Disco madness analyzed...the disco sound revealed...trendy platters
by Vince Aletti
NEW YORK -- It's not easy to pin down the disco craze with figures. As one
independent mixer of disco singles explained, "The numbers are growing so
fast. Every day I get four or five invitations to grand openings of new
clubs." But even the rough estimates of disco scene observers are revealing:
2000 discos from coast to coast, 200 to 300 in New York alone -- the
uncrowned capital of dancing madness, where an estimated 200,000 dancers make
the weekly club pilgrimage. And when disco people like a record, it can
become a hit -- regardless of radio play. Take Consumer Rapport's "Ease On
down the Road." Released on tiny Wing and a Prayer Records, it sold more than
100,000 copies in New York in its first two weeks before it was picked up on
Discos and what has come to be known as disco music have turned out to be, if
not the Next Big Thing everyone in the music business was waiting for, then
the closest thing to it in years. Discos have opened in old warehouses, steak
restaurants, unused hotel ballrooms and singles bars... any place you could
stick a ceiling full of flashing, colored lights, a mirrored ball, two
turntables, a battery of speakers, a mixer and a DJ. In a recession economy,
they're a bargain both for the club owner -- who has few expenses after his
initial setup investment and an average $50-a-night salary to the DJ -- and
the patrons, who can dance nonstop all night for a fraction of the cost of a
But the spread of disco music, especially in the last year and a half, has
outpaced even the growth of discos themselves. Though the new music evolved
from the hard dance records of the Sixties -- primarily Motown and James
Brown -- the direction has been away from the basic, hard-edged brassy style
and toward a sound that is more complex, polished and sweet. If one style
dominates now, it's the Philadelphia Sound, which is rich and elegant, highly
sophisticated and tightly structured but full of punch. The Philadelphia
producers are the masters at using strings energetically, to boost as well as
soften the arrangements, and they've perfected the glossy sound with Harold
Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O'Jays, the Trammps, the Three Degrees and
Blue Magic. Gamble & Huff and the other busy producers working out of Philly
have also excelled in keeping their songs lyrically sharp and involving,
while much other disco music had reduced lyrics to repeated words or simple
verses. But disco music now includes so many different styles, tied together
only by a consistent danceable beat, that its definition has to be a broad
The discos' most obvious influence on music has been the length of records.
The best disco music is full of changes and breaks, which allow for several
shifts of mood or pace within one song and usually open up long instrumental
passages. If the break works, it becomes the pivot and anticipated peak of
the song -- like the sudden stop and gradual rebuild, instrument by
instrument, in Eddie Kendricks's "Girl You Need a Change of Mind," still one
of the best dance records ever made. It's hard to develop an effective build
and break within a short record. As long as the beat is tight and involving
and the texture of the changes is rich and diverting, a song may run up to
ten minutes, given the indulgent mood on dance floors.
So "disco version" or "disco mix" means primarily that the record is longer
than the version released for radio play, though it may also mean that the
cut is specifically mixed for a "hotter," brighter sound. Disco DJs are much
more concerned with the technical quality of the records they play than their
radio counterparts, rejecting otherwise danceable singles because of the
deadness of their mix or their loss of distinction at high volumes. This
passion for quality has had its effect: Both Atlantic and Scepter have put
selected single cuts on 12-inch discs at 33 1/3 for best reproduction at top
Even if the disco scene eventually self-destructs on its own success, it
remains diverse and open enough to revitalize and redirect itself. Disco DJs
-- the people who made all the musical connections in the first place,
pulling together the different sounds that make up the total disco sound --
are too adventurous to be pinned down to music biz definitions of "disco."
Already they've gotten heavily into European imports like Banzaii's "Chinese
Kung-Fu" and Bimbo Jet's "El Bimbo." And there are so many young producers
hooked up into the disco sound that the ready-made formulas may fall by the
What follows is a selection of the best disco music out right now. Most of
these albums are designed specifically for disco play; few, if any, fall prey
to disco cliches!
HEART OF THE CITY - Barrabas (Atco SD36-118)
What might be called the European Eclectic sound is becoming very popular in
New York discos, and Barrabas, a six-man group from Spain, is one of its
prime exponents. Though they've had great success with certain album cuts in
the past, most recently "Hijack," this is the first of their albums to stand
up as a whole. The vocals are rough, rock-style, but the music ranges all
over, taking Latin, jazz, Philly soul and L.A. rock elements and arranging
them in all possible combinations. Particularly effective: "Family Size,"
"Checkmate" and a coolly refreshing change-of-pace instrumental called
SAVE ME - Silver Convention (Midland International BKL1-1129)
European Eclectic taken in another direction by a German group fronted by
sweet, ethereal female voices which are mainly confined to simple chorus work
over very pretty, lightly choppy, string-heavy productions. Not a lot of
variety or content but the mood is so ecstatic and spacey it's as
irresistible as a floor full of down cushions. Try all of side one,
especially the title cut.
DISCO BABY - Van McCoy & The Soul City Symphony (Avco AV-69006-698)
Prime cut here is "The Hustle," the bright, shimmering instrumental that
helped popularize the dance of the same name. Also included are respectable
instrumental versions of a number of disco standards ("Get Dancin',"
"Doctor's Orders," "Fire," "Pick Up the Pieces"), but it's the Van McCoy
originals -- an outrageous "Turn This Mother Out" and a spicey "Spanish
Boogie" plus "The Hustle" -- that make this one of the year's best disco
FAITH, HOPE & CHARITY (RCA APL1-1100)
Van McCoy again, this time as a writer/producer/arranger for a one-man,
two-woman trio which sounds like a classic and classy girl group (very much,
in fact, like Ecstasy, Passion & Pain, one of last year's major disco debut).
The music is typically bright and sharp, the message solidly optimistic. At
seven minutes and 21 seconds, the remake of "Little Bit of Love" (previously
cut for Brenda & the Tabulations -- where are they now? -- by McCoy) seems
overextended rather than heightened, but much of the rest is excellent,
particularly "To Each His Own" which captures the attitude of the discos as
plainly as Everyday People's "I Like What I Like" did a few years ago. And
along with a song called "Let's Go to the Disco," there's one about a disco
DJ called "Disco Dan": "From his booth each night he blows your mind/With his
mix and his tricks." McCoy knows where his market is.
INSIDES OUT - Hamilton Bohannon (Dakar DK76916)
The most distinctive and intriguing of the disco instrumentalists, Bohannon
is a former Motown studio musician now making music like no one else's. Here,
on the three cuts on side one (all over five minutes, with the best, "Foot-
Stompin' Music," running 7:15), he simply falls into an easy groove and
holds to it relentlessly, adding a few sparse vocals that are like laid-back
chants, cooled out tribal calls from the new sophisticated urban jungle. It's
all somehow simultaneously boring and compelling, especially on the dance
floor. Side two is even more puzzling: three cuts of gorgeous easy-listening
fluff and a final bouncy sendoff called "Happy Feeling." Fascinating.
UNIVERSAL LOVE - MFSB (Philadelphia International KZ 33158)
MFSB is the infinitely variable backbone of the Philadelphia Sound, the
hottest studio band anywhere -- and it helps having producers like Gamble &
Huff and Bobby Martin. Though it lacks anything as magnificent as "Love Is
the Message" or as exciting as "TSOP," the album doesn't contain anything as
boring as much of the group's first two releases. In short, it's their most
consistent and thoroughly listenable album even if the high spots ("Sexy,"
"MFSB," "T.L.C.," "K-Jee") aren't as high as one might wish. Also included" a
cut called "Let's Go Disco" in which that phrase alone is repeated; they also
know where the market is.
GEORGE McCRAE (TK 602)
McCrae's sweet, high sound has gotten a little tougher since "Rock Your
Baby," but it hasn't varied the formula -- one of the most copied in black
music -- that much. The songs on the first album all sounded alike, but at
least they were consistently good; here they sound just slightly different
and that opens they way for a few losers. Music is by KC & the Sunshine Band,
though the drummer, who never lets up on the hi-hats, must be a robot. In
spite of all this, it's quite pleasant, especially "I Ain't Lyin'" and "Honey
I (I'll Live My Life for You).
NON-STOP - B.T. Express (Scepter/Roadshow RS-41001)
B.T. Express's first album, Do It Til You're Satisfied, was one of the
surprises of 1974 and this one more than holds up their rep for hard-edged
city soul. "Peace Pipe," the longest cut (6:04), combines a peace and love
message with a dope-smoking double meaning -- the repeated chorus: "Put it in
your peace pipe, smoke it all up" -- that is bound to make it as pervasive as
"Express" was. Sure to be one of the biggest black albums of the year.
TRAMMPS (Golden Fleece KZ 33163)
Perhaps the definitive Philadelphia disco group, the Trammps continue to be
especially popular in clubs because they haven't yet made the crucial
crossover to pop and haven't been spoiled by exposure aboveground. Also,
they're one of the best male groups around. This album, their first, collects
Trammps singles from the past few years, going back to their energetic "Love
Epidemic," already a disco classic, and including "Where Do We Go from Here,"
"Trusting Heart" and "Stop and Think," a lovely model of Philadelphia
coolness and restraint that is one of the best dance cuts so far this year.
Production is by Ron Baker, Norman Harris and Earl Young, sharpest of the
Philadelphia B teams (Young is also a drummer/vocalist for the Trammps),
which means, as the credits so succinctly put it, "Music by: MFSB."
DISCO GOLD (Scepter SPS 5120)
This is the best of the disco repackages yet released because it contains the
most hard-to-get material in specially remixed, reedited and, in most cases,
lengthened versions. There are four cuts to a side, all over four minutes,
most over five, and including a knockout, 6:34 "Make Me Believe in You" by
Patti Jo (originally written and produced by Curtis Mayfield), Ultra High
Frequency's classic "We're on the Right Track" expanded to 5:17, "Arise and
Shine" and "I Love You, Yes I Do" by the Independents and George Tindley's
"Wan Tu Wah Zuree" which is distressingly like the Ultra-Sheen commercial but
a sociological gem. On the package's back cover, there's a long list of over
200 names from around the country under the heading, "THANKS, FOR WITHOUT
YOUR HELP THIS ALBUM WOULD NOT BE POSSIBLE." Well, well.
DISC-O-TECH - Various Artists (Motown)
Also worth looking up are these Motown collections. Disc-O-Tech #1 is
actually predisco sound, back there with "Dancing in the Streets,"
"Roadrunner" and Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It through the Grapevine" and nine
others, including, God knows why, the short single version of Eddie
Kendricks's "Girl, You Need a Change of Mind." Collection #2 is more recent
and more unpredictable: Kendricks's great "Date with the Rain," G.C.
Cameron's overlooked "No Matter Where," "Bad Weather" by the Supremes, the
Temptations' "Law of the Land" and seven others. But the most interesting is
a third package called The Magic Disco Machine (Motown M6-821S1) which is all
instrumental -- new material made just for the album plus tracks from
unreleased or little-known records in the vaults. The best is a jumpy Frank
Wilson production called "Control Tower," followed by "Window Shopping," a
nice Hal Davis number. Nothing to scream about, but quite solid altogether.
- Rolling Stone, 8/28/75.
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