Disco (still) Sucks
There are certain aspects to America’s continued interest in revisiting one of its odder decades, the ‘70s. There have been great films that really connected with the look, the feel, the whole abandonment of the old 1950s (and even ‘60s) ethics, such as Terry Gilliam’s fantastic adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, P.T. Anderson’s stellar Boogie Nights, Richard Linklater’s beloved Dazed and Confused, and the late Ted Demme’s brutal Blow. There have also been fashion trends that try to recapture the spirit of the ‘70s. Just check out any of those gangly models and boy toys strutting down the runway with that fresh nappy blow comb look. And hell, we even managed to make a hit TV show out of Fox’s That ‘70s Show, which, if nothing else, made Danny Masterson’s hair a star in its own right.
Of course, there’s also the music. And what better genre of the ‘70s to borrow from than disco? David Bowie was perhaps the smartest of the early experimenters of the style, releasing his Young Americans LP in ‘75 which he cut in Philadelphia, effectively opening the flood gates for a string of other acts to follow two or three years later. But by that time, he was kicking drugs and recording his trilogy of experimental music in Berlin with Brian Eno. The rest of the world was getting high and fucking along to the glamour of Studio 54. Saturday Night Fever had turned disco into a hot commodity, and in turn the record business went big business.
And of course, there was a great backlash. From the punks, from the people who just wanted to rock, and from those who just saw through the whole trend. There were some frightfully bad recordings to be found, but there were also some gems. Saturday Night Fever‘s soundtrack still holds up as the disco album of all time. Donna Summer’s tracks from the era still smolder, and ABBA’s forays into the genre (or did they help build it as well?) are shining achievements. But, just like a lot of current musical trends, disco kind of wore out its welcome and needed a good kick in the ass after a while.
And so it disappeared after a fashion by around 1982 when New Wave was taking over. And it stayed gone, until the days of the superstar and techno DJ began to unfold in the ‘90s and the master turntablists were injecting all the old grooves back into the dance floors. This, in turn, inspired such groups as Daft Punk, Air, and Telepopmusik to bring forth with the oddly malnourished disco that manages to sell a few records, promote a few products via TV commercials, and annoy this piss out of people who still just want to fucking rock.
The newest entry into this madness is Louisville, Kentucky’s VHS Or Beta who are an actual band. That’s right, real instruments here. Featuring Zeke Buck and Craig Pfunder on guitars, Mark Guidry on drums, and Mark Palgy on bass, VHS Or Beta have “. . . finally made it cool to have fun—drawing hundreds of fans out of their easy chairs and onto the dancefloor”.
What’s so odd about this band and their album Le Funk, though, is that it does sound fake. More often than not the guitars sound looped, the beats nothing that a good copy of Acid Music or Fruity Loops couldn’t conjure up, and the rest . . . just a strange, lifeless mass of limp disco that couldn’t possibly stand a chance outside the clubs. Although, it might, since this kind of stuff is good for at least one hit anymore and a quick bonus whoring out on the latest NOW compilation.
But it doesn’t even measure up to the worst aspects of the aforementioned French groups that are so positively rote anymore that they all might just as well quit the record making business to concentrate on commercial jingles. Le Funk really tries to make one think that its all about the ‘70S, though. From the stylized groovy fonts in the sleeve to the title of the album to the flaccid vaguely disco-ish guitar lines, VHS Or Beta have one poor album on their hands. Thankfully it’s only six songs long.
A precursory glance over the track list will embed that ‘70s nostalgia into your head even more. What else to make of songs with titles such as “Disco Paradise” and “Solid Gold”? The band gets a couple points for the opening track “Heaven”, that does make it sound like something groovy is going down. With its funky bubbly bass, cheesy disco-fied strings, faux funk guitar, and a sound that apes Earth Wind & Fire at times, the song is decent. But it’s nothing more than decent. And if there was only that one song here, Le Funk might be a classic.
But it’s not. The problem with both “Disco Paradise” and “Solid Gold” is that they never evolve into anything more beyond their hipster plastic disco surface material. They both sound like they were recorded on auto pilot. You keep waiting for some kind of momentum to build, or a climax to erupt, but there’s nothing. In 30-second doses this stuff would sound downright awesome (there’s that TV commercial hint again), but stretched beyond even two minutes, these weak tracks go nowhere quick. At most, these songs sound like bland background music to any number of bad ‘70s b-grade movies that featured a disco at some point.
The last two cuts on the album, “Flash” and “Teenage Dancefloor” were recorded live. But these guys are so excellent at what they do, it sounds just like they played a tape of themselves in front of a crowd. Should it be remembered that disco was often first and foremost a studio trip? In a way, the live tracks are not unlike listening to a DJ spin vinyl, but again we’re comparing it to listening to a recording. These tracks are just too lifeless. And the guitar work on both is downright annoying. By the time you’ve heard the same chunka-chunka funk-cum-wah-wah riff played the 100th time, you’ll be ready to zip this one out the window.
Sometimes it’s better to just look back than to try and recreate a former moment that was once glorious. Or at least a former moment that some people thought was glorious. Who knows? Maybe all that cocaine warped a lot of people’s minds way back when and led them to believe that disco was some heady shit. As stated earlier, there was indeed a slew of good tracks to be heard, but there was a hell of a lot of forgettable platters issued as well. VHS Or Beta might indeed have what it takes, but it’d be hard to imagine their sound being remembered in even three years’ time.
// Notes from the Road
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