When browsing classic disco blogs—always maintained by sweaty, foreign men, a tendency I have learned from the pictures of themselves they publish inexplicably—one can only judge the quality of the records by their album covers. There are no band biographies, no album reviews, no other photographs: it is a cultural archive without history or salesmanship. Determining quality with so little information is a delicate but logical process, the mechanics of which can only be explained by example.
A faux-Greek mosiac depicting two nearly naked men wrestling, the one with the leather cap and the upturned bare ass pinning the one with the anchor tattoo and boots, is absolutely going to be a good album. Erotic Drum Band’s “Plug Me to Death,” with two bare female legs shot in Farrah Fawcett soft focus, has good chances, while an album titled “Hoochie Coochie” does not. “Star Peace” by Droids!, judging by its spaceship adorned with peace symbols, is likely to suffer from literalism and piercing keyboards; “Meco Plays Music From The Empire Strikes Back” is likely to suffer from John Williams. “Do You Wanna Go Party” by the esteemed KC & the Sunshine Band, with a man and a woman riding what appears to be a cork butt plug/metal-capped penis in front of a red star: excellent. Sometimes one’s expectations can be fortunately incorrect; the three-masted galleon composed of stars on “Comic Wind” almost lead me to miss “Ain’t Nothin’ To It,” the simplest perfection in all of disco.
There has been a movement recently in bloghouse circles—and I load that term with even more contempt than its use necessarily implies—for “authentic disco,” which was called “the disco revival” until it needed to claim an implausible identity of its own. These songs tend to be four minutes long, opening with a chirpy string melody and slogging through fat dumb synths until the melody’s repetition. The performers are generally a pair of white women singing genuine lyrics, with metaphors and imagery and intentions.
This is not authentic disco. Authentic disco songs are seven minutes or longer, opening with a chirpy string melody that breaks down into drum, bass, keyboard or flute solos at least twice for at least two minutes. There must be brass, and every sentence in every song must be about love, dancing, or “partying,” which was what you called fucking in those days. Exceptions can be made for truly aspirational disco, which is either instrumental or has lyrics based on classic works of verse (more on this phenomenon, which I am not making up, later).
An exemplary song would be “In the Bush,” by Musique. “I want to do the things you want to do, too / so let’s get down and do it,” a deep-voiced woman sings. “Do you like it, do you like it like this / are you ready, are you ready for this,” her companions add in mounting orgasm, after which she insists with urgency: “Push, push / in the bush.” Extended drum riffing follows. The song concludes with a mantra that is hers, disco’s, and ours: “Some of the time beats part of the time, and part of the time beats none at all.”
The admission of the boundlessness and simplicity of carnal desires—anything, as much as possible—is the first reason to love disco. When seen as a marker of the historical maturation and early permanence of sexual liberation, the genre is fascinating. There are no disco songs about trying to convince someone to fuck you, no assumption that any such game needs to be played. Desire, transparently held, is an uncomplicated good that threatens nothing except mutual pleasure; sex just aligns. In disco one can hear the promise of hedonism as a faith, with an ignorance of its game-theoretical machinations so stubborn one almost believes the creed.
Of course, this could also be a reason to hate disco. Not only is it naïve, but its naiveté belonged to our parents. Who wants to think of them alternating between the embarrassing puerility of “push, push / in the bush” and the dumb anthems that can’t talk about anything but fun? It inspires reflection on the bad hookups—the girl who had “a new way to give handjobs,” the threesome with the brothers—of which one’s conception was just the most consequential. One can hear the familiar pattern of regretted sexuality that was, to make matters worse, thoroughly in earnest. So soon after the failure of all the hippie marriages, the successive sub-generation was pursuing yet another romantic ideal—freer, more fleeting, in more artificial fabrics. If one can bear it, the distaste with which we encounter this prior, cruder hedonism ultimately gives way to something else: a sense that the relatively hostile sexuality that followed is equally attitudinal, differentiated only by vulgarizing that which had been previously worshiped as a modern achievable god.
Naturally, one might also hate disco because of the music. Some of the melodies waver into Old Navy changing-room territory, sure, and a two-minute drum solo really does mean two minutes of drums, unaccompanied. There is a reason that, in disco’s revival, the songs tend to get dropped into club mixes fractionally. It is a genre of temporal excess, in accordance with its reigning metaphor: grooving to a groove is a lasting thing, whether it is working or not. (The reigning metaphor of modern dance music, the “banger,” is likewise telling: in it one can read the hard-hitting idiocy and the unfulfillable quest for sounds novel enough to overwhelm aesthetic judgment.) In its excess, disco has tremendous utility to the discriminating for inspiration or theft. Those drum solos were invariably “tribal”; the melodies and bass lines were the first to discover that danceability is nothing but speed; the synthesizer pioneers like Giorgio Moroder went on to invent house and techno.
Disco’s reputation for excess is perhaps an unfair one. The length of the typical disco song and the endlessness of its solos have everything to do with the genre’s close relationship to performance and the club scene; the material, meant to be played or mixed live, needs space for improvisation and editorial choice. Furthermore, the dismissal of disco as an excessive genre is closely related to the sexual and racial politics that plagued it during its prominence and abruptly killed it in 1979. (There is a precise date of death: a promotional night at a White Sox game on July 12th of that year, at which a ceremonial crate of disco records were destroyed. Those who could not buy tickets to the sold-out event broke into the stadium, and when the crate was blown up fans tossed records of their own, burned banners and charged the field. The game was canceled.) Disco was a gay, black, Hispanic, and urban genre—and, in an early proof of the moral bankruptcy of The 1960s, its enemies were the entirely white vanguard of the previous counterculture, pivoting to staunchly defend the pretensions and individualism of rock music with an offensive against disco’s collectivity, diversity, and its daring claim of a pleasure unreliant on the failed rubric of transcendence and mind-expansion.
Despite holding stated aims no higher than generating good moods and fun parties, disco was dismissed as outlandish and excessive. It is no surprise, then, that the few instances of progressive, aspirational disco are almost impossible to find. The suppressed desire is nevertheless everywhere, from the musicians’ rapid adoption of the latest technology to the common habit among disco groups of calling themselves “orchestras.”
The best example of the confluence of aspiration and self-limitation is the catalog of Rice & Beans Orchestra. Though, like many disco “orchestras,” their name is a bitingly ironic joke on their own racio-musical confinement, the collective overseen by Pepe Luis Soto had larger dreams; the group’s biggest hit was “Blue Danube Hustle,” a disco cover of the famous waltz. Only together for two years, the orchestra was unable to release recordings it had made of the biggest, weirdest idea in all of disco: an adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. Someone at the quasi-label getdisconnected.com managed to cull together the abandoned recordings in 2006, though the CD has since gone out of print. A ten-minute YouTube video is all that remains, and it is truly astonishing—incomparably dramatic, dark and exuberant, it puts every rock opera to shame. Even more brilliant than the music is the choice of subject matter; in the ten minutes that remain available, the group switches between the perspectives of Dante and the condemned, providing a tour of the realities of hedonism that, in its self-awareness, is simultaneously righteous and sympathetic. Recorded in 1978, very near the end of the disco era, the album is a nearly lost document of the resilient intelligence that somehow never escaped the discotheque to achieve lasting cultural preservation.
It would be unfair to blame disco’s failure to rise to an expressive art form entirely on the bigotry of the newly mainstream counterculture, though it was certainly responsible for containing and then eliminating the genre. To see the responsibility that lies with the community’s debilitating addictions, we can look to the short manic life of Wade Nichols, a gay porn star whose second career, under the name Dennis Parker, included two disco hits in 1979 and a role on a CBS soap opera, at least until his suicide in 1984 upon being diagnosed with AIDS.
In a vintage music video for the first of those hits, “Like An Eagle,” Parker taps his feet in a silver jumpsuit while superimposed over a night skyline of New York City. “Like an eagle, hunting nightly, I search through the city,” he sings with bold open expressions, and a mustache. The eagle is “always hungry,” the city is “a wasteland,” and during the wordless falsetto climax Parker’s face turns upward, his mouth open in desperation for what feels like forever. The sentiments in “New York By Night” are similar, but more explicit: rejected from Studio 54, the narrator heads to the “bushes in the park,” offering “your fantasy.” The city is no longer a wasteland, but a “galaxy of pleasure and pain”; the evenings of club carousal are “so chic,” while the life of sleeping on a park bench is “so cheap.” The dissatisfaction is not specific to the gay scene, either: the “women over forty, so gaudy, still they lust, it’s never enough.”
The tragedy of the late-70s party culture is well known, as the epidemic that later ravaged it has made certain, but a contemporary awareness of the consequences soon to come can sometimes be difficult to find. As we can see in the only two songs ever recorded by Dennis Parker, it wasn’t absent—just rarely expressed, and still more rarely heard. When the collective memory of disco has been reduced to that song played at an uncle’s wedding (“September,” I think?), this failure to hear is hardly surprising; and neither is the failure to express, as disco even at its height was constrained to a kind of career hedonism, in a role-imprisonment I could, with only moderate hyperbole, analogize to minstrelsy. Still, the sadness was real, as were the unmet hopes for expression and lasting contribution—real and forgotten, as the white wealthy hegemony of baby boomer self-satisfaction canonized only its own excessive pleasures.