Disco: Cerrone, Bee Gees, Gino Soccio, Village People, Diana Ross, Funkytown, Chic 1978-1980

Cerrone: An Open Letter 1978

Dear Fellow Straight White Out-Of-It Counterculturalists:

Yes, “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” and “Proud Mary” were all great, and they sure don’t make songs like those anymore. But do you really want us to be banished to parties where we can only invoke our ever-more-distant youth, shuffling increasingly middle-aged legs forever to great hits from the ’60s? Life goes on. New things happen. And some of them are good. There’s a new kind of recorded dance music out now. They call it disco.

Yes, I know. You think that it’s mindless and dehumanized. That it’s not like the good old stuff. That it’s stretched out, rehashed, or watered down. But none of this is really true. You see, it’s actually something slightly new. And now that you’ve painted yourself into such a corner about it intellectually, the only way you’re going to overcome that defensiveness and be able to appreciate it at all is with a little pop theory.

Most pop, as we all know, focuses on the singer, whatever else may be going on behind the scenes. In disco, however–particularly the kind sometimes called Eurodisco, which ebbs and swells with snatches of melody, chants, and instrumental riffs that only occasionally resemble the verses of a song– the singer is reduced to one of many important musical components.

That leaves the producer. But pop music isn’t set up to place producers center stage. So if you don’t dance or listen to disco a lot, it gets hard to get a handle on the music. With the singers minimized, there’s often no one left to identify with or hate, read about in Rolling Stone or see on the cover of People magazine.

Some producers, like Pete Bellote and Giorgio Moroder, who’ve worked with Donna Summer from the beginning, have been lucky enough to create a disco sound connected with a recognizable disco voice and disco pop star image. So when we think about Donna Summer we usually mean her producers too. Other disco producers have been content to hide in the background like their non-disco counterparts, or approximate non-disco pop by releasing records attached to names of groups that exist only in their heads and in the studios.

Which brings us to my man Cerrone, a big-cheese producer, along with former collaborators Don Ray and Alec R. Constandinos of French-style Eurodisco. Cerrone himself has used the non-group group identity at times. As Kongas, for instance, he made last year’s disco hit of Stevie Winwood’s “Gimme Some Loving.” But he was also one of the first to take the auteurist nature of the disco producer by the auteurist horns and release disco albums under his own name with his picture on the cover. Giving us at least one way out, intellectually, of the disco-is-dehumanized trap. Since we can talk about his four-record history as Cerrone just the way one would about–you guessed it– any other real live human being pop star’s history. Doing it just about like this . . .

His first record, Love in C Minor, was notable mainly for its attempts to out-orgasm Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby.” The best part of the second, Cerrone’s Paradise, was the intro in which women’s voices speculate about their chances of seducing Cerrone, an auteurist egomania so outlandish it’s self-deprecating. Making both records just okay, particularly in retrospect, since his next record, Cerrone 3, Supernature, is, in my humble why-not-go-out-on-a-limb opinion, the best disco record ever made.

“Supernature” is a monster-movie allegory about screwing up the ecology. It’s vague enough to be good pop material–the pomposity never gets too heavy–while meaty enough to move disco beyond orgasm, even beyond romance, to new vistas of speculation and even social commentary. All done with a nice hash of drums, swooshy-eerie synthesizer, and anonymous but soulful (not disco cool) singing with a bite. Side two opens with “Give Me Love,” by now a disco classic, that incorporates rock and funk moves and emotionality into the swoops of Eurodisco. Like the best disco, it swerves from cut to cut with the aid of little violin-riff build ups, and it’s propelled by a pounding, slightly syncopated, rock-influenced beat.

Bringing us finally to the current album, Cerrone IV, modestly subtitled “The Golden Touch.” An advance and a retreat.

On the first track, “Je Suis Music,” Cerrone reworks many of the ideas (and sometimes riffs) from “Give Me Love” and “Supernature” but opts for vocals cut with a new tension and anxiety, tinged with a trace of European accent. (My favorite line is “Choking on za smogs zhey made.”) The lyrics juxtapose the threat of fear and loneliness against the temporary solace of solidarity and release in music. That’s right, a disco-length defense of disco. And one that not only works as music, but makes it as ideology as well. In other words, I think it’s true. Danny and the Juniors, move over!

“Rocket in the Pocket” caps off side one with more disco theory set off by some sci-fi crowd chanting, oddball drum work, and electric guitar solos. Great. But “Look for Love’ on side two, although a jumping, don’t-give-up, keep-searching disco anthem, pales for being less quirky, original, and bold. Like Don Ray’s “Got To Have Loving,” it’s noteworthy for its post-orgam acknowledgement of alienation and affirmation of romance, but it’s not as hot as Ray’s hit. And “Music for Life”, a hummable slow finale, fails for sounding tagged on, unlike the slow spots on Cerrone 3, which flow out of and extend the theme cuts.

So there you have it, a sketchy outline of the Works of Cerrone. With this under your belt you are now free to Appreciate Disco. Go on, listen to Cerrone’s last two records. They’re as disco as disco can be, yet accessible to rock-trained eras. Trust me. Before you lies a nascent portrait of the urban landscape that’s worth studying, expressed in a sound that’s playful and expansive yet far from mindless. Besides, it’s good to dance to.

Tom Smucker, Village Voice

Those Weird Post-Disco Bee Gees

March 12, 1979

For those of us who don’t go to discos the Saturday Night Fever anthology was a much needed introduction. At the time disco records were still being boycotted by the radio, and people outside the scene weren’t quite sure how to find their way into the music.

On three sides SNF provided a pleasing mish-mash of fake disco soundtrack music and disco oldies, most of which were old hat in the dance crowd while unknown to the rest of us. And it compounded the whole thing with the string of Bee Gees hits on side one. Disco maybe, but well built, interesting, easy-to-relate-to pop for sure. By a group that the record-buying public wasn’t quite sure of, but vaguely remembered both for their Beatlesish hits in the late ’60s and for their discoish hits just prior to SNF. All of which produced a reassuring feeling of continuity with the past, while the movie anchored the music to a clarifying context. We could visualize Karen Gorney and John Travolta swirling to the music when we heard it later and thereby relieve the disorienting sense of contentlessness other disco anthologies produced on first listen.

Unfortunately, neither John Travolta nor the Bee Gees have had a movie as good as Saturday Night Fever to work off since. Although their new album, Spirits Having Flown, is a hook-filled, hummable, well-sung, well produced pop record, the marginal Bee Gees fan may find it a little thin because it has nothing comparable to Travolta’s Bay Ridge Brooklyn to evoke. In fact, it may have nothing to evoke at all, since on it the Bee Gees have abandoned the street-smart New York City persona of their reborn late-’70s hits from “Jive Talkin'” to “Stayin’ Alive.” On Spirits Having Flown there’s not even a song with Dancing in the title. The whole record is just romance.

To cap it off it doesn’t really have any disco songs on it. The prettiest, most memorable cuts are slow, romantic soul ballads reminiscent of the Stylistics or Stevie Wonder. The uptempo numbers, like the current hit “Tragedy,” resemble disco in their beat and instrumentation, but are much more compact in structure. Unlike disco–with its sensuous build-ups, teases, long breaks, and climaxes — these cuts move hard and fast from intro to verse to hook to chorus to break to verse like the pop hits they are. And so — a group who symbolizes disco music to most people has released a hit record with no true disco on it that’s selling well to almost everyone except the disco crowd.

Okay. Soundtrack for dynamic movie containing authentic but conservative dance sampler propels revitalized ’60s balladeers to forefront of public consciousness. Group then releases record that isn’t really disco. Normally all of this would make a nice conceit to hang a review of the new record on. Except.

In this case, Saturday Night Fever also happens to be the biggest-selling record in the history of the universe. And it wasn’t just a lowest-common-denominator fluke. People who didn’t usually buy Bee Gees, people who didn’t usually buy disco, people who didn’t usually buy pop, and even people who didn’t usually buy records bought this one and really enjoyed it. It was big on AM, FM, pop, rock, disco, white, black, and easy listening. It was critically defensible. And the Bee Gees followed it by throwing off a hit for Samantha Sang and then brother Andy in the same style.

This built expectations for this record unlike those for the follow-up to any other big hit in history. Because this follows up THE BIG HIT. Which was so big the Bee Gees almost got beyond comprehension. Could the group that was popular with everyone top itself?

In the current spurt of writing and publicity about the relentless wave of disco and the universal appeal of the Bee Gees, few have bothered to stop and notice that both truisms aren’t really true. And maybe this blindness is caused by the Bee Gees’ incomprehensible success. But in truth, the Bee Gees didn’t sweep the Grammy’s as expected (Billy Joel cut in), their new hit is not especially popular with disco lovers, and their new album is not really an irresistibly bouncy all-things-to-all-people miracle.

Instead it’s tight, disco and soul iinfluenced pop bordering on a nervous breakdown. It combines rigidity of arrangement and production, lyrics with no content or context, and group falsetto singing so stratospheric it’s just about to pass from boyish innocence to a whole new kind of kinkiness. This can both produce a feeling of anxiety in those who begin to worry that they’re listening to pure, tense nothing and delight those who are excited by its dazzling array of hooks, breaks, and builds.

Even the slick soul-influenced ballads betray a refinement so intense here it makes them oddly choppy, although not necessarily on first listen. The words to “Too Much Heaven,” the first hit slow song off the album, are bitten off in clipped falsetto unison, not crooned or warbled. And the themes of romance, which I said earlier evoke less than the preceding themes of street life, nightlife, and dancing, do so not because they are cliches but because the Bee Gees’ angle on romance is a peculiar and unexpected combination of distancing and drama.

Which comes very close to what they were doing at their best during their ’60s ballad era, when they would take a sentimental emotion way past excess to a breathtaking brilliance, framed in the conventions of a well-constructed song. I’ve always loved that stuff, and one positive side effect of their resurgent success has been the legitimation– if they’re so good now they must have been okay then. The unbounded paranoia of “I Started a Joke,” the impending death songs, and the heartbreak songs are all on Bee Gees Gold, a new anthology that recasts their old work more coherently by putting the very best on one record, the way Endless Summer did for the Beach Boys. What’s left out, thank goodness, are the dead ends eventually reached with this approach–the slack, laid-back countryish posturings.

That they’ve reached another dead end with Spirits Having Flown is unlikely, but they have reached something. Is it a burnout, a breakthrough, or a crackup? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, we have already learned three things. (1) The Disco Monolith isn’t as monolithic as it seems. The Bee Gees helped create it, but aren’t part of it on this record. (2) Saturday Night Fever was a happy convergence of public need, good timing, a good movie, great songwriting, and a fairly responsible anthologizing that will be very hard to repeat. Mass culture ain’t so simple, Spirits Having Flown will certainly sell–it is the follow-up. But I doubt that as many people will really tune into it. Some will buy it and ignore it, some will be annoyed by it, some will be intrigued by it, and some will hate it. But it won’t cover the waterfront like SNF. (3) The Bee Gees are not all-knowing masters of the public taste. In their mainstream sort of way they are still just as peculiar as they ever were. Too peculiar, in this case, for disco. And maybe too peculiar for you.

Tom Smucker, Village Voice

Gino Soccio’s Ameridisco High

June 25, 1979

This is the last time the following soon-to-be-considered-common-knowledge insight about disco will be offered, so please memorize or clip and save. Insight: Disco was not invented by the captains of monopoly culture so they could banish rock, soften brains, and snort cocaine at Studio 54. Fact: Disco developed its own independent network for publicity and distribution, largely through the disco club d.j.s, with no help from the large record companies and no radio play. So as the giant pop conglomerates only now climb on the bandwagon to get some of that disco dough, don’t worry about disco watering down rock, worry the other way around. Will disco’s eccentricities be pruned as music biggies drool over the sales figures of Donna Summer’s disco-rock Bad Girls? Will number one on the disco charts be enough in the era of triple platinum?

If Gino Soccio’s already halfway-to-gold disco album Outline is any indication there’s nothing to worry about–yet. Outline was the first record released on Warners’ new disco label, RFC, and “Dancer,” the first 12-inch single from it, topped the disco charts all spring. RFC got a lot of music-biz attention for being the first disco division created by one of the giants, and for bringing real disco people into the corporate fold, including its head, Ray Caviano (who modestly loaned the label his initials) and Record World columnist Vince Aletti.

If there’s a corporate touch anywhere on Outline, it’s on the jacket, which unlike most disco features neither a nearly naked woman nor a robot but a Magritish-Mondrianish bit of, you know, tasteful art. The music itself shows no signs of a corporate search for demographics. This is not crossover: not disco-rock, -pop, -soul, -jazz, or -country-folk. It’s just disco-disco, sharpened and redefined, in which Soccio, who lives and records in Montreal, removes the quasi-symphonic orchestrations from Eurodisco. As he told me in an interview, it’s the Eurodisco form with an American feel. Is that Ameridisco?

Instead of having the disco riff (da-dum da-dum da-dum-dum) and variations (da-dum da-dum da-dum-doom) played by Euroviolins, and then guitars, and then synthesizers, and so on, Soccio states, restates, and varies the riff on the bass track. And most of the tension and drama that propel the cut come from variations in the bass track–in the many layers of piano and sequencers as well as the bass itself. While a spacey Eurodisco embellishment of flutes, synthesizer shreds, and female trio chanting floats on the treble.

On close listen these riff variations are tight and devilishly clever, like a speeded-up Kraftwerk (or even Steve Reich) crammed onto the bass track. Which may be why it’s so compelling when you’re not listening closely. If you do get hooked by it, the effect is not spare or cerebral, as Outline seems to some, but very stoned, as if all that bass is pulling you down to the beat. Not like an old psychedelic spaced-out guitar-solo free-your-mind high either. This is a very low-down, very repetitive, druggy, body high. Compulsive dancing that’s also frothy. Like peak time at a disco.

Actually I wouldn’t know. We usually have to go to bed early these days and no longer dance till dawn. But I like the idea of peak time at a disco, and “Dancer” reminds me of it. I like to dance, I like the idea of dancing, and I like the idea of dance music. It’s a good, traditionally pop, communal, ecstatic metaphor for music to organize itself around. Eurodisco as a form allows play for the Beethovenish aspirations that have been around pop since Sgt. Pepper, but it undercuts the accompanying pretension, since the artistic noodling has to keep ’em on the dance floor or it ain’t disco. For a young (23-year-old) producer like Gino Soccio, disco provides a lively ready-made metaphor for communicating with his audience, and a musical form still undefined enough to be interesting to work in.

But how long will that format keep sounding new? Outline is a refinement, a work of judgment and taste, drawing back rather than expanding. It brings Eurodisco closer to soul and funk, where the best disco is coming from now. “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and James Brown’s “It’s Too Funky in Here” have more life in them than anything current from the Euromasters. Maybe Outline signals a Euro-retrenchment toward funk as funk finally stretches out and hits its disco stride. Stay tuned.

For the moment, anyway, Gino Soccio has shown that corporate disco can be disco for the disco connoisseur and sell very well as that and nothing more. The trick is to reach the clubs and then everyone else. Outline hasn’t reached everybody else–that cerebral, spare-sounding problem, I suppose. But I never get tired of listening to it. At my giddiest it makes me imagine bullshitting about shared communal values in a way I haven’t since flower power days. It crystallizes the ecstasies of the me generation so precisely it makes them transcendent, pointing toward a new model for previously promiscuous energy that’s been socially transformed.

Oops, I almost forgot. It’s only disco.

Tom Smucker, Village Voice

Disco Defense In A Socialist Context

June 6, 1979

It’s a little late to debate the merits of disco music as if it were something that we could think out of existence if we want to. Particularly in the pages of a paper like IN THESE TIMES, which expresses an interest in where the American public is at. Because disco has become one of the dominant forms of American and trans-Atlantic pop music

Nevertheless, let me list what I think are some of disco’s selling points, reasons besides its incredible popularity that should make it interesting to readers of ITT.

First: disco is the first pop music music in a long while with a multi-racial appeal. Elvis may have topped the pop, country, and black charts when he started, but that was 25 years ago. Since then there’s been borrowing between black and white music, and some crossing-over of performers from one audience to another, but the lines of racial segregation could always be drawn. Disco, however, is sung, produced, danced and listened to by whites and blacks (as well as Latins, but that’s a more complicated case).

There is, naturally, disco music that appeals more to one audience or another, and non of this signals the end of racism. But disco has created a common cultural ground for whoever wants to use it, even if just to thrown a successful dance party or disco fund-raiser for black and white friends or fellow workers– something that would have been hard with the segregated music of five years ago.

Second: disco is the first pop music with an openly gay component. It originated in the urban gay subculture and the trend-setters and taste-makers of disco continue to be gay. This doesn’t end sexual repression, but it does mean that an interesting, even encouraging space exists that includes both straight and gay.

Finally: disco, like punk rock, encourages energetic public action, unlike the music of the laid-back singer-songwriters who dominated the early and mid ’70s. For every beautiful people gossip column gold mine like Studio 54, we should keep in mind the hundreds of discos and disco parties where the rest of us escape our work-a-day lives. Whether this leads to stupor or euphoria is still an open question, but it beats nodding off in private. A culture that tries for some sort of public ecstasy, if only on a Saturday night, is at least aroused enough to respond to alienation in a group. That’s a first step.

There’s a connection, largely ignored, between the return to dance and the return to mass public demonstrations. People have energy again. No matter how tentative that connection is, one would guess that populist left-wingers would try to make it as strong as possible, the way the anti-war movement tried to connect to rock ‘n’ roll.

Yet many leftists feel free to dismiss disco as “mindless” or “watered down” or “plastic,” and leave it at that, using the same narrow minds their leftist parents used to dismiss swing music and their leftist older siblings used to dismiss rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s just pop music and there’s no reason to feel obligated to enjoy disco if you don’t. But any political person should be interest in the space and energy it creates.

Tom Smucker, In These Times

Village People In The Navy


The first Village People album had a black and white cover photo taken on a late summer night somewhere around the gay bars in west Greenwich Village. Inside on the record Victor Willis’ soul-music solos emoted over an all male chorus on songs about various gay hot spots. Disco music had come out of gay male nightlife, so why not an all-male disco group that sang about it? The whole thing felt inevitable.

What didn’t seem as inevitable was the way straight audiences, either ignoring or completely missing the gay content, picked up on “San Francisco,” the hit cut from the album. Here was a group that could appeal not just to the gay sub-culture, but to the vast straight horde as well. Jacques Morali, French creator and producer of the group, saw the possibilities and took it from there.

The next two albums, especially the two big hits, “Macho Man” and “YMCA” played the game of being gay to those who wanted to see gay and straight to those who were happier ignoring it. They also gently mocked both scenes with their over-stated fake wide-eyed innocence.

But something more than a novel appeal to two cultures was happening. Their combination of simplified Otis Redding, the Sing Along With Mitch Gang, a disco beat, and male narcissism was making them the hottest selling group in the country, as the prominent display of all their albums in any record store will prove.

Maybe, as one of the Village People suggested in Rolling Stone, they gained this popularity because they gave disco a face at a time when the music was intriguing Mid-America but disorienting in its anonymity. Disco had and has few recognizable media stars.

Maybe they reveal a new similarity developing between straight and gay, a sharing of the same male beauty standards. Stephen Holden argues in a recent Village Voice that they signal a new interest by straight males in their own sexual appeal, making them more like gays. A scared-of-women-male-buddy tradition exists in America, with repressed homosexuality that’s the source of much anti-gay and anti-women energy in straight men. Is it finally falling apart? Or just being reworked?

Some gay men see the Village People as a rip-off. They never identify themselves as gay anymore and appear content (on the Merv Griffin show, for instance) to be taken for straight. And it’s easier to see how a woman dancing to “Macho Man” in a straight disco where the straight men aren’t in on the joke might find it less than pleasant. But it’s hard to resist, or at least not stand in awe of their absurdly exhilarating pop exploitations. Who would have dreamed, ten years ago, that we would be dancing to what sounds like the chorus from South Pacific singing about “ups and downs” (the pills) or chanting “body, body, feel my body”?

Actually, on their new album Go West their real problem is not in ripping anybody off, but in becoming what much of their straight audience imagines them to be–and nothing more.

“In the Navy,” the new hit single, like “YMCA” uses a straight institution with special meaning for gays. But the Navy doesn’t lend itself to naivete as well as the YMCA did. No one’s sung this chirpily about the Navy in 30 years. Furthermore, the gay double meanings have all but disappeared–there’s little subculture implied in these lyrics–and what’s left sounds closer to a march than to disco. The beat remains, but there’s none of disco’s ebbs, build-ups, or propulsion. It isn’t good to dance to.

In just two years, have the Village People moved all the way from the gay bars of Greenwich Village to a patriotic pop mainstream even John Wayne can’t find anymore? Maybe. But it’s still hard not to laugh at how far they dare to go in their happy simplifications. And it’s hard not to hope they’ll find something new to mine or undermine in our tradition of he-man song. Who knows, maybe their next album will contain a disco version of the Red Army Chorus sings Meadowland.

Tom Smucker, In These Times

Funkytown: not all subcultures are created equal


As I write, ” Funkytown,” by Lipps, Inc., a song that can only be described as disco, has topped the charts for the last month. The only concession to what’s supposed to be current post-disco rock-revival pop music taste is the absence of romantic or pretty orchestral coloration. Otherwise it’s a classic: anonymous but soulful black singing of simple, chant-like vocals; funk with a glossy surface; r&b riff variations rather than strong verse-chorus-verse-chorus melody; an unpredictable one-man concoction from, of all places, Minneapolis, that broke first in the disco clubs (yes, they still exist) and hit much later on the radio and in record stores catering to non-disco fans.

But didn’t disco die? Didn’t it collapse like the house of cards it always was a year ago, after threatening to overwhelm good old rock and roll? Not quite. Actually, disco was pronounced dead when it failed to deliver on the awesome potential of the Bee Gees-dominated soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, the best-selling record ever, and when the all-disco radio stations that sprung up in belated recognition of disco’s popularity began mixing in other music when their ratings started to slip. In other words, due to a couple of breaks in timing, the disco audience was mistaken for being larger than it was, and was then pronounced non-existent. But it’s still there.

It was also mistaken for being easier to manipulate than was true. But with its lack of certifiable stars and with its quirky tastes, disco doesn’t lend itself easily to initial investment and then long-term dividends. There’s simply no disco Paul McCartney who you can pay a zillion dollars to sign with your label and then make a million dollars a month off of forever.

And so we have disco, a sub-culture once more, sputtering along without much recognition, widely influential, (look at the success of recent disco-influenced albums by Michael Jackson, Kool and the Gang, and Diana Ross, or Blondie’s disco-influenced single “Call Me”), but largely ignored.

Just the sort of unjust situation that would attract the sympathy of leftists, particularly IN THESE TIMES readers, who will pick an ignored folk singer, blues legend or jazz genius over a pop success any day. So what about all those obscure disco hits recorded far from the seats of power that aren’t getting the recognition they deserve? What about all the unsung Funkytowns?

I’m not holding my breath. Leftists prefer their blacks to be old, poor, and rural. Slick urbanized black music that speaks to any experience more recent that the ’50s (Chicago Blues) or ’60s (Motown) is best ignored, at least until it’s old enough to lie safely in the past. Remember when electric blues and then the Supremes were considered corrupt by leftist purists? And gays — they’re best dealt with when they’re lesbian-feminist separatists singing folk songs, because that’s a political concept. While music that reflects the potentially explosive drive for liberation and turn toward complacent gentrification is best ignored. Even if it reflects a social reality.

Part of the left’s problem with mass culture is due, oddly to its good fortune. One pop culture giant–as influencial in the long run, I believe, as Chuck Berry or the Beatles–was Woody Guthrie, who worked in the idiom of folk music. So the left has the most experience with this style. As the left shrank in the ’50s, another genius, Pete Seeger, helped fashion this music into an oppositional culture, ready for the taking when the ’60s began. And so banjos are folk music. Synthesizers are not.

But what about those folk who dance to synthesizers and not banjos? Here’s a more disturbing question: Is it possible that the minority left in this country attracts people who like participating in a minority sub-culture? And for all the talk in IN THESE TIMES and elsewhere about different organizational and ideological strategies for breaking out of isolation, is there a cultural pull on the left towards isolation? Do leftists secretly fear mass acceptance the way sub-cult beatniks of the ’50s preferred that to the mass bohemianism of the ’60s?

I’m a big fan, and have raved in print to prove it, of Seeger, both Guthries, blues, gospel, and punk. But I wonder. Why does a music that articulates, no matter how unclearly, the yearning for upward mobility and good times, and frequently expresses a lack of faith in political change while embodying change in its racial and sexual mix–why does this music draw so much fire from the left? Could it be because it too successfully embodies in its contradictions what’s Out There, or even hidden Somewhere Inside Us?

Tom Smucker, In These Times

Diana Ross: Post-Disco Disco

July 12, 1980

Among the pop talents that surfaced during disco’s heyday to make the transition into the post-disco era, there are none more interesting than Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the masterminds behind Chic and Sister Sledge, and the writers and producers of Diana Ross’s latest album, Diana.

That Diana has been red-hot on the dance floors and record charts since its release is not a surprise. It’s a summit meeting of two generations of cool black urban pop. As diana album coverthe lead singer of the Supremes, Ross epitomized the upscale funkiness of Motown in the 1960s, and Chic has done the same for disco. Actually disco is, in some ways, nothing more than the 1970s transmutation of Motown. While Ross, after leaving the Supremes, wandered through mainstream Las Vegas show-biz success and glamour, disco was busily reworking those same glitzy elements back into a more accessible, less ponderous and livelier format. As is often the case with pop culture careers, Wanting to Make It and Making It generate excitement, but Having Made It is dull. Success is a thrill, but Established Wealth is resented. A restrained production like Diana is consequently a smart career move by Ross, and the ultimate recognition for Rodgers and Edwards.

There’s one nagging problem about matching Diana and Disco. Disco generally, and the Rodgers-Edwards sound in particular, are more anonymous vocally than classic Motown. Groups like the Supremes were restrained–Motown wasn’t Memphis soul music or Chicago blues after all, it was pop –but it had identifiable voices and projected defined personas. Rodgers and Edwards have a sound all right–in fact all their songs sound alike (in a good way)–but Chic’s vocals are light staccato chants, and if there’s any personality, it’s one that’s cautious about imposing itself on the outside world.

From her earliest days as a kittenish sex object, Ross has been restrained too, but she’s still more rooted in a gospel-influenced style than Chic. So her own gifts were better served on her last album, The Boss, by old Motown stablemates Ashford and Simpson. Yet Diana is the better album. Why? Partly it’s because restraint is just what the pop doctor orders for pop personalities who are beginning to be spread too thinly across the front pages of mass culture. Partly it’s because restraint implies a reassuring post-nouveau-riche self-discipline for Ross as a female sex object. But it’s also because Rodgers and Edwards still churn out fresh, interesting songs no matter howmany projects they work on.

This is music that sounds superficial until you listen to it closely and find out it’s saying something, a welcome change from the art rock of the early 1970s, which appeared to be saying something until you listened closely and found out it was superficial. It’s also music that sounds incomplete, until you listen again and find its restraint adds tension (it is great dance music after all).

Because restraint is so central to the Rodgers-Edwards sound, I prefer their work with the more anonymous Chic, or the renovations they sometimes perform on more obscure acts, like their current single, “Spacer,” for Sheila and B. Devotion, a second-string European disco group. Diana Ross is an icon with a lot of cultural baggage, but I doubt that one percent of The Nation’s readers are even aware of Sheila and B. Devotion. In a pop form often burdened by its past and its symbols and superstars, it’s an interesting artistic ploy to bestow great material on essentially anonymous groups, or to create an essentially anonymous group–Chic–yourself.

It’s also a sign of the times. Restraint and caution, let alone lowered expectations, are the order of the day, and if there’s any chance for fulfillment, it lies, in the Rodgers-Edwards world view, in the chance for upward mobility and enjoyable leisure time. But it would be a mistake to think of this as mindless stuff–the message is delivered with too much charm and irony. “We want the best. We won’t settle for less” sings Chic about a night on the town; at another point they aspire to “reach for a star, or maybe shoot ten under par” but then give it up for dancing. “Have fun again, just like little children,” sings Diana Ross, and in the context of a Carter-Reagan Presidential race, who can argue? This is resigned hedonism.

Such are the pleasures of great pop music, where skill and craft mix successfully with the public mood to make a flood of music that sounds like it couldn’t exist in any other time or place, where lyrics jumble the trivial with the insightful and make you laugh out loud, where what sounds at first like background music ends up being irresistible, reassuring and disturbing.

Tom Smucker, The Nation

Indeed, the magazine got at least one letter from a subscriber complaining about wasting space on a review of a disco record, when there was so much good rock ‘n’ roll out there.

© 2009 Tom Smucker