Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Marshall Stacks & Rayon Slacks: 1979's Disco-Rock Dionysians

1979 was a liminal year, so it's only appropriate that musical boundaries would be breached by the short-lived but still-resonant Disco Rock movement. The two styles inhabited two entirely different spaces, with Disco a distinctly urban music and Seventies rock ruling the suburbs, but with the record companies gasping for economic air and Disco peaking commercially it only made sense to merge the two. 

Greg Allman once quipped that saying "Southern Rock" was like saying "Rock Rock," since as he saw it all Rock 'n' Roll had its roots in the South. And by rights, the idea of "Dance Rock" should be equally redundant, seeing as Rock 'n' Roll was music for the "discotheques," right up until the early Seventies. But fissures in popular musical tastes emerged in the wake of the riots and racial strife of the Sixties, and Funk emerged as a new style that was closely identified with the culture and politics of the post-Civil Rights Black community.

Funk in turn would itself splinter, with one branch evolving into Disco when combined with Latin grooves and Continental decadence. It soon became the sound of the urban working class of all races, but a further split - this one less a musical split than a geographic one - gave rise to Dionysian pleasure palaces in Manhattan and Paris, and then on to other major cities.

So on one hand you had the persistence of Disco as working class music - which was bolstered by the blinding success of Saturday Night Fever - and on the other you had the rich and pretty people congregating in clubs like Studio 54, alongside a handpicked selection of plebes who provided entertainment for the elite. The party never stopped, fueled by cocaine and poppers, and every whim was indulged.

Unfortunately, everyone was having such a grand old time in the Big Apple that no one bothered to read up on all the previous times that Dionysus the Liberator had been summoned on such a grand scale. Inevitably, the Liberator began playing his nasty little tricks on his new acolytes, starting with a massive blackout, a deadly blizzard, and a gang of spree killers working under the name "Son of Sam" shitting in the city's enormous punchbowl.

A reader recently suggested that Dionysus was the real basis for Satan, and I don't rightly know if I could argue with that. He was often associated with bloodlust and crime in the Ancient World, and drove his priestesses - the Maenads - to commit rather heinous acts on a fairly regular basis. The Wine God was known to roll into towns, offering to get the party started and whatnot. Everything was all fun and games until he got busy driving people insane and inspiring them to murder each other and all the rest of that shit. Without fail.

And in Disco's case, Dionysus rolled out a nasty new trick along with the all the usual drug psychosis, venereal disease and alcohol poisoning: the so-called "gay cancer," which began to pick up steam as Disco romped across the Western World.

Disco would peak as a commercial phenomenon in early 1979 and then crater almost immediately after. But the music was inescapable; you couldn't go anywhere in any city or shopping mall without being bombarded with it. Disco was being mass produced on an industrial scale, and any freshness or vitality the music once had was sucked out completely. 

A backlash inevitably erupted, most famously at the infamous "Disco Demolition" at Comiskey Park that summer. A lot of really stupid things have been said about that night by cultural studies majors, but whatever else was driving the riot it was the natural conclusion to a movement that the entire entertainment-industrial-complex had rammed down everyone's throats for two and a half years.

But we're talking about a liminal year - a boundary-crossing year - and those always seem to come about due to external stressors, which we looked in in the previous post. For the Disco Rock moment that stressor was a collapse in album sales, particularly for Rock music. The superstars of the 70s were reaching the end of their tethers, as drugs and exhaustion took their toll. The styles that seemed so fresh at the start of the decade had grown stale. And since Disco was still such a hot commodity, it only made sense to cut a single or two for the dance floors in hope of beefing up sales.

Rockers had flirted with Funk and Disco on and off - see "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" - and David Bowie had done an entire album of Philly Disco with Luther Vandross in 1975. But with lines of social and racial demarcation hardening, it was still seen as a bold move to hop over that wall. The Bee Gees revived their flagging career by going Disco at the same time as Bowie, but they were always more a pop band than a proper rock band. So Rod Stewart took the leap with "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" in late '78 and you couldn't get away from the fucking thing well into the first half of 1979.

The punk clubs in the grimy East Village saw themselves as the antithesis - if not the antidote - to the Disco dungeons uptown. So it was a testament to Disco's power that one of the headliners from the Downtown scene took the plunge with "Heart of Glass," which hit the charts in early 1979 (and whose title may or may not have come from a Werner Herzog film). The song took the unknown but telegenic band on a rocket ride to stardom that came to a crashing, thudding halt three years later with their putrid 1982 queef, The Hunter.

KISS had a pretty rough 1978, and were already signed to a Disco label (Casablanca), so it only made sense that they'd take the big Disco dive with "I Was Made for Loving You." The song revived their commercial fortunes (and was their last major hit) but ushered in a backlash that would end their Rock n' Roll dominance. A long string of very stinky records didn't help much either.


Desmond Child was working the clubs with his act Rouge when Paul Stanley approached him to help write Disco songs for KISS, and "I Was Made for Loving You" was the result of that collaboration. Child would work with the band on a few other things, but would be given his license to print money when he hooked up with Bon Jovi and Aerosmith a few years later. Child then became the go-to guy for when bands ran out of ideas and needed to get their junkie asses back on the charts.

Genya Ravan had been kicking around the New York scene since the early Sixties and went from singing Carole King songs to producing the Dead Boys' scorching debut, Young, Loud and Snotty. She also released a solo album in 1979 that went nowhere on the charts but earned her a cult following. Killer cut, this one.

Then things got a little weird.

You probably couldn't name a band less amenable to Disco glitz than The Grateful Dead. They remained popular as a live attraction but had dropped from the charts for quite some time, and actually hadn't had any real hit singles, ever. "Shakedown Street" wasn't a hit either, but you can't blame them for trying. 

Well, if they actually tried at all: this is a pretty lazy stab at Disco Rock, and fails to do much to excite the dancers or the rockers. Heroin was their jam, not cocaine. Totally different vibe. Maybe the other junkies liked it.

John Cougar ConcentrationCamp was initially the creation of former Bowie Svengali Tony DeFries. He'd failed to trouble the charts much since his debut LP in 1976 and wouldn't have a bonafide hit until 1982. In between he made this rather terrible Disco single that was justifiably ignored by everyone on the planet.

The Kinks tried a little of everything on their 1979 set, Low Budget. Some rather impressive Disco Rock was one of its more successful experiments, thanks to some tasty riffage by Dave Davies. 

Honestly, who the fuck calls their kid David Davies? No wonder he's such a weird dude. No wonder he basically invented both Punk Rock and Heavy Metal but sticking shit in his speaker cones and making raunchy sounds come out of them. Would later commune with aliens, as one does.

Bowie kicked the Disco habit after Young Americans, but would dip back into the well now and again. Like on this track from 1979s Lodger, which apart from the singles was by far the weakest of the "Berlin Trilogy" he did with Brian Eno (AKA Brent Mini). Some rather abstruse riffing by Adrian Belew, who quit Zappa's band to play for Bowie and would join the new King Crimson the following year.

Roxy Music were masters of the decadent Continental suaveness that was a natural for Disco, so it made sense they'd re-record "Angel Eyes" as a Disco track for their 1979 reunion album, Manifesto. Appropriately their previous LP was called Siren. Love the guitar sound on this track, so crisp and zesty.

Japan would earn their bones as a mellower Roxy Music knockoff, but before then they were kind of what? A Glam Rock/Disco fusion? A New Wave band? Something. I don't know, never got into Japan. Mick Karn's bass playing got on my nerves.

Disco Queen Donna Summer approached the blend from the other direction and "Hot Stuff" was the result. Great track, very much timeless and of its time. Donna also sang on the first true SynthPop single a few years earlier ("I Feel Love"), so there's that too.

The Pointer Sisters did the same move as Donna Summer, though their connection to Disco proper was a bit more tangential. Either way, they scored a hit with this Bruce Springsteen number, back when Springsteen wrote good songs and not the sub-moronic beer-commercial-tier crap he's spewed out since the Reagan Era.

Douche. Fuck him, and motherfuck Bono. 

ELO didn't need to go Disco since they'd already been raking it in with a series of big hits. But they went and did it anyway, because who doesn't want more money? They came up with Discovery, which everyone thought they were clever when they called "Disco-Very." But this same LP has "Don't Bring Me Down" on it, which as four-to-the-floor Rock n' Roll as it gets. So figure that one out.

Unfortunately, ELO got themselves mixed up the Xanadu disaster shortly after. They scored some hits out of it but basically shredded their Rock 'n' Roll credibility - and status as money makers - thereafter.

Frank Zappa wasn't going to let something as ridiculous as Disco pass without ridiculing it, and so he got his first hit single with "Dancing Fool." 1979 was the kind of year that a Frank Zappa could score a AM radio hit with a Disco parody with a zillion different time changes. 

Former Monkee Michael Nesmith released a track with a distinct Zappa flavor in 1979. No one much heard it, but Nesmith was already a multimillionaire anyway and didn't need the money.

Well, maybe somebody did hear it: Rick James basically sped it up and made mondo dollars reselling "Cruising" as "Super Freak." Has anyone ever commented on this? I just noticed it when Nesmith died. Interesting that Falco turned around and re-stole the riff from James. 

Weird that all three are no longer with us now. Is that bass line cursed? Probably.

Speaking of stolen bass lines, downtown weirdo-loser James Chance butchered Chic's "Good Times" in 1979, a song which also had lent itself to...

... the first HipHop hit single "Rapper's Delight." 

I meant the bass line comes from Chic, not The Contortions. Fuck The Contortions. Actually, I used to work with their guitarist and she was a nice person, so fuck all the Contortions besides her.

Anyhow, Queen bassist John Deacon had watched Chic record "Good Times" and then went home and lifted the bass line for "Another One Bites the Dust" which earned him zillions of dollars. The Clash then lifted Queen's lift of Chic's bass line for "Radio Clash," whose sax riff Nile Rodgers turned around and lifted for Bowie's "Let's Dance." One giant daisy-chain of appropriation there. 

The Skatt Brothers mined the dark side of Disco, the gay BDSM side of Neo-Dionysianism. The Bros were kind of like a scarier, more rapey take on The Village People, so whatever you do don't go watching their "Life at the Outpost" video. But do listen to this creepy, scary, very rapey Disco Rock classic that has some great guitar work and a killer bridge. 

Ever see Cruising? That's pretty much this song. Also, this band,

When I think of everything that fills me with a murderous rage about Boomer culture, this friggin' band is always atop my list. Which is kind of unfair; it's not their fault every late Boomer prick (and no small number of GenJonesers) in the Greater Boston area blasted their corny, derivative pap from their Camaros while doing donuts in the parking lot of the South Shore Plaza. Was it like that near you? God, I hope not.

This actually isn't a bad song, and a nice exemplar of the Disco Rock thesis. Geils actually had some pretty catchy singles near the end of their run there, when they finally quit it with the 45-minute harmonica solo garbage. But in the 70s anyone who listened to these guys was not only stupid, they were aggressively stupid. And stupidly aggressive, as well.

No album captured the weird, unsettled vibe of late 1979 better than The Wall. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of records that make for effective time capsules, but there's something ineffable about this album - and this song - that really gives you that 1979 flavor. Pink Floyd existed in their own musical universe and didn't align themselves with any movement - or even any other bands - so they were able to take the pulse of the times and comment on it all from the position of dispassionate observers. 

Electronic effects - especially for guitar - were a huge part of what set 1979 music apart from the rest of the 70s, and Pink Floyd made just as much use of them as any postpunk upstarts. And more so than the other two big releases of the waning days of the year - Tusk and In Through the Out Door - this one recast Floyd as a band of the time, not just hoary Psych veterans. And being a band completely disinterested in musical trends, it felt like Floyd were using Disco Rock as a critique, and weren't just bandwagon hopping.


Ironically, the Disco Rock mini-movement seemed to outlast Disco itself, which was dead as a doornail by the end of 1979, at least as a cultural force. New Wave had taken over a lot of the clubs by then, and even the heralded Studio 54 was limping to its death. There would always be dance music, but it and the clubs that played it had shed the worn-out trappings of mid-Seventies Disco.

And whatever changing tastes failed to wipe off the slate, AIDS would finish off. In hindsight, you can see the gathering storm clouds on 1979s horizon, but Dionysus seems to have blinded all but the most perceptive to what was coming. 

It's amazing to look at the arts and culture before AIDS and after it. So much of highbrow - or quasi-highbrow - culture just vanished. It was just gone. I think it was Fran Liebowitz who said AIDS had taken away her audience. I wouldn't know, since for the life of me I still don't know what she's famous for, but I can say that everything changed forever. 

The Millennial attempt to reconstruct that pre-AIDS culture - and politics - was inevitably doomed to fail because none of them had the education to even understand what it was they were trying to recreate. It was all just more consumer curation and nostalgia for other people's pasts. Plus who can afford to live in Manhattan anymore?

Even with Disco rapidly waning, rock radio would go into full reaction mode in 1980, stinking up the airwaves with computer-generated playlists of what I like to call "Fuckface Rock," a sick-making mix of sub-Skynyrd Southern Rock pretenders, fading Cock Rockers like Ted Nugent, bland Arena Rock acts like Styx and a parade of truly terrible new variations on them all. It was a last hurrah for shopworn Boomer boogie-woogie pabulum, and aside from a few bands that made the leap (ZZ Top, Journey), it would all be swept away like so much flotsam when Generation X began to assert itself in 1983. 

This is just a shot across the bow: we have a lot more music to look at from 1979 and a lot more cultural context to unpack

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