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Going underground (Disco re-edit)

Tony Herrington

The Loft staff Thanksgiving party, 1979. Photo: Don Lynn

A number of disco revivals around at the moment – a four CD box set of Tom Moulton's remixes of tracks issued in the early-mid-70s by Philadelphia International; four new volumes in the Disco Discharge archive series; a ruffneck mix of vintage disco obscurities posted online by Chicago Footwork producer du jour Traxman – all serving to remind us that the more the world sinks into the mire of capitalist folly the more prominent disco becomes. As the breathless press release accompanying those Disco Discharge releases puts it: "The new installment couldn't have come at a better time as history repeats itself, when the going gets tough, disco gets going!"

But buried in that sentiment is the main reason disco is still derided by so many so-called serious music types. When the going gets tough, disco gets going – yes, but in the wrong direction. The wisdom (if we can call it that) on disco that prevails in multiple subcultural nooks and crannies from Noise to alt.rock to Improv is that it is suffocating escapist froth, a retreat from the frontline of the Real into a dressed up, dumbed down, perpetual denial state of corny, showbizzy razzle-dazzle, all flaunt and flirt, oblivious to everything other than the solipsistic desire to go bang with all your friends at once, night in, night out. (Is it necessary to point out that such judgments rarely seem based on close encounters with disco's actual milieu, let alone a close analysis of the actual music, which in its original state melted a complex of Afro rhythms – Bronx salsa, gospel and R&B, samba and Afrobeat – into a mix that was insouciant enough to suck up Broadway showtunes, Hollywood musicals, early synth experiments, jazz, minimalism and exotica? But then disco is the ultimate example of a genre whose complex reality and backstory has been obscured by its subsequent global commodity status, as the music that taste forgot, the sound that sucks.)

But as those revisionist disco historians Peter Shapiro and Tim Lawrence have already demonstrated, disco's detractors should consider a couple of other angles on its supposedly head-in-the-stars refusal to grapple with the issues, its decadent insistence on fun and frivolity in the face of all the urgent evidence to the contrary (and is it necessary to reiterate the WASP-ish dimension to so much anti-disco rhetoric?)

For instance, rather than 'speaking truth to power' in the nominally engaged manner of protest songs of all stripes (rock, folk, R&B) – songs whose visceral platitudes and patinas seduced their audiences into thinking they were right there on the barricades, fed their sense of moral superiority in the taxonomy of cultural consumers – what if in its original incarnation, disco's inclusive dancing-in-the-ruins vibe actively turned its back to the cynical machinations of prevailing elites and hierarchies? Consider the climate and conditions in which disco emerged, which is to say the dog days of the early 70s in the necropolis of Manhattan, when America was freezing in the chill winds of global economic meltdown and rampant political conservatism, and the pitiless systemic response to Vietnam protests, civil rights and the rise of identity politics. Now consider the possibility that, instead of knuckling under to this harsh 70s reality, disco proudly and defiantly resisted it by having the nous and the nerve to walk away, disappearing into a polymorphously perverse autonomous zone where none of it mattered, and where divisions of class, race, gender and sexuality were allowed to dissolve in a cavalcade of esoteric rituals that suspended time for as long as the night allowed.

Many of disco's pioneers (New York DJs-cum-club runners such as David Mancuso and Francis Grasso) had come of age during long strange trips through the 60s counterculture, and in quasi-legal private-public spaces like The Church and The Loft the prone hippie credo of turning on, tuning in and dropping out took on a whole other meaning, transmuted for harder times into a more complex mantra of silence, exile and cunning. In these and other out of the way places at the centre of it all, disco revolted in style by creating a series of occult enclaves where the young and the damned, the bad and the beautiful, the perverse and the perverted could congregate in mutually assured communion, away from workaday existence and the (hetero)normative scheme of things with all its persecutions and privations. What disco's detractors perceived as reckless hedonism, its initiates (and let's not forget who those early denizens of the disco night actually were: blacks, Latins, gays, women; the socially marginalised and maligned) understood to be a far more subversive process of self-determination and community solidarity.

The clothes and the drugs, the roleplaying and the rituals may appear poles apart, but really, when you get right down to it, is what was happening at a socio-psychological level at the dawn of disco any different to what now occurs in those subcultural scenes which emerged partly in opposition to everything that disco apparently promoted (irony rather than authenticity, the anonymity and mutability of the DJ mix rather than the fixed co-ordinates of authorial identity, music used and abused as instant hit and disposable commodity)? The rhetoric that surrounds supposedly uncompromising avant garde scenes such as Noise, Improv, DIY makes claims for them that weirdly echo the imperatives that gave rise to disco: a revolt against deleterious systems – social, cultural and political – which took the form of a retreat underground and the creation of new ways of being based on new sets of shared values. Whether you choose to frequent loft parties or basement jamz or Improv workshops has everything to do with where you as an individual feel warm and secure, cocooned by likeminds and familiar faces, free to go bang with all your friends at once, night in, night out. The differences can be measured in degrees, are mere semantics, surface details.

Undergrounds are formed out of necessity by individuals and communities that have historically been on the wrong end of economic and cultural isolation, fear and loathing, cynicism and ignorance, snide jokes and sneering asides – the deviants, the aberrations, the exiles, the dispossessed. As David Mancuso told Tim Lawrence in Love Saves The Day: "The underground was where it was safe. It was where you wanted to be." He's referring to the milieu of the lofts and warehouses of disco's first blush, but he might as well be talking from the perspective of the occupants of the basements and backrooms of contemporary Noise and Improv: the underground, and underground status, as an end in itself; not an interim step to aboveground integration, but a defence mechanism against it (as if integration was ever possible on anything other than their terms). Aboveground is mendacious, censorious. Of course it is where you have to return, and you negotiate its treacherous terrain as best you can, like a fugitive, ducking into doorways and shadows, lurking in cracks and crevices, detouring down back streets, keeping your head down, hiding away in the cold light of day. But it's the last place on earth you want to be, and you remove yourself from it at every opportunity, night in, night out.

Disco fermented far underground, but through a number of insidious processes became the embodiment of everything that, in the eyes of other subterranean enclaves, was abhorrent about what happened aboveground. But this was merely another example of the process in which countercultures are co-opted by capital and distorted into grotesque parodies denuded of their original vernacular power to suspend one reality and replace it with another (disco is no more, no less an escape from reality than, say, Noise; instead, both are the endorsement, the validation of anOther). Punk becomes New Wave, Metal becomes AOR, revolutionary gestures become stadium grandstanding, the disco mix becomes cheesy opportunistic chart pop. And what remains of the underground responds by burrowing deeper, until its vibrations are barely discernible on the surface.

Essentially (as in: this is their true essence), undergrounds such as Noise, Improv and DIY, or Bassline and UK funky (or whatever they are calling the latest troglodyte modifications of disco DNA this week) all serve the same purpose, providing a psychic and physical refuge for those looking for other modes of existence, a context in which to intensify marginal ideas and esoteric experience, ones that might carry them up and above and beyond all the bright lies and dull routines, the banal facts of a world on the brink, if only for a night.

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The Bob Medley

Tony Herrington

Following its reissues of Robert Wyatt’s UK solo albums, the Domino label is about to release His Greatest Misses, a 2004 Japan-only compilation. If you're looking for a one-stop comp that distills Wyatt’s unique essence, this is it, right down to the sleeve art, which reproduces a number of cute crayon drawings by the six year old Robert. It pulls key tracks from all the solo records from Rock Bottom (1974) to Cuckoo Land (2003), plus it contains a number of Wyatt’s inspired cover versions, including "At Last I Am Free", originally written by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers for Chic's 1978 C'est Chic album.

In his glittering history of disco, Turn The Beat Around (Faber And Faber, 2005), Peter Shapiro devotes a whole chapter to illuminating the ambiguous emotional and socio-political currents that run beneath the sophisticated, aspirational vibe that describes the sleek surface of Chic's music, that make Chic into a much more complex proposition than you might at first think, something more than just amazing grooves, irresistible hooks and inspired arrangements, as if we needed pop to give us anything more than that.

Running for more than seven minutes, "At Last I Am Free" is an extended modern R&B; ballad, an epic metropolitan soul mantra (Chic could write those as easily as they could knock off devastating disco grooves), played at “a crawling tempo”, as Peter describes it, with the Chic singers, Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin, “sounding alternately like zombies and angels”.

What a strange song for Wyatt to cover, you might think.

I like cover versions that subvert or detourn the originals in some way (as in the kind of covers discussed in The Wire's Remake Remodel feature in issue 261), but Wyatt's version is a bit different, a cover that plays it more or less straight, but which ratchets up the complexity of pop in rare and precious ways, not least of which is that it's a cover by a musician who was supposedly the ultimate in gritty, engaged political art of a song by a group that was supposedly the ultimate in vacuous escapist pop. But as Peter's book tells us, Chic were far more than that, and Wyatt has always been a musician willing to ride roughshod over the knee jerk expectations and prejudices of his audience and the media.

A very bitter wind blows through the song. The chorus couplet haunts me: "At last I am free/I can hardly see in front of me." The lyric sounds like it is describing a particularly devastating break up narrative, but it's also hard not to hear it as a comment on the failure of Amerikkka to deliver on the promises it made during the heyday of the civil rights movement. That's one reason Wyatt covered it, I guess, as a statement of political solidarity. The other reason he covered it would be rather more prosaic, I suspect: Wyatt knows a great pop song when he hears one, and this is up there with the best of them. The combination of the melody line and the chord sequence beneath make it into a classic heartbreaker of a tune, but combine those qualities with the complex of emotions encoded in that couplet in the chorus and you have an example of a pop song that digs deep to access some kind of existential truth about the unbearable sadness of the human condition.

No shit.

I actually prefer Wyatt’s version to Chic's. It replaces the lush orchestration of the original with a very minimal arrangement that exposes the stark sentiments in the lyric more effectively. In place of the undead or ethereal spirits, Wyatt sounds more like an inspired pub crooner, bringing tears to the eyes of the denizens of the snug, as he warbles with heartbreaking sincerity thru a glass bottom phut cig (as Mark E Smith, another great snug (non-)singer-philosopher made good, once put it).

The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser has also covered the song. But I don't like her version much: the arrangement is too sugary-sweet and over-produced (like most Cocteau Twins tracks) and Fraser's performance tries too hard to ring every last drop of tragic emotion from the song. I'm guessing I might be out of step with the zeitgeist here, as we are slap bang in the middle of another 80s revival (cf minimal wave, chillwave, glo-fi, and so on and so forth: seriously, I've not heard this many new tracks using that blissed out chorus effect on the vocals since PM Dawn), but for me her version is too arch and knowing and too calculated to affect. It reminds me of something John Cage once said, when someone asked him why he didn't like to be moved, emotionally, by music. I don't mind being moved by music, Cage quipped, I just don't like to be pushed.

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