When people think of disco in international terms, the first thoughts are usually the U.S. and Europe. It’s easy to forget that Canada played a noteworthy role in disco’s boom years via hitmaking acts like France Joli, Lime, Gino Soccio, etc. One of the pioneers of Canadian disco was Three Hats Productions, a partnership between musicians Ian Guenther and Willi Morrison. This talented duo presided over a variety of projects beloved to disco collectors, including self-created projects like Grand Tour and Southern Exposure as well as work with performers like the Duncan Sisters and Skatt Bros.

However, their best-known and most beloved work came through the THP Orchestra. This studio outfit was devised to do a quickie cover version for the Canadian music market but quickly blossomed, leading to Early Riser, the first Canadian disco album and Two Hot For Love, a follow-up whose epic title track put Canada on the international disco map. Both discs have recently been collected in a 2-disc set with extras as part of Harmless Records’ Disco Recharge series and the results are well worth the time for fans of orchestral disco stylings.

Early Riser:

The THP Orchestra began when Morrison and Guenther were entrusted with the task of knocking out a cover version of the Rhythm Heritage hit “Theme From S.W.A.T.” over one weekend so the local RCA Records branch could a get a jump on that song’s Canadian release. The results were respectable, boasting both quality orchestration and an effective recreation of the funky groove that drive the Rhythm Heritage version.

When the THP Orchestra cut became a domestic hit, Morrison and Guenther got the nod to cut an album and the result was Early Riser. Like a lot of early disco albums using the “orchestra” format, it has one foot in the discotheque and the other in a sort of exotica-tinged mood music realm. The cuts are kept short (nothing over 6 minutes in length), all done in a style that balances pop accessibility with groove-conscious arrangements.

Using the success of the “S.W.A.T.” cover as a stylistic mandate, the producers have fun experimenting with covers of past, mostly instrumental hits. Highlights in this area include “Manha De Carnival,” which has a low-slung, jazzy approach reminiscent of Lalo Schifrin’s jazz-disco work of the mid-’70s, and an aggressively uptempo cover of the Mondo Cane theme “More” that laces the orchestrations with synth and works in brief drum breaks. There’s also an exotica version of “Sugar Sugar” that is undeniably kitsch in style but more effective than you might expect.

However, it’s the handful of original cuts that connect most effectively here and also point the way towards Guenther and Morrison’s future work. The title cut is a gem, built on a fluid yet driving bass line that is layered with soaring strings and percussive riffs when horns and vibes double each other. “Crazy Crazy” has a brief vocal melody but is mainly driven by a jazzy horn riff that gives it a sense of dancefloor swagger while “Dawn Patrol” is more disco exotica that has an irresistible bounciness beneath the thick strings and horns.

In short, Early Riser is a mostly successful slab of proto-instrumental disco despite its pop-chart minded sense of restraint. However, Guenther and Morrison would quickly top their work here with a more evolved statement of this style…

Two Hot For Love:

Ask a disco expert for their top ten list of the best album side-length disco epics and chances are they’ll include “Two Hot For Love.” Guenther and Morrison put this 16-minute juggernaut together at the advice of A.J. Cervantes, the head of U.S. label Butterfly, when he suggested they do something targeted at the U.S. disco market. What they came up with is an enduring cult classic of the genre.

Though it is clearly modeled on “Love To Love You Baby,” including a orgasmic female moan-break, Guenther and Morrison use the side-length format to put their own stamp on the genre. The style they create has a silken elegance to it, particularly in its use of keyboards, yet has a relentless, hard-edged drive to its insistent conga rhythms and the percussive use of the horn section.

The taut arrangement builds its tension from a main melodic motif featuring occasional gospel tinged vocals from Barbara Fry (vocally, she’s a dead ringer for Loleatta Holloway), with a series of instrumental breaks that elaborate upon the rich material of that main motif. There are flights of fancy for the string section, excursions on the analog synthesizer and string and horn duels as “Two Hot For Love” keeps switching up the arrangement without ever dropping the intensity. It never runs out of melodic twists to throw at the listener and the results will leave disco fiends joyfully exhausted.

The Two Hot For Love album was put together in a rush, so the second side reprises four cuts from Early Riser. However, this isn’t the padding it might seem: Guenther and Morrison went back to the master tapes and remixed them to reflect their growing understanding of the disco genre. The remixes push up the rhythm section in the mix and pare down some overdubs to give them more of a single-minded dance floor focus. They actually improve on the originals, particularly the remix of “Early Riser,” and the new mixes ensure that they blend stylistically with the title cut.

In short, this cult fave totally deserves its reputation. No collection of disco epics is complete without Two Hot For Love.

Bonus Material:

Both discs are fleshed out with plenty of bonus tracks in the Disco Recharge tradition. The disc devoted to Early Riser has 7-inch edits for three cuts for the album plus a 12-inch mix of the title track that gently extends the instrumental’s contours a la Tom Moulton.

However, the biggest bonus here is the inclusion of the early Three Hats Productions opus “Fighting On The Side Of Love” by Wayne St. John. It’s an old-fashioned stomper, with soaring orchestration over a pounding beat and a gutsy yet smooth vocal from St. John. It’s easy to imagine this song going over big at a Northern Soul weekender. No less than four versions are provided of this song (7-inch, 12-inch, and instrumental 7- and 12-inch mixes). Any way it’s mixed, this song is a winner and a great inclusion on Disco Recharge’s part.

The bonus material on the Two Hot For Love disc is devoted to five different mixes of the title cut, which was sliced and diced many different ways for discotheque consumption. There’s so much melodic material to plunder in the album version that they all work well. The RCA 12-inch version is particularly interesting because it strips out all vocals except the backing chant of the title, making it an almost purely instrumental voyage, and the Pete Waterman remix is the most adventurous one. That said, they’re all worth a spin, with the different choices in what to highlight and what to cut making them interesting listens for the devoted fan.

Quality notes from Alan Jones round out the package and feature interview material with Willi Morrison, who cheerfully relays the tale of his accidental journey into becoming a disco maestro.

All in all, this double bill of Early Riser and Two Hot For Love delivers the richly-orchestrated goods as it makes a wonderful case for the worthiness of Canadian disco.

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