Sunday 21 January 2018

Music: Reflecting on magic mirror-ball days

It's been 40 years since disco's heady heydey, but its influence on music is still keenly felt

Perfect state of grace: Donna Summer's I Feel Love has been lauded as one of the greatest ever disco tracks
Perfect state of grace: Donna Summer's I Feel Love has been lauded as one of the greatest ever disco tracks
John Meagher

John Meagher

Fitzwilliam Lane is a modest street near Merrion Square in the heart of Dublin. Unless you have business down there, chances are you've never had reason to visit. But it was all so different four decades ago. In 1977, Fitzwilliam Lane was one of the top destinations in Ireland for lovers of disco because it was here that Barbarella's nightclub was based.

And in 1977, the first year in a 24-month period when disco ruled the world, Barbarella's was doing a roaring trade. Open seven nights a week, from 9.30pm to 3am, the queues would snake down the laneway. A magazine ad from the time - to be found on the always fascinating Brand New Retro website - promised nights to remember: "Dance to great sounds and watch our lovely water nymphs dance in the swimming pool."

Exotic ladies cavorting in water may not have been on offer at Zhivago's, another hugely popular club from the time that was located a few minutes' away near Baggot Street, but it was a another go-to place in Dublin for those keen to let their inner Olivia Newton-John or John Travolta out: Saturday Night Fever hit cinemas here in March 1978 and was nothing short of a sensation.

This year may mark the 40th anniversary of some of punk's most totemic albums - Never Mind the Bollocks, Damned Damned Damned and Rocket to Russia - but it was disco, rather than punk, that arguably made most impact at the time. Hugely influential as those albums from the Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Ramones undoubtedly are, it was Thelma Houston's cover of 'Don't Leave Me This Way', KC and the Sunshine Band's 'I Like To Do It' and the latest release from the prolific Boney M that the club kids were dancing to that year and were on constant rotation on the pirate radio stations that had become such a big deal in the latter half of the 1970s.

It's hard to dispute that much of disco was all surface, and many of its biggest hits really don't stand up to scrutiny today - 'More, More, More' from porn actress Andrea True being a case in point - but the era really should be reappraised because it left some wonderful music behind.

The union of Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and former American musical theatre actress Donna Summer delivered a batch of disco hits that changed the course of pop music, not least one of 1977's most arresting songs, 'I Feel Love'.

The critic Jon Savage, one of the foremost chroniclers of punk, has written beautifully on this seismic track. "'I Feel Love' was and remains an astonishing achievement: a futuristic record that still sounds fantastic... Within its modulations and pulses, it achieves the perfect state of grace that is the ambition of every dance record: it obliterates the tyranny of the clock - the everyday world of work, responsibility, money - and creates its own time, a moment of pleasure, ecstasy and motion that seems infinitely expandable, if not eternal."

And 1977 was the year that Chic released their hugely influential self-titled debut album, and the world was for the first time exposed to the genius of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers had for glamorous, hook-heavy songs with a hint of darkness. One of the great anecdotes of the time concerns the pair's failure to gain access to Studio 54 - New York's uber-cool nightclub whose door policy was infamous; humiliated, they went away and began work on a song built around the lyrics "aaaaaahhh... f*** off". The expletive soon gave way to "freak out" and 'Le Freak' was born. It topped the US chart in 1979.

Successful as both Summer and Chic were, when it came to chart glory, they paled when compared to the Bee Gees. The brothers had an astonishing run of hit singles in the late 1970s - they were responsible for writing and producing eight of 1978's number ones, something only Lennon and McCartney could rival (back in 1963/64). Their success, of course, came on the back of their soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever - one of the bestselling albums of all time, shifting 30 million copies.

Bob Stanley's marvellous history book of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeah, captures the oddness of the Bee Gees rise in the disco age. "Pin-ups in the late 1960s, makers of the occasional keening ballad hit in the early 1970s, the Bee Gees had no real contact with the zeitgest until, inexplicably, they had hits like 'Nights on Broadway', 'Stayin' Alive', 'Night Fever', and the zeitgeist suddenly seemed to emanate from them.

"This happened because they were blending white soul, R&B and dance music in a way that suited pretty much every club, every radio station, every American citizen in 1978."

Their dominance of the charts led to a backlash against disco, with the rock cognoscenti always at pains to point out the genre's limitations, and by the start of the 1980s, the trend had moved on.

But disco's imprint on music cannot be denied: From Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' 1973 hit 'The Love I Lost', one of the first disco songs ever cut (with a little help from Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff), to George McCrae's 'Rock Your Baby' - the first disco song to top the UK chart, in 1974, - and on to Earth, Wind & Fire's 'Boogie Wonderland', many of the songs fashioned then would help pave the way for some of today's biggest chart hits.

As Stanley writes: "While disco eventually fell harder and faster than any other major pop trend, it permanently altered the way that pop is processed; for the first time the pulse of pop became the most important factor in a hit record, and that hasn't gone away."

It certainly hasn't and the far-reaching possibilities of disco were shown in 1979 when the Sugarhill Gang liberally sampled Chic's 'Good Times' on their breakthrough 'Rapper's Delight'.

Barbarella's, Zhivago's and, indeed, Studio 54 may be long gone, but the sounds that boomed within their four walls live on.

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