Submitted to the Graduate College of Bowling Green State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
MASTER OF MUSIC
Jeremy Wallach, Advisor
All Rights Reserved
Jeremy Wallach, Advisor
Think I’m Sexy“; and Elton John’s Thom Bell Sessions and Victim of Love. Though disco-rock was a great commercial success during the disco era, it has received limited acknowledgement in post-disco scholarship.
This thesis addresses the lack of existing scholarship pertaining to disco-rock. It examines both disco and disco-rock as products of cultural shifts during the 1970s. Disco was linked to the emergence of underground dance clubs in New York City, while disco-rock resulted from the increased mainstream visibility of disco culture during the mid seventies, as well as rock musicians’ exposure to disco music. My thesis argues for the study of a genre
(disco-rock) that has been dismissed as inauthentic and commercial, a trend common to popular music discourse, and one that is linked to previous debates regarding the social value of pop music. The result is a study that compiles the work of previous disco scholars and provides a first step towards the study of disco-rock within the social and musical culture of the 1970s.
I would like to dedicate this to Katherine Meizel and Jeremy Wallach for freeing me from my rock ideology, to my parents for always supporting me, and to Amanda for constantly reassuring me that everything is going to be alright.
There are many people to whom I owe thanks. The College of Musical Arts at Bowling
Green State University gave me a supportive environment that allowed me to explore my research interests to the fullest extent. I also owe thanks to the music faculty (Dr. Papanikolou,
Dr. Corrigan, Dr. Trantham, Dr. Menard, and Dr. Fallon) for building on my undergraduate education and introducing me to new avenues of scholarship, and to Dr. Cooper for chatting with me about the Beatles, Elvis, and comic books when I needed to take my mind off of my work. I thank Dr. Harnish and Dr. Duchan for providing me with the history and tools of ethnomusicology that prepared me for this project. I would also like to express my gratitude towards my advisors, Dr. Katherine Meizel and Dr. Jeremy Wallach, for immensely improving my grasp of popular music scholarship, as well as their unwavering guidance during this process.
I owe thanks to those who participated in this project via interviews. In particular, I would like to thank Dave Thompson for providing me with his detailed recollections of the disco era, and Ron
Gerber for his immensely informative radio shows.
I thank my parents for their unwavering support of whatever path I choose, and for exposing me to so many varied genres of music in my youth. Finally, I would like to thank my fiancé Amanda, who has consistently been at my side throughout this entire process.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER ONE. A COMMERCIAL HISTORY OF DISCO AND ITS PRECURSORS….. 8
Authenticity i n P opular M usic……………………………………………………...... 8
Disco’s P recursors….…………………………………………………………………. 12
A Brief History of Disco……………………………………………………………… 17
CHAPTER TWO. WORKS BY SELECTED DISCO-ROCK ARTISTS………………….. 25
David Bowie - Young Americans…………………………………………………….. 26
The Rolling Stones - “Hot Stuff” to “Emotional Rescue”……………………………. 30
KISS - “Strutter ‘78’” and “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”………………………….... 35
Elton John - The Thom Bell Sessions and Victim of Love……………………………. 39
Rod Stewart - “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”…………………………………………….. 42
CHAPTER THREE. ARGUMENTS FOR DISCO-ROCK’S INCLUSION WITHIN DISCO
Disco and Authenticity………………………………………………………………. 48
What is Disco?...... 52
Disco as a Musical Style……………………………………………………………... 54
Disputing Disco’s Narrative of Expressive Authenticity……………………………. 57
APPENDIX. A SELECTED DISCO-ROCK DISCOGRAPHY…………………………...... 68
This project came about unintentionally as the result of a class taken during my first year
in the graduate program at BGSU. While enrolled in Dr. Jeremy Wallach’s Music and Sexuality class, I decided to write a research paper on rock musicians in the genre of disco. We had
devoted an entire class period to disco earlier in the semester. I chose to examine the genre in the
also because of my fondness for songs such as “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones and “Young
Americans” by David Bowie. While researching this paper, I found that any serious discussion of
rock artists’ disco-oriented material was frequently reduced to a passing mention (if not omitted
entirely) in most of their biographies, as well as scholarly writings on disco. After completing the
assignment, I was sufficiently intrigued by this hole in the literature to continue my research for
I began by assembling whatever writings I could find on what I have come to refer to as
“disco-rock” (disco-crossover recordings by rock artists). I found that there were a limited
number of sources that discussed this phenomenon, and none that focused on it exclusively. I
studied the key scholarly texts that focus on disco as well as seminal articles written by both
journalists and scholars since the 1970s. In addition, I spent a year immersing myself in disco’s
Philly soul. Due to my status asa straight, white male who was raised primarily in the Midwest,
my attraction to disco may seem puzzling. However, I have a strong affinity for funk and soul
music as both a listener and a musician, thanks in part to my parents’ eclectic musical tastes. As viii such, I view disco as a logical progression of these genres, in addition to appreciating it on its own merits.
This thesis is rooted in ethnomusicology, in that it examines disco and disco-rock within the culture of the era and as products of cultural shifts during the 1970s. Disco developed out of emerging dance club culture in New York City. Disco-rock resulted from the increased mainstream visibility of disco culture during the mid seventies, as well as rock musicians’ exposure to disco music. My thesis argues for the study of a genre (disco-rock) that has been dismissed as inauthentic and commercial, a trend common to popular music discourse, and one that is linked to previous debates regarding the social value of pop music. The result is a study that compiles the work of previous disco scholars and provides a first step towards the study of disco-rock within the social and musical culture of the 1970s. .
The 1970s saw not only the growth of rock and the rise of disco, but a subgenre influenced by both. Disco-rock, composed of disco-influenced recordings by rock artists, was a sub-genre of both disco and rock in the 1970s. Seminal recordings included: David Bowie’s
Young Americans; The Rolling Stones’ “Hot Stuff,” “Miss You,” “Dance Pt.1,” and “Emotional
Rescue”; KISS’s “Strutter ’78,” and “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”; Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya
Think I’m Sexy“; and Elton John’s Thom Bell Sessions and Victim of Love. Though disco-rock was a great commercial success during the disco era, it has received limited acknowledgement in post-disco scholarship. There is a small but comprehensive body of literature available on the history and aesthetics of disco, and overview of these writings reveals that disco-rock is seldom praised and occasionally omitted from scholarship after 1980.
The earliest important writings on disco are journalistic articles by Vince Aletti, a music critic who wrote for Rolling Stone, Village Voice, and Record World, where he penned a weekly column from 1974-79. Aletti’s writings include “Discotheque Rock ’73: Paaaaarty!” (1973) and
“Dancing Madness” (1975), both written for Rolling Stone, as well as “I Won’t Dance, Don’t
Ask Me” (1976) in The Village Voice. Other contemporaneous articles on disco include Barbara
Graustark’s “Disco Takes Over” (1979) in Newsweek and Stephen Holden’s “The Evolution of a
Dance Craze”(1979) in Rolling Stone. Disco-rock appears regularly in these articles after 1975
(when David Bowie’s Young Americans was released) and is met with little of the bias that marks the beginnings of disco scholarship. The dissenting voice of the era comes from Andrew
Kopkind’s “The Dialectic of Disco: Gay Music Goes Straight” (1979) in The Village Voice, in 2
which a popular DJ discusses a divide between “gay” and “straight” forms of disco. This
dichotomy would return in modified form to later scholarship.
One of the first scholarly works to discuss disco was Arnold Shaw’s Black Popular
Music in America (1986). Shaw provides a succinct but informative essay on the key artists and recordings of the genre during the mid to late 1970s. Unfortunately, he does not cite any recordings prior to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” or the influence of Philadelphia soul. Shaw acknowledges the disco-rock recordings of the Rolling Stones and others, but dismisses their contributions as a passing fad. The Death of Rhythm and Blues (1988) by Nelson
George also provides an overview of African-American popular music during the twentieth century, giving particular attention to the role of “black” radio stations in marketing new artists.
However, George takes a critical view of both white and black musicians, claiming that black artists’ desire to achieve crossover (in this instance, “black” music that can successfully be marketed to white audiences) has resulted in watered-down styles of African-American music
that are easily appropriated by white artists. In particular, he praises the sounds of funk and early
Philly soul1 while claiming that later Eurodisco and the stagnation of the Philadelphia sound,
“combined to de-funk disco and turn it into a sound of mindless repetition and lyrical idiocy that,
with exceptions, overwhelmed R&B” (George 1988, 153-154). Along with his condemnation of
disco, George gives brief attention to disco-rock, labeling the participants as having “cynically“
appropriated the disco style. The commentary of Shaw and George was a definite change to the
inclusive disco writings of the 1970s, marking both indifference (Shaw) and hostility (George)
1 George also directly connects Philly soul records such as Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost,” as well as extended funk recordings by Eddie Kendricks (“Keep on Trucking”) and others to the development of disco. His book is the earliest academic work that I have read to do so. This narrative was embraced by later authors. 3 towards disco-rock, though they refrain from directly commenting on the quality of the music.
These two extremes of opinion would remain prevalent in later disco scholarship.
The 1990’s saw the beginning of scholarship devoted exclusively to disco. Walter
Hughes’s “In the Empire of the Beat” (1994) emphasized disco’s links to gay culture and the importance of the beat as the genre’s primary characteristic, although he omits discussion of virtually all crossover artists. Conversely, Anne-Lise Francois’s “Fakin' It/Makin' It: Falsetto's
Bid for Transcendence in 1970s Disco Highs” (1995) discusses the prevalence of falsetto in disco as a musical form of expression that transcends genre boundaries, making significant positive references to the Bee Gees in a rare positive acknowledgment of disco crossover. This sentiment was not shared by Will Brewster and Frank Broughton’s Last Night a DJ Saved My
Life (1999), which chronicles the history of disk jockeys from the beginnings of commercial radio to contemporary DJ-performance artists Paul Oakenfold and Fatboy Slim. They bring to light rock music’s role in dance clubs while deriding disco-rock as “has-been rock artists. . .
[who] knocked out a tune or two and found fresh success” (1999, 167). This reductionist assessment of disco-rock would continue in subsequent scholarship.
The 21st century marked a renewed interest in disco with several scholarly works devoted specifically to the subject. Peter Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day: a History of American Dance
Music Culture, 1970-1979 (2003) provides an extensive history of disco’s development.
“The Loft” dance club, the alleged site of New York’s first underground dance party, advertised as “Love Saves the Day”), who was interviewed extensively for this book. The book focuses on the histories of Studio 54 and the Loft, and provides great insight into the tastes and techniques of New York’s most acclaimed DJs, producers, and club owners. Lawrence also cites rock’s 4
presence in club playlists during both the early and later disco era. Disco-rock is mentioned
briefly and embodied solely by Rod Stewart, whose “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is praised but also
criticized for maintaining rock’s straight-male ideology (2003, 330). Peter Shapiro’s Turn the
Beat Around: the Secret History of Disco (2005) gives more attention to disco’s musical qualities, putting forth the thesis that the dance floor was an escape for minorities (including homosexuals, blacks, and latinos) from the decaying condition of New York. To this effect, he grounds his discussion in US history and politics, as well as a critical examination of the music itself. Shapiro is aligned with Brewer and Broughton in his critique of disco-rock. Disco scholarship leading up to 2005 is united in a uniform emphasis on a handful of artists who are connected to the disco’s early years and the Eurodisco style. These artists include Donna
Disco scholars were largely unified in this focus until publication of Alice Echols’s Hot
Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (2010). Echols acknowledges the writing of
Lawrence and Shapiro early on, stating their influence on while admitting her intent to contest their views, particularly the past categorizations of “good” and “bad” disco (represented in part by past scholarly attitudes towards disco-rock). She suggests a new model for disco scholarship in which previously neglected sub-genres are given equal recognition. She also adds additional emphasis on the role of women in disco (as DJs and patrons) and relates her own experiences as a disco DJ at Ann Arbor’s Rubaiyat. Echols links her insights on disco’s past with observations disco’s influence on recent, mainstream pop musicians such as Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed
Peas. She provides positive commentary on the role of disco-rock throughout, making her the first disco scholar to do so consistently. 5
I propose that this discrepancy in disco scholarship with regards to disco-rock and
crossover disco conforms to discourses of authenticity in popular music. A discourse of
authenticity is one that concerns the need to identify objects as real and genuine. Prior to the age
of mechanical reproduction, the term “authentic” was used to differentiate original works of art
from forgeries made by copyists. In this sense, “authentic” was linked to the provenance of a
work of art: a specific, verifiable quality (Dutton 2003). However, the age of mechanical
reproduction in industrialized societies has resulted in a culture in which mass produced works of
art such as visual media and music are understood by some as lacking an original object that
qualifies as “authentic” (Benjamin 1963). In light of these developments, modern discourses of
authenticity focus on relative, intangible qualities such as “truth,” “purity,” and “realness,” while
shunning music that is considered “commercial,” a quality associated with “fakeness” (Jensen,
Discourses of authenticity in popular music can be traced back to rock music’s culture of authenticity, also referred to as “rock ideology” (Frith 1981). Rock authenticity privileges music
that is made for artistic or non-commercial reasons, even if the music is sold as a commercial
product. Keir Keightley has linked rock authenticity to both Romantic ideals of tradition and
sincerity, and Modernist ideas of experimentation and elite artists (2001, 136). Regina Bendix also relates this to folklore studies, stating that the positive connotations of “folk” authenticity lead to subsequent demand and market value, which are connected to commercialization and
inauthenticity (Bendix 1997, 9). This opposition of authentic vs. commercial has heavily influenced popular music criticism, as well as notions of authenticity in disco scholarship.
Disco’s discourse of authenticity is a pattern in which artists and sub-genres that are perceived as true disco are associated with underground dance club culture, and are favored over 6
others that were deemed commercial and fake once the genre took off in the recording industry.
Disco is portrayed as an art form that was once pure (true disco “did not know it was disco”) but
was eventually diluted by crossover artists and commercial interests (Brewer and Broughton,
1999, Lawrence 2003). Like many narratives of authenticity in popular music, this point of view fails to acknowledge that authentic disco music was also a commercial enterprise, as were the dance clubs where it was played. The concept of pure disco (implying that disco once existed in an untouched, protean form) also runs contrary to disco’s development out of prior African-
American genres of music. Later scholarship has also emphasized the importance of disco to the gay community (Murphy 1994, Lawrence 2003, Shapiro 2005), further alienating crossover artists who were perceived as appealing to straight audiences (Echols, 2010). Discourse about inauthenticity led to criticism not only of disco artists, but also of pop and rock artists who recorded disco-influenced music in the 1970s.
Disco-rock has been criticized by past disco scholars as a pale imitation of the real thing
(“In these latter-days of disco,” write Will Brewster and Frank Broughton, “there were an astonishing number of bad records produced, mostly exploitive cash-ins by artists who knew nothing about the music (other than the restorative power that it might exert on their careers)”)
(Brewster and Broughton 1998, 167). Disco-rock has also been accused of lacking expressive authenticity and has been judged “cynical” (George 1988) and “exploitive.” True disco is prized for its perceived avoidance of commercialization and dominance in the underground club scene.
This contradicts the commercial forces that drove early disco, as well as rock music’s documented involvement in the early club scene. I contest this view of disco authenticity, and argue that the works of disco-rock listed previously represent equally valid and authentic contributions to disco. 7
This thesis is not a comprehensive survey of recordings by rock artists in the disco style.
It is a first step towards examining the historical relevance of disco-rock, through the analysis of a selected group of recordings that have received only passing mention in the past, and toward developing a perspective that acknowledges this sub-genre’s contribution to music history. In light of the revisionist, exclusionary nature of much disco scholarship, I propose a reconsideration of disco-rock, based on disco’s contradictory discourse of authenticity, rock’s documented presence in the early disco scene, and disco-rock’s unique musical contributions, made within the parameters of disco’s musical language.
The first chapter will discuss the primary concepts of authenticity in popular music, followed by a history of disco and its precursors to provide context for the reader, with an emphasis on the role of commercialism in both. The second examines seminal recordings in disco-rock by David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, KISS, Rod Stewart, and Elton John, highlighting the expressive authenticity of their work via connections to disco and its precursors, as well as their unique contributions to disco-rock. The third chapter assembles historical and scholarly perspectives on disco authenticity, followed by arguments for disco-rock’s reevaluation in future disco scholarship.
CHAPTER ONE. A COMMERCIAL HISTORY OF DISCO AND ITS PRECURSORS
Disco scholarship is rooted in “true” disco’s status as a “pure” style of music, while
disco-rock and other crossover styles have been judged “insincere” and “commercial.” These
labels are the product of authenticity narratives that have been applied to multiple genres of
music, rooted in discourses of art and industry. Disco-rock has been labeled a commercial style of inauthentic disco, implying that true disco is a non-commercial style that once existed in an unadulterated form. In fact, disco was the product of three commercially oriented precursors that eventually emerged as a distinct style during the mid-seventies. Similarly, recent histories of authentic disco attempt to depict the “co-optation” of the genre by commercial interests, implying that a subsection of disco remained untouched by commercial forces (Brewer and
Broughton 1999, Lawrence 2003, Shapiro 2005). However, this view obscures disco music’s own role as a commercial product, as well as the profit-driven nature of the clubs in which it was played.
This chapter will introduce the discourse of authenticity in popular music as outlined by
Joli Jensen, with an explanation of how these concepts apply to scholarly discourses of disco music. I will then provide a history of disco to establish the context for my argument. This history will highlight disco’s roots in commercially oriented precursors, as well as the commercial nature of “authentic” disco.
Authenticity in Popular Music
There are several concepts of authenticity that are commonly used in the definition and criticism of popular music. Joli Jensen introduces a model of Authenticity, Commercialism, and 9
Genre in her book The Nashville Sound that can be applied to discourses of authenticity and genre in popular music. Jensen writes that,
Authenticity and commercialization are vague and flexible concepts. To call something authentic is to say that it is “real,” implying that that it is also sincere, trustworthy, spontaneous. To call something inauthentic is to say that it is fake, insincere, untrustworthy, unspontaneous. Commercialization implies that something once done for other reasons is now being done for money. “Commercialization,” an epithet, suggests the antithesis of authenticity. To say something has become commercialized is to describe a process by which authentic material becomes inauthentic – commercialization turns the natural into the artificial, the organic into the fabricated.” (1998, 7)
These notions are important to the discussion of disco. Music that is connected to the iconic dance clubs of New York City and disco artists who were established primarily before 1978 are viewed as “authentic”, while musicians who achieved disco crossover after 1977 (as well as crossover artists like the Bee Gees and David Bowie who were successful in the dance/disco market before then) are primarily viewed as “commercial” outsiders.
Jensen examines the idea of authenticity in music by questioning its basis:
Authenticity matters deeply to people, but when we examine the concept, it begins to disintegrate. How, exactly, does authenticity connect to real life, sincerity, trustworthiness, and spontaneity? What makes a cultural form authentic? And how do the authentic and the commercial relate – is something made for money automatically less “authentic” than something done for other, uncommercial purposes? Clearly authenticity is a relational term. (Authenticity is always in relation to something else). (1998, 7, 177)
When the relative nature of authenticity is brought to light, the premise of one genre or group of artists being uniquely authentic breaks down. Jensen writes that establishing genre boundaries is one way to define authenticity in popular music. In this passage, she highlights the role of genre and authenticity in country music:
One way that “authenticity” works in country music is to distinguish it, as a genre, from other kinds of popular music. Authenticity offers country music an identity – this is what country music is. And it also offers generic demarcation – this is what country music is not. The concept of “real” country music is crucial to defining and defending the boundaries of the genre. Country music is not rock. It is not pop. It is not jazz. Some forms of country music may crossover, but “real” or “true” country music does not. 10
Terms like authentic work to celebrate “our” music as virtuous and valuable while denigrating, at least by implication, “their” music as insincere, specious, tainted or false. In this way, country music uses authenticity as a generic marker, a way to define itself as both separate and worthy. (1998, 7)
These concepts come into play when discussing the differences between disco, rock, and pop, as well as “authentic” and “inauthentic” disco. Jensen also discusses the importance of genre boundaries in preserving the idea of country music as a non-commercial product:
If cultural forms were simply commodities, then genres could be transformed without much concern. Genres would change, blur, become indistinguishable without anybody caring, as long as money was made and people could still enjoy the “product” they like. If culture were merely product, and musical choices merely taste, then crossover would not much matter. But people in the country music business – writers, producers, performers, fans - care deeply about protecting the essence of country music from dilution and pollution. They label, analyze, historically locate, and explain various styles. What makes country music “really” country is constantly being redescribed, and great interpretative efforts are made to justify any changes in it. (1998, 8)
The desire to preserve the purity of disco is also shared by scholars and fans. Systems of labeling help to separate disco from rock and other genres of popular music. It also forms the basis for creating and redefining different sub-categories of disco to prevent the dilution of “true” disco by commercial and crossover artists. Jensen sums up the fallible nature of these arguments in country and pop music by describing them as the product of narratives:
In opposition to the personal, sincere country music style, pop music is presumed to be impersonally created, solely for the marketplace. But the differences between the two musics’ “authenticity” is not really so clear-cut… country music is not necessarily personally and sincerely produced, just as pop music is not necessarily impersonally and insincerely created. The authenticity of country music is part of a narrative, a myth, told by and passed on to those who care about country music – it is a way to define their music as distinctive and worthy. (Jensen 1998, 13).
This same dichotomy also applies to discourses of disco, where disco-rock and crossover styles of disco are viewed as exploitive cash-ins while prestige is given to those that have been named authentic disco artists. The authenticity of both “true” country and “authentic” disco are reaffirmed by emphasizing the commercial nature of crossover artists within the genre. In the 11 case of disco, this creates a separate narrative of co-optation, in which disco has been “hi-jacked” by commercial interests. Jensen uses rock music to contest the idea of co-optation:
The charge of co-optation is a derivative of the larger charge of commercialization; both make assumptions that presume the corruption of a previously pure form. . . To co-opt a form is to take it over, to turn it toward your own, different purposes. To claim that rock was co-opted is to claim that it once spoke for itself, had its own authentic meanings, and then became, via outside forces, a vehicle for other, less authentic, meanings. Thus, “rock was co-opted” means rock was taken over as it sold out. As with commercialization, the charge of co-optation presumes that musical genres emerge separately from material processes that, at some late date, swoop down to harm them. But obviously, rock ‘n’ roll (like country and rhythm and blues) did not emerge from nature, then get altered by technology. Rock did not “sell out” because it was always, already “sold.” But it did change, and, like change in country music, understanding how and why it changed can help illuminate the ways in which cultural genres develop and the ways that charges of commercialization work. (1998, 49)
Jensen’s writing underlines the fact that popular styles of music are commercial products to begin with, and that disco’s narrative of organically emerging from the clubs seeks to obscure the fact that authentic disco was “sold” in the same manner as its mainstream counterparts. His discussion of co-optation can be applied to mainstream styles of disco. Disco-rock (like mainstream disco) was not solely the product of major label commercialization, but a bi-product of the expansion of the disco market after 1975, resulting in a greater number of disco artists and a larger, more diversified audience.
A second form of authenticity relevant to the discussion of popular music discourses is
“expressive authenticity.” Denis Dutton’s defines this term in his essay, “Authenticity in Art,” in conjunction with concepts of authenticity in performance taken from Peter Kivy’s Authenticities:
Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance:
In his discussion of authenticity of musical performance, Peter Kivy points out that, while the term usually refers to historical authenticity, there is another current sense of the term: performance authenticity as “faithfulness to the performer’s own self, original, not derivative or aping of someone else’s way of playing” (Kivy 1995). Here authenticity is seen as committed, personal expression, being true musically to one’s artistic self, rather than true to an historical tradition. From nominal authenticity, which refers to the 12
empirical facts concerning the origins of an art object — what is usually referred to as provenance — we come now to another sense of the concept, which refers less to cut- and-dried fact and more to an emergent value possessed by works of art. I refer to this second, problematic sense of authenticity as expressive authenticity. (2003)
This idea of expressive authenticity has also been applied by popular music scholars. Jeremy
Wallach writes that “expressivist” authenticity is linked to unwillingness to compromise, and
that the loss of this authenticity takes place when the “singularity of unique artistic vision [is]
corrupted by external, usually capitalist, forces” (Wallach 1995, 5). He states that this
“abandonment of authentic self-expression” is linked closely to accusations of “selling out” in
popular music criticism (Wallach 1995, 5).
The concept of expressive authenticity also becomes important when discussing disco-
rock artists, whose classification as “quick-buck artists” (Brewer and Broughton 1999, 168)
implies their “aping” of disco’s musical style and a lack of “faithfulness to the performer’s own
self.” In this context, disco-rock is seen as disco that lacks “unique artistic vision” and has been
“corrupted” by “capitalist forces” (Wallach 1995, 5). This assertion breaks down when one
considers that three of the key figures in authentic disco (Donna Summer, Sylvester, Chic)
continued to make disco recordings even as they attempted to escape the genre, while disco-rock
artists expressed their fondness for disco in interviews. While these are three examples out of a
wide berth of artists, they emphasize that disco scholarship’s prevailing narratives of authenticity are not universal and can be challenged.
Authentic and inauthentic disco are both commercial products of the recording industry.
Jensen’s models of authenticity and commercialization demonstrate how narratives are used
distinguish genres from one another, however tenuous the nature of their basis in verifiable fact.
Likewise, expressive authenticity (as described by Dutton and Wallach) is used in discourse to
differentiate artists whose work may be equally commercial in nature. 13
Three of the most important precursors to disco were Motown soul, funk, and
Philadelphia soul. This lineage indicates that disco did not emerge from nowhere: disco was the
product of the musical genres that preceded it. Also, the commercial paths of these styles parallel
that of disco. Motown soul was intended for crossover appeal and radio airplay. Funk was a
minimalist yet rhythmically complex style that was originally aimed at African-American audiences, but it was eventually streamlined into a more pop-friendly form by bands Sly and the
Family Stone, as well later followers Earth Wind & Fire and the Commodores. Philadelphia soul emphasized lush orchestrations and new rhythms that were the basis for the commercial success of the early disco hits. These commercial elements of these genres formed the basis of disco music.
Disco’s genesis is often traced back to the commercial sound of Berry Gordy’s Motown
Records in Detroit. The label was dedicated to releasing highly polished R&B records that were fine-tuned and quality-controlled to ensure maximum airplay and appeal to both white and black record buyers. Nelson George, author of The Death of Rhythm and Blues, describes Motown as,
“…black owned, secretive, rigidly hierarchical, totally committed to reaching white audiences, with production styles that ultimately made its producers, writers, and musicians the real stars of the Motown sound” (George 1988, 86). Berry Gordy later recalled that, “The love we felt for each other when we were playing is the most undisputed truth about our music” (Gordy 1994,
145). He further emphasized the communal, family relationship between Motown’s artists:
“Artists sang background on each other’s sessions, or played the tambourine or clapped their hands; any employee that could carry a beat was used” (Gordy 1994, 145). Alice Echols credits 14
Motown with breaking the cycle of African-American artists losing market share to white singers’ covers of their songs, a trend dating back to the early Rhythm and Blues recordings of
establishing a smooth variation of the traditional R&B shuffle, combining straight eighth notes, a
strong back-beat 1, “four on top” snare drum and tambourine (with a hit on every quarter note of
the bar), and nimble bass lines, sweetened with restrained strings. Aside from their overall
influence, Motown also produced a handful of recordings that were a direct influence on disco.
The Temptations’ 1972 hit “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” is recognized for its then-unusual length
of seven minutes, sparse bass guitar, and steady pulse on the hi-hat and guitar. Motown also
released “Girl, You Need a Change of Mind” by former-Temptation Eddie Hendricks, a
recording that received heavy play in early disco clubs. During the mid 1970s, Motown enjoyed
more direct success in the disco market via several hits by Diana Ross. Motown’s synthesis of
African-American styles and commercial appeal would become an essential component of the disco sound.
James Brown was responsible for developing a rhythmic counterpart to the Motown
sound, a creation that was eventually codified as “funk.” Funk’s near-primal emphasis on a
steady beat (combined with intricate syncopations) was the foundation of disco’s rhythmic drive.
Inspired by rhythms that originated in New Orleans2, Brown replaced the staid R&B backbeat’s
1 Motown was particularly renowned for the sheer power and volume of their backbeat. It was later revealed that the snare drum was sometimes enhanced (such as on The Supremes’ “Baby Love”) by the sound of two spring- loaded two-by-fours being slammed together (Echols 2010, 13).
2 Brown was introduced to these rhythms by one of his drummers, New Orleans native Clayton Fillyau, who joined Brown’s band in 1961 (Payne 1996, 20). 15
emphasis on two and four with an accented downbeat, using patterns that subdivided the bar into
sixteenth notes (Stewart, 2000). Brown’s 1965 hit, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” has been
cited as the first true funk record (Brown 1986, 158).3
Brown set his initial experiments in this vein to the twelve-bar blues, but quickly
abandoned traditional blues and strophic song forms in favor of one or two-chord vamps, often
interspersed with contrasting bridges that Brown would prompt with a visual cue or a
exclamation of, “Hit Me!” At the same time, Brown made innovative changes to the nature of
his orchestration, reducing the contributions of guitar, keyboard, and horns to stabbing chords in
place of melodic content. He also used heavily syncopated lines in the bass that interlocked with
the drummer to create a rhythmic foundation for the rest of the orchestra. Alice Echols writes
that, “Every voice, every instrument, was deployed for its percussive effect” (2010, 17). Atop
this mass of criss-crossing rhythms, Brown led the band with commands and ecstatic shouts, set
to lyrics that were often improvised save for a few minimalist lines such as, “Get on up!/Stay on
the scene!/Like a Sex Machine!” Brown’s funk was also a commercial force, resulting in hit
crossover singles such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat,” and “Say it Loud – I’m
Black and I’m Proud.”
During the late sixties, Brown’s successful funk rhythms were paired with traditional verse-chorus song forms, catchy melodies, and introduced to rock audiences (culminating in a legendary set at Woodstock) by Sly and the Family Stone. Stone’s second wave of funk later spawned a number of additional funk bands, including groups that were associated with early
3 Brown was famously shocked by his own creation, stating that “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was, “a little beyond me right now…it’s-it’s-it’s just out there” (quoted in Echols 2010, 17). 16
The urgency of the funk beat and the emphasis on rhythm was an essential ingredient to the
sounds of disco, as well as disco’s immediate predecessor and close relative, Philadelphia soul.
The pop sound of Detroit and the earthy funk of James Brown were pieces of the musical
template of Philadelphia International Records, the main exporter of what came to be known as
Philadelphia soul or the “Philly Sound.” The architects of the Philly Sound were Philadelphia
International Records writer/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (and later writer/producer
Thom Bell). They created a sound that wedded Brown’s rhythmic syncopations to the standard
chordal progressions and structures of Motown soul. The Philly sound’s relation to Motown was
described succinctly by Philly soul vibraphonist Vince Montana: “The Philly Sound was a take-
off of Motown, only more sophisticated” (quoted in Echols 2010, 15). The label also
experimented with longer form tracks with several contrasting movements or sections. In
Gamble and Huff introduced underlying rhythms that suggested hints of Latin-American styles
such as salsa and samba.5 The label placed particular emphasis on gritty male voices, like those of Teddy Pendergrass (as lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes) and The O’Jay, though it also favored the smoother, soulful sound of Billy Paul and Jerry Butler. One of the label’s most direct contributions to disco was the four-on-the-floor beat6 and sizzling hi-hat that
4 George Clinton, founder of the funk-evangelizing bands Funkadelic and Parliament, shunned any connection with disco. Clinton later recorded a concept album with Parliament that centered around a futuristic war between funk and disco, Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome.
5 Later disco-oriented singles would sometimes make the Latin influence explicit by adding clave throughout a recording, including (curiously) those by rock artists Paul McCartney (“Goodnight Tonight”) and Blondie (“Heart of Glass”).
6 A “four-on-the-floor” beat denotes a 4/4 time signature with a bass drum hit on every quarter note. This beat became one of the signature sounds of disco. 17 drummer Earl Young (a member of the house band, MFSB7) used on Harold Melvin and the
Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost,” later heard on other PIB hits such as ”TSOP (The Sound of
Philadelphia)” and “Bad Luck.”8 We are fortunate enough to have Young’s explanation of how he arrived at this then-novel sound: “Motown used four four on the snare – khh, khh, khh, khh – and the heartbeat on the bass – dmm-dmm, dmm-dmm, dmm-dmm, dmm-dmm – and they also used four-four on the tambourines. I would use cymbals more than the average drummer, and I realized that if I played the four-four on the bass I could work different patterns on the cymbals”
(quoted in Lawrence 2003, 17). This particular sound, with the pulse anchored in the bass and ornamentation on the hi-hat, would become a defining characteristic of the disco style.
Philadelphia soul produced a number of crossover hits, including “Backstabbers” and “Love
Train” by the O’Jays, “TSOP” by MFSB, and “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, among many others.
The commercially appealing sound of Philadelphia soul formed the basis for the early disco recordings, combining the polish and orchestration of the Motown sound with the rhythmic emphasis of funk. These genres were all instrumental in disco’s formation, and their crossover- ready music became an inseparable aspect of the disco sound. The next section details disco’s progression from its beginnings in the gay club scene to its return to the underground culture circa 1980.
A Brief History of Disco
7 Depending on who you asked, MFSB stood for “Mother, Father, Sister Brother” or “Mother Fuckin’ SonovaBtich” (Brewer and Braughton 2000, 180).
8 There is a classic Richard Pryor routine on his 1975 album Is it Something I Said?, in which he claims that white people would suffer a heart attack if they attempted to dance to “Bad Luck.” Pryor imagines a panting white man saying, “Damn…is it ever gonna stop?” 18
Disco was originally a loose collection of recordings from various genres that were
played in dance clubs during the early 1970s. During the period between 1973 and 1975, record
labels began to produce new records intended specifically intended for club play. These first
records (now referred to specifically as “disco”) combined elements from preceding genres to
form a new, distinct style of music. Disco witnessed substantial growth in popularity after 1975,
and again in 1977 with the release of Saturday Night Fever. After two years of market
dominance, disco music fell out of favor with the American record buying public, though it
remained as popular as ever in the club scene. This section will examine the shared histories of
both “authentic” disco and disco-rock to refute claims that commercialism is a quality relegated
solely to disco-rock.
The term “disco” was not originally used to describe a definite genre of music. Rather.
disco initially encompassed a number of soul (Philadelphia and Motown) and funk records that
were being played in dance clubs in the early 1970s. The local DJs developed a style that relied
on the use of two turntables, which were used to segue recordings seamlessly into one another or
used two copies of a single to create an extended loop of the same song until the dancers could
stand it no longer (Shapiro 2005). Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Trucking” and “Girl You Need a
Change of Mind” were particularly popular due to their funky beat and extended length. The
latter song was especially influential due to its “breaks”: sections where the instrumentation was
suddenly reduced to the drums, along with combinations of bass, guitar and piano.9 This
9 This recording has been cited as pre-dating disco by (author) due to the emphasis of a four-to-the-bar snare drum. This ignores the appearance of the four-on-the-floor bass drum midway through the recording. However, I suggest that “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” is still not as significant rhythmically as “The Love I Lost” because the four-on-the-floor beat is one of many rhythmic variations, rather than a constant foundation as it is on “The Love I Lost.” 19
technique eventually came to be known as the “disco break”10 (Echols 2010, 15). This resulted in
album cuts that were too long for radio becoming staples in dance clubs. This elicited mixed
reactions from producers and label employees, who complained that while they were happy with
exposure via club play, the shorter cuts were not getting as much radio airplay (and subsequent
boost in sales) as they would have liked (Echols 2010, 2). This became less of an issue when it
became clear that club hits resulted in increased sales on a regional level, though they lacked the
national penetration of a radio hit (Brewer and Broughton 2000, 171-172). This awakened the
record industry to the value of the dance clubs as a secondary promotional tool, which led in turn
to the development of new recordings specifically for that market.
There is no consensus regarding the first true disco recording. Shapiro credits “The Love
I Lost” as the song that transformed disco into a definite style rather than a loose collection of
records that were played in clubs. There were several disco-related milestones in the early 1970s.
one on the Billboard Hot 100. The extended version of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You
Baby” was the first successful “extended” disco mix (although it was not the first twelve-inch single). Gloria Gaynor’s Never Can Say Goodbye is thought to be the first album in the
10 Norman Wilson, producer of “Girl, You Need a Change of Mind,” wrote that, “People always ask me about the breakdown. Well, my background is in the church. It’s not unusual in a church song to have a breakdown like that” (quoted in Brewster and Broughton 1998, 175). The “breaks” in disco and funk records formed the basis for much of early rap and hip-hop culture. Early MCs would sample one or two measures of a percussion break and loop it, creating beats that formed the basis of hip-hip recordings. See Schloss, Making Beats
11 These songs are also notable for using drum machines rather than a live drummer. Alice Echols attributes the beginning of this trend to Sly and the Family Stone’s “A Family Affair” (2010, 21). Drum machines and sampled drum loops were used frequently in later disco recordings. 20
Eurodisco style12, with a steady four-on-the-four drum beat that removed much of the
syncopation that linked early disco to funk. The four songs that make up the album’s first side
are joined seamlessly without a break, and set to the same beat and tempo for the entire duration.
The recordings released by Gaynor and Summer (as well as the extended recordings of
Kendricks, The Temptations, and many others) acted as a prelude to the popularity of the twelve-
inch mix, also referred to as a disco single, mix, or version. The twelve-inch single was
developed by accident when Tom Moulton was forced to cut a 45-rpm recording onto a twelve-
inch metal master due to not having a blank seven-inch master on hand. He discovered that the
widely spaced grooves (due to more surface area with less recorded material on each side)
allowed for a greater range of dynamics, as well as extended bass and treble frequencies. The
first commercially released twelve-inch single was “Ten Percent” by Double exposure, released
on Salsoul Records (Shapiro 2005, 45-46). In addition to the added length, dynamics, and
frequency response, twelve-inch singles were also used to create alternate mixes of songs that
focused on a fuller sound with increased emphasis on the bass and percussion, particularly if
those qualities has been lacking from the album or seven-inch single versions. The twelve-inch singles and extended album mixes eventually became the versions selected for radio airplay by some disco stations, at least partially reconciling the disparity between club exposure and radio
12 Eurodisco is a style of disco that is attributed to European producers such as Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellote. The style is associated with a four-on-the-floor beat, the use of strings and/or synthesizers, and reduced syncopation. Eurodisco songs regularly ran over five minutes in length, often segueing into one another without a break over the course of an album side (Brackett 2005, 299). Frith characterizes Eurodisco as “simplicity” geared towards “cross-national appeal” with a “bouncy beat” and an “expressive vocal” (Frith 1989, 168). “Love to Love You Baby” was the first extended song in the Eurodisco style (Brackett 2005, 299), but the album itself is divided into individual songs of different tempos rather than side-long suites. 21
One of the stylistic trademarks of disco DJs was the ability to seamlessly blend songs into one another to create an extended flow of music that sustained dancers’ interest for long periods of time. This was accomplished using two turntables and headphones. The DJ would use the headphones to cue up the next record, lining it up so that the new record’s downbeat would line up perfectly with the previous recording. Any differences in tempo were smoothed over by manipulating the turntable’s speed control the beats matched perfectly. This practice allowed DJs with a skilled ear to combine a variety of differing recordings. A mixing board was used to complete the transition by fading the previous recording into the next. DJs who lacked the necessary equipment (multiple turntables with speed control, a mixer) or the technique to create an unbroken playlist were forced to rely on their knowledge of closely tempo-matched recordings to approximate the use of fade-ins and beat matching. This dilemma had a significant effect on the production of disco records. New disco recordings were gradually restricted to a smaller range of tempos and beats, often beginning with the isolated thump of the bass drum.
This practice was extended to full album sides, with an entire side set to the same tempo over an unchanging four-on-the-floor beat. Record companies also began to print a song or album’s BPM on the record’s label, allowing even novice DJs to choose similarly matched recordings. While these strategies created opportunities for a number of aspiring DJs, they also resulted in a homogenized sound on individual disco albums, as well as the genre as a whole.
It is unclear as to when crossover styles of disco began to develop. One of the more obvious signposts is the Bee Gees “Jive Talkin’.” The single was the Bee Gees first foray into disco, diverting from their previous folk and Beatles influenced works. The song was also important because it established the template that was later used for their work on the Saturday 22
Night Fever soundtrack. After the success of Saturday Night Fever13 and its accompanying
The Theme from Star Wars, and the Mickey Mouse Club theme song (“Disco Mouse Club”) were among the countless others that attempted to find a niche the market, resulting in saturation by the end of 1979.
There were also several subsequent attempts to profit from disco-centered films. Thank
Donna Summer’s “The Last Dance”), while Can’t Stop the Music (a 1980 vehicle for the Village
People) and Xanadu arrived too late to catch the disco wave and were massive box office disappointments. During the late 1970s, disco was becoming stifled and homogenized musically as well. Many new disco recordings were set to a small range of tempi to ensure that they would transition well into other recordings that had been similarly standardized. The omnipresence of the genre eventually spawned a countermovement: “Disco Sucks.”
The movement known as “Disco Sucks” arose gradually during the mid-seventies. The movement has been linked to straight, white rock fans who felt that disco was in danger of replacing rock music. It has been also been attributed to racist and homophobic attitudes within
13 Saturday Night Fever was based on an article in New York magazine, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.” It documented the lifestyle that surrounded the patrons of 2001 Odyssey, a popular New York club. Cohn’s protagonist was “Vincent” a young, working-class Italian man who escaped to the club on the weekends, where his prowess on the dance floor made him a king. “Vincent” was the inspiration for John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever, though Cohn admitted twenty years later that most of the article was fabricated, including Vincent, who was actually a composite of several people that Cohn met at 2001 Odyssey (Echols, Hot Stuff, 164- 165).
14 Bill Oakes, music supervisor for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, provided an alternate perspective in 2007, stating that in 1978, “"Disco had run its course. These days, Fever is credited with kicking off the whole disco thing–-it really didn't. Truth is, it breathed new life into a genre that was actually dying" (quoted in Kashner, 2007). 23 members of rock’s constituency as well. This era also saw a proliferation of scathing disco parodies, including “Disco’s Dead” (1980) by The Critics, “Disco Wretch” (1979) by the Deputy
Dawg Band, and at least three songs titled “Disco Sucks” by Lost Highway Band (1978), Chuck
Wagon and the Wheels (“Country Swings, Disco Sucks,” 1979), and Richfield (1979) respectively. The watershed event of anti-disco sentiment was “Disco Demolition Night,” organized by Steve Dahl, a popular Chicago disc jockey and singer of “Do You Think I’m
Disco” (1979) (recorded as Steve Dahl and Teenage Radiation). Dahl organized a rally on July
12, 1979 (to take place between a White Sox double-header) in which fans were asked to bring a disco record (to be destroyed by explosives on the field during the rally) in exchanged for a reduced admission fee. The resulting explosion damaged the field and sparked a riot that resulted in the rest of the evening’s events being cancelled. The historical impact of this event is evident in the Billboard charts during the months following the rally. Shortly after Demolition night, disco records occupied the top six slots on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. By September 1979, disco was absent from the top ten altogether (Greenberg, 2009).
In Hot Stuff (2001), John-Manuel Andriote claims that disco did not “die.” Instead, it was gradually replaced and relabeled. (2001, 122). The record companies rechristened twelve- inch releases as “dance” remixes to avoid the growing stigma against disco (Andriote 2001, 122).
Radio stations, whose research indicated that the public was tiring of disco, began to replace their blocks of disco programming. By 1980, new wave was already well on its way to claiming the airwaves. Having been banished from radio and the Billboard charts (by name in any case), disco retreated underground to the clubs that had spawned it, evolving into a number of disparate styles, including Hi-NRG, house, garage, and techno, among others (Andriote 2001, 120-130).
Since the 1970s, disco has made a gradual comeback into public acceptance via a variety of 24 channels. Universal’s 1997 Pure Disco compilation, heavily advertised on television, achieved
Platinum status and spawned an additional two volumes. Nostalgia specials such as I Love the
70s (the BBC original and the two U.S. series that it inspired) and When Disco Ruled the World have recast the music of the disco era in a positive light while humorously commenting on the now-dated trends of the era.
This history of disco’s development and disappearance from the mainstream pop market
(if only in name) shows that disco was a product of the commercial musical trends that preceded it. Futhermore, disco’s widespread commercial success from the genre’s beginning casts doubt on those who seek to differentiate “true” disco from disco-rock on the basis of underlying commercialism. Having discussed disco as a whole, the next chapter will focus on the recordings of a selection of disco-rock artists.
CHAPTER TWO. WORKS BY SELECTED DISCO-ROCK ARTISTS
In this chapter, I will provide a historical overview of the representative recordings that I have selected, as they have previously been relegated to isolated passages within larger histories
of the artists and era respectively. I have assembled this information from magazine interviews ,
artist biographies, and books devoted to their recorded discography, in hopes of providing a
narrative for the creation and release of these recordings.
I have chosen these recordings for a number of reasons. The recordings by David Bowie,
the Rolling Stones, KISS, and Rod Stewart represent four of the most successful examples of
disco-rock crossover. The works of Bowie and the Rolling Stones were also critical successes, while Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and KISS’s “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” were greeted with lukewarm critical reception even as they came to represent the performers’ biggest career hits respectively. Elton John’s Victim of Love was both a critical and commercial failure,
unusual for an artist of equivalent or greater commercial stature than the other artists listed here.
These recordings also embody a variety of approaches to combining the dance rhythms of disco
with rock, which will be discussed in the individual sections below.
This chapter is intended to provide historical context for the reader. They establish that
these recordings were the result of past associations with disco’s precursors, as well as direct
inspiration from contemporary disco music. I have also noted the unique musical contributions
that each of these artists made to disco-rock. In some cases, they represent a musical progression over a number of years. I will show that each of these artists demonstrated the expressive authenticity prized by discourses of disco authenticity, and contributed often overlooked musical innovations to the disco-rock genre. 26
David Bowie – Young Americans
David Bowie’s Young Americans was the first major album by a rock artist to
acknowledge the musical developments of the early disco era. Prior to this, rock artists had
maintained a close relationship to the 50s and 60s soul repertoire, as shown by well-known
covers by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and others. However,
away from their shared roots in soul and dance music. Young Americans was the first rock album
to not only acknowledge Philly soul and early disco, but to apply their influence to an entire
album of original music.
In 1974, disco was just beginning to top the pop charts with number one hits like George
McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” and the Hughes Corporation’s “Rock the Boat.”1 At this time,
new style of music. Peter Gillman, author of the biography Alias David Bowie, writes that Bowie
“saw the Jackson Five at Madison Square Garden and went to black and Latin clubs where the
newest craze was for disco music” (1986, 387). After subsequently immersing himself in the
music of Barry White and the Isley Brothers, Bowie decided that he would use the soul style as
the template for his next album (Gillman 1986, 387). He booked time at Sigma Sound Studios, a
studio frequently used by Philadelphia International. Two days before the sessions were to
commence, he called producer Tony Visconti, informing him that, “I’ve got the most fantastic
band lined up. I’m really into black music” (quoted in Gillman 1986, 387-388).
1 It also bears mentioning that both of these songs include the word “rock” in their titles, linking them to a pre-rock rhythm and blues tradition that dates back to songs such as B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” 27
At Sigma Sound, Bowie cut six tracks that would form the backbone of Young
Willie Weeks (who had played with the Isley Brothers), and drummers Andy Newmark and
Dennis Davis, all experienced funk and soul musicians. He also added four African American
backup singers to the ensemble, including a young Luther Vandross, creating the sound of a
miniature gospel choir. Bowie later referred to the Young Americans band as, “pretty
heavyweight American Soul musicians” (quoted in Buckley 2001, 253).
Bowie described the composition process for his new music as less taxing than that of his
previous songs. He also stated that the album was planned to be a more commercial offering
from the very beginning. “It’s not very complex, but it’s enjoyable to write. I did most of it in the
studio and it didn’t take very long, about 15 minutes a song. With Young Americans I thought I’d
better make a hit album to cement myself in the States, so I went in and did it. It wasn’t too hard
really” (quoted in Welch 1999, 82-83). Bowie was also guided during this process by input from
actual “young Americans”: “When we were recording, a bunch of kids stayed outside the studio
all night until ten o’clock in the morning, so we let them in and played some things from the
album and they loved it, which was amazing. Fabulous, because I really didn’t know what they’d
think about the change in direction” (Welch 1999, 83).
Bowie demonstrated his sincere dedication to his new musical influences with drastic
changes to the second half of the “Diamond Dogs” tour. After performing his standard show
during all of September 1974, Bowie informed his band and management that he was
abandoning the “Diamond Dogs” program, including the $250,000 set (Gillman 1986, 391). He
later replaced the songs from the Diamond Dogs portion of the set with a variety of soul and disco covers (Gillman 1986, 393). Bowie’s decision to follow his vision demonstrated his 28 commitment to the Philly soul style, despite the financial consequences that may have occurred as a result.
The album was released in the spring of 1975. Jon Landau’s review in Rolling Stone praised the album for creating “American” soul music that retained Bowie’s earlier sensibilities.
“The rest of the album works best when Bowie combines his renewed interest in soul with his knowledge of English pop, rather than opting entirely for one or the other. Thus, ‘Win,’ one of his best pop ballads, makes great use of an R&B chorus; it works much better than the straight
James Brown impersonation ‘Right.’ He does a plaintive version of John Lennon's ‘Across the
Universe,’ while ‘Fame’ and ‘Fascination,’ besides being complementary titles, continue his merger of styles on a positive note” (Landau 1975). Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield also gave the album’s 30th anniversary reissue a positive review: “’Win,’ ‘Right‚’ and ‘Fascination’ are cult faves, while the disco-fused John Lennon duet ‘Fame’ jolted both men's careers. The title song might be Bowie's best ever, with the rhythm inspiring his most passionate (and compassionate) love letter to his fans” (Sheffield 2007).
Robert Christgau also was pleased with Bowie’s less “artistic” approach. He wrote that,
“after the total alienation of Diamond Dogs…I'm pleased with Bowie's renewed generosity of spirit--he takes pains to simulate compassion and risks failure simply by moving on. His reward is two successes: the title tune, in which pain stimulates compassion, and (Bowie-Lennon-
Alomar's) "Fame," which rhymes with pain and makes you believe it” (Christgau 1975).
The reception of Young Americans was not entirely warm. British critic Michael Watts addressed the idea of culture-theft, writing that Young Americans sounded like it was, “designed to cast our hero in the mold of a soul superstar…Bowie flips through his soul take-offs at Sigma
Sound like some cocktail-party liberal” (Gillman 1986, 389). All Music Guide’s Stephen 29
Erlewine was kinder, though he also questioned the authenticity of Bowie’s music: “Surrounding
himself with first-rate sessionmen, Bowie comes up with a set of songs that approximate the
sound of Philly soul and disco, yet remain detached from their inspirations; even at his most
passionate, Bowie sounds like a commentator, as if the entire album was a genre exercise” (All
Music Guide review of Young Americans). Bowie might have received more positive reviews if he had fully embraced the soul vocal style, adding melisma and a grittier vocal tone in place of his relaxed, theatrical baritone. However, such a drastic change in his vocal style would probably have resulted in a sound more akin to parody than a stylistic merger of rock and Philly soul.
These critical grumblings imply that Bowie intended his music to be accepted as authentic soul. However, Bowie’s then-current and later comments paint a different picture.
During the months following the album’s release, Bowie remarked that, “It’s the phoniest R & B
I’ve ever heard…If I ever would have got my hands on that record when I was growing up, I would have cracked it over my knee” (quoted in Buckley 2003, 252). In 1983, Bowie claimed in retrospect that he never intended to make an authentic soul record, saying, “There was no point in doing a straightforward take on American soul music because that had been done already…You couldn’t envision any American soul artist doing these songs. But they paid homage to the soul sound…” He elaborated on this in the same interview by stating that, “The chord structures are much more of a European thing than an American thing…I got these pretty heavyweight American Soul musicians working on it that really gave some sort of a kind of fake authenticity to it. It really was a ‘plastic soul’ album” (quoted in Buckley 2003, 252-253).
Bowie’s interactions with club-ready soul and disco music would be greatly reduced after Young Americans. His subsequent record, Station to Station, flirted with disco rhythms, particularly on “Golden Years,” and portions of “Station to Station” (but only during the last five 30
minutes of a ten minute song). However, the club-appeal of the album was diminished by
the latter with whom Bowie would collaborate on his next three albums. The music on these
albums, customarily referred to as the “Berlin Trilogy,” abandoned any attempt towards contemporary dance rhythms, a trend that would continue until Bowie’s 1983 smash, Let’s
Young Americans stands as the one of the first attempts to integrate 1970s soul music with rock. The expressive authenticity of the album is quite clear by Bowie’s commitment to the genre in the face of personal and financial cost to himself. It proved that original rock compositions could be integrated with modern soul in a manner that contained qualities of both genres. In a way, it set the template for disco-rock, though no other rock artist would attempt to record an entire album in a disco-influenced style until Elton John’s Victim of Love.
The Rolling Stones – “Hot Stuff” to “Emotional Rescue”
The Rolling Stones have been referred to as “the world’s greatest rock and roll band” for decades. Despite their status as quintessential rock artists, they recorded several songs influenced by dance music over a period of five years between 1976 and 1980. This creative-direction
produced four notable tracks: “Hot Stuff,” “Miss You,” “Dance Pt.1,” and “Emotional Rescue.”
Each of these songs represents a fusion of elements from both disco and rock, creating a musical
hybrid that defies the conventions of both styles.
In 1974, the Rolling Stones were reeling from the departure of guitarist Mick Taylor.
They began the recording sessions for what would become Black and Blue in December 1974
149). One of the seminal cuts from Black and Blue was “Hot Stuff,” a groove-oriented song patterned on the sound of early 1970s funk bands such as the Ohio Players.
Steve Appleford, author of The Rolling Stones: Rip This Joint, writes that, “Here at last was a sign of life from the embattled Rolling Stones, a band that had long since drifted into predictable, straight-ahead riff-rock. Inertia was now replaced by Mick’s alarming first declaration of dance fever” (2001, 149). Appleford also insightfully connects the “new” rhythms of funk and disco to the foundations of the band’s musical tradition (while subtly disparaging disco in the process): “’Hot Stuff’ wasn’t the enemy, but rather the Stones’ twist on a classic funk groove, closer in spirit to James Brown and Sly Stone than to any of the slick disco tracks beginning to haunt the radio…a song like ‘Hot Stuff’ was in fact a logical extension to the band’s long time commitment to the sounds of Black America. This was merely the Stones’ mid- seventies take on what they had already witnessed during their first visits to the Harlem Apollo”
(2001, 149-150). Appleford’s views, while prejudiced against disco, show a degree of musical insight, as the communal improvisation evident on the recording was not characteristic of disco in 1976. Also, Charlie Watts’s drumming lacks the four-on-the-floor pulse that was ubiquitous in current disco. If anything, the recording is a restrained attempt to emulate Ohio Players-style funk, a suspicion confirmed by Jagger’s offhanded comment, “Don't you think we sound a little like the Ohio Players on that one?” (quoted in McPhearson).
The Rolling Stones recorded their first studio album with Ron Wood (their chosen replacement) as an official member in late 1977. The sessions concluded in spring of 1978, producing Some Girls, a smash that would become their biggest selling album to date. Mick 32
Jagger acknowledged that the album was directly influenced by then-current dance trends in a
1995 interview with Rolling Stone, stating that,
The inspiration for the record was really based in New York and the ways of the town. I think that gave it an extra spur and hardness…Punk and disco were going on at the same time, so it was quite an interesting period. New York and London, too. Paris…Lots of dance music. Paris and New York had all this Latin dance music, which was really quite wonderful. Much more interesting than the stuff that came afterward. (Wenner 1995)
However, Jagger clarified by saying that, “I wanted to make more of a rock album. I just had one song that had a dance groove: ‘Miss You.’ But I didn't want to make a disco album” (Wenner
1995). Jagger was not the only member of the band who was directly influenced by the music in
New York’s club scene. Some Girls’s associate producer, Chris Kimsey, recalled that Bill
Wyman composed the song’s bass line (which provided an essential, grooving counterpoint to
Richards’s guitar and Charlie Watts’s drums) after attending several clubs for inspiration (Buskin
2004). Kimsey also stated that the recording maintained the current rock tradition of live recording, recalling that “Keith never records his parts separately. He always plays live to the band. That’s the magic of the Rolling Stones. They either play together or not at all” (Appleford
Paul Nelson’s review in Rolling Stone categorized the new styles on Some Girls as a successful but forced attempt to stay current on the part of the Rolling Stones:
…when the handwriting on the wall starts to smell like formaldehyde and that age-old claim, the greatest rock & roll band in the world," suddenly sounds less laudatory than laughable–well, if you want to survive the Seventies and enter the Eighties with something more than your bankbook and dignity intact, you'd better dredge up your leftover pride, bite the bullet and try like hell to sweat out some good music. Which is exactly what the Stones have done. Though time may not exactly be on their side, with Some Girls they've at least managed to stop the clock for a while. (1978)
In his 1992 retrospective essay on the Rolling Stones’ career, Robert Christgau’s review of the
album also recognized it as an attempt at reinvigoration, but his assessment was far more
Almost certainly the best album of their second and third decades, Some Girls was at once punk-inspired return to the casual spontaneity of their earliest recordings and a disco-inspired demonstration of their pop facility. ‘Miss You,’ promoted in dance clubs with a Bob Clearmountain-remixed 12-inch, ended up one of their biggest singles. Never again would anyone assume they were has-beens. Here was artistic professionalism at its best- creative ups and downs that engross an attentive audience as they divert a more casual one. Not what we want maybe, but what we can use. (149)
Christgau notably attributes the band’s shift in style to “professionalism” rather than
commercialism, making him one of the early writers to suggest that rock musicians were keeping
up with current trends rather than exploiting them.
The popularity of “Miss You,” the high point of the Rolling Stones’ dance-inspired
singles, has been credited to their ability to integrate popular styles while retaining their core
identity. Appleton writes that the success of “Miss You” was, “an overture to the growing disco
movement, but not a surrender. ‘Miss You’ slipped into the 70’s dancefloor zeitgeist as easily as
‘(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ once shared playlists with the sounds of Motown” (Appleford
2001, 157). Mick Jagger expressed a similar view in 1996, saying that, “’Miss You’ really
caught the moment, because that was the deal at the time…And that’s what made that record
take off. It was a really great record” (Appleford 2001, 157). Fellow musician Lindsay
Buckingham (of Fleetwood Mac) also praised the band’s stylistic fluidity: “It all still had the
spine of being the Stones, even when they were changing their context a little bit. It never got into an area where it was a caricature. It was still their own. They were always good at copping what was intelligent to cop, and just enough of it” (Appleford 2001, 167). 34
The Stones waited another two years before issuing their next release, Emotional Rescue.
The album built on the success of Some Girls with two new tracks: “Dance Pt.1” and “Emotional
Rescue,” two songs that owed a heavy debt to disco. Robert Christgau once again came to the
defense of the Rolling Stones in his review of Emotional Rescue, recognizing the merits of the more current sound while humorously chastising the band’s aging fan base: “No one will ever mistake this for a great Stones album, but I bet it sounds more interesting than It's Only Rock 'n
Roll should we take the time to compare and contrast in our respective retirement communities…for better and worse its drive isn't so monolithic, and the bass comes front and center like Bill [Wyman] was [Motown bassist] James Jamerson. Looser than you'll ever be”
There was evidence on the part of some members of the band to offset potential allegations of commercialism and appropriation. Richards defended the unashamedly disco- sounding “Dance, Pt.1” by connecting it with the tradition of soul instrumentals: “I saw “Dance” as more of an instrumental, like Junior Walker’s ‘Shotgun.’ And Mick immediately came up with reams of paper and lyrics. I thought it should be a minimal lyric, and Mick comes up with
Don Giovanni” (Appleford 2001, 169). One can assume that Richards won that battle, as
Jagger’s lyrics are largely sparse and verge on indecipherable, other than a repeated refrain of
“It’s got me movin’.”2
In 1993, Keith Richards recalled that “Emotional Rescue” was all Mick. He wanted to go
that way, with the clubby, disco-stuff. I didn't particularly, but it was a good song” (McPhearson,
2010). In 1994, Richards stated that during this period, “…a lot of the stuff, the material that
Mick wanted to do, was not particularly guitar-oriented. We were trying to, like, wedge guitars
2 “Dance Pt.2” (released as a b-side) contains more lyrical content. Richards was probably referring to both parts as a whole. 35
into places where they're not necessary, like Emotional Rescue and Undercover. Around that time we were doing a lot of material that was not necessarily made for guitars. Mick wanted to get into that dance thing and, you know, OK, here we go” (McPhearson, 2010). Richards’s statements, while veering towards damning praise, indicate that Jagger was committed to the idea of making danceable music.
The Rolling Stones, ever aware of changing trends, would abandon their funk and disco influences on their next album, 1982’s Tattoo You. The album’s lead-off single, “Start Me Up,” marked the Stones’ return to guitar-driven music and traditional verse-chorus song structures.
“Miss You” has become a staple of their live shows, as well as Mick Jagger’s solo concerts.
2001 (with Keith Richards).
The Rolling Stones’ experiments with dance rhythms proved that funk and disco could be successfully paired with blues-rock while retaining elements of both styles. Like Bowie, the
Rolling Stones were influential in acknowledging that R&B/soul/disco and rock did not have to be mutually exclusive, and expressed a genuine admiration for dance music. Their less immersive approach to disco-rock (limited to only one or two tracks on an album) was echoed in concurrent disco-rock recordings by KISS and Rod Stewart.
KISS: “Strutter 78’” and “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”
KISS’s disco-rock recordings are unique to this discussion. The band’s music up to 1978 shows little to no direct influence from R&B and soul music. Instead, the band appears to have been influenced primarily by Led Zeppelin and other hard rock artists of the late 60s/early 70s.3
3 The band’s unreleased first album (recorded as Wicked Lester) does show some funk and soul influence, particularly on “She.” The arrangement combines a prominent syncopated bass line with a funky beat and 36
Accordingly, KISS’s recordings during the 1970s lacked the looseness and syncopation that are
associated with dance music. Additionally, the band’s disco-influenced recordings were in part
necessitated by their contract with Casablanca records, a label that was heavily invested in the
disco market. (Leaf and Sharp 2003, 298). While this might appear to be to the band’s detriment,
KISS’s entries into disco-rock are fascinating attempts to create dance music without
compromising the band’s hard rock aesthetics. In particular, “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” was
regarded as the beginning of the band’s decline by some critics while simultaneously
representing their biggest commercial success.
The band’s first (unwilling) foray into disco was “Strutter’78,” a re-cut version of 1973’s
“Strutter” with a overdubbed drum beat. The recording was tacked on the 1977’s greatest hits
compilation Double Platinum as a new track to entice fans and collectors who already owned
KISS’s previous material. In their official biography, Behind the Mask, the members of KISS
recalled that recording the song was not their decision. Instead, it was a product of Casablanca chief Neil Bogart’s desire to tie more products into the disco market that he had successfully competed in since 1975. Paul Stanley stated that, “’Strutter ‘78’ was Neil Bogart’s idea that we
could get mileage out of ‘Strutter’ if it was recut with more of an unquote disco feel. Once in a
while, you do things to make your record company happy…In the beginning, you tend to do
things politically because they make sense to do” (Leaf and Sharp 2003, 298). Guitarist Ace
Frehley considered the recording unnecessary, saying that, “I thought that it was kind of a silly
thing to do because I don’t think the new version was that different. It was just extended solos
and what-not.” Drummer Peter Criss felt that the re-recording was an upgrade, saying that, “I
significant use of flute, organ, and (during the bridge) horns. The band re-recorded the song for the KISS album Dressed to Kill, but with the additional instrumentation removed (as well as much of the syncopation) in favor of a Led Zeppelin-esque arrangement. 37
liked that original [version of ‘Strutter’]. But [‘Strutter ‘78’] was all right. It was a little bit more
advanced and it was more disco” (Leaf and Sharp 2003, 298). “Strutter ‘78” was only a precursor
to KISS’s bolder, lasting contribution to disco. The song is particularly notable for its attempt to
create a groove similar to disco while still retaining ties to hard rock’s rhythms and drumming,
creating a stylistic hybrid that would carry over to “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” two years later.
In 1979, KISS locked in on the disco boom (even as it retreated) with “I Was Made For
Lovin’ You,” their biggest hit. The single appeared on their most pop-influenced album to date,
Dynasty. Paul Stanley recalled: ”I like Dynasty. I like some of the songs more than the
production. Too sanitized. We lost some edge, and we lost our balls on that…” Leaf and Sharp
2003, 324). Stanley later recalled that the album was a deliberate attempt to increase record sales
and expand their fan base with a commercial album. “The songs were better than most of the
production on the album, but that was something we wholeheartedly went along with…This
album was going to be safer. Bill [Aucoin] thought we should appeal to a broader base audience.
The first question is why and that never really got answered. The simple cure-all for being too
aggressive musically is to kill the guitars and add a synthesizer [laughs]” (Leaf and Sharp 2003,
324). Simmons’s overstates the role of synthesizers in “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”’s musical arrangement. The song is actually notable for attempting to emulate to sound of Eurodisco by using guitars in place of synthesizers, with the keyboards that are present on the track used discretely to double the vocal melody and guitars. Ace Frehley recalled that, “The one thing I didn’t like about that record was the departure from rock ‘n’ roll to the disco tune [“I Was Made for Lovin’ You”]. I have to say that it was a hit and it was a good song, but I don’t think it had anything to do with KISS other than that Paul wrote it and we played on it” (Leaf and Sharp
2003, 324). 38
“I Was Made For Lovin’ You” was inspired by Paul Stanley’s frequent visits to Studio 54
(Leaf and Sharp 2003, 324). The song differs significantly from the disco-rock singles issued by
the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, owing more to Eurodisco via its drum machine-like beat
and use of synthesizers. Stanley described the song’s genesis in 2003: “Disco was so big. I listened to that stuff and said, ‘This is a cinch to write.’ So it was kind of like a lark or a dare. I said, ‘I’ll write out one of those songs.’ So I just turned on a drum machine and just got [slaps out disco rhythm] that kind of thing coming out and I wrote ‘I Was Made for Lovin’ You.’ It’s a real formula song…It was kind of like trying to make a point to ourselves that it’s not that hard to have a hit if you’re willing to really analyze something and pick it apart. We don’t do that very often” (Leaf and Sharp 2003, 328). Stanley’s description of an analytical approach to the music was echoed by Dynasty’s producer, Vini Ponicia. “They liked the whole process of pulling a song apart, building it up…It was the first time that Paul and Gene got involved in something that smacked of such commercialism but still had a lot of good emotion. It came from the heart”
(Leaf and Sharp 2003, 328). This quote is particularly relevant to the discourse of authenticity, as it illustrates a case where commercial intent can co-exist with signifiers of expressive authenticity such as “emotion” and “heart.”
Time has not been kind to the song’s reputation. In 1999, Pitchfork’s Jason Josephs commemorated the song’s twentieth anniversary by labeling “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” as the beginning of KISS’s downfall:
We've come to the part in their career when KISS are now starting to suck. Aside from becoming the most over marketed band of the 1970s, the costumed champs of the mainstream lose their toehold on good old fashioned rock and roll. It can all be summed up in the first track and their last major hit single, "I Was Made for Loving You." This song hasn't aged well at all, but it's interesting because it sounds like both 1979 and 1983. (1999)
Josephes’s review, while not very complimentary of the song itself, does acknowledge that the
drums and synthesizer on “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” predict the increased use of
synthesizers and click-track guided drum tracks in the 1980s by the music industry as a whole.
KISS responded to Dynasty’s critics by releasing another pop-influenced album, 1980’s
Unmasked. However, the album fell short of sales expectations and became their first album that
failed to reach platinum status since 1975. In 1981, the band surprised both critics and fans alike
by releasing Music from the Elder, a concept album that was intended to forgo the band’s pop sound in favor of more artistic music that included horns, strings, and harps. The album was a total failure, and KISS returned permanently to hard rock with their 1982 album Creatures of the
Elton John: The Thom Bell Sessions and Victim of Love
Elton John’s ventures into soul and dance music were released over a period of five years from 1975 to 1979. While his early recordings in this style became pop hits, his later sessions with Philadelphia Soul guru Thom Bell were rejected outright by MCA records. Victim of Love, an entire album of Eurodisco, remains his biggest commercial disappointment to date. This move towards soul and dance oriented music paralleled an increasing distance from Elton John’s musical identity as a rock artist (a talented pianist who wrote and performed his own songs) towards that of a pop-soul singer who sang material written and played by others. This perceived change in musical alignment was eventually counteracted by a reunion of his backing band and a return to “rock” oriented music.
Elton John’s decision to record a disco album was preceded by his dabbling in Philly soul, as represented by his non-album singles “Philidelphia Freedom” (1975) and “Don’t Go 40
Breakin’ My Heart” (1976), breezy recordings that eschewed the rhythmic accompaniment by grand piano of John’s albums for swirling strings, unobtrusive electric piano, and clean, syncopated electric guitar. Musically, this lifted the emphasis from his skills as an instrumentalist and placed it solely on his vocals (and in the case of “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart,” those of
Kiki Dee). Aside from the changes in instrumentation (not dissimilar the strings and keyboards that he had used separately in the past), the songs were similar in structure to his previous hits with clearly delineated verse and chorus forms, lacking the four-on-the-floor drums of the emerging Eurodisco style. In 1977, Elton John entered the recording studio with producer Thom
Bell (the third member of the PIR production team after Gamble and Huff) to record some singles for future release.4 The team submitted the single, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” to
MCA, only to have it rejected. Three songs from the sessions were released as The Thom Bell EP
in 1979. One selection, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” was released separately as a single,
becoming a top ten hit. Though I can find no definite correlation between the two events, I
believe that it is logical to conclude that the belated-success of “Mama Can’t Buy You Love”
was instrumental in Elton John’s decision to record Victim of Love.
Victim of Love is unique entry in Elton John’s discography (with the exception of the Bell
sessions) for several reasons. He declined to compose any music for the album, relying entirely
upon songs written by producer Pete Bellotte (who previously had worked with Donna Summer)
and a series of collaborators. It is the only other album that he recorded to which he only
contributed vocals. The instruments were played by experienced disco session musicians,
4 The master takes of these sessions have since been released in their entirety as The Complete Thom Bell Sessions. 41
Eurodisco style rather than the funk and soul influenced music of the Rolling Stones, David
Bowie, and even Elton John’s own Philly soul recordings. The album maintains a consistent tempo throughout each side, with tracks seamlessly blending into one another over a tireless bass drum.
Elton John’s foray into disco has not been granted the wide appreciation given to his contemporaries such as David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. The transition to Eurodisco was puzzling to Robert Christgau. In his review for the Village Voice, Christgau wrote that, “What's most depressing about this incredibly drab disc is that Elton's flirtation with Eurodisco comes a year too late. Even at his smarmiest, the man always used to be on top of the zeitgeist” (1979).
Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden was similarly disappointed, stating that, “Only two of the new numbers, the title tune and “Thunder in the Night” have catchy melodies. Otherwise, the album is empty of ideas. The style here is anonymous, derivative, Los Angeles-cum-Munich pop disco with no climaxes, no interesting instrumental breaks, no novel twists whatsoever“ (1979b, 86). In his retrospective review for the All Music Guide, Lindsay Planer described the album as, “a dismissible platter of Teutonic 4/4 rhythms and extended (mostly) instrumental indulgence. None of the seven cuts offer very much in terms of what Elton John enthusiasts would not only have expected, but more importantly, enjoyed” (All Music Guide review of Victim of Love).
The album’s legacy has not improved with time. Though Elton John has not acknowledged as much, the album may have been recorded to fulfill a contractual obligation to
MCA records. The release of the album was concurrent with a solo piano tour, with Elton John’s piano and vocals accompanied only by percussionist Ray Cooper. The set lists from the tour did not feature any music from Victim of Love. During his 1980 full band reunion tour, he continued to ignore the Victim of Love material in favor of a combination of past hits and songs from his 42
recent album, 21 at 33. An examination of his set lists up through early 2010 does not reveal
evidence that Victim of Love was ever performed in concert5, and the album has not received the deluxe or anniversary treatments that have been granted to the other albums in his early catalog.
Elton John’s transition to soul and disco music demonstrates a principle that may have
been understood all too well by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones: rock audiences may be
willing to deal with stylistic hybrids, but full commitment to a separate musical idiom (likely in conjunction with the rise of the “disco sucks” movement and disco’s commercial decline) results in rejection by critics and fans alike. This theory is all but reaffirmed by Elton John’s regained commercial success following his return to his rock roots.
Rod Stewart – “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”
Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” was his singular entry into the disco-rock genre.
Like KISS’s “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” the song was met with both commercial success and critical derision. The song differed from past disco-rock efforts by David Bowie, the Rolling
Stones, and KISS by retaining none of the stylistic markers of rock rhythms and instrumentation.
The recording was linked to Stewart’s past output only by the presence of his distinctive voice and the “storytelling” approach of his past hits (often overlooked due to the first person perspective of the song’s title). “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” acts as a bridge between the early disco-rock recordings mentioned above, and later recordings that would follow it’s example by minimizing ties to rock and funk in favor of Eurodisco.
5 Other than a performance of “Johnny B. Goode” on the Australian TV series Countdown. 43
quickly rose to the top of the pop charts in both England and the United States. I have found that
few published sources on Rod Stewart’s life and music devote space to “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”
except to note its commercial success. One of the most significant sources of information on the
song’s composition and recording is drummer Carmine Appice, the song’s co-writer:
We were in the studio and “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones was a big hit. Rod was always a guy that used to listen to what was going on around him. He was always looking at the charts and listening. He was a big fan of The Rolling Stones, so when they came out with Miss You, Disco was really big at the time, so he wanted to do some kind of Disco-y song, something like 'Miss You,' nothing like Gloria Gaynor. With the band, he would always tell us, 'I want a song like this' or 'I want a song like that,' so I went home and I came up with a bunch or chords and a melody. I presented it to him via a friend of mine, Duane Hitchings, who is a songwriter who had a little studio. We went in his studio with his drum machines and his keyboards, and he made my chords sound better. We gave Rod a demo of the verses and the bridge, and Rod came up with the chorus.6 We played it with the band many, many ways before we got the correct arrangement with Tom Dowd. Unfortunately, they put so much stuff on it that it dwarfed the sound of the band. It made the band sound smaller because it had strings and 2 or 3 keyboard players, congas, and drums. When we were doing it, we thought it was going to be more like The Rolling Stones with just the band playing it. It came out and went to #1 everywhere. (Interview with songfacts.com)
This story is interesting in light of the sound of the released recording. When compared to “Miss
You,” Stewart’s version of disco stands out precisely because it seems to share so little with the
Rolling Stones’ disco-rock output. The funky guitar riffs of “Miss You” are absent from
Stewart’s song, replaced by an unsyncopated, vaguely exotic melody played by a blend of strings and synthesizers. The rhythm section is also fully committed to the Eurodisco style, with little trace of the soul styles that marked Stewart’s previous recordings. The reasons for this deviation from Stewart and Appice’s original vision are unclear. It would be fascinating to hear the alternate perspective on the song that the reduced-band sessions or a new “rock ensemble”
6 Stewart’s chorus melody was later found identical to a melody from Brazilian musician Jorge Ben’s 1972 song, “Taj Mahal.” Ben successfully sued Stewart for plagiarism, and directed that all future royalties be donated to UNICEF. 44
arrangement would provide. However, neither Stewart nor his record label have released any
alternate takes, and Stewart has performed the song in its original arrangement since 1980.
Appice was also keen to defend accusations that Stewart had abandoned the “storyteller”
style of his 1970s work, stating that:
If you look at the lyrics, it was a story. Rod told stories in his songs: 'The Killing Of Georgie' was a story, 'Tonight's The Night' was a story. Any of his songs are like little mini-stories. This was a story of a guy meeting a chick in a club. At that time, that was a cool saying. If you listen to the lyrics, 'She sits alone, waiting for suggestions, he's so nervous...' it's the feelings of what was going on in a dance club. The guy sees a chick he digs, she's nervous and he's nervous and she's alone and doesn't know what's going on, then they end up at his place having sex, and then she's gone. (Interview with songfacts.com)
The single received mixes reviews upon its release. Robert Christgau summed up the “new”
Stewart cryptically by writing that, “He used to mean to be meaningful and now he means to be
trashy, but that doesn't make him decadent“ (Christgau 1978), suggesting that there was still
substance underneath the altered trappings of Stewart’s music. Rolling Stone’s Janet Maslin
described the song as, “a serviceable enough disco hit – thanks more to a clever string line than
the singer’s non-committal vocal…Instead of shaping this material, Stewart embraces it unquestioningly, proffering yet another bloodless affirmation of disco as this week’s going
concern. . . [The song] is Rod Stewart’s…assertion that he’s not only durable but eternally in
style” (1979, 54). Conversely, Rolling Stone writer Stephen Holden declared “Do Ya Think I’m
Sexy” to be an exception to, “recent rock-disco crossovers . . . [that] have aimed low rather than high” (1979a, 95). Stephen Thomas Erlewine also praised the song in his retrospective review, writing that, “With its swirling strings and nagging chorus, "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" was the reason the record hit number one, and decades later, the song stands as one of the best rock-disco fusions” (All Music Guide review of Blondes Have More Fun). “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” has 45
drawn particular vitriol from Peter Shapiro, who stated that the song was “about as sexy as a
eunuch” and was in his opinion, “a particular disgrace to the rock community” (2005, 229).
While it is not definitively clear, it seems the scorn for “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” is based
upon the fact that it was visible as a massive hit yet did not add anything to the Eurodisco sound,
pegging it as commercial (and thus inauthentic) disco-rock that lacked the distinctive hybrid elements added by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. Stewart’s subsequent album, Foolish
Behavior, retained disco’s synthesizers and programmed drums on its hit single, “Passion,” but abandoned the rhythmic insistence of disco for a return to the rhythms of pre-disco rock and new wave.
Disco-Rock since the Disco Era
As of this writing, there is a puzzling lack of discussion regarding these albums in interviews, despite their unique roles in their performers’ respective discographies. In print interviews following the release of Some Girls, many interviewers were more interested in exploring the themes of misogyny and racism evidenced in the album’s title track than they were in exploring Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’s opinions on rock and roll’s potential rebirth as dance music. It is my opinion that both the artists and journalists have come to view their disco- influenced recordings as relics of an unfortunate era, at least with regards to discussing them.
The Rolling Stones have regularly performed “Miss You” since its original release, and they revived “Dance Pt.1” for their 2003 World Tour.7 David Bowie has been candid about the
merits and failures of the music on Young Americans, though this may be due in part to the
album’s Philly soul leanings and its emergence at the dawn of disco’s ascent, separating it from
7 The Rolling Stones other disco-era hit, “Emotional Rescue,” has never been performed in concert , according to both my own findings and Ian McPhearson’s Rolling Stones Concert Database. 46
the stigma associated with disco crossover. Bowie performed “Young Americans” on multiple
tours, including his 1983 Serious Moonlight tour (his largest to date).8 “Fame” has remained a
staple of Bowie’s live concerts dating back to 1976. It received an updated remix in 1990, titled
“Fame 90.” KISS has performed “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” regularly over the years, in both
the original disco arrangement and a modified hard-rock version. Rod Stewart has performed
“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” (his biggest hit to date) constantly since 1979. Elton John’s Victim of
Love has yet to be performed in concert as of this writing.
8 He also performed a stripped-down rendition of the song with his short-lived band Tin Machine, parodying the dramatic climax of “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?” by feigning tears midway through the line, bringing the song to an abrupt end. 47
CHAPTER THREE. ARGUMENTS FOR DISCO-ROCK’S INCLUSION WITHIN
Disco-rock is publicly viewed as inauthentic disco, and left out of disco scholarship for several reasons. Prior to the advent of disco-rock crossover, rock was seen as distinct from disco, and disco-rock artists ended up perceived as “jumping on the bandwagon” as a result. Rock is viewed as a commercial product by disco scholars. Due to these commercial ties, disco-rock artists are assumed to lack the expressive authenticity of “true” disco, and are viewed as having copied disco’s sound while contributing nothing new to the genre (a narrative of co-optation).
Finally, past disco scholarship has linked notions of “authentic” disco to “underground” artists and gay club culture and deemphasized the role of mainstream disco culture, of which disco-rock is a part (Echols 2010, 155).
The previous chapter focused exclusively on the recordings of a group of rock artists, demonstrating that their work was inspired by an affinity for the sound of disco music. It also showed that their disco-rock records were a progression of musical ideas that in some cases developed over several years. This chapter will focus on rock and disco-rock’s relationship to disco and disco authenticity, beginning by outlining the divisive nature of modern disco scholarship, and recent pleas by Alice Echols for a more inclusive model of study. Following this overview, I will suggest a new model that defines disco based on historical and musical data rather than previous scholarly narratives of authenticity. I will provide examples of rock’s connection to the early years of disco via club playlists, as well as the recognition of disco’s musical principles by disco-rock artists. Finally, I will contest the exclusion of disco-rock on grounds of commercialism by examining the commercial nature of disco itself (previously 48
discussed in Chapter One), with specific examples of commercialism within the work of “true” disco artists.
Disco and Authenticity
Authenticity in disco has been understood in a number of ways. During the disco era, there was evidence of a divide between so-called “straight” and “gay” styles of disco. Disco scholarship stretching from 1986 to 2005 privileged the work of “pure” disco musicians over artists who had crossed over from other genres. Recently, Alice Echols has brought this dichotomy back to the forefront by claiming that past disco scholars have unnecessarily divided disco into categories of “good” and “bad” disco. The relationships are key to understanding the role of authenticity in discourses of disco.
The majority of contemporaneous disco journalism did not privilege individual styles of disco. The notable exception is Andrew Kopkind’s interview with Danae, a popular DJ, who claimed that the gay community favored certain styles of disco over one another:
There’s gay disco and straight disco, although there’s overlap between the two. Straight disco is heavy-duty funk, the driving sound, that has all the power without much of the emotion. Gays like to hear black women singers: they identify with the pain, the irony, the self-consciousness. We pick up on the emotional content, not just the physical power. The MFSB sound was gay, Barry White was a gay sound, so is Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor. We knew the Trammps “Disco Inferno” was a great song years before it got into the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. (1979, 305)
Several stylistic markers are introduced in this quote: he states that gay disco is not “heavy-duty
funk,” implying that it is closer to Eurodisco. This is further confirmed by Danae’s choice of
artists: Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor. The others, MFSB, Barry White, and the Trammps
represent lushly orchestrated styles of disco that are thoroughly rooted in R&B. There is also an
emphasis on earlier styles of disco, as all of these performers were established in the market prior 49
to 1976. Danae also places emphasis on “emotion,” a vague, subjective quality (common to
many qualities tied to authenticity). Danae’s list omits any crossover artists. Novelist Andrew
Holleran described newer disco as, “fast, mechanical, monotonous, shallow stuff,” and
reminisced that, ”old dark disco, which did not know it was disco…was simply a song played in
a room where we gathered to dance” (quoted in Echols 2010, 212). Holleran’s comment echoed
that of Danae by again favoring early disco that pre-dates the defining of the genre. While there is nothing wrong with Danae and Holleran stating a preference for a particular segment of disco, it marked the beginning of a larger trend in which selected sub-genres of disco were emphasized to the detriment of others.
The dichotomy of gay and straight disco put forth by Danae remained a part of disco discourse, although the labels “gay disco” and “straight disco” were not used by most scholars after 1980. Disco scholarship from 1986 onward has primarily focused on Eurodisco artists while disparaging or ignoring crossover styles, including disco-rock. The common thread shared by these scholars and the discourse of gay/straight disco is a systematic emphasis on pure disco artists who did not crossover from existing genres. These scholars praised the artists similar to
those named by Danae, while also giving positive acknowledgement to disco’s early precursors,
as well as funk and R&B influenced disco groups. Conversely, crossover artists were often
dismissed as “exploitive cash-ins” (Brewster and Broughton 1998, 167) or omitted entirely, save
Empire of the Beat” mentions the Bee Gees but declines to refer to them by name, referring to them instead as, “a trio of Australian falsetti” (1994, 147). Thought the term “authentic” is seldom if ever used, there is an indisputable trend of regarding the same artists and sub-genres as 50
worthy of discussion and praise while shunning others that have been deemed commercial or
Alice Echols has challenged the practices of past disco scholarship in her 2010 book Hot
Stuff. She states that “purists declared certain tracks ‘real’ disco and others commercial dreck”
(2010, xxiv). She further defines disco as, “a culture that, in contrast to rock, didn’t trade on
‘realness,’ preferring to revel in the pleasures of the artificial” (2010, xxiv). Echols summarizes
the prevailing scholarly views on disco by stating that, “Although their recasting of disco has
much to recommend it, it follows too faithfully the declension narrative so typical of pop music
writing whereby an inventive underground is eclipsed by its debased commercial version. This two-tiered schema of “good” versus “bad” disco creates its own distortions.” She writes that the result of this trend is that, “Disco is habitually reduced to its narrowest expression, with the result that anything that deviates even slightly from classic disco is always something else” Echols subsequently proposes that her own “definition of disco is expansive, encompassing whatever worked on American dance floors, rather than being limited to what is now codified as disco”
(2010, xxvii). Echols proposes an inclusive model for disco scholarship that would encompass the whole of disco rather than a narrow selection of artists.
Alice Echols writes that “disco revisionists” are ”anxious to counter the usual depictions of disco as narcissistic and politically retrograde“ (2010, 155). She summarizes the prevailing narrative of disco revisionism, writing that previous scholars imply that “there was glitz and greed and tackiness in mainstream disco, but here in the gay/queer underground one finds disco’s authentic self in all its nourish and subversive glory” (2010, 155). Echols cites examples of these views by Tim Lawrence and Peter Shaprio. Lawrence describes the early disco parties held at the Loft as, “a site not of foreplay but of spiritual communion,” and labels the subsequent 51 commercial disco scene as, “driven by faddish, hedonistic fashion” (Lawrence 2003, 25, 50).
Echols also contests the views of Peter Shapiro, who in turn classifies mainstream disco culture
(along with disco-rock by implication) as a hopelessly square experience:
The “quintessential mainstream disco experience” maintains Peter Shapiro, “was hearing ‘Y.M.C.A’ six times in one night at the Rainbow Room of the Holiday Inn in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, while doing line dances with a bunch of travelling salesmen” [Shapiro 2005, 227]. Shapiro may be right, but if he is, it isn’t likely because he (or any other discographer) knows what happened in that Rainbow Room. The research on the “mainstream” disco experience simply has not been done, partly because of its diffuseness, but perhaps also because discographers are so intent upon legitimating disco through its roots in the gay/queer background (2010, 157).
Echols responds to Lawrence and Shapiro by asserting that, “the idealization of gay/queer disco and the corresponding of disparagement of mainstream disco has proven almost irresistible to discographers” (2010, 156-157). She continues: “This narrative of declension, where gays are sidelined by the disco tsunami that they helped to make, has some truth to it. But it fails to reckon with the centrality of commercialism to gay disco and gay culture more broadly. After all, the gay entrepreneurs who helped to turn disco into an industry wanted to turn a profit” (2010,
156). Inspired by disco journalist Vince Aletti’s excitement for the future of disco after the success of Saturday Night Fever, Echols writes that, “If disco revisionists celebrate gays as disco’s true underground . . . they invariably disparage as conformist and politically regressive the new audience that Aletti was looking to win over” (2010, 156). I stand with Echols in the belief that defending disco from outside detractors is noble, but the impact of this focus on disco scholarship obscures disco’s history as a music that sought to unite diverse groups of dancers under a universal beat. Truly comprehensive disco scholarship will require an overview of all mainstream disco styles, including disco-rock. 52
The following section will build on Echols’s model of integrated study by suggesting a
set of overall parameters for defining disco music, based on a history of club play, and a set of
shared musical characteristic that are common to virtually all disco music.
What is Disco?
In order to illustrate the significance of rock’s contribution to disco, we must first answer
several questions. The most basic of these questions is, “What is disco?” The history of the
movement and genre was discussed in chapter 1. However, the definition and parameters of the
genre are less clear. In this section, I will show that rock music was a part of both early
discotheques such as the Loft and later period clubs Paradise Garage and the Gallery,
demonstrating that rock and disco were linked together in disco culture from the beginning. I
will also outline a set of musical principles common to virtually all disco music, emphasizing
that these qualities are shared by both “authentic disco” and disco-rock.
The label of “early” disco has been applied by scholars such as Echols and Shapiro to
anything that was frequently played in dance clubs or discotheques. This included a mix of
contemporary funk, soul, and rock recordings. A survey of the most played songs at the major
clubs of the era (provided in Brewster and Broughton’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life) also
includes tracks by notable rock artists. I have chosen three clubs for this purpose: The Loft, the
Paradise Garage, and the Gallery.
The Loft and The Gallery were two of the most important early clubs of the disco era.
The Loft was a New York City club that has been cited as the “birthplace” of disco (Brewer and
Broughton 1999, 140). The building was the residence of the club’s owner, David Mancuso, and
the club’s first events in 1970 were invitation only rent parties that started after the local bars 53
closed at 3 a.m. (Brewer and Broughton 1999, 143). The Loft set the standard for the dance clubs
of the era with a marvelous sound system and carefully crafted playlist (Brewer and Broughton
1999, 143). The Gallery followed the Loft’s example of combining a top of the line sound
system with a diverse playlist selected by in-house DJ Nicky Siano (Brewer and Broughton
1999, 152). The Gallery operated from 1972 to 1978, while The Loft remained a fixture of the
dance scene throughout the era before moving to a new location in 1982 (Buckland 2002, xiii).
The Paradise Garage was one of the defining clubs of the disco era after 1975 (Brewer
and Boughton 1999, 273). The club opened inside a former parking garage in 1977, with
legendary DJ Larry Levan manning the turntables. Levan was renowned for his ability to create moods over the course of an evening using a wide variety of music (Shapiro 2005, 267-268). The
Paradise Garage gained a reputation for its racially mixed clientele, huge dance floor (able to accommodate over a thousand dancers), and a sound system so powerful that it bordered on overwhelming. The Garage outlasted the disco era (closing in 1987), and has been cited as the home of disco’s “peak years,“ stretching into the 1980s (Echols 2010, 216).
The Loft’s top 100 songs reveal funky tracks by Eddie Kendricks and Earth, Wind & Fire
417-419).1 (Club owner David Mancuso’s own list includes “Here Comes the Sun” by the
Beatles, and “Glad” by Traffic). The top 100 songs played at the Paradise Garage include
recordings by Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, the Steve Miller Band, Chicago, and Stevie
Nicks. The Gallery’s top 50 also includes a diverse array of styles: instrumentals by MFSB, funk
by James Brown, Philly soul by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Hi-NRG by Sylvester, blues
and jazz rock by Traffic, and new wave by the B-52s. If we accept this sampling of songs at
1 Club Owner David Mancuso’s own list. 54 influential clubs as representative in the clubs overall, it emerges that rock artists did receive regular club play alongside diva-driven Eurodisco. This highlights that rock was linked to disco from the movement’s very beginnings, and that this connection between rock music and disco carried over to clubs that remained open after 1980.
Disco as a Musical Style
By the mid 1970s, disco also existed as a distinct style of music. Beginning in 1973, new recordings were released that had synthesized multiple elements from disco’s precursors, and were produced specifically for club play. These recordings share several musical characteristics, including: a danceable beat, economic accompaniment, and soloists (vocal and instrumental) that remain within the centrality of the beat. These qualities are exemplified by “true” disco and disco-rock.
The most simplified musical criteria for disco is that it must have a danceable beat in the bass guitar, drums, and percussion that is given dynamic emphasis equal to or greater than the guitars, keyboards, and other instruments. The precedence of the beat does not allow for arrhythmic instrumental solos or the absence of percussion. In addition, the beat must have a rhythmic push and pull between the downbeats (1 and 3) and upbeats (2 and 4) that is lacking from the “straighter” forward motion of the rock backbeat. This eliminates the majority of heavy metal, hard rock, blues rock, and progressive rock music of the 1970s. In addition, it also disqualifies many R&B and soul records that share similarities with disco but ultimately lack the requisite dance rhythm, usually ballads. While these criteria may appear restrictive, all of these 55 qualities appear in the early disco recordings as well as the large body of disco hits that I surveyed for this project. 2
The relationship between the singer/voice and the instrumental accompaniment in disco music is significant and multifaceted. Disco is often differs from rock in its emphasis on “pure” singers (who do not play instruments or compose) rather than the singer/songwriter/ instrumentalists that rose to prominence in rock music during the 1960s. The prominence of the female voice in particular was used to differentiate “true” disco from the funk-derived styles of disco music. However, disco’s distinctive beat and musical textures are products of its instrumentation. Unlike blues, gospel, and folk-based styles of music, disco cannot easily be stripped down to a single instrument while retaining its musical identity. In this regard, the underlying instrumentation is more important in defining disco than the vocals, explaining in part the malleability within and between different sub-genres of disco while linking them together via the 4/4 beat. However, the growing uniformity of the disco beat (as well as the increasing desire to match tracks to one another by narrowing the range of tempos) required greater effort on the parts of the singers and composers to distinguish their records from an increasing tide of mass produced singles and albums aimed at the disco market.
One potential misconception of disco is that genre’s emphasis on the voice resulted in an absence of improvised solos, differentiating it from the progressive rock, heavy metal, and psychedelic music of the 1970s, which came to be represented by extended improvised instrumental solos on songs such as Yes’s “Roundabout,” ELP’s “Take a Pebble,” and live concerts by Cream and the Grateful Dead, just to name a few. Nelson George states that, “At
2 “Keep on Trucking,” “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” “The Love I Lost,” “Rock Your Baby,” “Rock the Boat,” “Never Say Goodbye” (both the song and album suite), “Love to Love You Baby,” “MacArthur Park Medley,” “I Will Survive,” “Get Down Tonight,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” are a sample of early and later disco recordings that share the above qualities. 56
Motown, electric guitars, sometimes as many as four, were locked in intricate patterns. At Stax,
Steve Cropper’s lead lines were short, concise statements. But in rock, lead guitar extravagance
was crucial to the music and the supporting culture” (1988, 109). Most instrumental passages on
disco recordings were breaks that reduced the track to the rhythm instruments, or pre-composed
passages played by strings or synthesizer. However, improvised solos existed in disco music as
well, particularly on extended 12” mixes. This is most notable on the full length version of
Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park Medley,” which includes a long improvised synthesizer solo.
Extended solos can also be heard on the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” (guitar) and Sylvester’s “Do
Ya Wanna Funk” (synthesizer). During the disco years, hard rock and metal were placing greater
emphasis on the soloist, beginning to introduce unaccompanied solos where the rhythmic pulse
was abandoned entirely to better spotlight the voice of the soloist. This was pioneered by the
Conversely, soloists in disco are linked to the musical accompaniment in a manner similar to the swing bands of the 1930s and 40s. Swing soloists were required to play over a constant, dance-friendly accompaniment without creating any awkward, jagged edges in the rhythm. Even great soloists such as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, who flirted with syncopation in an adventurous yet acceptable fashion, were bound to the lock-step of the swing beat until the advent of Bebop. Disco continued the traditions of big band swing. This is undoubtedly a result of both genres’ connection to dancing. The instrumental soloists (and the singers for that matter) deferred to the rhythm section, playing solos that were rhythmically exciting while remaining locked into the groove. 57
When applied to recordings such as “Young Americans,” “Fame,” “Miss You,” and “I
Was Made For Lovin’ You,” the standard of vocal/instrumental balance holds true. The recordings of rock-disco are closer stylistically to the canon of disco than they are to preceding rock styles, including blues-rock, psychedelic rock, and hard rock, demonstrating an economy of musical accompaniment and a deference to the beat above all else. This development is particularly notable in the disco-rock recordings of The Rolling Stones. “Miss You” showed a marked difference from their previous dance-oriented effort, “Hot Stuff,” by eliminating the loose, improvised accompaniment of the latter in (with funky but jarring contributions from Billy
Preston on piano and guest guitarist Harvey Mandel) on favor of the controlled riffing by Ron
Wood on guitar and Ian McLagen on electric piano. I argue that this change in style represents a conscious effort to embrace disco’s musical aesthetic rather than an appropriation of selected musical characteristics.
This set of shared musical characteristics shows that the beat and rhythmic economy of the instrumental accompaniment remain constant in disco music, even as vocal styles, length, form, and instrumentation vary from recording to recording. Having addressed the musical similarities between disco-rock and the genre as a whole, I will now address the role of
“expressive authenticity” in narratives of disco.
Disputing Authentic Disco’s Narrative of “Expressive Authenticity”
Disco-rock has been dismissed by past disco scholars due to its association with calculated commercialism (Brewer and Broughton 1999, Shapiro 2005). Members of the Rolling
Stones and KISS have said without reservation that some of these recordings were attempts at creating a successful disco recording. However, this commercial intent is not limited solely to 58
disco-rock. Disco’s precursors were not intended to be popular in the dance clubs but that was only because they were released with the recording industry’s then-current goal of sales driven
by radio play in mind. Disco’s emergence as a separate genre was directly connected to the
realization that club play could lead to record sales (Brewer and Broughton 2000, 171-172).
Furthermore, it has been documented that even the pure disco of Donna Summer, Sylvester, and
Chic was at times driven primarily for the desire for success and profit.
Donna Summer may have been the Queen of Disco, but she was already attempting to
transition away from the genre in 1979. Lawrence writes that, “Having sung blues and rock
numbers on her most recent tour, Summer attempted to persuade [Neil] Bogart to let her
introduce non-disco tracks on the Bad Girls album, but the label head wasn’t interested” (2002,
386). Summer later said that Bogart, “saw dollar bills flying out of my pockets when I said I
wanted to sing rock ‘n’ roll. I felt like Marie Antoinette or Joan of Arc – great women of their
time who had to deal with ridicule and misunderstanding” (quoted in Lawrence 2002, 386).
While Summer’s assessment of the situation is needlessly overblown, does the fact that
Summer’s subsequent Bad Girls album was recorded for commercial profit against the artist’s
wishes make it less of a disco classic? Additionally, Summer created genre crossing music on
the album, compromising with pioneering efforts to introduce rock elements into disco, rather
than the other way around (another argument that the two genres not need be completely
Sylvester has held status in disco scholarship equal to that of Donna Summer since his
distinctive voice was highlighted by Walter Murphy in 1994. Sylvester’s recordings of songs
like“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Don’t Funk With My Heart” have However, Alice
Echols documents the revisionist authenticity of Sylvester’s disco recordings: 59
Initially, “Mighty Real” was nothing more to [Sylvester] than a forgettable ditty with throwaway lyrics – a song he tossed off in a matter of minutes. Weeks passed before he even committed the words to paper, and longer still before he understood its value. Once he conquered the world of gay disco, he was already plotting his exit. By the spring of 1979, he was proclaiming that disco was merely a means to an end, and that he was looking forward to singing “songs that I really like.” Both Sylvester and his label tried to break him out of the disco market, but his only real success was as a disco/dance artist, particularly within the sub-genre of hi-NRG, which became so popular in white gay discos. (2010, 146)
Echols does not devalue Sylvester’s music or his contribution to disco as a genre. She does
however point out that one of the stars of modern disco scholarship was performing in a genre that he could have cared less about, confirming commercial motives while also placing in doubt the expressive authenticity that is used to differentiate “true” disco artists in cases of equivalent commercialism.
This contradiction also applies to the work of Chic, one of the era’s most successful late period disco bands. After only two years in the disco market, Chic announced that they would no longer record disco music. This change in direction was articulated by bassist and co-leader
Bernard Edwards in 1979: “Our next single will change direction some…The public puts you in a category and decides that you’re a disco group, so obviously if disco dies, you have to be concerned. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to get away from that” (quoted in Lawrence 2002,
387). Lawrence equates this to abandonment, stating that, “Chic jumped off the now-derailed disco
bandwagon as calculatingly as they had jumped on it in 1977” (2002, 387). Years later, Chic’s
guitarist Nile Rodgers elaborated on the group’s uneasy status as disco artists during an interview
with Anthony DeCurtis:
Rodgers: In a way, disco was the beginning of a lowering of the bar. DeCurtis: You mean musically? Rodgers: Yeah, because disco was the beginning of producers controlling the music. That’s why I say the Village People are disco. Earth, Wind & Fire is not disco, even though they had records that were played in discos. Kool and the Gang is not disco, Chic is not disco. But Ecstasy, Passion & Pain are disco. Donna Summer is disco. Those are people where someone comes up with a concept and you then look for the person that 60
fulfills it. Producers realized that, ‘Wait a minute, I can create artists because I got the formula. I know what works. (quoted in DeCurtis 2005, 360-361)
Rodgers defines disco as the product of a formula: a calculated creation rather than the work of
an artist. More importantly, he redefines Chic and other second-generation funk groups as “not
disco.” It is impossible to determine whether these views were held by Rodgers and the other
members of Chic during their 1977-1979 heyday. Still, Rodgers and Edward’s statements bring
into question the sincerity of their disco recordings.
The disco-rock artists discussed here have shown a long running affinity for the sounds of
R&B, soul, and funk music (though KISS’s connection is weaker than the others) and expressed
as much in interviews. Regardless, all of the recordings discussed in this paper were commercial products, and cannot be separated in this regard. Perceived “expressive authenticity,” or the lack thereof does not diminish their quality or lasting appeal. In this regard, both “authentic” disco and disco-rock are equals.
Rock was associated with disco from the beginning of the disco era, a fact borne out by available playlists from the era. There have been attempts to exclude disco-rock from the core canon of disco recordings by scholars, dating back to dichotomies of gay and straight disco that appeared in the late 1970s, and depictions of disco-rock (as well as mainstream disco) as a calculated, commercial product. This argument breaks down when one considers that “authentic” disco recordings were also directed towards profit and commercial success. This also applies to
“authentic” artists such as Donna Summer, Sylvester (who continued to make disco recordings
despite their dissatisfaction with the genre), and Chic (who abandoned the genre because it was
no longer commercially viable), while disco-rock artists expressed genuine affection for disco 61 and its musical predecessors despite their relatively brief involvement in the genre. Additionally, when disco’s musical standards are applied to the selected disco-rock recordings, all of them share characteristics that are found consistently in recordings that have been claimed as authentic disco. This reexamination of previous narratives warrants the inclusion of disco-rock in future scholarship, as well as their inclusion in future discographies of the era.
It is time for a reconsideration of disco-rock’s inclusion in disco scholarship. Rock has
been linked with disco since the early 1970s, played side-by-side in clubs during disco’s early
years. While some bands like KISS were primarily motivated by profit, the infusion of disco elements into rock music was motivated by some rock artists’ appreciation for disco’s rhythms and musical structure, as well as its links to funk and soul music. David Bowie was inspired by the sounds of the Jackson 5 and Barry White, while the Rolling Stones viewed their own recordings as an extension of bands such as Junior Walker and the All-Stars and the Ohio
Players. Disco-rock took disco’s musical principles (the primacy of the beat, rhythmic and instrumental economy) and applied them to rock instrumentation. Disco-rock continued to emphasize the dance beat while acting as an ambassador to rock fans (as well as other listeners) who may not have initially accepted dance music otherwise. In this regard, disco-rock may have acted as a bridge between disco audiences and the potential members of the “disco sucks” movement. As for the rock artists discussed here, the disco-rock era resulted in some exciting music that was a departure from their previous work.
There is more research to be done on the subject. I have established disco-rock’s place in disco via a shared musical language and past disco scholarship’s questionable notions of authenticity. For reasons of scope, I have only focused on five out of many rock artists who contributed to the disco-rock genre, bypassing a list of other contributors that includes luminaries such as the Beach Boys, the Eagles, Queen, and the Grateful Dead. Future research and writing should incorporate examinations of these artists’ roles in disco as well. In addition, recent rock groups including the Scissor Sisters, the Killers, and Franz Ferdinand have incorporated disco 63
influences into their music, providing fertile ground for a study on modern incarnations of disco-
The revaluation of authenticity in disco should not only extend to disco-rock. A larger
study of this nature should also assess the contributions of funk and R&B bands to the latter half
of the disco era in addition to their role in early disco prior to 1975. Pop crossover artists such as
the Bee Gees and later instrumental disco have been maligned as badly or worse than disco-rock
artists in past scholarship and popular criticism. Further studies should consider their work with
an open mind to the positive variations that these artists brought to the spectrum of disco music.
Also, as Alice Echols has stated, there is a lack of ethnographic research regarding the lesser- known, mainstream dance clubs in New York City, as well as the majority of clubs in other areas of the United States. Interviews with surviving club owners and patrons would aid in gathering recollections of the mainstream experience to form a more complete picture of the musical environment in these venues.
Disco-rock deserves equal recognition by disco scholars. It is my wish that this study provides a stepping stone towards a greater consideration of the genre, as well as other mainstream styles of disco, and that this will lead in turn to expanded historical and ethnographic research by future scholars.
Andriote, John-Manuel. 2001. Hot stuff: A brief history of disco. New York: Harper Entertainment.
Appice, Carmine. Interview with Songfacts.com. D’ya Think I’m Sexy. Songfacts.com. http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1306 [accessed May 19, 2010].
Appleford, Steve. 2000. Rip this joint: The stories behind every Rolling Stones song. New York, NY: Thunder's Mouth Press.
Bendix, Regina. 1997. In search of authenticity: The formation of folklore studies. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Brackett, David, ed. 2005. The pop, rock, and soul reader: Histories and debates. New York, Oxford University Press.
Brown, James, with Bruce Tucker. 1986. James Brown: The godfather of soul. New York: Macmillan.
Buckland, Fiona. 2002. Impossible dance: Club culture and queer world making. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.
Buckley, David. 2001. Strange facination: David Bowie, the definitive story. London: Virgin.
Buskin, Richard. 2004. Classic tracks: Start me up. Sound on Sound. http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr04/articles/classictracks.htm [accessed May 12, 2009].
Christgau, Robert. 1975. Review of Young Americans, by David Bowie. Robertchistgau.com. http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=bowie [accessed April 8, 2009].
____. 1976. Review of Black and Blue, by the Rolling Stones. Robertchristgau.com. http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=stones [accessed April 8, 2009].
____. 1978. Review of Blondes Have More Fun, by Rod Stewart. Robertchristgau.com. http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=rod+stewart [accessed March 15, 2010].
____. 1979. Review of Victim of Love, by Elton John. Robertchristgau.com. http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=elton+john [accessed March 15, 2010]. 65
____. 1980. Review of Emotional Rescue, by the Rolling Stones. Robertchristgau.com. http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=stones [accessed April 8, 2009].
____. 1992. The Rolling Stones. In The Rolling Stone illustrated history of rock & roll: The definitive history of the most important artists and their music. 3rd ed. Edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke with Holly George-Warren. New York: Random House.
Dutton, Denis. 2003. Authenticity in Art. Denisdutton.com. http://denisdutton.com/authenticity.htm [accessed April 17, 2010].
Echols, Alice. 2010. Hot stuff: Disco, and the remaking of American musical culture. New York: W.W. Norton.
Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. Review of Blondes Have More Fun, by Rod Stewart. All Music Guide. http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:09fqxq85ldhe [accessed March 15, 2010].
____. Review of Young Americans, by David Bowie. All Music Guide. http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:0ifixqq5ld0e [accessed April 8, 2009].
Frith, Simon. 1981. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock. London: Constable.
____. 1989. Euro pop. Cultural studies 3 (2): 166-172.
George, Nelson. 1988. The death of rhythm and blues. New York: Pantheon Books.
Gillman, Peter. 1986. Alias David Bowie: a Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Greenberg, Steve. 2009. From Comiskey Park to thriller: The effect of “disco sucks” on pop. Wnyc.org. http://blogs.wnyc.org/culture/2009/07/13/from-comiskey-park-to-thriller-how- the-pop-music-audience-was-torn-apart-and-then-put-back-together/ [accessed March 15, 2010]
Gordy, Berry. 1994. No town like Motown. In Brackett, 144-150.
Holden, Stephen. 1979. The beat goes on – and on, and on. Rolling Stone, June 14, 95.
____. 1979. Review of Victim of Love. Rolling Stone, Dec 13, 86.
Hughes, Walter. 1994. In the empire of the beat: Discipline and disco. In Microphone fiends: Youth music and youth culture. Edited by Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose, 147-157. New York: Routledge. 66
Jensen, Joli. 1998. The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, commercialization, and country music. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Josephs, Jason. Review of Dynasty, by KISS. Pitchfork. http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/4474-dynasty/ [accessed April 8, 2009].
Kashner, Sam. 2007. Fever pitch. Movies rock, Fall.
Kivy, Peter. 1995. Authenticities: Philosophical reflections on musical performance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Kopkind, Andrew. 1979. The dialectic of disco: Gay music goes straight. In Brackett 2005, 300-308.
Landau, Jon. 1975. Review of Young Americans, by David Bowie. Rolling Stone, May 22. http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/davidbowie/albums/album/309871/review/6067481/y oung_americans [accessed April 8, 2009].
Lawrence, Tim. 2003. Love saves the day: A history of American dance music culture, 1970-1979. Durham: Duke University Press.
Leaf, David and Ken Sharp. 2003. Kiss: Behind the Mask: the Official Authorized Biography. New York: Warner Books.
Marsh, Dave. 1976. Review of Black and Blue, by the Rolling Stones. Rolling Stone, May 20. http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/therollingstones/albums/album/146151/review/18877 516/black_and_blue [accessed April 8, 2009].
Maslin, Janet. 1979. Review of Blondes Have More Fun. Rolling Stone, February 08, 54.
McPhearson, Ian. Dance Pt.1. http://www.timeisonourside.com/SODance.html [accessed March 15, 2010].
____. Emotional Rescue. Timeisonourside.com. http://www.timeisonourside.com/SOHotStuff.html [accessed March 15, 2010].
____. Hot Stuff. Timeisonourside.com. http://www.timeisonourside.com/SOHotStuff.html [accessed March 15, 2010].
____. Miss You. Timeisonourside.com. http://www.timeisonourside.com/SOMissYou.html [accessed March 15, 2010].
Nelson, Paul. 1978. Review of Some Girls, by the Rolling Stones. Rolling Stone, August 10. http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/therollingstones/albums/album/135105/review/60680 13/some_girls [accessed April 8, 2009].
Payne, Jim. 1996. Give the drummers some!: the great drummers of R&B, funk, and soul. Katonah, NY: Face the Music Productions.
Planer, Lindsay. Review of Victim of love, by Elton John. All Music Guide. http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:k9fuxq95ld0e [accessed March 15].
Schloss, Joseph Glenn. 2004. Making beats: The art of sample-based hip-hop. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.
Scoppa, Bud. 2004. Review of Black and Blue. Rolling Stone, June 24. http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/therollingstones/albums/album/296549/ review/6535645/black_and_blue [accessed April 8, 2009].
Shapiro, Peter. 2005. Turn the beat around: The secret history of disco. New York: Faber and Faber.
Sheffield, Rob. 2007. Review of Young Americans, by David Bowie. Rolling Stone, June 13. http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/davidbowie/albums/album/309871/review/15085504/ young_americans [accessed April 8, 2009].
Stewart, Alexander. 2000. ‘Funky drummer’: New Orleans, James Brown, and the rhythmic transformation of American popular music.
Wallach, Jeremy. 1995. “Cultural greyout and rock ’n’ roll sellout: Authenticity, ethnomusicology, and popular music.” Presented at the Society for Ethnomusicology 40th Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, California.
Welch, Chris. 1999. We could be heroes: The stories behind every David Bowie song. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
Wenner, Jann. 1995. Jagger remembers. Rolling Stone, December 14, 49-58.
APPENDIX. A SELECTED DISCO-ROCK DISCOGRAPHY
The Beach Boys. 1979. “Here comes the night [disco version].” L.A. (light album). Caribou JZ 35752 (Vinyl). Reissued in 2000 on M.I.U. album/L.A. (light album). Capitol 27950 (CD).
Blondie. 1979. “Heart of glass [disco mix].” Chrysalis CDS-2275 (vinyl). Reissued in 2009 on Blondie singles collection: 1977-1982. EMD International 9680372 (CD).
David Bowie. 1975. Young Americans. RCA AQL 1-0998 (vinyl). Reissued in 1984. RCA PD 80998 (CD).
____. 1976. “Golden years.” Station to Station. RCA AQL 1-1327 (vinyl). Reissued in 1984. RCA PD 81327 (CD).
The Eagles. 1975. “One of these nights.” One of these nights. Asylum 7E-1039 (vinyl). Reissued in 1985. Elektra 724352795024 (CD).
The Grateful Dead. 1978. “Shakedown street.” Shakedown street. Arista AB-4198 (vinyl). Reissued in 1984. Arista ARCD-8228 (CD).
Elton John. 1975. “Philadelphia freedom.” MCA-40364 (Vinyl). Reissued in 1986 on Greatest hits volume II. MCA D-37216 (CD).
____. 1979. Victim of love. MCA 5104 (Vinyl). Reissued in 1990. MCA D-22014 (CD).
____. 1979. The Complete Thom Bell Sessions. MCA D-39115 (CD).
Elton John and Kiki Dee. 1976. “Don’t go breaking my heart.” Rocket PIG-40585. Reissued in 1992 on Greatest hits 1976-1986. MCA D-10693 (CD).
The Kinks. 1979. “(Wish I could fly like) Superman [disco edit].” Arista CP 700 (vinyl) Reissued in 2003. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2008 (CD).
KISS. 1978. “Strutter ’78.” Double platinum. Casablanca NBLP 7100-2 (vinyl). Reissued in 1997. Mercury 532-383-2 (CD).
____. 1979. “I was made for lovin’ you.” Dynasty. Casablanca NBLP 7152 (vinyl). Reissued in 1997. Mercury 532-388-2 (CD).
Queen. 1980. “Another one bites the dust” The game. Elektra 5E-513 (vinyl). Reissued in 1994. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UCD610 (CD).
The Rolling Stones. 1976. “Hot stuff.” Black and blue. Rolling Stones Records COC 79104 (vinyl). Reissued in 1986. Rolling Stones Records 450203-2 (CD).
____. 1978. “Miss you.” Some girls. Rolling Stones Records COC 39108 (vinyl). Reissued in 1987. Rolling Stones Records 450197-2.
____. 1980. “Dance pt.1” and “Emotional rescue.” Emotional Rescue. Rolling Stones Records COC 16015 (vinyl). Reissued in 1986. Rolling Stones Records 450206-2 (CD).
Roxy Music. 1979. “Dance away.” Manifesto. ATCO SD 38-114 (vinyl). Reissued in 1989. Reprise 2-26046 (CD).
____. 1980. “Same old scene.” Flesh + blood. ATCO SD 32-102. Reissued in 1989. Reprise 2-26075 (CD).
Rod Stewart. 1978. “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Blondes Have More Fun. Warner BSK 3261 (vinyl). Reissued in 1988. Warner 2-3261 (CD).
Wings. 1979. “Goodnight tonight (long version).” Columbia 23-10940 (vinyl).