Disco is arguably the most maligned and misunderstood genre in popular music. (I know this after living through my pre-adolescence being criticized for liking disco ten years after that infamous “Disco Sucks” rally in Chicago’s Comiskey Park.) What its detractors fail to realize is that there are numerous sub-genres and stylistic sensibilities within “disco”. The reality is a bit more complex than K-Tel disco compilations would lead one to believe. “TSOP”, for example, is many grooves removed from “Good Times”, in both style and substance; lumping them together is not instructive towards really understanding the breadth of the disco experience. Depending on what club one frequented in the ‘70s—gay, straight, black, Latin, uptown, downtown, all of the above—a different set list with a different beats-per-minute flavor would hold court in distinct glittery, nocturnal kingdoms. Even the top disco labels of the era—Salsoul and Casablanca—had markedly dissimilar artists between them. That is why it’s important to qualify Cocktail Disco, the latest offering by DJ extraordinaire Dimitri from Paris, as a type of disco experience rather than considering it of a piece with, say, the Bee Gees.
Dimitri from Paris, known for Astralwerks’ Playboy Mansion series, is well aware that attitudes towards disco are “strong”, to say the least. He explains his repertoire choices on this personal collection of obscure and forgotten twelve inch-ers:
“Over years of vinyl hunting, one particular style seemed to regularly take up more shelf space in my Disco-theque… Rich orchestrations, a touch of Latin influence, the ubiquitous 4/4 disco beat, and rather over the top vocals, it had an evident sense of drama involved. Maybe some would find it cheesy, I would rather say cheeky and glamorous, something that would be quite fit for a Broadway musical show. Since no one bothered to coin it a name, I felt Cocktail Disco was simply appropriate enough”. (emphasis added)
Cocktail Disco, inevitably, feeds the appetite of those who decry disco as “lite” and soulless. (Imagine Frankie Valli’s “Swearin’ to God” times ten.) Clearly they are not the target audience Dimitri from Paris spins for on this lovingly compiled two-disc set. One only needs to hear Astrud Gilberto’s re-recording of “The Girl from Ipanema” from 1977 to sense this collection’s orientation towards the glitzy and irreverent. These songs are for those who crave a dash of camp in their cocktail, not unlike the slew of lounge music compilations that surfaced in the mid-‘90s.
At its heart, Cocktail Disco is about escapism. It’s not surprising that the cover image is a cruise ship headed for tropical shores. “Take Me With You” (“to the sound they call disco”, natch), “The Joy of You”, “It’s Got to Be Love”, “Summertime” – these titles all suggest a momentary detachment from reality. The fire whistle-type “ooooooooooo” by the women on “Canteen” symbolize this more than anything. Never mind that you’ve had a rotten day at work and you just had a fight with your boyfriend, you’re “Going to the canteen/Gonna boogie all night”!
Artists who were fairly anonymous in the ‘70s, even by disco’s standards, shine here. Ms. Victoria Barnes, Rhoda Scott, and the Gloria Gaynor soundalike Marti Lynn open their lipstick-ed lips and sing some of the more memorable songs. Scott’s version of “C’est Si Bon” could very well be the definitive “cocktail” song. It’s about as offensive as an episode of The Love Boat. You can practically see bubbles floating around Scott as she croons with just the tiniest hint of satire in her voice.
Other songs are not so blessed with evocative images. The frustration with Cocktail Disco—and a disco lover like me hates to admit this—is that more than a handful of these tracks simply do not hold up well, despite their feverish kitsch factor. I admire Dimitri from Paris’ intentions but man, some of his choices just don’t cut it. Night People’s “Again” is an embarrassing love duet, replete with spoken word interludes like “A little wine makes everything so divine”. A promising title like “Disco Village”, by J Elliot Group, doesn’t deliver any thrills except for when it finally ends. Ditto for “Starflight” by The Band that Fell to Earth. Nearly 18 minutes in length, this instrumental is a litmus test of patience and tolerance for taste, no matter how much you want to give it a chance.
One could even say the same about Cocktail Disco. Its appeal is probably broadest if used as background music at a party, sprinkling in a few tracks among a larger playlist to perk the virgin ears of guests. At 22 tracks, there’s plenty to choose from (though I’d approach with caution). The Ritchie Family’s “Frenesi” (produced by Jacques Morali of Village People fame) is ideal for such usage. Released in 1975, it fits all the criteria of “cocktail disco”, while also featuring some pretty hot strings and horns, not to mention sizzling percussion work.
If the selection on Cocktail Disco was trimmed to just one disc of other such musically satisfying performances, it would be a less trying exercise to sit (or dance) through. I salute Dimitri From Paris for compiling a wealth of tunes that are off the beaten path but Cocktail Disco is overloaded with tunes that fall short of inducing a memorable buzz.