Rock purists often sneer at disco for being plastic and phony. This humorless complaint reveals they missed the point entirely: disco was never about being “real.” Instead, it revels in the plastic and artificial as it reaches for escapism of the purest variety. Gay Disco and Hi-NRG, its younger, electro-styled brother, are perhaps the ultimate expressions of disco escapism: any pretensions to serious music or lofty artistry are thrown aside in the pursuit of the gaudiest, most viscerally hedonistic ear candy possible.
The results are often transcendent and a good cross-section of prime example can be found on the excellent 2-CD comp Disco Discharge: Gay Disco & Hi-NRG. Alan Jones sets the tone for this collection in his brief but eye-opening liner notes. Disco wasn’t just a leisure activity for gay disco fanatics, it was a way of life — and the glitter lingered in the mind even when they were back in their humdrum daytime reality.
Fittingly, the soundtrack for this 24-hour-a-day fantasy catered to that craving for escapism. The album opener, “Disco Kicks” by Boys Town Gang, acts as a manifesto for what is to come: the vocalist tells you this is music you can “feel” as the backing track lives up to the promise, with aggressive horns, skittering strings, whirring synths and dub-like percussion fighting for control over a relentless metronomic beat.
Escapism is a common lyrical theme: Harlow’s “Take Off (Satisfaction Guaranteed)” lays out a jet-set tour of international nightspots over an elegantly orchestrated, uptempo melody while the moodier, funkier “Cruising The Streets” (another Boys Town Gang track) acts as a gay disco fan’s version of “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” namechecking all the famous gay nightclubs before giving way to a wild radio-play midsection where cops rousting a pair of amorous gay men and a hooker becomes an impromptu orgy.
However, it isn’t all fantasies on this set. The dancefloor acted as a safety zone where dancers could deal with issues in the comforting language of disco. Macho’s epic redux of “I’m A Man” serves as a self-identity affirmation played out to orchestral lengths and Free Enterprise’s “I’ve Got To Make It On My Own” is a you-can-do-it anthem whose metronomic beat reflects the rock-steady determination of its lyrics. There are also love laments like Eria Fachin’s “Savin’ Myself” and Tapps’ “Don’t Pretend To Know,” in which sweetly melodic sing-along choruses soothe the aching heart while restless beats keep the feet moving.
In short, the gay disco and Hi-NRG subgenres of disco show how disco escapism could provide a life soundtrack that transcended reality for those who needed it the most. A listen to Disco Discharge: Gay Disco & Hi-NRG will let the uninitiated in on the charms of these subgenres and better delineate them for the curious. It’s a musical trip worth taking — you don’t have to be gay to enjoy the lush, sinuous melodicism on display here.