Music

From R. Kelly to 'Reflektor': The Rise and Fall of the Disco Revival

There are plenty of popular musical trends swirling around in 2013, but perhaps none more unexpected or wonderful as the disco revival. From R. Kelly's Write Me Back to Arcade Fire's Reflektor, the new-disco trend has grabbed hold of R&B, pop, dance music, and indie rock, but why?

I remember February of 2012 very well, thanks to two seemingly unrelated songs. Though I didn't know it at the time, these songs were signs of big things to come. Big, groovy things to come. Or, to be more specific, come back.

The first song was "Share My Love", by R. Kelly. The song, melodically, lyrically, and sonically, could have easily been mistaken for a 1974 Barry White song if it weren't for Kellz's distinctive tenor. It's disco through-and-through. But after 2010's Love Letter, an album dedicated to recreating Motown and early soul music, this dip into '70s disco from R. Kelly wasn't too surprising. The album which followed, Write Me Back, continued the disco of "Share My Love" and also included '70s soul and rock 'n' roll elements, but surely this was a novelty. It was R. Kelly making a '70s record, mostly because he could. It wasn't a call to arms for every pop, R&B, and indie artist to start making disco, was it?

The other reason I remember February of 2012 so well was "Call Me Maybe". At the time I was introduced to the song, Justin Bieber and co. had just recently posted their lip-dub video, so it was not yet the ubiquitous phenomenon it was destined to become. But right from the first listen, I knew it was special. And it's definitely not the same level of disco as "Share My Love", but with its stabbing strings, slinky guitar chorus, and pedestrian lyrics, the influence was undeniable. And as the song unexpectedly spread, so did the disco.

Each new disco track I heard, I wrote off as a fluke. It was a coincidence, not a movement. When Bruno Mars' sophomore album, Unorthodox Jukebox came out, the standout track for me wasn't the Police-grabbing lead single "Locked Out of Heaven", it was the pure disco album cut "Treasure". But that's all I thought it was, an album cut. Another disco novelty. But, of course, we now know that the song later become a top 10 hit single. In retrospect, we should have seen this coming as early as Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger", which although was more of a funk groove, can be seen as the beginning of changing tides.

But by the time we got to February of 2013, just a year after the faded genre appeared on my radar, it was undeniable. Justin Timberlake's triumphant return to music was filed with disco strings, brass, and '70s soul chord progressions. Daft Punk's Random Access Memories featured collaborations with disco legends Nile Rodgers and Georgio Moroder. The offspring of the guy from Growing Pains released the biggest single of the year and it was a disco song. There was no use fighting it, 2013 was the year for disco. (And trap, but that's kind of a different story, isn't it?)

When debating what this year's Song of the summer would be (because after last year's "Call Me Maybe", I guess this is something we need to have defined), our options were Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" or Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines". Disco or disco. And it spread quickly through the pop world. Jessie J put out a disco song, Katy Perry's Prism contains a disco track, and even Jesse McCartney put out a disco song (which is actually quite good). But it wasn't just the pop world that was overtaken either.

This new disco, or nu-disco, as it's sometimes nauseatingly referred to, had been growing in the indie dance music scene for years. In fact, Bruno Mars admitted that "Treasure" is actually a rip-off of French producer Breakbot's "Baby I'm Yours". Saint Pepsi made a name for himself by stretching out of the vaporwave scene and developing his distinctive, disco-influenced style. And it even began to spread to indie rock. The 1975 included disco grooves in its emo songs dressed in '80s-rock reverb. And, because all good things need to come to an end sometime, Arcade Fire infused the disco style into its newest album, Reflektor.

Surely the trend will continue for a few more months as some artists continue to arrive late to the party. Maybe we'll get a Bieber disco track, or Taylor Swift will come up to bat. Hell, it's been a while since we've heard anything from Clay Aiken! Maybe he's got a disco track up his sleeve. But, essentially, the fad is over. I'm a bit sad to see it go, but we should wonder why it was here to begin with? What possessed Maroon 5 (and Benny Blanco, Ammar Malik, and Shellback) to produce "Moves Like Jagger" with disco/funk guitar? More importantly, why did it spread? Maybe artists and producers needed a new variation on the four-on-the-floor dance formula. Maybe we, the listeners, needed that too. Maybe the particularly post-modern (post-post-modern?) cultural climate we're in made it inevitable. We need to recycle it all anyway, and it was simply disco's time to come back. Maybe it's actually just that disco is awesome. Whatever the reason, it was here, and now it's leaving.

And who really knows what will be next? Nineties house, perhaps, taking the cue from Katy Perry's "Walking on Air"? Or maybe something more surprising like Gypsy music or bossa nova. Maybe in two years I'll be writing about how Usher changed the game with his 2014 polka-dance single. Pop music is weird like that.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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