by Mike Derrico
In mid-December 1976, a long series of repeated days of below-zero temperatures caused Lake Erie to freeze over. That month into January, 1977 saw record snowfall…60.7 inches in December, and 68.3 in January. There was no thaw-freeze pattern that would cause the snow to harden, so it remained as a mountain of white powder sitting on top of an existing snowpack. They saw something coming the night before. It was a Thursday, and the National Weather Service issued a storm warning for Friday morning. Little did they know something much larger, unprecedented, and freakish had already been brewing for over a month.
At 9am on Friday, January 28, a blizzard warning was issued. By 11:30 am, when it started, it was already too late. The blizzard itself only dumped 12 inches. Nothing really, considering the insane amounts of snow the Northeast has often gotten throughout history. But Lake Erie is fucking huge. And it was the sustained 70-mph winds that took all of that pre-existing snow sitting on top of it, and blew it it in the direction of Western New York and Southern Ontario for 13 straight hours…a massive white wall of powdery snow moving east at 70-mph like an endless ghostly sheet, creating total whiteout conditions, crippling the region completely, and burying the city of Buffalo and most surrounding areas. Needless to say, the New York Thruway was shut down midday. Roads were impassible. Cars were stuck for the duration. Eventually, they ran out of gas. People froze. People died, and it became the second biggest snowstorm in recorded history.
We didn’t get pounded in New Jersey, but I remember the weather being particularly shitty that weekend. I don’t remember every detail. I was only six years old. But the passage of time is wondrous in that it turns your memory into fragments of a jigsaw puzzle. Still images. They’re like snapshots that don’t always fit together, but remind you just enough to let you know you were there. I remember sleeping over at my aunt and uncle’s house. I remember sitting in the booth of a Polynesian restaurant. I remember seeing the violent and gory shootout at the end of Operation: Daybreak on television. And I remember seeing an advertisement for the upcoming Kiss concert at Madison Square Garden. I had recently just gotten into Kiss, much to the horror of my parents and every other adult in my life. They were three years into their career as recording artists, and they were about to play the Garden for the very first time. Fragmented…still-framed 77 is, as far as my memory goes. That was 1977.
In a few more months, Star Wars would be the biggest movie on the planet, a phenomenon unlike anything seen before in the history of cinema. By the end of the year, another phenomenon of a different kind, Saturday Night Fever, would spill heavily into 1978 while feeding the myth of 1977 that’s been annoying the hell out of me for years like the massive pain in the ass that it is. This myth of 1977 being the year disco broke. The year punk broke. When we say break, we mean mainstream craze…the mass introduction of something to the mainstream that’s been going on for a very long time already. It frequently means a new overexposure and bastardization. And very often it means the end of something while it marks the beginning for a lot more people than the cool people like you and me.
When you put together a rock and roll podcast and you claim that despite the insanity that often looms over your subject matter, that your discussions are serious and intelligent in nature. And sometimes it helps to find guests who can actually help you get there. When I knew we were doing a disco episode on the Rock Under Fire podcast, one of a series of pop cultural studies related mostly to anniversaries of 1967 and 1977 that we’ve done all summer, I envisioned our cast, Pat Ivanitski, Stick Nixon, and yours truly, sitting around and reminiscing on the 70s. I thought about reaching out to Steve Dahl, the guy who blew up all those disco records at Comiskey Park, but I didn’t want to go that angle and sensationalize the subject. I did reach out to Giorgio Moroder, but his publicist told me that Giorgio wasn’t doing press, and that she would “circle back when he is.” This pretty much means whenever he is doing something creatively and gets to talk about it. But I didn’t have any interest in talking to Giorgio Moroder about Giorgio Moroder. I realized that I didn’t want to interview him about him. I thought it might be cool to have his voice and views on disco as an historical entity and its long-term influence. And as I was cross-referencing through four or five books while I prepped for these summer shows that we had planned, I realized that Alice Echols was the one I wanted to talk to. It was her book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture that spoke to me in my own language…one of history, chronology, and one of a timeline that cuts across pop culture with a sense of how and why things happen. I tracked down Alice out near the desert. They have e-mail out there, and they have cell phones, which made it very easy to communicate as we put this together. She initially expressed some concern about the use of cell phones, as I always do, but I assured her that we’d sound awesome. Rock Under Fire is a low-budget podcast, but we do sound awesome. Except of course for those nasty S’s and P’s that Pat and I kill our listeners with. With nothing but low-budget technology at my fingertips, we could always use a de-esser and some P screens, but for now, we make do with some compression and a low pass filter here and there.
Alice Echols is professor of history and the Barbara Streisand Chair of Contemporary Gender Studies at USC, as well as the author of four other books including Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, Shaky Ground: The Sixties and Its Aftershocks, Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times and Janis Joplin, and her upcoming new release, Shortfall: Family Secrets, Financial Collapse, and a Hidden History of American Banking, due out in October 2017.
We hit disco left and right, and top to bottom in our discussion. My initial aim was to approach disco from the viewpoint of rock fans, but I realized that I loved the music so much, that I didn’t have to take that angle. Alice and I found that we are both steeped in the history of rock and roll, although Alice’s roots and knowledge of disco, R&B, and soul music leave me floored. Neither of us adhere to a rock-centric view of disco, and we preferred to cut across and assess it as an historical period…one of great influence and impact on pop culture that Is still no doubt being felt today, and not just a rude interruption of rock and roll during an era made up of two opposing forces of popular music.
MIKE DERRICO: First off, I’m glad I got you for this because your book encapsulates the era (disco) very nicely. You’ve explored the era extensively with that scholarly approach which is so important when you’re examining anything that lends itself to furthering our knowledge and understanding of something. So I needed you to be my go-to person for this, so thanks for taking the time.
ALICE ECHOLS: Absolutely, I’m happy to be here, Mike.
MD: And we’re talking about disco, and to get right into it…it’s something that was considered…I guess it was in your book, where it was either your quote or you quoting someone, but it was considered “mindless and repetitive and formulaic and banal”… yet it was a hotbed of social change. In many ways it informed pop culture for the rest of the decade. What was it about disco? What were the main components that made that initial impact enough to be the bedrock of an entire subculture and then eventually consume all of pop culture within a decade?
AE: (laughs) It in fact does consume all of pop culture briefly. And then of course it’s pretty much killed off. But it’s a fascinating story. One of the reasons…I mean I had several reasons for wanting to call the book HOT STUFF. Obviously there was a song called “Hot Stuff” that was cut by the Rolling Stones. And then a few years later, Donna Summer put out a very different song called “Hot Stuff.” So in some sense, that was what I was playing with. But I was also trying to give a sense of the fact that disco was itself, hot. That there was a hotness around disco. And I’d locate that hotness in a few areas, and I focus on those areas. One of them is really the way in which disco in so many ways upended the kind of racial rules and gender and sexual conventions that typified America. Disco really does, I think, broaden the contours of what was understood to be blackness, femininity…also, this is what I really focus on in the book is male homosexuality. And so, those three areas are the ones that I really spend a great deal of time on. When you’re thinking about the backlash to disco, it’s really, really complicated. I do think it had to do with the fact that what you find in disco…if you really try to trace the lineage, the history of disco, you have to go all the way back to Motown, which in the scheme of things, we’re only talking a few years.
AE: You have to go back to Motown. You have to look at how Motown music to some extent is supplanted by a slightly sweeter kind of soul music coming out of Philadelphia, Philadelphia International Records, and Gamble and Huff…which would prove to be very influential. Remember David Bowie’s “Fame” and that move on Young Americans happened as a result of his exposure to the soul music of Philadelphia. But these African-American musicians and producers who were responsible for helping to create what becomes disco were really experimenting with lavish sophisticated arrangements that didn’t always sound to some listeners ears, and I think especially to white rockers’ ears, it didn’t sound recognizably black. I think that proved very problematic for white rockers who expected soul music to sound more like old style James Brown…Otis Redding. There’s a kind of naturalism that they attributed to that soul music. It was hot, it was sweaty. It wasn’t a kind of music that they associated with these lavish sophisticated arrangements. Look at Barry White. Barry White is kind of the epitome of disco. That guy…
MD: The Love Theme.
AE: The love man. He never sweated. (laughs) He was the opposite of James Brown, right?
AE: James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, and it’s true. You can find any clip of James Brown…
MD: He was sweating Barry White though, because he was really trying to fit in to the whole disco thing. It was kind of like a “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” type of thing around 1976. Wasn’t that the case with James Brown?
AE: Yes. I mean James Brown had the most ambivalent relationship to disco. I mean he hated it but he wanted to be a part of it.
MD: Yeah, yeah
AE: You can get diametrically opposed views of disco from James Brown depending upon the source and depending upon the year. But he did resent it, and he resented it because here you had this …well I shouldn’t say that…but I know he resented Barry White. He calls him out in one of his songs. And I think partly…he must have hated Barry White because of the fact that he didn’t have to work the way that he did.
AE: I suspect that James Brown…I mean the kind of music that James Brown liked really wasn’t disco. But Barry White was sort of one of the creators of disco, and the people that he worked with like Gene Page who most people don’t know very much about, and very little has been written about him. But these were people who were in some sense…and I would say this is true of Gamble and Huff of Philadelphia International Records…These are people who want to expand the musical palette of what’s available to African-Americans. Why can’t we create music that sounds more like Burt Bacharach? Why can’t we? We do we always have to sound like Otis Redding? It’s not unlike what Jimi Hendrix said. I don’t have to play soul music. I don’t got-ta…got-ta…got-ta. And there he was referencing Otis Redding and ya know…everybody else.
MD: (laughing) Yeah
AE: And so there was a kind of…with disco, I would argue that for many performers and arrangers, and producers, there was a kind of rebellion against the notion that black people and black music had to sound recognizably black. You could see this with Stevie Wonder complaining why it is that he…why can’t I do country music? I love country music. So in some sense, I’m not saying that most of white America understood this. And I’m not sure to what extent every disco artist by any means was motivated by this. But I think some were. And you can find in interviews with Gamble and Huff in which they talk about…and they really are proto-disco, and their music really does move full-tilt into disco. They talk about their resentment of white rock critics telling them… or telling the world that their music isn’t really black. It’s like…Where do you get off with that?
MD: Yeah, where do we get off? I mean it’s all black music. Look…Where would the Stones be without Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry? Ya know?
AE: Absolutely. Absolutely true. So, one of the things…okay…I’m somebody who lived through the disco era. I was a DJ during it, and I listened obsessively. I too came out of the 60s rock culture. I wrote a book that was published in 99 on Janis Joplin.
AE: So, I understood the rock aesthetic.
MD: Ya know how I knew…ya know…when you acknowledged that the Stones had a song called “Hot Stuff” first…that’s how I knew you knew your shit.
AE: Jefferson Airplane, all those San Francisco bands, the Stones…I mean I got the Stones first album when I was growing up outside of DC. But I always listened very widely. I had big ears. So growing up in DC, I listened a lot to the soul music stations more than I did to anything else… because at that moment…and here we’re talking in 67, 68, and 69…you didn’t yet have classic rock stations. You had the beginnings of those underground stations on the FM dial. But if you wanted to hear Janis Joplin or if you wanted to hear The Doors, you would hear them to some extent on Top 40…those cuts that were single cuts. But, ya know…a lot of the best music if you were a high school senior in 1969 the way that I was… an awful lot of great music was being played on WOL in Washington DC.
MD: At that point, it was album-oriented rock, so you had the album format where if you were lucky enough to have a station in your city that did album cuts….I know growing up in the 70s and 80s, that was the case with me. Radio for me was… you would hear the singles, but you would also hear…ya know, the DJs had some say over the playlist. It wasn’t corporatized yet.
AE: That’s exactly right. Growing up in DC, I do remember one day very very clearly, and I write about it in the Janis book. I remember turning the dial, and coming across this really low wattage station. And it was…I think it was in Gaithersburg, Maryland. It was a ways away. And the reason I stopped there, was that I heard Janis Joplin. It was like…”Holy! Who is this?!” Right? I mean, I don’t think I’d heard about her yet. In that area, that was the first such station that I ever tuned into. And then of course we’d have this revolution in radio , where the FM …which had been for where all the educational stations had been. That all shifts. And you find all these sort of underground stations that become enormously popular, and certainly pave the way for classic rock. Or what becomes classic rock.
AE: It’s really complicated in understanding the resistance of rock and rollers to disco. I think there is this sort of feeling that it’s not the soul music that they grew up with. And again, there’s a real resistance to expanding notions of what constitutes black identity. And I’m not saying that it’s just white rock and rollers who feel that. I mean, look at George Clinton…George Clinton with his P-Funk group. They do One Nation Under Groove, which I always loved. It was perhaps their biggest hit I think…or one of them. Yet they saw it as cashing in on the disco craze.
MD: Yeah, at that point Casablanca was like the big goldmine during those years. Were they one of the Casablanca artists? I know it was the Village People and Donna Summer at that point.
AE: Yeah, P-Funk is complicated because there were all kinds of contractual problems. I don’t quite remember this part of the story, but I think there was a reason that he ended up with two groups. Parliament and Funkedelic…
AE: …and I think it had to do with contractual problems with a small Detroit record label. But at one point in time, one of those groups at least, was definitely on Casablanca. But this is to say, it’s not just white people who have certain ideas about what constitutes black music. There was Nelson George, whose work I love, but who’s written very very critically of disco. Look at Chuck D of Public Enemy, who was withering in his critique of disco. So I mean across the board its hotness lies in the fact that it’s uncomfortable for some people…both white and black for the ways that it’s expanding the musical palette, so there’s that. Ya know…it’s producer’s music at a point in time when rock is not about producer’s music. It’s about having rested control from producers…seemingly from the music industry…of course it hadn’t.
AE: So there was this fear that we were going back to bubble gum. And then I do think that certainly a lot of Americans were clueless about the connection between disco and homosexuality…completely clueless. But not everybody was. And some people did know that the early adopters of disco music were urban gay men…many of them men of color. Not exclusively so, but these were interracial clubs usually in big cities…particularly starting out in New York. So there was this awareness. If you look at Punk magazine, there’s really vicious discophobic, anti-gay, homophobic stuff that comes out.
MD: Yeah, it got pretty vicious in the 70s as far as disco going from that underground thing to exploding in mainstream America. The backlash was nasty.
AE: Yeah. And what I hadn’t really realized at the time was to what extent hard right conservatives were beginning to develop attacks on disco precisely because they saw it as ramping up sexuality, and particularly quote unquote deviant sexuality. So I hadn’t really understood that. But the thing about disco is…you can talk to a white rock and roller who would say “Oh I hate disco, it sucks.” Ya know? “And it sucks because it’s so conventional.” In fact there’s a quote in my book from somebody who says it’s so conventional, Richard Nixon would have loved it. And then you can go to Anita Bryant who waged that anti-gay campaign in Florida. She was the celebrity that was selling orange juice for the citrus industry, and then she became this icon of the religious right attacking gays and lesbians. She hated disco. So, people across the ideological spectrum became united in their dislike of disco.
MD: Which goes to show how it’s such a mind boggling question as to why if it was considered conventional on one hand, and then…put that person…have them walk into the Stonewall in 69 or experience the total debauchery of Studio 54 in 77, 78. Come out and say…is that conventional? Is that their idea of conventional?
AE: Yeah, exactly. Yeah…yeah. But that’s why it’s so hot. That’s the hotness. People attacked it from all over the place. But I guess one of the things I find really interesting about it…a couple of things…one is that you can’t make sense of the response to disco and the discophobia that was unleashed without taking on board what else was happening in American culture.
AE: I think that to the extent that disco became associated with gay men…with women…because we all know that at least among white people, it tends to be women who are more comfortable dancing than men.
MD: Yeah (laughing)
AE: There are exceptions, but ya know…and I don’t mean to grossly generalize, but there’s been an awful lot… at least anecdotally.
MD: I just want to expand on one thing I said regarding the “conventional” comment that I was speaking to. My point being…was that…coming from…the viewpoint of somebody…not me…but somebody with the viewpoint that it would be conventional… that certain places like the Stonewall and things that go on in 54, whether it be legend or myth or fact…would usually be considered abhorrent from mainstream thought.
MD: Ya know…for the average Joe sitting in his living room in suburban Anytown, USA, it would be considered a little crazy as opposed to conventional. So that’s where I was coming from with that.
AE: I totally agree with you there. But I think it depends on what you’re looking at. And I don’t think that person was thinking about how it played out in the club scene…probably didn’t even know about it. I think that person was reacting to the fact that the record industry seemed to be less interesting in rock and more interested in music that to him seemed pre-fab, overproduced…and that venues for live rock and roll were diminishing. People’s reaction to disco…people come at it from so many…”it’s too conventional,” “It’s not conventional enough”…right?
MD: Yeah, depending on who’s judging it.
AE: Yeah, it’s working so many ways in American culture. But I think one of the reasons people have the reactions they have, or that those who didn’t like disco had the reaction they had…was the larger backdrop. Effectively, the loss in Vietnam, which I think cannot be exaggerated in terms of…it’s the first war the U.S. had ever lost. There was also a sense of…ya know…music very often…when you look at musical cultures, it sometimes prefigures change. And so, in some sense, these wars around disco were part of a larger culture war. And I think for a lot of hardcore white…particularly perhaps…I don’t know if one could say particularly working class or not, but for a lot of white men…this is certainly true in Detroit where a lot of the disco resistance was really strong…it was taking place not only within the context of the loss in Vietnam, but also deindustrialization and the rust-belting of their hometowns and their cities. It was like “well what are we gonna do?” And on top of that, the sense that some white people had that minorities were getting ahead. There was that thing called Affirmative Action. Right? And women were getting ahead. It’s a kind of beginning of what we find ourselves in now, with some members of the white working class in this country feeling like they’re strangers in their own land. It’s like “What’s happened to our radio stations? They’re all playing disco! What’s happened to our rock clubs?” But I try to be sympathetic to it, because I do think it’s…you have to understand it in that larger context of defeat and loss. And fear. But what I find really interesting about the relationship between disco and rock, is if you look at the earlier 1970s, it’s not at all clear that what happened with this great divide between disco and rock would play out like that. I mean you look at England in particular…and this just fascinated me…David Bowie is in some sense the leading edge of it. But there’s Brian Auger, there’s Jeff Beck, Humble Pie, the Stones to some extent too. Most of these folks are people who were really affected in their growing up by blues music and R&B. And they’re really interested in what Stevie Wonder is doing in the States, and Sly Stone, and James Brown…
MD: Yeah, definitely Jeff Beck.
AE: And Bowie…he picks up Carlos Alomar. He’s working with him…he’s the refugee from James Brown’s band. And so there’s this interesting moment. And in the States of course, there are other people who are making it look as though the divide between black and white music is sort of archaic.
AE: So that’s just really interesting to me. The fact that there’s this transatlantic interest in dismantling the remaining racial boundaries in the early 70s…let’s say 73, 74…maybe up to 75. And then that doesn’t ultimately…I don’t know if it’s that disco blows up too big, or what it is…but it doesn’t happen.
MD: It doesn’t happen.
AE: No. Because then there’s the backlash… disco blows up and takes over all these rock stations and rock clubs. People hate it.
MD: Right. And the funny thing is…
AE: …And you find a kind of reinforcement of the racial lines in popular music that then again begin to break down because…music is like that. You can’t separate sounds. Musicians are always going to seek out the other.
MD: It’s funny because radio stations weren’t playing it at first. Was it the Love Theme from Barry White that wasn’t being played on the radio because radio kind of looked down on it (disco), and it was the clubs? Like “Who the hell is buying all these records?” And it went to the top (of the charts) so they had no choice but to play it?
AE: Yeah, I think you could say that disco was the first genre that broke out not on the radio. It began to break out in the clubs and the radio jocks and the guys doing promotion at the record company were completely caught off guard. Like when Eddie Kendricks “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” began to get club play…they didn’t understand it. And the very first disco hit…Barry White’s hit was sitting in a bin of records that were basically due to be trashed at Barry White’s…I think it was 20th Century…
MD: That’s right…yeah, it was 20th Century.
AE: Yeah. And it was spotted by a couple of DJs that were there paying a visit, and they started playing it at their clubs, and it got popular. Then radio was forced to play it. But initially, radio had no idea that this scene was happening or that it would blow up the way it did. I mean, I don’t think anybody knew that.
MD: From my own viewpoint of having been seven years old in 1977, Saturday Night Fever in many ways brought disco into the mainstream culture and it broke it in a way that allowed for its overexposure and eventual bastardization. It’s amazing how if you’re a kid, and you’re seven and eight years old in 77 and 78, and you have no sense of a timeline yet, how Saturday Night Fever almost seemed to be the beginning of a movement when in reality, it kind of came along after the fact, where it was something that in its purest form had already passed.
AE: Yeah, and the the executives who were working on that…the studio…they kept trying to speed up the release because they were convinced that disco was gonna crash.
AE: Oh yeah. Like they would miss it. And so they were really eager to have that come out as early as possible, and they were really racing…at least according to what I’ve read.
MD: And yet there was…
AE: And then Saturday Night Fever does change things. You’re absolutely right. And I quote some people in the book who talk about how people especially in more mainstream clubs started trying to dance like the people in Fever.
AE: But it’s just fascinating. I would love if…I mean Saturday Night Fever…it’s not based upon observation of the disco clubs. It was a story that was written by a British writer…
MD: New York magazine?
AE: Yeah…who published a story in New York magazine and it got bought up by Stigwood…Robert Stigwood… and made into a movie that’s really…his source material was really his own experiences sort of observing Mod culture in Britain quite a few years earlier. So Tony Manero and his friends…they’re ethnic…they’re Italian-Americans living in Brooklyn, and they’re working class. And I think there were for sure, working class people who listened and danced to disco. We just don’t have that history yet.
MD: Do you think Saturday Night Fever would have worked if Tony were gay?
MD: Yeah. No, too much of a shock to the system.
AE: Because already… if you look at some of the criticism that came out, it was clear that there were already ways in which… the fact that he danced the way that he did….ya know, there’s that one curious scene where the camera sort of lingers on his body on him in bed. I think if there were people for whom… even though the Tony character is undeniably heterosexual, there were people who made fun of him as not fully heterosexual.
MD: Right. Rock fans.
AE: I just don’t think it would have worked. Think of how long it’s taken. It wasn’t really until the 90s when that began to really shift. So I think that there was really a utility in having it be a white heterosexual guy, making disco safe.
MD: It’s funny how they were trying to rush the movie out by the end of 77. The movie is released in mid-December, and “How Deep is Your Love” is released as a single, I think in late October, early November, and it already climbed the charts by the time the movie was released. You don’t see that happening too often. And with the fear that if disco is gonna die, ‘quick, get this out quick’…there were never so many disco songs on the pop charts than in 78 and 79 following Saturday Night Fever.
AE: Yeah. That’s right.
MD: And a few of them were rock groups, as far as disco influencing rock, and you have that cross-pollination thing where disco now influences rock, and then you see a little bit of rock getting into disco. Everything you start seeing coming out in 78, 79…you start seeing Heart, the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Kiss, Rod Stewart…and they’re all releasing these disco-influenced singles.
AE: Yeah. Although it’s funny…I guess I would take issue with you a bit… in that I don’t really see disco influencing rock there. I think you can see what’s happening with Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder and all of those folks being truly influential earlier in the 70s. But those records really tend to be…I don’t know if…I mean, yeah… I might agree with you around…
MD: I mean, wouldn’t it be that maybe the labels were pressuring some of them to hop on the bandwagon of that beat? Of that disco beat? You heard a lot of that. “Shakedown Street,” and “Straight On,” “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” “I Was Made For Loving You,”…even “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd had that same beat.
AE: Ya know, you could be right there. I tend to see more… authentic if you want..as sort of…oh, I was going to say Blondie…
MD: “Heart of Glass?”
AE: Yeah, yeah. But they played it both ways in terms of to what extent that was parody or not. But I think eventually for sure, you really see it working its way… after it’s died in particular, into some new wave, like Talking Heads, and I would say Blondie too.
MD: Yeah, new wave was definitely a thing by the time of Blondie. I would think in the case of Blondie…and it may be some of these things on a case-by-case basis, but I think in the case of Blondie, they were looking for what was going to break Blondie commercially.
MD: Because they had those punk roots, but were they really total punk roots?
I mean, even the Ramones go back to…ya know…Phil Spector. I mean Joey loved Ronnie Spector…the Ronettes…and it goes back to that thing.
AE: Yeah, I totally agree with you. The idea that there is some sort of pure new wave or punk is…(laughs)….it’s fairly dubious probably. But yes..ya know…but back to Rod Stewart. I mean I do think that Rod Stewart and some of the other stuff was pretty opportunistic. It was just like…well…staying on the charts, but I think some of it did reflect influence. Especially later, you really begin to see, especially in Britain, they’re open to music made by black musicians. And so a lot of that post-punk punk…you think even Gang of Four…it’s not a disco beat, but there’s an attention to rhythm.
MD: Yeah. They were more immersed in that kind of the way the Clash was…
MD: …where there was politics and socially-aware content as well.
AE: And I think some of that is Jamaican music which was such an influence on so many of them from the Clash to John Lydon. Even if the Clash and the Sex Pistols didn’t like each other that much, reggae was an influence on both of those groups.
MD: Even the Stones. I mean, Black and Blue. You have reggae influence all over that album…well some of it.
AE: Oh, yeah. And that comes out in 75, isn’t it?
MD: Black and Blue was 76. It was weird because they were doing the tour (U.S. 1975), they went to Europe, and Black and Blue comes out.
AE: I don’t remember. Did they record it in 75 or 76?
MD: It could have been recorded at the tail end of 75? But they recorded very quickly back then. You could record an album in January and have it out in mid-February. I was talking to someone about Kiss’s Love Gun the other day, and that was recorded all in the first half of May 77 and released by the end of June. So the whole album…recording, mixing…cover art…packaging…all done and released in under two months. So, the way they worked back then was a lot quicker. So as far as a release for Black and Blue, I’m thinking the spring of 76.
AE: Is that mostly because the kind of bigger promotional machine now? Or is it technological? What’s the shift about?
MD: That takes so long for music to come out these days?
AE: Mm hmm
MD: Ya know what…if you ask me, I believe that trend started in the 80s when you had albums like Thriller come out. And rather than…it used to be album, tour, album, tour. If you go through the 60s and the 70s, and even into the early 80s, bands would release an album a year. Some of them would release two or three albums a year in the case of bands like the Beatles or Kiss. So when you had something like Thriller come out, and you find that you can get six, seven, eight singles off an album, the labels started to milk the albums for as many singles as they could get. So which is why you had that trend exploding in the mid 80s…ya know…Can’t Slow Down by Lionel Richie, An Innocent Man by Billy Joel, Sports by Huey Lewis, Michael Jackson Bad, Born in the U.S.A…all of these albums had four, five, six, seven hit singles off them. So where as the run of an album’s promotion would go for about three, four, five, maybe six months at the most before they were ready for new product, an album’s promotional run starting in the mid-80s could be about two years. So artists were now taking two and three years between albums…because they had that luxury. Because the label would milk the album for all it could get, and the artists would go off on these two year tours. And then take three years off until the next album. It was a trend that started in the 80s. It’s not so much of a thing now because now we’re seeing more artists releasing music more frequently. I think the ones that are still around are getting older and they want to work more, so you have people like Bruce Springsteen who used to take up to five years between albums, and now it seems like he releases an album a year. Every 15 months he has something new out.
AE: Isn’t that fascinating?
MD: It really is. Watching this whole thing…it’s like America itself. It started off as an experiment, and we don’t know where it’s going.
MD: And it’s really not that old. I mean, two hundred…how old are we again? 240- something…whatever it is, it’s really not a long time in the scope of history. It’s really nothing. And in the case of rock and roll, it comes along in 54, 55, and soon after…it’s “rock and roll is here to stay…rock and roll will never die,”…ya know, “it’ll go down in history”..They were already talking about it like it was a thing of the past. And our rock stars were not supposed to get old. It was supposed to be by the young, for the young, and so it’s kind of interesting watching the Stones be the template for what is possible.
MD: They’re really the only ones that are left who are still doing it, and it’s kind of like they’re the litmus test. And there’s no precedence for this. This is it. We’re watching it…and we’re still watching it as it’s happening. We’re still firsthand witnesses to history as it’s happening, and we’re losing a lot of rock’s first and second generations.
AE: It’s fascinating. I got interested..I went to Wikipedia (laughing) as you were talking, and according to Wikipedia…now…ya know…okay…it’s a caveat there, but they actually began recording Black and Blue in December 74.
AE: And they were going to release it in time for the summer of 75 Tour of the Americas. That didn’t happen, but they did a lot of work on that album in 75. And what I don’t see right here is when they did “Hot Stuff,” which to me is among the more disco-ish of those things.
MD: Well that makes sense, and I’ll tell you why. The album that they released in 74, It’s Only Rock and Roll, and even before that…Goat’s Head Soup…there’s two songs. One is “Dancing With Mr. D,” and “Fingerprint File” off It’s Only Rock and Roll, and they both have that same “Hot Stuff” beat. So it’s that same beat that rock was flirting with when it was supposedly influenced by disco, but that beat is already there…and there’s proof…because Goats Head Soup came out in 73.
MD: So it’s already there. The Stones are already playing with that sound. They tour the States in mid-75. It makes sense because Ronnie Wood joined the band before that tour, so it makes sense that maybe they were recording with him at the end of 74.
AE: Ya know …I mean, Billy Preston of course is with them, and he’s all over some of those songs. Harvey Mandel, Ollie Brown…
MD: I never knew the recording goes that far back.
AE: The Stones are really fascinating. They’re very typical of a lot of British bands. They have such deep roots in blues music and R&B. It makes sense to me that they’re interested in what’s happening in America and American R&B which is beginning to shift toward a sort of disco-ish sound. It makes a lot of sense that their colleagues…their compadres, if you will, would also be interested in it because they have such deep roots, and the Stones are still going back to it. So many British groups, and it’s not just the Stones…who didn’t really come to rock and roll out of folk music. They come to it out of their love of R&B and blues. And in America, you can find the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and you can find others of whom that’s true, but most of the 60s rockers in America…Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young…I mean, I know Neil Young is a Canadian, but…Janis Joplin and Big Brother. Janis probably knew of all of them, probably much more about the blues than anybody else. Grateful Dead…Pigpen was the Janis there…somebody who knew a lot about blues. But most of those 60s musicians who were U.S. – based were really influenced by folk. They didn’t have such deep roots.
MD: Which is why the British Invasion was so important. I mean, they were literally…After the founding fathers disappear at the end of the 50s…Elvis goes in the army, he goes on this horrible trajectory of a film career in the early 60s, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis aren’t around. You have this period in American music between say 59 and 63 where it becomes bubblegum pop. You have Fabian, Frankie Avalon, beach movies…everything becomes safe, and you have the British bands absorbing all of these American roots and in a way, brought all that back to the States. And it was like re-introducing America to its own music.
AE: Yeah, yeah. But ya know…it is…it’s just a fascinating moment, those years of 72, 73, 74…
MD: It really is.
AE: And you could add to that list Eric Burdon who’d been working with War.
AE: I’ve told this story before…I can’t remember if it was “Jive Talkin'” or not, but…it might have been “Jive Talkin.” But Mick Jagger was at a party, and this would have been just before the release of the Bee Gees “Jive Talkin.” And I think he was listening to the whole unreleased Main Course…the album that “Jive Talkin” was on.
AE: And Mick Jagger says “That’s effin’ dynamite! Who’s that? Some new group you signed?”
AE: And it turned out to be the Bee Gees. So it’s great to go back and look at the reaction of the time.
MD: They transformed their sound so much that there really was two distinct eras of the band.
AE: I think that some of their music during that disco period was great, and some of it was just…ya know…(laughing) very unfortunate…
MD: Once they tried to ride the success of Saturday Night Fever and they got into that Spirits Having Flown record, and “Tragedy” and “Too Much Heaven”…it was like yeah okay, this has peaked and now it’s all downhill from here…I mean, you can’t…What do you do after Saturday Night Fever? That’s the curse of releasing something that becomes that big.
AE: Yeah, absolutely. And you look at everybody who was big in that period…I don’t know if I’d say that about Barry White, because he just kept chugging along in a certain way, but he eventually obviously loses popularity. But if you look at the efforts of other people who had been big, whether it’s the Bee Gees, or the Village People, or Donna Summer, there’s this desperate effort, at least with Donna Summer and the Village People…not so sure about the Bee Gees…but, the first two…it’s like “ughh..we gotta go new wave. We’ve gotta get those guitars in.” And it worked a bit for Donna Summer, I mean she was very talented.
MD: Yeah. And I know you’ve talked to her. How much influence and effect did Donna Summer have on women’s liberation and that whole thing?
AE: Well…I think if we were able to go back to 1975, and you were to go to a NOW meeting…National Organization of Woman…you’d probably find a lot of people there who thought Donna Summer’s music was terrible. Some thought that it was too sexual. But, even people like Andrea Dworkin who is no longer with us, but was once a very radical feminist…a real early campaigner against pornography as exploiting women…which by the way…Jessie Jackson…some people in Civil Rights were also against disco as pornographic music. So there were a lot of people who may have thought that, including some feminists, but when they go out for a drink later and they went out to a disco, I’m told, that even Andrea Dworkin would get out on the dance floor and dance. So, I think that it’s complicated. It’s not the case that for the most part, you can’t say that Donna Summers music was celebrating women’s liberation. On the other hand, there is a way in which she and so many others…whether it’s Chaka Kahn, Thelma Houston, or whoever it is…I would say particularly Chaka Kahn and the musical trio LaBelle…they really were unashamed about the way in which they sang about women’s desire. And that wasn’t new. That’s not something you had heard a lot of in rock music. You heard it much more in r&b,so it’s not a surprise in a certain sense that disco growing out of r&b, would carry that tradition on. I wouldn’t say that it was exclusively feminist, but it did put women’s voices out there I think that was one reason people didn’t like disco, was that it was so female dominated with the exception of the Bee Gees, Barry White and a few others…the Village People.
MD: Any movements of pride or empowerment…people get so freakin’ offended over.
AE: Well, I think particularly in times when it seems as though the country is unsettled, it seems as though it’s in decline, it seems as though people who…I would say this in both eras…people who have lived fairly comfortably…not rich, but fairly comfortably, begin to feel as I said earlier, and here I’m borrowing a line from a sociologist named Arlie Hochschild, that they are “strangers in their own land.” Something is happening, and certain people’s voices are being heard now.. it could be trans people, it could be,still, lesbian and gay people, it could be…still, again, people of color…and there’s a way in which they feel unheard. People who are white of multiple classes, it’s like the culture is changing, and so I think that’s pretty typical. It happened in Europe. Partly it’s globalization, and immigration, and the circulation of that which isn’t familiar. But I agree with you. People do get worked up over it, and stuff happens. Politics changes because of it.
MD: Regarding Donna Summer, her career explodes around 78. I mean, “Love To Love You Baby,” that initial hit single in 75…she releases a few albums after that, a few singles, but they don’t really become hits, ya know. But she explodes with “Last Dance,” 1978…Thank God It’s Friday, and then Bad Girls was just monumental. I mean, I call it the Highway 61 Revisted or Blonde On Blonde of disco.
AE: Well, I think you’re right, yeah.
MD: It’s this monumental masterpiece of hers. And then On The Radio, the greatest hits album, and the way it was cut where the songs just seamlessly go into each other DJ-style.
MD: There’s that whole moment when disco…it peaks commercially in 78, 79..and then you have that moment in August 79..several people have cited this…and I guess it’s more of a symbolic moment than anything real or that can be proven. But the moment “My Sharona” by The Knack hits number one, disco is “officially” declared dead. Where did that come from? Was it echoes of Comiskey Park? Was it a collective backlash that was trying to insist that disco was dead? What was that all about?
AE: There’s one thing I want to say before I answer that, and it’s about Donna Summer. I think Dave Marsh…it was the rock critic, Dave Marsh who really clued me into this, and I began listening to her differently after I read him about Donna Summer. And he talked about how Moroder and Summer were the equivalent of rock auteurs. Ya know, we talk about people like Francois Truffaut, the French filmmaker, as an auteur…somebody who was really a true artist…who was in control of whatever it was they were making. And we don’t really think of disco artists as being auteurs. We think of them as fulfilling the dicates of the producers. Donna Summer was herself. She started out in rock and roll. She was a big Janis Joplin fan. I’ve talked a lot about the British rockers who were interested in further expanding their musical palette, and taking on board what was happening in this new kind of r&b that would later come to be understood as disco. There are also black artists like Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Kahn, and Donna Summer, who were also interested in mixing it up. Again, that’s one of the interesting things. It didn’t have to end up the way that it ended up, so polarized. But to get to your point. Why did that happen? Why was it confined to the dustbin of history?
MD: While so much popular disco is still on the charts…I mean just overnight…literally within the course of a week, disco is now dead.
MD: How do you just declare something dead? And who are these people that just decide something is dead? Then all of a sudden new wave is in, and then new wave is dead.
AE: It is really fascinating. Sure, Comiskey Park played a role. One of the stories that I tell in the book…and again, remember, we’re talking 2017 and I wrote that book in 2009, and I’ve since written another book, so I’m going to be vague on the details. But there were these two radio consultants who would consult radio stations about what they should be playing and where they should be moving. Should they move into this genre? Should they cut back on that? And they did testing of people. I think one can take issue with how accurate that testing might have been, but in any case, they presented their findings to a bunch of influential radio stations. I first read about this in the Village Voice in the 80s. I used to be an avid reader of the Voice.
MD: Oh, I loved the Voice. I miss the Village Voice.
MD: And you know what I mean, because it’s not what it was.
AE: You had Greg Tate, you had Rob Christgau…
MD: Nat Hentoff
AE: Ellen Willis. She pretty much wasn’t writing about music then, but she’s great. So I think that their work was very influential. And I do think that it’s a little bit like the stock market. Ya know, it runs on emotion. It runs on what seems to be in the air and where things might be moving. And there was just this… stampede… to move away from disco.
MD: Where do we hear it today? Where do we hear disco today? Is its authenticity even traceable in today’s dance music? Is it something that’s just considered roots music now?
AE: Well, yeah…(laughing) I think for some people it might be considered a kind of roots music I have to say, it’s so funny to read some of the criticisms that were made of disco as being pre- fab and formulaic and producer’s music. It’s just funny because if you compare it to today’s dance music it’s just…(laughs)
MD: …I was gonna say that. I mean there’s a lot of people who cite disco as influential…but…that compressed, airtight, auto-tuned shitty sound is anything but the massive, majestic production of those disco records of the 70s. Nile Rodgers…listen to Chic.
MD: Listen to that stuff.
AE: It sounds production-wise very different from today’s dance music. But I certainly hear…I listen to Lorde’s “Green Light.” That sounds disco to me. It’s different in that it has the production sounds unfortunately up-to-date. Musically, I think Katy Perry…it shows its indebtedness to disco.
MD: Is Katy Perry…to disco’s evolution…what…say…Twenty One Pilots or Death Cab For Cutie is to rock and roll’s evolution? In other words, inconsequential? Or can it still be considered disco? Can it part of that lineage? That line that goes back to Stonewall and the development of disco’s sound in the 70s…Can it be seen as part of that line, what Katy Perry is doing today?
AE: Yeah, I think it can, but one of the curious things about disco, is think about…let’s say…even “Bad Girls” or “Hot Stuff”…
MD: They had a rock beat. You hear rock in those songs.
AE: Yeah, that’s true. I’m trying to think of…okay…”I Feel Love.” That’s more leaning towards where one branch of disco was going to go.
MD: And that’s the sound that Giorgio Moroder crafted, and you mentioned Moroder…I want to get back to him, and maybe end on this note. I know we said a half hour, 45 minutes, and we’re well over an hour now, so I don’t want to keep you too long. But a good note to end on is Giorgio Moroder…ya know, that auteur thing that you were talking about as far as the artist…where the producer became important again. Almost like the stuff that was coming off those Donna Summer records was also the art of Giorgio Moroder. They were also Moroder records, not just Donna Summer records.
MD: I think Moroder was to Donna Summer what George Martin was to the Beatles.
AE: Yeah, very very much true.
MD: Like it was recently the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper. Take him out of the equation and nothing is the same. That’s his baby. It’s just as much a George Martin album as it is a Beatles album. In a way, people like George Martin, Giorgio Moroder…Phil Spector…they did for the producer what Hitchcock did for the director. Whereas Hollywood was all about the power of the big producers, and it was people like Selznick, and Hitchcock came in and suddenly it was his thing. It became an Alfred Hitchcock film.
AE: I wouldn’t disagree with you, but I think rock artists in the late 60s and through the 70s were quite eager to put themselves in the role of producer, and they very often did. There was a sort of pride in not being produced by anybody else. And I also think it’s one of the reasons rock artists were so leery of disco. I think it’s fair to say that from about the 80s onward, it was much more typical for rock artists to work with producers in a way that gave producers publicly more power. But in the 60s and part of the 70s, I think there was this sort of cry of independence, so I do think that was one of the reasons that there was this kind of hold your nose, disco sucks. But I was going to say about this interesting question that you raised around Death Cab For Cutie and its relationship as rock. I think everybody would say that what passes as what we understand as rock today…is rock. But when it comes to Katy Perry or some of Lorde’s tracks, or you name it…that it’s not disco. And there’s a way in which disco is sort of sequestered. It’s contained within this five year period, or some people would say a four year period. And it’s curious to me. When we talk about rock, rock can encompass Chuck Berry. It can encompass the Beatles. It can encompass John Mayer. It can encompass the Grateful Dead. It can encompass Can. It can encompass everything. But when we’re talking about disco, we tend to limit it to…because it was supposed to have died, but come on…anybody who’s listened to George Michael to Michael Jackson to Madonna to…
MD: Madonna! I was just going to say. It really survived. It just evolved through the 80s. It was this natural evolution that happened. And it just got marginalized to this one little era that they wanted to forget about.
AE: And I was dee-jaying in that period, in the post…after disco had apparently died. And believe me…Prince? Madonna? Michael Jackson. There was an awful lot of interesting funk. There was the Gap Band, there was Rick James, there was Tina Marie. There was great music.
MD: It just wasn’t being called disco for whatever reason…it was just different variations, kind of like rock…the way rock has splintered into all of these different sub-genres. I remember in the 80s and 90s, a lot of it was just called “club music.” Or freestyle in the 90s. House, techno…I guess it all has its roots in disco.
AE: It all does. And some people can cope with that, and some people can’t.
MD: All these different variations on the genre. And the same thing has happened to rock music. Grindcore and deathcore and this core and that core…nu-metal, old metal…I don’t know, it’s just rock and roll, man. It’s only rock and roll.
AE: It’s true
MD: Anyway, Alice, this was great. This was much more than I expected. Just totally surpassed my expectations of what this conversation could be.
AE: Well, I really enjoyed it.
MD: I’m going to release this as its own episode because it deserves its own episode.
AE: It was my pleasure, MIke. Really, it’s been fun.
MD: Thanks again.
This conversation can be heard in its entirety on the Rock Under Fire podcast, Episode 27: The Disco Years Pt. 1