In the 1981 Bill Murray comedy Stripes, a character ( played by Judge Reinhold) wears a t-shirt bearing a legend which summed up a particular spirit of the time: “DISCO SUCKS”.
Of course, our t-shirted friend was spectacularly wrong. He might have had a point, however, had his t-shirt proclaimed: “Certain aspects of Disco Suck, particularly its appropriation, dilution and exploitation by The Man who has no interest whatsoever in maintaining its artistic and, let it be said, joyful integrity.” But those who represented the “Disco Sucks” mindset were already struggling with the two syllables contained in the name of the genre they claimed to despise, never mind applying their mind to what they were really protesting against.
Of course, nobody was obliged to like Disco. I don’t hold the artistic talents of Ms Paris Hilton in high regard, but would find it unnecessary to communicate my protest at her lack of talent through sartorial media. The “Disco Sucks” movement (which went as far as record burnings) was not about the music.
There is little doubt that some resented Disco because the sub-culture was alien to supposed “American values”. For one thing, disco was the first musical genre that allowed homosexuals to express themselves explicitly in a mainstream arena. For another, it was dominated by lots of black people, in an age before every suburban boy was from da ’hood, yo!
Of course, Disco was not a homogenous genre. Even at its roots, it was disparate. Gay Disco, mainly Euro-based and heavy on synthethisers, was quite a different kettle of lamé flares from the harder bass-driven funk sounds of Black Disco, or the harmony & backbeat Disco for which the Sound of Philly provided the blueprint. Somehow the two cultures collided and fed of each other, to the point that Earth Wind & Fire dressed as outrageously as Sylvester.
Disco was black and and it was gay. It was quite fabulous and it was popular. So Commercial America had to lighten it, straighten it, exploit it. And thus the Kings of Disco were inaugurated: three white lads from Australia who just a few years previously were the Kings of Melancholy Ballads. Make no mistake, the Bee Gees produced some good Disco, but they were no more the “Kings of Disco” as Benny bloody Goodman ever really was the “King of Jazz” (The Man tried the same trick a decade later when he sought to crown Vanilla Ice the “King of Rap”. That time, The Man failed, and Hip Hop prospered commercially anyhow).
Who knows whether Disco would have crossed over — been dragged over — into the mainstream in such an exploitative manner as it was, had it not been for the success of the Saturday Night Fever, and the uncontrollable popularity of its (only half-decent) soundtrack. Suddenly Disco was everywhere. The muppets of Sesame Street did a Disco album, with Grover in iconic Travolta pose, of course; Ethel Merman — the natural badass queen of sweaty funk — got in on the act; and ridiculous manufactured pop acts such as Boney M came to be regarded not only as being part of the Disco movement, but as representative of it (a mistaken notion perpetuated even today by Afro-wigged revivalists. Let it be known that Boney M were not Disco!).
If Grover, Ethel and the dubbed Bobby Farrell were Disco, then one might confidently pronounce that Disco indeed Sucked. But they weren’t, and it didn’t. Just as Ethel Merman got the funk, the disco-funk scene in particular was reaching its artistic peak. While much of Disco’s varied genres were effectively killed by the Studio 54 hype, “Disco Duck” and John Travolta’s choreography by 1981, the funk sub-genre lived on and evolved. Alas not Chic, those innovators who were too closely identified with the Studio 54-type scene — ironically so, if one reads the history behind “Le Freak” (Nile Rodgers has much to say on the subject).
And all this to introduce a few early-80s disco-funk classics that survived the Death of Disco — and a bonus track of a superb mid-’80s South African dance classic, Brenda & the Big Dudes’ “Weekend Special”.
Positive Force – We Got The Funk
Skyy – Here’s To You
Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne – Spank
One Way – Push
Billy Ocean – Stay The Night
Brenda Fassie – Weekend Special