A big part of the fun with disco music is the genre’s frequent embrace of melodrama and excess. Gay disco is by far the best of all disco subgenres at delivering these elements because it always goes for the most florid forms of expression possible. It can take the love song format, add a beat and pumpsit up to the kind of operatic heights that no disco devotee can deny. Conversely, it can also strip out the emotional component entirely to create an extravaganza of frills and hooks that overload the listener with a kamikaze attack of pure kitsch.
Cruising The Beats, the final entry in the recent quartet of Disco Discharge compilations, explores all these extremes of the gay disco sound with the ears and cultish taste of a true obsessive. This two-disc set presents a wide cross-section of classics that cover everything from the lavishly orchestrated epics of the 1970’s to the synth extravaganzas of the 1980’s. As always, album versions and several 12-inch versions are used in place of single edits. Alan Jones completes the package with his witty, breezy yet highly informative liner notes.
The glamour gets rolling on disc with a one-two punch of classics: Boys Town Gang’s uptempo cover of the Frankie Valli hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” switches back and forth between yearning strings and pseudo-Latin horn raveups without losing its rock steady beat while Dan Hartman’s “Vertigo/Relight My Fire” starts as a hypnotic instrumental with some killer vibe solos before giving way to a piano-pounding dance epic with gospel-style vocal harmonies (guest vocalist/Salsoul diva Loleatta Holloway really spurs Hartman on).
The remainder of disc one maintains the energy of these cuts while exploring a variety of moods along the way. For example, Night Force’s “Dance” is purely motivated by the titular activity, forsaking lyrics for chants accompanied by bright instrumental textures (look out for those caffeinated horn charts), while Noel’s “Dancing Is Dangerous” is a sophisticated synth epic that marries an elegantly crafted melody to lyrics that offer a fairly caustic commentary on the discotheque scene. It’s worth noting the latter track was penned and produced by the Mael Brothers, who were developing their own satirical take on disco with Giorgio Moroder for their day job, Sparks, around the same time.
The second disc plays up the Hi-NRG element of gay disco more than the first did but its choices are strong: “Anything Like You” places the soaring vocals of Janet D’Eon over some of the warmest, most plush synthesizer sounds this side of a Giorgio Moroder production while Bobby O’s cover of the Elvis favorite “Suspicious Minds” transforms it into a grandiose electronic melodrama where gloomy synth-pop vocals float despondently over a dense, relentlessly percolating backdrop that never runs out of kitschy synth hooks. There are also a few 1970’s-style epics near the end, the key example being Patrick Juvet’s “The Gay Paris/French Pillow Talk” medley, an impossibly over-the-top blend of fey vocals, Cinemascope orchestrations and a throbbing kick-drum beat.
However, the aforementioned highlights are only part of the fun. Other standouts here include “Sound Of My Heart” by Sleeping Lions, which updates the Motown girl-group formula for the electronic-drum 1980’s (but thankfully retains the violins) and Fantastique’s “Mama Told Me,” a relentlessly giddy slab of bubblegum disco that whips up Spanish guitars and vocoder vocal-hooks into the musical equivalent of cotton candy. The untrained ear might dismiss this stuff as chintzy dancefloor schlock but the disco fan will respond to its color, liveliness and irrepressible sense of fun. In short, Cruising The Beats is a must for anyone who embraces the extremes of disco.