THE DISCO FILES: Disco As Viewed From Within The Mirrorball

Like many disco fans who were born too late to experience the genre’s great era, Your Humble Reviewer has had to pick up all his disco knowledge in a second-hand manner.  It’s easy to find compilations of the music and interviews with producers and deejays but it’s hard to get the context of what it was like to experience the music when it was new.  A few quality works of disco scholarship have been written during the last few years (Turn The Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco and Love Saves The Day are a couple of the best) but even those valuable studies are prone to the inevitable biases and assumptions that come with doing a retroactive analysis of a phenomenon.

Thus, the recent release of Vince Aletti’s The Disco Files is a godsend for anyone who has yearned for that elusive disco-era context.  This hefty trade paperback collects all the installments of the influential “Disco Files” column that Aletti wrote for Record World magazine between 1974 and 1978 and, in the process, allows the reader an insider-level view of the music reached the masses in the disco scene.

Each column is dedicated to the noteworthy records of a particular week, with Aletti providing a series of capsule-style reviews as well as news about forthcoming releases.  His critiques mix a fan’s passion with a nicely-honed sense of critical acumen and a carefully deployed amount of dry wit.  Along the way, Aletti provides evocative descriptions of each record’s arrangement, including observations on the quirks/defining elements of a producer’s particular style, but manages to keep things concise.  He’s also not shy about discussing when he felt the genre was flagging or when a record suffered from overkill in its length or pacing.

The records Aletti deals with these columns either came from the record companies themselves or were tracked down with the help of several deejays that he was in regular contact with.  Contributing deejays also submitted their top-ten lists for a given week, thus allowing the reader to pinpoint what was happening on the disco scene at a given time in several places around the U.S. (and sometimes Canada).  Those familiar the history of the genre will notice a flood of familiar names contributing these lists – Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and Jellybean Benitez are just a few of the pioneering deejays who participate here – and it’s a real eye-opener to see what they were playing as they began their careers.

The sum total of the information and opinions collected in this book create a strong, engrossing “you are there” depiction of how the genre developed during its most commercially successful era.  In the 1974-era columns, the genre is fighting off accusations of being a fad from all corners and deejays are working on their aesthetics, often mixing in esoteric jazz and rock selections along with the sleek soul often favored in discoteques.  As the years progress, we see record companies and producers embrace the trend and the music begins to grow from three-to-five minutes into side-length epics, a trend aided by the development of the twelve-inch singles that would allow deejays to really reshape music to their needs.  As Aletti signs off in 1978, the genre is a commercial powerhouse complete with subgenres and superstars of its own making.

The development curve outlined above has been chronicled by many critics and scholars over the years but it takes on a new significance when its laid out by someone witnessing those developments within the eye of the storm.  Aletti’s descriptive yet disciplined writing style makes the story sing and added historical value is provided by a supplemental set of articles penned and/or participated in for other outlets (the best might be an amusingly gossipy two-man conversation between Aletti and Michael Gomes) plus a recent interview with Aletti that closes the book on a reflective note.  In short, The Disco Files is necessary reading for any genre obsessive and a crucial historical supplement to the growing genre of disco histories.

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