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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 story of disco becoming "mainstream" is inseparable from the struggle for gay rights in the United States. Emboldened by sixties counter-culture and reacting to literal gay bashing, homosexual business owners, journalists, and activists played a large role in gay culture's rise to pop domination.

I posit that on a "socio-psychological level" the "roleplaying and the rituals" of disco really were different from self-consciously "underground" artistic movements like noise. At the dawn of disco, homesexuals assumed artificial identities and escaped to secret spaces because they were at a real risk of losing their jobs and being severed from their families. There was even a danger of being institutionalized and subjected to shock therapy. Unlike "UK funky," disco was underground by necessity, which makes its eventual mainstream success all the more amazing.

Re: Jacob's comments, the post was actually directed at avant garde music types who think disco is shallow escapist fluff and was meant to draw out similarities rather than restate differences re: what drives individuals underground into subcultures that provide refuge and respite from mainstream or mass culture. Undergrounds can be formed by individuals who are actively discriminated against (as in the case of gay communities), or by those who are marginalised and told their activities or beliefs have no value, which tends to be the lot of anyone who identifies themselves in relation to such outwardly esoteric pursuits as Noise, Improv, etc. This latter form of exclusion may sound trite when compared to the traumas experienced by anyone who is down by law due to their race, gender or sexuality, but it can still be profound and corrosive (and when you are on the sharp end of anything, looking at it from a relativist POV is little comfort).

We should also be wary of erecting further divisions between particular areas of subcultural activity along lines of sexuality (or any other lines come to that) as they likewise conform to cliches perpetuated by mass culture, distorting their reality. Obviously, disco does not have the monopoly on non-heteronormative cultural expression. Many may be surprised to learn how many LGBT musicians and artists are at work in the realms of Noise, drones, etc, and probably UK funky too, whether openly out or working more covertly. These areas of subcultural activity are routinely attacked for being the preserves of heteronormative males, and while that particular demographic may be dominant, it is not the full story: go ask Matmos, William Basinski, Pauline Oliveros, CC Hennix, Terre Thaemlitz, the list goes on for longer than many might think.

If disco's mainstream success represents an aspect of gay pride's moment in the sun, as Jacob suggests, maybe this is queer culture's equivalent of the the dark side of the moon, a realm of jouissance and dissonance, silence, exile and cunning. I think of Drew Daniel's formulation the Soft Pink Truth as both an articulation of this space as well as a rebuttal of another formulation, ie The Dead C's Harsh 70s Reality, which helped crystalise attitudes towards disco and its derivatives in Noise, avant rock, etc, attitudes which are still in full effect: see David Keenan's assault in The Wire 335 on the disco divas of H-pop, a scene David once championed, and indeed named, as the locus for a new form of subversive dream pop in which mimesis is stripped of irony and mobilised as a form of collective memory-pull, but which he now seems to regard as one which has been colonised by ego-driven chancers. And maybe he's right.

It should also be noted that many in the disco community, such as David Mancuso, bemoaned disco's mainstream success as just another example of false consciousness, just another myth of top-down integrationist rhetoric, another example of how mass culture, in the shape of the mainstream entertainment industry, embraces subcultures, minority groups, etc only when they can be exploited as just another way of making money.

You might think that one telling difference between disco and all those other subcultures like Noise, Improv, drone, etc is that the entertainment industry is never going to come along and think they can exploit any of the latter for profit. Think again. The rise of sound art as a viable commodity on the international art market (essentially a middlebrow manifestation of the global entertainment-industrial complex) is proof that if you reify them right you can exploit for profit even the most abstruse and seemingly unstable (or unsaleable) of cultural activities, even Noise and Improv.

Hey there! Just to throw my two cents in, and sorry that this is probably pretty obvious, but part of the issue here is the operative tension between "gay" and "queer"- gay history includes oppression which marginalizes from the top down as an expression of power, and subcultures form as safe spaces in response to that experience and that structure- "queer" happens when you repudiate an ostensible mainstream and invoke a rhetoric of deliberate opposition by choice- as various historians have tracked, disco starts as a subcultural safe zone, but spreads to become embraced by a mainstream with no necessary recognition of the gay component (most flagrantly present in the mass marketing of the Village People movie)- against this backdrop, disco becomes an enigmatic, slippery reference point- when encountered at the office party, disco is part of the hegemony of pop; when it erupts as a Donna Summer loop in the midst of an Alan Licht noise performance, it's pleasure principle is irreverent and unfixable in relation to context, and hence becomes mobilized as "queer"- this is my high-falutin' way of saying that context determines where a genre falls along certain borderlines.

Tony - well, I’ve been hit with the Disco Stick many times in my ‘career’ as a writer and mostly I would say it comes over not so much as an attack on any kind of rigidity of taste and more as an attempt to puncture what is seen as a suffocating ‘seriousness’ or commitment to art-as-art that is almost flagellant in its unequivocal purity, even though my whole aesthetic is based around what I ‘enjoy’ 100%, which makes me think that most people seem to feel that digging avant rock or 60 minutes of improvised noise is the equivalent of taking some kind of vow of celibacy or watching one of them subtitled movies when you could be ‘enjoying’ some Hollywood trash a lot easier. I remember Simon Reynolds wondering if I ever masturbated over Destiny’s Child like a guilty priest whose monomaniacal commitment to suffering art resulted in this upsurge of unquenchable lust for mindless pop copulation, which says more about his own neurosis (and obsessions) than it does about anyone who actually ‘enjoys’ being challenged by great music. And it’s really not that complicated. From the moment I heard any kind of ‘wild’ music – metal or psych or punk or hip-hop – I was constantly chasing that extreme sonic high, the “guitar smashing part” of Hendrix or King Crimson that Masami Akita beautifully isolated in my interview with him in The Wire as the motivational heart of Noise’s urge-to-excess. It was all about kicks, initially, and the theorising came later. If it hadn’t have been enjoyable then I wouldn’t have dedicated my entire life to it. I despise self-flagellating fundamentalists or anyone who is bent on sacrificing their existence to a theoretical ‘point’. Of course the tendency is to try to head you off at both ends, decrying Noise music as both difficult and challenging and so obsessively radical while describing it as clichéd and obvious and working in a closed loop in terms of expectations and ‘shock value’ and so inherently conservative. Who beyond the age of 12 years old, except for some particularly challenged individuals, would care about shocking someone else? Still, I just got back in from having a beer at Brew Dog in Glasgow and I can tell you that if they had played Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor there wouldn’t have been a single ‘challenged’ mind in the house whereas if someone hadda stuck on Merzbow the story would have been very different. So Noise does retain its power to make you question old assumptions and to electrify and excite you, much more than Disco which is more immediately assimilable in terms of its narcotic appeal. Which isn’t a problem for anyone who can dig music without some kind of social criticism tagged on to assuage their guilt. To me, the real guilt here comes from middle-brow critics who are unable to just get down, whether with Hijokaidan’s amazing, euphoric, ridiculously energising noise or with sleazy Euro trash trance, instead they exist in a dreary zone of ‘intelligent’ hip-hop or indie dance, the kind of faceless drudgery that doesn’t even count as good Disco, indie middle brow takes from the likes of Kode 9 or Maria Minerva or LA Vampires or Hype Williams, cynical takes on Disco that play the old card of intimidating you because you can’t have fun but really in their most basic manifestations are funless, soul-less, vapid statements of redux whose ‘breakthroughs’ don’t even come close to the invention of mainstream hip hop or dance, the amazing studio alchemy of Southern Hip-Hop producers, the spontaneous celebratory euphorics of first wave Disco, even the invention of a comparatively decried Eurovision song contest winner like Loreen. Seriously, in what universe is LA Vampires’ cringingly parodic “Freedom 2K” a rival in terms of invention and production and style and art to Loreen’s “Euphoria”? Give me Slim Thug over Lil B any day. And who in their right mind but the most suffering pseudo-intellectual penitent would listen to contemporary 100% Silk when they could be listening to Madonna circa Vogue or even La Roux, the most obvious trashy parallel? I watch these 100% Silk videos and they feel so abjectly depressing, with lyrics about “ecstasy” and “freedom” accompanied by tragi-comic footage of half-empty clubs with awkward self-conscious indie kids half-heartedly attempting to “dance” – seriously, who would want to live in this world? Is this really the Disco alternative? God help us all. The guilt does not come from underground music fans, from Noise communities or DIY cartels, it comes from middle brow intellectuals caught between the twin poles of populism – always genuflecting towards some fantasy notion of ‘the mass’, some inchoate grouping of mindless suckers that need to be ‘saved’ by smart ass hipsters - combined with their undisguisable disgust for their soundtracking of weekend debauchery and their lack of class consciousness. The music’s lack of overt social criticism – in other words its’ existence as pure art - equals lack of artistic nous to these tepid thinkers, so they invent a dull neutered middle ground, a sexless form of Disco, or at least a Disco that masquerades as ‘questioning’ in its attitude towards sexual roles etc, which really means awkwardly pouting indie dance, the most depressing genre ever invented, where we get weedy beats and ‘empowering’ role models, which means the same kind of role models we have in the mainstream only less sexy, more compromised, less powerful and more neutered by contemporary mores. It’s hard to be inspired to break out when your role models and examples are so tied up in their own neuroses. What’s necessary for most middle brow intellectuals in order to give them permission to dig dance music is either to be so alienated from the culture that it comes from as to feel that you need an injection of it into your life in order to feel mighty real or for that music to at least pay lip-service to some kind of pseudo intellectual self-consciousness, the ultimate middle-brow proxy for actual engagement with art. That’s normally enough. In other words, we can dig Disco fine but until it can justify itself intellectually or culturally then we’re unable to listen to it in public. Of course this opens up a whole other line of discussion where genres with more of an umbilical to mainstream culture become favoured by writers that lack the basic vocabulary to write about music in terms of sonics, in terms of how it actually *sounds*, thus favouring pop music conduits like Disco and dance because they are then able to fall back on social criticism and taking the temperature of the times and similar zeitgeisty themes as opposed to actually writing about the music. Noise in its hermeticism, in its refusal of consensual modes and its opposition to mainstream values frustrates this kind of analysis. Indeed, I think the bulk of the ‘intelligent’ analysis of disco focuses – because it has to – on the cultural rather than the sonic aspect of its function and impact.

But, anyway: I think you are 100% right when you talk about certain personality types being attracted to certain genres. I touched on this in my piece on improvised guitar that had me branded as some kind of Neanderthal or fascist dictator or sexual boor for bringing up heterosexuality in The Wire, still the great taboo of left-leaning journals. I wondered what it was that made some people want to join the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and others join The Stooges. I suggested that perhaps it came down to the degree of projection of personality that they were comfortable with. I think you’re saying basically the same kind of thing.

Speaking personally, I would say that my own personality type has little or nothing to do with the aesthetics of the Noise underground as popularly understood, which is why I rub up against it so much. I love to be around beautiful women, I’m inherently sociable, I like to dress sharp and for me the dance and Disco scene is attractive on that level but my true love, musically, culturally, is freakout rock/roll, Noise and free jazz. I got no home! But I am even more wary of middle-brow dance apologists, they remind me of the kind of people who want you to be serious when you are goofing off and goofy when you are serious. It’s that same tired fall-back that so many intelligent people who should know better always bring up, the whole ‘actually Keiji Haino has a sense of humour’ argument, as if you should feel bad for championing seriousness. In this day and age I make no apology for standing on the side of artistic weight over fluff. And as much as Disco has been innovative and sonically breakthrough, certainly in its early years, the majority of it, sonically and lyrically, is fluff and it enjoys an umbilical to the mainstream and mainstream notions of ‘fun’ and ‘art’ that most underground music does not. Which isn’t a problem, but let’s not misrepresent it in the name of white heterosexual guilt.

Beside, I am suspicious of alla these theoreticians who talk it but inevitably never walk it. When I attended the Audio Poverty event in Berlin a few years back with Biba Kopf – we were both presenting talks there – we hooked up with Kode 9 and Kodwo Eshun, who I had never met before, and despite my initial openness it became rapidly apparent that I was being treated as a representative of some kind of camp that was in opposition to intellectual ‘populist’ dance music and even having fun, the dreary voice of interrogation and transgression somehow. But for all of their proselytising and their attempt to portray me as the voice of the Noise ghetto, these guys were squares, up-tight, unable to kick out the jams and get their groove on. I recall that at the ‘disco’ afterwards, as the DJs spun dub, reggae and techno sides, they all stood by the side of the dancefloor, awkwardly nursing their drinks, while I freaked on the floor with a posse of beautiful women. That, more than anything else, solidified my viewpoint about the intellectual, paralysed attitude of these critics and the degree of dislocation from their own reality. They will use Disco as a stick to beat you with but really they don’t get it themselves, they champion not Disco itself but a kind of narrative that would betray the ‘seriousness’ of the genre, insisting that fans or representatives of Noise of DIY or free music are somehow incapable of having fun, when really, the only fun deniers are the Marxist clichés who would have us believe that seriousness – authenticity, genuineness, unselfconsciousness, call it what you will – is some kind of enemy of class consciousness or revolutionary thought even as they stand on the sidelines with their t-shirts tucked into their slacks and their notebooks at the ready. There is no antagonism between Noise, DIY, free music and the original freak impulse of the early days of Disco. Disco, like Noise, like free music, like Harry Pussy or The Dead C, in its original form represented an inspired reconciliation between ‘low-brow’ body ecstasy and ‘high brow’ modernist art. 100% Silk, Maria Minerva, Kode 9, Hype Williams, Hyperdub, Hippos In Tanks etc present middle-brow dance music for frigid intellectuals, and I’m tired of their claiming Disco for their own. If you can’t shake it, or you need a clumsy manifesto in order to give you permission to, then get off the goddamn dance floor. I’m shaking it to Hasil Adkins, Donna Summer, Slim Thug, Gate, Astral Social Club, DJ Screw, Loreen, Public Enemy, Richard Youngs, Annette Peacock, The Stooges, Boney M, Milford Graves, Henry & Hazel Slaughter and Z-Ro and I don’t need no manifesto to feel good about it. You can talk about Disco all you want but it’s on the dancefloor that you make your stand. See you there? I seriously doubt it.

Thanks Jacob for highlighting the story of Disco and gay right struggle. very nice information provided by Tony also. thanks all.
- Herman Swan

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