[16 October 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Out of all of the temporary cultural phenomenon to come from modern popular music, disco is perhaps the most indefensible. Cod-classical prog, hair metal, hip-house, Crazy Frog, throw ‘em all in a blender with a rotten pineapple and the result would still be more palatable than disco at its worst. True, at its mid-’70s peak disco was significant to the gay subculture, especially in metropolitan areas. Without it, we might not have had Abba, Erasure, house music, or Whit Stillman’s third feature The Last Days of Disco. A small bit of disco (Giorgio Moroder’s best work, Chic) can rightly be called “timeless”. But in this case there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits and killing the messenger. These days, about all disco is good for is getting people to embarrass themselves at sporting events and wedding receptions.
In this context, a new compilation subtitled “Disco, Funk & Philly Anthems from Germany 1975-1980” might arouse at least one eyebrow and offer a glimmer of hope. It’s no secret that disco was big in Europe; Moroder, though Italian by birth, was based in Germany. Could Disco Deutschland, compiled by graphic designer/professional music buff Stefan Kessel, uncover some sort of hidden archive of genuinely good disco or, even more enticing, interesting disco? The title was snappy, the packaging looked good and preconceptions were set as close to zero as possible.
Alas, most of Disco Deutschland is as horribly overblown as disco gets with sickly, staccato strings, the kookaburra-aping guitars, the inane lyrics (“It was night / And suddenly I felt like dancing”) and the sax…oh, the sax. All of this is to be found in large quantities on the majority of the 18 tracks compiled here. If you think that hearing those lyrics rendered in German or in cold, detached German-accented English adds an unintentional ironic kick, you just might enjoy this. To be fair, the Philly-styled horns, triumphant string arrangement, and general sense of unflappability to Su Kramer’s “You’ve Got the Power Pt.1” are better-rendered than most, and start the compilation off promisingly. One prescient aspect of disco is that it was all about the production, and most everything here is very well produced. Every snare fill and instrumental breakdown is airtight.
Disco Deutschland is not a total washout on the “interesting” front, either. Kassel has found a few tracks that honestly lean toward soul music, without all the glitter and frills. Veronika Fisher & Band’s “Philodendron”, film composer Peter Thomas’s “Opium”, and actor/director/screenwriter/musician Christian Anders’s “Running Away” could all be outtakes from one of Isaac Hayes’ blaxploitation soundtracks (actually, the latter is from one of Anders’s kung-fu b-movies). Moroder himself even makes an appearance under the Munich Machine name; his “Get On the Funk Train Pt.1”, although not nearly as good as its title, at least demonstrates how, if you were going to do this sort of thing, to do it pristinely.
A few other tracks valiantly refuse to fit easily down the disco chute as well. “I Can’t Move No Mountains” from longtime jazz/big band star James Last is smooth, midtempo ‘70s R&B with some cool synth squiggles. Supermax’s “Love Machine” is the primary point of interest, though. An eight-minute epic, it’s based on the pulsing rhythm, moody synths, and power chords that would later make Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” an international smash, working in a smoothly danceable chorus and groovy, bongo-led instrumental outro. If only all of Disco Deutschland could be this revelatory, showing how, when it wasn’t straight jacketed by the strings’n'cheese, this music could sound like the future. Alas, Ganymed’s proto-synthpop “Dancing in a Disco” is the only other track that even hints at doing that.
It’s thoughtfully packaged and Kassel’s track-by-track liner notes exude his obvious enthusiasm for the project. If you’re an aficionado of vintage/rare disco, and doubtless such people do exist, Disco Deutschland will be something of a find. For everyone else, though, it mostly serves as a reminder of why Disco Demolition had to happen.