For most of the 80s through the 00s, most people were nostalgic for the 70s by virtue of classic rock. The 70s were the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It was the era when people worshipped stadium shows and long drawn-out solos. Here is a just a brief rundown of hall-of-fame acts that were peaking during that time:
- The Who
- The Rolling Stones
- Led Zeppelin
- Jethro Tull
- Alice Cooper
- Pink Floyd
- Black Sabbath
- Deep Purple
It was also an ecclectic period. The early 70s were also host to soft-rock like The Carpenters or gentle singer-songwriters like Jim Croce and Cat Stevens. The early 70s was also the period when funk came of age.
I am not an expert on all things disco, but it sure seems to me that it spawned out of funk/R&B. It’s mostly the case of taking funk and giving it more of a straight danceable beat as well as changing around some of the arrangements. Don’t ask me why so much disco contains whistles and violins. It just does, and that aspect was always something that annoyed me when it came on the scene, as these things seemed to have no place in anything resembling fashionable music.
The disco era was not just about music but also a look and an attitude. The disco outfit was really the original metrosexual for guys, and everyone seemingly adopted the look and the attitude. Like, here is Rush at their most uncool.
When I think of the disco aesthetic, though, I don’t think of music, but rather Buck Rogers.
While classic rock was lampooned in Spinal Tap, the sins of pretentiousness seem mild compared to the shamelessly campy decadence and worthless cheese of disco.
As music, this reached its apex with Meco and its various disco versions of theme songs, like Star Wars:
Disco was never universally embraced but by 1979 a backlash began, via Disco Demolition Night. Like any era, things don’t necessarily stop on a dime, though. Music tends to evolve and mutate. However much it may have seemed as though disco had just died, in fact it had been incorporated into 80s new wave and synth-pop. Yes, gone were the whistles and the violins, but the beat-centric nature remained.
Some acts attempted to incorporate the sound into their act with varying degrees of success. For instance, KISS had a huge hit with I Was Made For Lovin’ You, and yet it seriously divided its power-rock fanbase. But there’s no denying the song has major hooks.
Mick Jagger adopted the Bee Gees falsetto for Emotional Rescue in a way that sounds more like an intentional parody than a serious song.
Eventually acts like Michael Jackson, Rick James, Duran Duran, Blondie, all of them held onto aspects of disco. Synth pop acts merely replaced acoustic instruments with synths. The style shifted from spandex to skinny-ties and shoulder pads and guyliner, but if you listen closely, the beats are still heavily influenced by dance music.
The reason why 80s synth-pop seems less dated than disco is that it was the first wave of truly electronic music, and that lineage of electronic music carries us all the way up to today’s EDM acts like Daft Punk.
Now you can see where all this is leading. Daft Punk is the avenue by which disco has been rehabilitated. Random Access Memories was their most passionate statement on behalf of disco, just as much as, let’s say, a rock act like Aerosmith or the Stones making a blues album is their way of honoring their influence.
This all came to a head with this song in particular:
The reason I’m making the post is that Nile Rogers is about to get inducted into the rock hall of fame. There’s some controversy surrounding this as they’re snubbing his band Chic. I think the reason they’re only honoring him is due to his illustrious producing career in which he was associated with acts like Bowie (recently departed) and Madonna.
It’s interesting to note about Bowie how Let’s Dance became a critical albatross for him after the sales tapered off. People criticized him for being a sellout and the music lacking depth. But I think in retrospect the reason disco (and to a lesser extent, 80s synth pop) has been misunderstood is due to unfair expectations.
The one real innovation with disco surrounded the evolution of studio hardware in the mid 70s. It was becoming possible to make much higher fidelity recordings with more tracks. You can hear this in other genre as well, like Steely Dan or Pink Floyd, a sort of audiophile emphasis on the soundscape. Disco did this within the dance music sphere.
This, I believe, is why Daft Punk are so into this era, and why they were so anal-retentive in the way they went about recording Random Access Memories with its combination of airy analog and dry digital instruments.
The depth of disco therefore rests mostly in the soundscape and the syncopated beats and not in deep lyrics or arching guitar solos. Not only that, but disco typically has an energetic, upbeat, playful vibe to it whereas rock is often dark and angry and depressing. The carefree and uplifting vibe of disco, the optimism, is a big reason why I think it has gotten a second look after all these years, as people (including myself) are desperate for a pick-me-up. Get Lucky was the perfect storm of hitting all those buttons at once.
As someone who came to hate disco as much as anyone else back in the day, I want to now say that I was wrong. Disco isn’t something I’m always in the mood for, but when I need something with a positive and energetic vibe to it, it hits the spot. So, congrats to Nile Rogers!