40 Disco Songs That Definitely Don’t Suck
Disco Demolition Night, which happened 40 years ago today, is the day two genres were marked for death. Disco itself was one of them, of course: Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl, infuriated that his still-young shock-jock career was derailed when WDAI changed format from rock to disco and shitcanned him in the process, waged war on the genre. And his new station WLUP’s publicity stunt to blow up a bunch of disco records in the middle of Comiskey Park during a baseball doubleheader was all the excuse an already anxious, recession-choked record industry needed to downsize their tulip-fever investment in a genre they didn’t realize was just slightly more divisive, niche, and under-lucrative than they’d anticipated.
But the other death was that of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll. Sure, there were great albums that year — Neil Young, Van Halen, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Thin Lizzy, Cheap Trick, and AC/DC all dropped classics. But many of the decade’s other hard rock and AOR warhorses — Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Peter Frampton, Blue Öyster Cult — were struggling to even keep it together. Even the hot-selling blockbuster successes felt off: Led Zeppelin had art-rock synthesizers all over the divisive In Through The Out Door, and even if Pink Floyd’s The Wall was a huge smash, it wasn’t exactly kickass feel-good hard rock. Even less dirtbag-adjacent releases like Wings’ Back To The Egg and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk just confounded people. Sure, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was surging, but the likes of Judas Priest and Motörhead hadn’t yet caught on in the States. The future of rock in the Top 40 sounded a lot like Foreigner, Styx, and REO Speedwagon — stuff that was too micromanaged and slick to feel rebellious, much less dangerous.
Meanwhile, all the countercultural charge of rock ‘n’ roll was being siphoned off into new, underground-rooted strains — punk rock, then new wave — that were intent on knocking all the old dinosaurs down. So even if the heshers and the punks agreed to hate disco, they also agreed to hate each other, too. And while rock music still did big business, its slow dissolution into the subgenre factionalism that dominated the ’80s was the first sign that a generation that came of age amidst the debris of Disco Demolition Night found its rebellion in pettier scale: not through rock as a mass movement focused primarily against the stifling mores of their parents’ generation, but as a tribal rite meant to wall off outsiders one’s own age. Hating disco was just the start.
And there are wider implications, too. The story of the event is told in two different ways. On the one hand, you’ve got the perspective that the whole ordeal was a disgrace of aggrieved-whiteboy anger, the backlash of thousands of future Reagan (and Trump) voters revolting against the idea that the most popular music in America could be black or gay or feminine. If this seems like a contemporary social-justice-in-hindsight POV, keep in mind that Dave Marsh wrote in the last Rolling Stone issue of the ’70s that “White males, eighteen to thirty-four, are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks and Latins, and therefore they’re most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security. It goes almost without saying that such appeals are racist and sexist, but broadcasting has never been an especially civil-libertarian medium.”
But since no good culture war can go unfought these days, the persistent reaction to this accusation is that anti-disco sentiment wasn’t driven by prejudice — it was about the whole idea of being an irreverent teenage outsider geek deflating the striving upper-middle-class Tony Manero wannabe, the money-flinging lothario in an expensive suit and a flashy sports car reducing himself to a superficial caricature just so he could get laid. This wouldn’t be the last time a backlash-driven social protest movement jumbled up class warfare with other cultural identity politics — word to 2016 — but it turns out that rich straight white douchebags still go to trendy dress-code-posting nightclubs to get laid four decades later, and nobody’s blown up their favorite records.
So what was really targeted here? Where did the attendees even get the disco records that would earn them discount admission to the Sox doubleheader? Whose records got blown up? Were they even all disco records? I used to wonder whether the ushers ever turned anybody away for trying to get in with a copy of a pre-disco Bee Gees record (“Nice try, kid, but this is Odessa“), but it turns out one of those ushers — a black teenager named Vince Lawrence, a future house-music producer himself — noticed that a lot of records that came in simply featured pictures of well-dressed black people on the cover. “Tyrone Davis records, friggin’ Curtis Mayfield records, and Otis Clay records,” he told NPR. “Records that were clearly not disco.”
It’s still a contentious thing, even if the White Sox attempted to commemorate it a month early back in June. (Like the ’79 promotion, it was an attempt to boost attendance for a mediocre, moribund team; unlike the ’79 promotion, not a lot of people seemed to give a shit.) But it also feels like another generation’s war: As the residual Boomers and Gen Xers who spent their teens thinking disco sucked eventually tuned out of the musical mainstream altogether, kids who hadn’t yet been born during Peak Disco generally find dance music to be just another enjoyable choice in a wide-spanning, post-genre slate of musical options. The DJ and the dancefloor won out anyways; one of my favorite details about Disco Demolition Night is that the two baseball teams involved — the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers — played in the two American cities most responsible for reinventing post-disco dance music in the ’80s.
And with four decades in the rearview, it’s plain to see that the records that fueled the disco boom of the ’70s, from the first underground crossover hit to the last gasp before the ’80s slammed the door on it, were far more diverse, creative, versatile, weird, funky, heavy, and overall enduring than the genre was ever given credit for by its detractors. Even whittled down to its 1970s peak — one song per artist, no rock crossover (even if “Heart Of Glass” and “Miss You” rule) — this playlist is all the proof you need that no matter where it came from or where it went after it “died,” disco had something for everybody. You’ve probably made your mind up about the Bee Gees already, so here’s 40 other opportunities (listed chronologically) for you to find out why disco didn’t suck.
MFSB, “Love Is The Message (Tom Moulton Mix)” (1973/1977)
MFSB did for their decade what the Funk Brothers and the Wrecking Crew did in the ’60s, and an entire industry of drum machines had to be concocted just because not everybody could hire Earl Young to keep the hi-hat-heavy four-on-the-floor beat he invented and popularized. And this right here? This is their masterpiece. Sure, their backing-band role in the O’Jays’ 1972 classic “Love Train” was the prototype for Philly soul’s early-decade disco-floor dominance, and their Soul Train theme “T.S.O.P. (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” was a bigger hit and left a wider mark on the American pop-music consciousness. But in an effort to top it, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff took everything that they put into their sound and got MFSB to superamplify it — the vocals from the Three Degrees are more insistently euphoric, the strings are both sweeter and sharper, and the arrangement so sleekly shifts from orchestral opulence to jazz-funk that it’s less a dichotomy than a streamlining.
Naturally it became a dancefloor jam that would move everyone who heard it for the rest of the decade (and then some). And four years after it dropped, it got even better. Tom Moulton’s knack for finding every possible mutation from every available scrap of music to keep a song going means that his remixes feel somehow more definitive than the originals, keeping their spirit but giving it that extra turbocharged kick that makes the possibilities of the dancefloor feel infinite.
First Choice, “The Player” (1974)
One of the greatest elements of a classic disco song is drama — the highs and lows of life in general and romance in particular given the audio treatment of a Hollywood epic. And with this dagger-sharp hit from Philadelphia vocal trio First Choice, they turn the era’s platform-rocking, Eldorado-driving hustler figure into the antagonist that the ladies’ man’s ladies inevitably see him as. Rochelle Fleming’s lead would devastate as an a cappella (she goes off on the chorus) while Annette Guest and Joyce Jones act as the choral confirmation of the lead’s worst fears — “cold-blooded son-of-a-gun, yes he is” — and nails the heart-ripping villainy of the titular Player while still insinuating enough impressed undercurrents to hint at just why ladies fall for him anyways. Everything else is pulled into taut, sinister place by the suspense-flick arrangement of Philly sound architect Norman Harris, from its immaculate brass/string interplay to the roiling motion of its dozen-layer backbeat.
George McCrae, “Rock Your Baby” (1974)
Anyone who dismisses disco as a singles-plus-filler genre could, like the rest of the world, benefit from hearing George McCrae’s 1974 debut album Rock Your Baby. As one of the finest interpreters of the Harry Casey/Richard Finch songbook (the same one that gave us all those KC & The Sunshine Band joints), McCrae’s first album is nothing but gold, from its slinky stoner-disco gem “I Get Lifted” to the cloud-walking ease of Yo La Tengo cover-subject “You Can Have It All.” But its title track, McCrae’s debut single and a #1 smash on both sides of the Atlantic, is so effusively joyous that it’s easy to get caught up in its hold over the rest of his discography. George’s right-place/right-time proximity to a studio session working on this instrumental demo gave it a soul that felt as much Memphis as it did Miami. But even the moments where his lovestruck falsetto hangs back while the backing track rolls on out feels like a bask in the sunshine.
Gloria Gaynor, “Never Can Say Goodbye” (1974)
“I Will Survive” is such a cultural juggernaut that it’s considered the definitive moment of Gloria Gaynor’s career, but the fact that she notched the first #1 dance hit in Billboard’s history deserves just as much attention. Already an R&B standard just a few years after Clifton Davis wrote it and the Jackson Five had a massive hit with it, Gaynor took what was otherwise a down/mid-tempo ballad in their hands (and the hands of Isaac Hayes, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and James Brown) and made it an energetic but nuanced expression of longing as cathartic desire. Every cover of this version is typically only as good as its rendition of the line “don’t wanna let you go” — and in this case, Gaynor claims the crown. That’s just as a single, by the way; as the title track to her ’75 debut, it’s the spectacular high point in a three-song, 18 ½-minute sidelong medley that Moulton once again made history with as the first time an artist’s string of singles was presented as a continuous disco mix on LP.
Banbarra, “Shack Up (Pts. 1 & 2)” (1975)
What’s the actual line between funk and disco, anyways? Lord knows this one-and-done miracle by the short-lived DC-area group Banbarra — their only single, and the equivalent of hitting a walkoff grand slam in your only major league at-bat — shows you can straddle that line just so long as it makes you do the Bump. It has everything you’d want in a mid-’70s funk jam, whether the guitar’s chicken-scratch itchy or post-psychedelic-soul fuzzed-out, and the drum break in the middle — with bass or without — is a hip-hop cornerstone. But this paean to unmarried cohabitation, which contemporary press like Vince Aletti’s Disco File column in Record World called a break from the string-drenched disco norm, still played spectacularly in discotheques from LA to New York. So we’ll chalk it up to it being disco-adjacent at the very least — especially given its second life via A Certain Ratio as a classic example of dance-punk.
Joe Bataan, “The Bottle (La Botella)”/Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, “The Bottle (Live)” (1975/1976)
Joe Bataan was in his early thirties when his career took a fascinating new turn. A practitioner of top-tier salsa and boogaloo music in the late ’60s, he eventually left Latin music powerhouse label Fania in the early ’70s and co-founded a fledgling label that his self-coined genre would give a name: Salsoul. His first LP under the label’s banner, 1975’s Afrofilipino, is as cross-cultural as the heritage-based title Bataan gave it, and its crucial centerpiece is the moment he turned Gil Scott-Heron’s 1974 alcohol-abuse lament “The Bottle” into a cornerstone of Latin disco-soul culture.
Better yet, it was a two-way street. A deeply NYC-rooted musician, Scott-Heron was often attuned to salsa and other Latin music alongside the soul-jazz that he and Brian Jackson built a fantastic discography with, and Bataan’s version honored a man who regarded Joe as
ABBA, “Dancing Queen” (1976)
Regarded with initial suspicion in some parts by many of the same critics who came of age to Phil Spector girl-groups in the ’60s, ABBA’s later reclamation efforts came about with the help of fans, often queer, who found the kind of youthful promise and yearning in songs like “Dancing Queen” that a previous decade’s formative listeners found in the Ronettes. It’s a catchy, eminently danceable pop song about finding yourself on the floor — the “young and sweet, only 17″ subject being the one the listener identifies with instead of objectifies, an aspirational figure whose aspirations are simply to find happiness in rhythm, whether or not it involves the untapped potential of finding “a king” (“anybody could be that guy”). But even their happiest hit has the sense of melancholy beneath it, melodies that stare into the distance even as the lyrics are blinded by the lights.
Hamilton Bohannon, “Dance Your Ass Off” (1976)
One of the big knocks about disco in the strictly musical sense is that it’s repetitive — which, well, yeah, that’s the fun part. That happens when the prime motivator is groove and the maintaining thereof. And groove rarely sounded more relentlessly monomaniacal than it did in the hands of Motown vet turned piston-beat wizard Hamilton Bohannon, who spent the seventies concocting some of the heaviest uptempo four-on-the-floor riffs known to the human brain and seeing just how long they could rev until they threw a rod or he ran out of space. It was usually the latter: “Dance Your Ass Off” only goes eight minutes because the LP needs space for other songs. The strings are sharp and the guitar is funky, but it’s that Jaki Liebezeit motorik beat refracted through a mirrorball, helmed by drummer Lorenzo “Bag Of Tricks” Brown, that gives “Dance Your Ass Off” the kind of cold-sweat oomph that makes it no surprise it was recorded in Georgia. It’s the disco equivalent of Brock Yates taking a Mercedes sedan for 40 laps around Road Atlanta after driving it all the way down from Manhattan — remarkably smooth and resilient even when you keep the pedal to the floor.
Cloud One, “Atmosphere Strut” (1976)
The ether-frolic disco of “Atmosphere Strut” was almost singlehandedly the work of 26-year-old songwriter/producer/arranger/everything-elser Patrick Adams. When I say “everything else,” I mean it — he even shot the album cover photo. (The chorus, meanwhile, was a cast of assorted locals — including future Roy Ayers collaborator Sylvia Striplin.) The percussion was robust but mixed a bit lower than the velvet haze of bass, and both were practically subliminal compared to the vibraphone melody and Adams’ Minimoog vamping, the latter of which had the melodic attention span of a very agitated songbird. It still sounds different than anything around it: compare it to Crown Heights Affair’s 1975 hit “Dreaming A Dream,” a certifiable classic but a far more mainstream-friendly take on the synth-vamp disco jam, and you’ll get a sense of how far out Adams was willing to go. Incredibly, his peak hadn’t even arrived yet.
Double Exposure, “Ten Per Cent (Special Disco Mix)” (1976)
Yes, it’s another Philly soul group-harmony cut, and a glorious one. At this point, many of the original MFSB musicians had followed arranger Vincent Montana Jr. in jumping ship to Salsoul, and Montana’s elaborate arrangements set the Salsoul Orchestra apart as, well, an orchestra instead of just a big band with strings. So that post-PIR version of symphonic soul went right for the jugular, and Double Exposure themselves — formed during the last days of doo-wop in the early ’60s and long-running pros who’d had a brief stint on Stax as United Image — were the ideal kind of group to really justify that amount of flourish and flash. From the chorus alone you can tell they’re letting it all fly out there.
But then, bam: In comes Walter Gibbons. Gibbons was one of the finest DJs and remixers going, every bit a phenom as Tom Moulton — arguably his better, which is why Salsoul marked him to bring the remix to the masses. Until “Ten Per Cent,” the 12″ single was a DJ-only phenomenon, best left to special-purpose acetates. But Salsoul heard something so remarkable in Gibbons’ break-extending, song-elaborating reworks that they made his remix the first commercially-available 12″, with all the audiophile quality and greater volume range that allowed — and deservedly so.
Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, “Cherchez La Femme / Se Si Bon” (1976)
Chic had a habit of echoing Depression-era big band music in their hits — think the “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” nod in “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” or the “Happy Days Are Here Again” namecheck in “Good Times,” among others — but damn, did they have a tough act to follow when it came to that particular tweak of nostalgia. The Bronx-based Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band had a remarkable gift for invoking old-school Dixieland, swing, and rhumba in a musical itinerary that still foregrounded ’70s disco rhythms, an everything-old-is-new-again approach masterminded by siblings Thomas Browder (aka August Darnell) and Stony Browder Jr. and co-fronted by the archly glamorous vocals of Cory Daye. Panache, sophistication, and style in the face of crushing economic misery drove the ’70s New York club scene as sure as it did the Depression-era Jazz Age that Dr. Buzzard’s drew from, and the parallels made for remarkable listening. (And yeah, the Ghostface nod was choice, too.)
Ecstasy, Passion & Pain, “Touch And Go” (1976)
One of disco’s cultural coups was its tendency to foreground female emotion in increasingly unguarded terms. And if naming your group “Ecstasy, Passion & Pain” wasn’t a surefire sign that said group was going to delve as deep as it could into those emotions, it only takes a bar or two’s worth of Barbara Roy’s voice to drive that home. Roy’s voice here is the epitome of gospel-soul chops put into the service of pure, spurned, frustrated anger: she sounds absolutely furious while still burnishing the organ-heavy Philly sound backdrop with an agile melodic range. Mad at herself for falling for this man, mad at this man for treating her like an afterthought, mad at her heart and the rest of her body — it’s a real ferocity, so intense that you can drop it into a hardcore jungle track’s breakdown and make it sound even tougher.
Thelma Houston, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1976)
“Dancing Machine” and “Love Hangover” were jams, but it’s here where Motown finally outdid Philly at their own game. Already devastating in the hands of Teddy Pendergrass when he cut his lead vocal with Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes in 1975, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was an even bigger smash as Thelma Houston’s big break after nearly a decade putting out underheard singles for Capitol, ABC/Dunhill, and Motown’s early ’70s Left Coast imprint MoWest. Her performance is the epitome of disco’s sorrow-as-energy strengths, a desperately yearning voice pleading for love to stay even as the beat invokes the feeling of that love still being unbreakable.
The Trammps, “Disco Inferno” (1976)
Pop culture and critical appraisal alike haven’t been entirely fair to “Disco Inferno.” Granted, a song inspired by a kitschy all-star disaster movie that invokes a Watts riots chant as part of a decidedly apolitical hook was likely bound to be subject to punchline status once the rush wore off, and decades later that title might’ve resonated more as the name of a pro wrestling comedy jobber or a decidedly un-disco 50 Cent single. Here’s the thing, though: What if that rush doesn’t wear off? In its full 11-minute glory, “Disco Inferno” is the apotheosis of everything UNGH about the Philly sound, with lead singer Jimmy Ellis vamping wildly between smooth soul singing and raw funk exclamations as the backup singers (including drummer Earl Young pulling double-duty) offer a don’t-step-to-us undercurrent. And Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey’s giddily quasi-suspenseful arrangement makes Irwin Allen’s filmography seem like My Dinner With Andre in comparison. In short: burnin’.
Barry White, “Let The Music Play” (1976)
Concurrently with the Philly sound, Barry White was one of the first artists to really establish the potential for disco to sound orchestral and luxurious, even bordering on easy listening “beautiful music” with his Love Unlimited Orchestra. But even as his opulent arrangements and liquid-velvet baritone helped define the sound of romance and sex in the 1970s, that reputation overshadowed his potential as someone who could just as uniquely render the idea of heartbreak — overshadowed, at least, until his 1976 LP Let The Music Play. An album full of Top 10-missing but still immaculately crafted odes to lost love, it peaked with its album-closing title cut, a sonic movie-in-miniature that depicted White as a dejected loner trying to keep his post-breakup brave face and seeing if a night at the disco would help take his mind off his misery. Instead, his misery elevates him.
Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” (1977)
The stories around this song are so often told that it’s tempting to just bring them up in shorthand: Eno’s “I’ve heard the sound of the future” prophecy, Donna’s initial skepticism towards recording a synth-dominated “popcorn track,” the nuts-and-bolts technological aspects (like the accidental delay effect the engineer added that doubled up the bassline). And there’s a real charge to internalizing the fact that even without Summer’s angelic cloud-surfing voice, Giorgio Moroder created something that was both wholly inorganic and emotionally stirring. But think of this: How many people do you think drove to opening-day screenings of the original Star Wars with brand-new copies of I Remember Yesterday in their car’s tape deck? After all, they came out the same month, they both seemed like drastic revolutions in special-effects mediums that had previously seemed like niche Popular Mechanics novelty, and it’d be well over a decade before either of them felt more like the present than the future.
Cerrone, “Supernature” (1977)
Moroder’s promise of synthesized Eurodisco didn’t take long to go feral. Four months after “I Feel Love” debuted, French producer/drummer Cerrone made something far creepier, kitschier, and bizarre, the idea of a sequencers-and-synths track in his hands put to infamous use for a song about… GMOs and chemical agriculture creating mutated monsters out for revenge. Granted, the song never found the sci-fi/horror B-movie it was destined to soundtrack (though never let it be said that it never crossed paths with horror of some kind or another). But if you’re not sufficiently creeped out by session singer Kay Garner’s quavering delivery of its pulp-paperback lyrics — written by an uncredited, not-yet-famous Lene Lovich — then you might not be listening close enough.
Space, “Magic Fly” (1977)
Every decade gets the space-age novelty instrumental it deserves — emphasis on “novel” — and if the ’70s had its own answer to “Telstar,” it was this French electronic proto-synthpop group’s first hit single. “Magic Fly” would’ve been remarkable on its own just as a piece of music: It’s three synth players and a drummer playing electro-disco astronauts and creating something graceful, sinister, and cartoonish all at once. But then Yuen Woo-ping got wind of it, and all of a sudden every dancefloor routine you could cut to it was drastically outdone by one 24-year-old kung-fu up-and-comer’s opening-credits taolu.
Roy Ayers Ubiquity, “Running Away” (1977)
Jazz’s cross-pollination with disco was just about inevitable by the mid ’70s; it had already taken a turn over the previous ten years towards soul-jazz, jazz-rock, jazz-funk, and fusion in ways that kept the genre contemporary throughout the decade (albeit to the total horror of bop traditionalists). Vibraphonist, composer, and producer Roy Ayers was so prominent at the forefront of many of these waves of jazz crossover that he’s been given paternal status to ’90s-rooted successor scenes like acid jazz and neo-soul, but he’s also a top candidate for the don of disco-jazz (sorry, Brick, even though you had a hell of a claim). Alongside collaborator in writing, production, and singing Edwin Birdsong, Ayers arranged a piece that sounded breezy and busy at once, an infinitely elastic bassline/guitar riff sprinkled with vibes and electric piano that felt like oscillating fan breezes in a sweatbox. Sure, purists might not have dug it, but that’s the description of a fool.
Idris Muhammad, “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This” (1977)
I love a good 808 as much as the next beathead, but sometimes it’s refreshing — even bracing — to hear a disco jam that just out-and-out says “fuck your drum machines, pal.” Few soul-jazz vets dived as far headlong into disco as Idris Muhammad — listen to 1979’s Foxhuntin’ and try to figure out how he got there ten years after drumming for Pharoah Sanders — and none of them cut a disco track that had anything as staggering as the first 20-or-so seconds of “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This.” Or the remaining eight minutes and change, either: the whole song’s an Altman-caliber ensemble cast of jazz session wizards (bassist Wilbur “Bad” Bascomb, the Brecker Brothers on brass, Hiram Bullock coming correct with the guitar solo, Madlib’s uncle Jon Faddis on trumpet, a whole bunch of other geniuses) who come together and make the most natural-high-assed glory-of-music piece of disco-jazz ever jammed out, composed/produced/arranged by the only Dave Matthews I roll with.
Chic, “Everybody Dance” (1977)
Right: So I already wrote at length about Chic and how the bassline to “Good Times” “might just be the single greatest live-played bassline in postwar 20th century pop” a couple weeks ago. The qualifier “might just be” is there for a reason, though, and that reason is the same one I put in the superlatives: Bernard Edwards. Everything about Chic’s early smash “Everybody Dance” is great for the same reason everything about Chic’s best songs is great — the big band side-nods, the way the piano and strings and vocals all harmonize in subtly different rhythmic cadences, Tony Thompson playing supple fills like he knows a straightforward four-on-the-floor won’t be enough by a long shot, Nile Rodgers turning chicken-scratch guitar into a form as nimble and flexible as anything Grant Green or George Benson ever laid down. But damn, Bernard. Damn, Bernard.
C.J. & Co., “Devil’s Gun” (1977)
Every time you do something horrific and embarrassing, you should always remember that Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore arranged and produced Gallery’s cornball half-overcast sunshine pop soft-rocker “Nice To Be With You”, but also arranged and produced this. Disco rarely sounded so thoroughly apocalyptic, and as logical a progression as it might have been from the break-laden psych-funk freakout likes of “Scorpio” and “Ride, Sally, Ride” to C.J. & Co.’s Studio 54-christening traipse into hell, Dennis and Mike picked the best crew to back for their ride to the underworld: the singers hit every theatrical mark from baritone chants to swooping choral doomsaying. And while I can’t pinpoint who the drummer is on this one, it should say something that it’s either Funk Brothers alumni Uriel Jones (Let’s Get It On) or P-Funkateer Tiki Fulwood (Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On).
Evelyn “Champagne” King, “Shame” (1977)
I don’t know what you were doing when you were 17. Me, I was spending all my quarters on getting my ass whipped in NBA Jam and Tekken 2 at the Mall Of America’s 4th floor arcade. Evelyn “Champagne” King, meanwhile, cut lead vocals on a song that would become a #9 Billboard Hot 100 hit a year later. So there’s that. I had to double-check her biographical info, of course, because she doesn’t sound 17 by typical pop standards (or “Dancing Queen” standards) — she sings like this is the tenth time she’s been jerked around by some fickle VSOP-sipping snakeskin-boot lothario and she’s long since figured out how to translate that experience into you’re-bad-for-me-but-I-don’t-care yearning (and burning). It’s only when the lyrics click — my mother says you’re playing a game — that the swept-up young-love dizziness comes into the forefront, and the idea of disco as the hedonistic playground for twenty-somethings gives way to the reality of it as a formative influence on a brief but pivotal wave of teenage girls still trying to figure themselves out in the late ’70s. And if Adrian Lyne’s attempts to figure that out didn’t do that for you, “Shame” should do plenty.
Teddy Pendergrass, “You Can’t Hide From Yourself” (1977)
It’s summer 1977. You’ve been into Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes for a while — well before “Wake Up Everybody” and the album of the same name them their first Top 10 LP, before “The Love I Lost” etched the sound of disco percussion and orchestration into the annals of history, all the way back to when a 21-year-old Teddy Pendergrass’s from-the-gut baritone turned “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” into one of the greatest soul ballads of 1972. But now Teddy’s going solo — he felt he was underpaid even though he’d gotten so prominent in his old group that new fans thought his voice was Harold Melvin’s (I mean, who else would the group be named after?) — and damn, how do you plant your flag like that five years after stunning the world? What’s going to happen when you finally drop the needle on side one of Teddy Pendergrass? Does he sing like he still has something to prove?
Yes. Yes he does.
Chaka Khan, “I’m Every Woman” (1978)
The layman’s pop-history hierarchy of Chaka Khan’s career seems to be “I Feel For You”; mid-’70s Rufus; everything else. This is, uh, let’s say incomplete. Between “Tell Me Something Good” and her Prince cover she released a body of work that, even at its weakest, still let her playfully emotive, funky-yet-elegant singing voice shine through. At its strongest? You get songs like the Ashford & Simpson-written “I’m Every Woman,” symphonies to the dancefloor that helped her voice punch through the charts and the national consciousness in ways that made late-’70s disco-indebted R&B feel like an unheralded peak of the genre. Legend has it that Whitney Houston was in the booth alongside her mother Cissy to sing backup vocals on this, which would make Whitney’s own Bodyguard soundtrack cover the second best version she ever sang on.
Boney M, “Rasputin” (1978)
Sometimes you just have to embrace the semi-unserious, Euro-kitsch showbiz side of disco to really get at what makes it tick. And when German producer Frank Farian assembled a group of Caribbean singers under a name inspired by an Australian cop show, he launched the career of a band that did Euro-kitsch showbiz disco better than anyone. While early hits like “Daddy Cool” were more funky than goofy, and cover versions of standards like “Sunny” and “Love For Sale” were solidly entertaining discofications, Boney M.’s tribute to the infamous mad monk and “Russia’s greatest love machine” is where they really let it all out and indulged in the best kind of ’70s silly — Monty Python silly, Ramones silly, bad-American-accent mid-song monologue silly (“But when his drinking and lusting and his hunger for power became known to more and more people, the demands to do something about this outrageous man became louder and louder”). If you don’t at least chuckle appreciatively at that opening balalaika-riffing stomp-beat, I can’t do nothing for you.
Earth, Wind & Fire, “September” (1978)
When a band that’s been doing its own thing since the start of the ’70s “goes disco,” that usually means they’re schlepping their way into some faddish bandwagoning, or at least trying to rejuvenate a moribund career. But Earth, Wind & Fire were already going at full strength in ’78, and their biggest disco bid actually became an undisputed highlight of their first best-of — and the whole of their career. “September” is the sound of joy coming naturally, of the ideas of what constituted “disco” and “funk” and “soul” all merging into a whole that plays to each genre’s celebratory, praise-rooted physicality. Glorious down to the last ba-dee-ya.
Heatwave, “The Groove Line” (1978)
The “oohp-oooohp” shouts, the train metaphor, the call to “leave your worries behind” — it had all been done before 1978, maybe halfway done-to-death. But never underestimate Rod Temperton, the Lincolnshire-born Brit-disco wizard who rode a grip of Heatwave jams into Quincy Jones’ office. (Once he got there, he cobbled together a few odds and ends like, f’rinstance, the title track to Thriller.) “The Groove Line” is funkier than the sum of its parts, thanks to the tight group harmonies in the chorus and a litany of different backbeats and riffs all converging with the same irresistible locomotion.
Phreek, “Weekend” (1978)
If Patrick Adams was capable of something as ethereally immersive as “Atmosphere Strut” in P&P’s studios, what could he be capable of on an Atlantic budget? Not a lot of people found out at first: both Phreek’s “Weekend” single and the 1978 full-length Patrick Adams Presents Phreek were promo-only releases that rarely found their way out of DJ record pools. But since one of those people was legendary DJ Larry Levan — who’d later recruit the group Class Action to remake it with the same vocalist in 1983 — the original “Weekend” has taken on a mythic quality that it easily lives up to. Singer Christine Wiltshire’s breaking-point thirst was heightened by an oddly-angled but searing string section and one of the biggest-bottomed basslines to rattle the Paradise Garage.
Dinosaur, “Kiss Me Again” (1978)
Downtown had to put their twist on disco eventually, and the Iowa-born, New York-emergent Arthur Russell was an unlikely but eager contributor to the scene. Russell had been deeply moved by his time clubbing in Nicky Siano’s SoHo-based dance mecca the Gallery, and when Russell gave Siano a “hey, let’s make a record” pitch, the end result was the mutant disco masterpiece “Kiss Me Again,” the first dance record to drop on Talking Heads/Ramones/Dead Boys label Sire. With a crew of musicians that included art-scenesters Russell, still-emerging guitarist David Byrne, trombonist Peter Zummo, and violinist Henry Flynt rubbing elbows with session vets Wilbur Bascomb on bass (“Could Heaven Ever Be Like This”) and drummer Allan Schwartzberg (“Never Can I Say Goodbye”), all that was left was to get singer Myriam Valle to embody the sheer ecstatic confusion of Russell’s reeling-from-love lyrics.
Sylvester, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” (1978)
Call it queer gospel if you want — Sylvester’s falsetto could always make you feel some spirit or another — but the gender binary-shattering icon wasn’t all that far from the roots of the Pentecostal church where he learned to sing, whether they wanted him or not. From there to jazz-age Billie Holiday drag performances with San Francisco’s Cockettes, then to a rock-and-soul group that brilliantly reworked Neil Young and Allen Toussaint alike, he was already a finely tuned everygenre singer by the time “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” hit like lightning. And that track’s Moroder-dosed, Hi-NRG-anticipating Patrick Cowley production proved that even synthesizers could sound holy.
Cándido, “Jingo” (1979)
One good side effect of damn near everybody putting out a disco record by 1979 is that sometimes “damn near anybody” could mean highlighting an Afro-Cuban lifeline that still had a place for club music’s predecessors. Cándido Camero was 58 when this dropped, having already made his name in the 1940s playing congas and other percussion in Havana, then hooking up with a litany of jazz greats’ bands in the 1950s — Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, Dinah Washington, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, y’know, folks like that. His Salsoul LP Dancin’ & Prancin’ hit shelves less than two years after he cut a session with Lionel Hampton, and his take on Babatunde Olatunji’s “Jin-Go-Lo-Ba” is still the best conga performance in any disco song I can think of. As Louis Small goes berserkoid on keys (including a ripsaw mother of a clavinet), Cándido just storms through a percussive tour-de-force that drives the rhythm so fiercely you almost forget there’s a trap set involved, too.
Dan Hartman, “Vertigo/Relight My Fire” (Feat. Loleatta Holloway) (1979)
If all Dan Hartman did was play bass on the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein,” he’d still deserve mad respect. But his transition from holding down the rhythm on weirdo ’70s synth-glam freakouts to concocting elaborate boogie-down epics gave him an even better chance to go completely bonkers: the two-fer “Vertigo/Relight My Fire” is like the disco answer to Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time,” a noodly but shamelessly amped-up intro segueing into a pure dose of hooky satisfaction high on drama and emotional intensity. But let’s be honest: The real charge is when Hartman’s good-enough vocals are answered with an earthshaking “got to be strong enough to walk on through the night” — because when you orchestrate something this by-the-throat, you need the thunderstorm voice of Loleatta Holloway to bust the walls down.
Michael Jackson, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” (1979)
As much as people like to call Disco Demolition Night the night that disco “died,” it was all of about two weeks later — July 27, 1979 — that one of the biggest superstars in music history released a smash hit that announced him as a new force in pop. Michael Jackson’s first great solo moment of creative control and grown-up megastardom had him literally transforming from a stammering kid to a confident powerhouse in the intro, one of the most intense “oh shit this music’s making me feel something” run-ups to ever hit #1. And everything people have come to appreciate about Jackson as a singer — his ability to show off a wide vocal range while giving it a serious rhythmic punch, his unbridled ad-lib shouts, his knack for making the virtuosic sound spontaneous — came into its own here, all over a twitchy-yet-sleek Quincy Jones co-arrangement that made six horns sound like a hundred.
Tamiko Jones, “Can’t Live Without Your Love” (1979)
Here’s something that can get overlooked about disco by the casual listener: It really is an audiophile genre. Forget the wedding-dance and karaoke contexts you might’ve experienced its biggest hits through early on, and just picture the sort of top-of-the-line sound systems that a club might have boasted by the peak of the disco bubble — it really was the first truly physical music experience, not just as a means to dance, but a way to feel the reverberations of the rhythm work their way into your body. I mention this now because “Can’t Live Without Your Love” feels like getting the electric chair, only instead of executing you for your crimes it’s rewarding you for finding a club with a really good subwoofer. Skyy’s Randy Muller gets the nod for writing the song and arranging the rhythm (with other members of the band playing the instruments), but Jones’ production skills push this up to another level of immersive power. Enjoy being rocked by the clavinet-shivering bassline, and listen for one of the era’s slicker nods to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind at the same time.
Machine, “There But For The Grace Of God Go I” (1979)
Disco’s more often an escape from the bad times than a reminder of it, but message songs aren’t foreign to the genre. And on a brief stop in his career from Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band to Kid Creole & The Coconuts, August Darnell pulled out a funky rocker of a disco cut that tells the kind of “this is why your kids are fucked up” story you rarely got in any type of pop music. “There But For the Grace of God” tells the story of the assimilation efforts of two Latinx parents who escape the Bronx for greener pastures (read: “no blacks, no Jews, and no gays”), only to doom their daughter to a stifling suburban boredom (papi doesn’t even allow rock’n’roll records!) that ends in her juvenile delinquency and leaving home at 16 “with a man she met on the street.” Clare Bathé sings like she’s the heartbroken mother and the frustrated daughter all at once, concluding with the too-bleak-for-afterschool-specials line “too much love is worse than none at all.” Tragedy rarely hits this hard at such a high BPM, a song so to-the-gut raw that the best possible reinterpretation of it came from Detroit garage-noise toughs the Gories.
McFadden & Whitehead, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (1979)
Songwriters turned stars in their own right, and deservedly — they wrote “Back Stabbers,” ferchrissakes — Gene McFadden and John Whitehead should’ve just kept on going once “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” proved they didn’t give all their best stuff to everyone else. (Granted, they gave a lot of their best stuff to them — including “Where Are All My Friends,” Wake Up Everybody,” and “Bad Luck,” which Pendergrass totally took to the hilt with Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.) There is a certain irony in their big breakout signature song having this title while also being the closest they ever got again to having a hit of their own. And it feels a bit more bitterly mordant since they wrote it as a subliminal dig at Gamble and Huff for keeping them from graduating from songwriters to singers. But damn if it doesn’t sound like the most infectious way for a couple of vets to go “shit, finally.”
Jackie Moore, “This Time Baby” (1979)
The disco backlash makes for a lot of what-ifs, inspiring speculation as to what would’ve happened if a vocal public rejection and record industry panic hadn’t significantly torpedoed the careers and future potential of a ton of artists working in the R&B and dance music milieus. Jackie Moore is one of those artists who seems to have been hit hard right when she looked ready to revive a career that had been stop-start since the late ’60s. Her stunning transformation of the O’Jays’ “This Time Baby” wasn’t an R&B top 20 like 1970’s “Precious, Precious” (#12) or 1975’s “Make Me Feel Like A Woman” (#6), but it topped the dance charts for a week in August ’79, right when the very idea of a dance chart seemed bound to fall back into niche appeal. But while it’s tempting to dwell on the industry’s fickleness, at least rest easy in knowing that records like this were still possible as the labels scrambled to reorganize themselves in the post-disco backlash. And as remixed by John Luongo, who made the counterintuitve move of dropping in a vocal breakdown before the first verse came in, it was such a stunner that Larry Levan spun it back and forth for more than 45 minutes during its Paradise Garage debut.
Dennis Parker, “Like An Eagle” (1979)
If there’s a more 1979 idea than Casablanca Records putting out a disco single featuring a porno star turned soap-opera heartthrob under the aegis of Village People svengali Jacques Morali, it’d probably have to involve an interlude featuring Bo Derek reciting lines from Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech. The story is that this came about because Dennis Parker — previously famous under his nom de petit mort Wade Nichols (Boynapped!; Captain Lust; Teenage Pajama Party) — was Morali’s boyfriend, and it doesn’t sound like Parker got the record deal because he was the next golden-voiced Bobby Caldwell. But “Like An Eagle” is weirdly affecting in a way that’s hard to really get a grasp on. It could be that audacious decision to mix Bernard Herrmann strings with crotch-out guitar, or the whole uncanny atmosphere of simultaneous loneliness, horniness, and vague spirituality. But it could just be Parker himself, who’s a passable singer — until he gets to that “I flyyyyyyy” chorus, at which point he becomes one with the phasing and everything breaks through to soar above the clouds.
Sister Sledge, “Lost In Music” (1979)
I know, “We Are Family” is the goods — the White Sox blew up disco records, but the Pirates won it all with one — yet there’s something deeper in the soul of “Lost In Music” that makes it something special in the Chic-produced corners of the Sister Sledge discography. It’s like Rodgers and Edwards were facing a moment of nagging confrontation with the specter of backlash in that chorus, as though they had this existential fear of what they’d even be doing if they didn’t have their work in music to give them purpose, and gave that idea to a group at the height of their greatness to explore. Disco often celebrated itself, but this is where it gives itself the sense of integral vitality in the oncoming face of burnout — “it’s no vanity/ To me, it’s my sanity” — as just one sound as part of a bigger world.
We compiled all of the available songs on this playlist on Spotify. Listen here.