By Ted S. McGregor & r & Turn the Beat Around by Peter Shapiro -- Back in the late '70s, without really knowing why, I thought disco sucked. That was, of course, after I liked it. Thus were the shifting tastes of America when we went from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan -- when the hippie vision of everybody getting along morphed into the corporate vision of everybody getting more stuff.
While music critic Peter Shapiro has written an insightful book, it's frustrating because it takes the music too seriously. Shapiro is right when he writes that disco "was liberalism's last hurrah," but it's also true that disco was a lark. I'm certain Shapiro analyzes the music way more than most of the musicians who made it did. And Shapiro may be the planet's only disco snob. He hates the Village People, the Hustle and Saturday Night Fever -- excesses that contributed to disco's demise -- but he loves disco's egalitarian, gender- and race-neutral ethic.
Disco as social history is compelling, and it starts in the cesspool that was New York City in the early 1970s. Urban decay was rampant, the city was bankrupt and crime was spiraling out of control. So what did the people do? They danced. In the very beginning, black music was played without interruption to crowds of mostly gay men in shockingly decadent clubs. The musicians were interchangeable and radio was irrelevant -- the disco regime was ruled by producers and administered by DJs.
Shapiro leads you on a brief tour of some of the most notorious clubs and offers short anecdotes on the best groups. (If you're looking for more on the bands, this is not the book for you.) Shapiro does devote part of a chapter to Chic -- his favorite disco band -- but he only mentions Abba once. And in his most glaring omission, he stiffs Earth, Wind and Fire. In his mania to categorize every song, Shapiro would say they aren't really disco, but he does manage nine mentions of some DJ named Bobby Guttadaro.
Shapiro paraphrases Jacques Attali when he writes that "music heralds changes in society more quickly than other art forms." Society was changing fast during the 1970s, and that's why disco offers cultural archaeologists a clearer view of that era. Oh, and it's easy to dance to.