[14 November 2006]
All is not water under the bridge in the realm of pop music. Although it is true that, given enough time, even the most unloved style can fall back into fashion, it does not necessarily follow that every style will necessarily be rehabilitated. Just the other day I caught Penelope Spheeris’s Decline of Western Civilization Part II on late-night television, and it was shocking to see how foreign the Los Angeles glam metal of the 1980s had already become. You probably remember it as being absurd, but the fact is that it is still far more absurd than you remember. Not even twenty years have elapsed since the heyday of those bands, and it is almost inconceivable that pop culture will ever again circle back to a point where something like Faster Pussycat can be appreciated on anything but a completely ironic basis. Of course, I could be wrong, and we may just be on the verge of a Sunset Strip revival, but I seriously doubt it.
As with decadent glam metal, so to with disco. At its height disco was pretty damned absurd as well, and unbelievably big. It was big enough that when it fell from grace with the American record buying public it left a gigantic hole, and every dance-based pop act of the ensuing two decades fell into this hole (which is not to say that some of them didn’t sell records, but they sure didn’t get a lot of respect). When electronic music failed to break the States in the late ‘90s, a great deal of the antipathy was fuelled by a lingering racial memory of disco as the source of all things inauthentic and despicable. Disco has been so completely discredited as to be superfluous, or worse, a joke—the lasting staple of wedding DJs and frat parties.
The problem is that disco never really went away. Oh, sure, it was forced into hiding in America, but while no one was watching it became the foundation for the great musical revolutions of the last quarter century. Disco and funk contributed the background music for the birth of hip-hop. Disco was there at the birth of house, and it’s stayed in the genes all these years. Dance music and most electronic music in general descended from house, and house is the direct offspring of disco. For such a blanketly discredited genre, disco has done pretty well for itself.
And with that said, French producer Cerrone deserves credit as one of the architects of modern music. Many people may never have heard his name, but they most certainly have heard his style. Beginning with 1976’s “Love in C Minor”, Cerrone produced massive hits throughout the disco era. It is impossible to listen to Cerrone without some sensation of familiarity, because his style is so essential to disco as to border on generic. This is disco, for better or for worse—pounding backbeats, sly funk basslines, concise punctuated bursts of orchestration, and endless pop hooks. The technology and the attitudes may have changed, but this is still the beating heart at the center of dance music. Whether you’re playing trance or micro-house or New York garage or UK breakbeat, every DJ mixes their records by synching the backbeat. And the backbeat remains the same today as it was in the prehistoric days of 1976.
So it really isn’t surprising that Cerrone’s material still sounds so contemporary. Sure, it carries a slight imprimatur of its era, but in many respects the tracks on this collection—aside from remixes, they are wholly culled from the decade between 1973 and 1982—still retain a remarkable contemporaneousness. This is especially interesting in light of the few chosen remixes that dot the collection. Hearing wholly modern remixes by the likes of Modjo and Bob Sinclar alongside the original edits only serves to accentuate just how modern Cerrone’s work still seems. Yes, the drums may have been processed in a slightly different manner, and the sampling technology that didn’t exist in the late ‘70s gives things a new feel, but the basic outline is still the same.
Listening to Sinclar’s mix, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Cerrone is simply far more important an influence on modern music than most people have ever realized—or, at the very least, that he was able to see farther into the future of pop music than almost anyone else. The recurring Latin rhythms on tracks like “Revelacion” and “Kongas Fun” (from 1977 and 1973, respectively) point to the future of Samba-based house and freestyle rhythms, the likes of which have only just recently made their presence felt on English-speaking pop radio (but have been perpetually popular among disco fetishists and house heads). Cerrone’s “Supernature” (1977) sold some 8 million copies across the world, and it’s hard not to see the influence tracks like that and Cristal’s “Phonik” (from 1978) had on the advancing sonic palette of folks like David Byrne and Brian Eno—the nervous rhythms, oddball synth noises, and overall outlandishness of the sound anticipates the likes of Remain in Light, as well as ‘80s underground hits like Yello’s “Bostich”.
But as great as almost everything on this disc is, the centerpieces are still the anthems, the great magisterial epics that defined the disco sound and created the template for vocal-based dance music that remains in place to this day. 1977’s “Love Is the Answer” appears in remixed form, courtesy of the Liquid People—while the track has been suitably refurbished, the hook remains blessedly sharp. The aforementioned “Supernature”, undoubtedly one of the biggest dance hits of all time, remains as suitably low-key as you probably remember it, a dark and nervous track that belies the notion of disco as a purely upbeat pastime.
And, of course, the track that started it all, “Love in C Minor”, kicks off the whole thing. It’s such a masterful composition, because you don’t even realize that first four minutes is spent simply building to the first chorus. When the chorus finally does break in, it’s about as extravagant as you’d expect, given the build-up. It’s all about building tension with the rhythm section, and then releasing the tension with airy melodies and sugary-sweet vocal lines. Such a simple template, but still remarkably effective.