Disco’s back and two of its most famous monarchs—Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor—say there’s a reason for that
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NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE
Disco’s back and two of its most famous monarchs—Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor—say there’s a reason for that
Sequinned hot pants, 12-inch records, flashing mirror balls, gold platform shoes. While this may appear to be a description of a suburban garage sale or badly themed charity event, it’s actually a sign of the times. Yes, our times. In-the-know musicians and music labels alike are starting to say enough is enough to the mundane monikers of soft rock and the washed-and played-out unhipness of hip hop (thanks Justin Timberlake), and are embracing the comeback of one of the most popular styles of music ever: disco.
At the helm of this retro resurrection are two of the scene’s most famous monarchs— Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor. Both were crowned “Queen of Disco” in the ’70s and both are planning to release full-length albums in the next few weeks. Gaynor, whose new CD will feature a 30th anniversary rerecording of her 1978 smash hit I Will Survive (the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979), insists disco’s return “is by no means a coincidence.” “We need disco more than ever,” says the 58-year-old Gaynor, who’s been singing for four decades. Disco, Gaynor says, “is a glamorous break from strife, war and all the scary economic pressures that come up. No wonder people are going back to the club to dance. They need to relieve themselves from the world’s pressures. Look at the Dow Jones and the stock market! Face it, we are living in a disco déjà vu!”
Gaynor’s main dance-floor rival, the 59year-old Summer, sees another reason for the timing of disco’s return. “When I first started singing Love To Love You Baby, I saw repressed women all over the world throw their bras on stage during my act. They were craving the intimacyyou get when you are uninhibited. They acted like the bar was the bedroom and felt the need to expose their private moments
and secrets. Disco fulfilled that need and gave them a kind of body acceptance. With everyone striving to look so perfect nowadays, we could use a little bit of that thinking today.”
Summer’s May 30 release is Crayons—the first album of new material she’s recorded in almost two decades. With a major label (Sony BMG) backing her signature beat-driven brand of dance, the CD, which leads the June release of Grace Jones’s Corporate Cannibal, her first disc in 19 years, an untitled 12-track project from Martha Wash (of It’s Raining Men fame) and even an album of disco covers by the ’80s group Bananarama, is a sign that record companies are once again looking to turn the beat around to drive sales.
Summer’s bass-thumping single I’m A Fire has already hit No. 1 on a Billboard club chart. “This liberating style of music will be with us for as long as humans can move—we
just keep forgetting about it,” Summer says. “Lucidly, it’s getting rediscovered all over again right now but we have to thank the underground who found it, nurtured it and kept it alive all these years for that.”
To clarify, the “underground” Summer is referring to has nothing to do with John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever hustle or the VIP days of Bianca Jagger riding a white horse into Studio 54Rather it goes back to disco’s early days when New York’s hip loft parties were all the rage. Inspired by drumand bass-heavy music styles coming from Italian and Parisian clubs, these feel-mighty-real parties were primarily run by, and for, gay and gay-friendly crowds. The sound was a sped-up combo of soul and funk, which often mixed in strings, gospel voices and anthemic choruses. Much of the loft parties’ soundtrack dealt with issues of freedom, sex and sexuality and regularly wove in cheeky verses filled with campier-thanthou narratives. Whether it was Harlequinesque romances, lush one-nighters (followed by love hangovers) or the horny mating rituals of the hot tramps and the Casanovas, these anthems were pivotal to the gay communities’ developing identity.
One of the ’70s underground’s fiercest key players was Nona Hendryx, lead lyricist and contributing vocalist for the disco trio known as Labelle. Famous for recording the original version of the smash hit Lady Marmalade, Labelle—which then also
• consisted of gospel singer Sarah Dash and Patti LaBelle -was in a funky league of its own, mixing gospel, funk and rock into its bootie shakers. The troop’s futuristic, space-age image (think Buck Rogers meets Bob Mackie) and its progressive lyrical messages (which built on disco’s pleasure-is-politics ethos) struck the scene like a meteor. With politically charged dance tracks such as Shades of Difference, Get You Somebody New and striking disco versions of civil rights staples such as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Labelle pushed the envelope so far they made history as the first black contemporary vocal group to perform in New York’s famous Metropolitan Opera House in 1974-
Hendryx, who often was dubbed a disco rebel, challenged a number of her peers to push beyond the usual Love To Love You Baby line by writing verses that addressed feminism and equality head on. Having just announced the release of her own solo EP next month, as well as a full-on Labelle reunion record and tour for this fall, Hendryx (who has not recorded an album with LaBelle and Dash since the group’s breakup 32 years ago), explains the reason for her return: “It’s time to start pushing buttons again. Things are getting far too conservative.
“We never made music for approval,” says Hendryx. “On a social level, we always knew disco was provocative and brought people dancing together—from heads of state to rent boys—gay, straight, black, white, silver... whatever. It’s obvious that this kind of counterculture is starting to build up again in clubs, since in our early days disco, soul and funk music started out without the acceptance of the gatekeepers. Those radio, television, record companies and tastemakers no longer had the control because it was happening without them—whether they liked it or not. With the Internet growing, they are losing control again,” she explains. “You can start a movement now in your living room, without a corporate entity or a figurehead like Madonna or Michael Jackson. That’s what the younger crowd is doing, rediscovering the roots of disco.”
One boogie enthusiast who is getting known for raising the roof is Andrew Butler, 29, founder and producer of the Brooklyn-based music collective known as Hercules and Love Affair. His band’s latest self-titled disc—which also hits stores in June—contains all the sig-
nature sounds of disco: strings, lustful, longing lyrics, sharp electronic syncopation, heavy bass lines and goddess-like vocals. However, critics from all nooks and crannies have been lumping Butler with similar groups such as Montreal dance-floor duo Chromeo, Irish electro diva Róisín Murphy, and New York dance group the Juan MacLean, labelling them under a new musical category: “midisco.” “I don’t know if you can call it that,” Butler says. “Disco is dance music and it can always morph and change but it always seems new to me. It’s like cultural Botox. It freezes you into a youthful time where everything is glamorous.”
Beyond singers, songwriters and producers, disco is also doing some moving and shaking in the world of fashion and film.
The famous fashion house Halston—named after its founder and head designer Roy Halston Frowick (who died of AIDS complications in 1990)—was relaunched in February with the financial assistance of Hollywood czar Harvey Weinstein. Known for creating the signature disco look in the midto late’70s and early ’80s, Halston’s upscale clubwear was worn by the crème de la crème innovators of the dance floor, particularly Blondie’s Deborah Harry, Thelma Don’t Leave Me This Way Houston and all the sisters of Sister Sledge (who immortalized Roy by dropping his name into one of their greatest hits, He’s The Greatest Dancer). The newly resuscitated label’s fall/winter 2008 collection-created by Donatella Versace’s former right-hand designer, Marco Zanini—attracted
so much buzz that the house was able to presell outfits even before the collection took to the runway. Weinstein’s involvement with the label is not just for looks either: he’s planning to develop a documentary on Halston’s life. There’s also a biopic of the designer in the works.
Also coming up is a feature-length film as well as a musical based on Donna Summer’s autobiography, Ordinary Girl. Although Summer has kept mum on most of the details, she has confirmed that “both stage and film rights have been sold so it will be interesting what gets finished first.” Summer says she will have a say in who will be filling her famous silver platforms onscreen. “Beyoncé just did Dreamgirls so I’d like to find some-
one young who has their own thing going on—like Rihanna.”
Then there’s the documentary Wild Combination, currently on the film festival circuit, which tells the forgotten story of the disco composer Arthur Russell, who died of AIDS in 1992. “After listening to Russell’s work I felt compelled to make this film,” says its director, 25-year-old New Yorker Matt Wolf. “His own way of making music was so intuitive and ahead of its time. His influence can be heard in so much pop music today.”
Keeping the beat alive on the bookshelves is the Netherlands-based author Patrick Lejeune’s newly released and extremely comprehensive tome titled The Bootleg Guide To Disco Acetates, Funk, Rap and Disco Medleys, which chronicles with passionate detail thousands of songs from the ’70s. A book that took more than five years to complete, it includes dozens of interviews with some of the world’s greatest remixers and 12-inch collectors (including Montreal DJ Michel Gendreau, whose job was editing pivotal tracks into 45s for Canadian radio). After scouring the earth for the most devoted discophiles, Lejeune put up his own money and self-published the 350-page work this past February. To his surprise, a large number of bulk orders from the U.S. and Canada have been pouring in and Lejeune is in talks with a major publisher. “Finally,” he says, referm ring to the growing fascination with disco, g “I feel like the world is catching up.” NI 8
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