Prisoner dance album in 1979, she also opened up one of the most popular roller-discos in West Hollywood - Flippers at La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevard. Unfortunately, very few other records aimed specifically at the exploding market were as good as "Hell On Wheels" with its rocking riff, hard drive and clever lyrics. Martha Reeves' badly updated "Dancing In The Street', her Sixties Motown hit with the Vandellas, to "Skating In The Street". "Let's Rollerskate" by Poussez and Al Di Meola's "Roller Jubilee" weren't much better.
But then, just as suddenly as it had started, the fad fizzled out. It was an exhausting lifestyle to keep up, after all. Roller-skating through the parks during the day, swirling in the clubs at night, constantly oiling and cleaning the wheels for tip-top performance levels and all the heavy- duty essential foot-care finally took their toll. In California, skating moved out of the discos and back on to the streets. If you were an avid roller-skater you wanted to be out in the fresh air, not cooped up in cinemas watching people doing badly what you could be doing so much better instead, or bumping into amateurs in cramped clubs. More sophisticated personal stereos meant you literally could go wherever the music took you, and that's exactly what people did.
Britain's roller-disco mania was dictated by the weather. Summer in the city was fabulous, but winter was a rusted-wheel nightmare. By the time the sun shone again, the inclination to strap on the roller-boots was often at a low ebb. Yet there was always the die-hard skater who could be seen in the park gliding along to Andy Williams' disco version of the theme from Love Story, "Where Do I Begin?", the thinking roller fan's favourite because you could twirl on each soaring violin beat with precision without exhausting yourself in the process.
Roller-disco was the apotheosis of the dancefloor fantasy. You could become Jayne Torvill or Christopher Dean - often both! - and pirouette yourself to ecstasy enclosed in your own musical universe. It was also the ultimate in image redefinition because all skaters looked graceful and fluid while on the move, even if they were awkwardly self-conscious in a normal disco environment. That was the real key to it becoming an overnight sensation and success.
And The Beat Goes On Most musical trends just fade away and fizzle out at the end of their natural cycle. Unlike any other genre, however, disco was driven out of town like Frankenstein's monster - only this time the villagers weren't brandishing burning torches but flaming copies of Amii Stewart's 1979 classic "Knock On Wood". Chicago's Steve Dahl was only the most vocal of the "Disco Sucks" DJs when he hosted the "Death of Disco" record-burning party at his local Cominskey Park in front of a load of jerks wearing "Shoot the Bee Gees" T-shirts. While America was fast becoming the most anti-disco nation, others across the world had also had enough of the trend, fuelled by the stance of practically the entire music press that the music couldn't be taken seriously on any social, cultural or academic level. If you did, you were either a drugged-out dance casualty, gay or a moron.
Lifestyles were rapidly changing, too. Going out every single night was very time-consuming, and costly. Leisure time was limited, after all. People had other things to do and had probably met their boyfriend/girlfriend at the disco and therefore saw less point in going out any more. The young disco tearaway had matured, settled down, raised a family, shopped at the local supermarket every Saturday and now had different priorities.
Or maybe the drugs were finally taking their toll and the disco fan was checking into a rehab clinic. Gays were starting to fall ill with a mystery virus that would have a profound effect on an entire generation used to the disco/backroom/continental baths weekend recipe. The generosity of spirit and camaraderie that were part and parcel of the disco era were being replaced by a more venal, money-grabbing, self-obsessed Yuppie ethic. Nor could disco music be explained as radical or political in the way pretentious rock critics loved to write about post-punk bands. Then Studio 54 closed down. And along with the unofficial disco headquarters that symbolised everything excessive and fabulous about the era, the general public's interest quickly waned too.
Yet all through this downturn, the music continued to galvanise the die- hard devotee. Viola Wills released her classic "If You Could Read My Mind", Gloria Gaynor her "biggest-selling disco record of all time", the anthem "I Will Survive", and Lipps Inc. their superb "Funkytown" and "All Night Dancing".
But when the bottom did suddenly fall out of the popular disco market in America, dance culture quickly and silently disappeared into the gay, black and Latino ghettos from where it had emerged before being turned into the nightmare urban polyester phenomenon. Producers Ian Levine and Fiachra Trench in Britain transformed gay disco into HI-NRG with their Sixties/Northern Soul artists Evelyn Thomas and Miquel Brown. For Afro- Americans, disco was reborn as rap in New York, pioneered by Run DMC. Eurodisco moved to Spain and especially Italy, where the Italodisco trend took off with such artists as Ken Laszlo and Den Harrow taking control of the insanely romantic and melodic hooklines. Disco was never seen as a negative word in those countries anyway and is still freely used today. Latinos didn't have too long to wait for the lambada either!
Has any part of pop culture been so lavishly enjoyed to the maximum or as sharply reviled and vilified as disco? It's doubtful. You either embraced it or you hated it. Those into disco just carried on dancing to whatever music was around. HI-NRG, rap, house, acid house, garage, handbag, hardbag, NU-NRG, speed garage, hip hop, trip hop, jungle, drum and bass, techno, rave, nuyorica - call it what you want. It will always be disco. Perhaps the only difference in today's dance culture is that whereas a popular club became the focal point of your nightlife, now it's the DJs who are the focus. Wherever your favourite DJ plays is the place you want to be.
People will always want to dance, and as long as that's the case there will always be disco. Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" lives on today, like the vast majority of equally magnificent disco records, because it's an anthem of triumph, of personal strength, with a good solid sound. The song's powerful message, attention-grabbing opening words, strong bass-line and melodic violin break keep it locked in the memory forever.
Unlike the Swinging Sixties - which in reality was roughly 150 beautiful people moving from one pop star party to another - the disco Seventies could be enjoyed by everyone. It's said that if you remember the Sixties, you weren't there. But if you remember the Seventies, you were here, there and everywhere a mirror ball was in evidence.
Disco is not dead. Long live disco!
Extracted from `Saturday Night Forever: The Story of Disco' by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen (Mainstream, pounds 9.99). To order a copy, p&p free, call 01206 255777
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