New York Post
February 21, 2010
When “Saturday Night Fever” — set around a real-life Bay Ridge discothèque — premiered in December 1977, the movie grossed $200 million and sparked the nationwide disco craze. The soundtrack — centering on the Bee Gee’s falsetto synth ballads — was so successful that Columbia set up new vinyl-pressing factories to keep up with the demand.
Housewives lined up to learn the Hustle, and suburban strip malls began sprouting discos. The image of Travolta draped in a wide-lapel white satin suit, his finger thrust skyward, defined the zeitgeist. But as Rutgers professor Alice Echols explains in the anecdote-packed “Hot Stuff,” the disco craze did not really explode overnight. “It snuck up on America like a covert operation.”
Populated heavily by one-hit wonders with names like Hues Corporation, T-Connection and Rotary Connection, many pre-“Fever” disco acts were almost interchangeable. These faceless corporate-themed entities were mostly comprised of middleaged journeymen who had cycled through the Las Vegas nightclub circuit.
The Andrea True Connection at least had a fresh face to put with the strangely blasé name. True was a willowy dirty-blond former ’60s porn star with an unremarkable, laid-back vocal style. Gregg Diamond, a drummer on the outskirts of the New York scene, had flown to Jamaica where True had gotten stuck because of “political turmoil.” Diamond’s main claim to fame was that he knew David Bowie’s sound engineer. Much to the surprise of dismissive pop critics, the collaboration resulted in the tropical-sounding chart-topper, “More, More, More.”
Musicians were quick to learn who was really responsible for the new sound. “[Disco] was producer-driven and followed the logic of the assembly line,” Echols says. Pioneering producer Tom Moulton claims that when BT Express heard their first single, “Do It,” on wax, they were aghast. “They said it wasn’t the way they recorded it, and it was unnatural,” Moulton laughs.
Divas like Loleatta Holloway and Gloria Gaynor found they lacked influence, too. Holloway became discouraged after hearing her track “Hit and Run” one night in a club. Mixing was still new then, and the DJ was repeating long rhythmic passages, mixing out Holloway’s vocals.
For better, though often worse, this was disco’s greatest legacy, Echols believes — turning pop music into a product that could be packaged and rebranded without artists.
Still, some talented disco acts — like the funky ensemble Chic — were able to emerge. Chic’s two smash hits, “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” weren’t just infectious dance anthems. “Le Freak’s,” punchy chorus, “Freak out,” was a euphemism for a universally known two-word insult — directed at a Studio 54 door nazi who had snubbed the band. And “Good Times” was a subliminal critique of the Carter-era recession. Noting a single reference to a Depression-era Tin Pan Alley tune in “Good Times,” Rogers says, “Listen to the lyrics, we are really complaining about the opposite.”
While these assessments might beg skepticism, other disco mega-stars, namely the Village People, undoubtedly employed double meaning and political statements in their songs.
Disco was controversial ever since it evolved from Philadelphia-styled Soul, purged of blues and syncopation to meet the needs of the dance floor. “Stunningly dull,” “black Muzak” and “immaculately vacant” were some of the gentler insults lobbed at Barry White, a Soul man who was an early disco adopter. With the onset of Eurodisco in the late ’70s, even rhythm was bleached away. James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” was so enraged by these developments that he declared war on disco in 1976 with “Get Up Offa That Thing.”
By the time a Newsweek cover story was trumpeting the country’s “Disco Takeover” in April 1979, chart-toppers as diverse as Ethel Merman and Joan Baez had jumped on the bandwagon. The Bee Gees released “Sesame Street Fever.” Even James Brown surrendered to the slick sound, posing in a white jumpsuit for his awful new LP “The Original Disco Man.”
The Godfather of Soul should have waited a few months. By 1980, Billboard reported that disco had been virtually banned in radio. Wide-lapel polyester shirts and tight, flared satin trousers were given to Goodwill. Disco was already a national embarrassment.
Disco and the Remaking of American Culture
by Alice Echols
W.W. Norton & Company