The Disco Box


By Douglas Wolk

The cover of the 1977 album Cerrone’s Paradise shows the eponymous French disco producer crouching on a black tile floor, dressed in a white jumpsuit unzipped to the waist. Behind him is a small white refrigerator, and next to that a little jar of white powder lies spilled. A woman is stretched out on top of the fridge, back arched, wearing only a gold ankle bracelet. A silver sticker next to her head reads: “Hope. You. Find. Happiness. In My Paradise. Cerrone.” The entire first side of the album is occupied by the 16-minute title track, an ode to dancing and temptation that’s played and sung by anonymous studio hacks. (“Sincere thanks to all my talented friends” is the closest thing Cerrone gives to a credit.) It develops some new and unnecessary sonic detail every few seconds, notably the sucking–snorting?–noises halfway through. The whole production is bombastically, mind-bendingly vulgar, and it probably made for endless fun in a crowded discotheque, especially if you’d had a taste of that white powder. It is, in short, the essence of disco.

But what passes for disco now is a small group of pop hits that used disco’s rhythms and production sounds: “Ring My Bell,” “Fly, Robin, Fly,” “Boogie Nights,” “Funkytown,” and so on. These songs bypass disco’s campy crassness, but also its grandeur and peculiarity, the way it pumped up the drama of the rhythmic moment and drew it out as long as possible. The Disco Box, a four-CD Rhino set covering the era in approximate chronological order, is an almost completely redundant restatement of the established disco canon. Of its 80 tracks, all but eight appeared on Rhino’s earlier series “The Disco Years”; roughly half the songs on the three “Pure Disco” discs on Polydor are here, too. There are only a few really obvious artists missing–Diana Ross and, less surprising, the Bee Gees, whose Saturday Night Fever hits aren’t available on any 90s disco retrospectives. Almost everything here was a hit of some caliber, and almost half these songs went to number one on the pop chart, the R & B chart, or both.

Which is exactly the problem. The modern disco canon, and consequently The Disco Box, work from the faulty assumption that the hits were the point. The tunes that charted represent disco as it was heard on the radio–not necessarily in the clubs, or even in discophiles’ homes. Radio demanded three-to-four-minute pop songs, and disco’s expanded frequency range, prominent rhythms, and lush textures were useful tools in putting them over. But disco as it was experienced beneath the mirror ball was about curiosities, valley-and-peak dynamics, grooves that dancers could ride for ages. DJs liked a little bit of song and a whole lot of production; all they really needed was a mixable intro and some long instrumental passages. The eight-chord, eight-minute perpetual-motion-machine version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” works very differently from the three-minute cut on The Disco Box.

That sense of suspended time managed to survive on early disco anthologies. The long-out-of-print 1978 double LP Steppin’ Out: Disco’s Greatest Hits, for instance, is a lot less tune-oriented than The Disco Box, but then it’s meant for dancers rather than nostalgists: its pace is deliberately drawn out, with tricky mid-song percussion breaks and segues between the tracks. Of the 13 songs, the only one that made it onto Rhino’s new set is Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and most of the highlights (by the likes of the Kongas and Crystal Grass) never made it as far as the radio. Steppin’ Out also honors the dance-floor imperative of letting the rhythms run as long as they reasonably can; most of its tracks run between six and ten minutes. The Disco Box gives us six minutes of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and almost nothing else breaks the four-minute barrier. It’s meant as much to sing along with as to dance to.

The streamlining of disco on recent anthologies makes it almost impossible to get a sense of how pervasive and bizarre a phenomenon it was. Between about 1975, when it drifted out of a network of dance clubs and into the cultural mainstream, and about 1980, when the wave receded, its hyperproduced, four-on-the-floor sound was everywhere. WLUP DJ Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in 1979 is often cited as evidence of mass derision for disco, but the fact that so many people cared enough about Donna Summer records to burn them mostly attests to its cultural prominence. When the Saturday Night Fever sound track sold some 20 million copies, pop musicians of every stratum tried to get in on the action. Kiss had a hit with “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”; the Beach Boys failed to crack the Top 40 with “Here Comes the Night.” Donny Osmond and James Brown and Ethel Merman and Cab Calloway all took their turns. The Sex Pistols’ The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle features hup-ho studio pros boogying through a disco medley of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “God Save the Queen,” and “Pretty Vacant.”

Even without the goofy big-name efforts, disco encompassed every imaginable variety of novelty, hybrid, and one-hit wonderment: Jeannie Reynolds’s “The Fruit Song” (“Ooh…I didn’t know you liked cherries, baby….If I’d known you liked cherries, I’d have brought a whole big bunch for you”); Phreek’s deceptively complicated art epic, “Weekend”; Santa Esmeralda’s 15-minute flamenco-disco cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and its follow-up, a 15-minute flamenco-disco cover of “House of the Rising Sun”; Corruption’s moronic yet strangely hot come-on “Show Me Yours”; and countless others. But most of this stuff is too long-winded, too bizarre, or not catchy enough to be anthologized. Disco by nature was fleeting; anthologies are by nature definitive.

The other major consequence of disco being winnowed to a list of a few dozen songs is the disappearance of the single-artist disco album meant as an aesthetic unit. Disco LPs tended to include only four, five, or six long tracks; sometimes, as with Cerrone’s Paradise, the entire first side would be devoted to a single robust number. Maybe this looks too skimpy on a CD, and best-of compilations are an effective way to ditch the dreck that often padded the hit. But, again, assuming that disco was important only as a vehicle for pop hits leads to the discarding of a lot of worthwhile stuff that wasn’t intended as pop. Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, on their own records and the ones they made with Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, were responsible for some of the most interesting musicianship of its kind, and they sequenced their albums to be listened to in their entirety. The singles are still on anthologies and greatest-hits collections; Chic’s four decent-to-excellent albums from the early 80s are currently out of print. The liner notes to The Disco Box include an annotated list of 50 “essential” disco albums; only about 20 of them are currently available on CD in their original form.

Actually, the liner notes are the most interesting thing about The Disco Box. Producer Brian Chin’s essay on the great technicians of the era explains who actually came up with which sounds: drummer Alan Schwartzberg’s distinctive open hi-hat technique, bassist Henry Davis’s octave leaps, producer Tom Moulton’s obsessive mix-tweaking and cranked-up treble. And for 14 pages the best club DJs of the disco era are quoted in turn about their favorite records and crowds. (“I can honestly say that I was the first person to play Donna Summer’s ‘MacArthur Park,'” says Kevin Burke, a regular DJ on Fire Island, “because I was playing in the afternoon. People were screaming, howling. Within three minutes of that record starting, there was a line six to eight people deep all trying to find out what it was.”)

The notes also include DJs’ vintage playlists, which barely intersect with the contents of the box set. In May 1975, for instance, Bobby “DJ” Guttadaro’s playlist at New York’s Le Jardin included South Shore Commission’s “Free Man,” Rockin’ Horse’s “Love Do Me Right,” Frankie Valli’s “Swearin’ to God,” the Reflections’ “Three Steps From True Love,” and Consumer Rapport’s “Ease on Down the Road.” A compilation of his and the other DJs’ lists would have made a fascinating look at a movement that was, after all, inordinately fond of its misfits. Instead, we just get “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and “Shame, Shame, Shame” and “More, More, More,” over and over and over.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Donna Summer photo courtesy Showtime Archives (Toronto); Sister Sledge photo courtsey Atlantic Records; album covers; Disco Demolition night at Comiskey Park, July 12, 1979 photo courtesy Chicago Sun-Times-Jack Lenehan.