They say there’s thin line between love and hate. We suspect that in the case of disco, that line might involve flashing lights a la the “Saturday Night Fever” dance floor — but the sentiment seems to hold true all the same. Goldmine’s writers Mike Greenblatt, John Borack and Dave Thompson share their list of songs that land on each side of the line (and, in Thompson’s case, a third list that appears to be straddling it.) And Chris M. Junior takes the opportunity to shine a light those memorable disco music unicorns known as instrumentals.
Where do you weigh in on disco-era music? Share your feedback in the comments below!
By Mike Greenblatt
Being born and raised on rock, I came late to the disco party, but I never subscribed to the subliminally racist “disco sucks” mentality. Everybody knows there’s only two types of music: good and bad. Here’s both in this particular genre.
• “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor: Great opening salvo that makes the tune —when it kicks in — ignite big time. All that and a lesson in female empowerment too. And check out the alt.rock version by Cake.
• “Bad Girls,” Donna Summer: She had major class in everything she did. This one was my favorite because I do love me some bad girls! Still makes my heart palpitate to this day. I’m such a mark for any bad girl who says, “Hey Mister …”
• “Shake Your Booty,” KC & The Sunshine Band: I sang this song in a New Jersey cover band and never got tired of it. Bruce Springsteen told me in 1978 that he loved it too, calling it the “Louie Louie” of its day.
• “Venus (Disco Version),” Frankie Avalon: The most crass attempt ever to cash in on a craze.
• Get Dancin’,” Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes: The lowest moment for Bob Crewe (of 4 Seasons fame) producing and co-writing this total piece of crap from game show host Monte Rock III masquerading as a soul singer.
By John Borack
• “Dancing Queen,” ABBA: It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. You can also sing along to it, and the production (love those strings!) positively shimmers.
• “Dazz,” Brick: “Dazz dazz, disco jazz,” they sing, and they also throw a bit of funk into the mix to sweeten the pot. Killer falsetto vocals on the verses, and a hi-hat-heavy backbeat that you just can’t lose. Glorious.
• “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty,” KC and the Sunshine Band: H.W. Casey’s ode to ass-wiggling is almost ridiculously repetitive, but it works, and better still, it holds up nearly 40 years after the fact. It seems rather naively innocent now, but back in the day, the lyrics actually caused some controversy.
• “Heart of Glass,” Blondie: The aural equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup – “You got rock and roll in my disco!” “You got disco in my rock and roll!” This is a stone classic, propelled by Clem Burke’s monster drumming and Debbie Harry’s kitten-ish purring.
• “Disco Lucy,” Wilton Place Street Band: Yes, it’s the beloved “I Love Lucy” theme dressed up in an obnoxiously stilted disco backbeat, with chipper female voices intoning “Let’s dance!” and “Dance, dance, disco Lucy” in a vain attempt to do…something. Rather than ask the obvious question – is nothing sacred? – we’ll simply say “Ay, yi, yi … somebody’s got some ‘splaining to do.”
• “Disco Duck,” Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiot: As if the female chorus rhyming “disco duck,” “try your luck” and “don’t be a cluck” isn’t bad enough, there’s the silly duck impersonation that was probably performed by some 7-year-old with a severe head cold. No truth to the rumor that the Cast of Idiots were the millions who purchased this record.
• “I Was Made For Loving You,” KISS: “Girl, I was made for you/girl, you were made for me/I was made for loving you, baby/you were made for loving me.” Sure, rock and roll (dressed down as disco) ain’t supposed to be Shakespeare, but it’s not supposed to be this unrelentingly infantile, either.
• “Born to be Alive,” Patrick Hernandez: Time can be very forgiving, and some one-off disco tunes from the ’70s that seemed silly at the time now seem rather quaint and catchy. This is not one of those songs.
By Dave Thompson
• “I Feel Love,” Donna Summer: It’s a cliché to say a record changed someone’s life, but every electro band (and fan) of the late ’70s owes this one a drink.
• “Turn The Beat Around,” Vicki Sue Robinson: For when you’ve just got to hear percussion.
• “YMCA,” Village People: It was a toss-up between this and the Floaters’ “Float On,” truly one of the worst records ever made. But, as this is probably the first time I’ve thought of that song in almost 35 years, it just seemed cruel to mention it now.
• “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” Meco: Hate the film, hate the soundtrack, hate disco. Put them altogether and – well, you can guess.
BETTER THAN EXPECTED:
• “Miss You,” Rolling Stones
• “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” Rod Stewart
• “Goodnight Tonight,” Wings
• “Fame,” David Bowie
by Chris M. Junior
Some of the best disco songs are all about the beat and the musicianship. These instrumentals and mostly vocal-free songs still have dance-floor appeal today.
1. “Pick Up the Pieces,” Average White Band: A popular tune in select U.S. discos toward the end of 1974, the R&B-grounded “Pick Up the Pieces” (produced by Arif Mardin) also appealed to mainstream music fans, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s pop-singles chart in 1975. Average in name only, this Scottish collective exemplifies teamwork with its distinct instrumental parts.
2. “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” MFSB: The longtime theme for TV’s “Soul Train” spent two weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop-singles chart in 1974. It’s propelled by the prototypical disco drumbeat. Earl Young, who played drums on this and many other Philadelphia International Records hits, is a founding member of The Trammps, best known for “Disco Inferno.”
3. “Love’s Theme,” Love Unlimited Orchestra: Oh, that Barry White. His music was undeniably seductive, with or without his distinctive voice. The romantic maestro’s string-laden backing ensemble glides gracefully through “Love’s Theme,” White’s first of two compositions — the other being “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” — to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974.
4. “Machine Gun,” The Commodores: Over time, Lionel Richie became the breakout star of The Commodores, but on this instrumental (the group’s first chart hit), composer and keyboardist Milan Williams shines the brightest. Williams’ crunchy clavinet playing reportedly inspired Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. to come up with the song’s title.
5. “Apache,” Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band: Released in 1972 and recorded by a bunch of session musicians, “Apache” technically predates the disco era, and it wasn’t a hit. But the music — thick keyboard flourishes and prominent horns over a funky drum pattern (played by Jim Gordon of Derek and the Dominos fame) that’s complemented by extended percussion sections (courtesy of bongo-conga standout King Errisson, a longtime Neil Diamond sideman) — is undeniably disco flavored. Its importance and influence has been recognized many times by the rap artists who’ve sampled it.