[27 September 2009]
Disco never really died… despite the best efforts of one agitated DJ who declared war on disco in 1979 by whipping up a disco-hating mob during a White Sox game.
As if to mark the 30th anniversary of this infamous affair, journalist and ZTT Records co-founder Paul Morley recently hit up some of disco’s remaining vanguard for an insightful discussion on its roots and what it begot. What it begot were of course hi-NRG, house, techno, and a rash of subgenres that painted a godlike aura around the DJ. So even though disco became highly derided, having degenerated from its initial post-‘60s spirit of liberation for the marginalised (gay and black people, mainly) into a hyper-commercialised juggernaut with a shadow the size of the AIDS epidemic, disco never really left us. As Morley put it, it just mutated, wore new clothes, took new drugs, and filled new spaces. Even famously po-faced hip hop artists who professed never to touch this supposedly “gay” music with a Roland TR-808 owed a great deal to it. Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Lovebug Starski, for instance, began their trade mixing disco and funk. Conversely, disco giant Walter Gibbons extended a track’s choice grooves and percussive elements using two copies of the record independently and at about the same time as Grandmaster Flash was perfecting his alchemy at the turntable.
But above all, disco never died because the fundamental point of disco – to keep us dancing in a glorious respite from the real world – never died.
Even so there’s a sense that those who missed the original D Train are now agitating to revive the sounds that had everyone from Ringo Starr to the Grateful Dead spinning into stardust. The likes of Dimitri From Paris kept its flame burning since the nineties but mostly for a niche of obsessives. If there is any way for this revival to become newsworthy, it could come down to the efforts of a couple of DJs in London who resemble members of the Hell’s Angels and trade under a silly name.
Like disco’s origins, the rumblings began in the dark alcoves of one gay club Trade. Two of the club’s resident DJs, Jim Stanton and James Hillard, began throwing “Horse Meat Disco” parties at the beginning of the decade, fuelling these soirees with a diet of classic but obscure soulful gems. The parties were meant as an antidote to the monotonous, techno-crazed debauchery that lined the streets of London’s Soho. At the same time, they observed that the “scene” lacked the unifying gravitas of a good club like erstwhile stomping grounds the Hippodrome and London Astoria.
After expanding the party to the Eagle, filling its floor on Sundays (!), and adding a coterie of guest DJs to HMD’s line-up, including Derrick Carter, it was only a matter of time before the duo became top-billers on the international DJ circuit. And now you can buy a simulacrum of their unabashed disco sense on their eponymous compilation. The cover art aptly takes after another thrower of great parties Gatecrasher: a pink unicorn for Gatecrasher’s trademark lion.
Like original disco DJs David Mancuso and Nicky Siano, Stanton and Hillard are famous for their parties rather than their production skills. In fact, there is little to speak of about the duo’s studio experience as they prepare to undergo their first set of remixes. This compilation, then, is a near unsullied run of tunes that survey the gamut of camp, with an earful of gossamer hooks and mid-tempo funk tracks shaken and stirred by Afro-Latin polyrhythms. Better known tracks like Smokey Robinson’s squelchy “And I Don’t Love You” and Sheryl Lee Ralph’s electro-bombastic “In The Evening” rub against rarities like The Two Tons’ Giorgio Moroder-esque “I Depend On You” and Plaza’s lush string-laden “(Got My) Dancing Shoes”. But if you’re looking for the epitome of the confetti-filled “let’s do it twice, it’s so nice” mood, HMD don’t do better than “Love Bite” by maverick producer Richard Hewson. It sounds as if Cyndi Lauper has traded her punk inner self for the orgiastic overtones of Donna Summer, the erudite instrumental layering of MFSB, and maudlin grandeur of Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra.
The only indicator that this compilation isn’t some sort of disco “Best of” sans Chic, Gloria Gaynor, and KC and the Sunshine Band is the bizarre opener. An apparently messed-up HMD fan leaves a phone message describing how he’d been whisked away by a “giant glass unicorn” to see the ghost of house music co-founder Ron Hardy playing in a basement flat. According to rumour, such tales are apparently true of many of HMD’s most hardcore following. Of course, this could also be a conceit of both Stanton and Hillard who, obviously enamoured of Hardy, consider themselves as righteously taking his baton. If nothing else, HMD’s mixtape is an interesting study in what brings kids these days, gay and straight, from London to Brisbane, to do their best Tony Manero.