Disco is music for the disillusioned. It isn’t art: no auteurs in disco, just calculated dessicating machines. It isn’t folk: no disco subcultures, no disco kids seething with symbolic expression It isn’t even much fun: no jokes, no irony, only a hard rhythmed purposefulness. Disco is the sound of consumption. It exists only in its dancing function: when the music stops all that’s left is a pool of sweat on the floor. And disco’s power is the power of consumption.
The critics are right: disco is dehumanising – all those twitching limbs, glazed-eyed, mindless. The disco aesthetic excludes feeling, it offers a glimpse of a harsh sci-fi future. ‘What’s your name, what’s your number?’ sings Andrea True in my current favourite single, and it’s not his telephone number she wants, but his position in the disco order of things. The problem of pogoing, I’ve found, is not that it’s too energetic for anyone over 30 years and 11 stone, but that it requires too much thought.
Popular music has always been dance music; disco is nothing but dance music. It has no rock’n’roll connotations; off the dance floor it is utterly meaningless, lyrically, musically and aesthetically. Every disco sound is subordinate to its physical function; disco progress is technological progress. The end doesn’t change but the means to that end, the ultimate beat, are refined and improved – hence drum machines, synthesisers, 12″ pressings. And disco is dance music in the abstract, content determined by form. Popular dance music of the past, in the 1930s say, was a form determined by its content.
The content was developed by dance hall instructors and sheet music salesmen and band leaders whose rules of partnership, decorum, uplift and grace, can still be followed in ‘Come Dancing’: the music is strictly subordinate to the conventions of flounce and simper. In contrast, when Boney M, German manufactured black American androgynes, sing for our dancing pleasure, ‘Belfast’, it means nothing at all. Any two syllables arranged and sounding just so would do and how we dance to them is, of course, entirely our own affair. There are no rules in disco, it’s just that individual expression means nothing when there’s nothing individual to express. I trace disco back to the twist, the first dance gimmick to be taken seriously and the first dance step to be without any redeeming social feature. I blame disco on Motown, the first company to realise that if the beat is right, soul power can be expressed without either the passion or emotion that made it soul power in the first place.
Disco is nothing like muzak. Muzak’s effect is subliminal; its purpose is to encourage its hearers to do anything but listen to it. Disco’s effect is material; its purpose is to encourage its hearers to do nothing but listen to it. Not even think.
Disco music is only disco music in discos. These days there are CP discos, women’s discos, anti-fascist discos, students’ discos, youth club discos, cricketers’ discos, punk discos and reggae discos. The disco form can be used by anyone who’s got a record player, records and a large enough room. But a proper disco exists only to be a disco and the records it plays exist only to be played by it. The Musicians’ Union hates discos because they put live musicians out of work.
I hate discos because they seem like such a soft way of making money: a DJ doesn’t do anything except buy records and put the needle on them – I can do that too. The whole enterprise is parasitic: if there is such a thing as disco creativity it happened in secret studio places long before. The best discos are the best just to the extent to which nothing unexpected happens – feet never falter, taste is never threatened, offence is never taken because never given. If you want a surprise don’t go to the disco.
Clubs with records as their only means of entertainment came to Britain from the continent in the early ‘60s. Before then DJs and records had been used in ballrooms (cf the pioneering career of Jimmy Savile) but not as alternatives to live music and, initially, discos simply served two sorts of incrowd: rock aristocrats seeking social exclusion and soul freaks seeking musical exclusion (as they still do in the Northern Soul clubs). The main British disco development occurred in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s as live rock became increasingly undanceable, expensive and in the wrong places (colleges and concert halls). British disco went teenage pop and, in a commercial sense, it mostly still is.
The style of consumption involved is working class provincial. Bouncers, louts, uneasy sexual posturing; dance hall culture really, but cooler and smarter than in the ‘50s, and with flashing lights and much better music. Women do most of the dancing, men most of the drinking, and none of them take disco as seriously as, perhaps, they ought. Because meanwhile in America discos are the setting for adult chic consumption, part of the culture of singles rather than of teenage courtship, anonymously safe places for elaborate displays of apathy. Can’t imagine drunks in Manhattan’s spruce discos, bumping buttocks with Susan Sontag and Lennie Bernstein.
The European connection is that discos in Paris are more like they are in New York than they are like they are in Nottingham. And French and Italian teenagers are, anyway, chic-er than Britons of any age. But the most wonderful Euro-discos of all are the ones in the holiday belts – Costa Brava, Riviera, Costa del Sol. Cellars which are open permanently in the summer months and in which earnest Northerners – Dutch, British, Swedes, Germans, develop their own singles culture, their own disco style. I can only explain it by noting that they dance to Donna Summer in their sandals. Ah disco! Ah Baccara!
As a rock writer, I’ve always been a frustrated DJ rather than musician. ‘Hey you,’ I’ve wanted to shout, ‘Listen to this!’ The model was John Peel, music lover and eclectic. I certainly didn’t fancy the provincial disco DJs I knew – big, hearty philistines who knew nothing about the records they played but enjoyed the patter and had dreams, like Albert Finney in ‘Gumshoe’, of moving from master of ceremonies to master of a comic routine. But this was a doomed approach anyway, survival from dance hall days. Real disco DJs aren’t entertainers at all, have nothing to with music. They’re technologists, men (very few women) of the future: their job is to play the audience. It’s a job I want again. By 1984 it’ll probably be called ‘consumption-coordinator’.
Discos are where people dance and dancing can be anything from the shuffle to a pre-rehearsed and elaborate routine to a straight display of cartwheels. What disco dancing isn’t is a) musical interpretation and b) self-expression. The opposite of disco dancing is what Legs and Co. do on ‘Top of the Pops’ – ie choreographed responses to the ‘meaning’ of a song.
What they do is so embarrassing that I usually turn the picture off, but I turn it back again for the rest of the show because, at an admittedly low level, it does reveal the difference between the Anglo-Collective disco style – all those dumpy little boys and girls looking nervously at each other – and the American-Individual style (on the clips from ‘Soul Train’) – all those intense boys and girls looking determinedly at their own feet. Most disco dancing has little to do with elegance, grace or agility, which is OK by me because if it did I wouldn’t do it.
Rock music, dance music, has always been a form of sexual expression – girl meets boy physically. The social problem has then been the control of this expression – hence the moral about rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis’s hips etc. Disco’s greatest achievement has been to develop a form in which sexuality is expressed and controlled simultaneously. Critics have missed the point of the standard formula – machinery plus orgasmic sighs.
The problem is not that the sighs are fake, but that it wouldn’t make any difference if they were real! Disco isn’t a frustrating music – preventing the climax from occurring – but a music of control – preventing the climax from being disruptive. It’s a noisy form of some Eastern mystical discipline and the only puzzle to me is why disco is so important an aspect of gay culture. I’m not gay, so I can’t say, except that it seems as if disco stylisation allows gays public displays that are sexual without apparently being offensive to the usual custodians of public morality.
The only thing to say about disco music as music is that it has given extraordinary opportunities to pop’s previously second class citizens – its session singers, engineers, Bee Gees. The technicians, in other words, who always could produce any sound to order but used not to know what to do with them. They know now.
Previous popular music has only reflected the world, in various ways; the point of disco, however is to replace it. •
© Simon Frith, 1978