Disco Stays Alive:
The glimmering sounds of a remix artist and an influential DJ
Although the magazine would later cheerlead for the
anti-disco backlash, Rolling Stone published in 1973 the first article
ever written about the genre, Vince Aletti's "Discotheque Rock '72: Paaaaarty!"
Here Aletti wrote, "The best discotheque DJs are underground stars discovering
previously ignored albums, foreign imports, album cuts and obscure singles with
the power to make the crowd scream and playing them overlapped, non-stop so you
dance until you drop." In the previous decade, Jamaican selectors had been doing
something similar, moving crowds by doing nothing more or less than choosing the
right records; in New York in the '70s, the practice was being continued, and
the rules for dance floor success were being written.
Two new double-CD retrospectives provide a window into disco's glittery surfaces
and body-moving appeal, as well as a chance to consider its place on the
continuum that also includes soul, funk, hip-hop, and dance music. Tom Moulton,
inventor of the 12" extended remix, includes a number of the songs to which he
affixed his stamp on A Tom Moulton Mix (Soul Jazz). Meanwhile, Journey
into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story (Rhino) collects favorite songs of the
sonically adventurous DJ played during his residence at Manhattan's disco haven,
the Paradise Garage, as well as original productions and remixes by Levan. (Levan
died in 1992, at age 38.) Taken together, the two releases invite immersion into
the genre and provide a chance to hear even familiar songs as new.
his 1973 article, Aletti highlighted the song "Soul Makossa" by Cameroonian
musician Manu Dibango as "a perfect example of the genre" he was then calling
"discotheque rock." Drawing heavily from Fela Kuti's Afrobeat and (like Fela)
James Brown's horn section, "Soul Makossa" was limber dance music with a sparse,
conga-accented rhythm and a six-and-a-half minute playing time. Its length was
not accidental to its popularity, as it allowed dancers to stay on the floor
longer in order to soak in the rhythms. Three-minute radio singles just didn't
allow enough time for dancing.
Though he was never a DJ, Tom Moulton was the first to realize that those radio
singles themselves could be stretched out to meet the needs of the dance floor.
By splicing together reel-to-reel tape (and later by computer), Moulton gave the
songs longer intros, longer verses and, above all, longer breaks. Other remixers
like Walter Gibbons took tracks apart and recombined them, but Moulton didn't
fundamentally alter the surface of the records he remixed. He moved parts around
and spliced vocals, but most of what he did was simply to add measures and
repetition. On A Tom Moulton Mix, his touch can turn pop confections into
something hypnotic. At 11:14, his mix of Eddie Kendricks' "Keep on Truckin" is
more than three times its original length, and it feels like it could easily go
on for another five minutes. The remix emphasizes the polyrhythms and allows the
groove to settle in.
Moulton, who also wrote a column on disco in Billboard in the '70s, was a
booster of the genre with a populist sensibility. "Keep on Truckin" is not the
only easily recognizable song on his retrospective; see also "More, More, More"
by Andrea True Connection or "La Vie en Rose" by Grace Jones. His vision of
disco tends toward smooth and silky R&B, but he also incorporates rock sounds
with "Peace Pipe" by BT Express and Motown with the Detroit Emeralds' "Feel the
Need in Me."
Moulton is cosmopolitan and smooth, Journey into Paradise: The Larry Levan
Story is rougher-edged and polymorphous. With a handful of exceptions, few
of the tracks are well-known, and the effect is to create a sort of alternate
universe where synth-y beats, percussive guitars, and plaintive female vox are
the rule, where standards like "I Will Survive" or "We are Family" are a million
miles away. New York disco club Paradise Garage was considered a grittier
alternative to the glamorous/superficial Studio 54, and listening to Journey
into Paradise gives a number of disco tropes a sense of raw immediacy.
"Don't Make Me Wait" by the Peech Boys, released in 1982, is a microcosm of
Levan's musical vision, a fusion of funk and rock that combines trippy
echo-effects and synthesizer squeals with pianos and crunchy new-wave guitars.
The Peech Boys were one of Levan's projects as a musician and producer as well
as a DJ, and the track showcases his overall approach: the Catholic influences,
layered sonics, and gospel-influenced vocals.
In other places on the CD, the futurist synthetics that Levan was spinning in
the early '80s provide insight into current hip-hop production: the video game
sounds of David Joseph's "You Can't Hide (Your Love from Me)" could very nearly
pass for a Neptunes beat. A remix of Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music" stretches
the song out in much the same vein as Tom Moulton would, but it also plays with
the vocals, creating a DJ-ish stutter effect through the break.
The inclusion of The Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" on this compilation
seems left-field until you hear it as a part of the album's whole, where it
coheres perfectly. By the time of Remain in Light, David Byrne and co.
were rocking "black" rhythms and dance-y sounds, and hearing it here underlines
the point that influence always points in two directions.
In 1982, the British critic Simon Frith wrote in his book Sound Effects
that "Disco is dance music in the abstract, its content determined by its form."
This sells disco's content a little short. If content doesn't matter, why bother
hiring the horns sections and orchestras? Why the wailing R&B chanteuse or the
careful close harmonies in a song's chorus? But there is logic to Frith's
statement, because above all, dance music must be fun to dance to, and the
grassroots of the dance floor determine hits and flops. In many ways, electronic
dance music since disco has moved in the direction of increasing
abstraction. Think about the steady 4:4 pulse of techno, the use of synthetic
sounds instead of live instruments, or the explorations of the musical
properties of minimalism and repetition.
Disco, the first mainstream music to get comfortable with synthetic sounds,
began all that. Sleek, propulsive disco beats spawned not only house and techno
music, but also Afrika Bambaataa and much of hip-hop. The synthetic keyboards,
echo-effects, and digital tweaks of disco even found their way into rock music
through the advent of new wave. A Tom Moulton Mix and Journey into
Paradise are chances to listen to two influential figures in the genre as
they originated those musical ideas. They are also occasions to listen to disco
with new ears: to listen for nuance. -Robert Mentzer
* Robert Mentzer blogs about disco, hip-hop, politics, and pumpernickel bread at AMillionMonkeys.