Disco drew fans from all walks of society but if there is a single group that qualifies as the keeper of the flame for this genre, it’s definitely disco’s gay audience. Long after the “disco sucks” movement scared off the dilettantes, they remained faithful to this sound and nurtured it as it transformed into newer variants like Hi-NRG, house, etc. In the process, they became the most catered-to segment of the disco audience and this led to a lot of amazing, sometimes experimental and always flamboyant music aimed at them.
Harmless Records’ excellent Disco Discharge compilation series has paid tribute to gay disco many times with volumes like Pink Pounders and Hi-NRG & Gay Disco. Series mastermind Mr. Pink has done it once again with Midnight Shift, an entry in the Disco Discharge repertoire that shows off the many colorful styles that fall under the gay disco umbrella.
The first disc hits the dancefloor running with Bette Midler’s “Knight In Black Leather,” a breathlessly campy leather-bar romance tale with a killer sing-along chorus pumped up by double-time handclaps. The melodrama-with-a-wink tone is maintained by the swooping, string-laden romanticism of Patrick Juvet’s “Lady Night” as well as the booming kettledrums of the Flirtations’ synth-dancer “Earthquake.” Elsewhere, “The Power Of Love” by Astaire offsets its relentless, programmed electro-beats with a downright operatic chorus and erstwhile pop-rocker Kim Carnes delivers a moody cruising tune in “Voyeur,” a song whose musical aesthetic falls somewhere between an early ‘80s porn soundtrack and a suspense cue from an electronic film score of the same era.
That said, the killer one-two punch of disc one arrives in the middle with Lipstique’s epic “At The Discothèque” and the Love Twins’ similarly expansive “Miami Heatwave.” The Lipstique cut is driven by a killer arrangement from German producer Jurgen Kordulesch that piles on the horns, skittering strings and tympani as it delivers a symphonic statement in disco form. Look out for the killer bridge that pops up late in the tune as one of the singers coos “Our song of love has ended/But I’m still dancin’, baby.” Few statements capture the mix of melodrama and hedonism that define gay disco that well. “Miami Heatwave” is just as impressive, offering a punchier take on the disco epic that makes killer use of percussive rhythm guitar and hyperactive cowbell. It also boasts an elegant, relaxed vocal worthy of a Chic song.
Disc two of Midnight Shift favors the 1980’s more and thus has a more electronic style. That said, don’t expect a string of samey-sounding synth ditties. The producers behind the tracks on this disc coax a lot of different textures and moods out of their electronic gear. For example, “Candy Love” by Lili & Sussie and “Burning With Fire” by Tapps would both qualify as synth disco but their takes on the genre are radically different: “Candy Love” goes for a mid-paced approach where the oddly soothing vocals and minor-key melody give it a spacious, haunted feel while “Burning With Fire” is a Hi-NRG affair where the synths percolate like popcorn poppers as they spew out one staccato hook after another and a frantic, diva-style vocal raises the intensity even higher.
Other highlights on this disc include Lime’s new wave-ish “Wake Dream,” where the rumpled lead vocal lends a humane quality to the driving electronics, and “Deliverance” by People Like Us, which boasts a chorus that simultaneously achieves both operatic and sing-along qualities. That said, the killer track of disc two is “Dance Trance Medley” by San Francisco outfit Boys Town Gang. It utilizes a classic “disco medley” format that pits pogo-ing electronics against traditional string swoops and horn stabs as it travels through a variety of melodies and moods, all sung with passion. It runs nearly fifteen minutes but never gets dull for an even a second, finally reaching a smooth slow-dance coda that neatly caps its feats of disco gymnastics.
Simply put, Midnight Shift offers yet another fine testament to the campy, colorful joys of the gay disco scene. Even if this isn’t your chosen style of disco, it’s hard not to appreciate the blend of melody and showmanship it offers.