Thirty years after it was officially pronounced “dead,” it’s still considered a sin to love disco music. Country and rap might attract a respectable amount of hate from certain quarters but disco is the belle of the ball when it comes to receiving unthinking, knee-jerk hatred from all corners of the music-loving world. Oldsters are trying to forget that it ruled the commercial roost for a short time, rockists are frightened by its pansexual ethos, hipsters sneer with unwarranted disgust as they insist they only listen to “authentic” forms of soul music and guardians of culture will continue to toe the party line: “It was a fluke and an aberration — don’t take it seriously and forget about it!”
This is a crime because disco is a genre totally worthy of exploration by musical obsessives. Forget the handful of pop-hit disco tunes that pop to mind, the “YMCA’s” and “Stayin Alive’s.” Those bite-size favorites are worthy their own respect but they are the accidental byproduct of the real action. Your Humble Reviewer is talking about the disco that got played in clubs, the complex and extended suites that captured the hearts and minds of club dwellers. This kind of disco, the real disco, is a world unto itself and has much to offer those daring enough to ignore its cultural-blacklist status.
Schlockmania will be covering disco as a regular part of its musical coverage. Through these reviews, you’ll be able to get an idea of why the genre is so special and deserving of more attention. Until then, this essay will outline the three elements make the genre endlessly fascinating. It comes down to three things: eclecticism, showmanship and its hypnotic quality.
Eclecticism: One of the great misconceptions about disco is that it all sounds the same, just a bunch of repetitive tunes with an identical thud-thud-thud beat. It’s true that disco centers its sound around dance-friendly rhythms but the music floating over the top of that beat is capable of anything. In addition to the obvious soul and funk elements, you’ll find orchestral arrangements and structural conceits drawn from classical music, hard rock elements (remember that searing guitar solo in “Hot Stuff”?), prog rock synth solos and world-beat elements, particularly of the Latin and African varieties. Since the genre is all about creating a “bigger-better-faster-more” sensation, you’ll often get several of these elements in the same song.
Showmanship: This goes hand in hand with the eclecticism. Disco is an ambitious genre, often to a symphonic level, and this requires the focus and dedication of a true showman. A dancefloor epic demands pristine and flawlessly timed arrangements, a larger-than-life persona to sell the lyric’s narrative and a producer who knows exactly when an element needs to be added or dropped in the mix. The end results are often the purest, most finely crafted entertainment that popular music has to offer — and they are often brilliant headphone listening thanks to their unique sonic showmanship.
Hypnotic Quality: A disco epic can be lushly orchestrated or aridly electro-minimalist but all great examples of the genre have one key attribute in common: a uniquely hypnotic quality. It’s not just the beat or the bassline: in great disco, all the elements work towards a united purpose: to create a dreamy, euphoric feeling that pulls you right into the heart of the music. World-beat and funk can create a similar feeling but neither can do it in the multi-tiered, senses-dazzling fashion that only disco can do. The aforementioned showmanship of good disco allows it to add, subtract and shift layers of sound in a way that reaches beyond the conscious mind’s defenses. It’s best experience on the dance floor with a skilled d.j. at the helm but a set of headphones and a stack of the proper disco tunes can take you to aural nirvana in a way that other genres can only dream of.
We’ll end by returning to the title question — why disco? Why the hell not? It’s the last unexplored frontier of cultish-music pleasure left. Anyone looking for a new thrill should wander into the mirrorball wilderness and revel in its glitzy, hedonistic wonders before it somehow falls prey to nostalgia or hipster-fetishism. Schlockmania will gladly be your companion for this journey and you can expected a guided tour of all the genre’s hidden wonders.