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Guilty Pleasures - Disco 

by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.

We're getting ready to bomb the crap out of some other country, the economy's in the toilet and Home Depot is all sold out of duct tape. Is there any happiness to be had? I found some: Turn your emotions over to Donna Summer, Abba and the Village People. That's right, the conditions are perfect for a disco revival, and I'm all ears.

Think about it: Back in the mid-1970s, when disco overran America, things were pretty bleak. The idealism of the '60s collapsed under the weight of Vietnam and Nixon, oil prices were sky high -- heck, even the Beatles had given up. How did people cope? They partied hearty, and the soundtrack to their escapism included songs like "More, More, More," Disco Inferno" and "Get Down Tonight."

I started high school in 1979, at the very end of the disco sensation and the beginning of the backlash. In July of that year, a Chicago White Sox game had to be cancelled when a "disco demolition" event got out of control and some 50,000 disco-haters rushed the Comiskey Park field. If you had asked me what I thought at the time, I'm sure I would have agreed to the rejoinder that "disco sucks." I was all about Van Halen and AC/DC.

Ann Powers was in high school over in Seattle at about the same time, and she says she would have parroted the line, too.

"Sure, somebody gave me the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack back in the eighth grade, but I was a punk rocker in high school," she recalls. "But disco has really converted me, and now it's one of my favorite kinds of music."

In fact, now she's an expert on the stuff, as co-curator of the Seattle Experience Music Project's new exhibit, "Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights," the world's first major show on disco. You can check out the show, complete with more than 200 artifacts and a fully functional disco dance floor, through May 26.

"Oh, disco is completely back," Powers says when asked about the show's reception since it opened in November. "A lot of people think disco is not innovative, but the opposite is true. Disco is a source of so much of what music has become and a place where people experimented like mad."

Nice analysis, but I just like how it makes me feel good. You can believe her, though -- Powers was a music critic for the Village Voice and New York Times before going to work for the EMP.

For me, this all started when I stopped in for a slice at David's Pizza one day a couple years back. What was that song they were playing? It sure was cool, and it reminded me of the songs I remember hearing coming out of the little AM radio I had in my room when I was in sixth or seventh grade. The song, it turns out, was "Fantasy" by Earth, Wind and Fire. So I picked up an Earth, Wind and Fire greatest hits CD and put my R.E.M. and Who discs back on the shelf. Friends and family thought I was nuts, but they couldn't keep their toes from tappin' when I slapped on "September" or "Shining Star." Now I've branched out and bought a couple disco compilations.

I admit it's a guilty pleasure; I probably should be listening to NPR to learn about the latest terror alert level. But I've got a life to live here, and time is too precious to go around bummed out all the time.

I know what you're saying. Lyrics like "get up and boogie" (over and over and over again), "that's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh" or "we're gonna boogie oogie oogie 'til we just can't boogie no more" are just plain silly. And songs like "The Hustle" and "Disco Duck" (which did hit No. 1 during disco's peak) are novelties lighter than air. Then there are the clothes -- yikes! I admit, all this evidence against disco is valid, but now that I've actually taken the time to listen to the music, I still can't help but love it.

The percussion lines are funky and inventive, the vocals are often astonishing, add some tight horns, plenty of attention to hi-hat cymbals -- and why not throw in a string section for good measure? Like any good art, music may be at its best when it holds a deeper meaning or has a social context. But this is art for its own sake -- beauty in the ear of the beholder. The Mona Lisa never made you want to dance like this stuff.

So I'm thinking, if disco can provide me with an escape, perhaps it's the key to solving all our problems. By 1979, there were 15,000 discos in America; it was a $4 billion-a-year industry. So bringing it back could solve the economy problem -- let's call it the "disco dividend." As for that other pesky problem, it's simple: If the CIA could secretly pipe in Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" at the next mustachioed meeting of Iraqi leaders, maybe Saddam would finally feel the international brotherhood, man, and mellow out.

Five Classic Disco Songs

"Best of My Love"

by the Emotions

The biggest song of any genre in the summer of 1977. If this one doesn't bring a smile to your face, you officially have no soul.

"Le Freak"
by Chic

Nile Rodgers (producer of David Bowie and Madonna) led this band, and although the lyrics are quite silly, it has one of the most infectious beats of all

time. It's also one of the most sampled tunes in music history.

"I Will Survive"

by Gloria Gaynor

Not only the greatest dance song ever (as chosen by VH-1), but also one of the great feminist statements in music. Who says disco can't have a social conscience?

"Brick House"

by the Commodores

You might know him as Lionel Ritchie, but before he got cheesy he sang for the Commodores. Great drum line and horn arrangement. Besides, what encapsulates the free love ethic of the disco era better than a song about a large-breasted woman?

"Lady Marmalade"

by LaBelle

Patti LaBelle, that is, and no, this isn't the remake from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. It's the original, but all you really need to know is that this girl can sing.

Publication date: 02/20/03

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