The Music’s Over

20120526_bkp502Prospero's obituary for Donna Summer and Robin Gibb, in The Economist:

AS A genre, disco gets a rotten press. It tends to conjure up images of hairy chests and medallions, and the worst kind of dad-dancing: a roll of the hands and a finger thrust from the floor to the sky. It was, said Bethann Hardison, a black runway model in the 1970s, “created so that white people could dance”.

Such a caricature does it no justice. The beat might be the simplest 4/4, but the origins are more complex. To understand where disco came from, and why it should be considered culturally important, one must first place oneself in dysfunctional, dangerous 1970s New York. If punk rock, born of a similar time and place, and hip-hop, a little younger, are the musical styles that define that city’s disaffected youth, then they have a sibling in disco. “Disco was born, maggot like, from the rotten remains of the Big Apple”, wrote Peter Shapiro in “Turn the Beat Around” a history of the genre.

The release it gave was different though. While punk was like a child throwing a tantrum and hip hop was about fierce rhetoric, disco meant escaping reality. The outrageous clothes and ostentatious dance moves took the mind off of the gang violence and unemployment. For the city’s gays, who were still striving for acceptance, it was particularly liberating.

The disco beat quickly spread around the world. By the time that Donna Summer released “I Feel Love” in 1977, it was mainstream. Everyone was at it. Even the Rolling Stones released a lamentable disco attempt, “Hot Stuff”, in 1976. Nonetheless, “I Feel Love” was one of the most influential records of the decade. Produced by Giorgio Moroder, it layered Moog synthesiser tracks (until then the preserve of avant garde electronica bands such as Kraftwerk) to create one of the most compelling dance tunes ever released. It is also the exact moment that disco sprouted the branch that evolved into house music.