Wednesday 14 November 2012

VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Best Disco Album In The World

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(#212: 28 July 1979, 6 weeks)

Track listing: Le Freak (Chic)/Knock On Wood (Amii Stewart)/One Way Ticket (Eruption)/Painter Man (Boney M)/I’m Every Woman (Chaka Khan)/One Nation Under A Groove (Funkadelic)/He’s The Greatest Dancer (Sister Sledge)/Flashback (Ashford & Simpson)/Love Don’t Live Here Anymore (Rose Royce)/We Are Family (Sister Sledge)/I Want Your Love (Chic)/I Can’t Stand The Rain (Eruption)/Fire (The Pointer Sisters)/Wishing On A Star (Rose Royce)/Young Hearts Run Free (Candi Staton)/Weekend (Mick Jackson)/You Really Touched My Heart (Amii Stewart)/Hooray Hooray, It’s A Holi-Holiday (Boney M)

The best – or the last? “So capture the moment before it’s all over,” sings Amii Stewart near the end of this compilation, and it is difficult to decide whether the record represents an elegy for disco rather than a celebration of it, or alternatively a long-term retrospective victory salute.

Yet it spent a longer amount of time at number one than any other album in 1979, precisely at the moment when the wheels had partly come off the disco wagon, or were presumed to have done so. Its genesis was straightforward; looking at EMI’s success with Don’t Walk – Boogie, WEA decided to do a similar TV-advertised repackaging of whatever acts were available to them. I would guess that slightly more thought went into putting this record together; for a start, the twenty-track formula was cut down to a more manageable eighteen tracks. But I emphasise the “slightly” because this may be the most lopsided disco album in the world. I imagine it worked a treat at unfussy suburban parties, but as it stands we are presented with a juxtaposition of some of the best music yet to appear in this tale with some of the worst.

In the “best” category must primarily fall the Chic Organization. Indeed, one senses an air of defiance about the whole record beginning with a song which originally was called “Fuck Off.” From the off, “Le Freak” dares you to read any rites. Simultaneously celebrating and giving the middle finger to Studio 54 and the “culture” that surrounded it, or uprooted it, “Le Freak” is structured, as was Chic’s wont, as essentially a rock song, and they do come across as a rock band playing dance music. Or a European group rekindling distant and possibly second-hand memories of “America.” The riff-based structure allows the musicians and the song to swing, while one is also constantly aware of the record’s nearly ahuman metronomic precision. Like Kraftwerk, there is no space for dithering, and instead looms an awe-inspiring and slightly intidimating certainty; listen to how the strings and rhythm steadily fugue their way upwards under Bernard Edwards’ dogged bass “solo” (inspired by James Jamerson, Edwards would go on through this work to influence would-be bass players everywhere from Glasgow to Birmingham) and marvel at how few late seventies hits could utilise the words “Oh, what a joy!” with a straight face. The “Stompin’ At The Savoy” reference puts the song fully in the lineage of the black music that preceded it, and yet there is still the sense of musicians breaking away from R&B’s Rich Tapestry and heading off somewhere else entirely.

“I Want Your Love” is better still; a song of unbearable craving turned into the lushest and liveliest temptations in pop. Again, the near-mechanical placement of string and horn lines, and the key emotional pauses (“I want…/Your love”), bring Kraftwerk very readily to mind, but the adagio string chords, set against the busy-ness of the rhythm section, have a central, calm stillness that is highly reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s orchestrations. Paul Lester has previously written about the Damascus-like remote beauty of this record, describing the arrangement as “glorious cascading strings that sounded approximately like a choir of angels atop five glass mountains on fire” (in his piece ostensibly about Chic’s album Risqué in the Unknown Pleasures booklet which came free with the 4 March 1995 edition of Melody Maker). When the antiphonal strings and brass run Philip Glass undulating figures towards each other at the record’s climax, there is something of the holy about the performance; the parent album C’est Chic stopped at #2 in the album chart (though made #1 in the NME listings) but that should not stop you from immediately investing in a copy, including as it does other delights such as “Savoir Faire” and the shiveringly brilliant, seven-and-a-half minute long “At Last I Am Free,” disco’s very own “Hey Jude”; not to mention their sorely underrated follow-up from later that year, the aforementioned Risqué, featuring as it does the historic “Good Times” and one of the most sublime second sides of any soul-pop album this side of Barry White’s Stone Gon’, and the subject of an angrily passionate, righteous review in the NME by Danny Baker. Of “I Want Your Love,” I only need add, as elsewhere in Chic’s work, how little Nile Rodgers appears to do with his guitar other than funky chordal rhythms, and yet how, by virtue of timing and harmonic ingenuity, his playing adds up to so much more; here his guitar is virtually rhythm only, its tick-a-tick reminiscent of Luther Perkins in the Tennessee Three, backing up Johnny Cash.

The Sister Sledge hits are equally enthralling; “He’s The Greatest Dancer” exactly captures the transcendence of the self-inhabiting disco dancer that the Bee Gees didn’t quite manage to reach on Saturday Night Fever, from its surprised exclamation mark of a string flurry in response to the girls’ “I wonder why?” to the endless, relentless but never overpowering propulsion at the song’s root. Their disco world is a classy, almost Apollonic world in which that dirtiest of pejoratives “boring” is overpowered by the seemingly effortless “perfection” of the Adonis guy’s “Halston, Gucci…Fi-o-rucci!” which nonetheless doesn’t lose sight of the possibility that this is all an ephemeral façade. Boring tourists, though? We must be entering “the last days of disco.”

“We Are Family” is the definition of exultation, and not just because the Pittsburgh Pirates used it as their 1979 World Series campaign theme; as well as being “a song directly from You Go Girl! land” (thanks, Lena) it is a celebratory defence – can you look at us, listen to us and dance to us, it appears to say, and then think any other music is better, or more capable of engendering and nurturing love? This is not just a craze; it is “our” world, “our” life, and do you know, I think in the long run we will have been shown to have won.

What else here adds to this picture of euphonic liberty? Well, there’s Amii Stewart’s mighty schaffelisation of “Knock On Wood” (which in its Eddie Floyd manifestation suddenly sounds like a very old song in comparison) with a bottom so heavy as to pass muster on 2012 dancefloors, complete with croaking frog synth bass (lower than Edwards was with Chic or Sledge), a huge post-Slade stompy sound, titanic tom-toms reverberating onomatopoeically to the song’s title, thunder noises when Stewart sings, or shrieks, “thunder” (and lightning too). Exceptionally dramatic, it almost makes one regret that Elvis didn’t live to do the song this way, but Stewart, straight out of the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, does an imposing yet approachable job. It is as if nothing can stop disco from conquering the planet.

Which doesn’t really compute with the Frank Farian sect; Boney M have crossed the room to the refuge of silliness (which makes one wonder why this record had to conclude with the absurd “Holi-Holiday,” unless to say that such crassness is all that is left to follow). As for Eruption, they don’t transcend the tag of Boney M apprentices (they supported the group on tour earlier in the decade, where Farian spotted them and signed them up); they don’t seem to have the slightest comprehension of Neil Sedaka or Ann Peebles (at the fadeout of “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” singer Precious Wilson utters a hugely incongruous “Whoo!,” while “One Way Ticket” sounds a lot like Boney M Junior) – this is Club Med music, for those who like Club Med, but not really “disco” as such (on second listening to Boney M’s “Painter Man,” Lena remarked that it was “like the Smurfs trying to do Beckett” and I am in total agreement).

A relief, then, to go to Chaka Khan and her splendid “I’m Every Woman,” a record it’s impossible to tire of no matter how often it is played; strange but logical how in America the decade went from Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” to this, which could rightly be subtitled or retitled “I’m Everywoman.” One of Khan’s best vocal performances, and one of Ashford and Simpson’s best songs (and productions), it pulls off the trick of constantly building up without ever breaking out; the bass is rumbling and fruity, the unending seesaw of chord changes at the end feeling like a breakthrough even though, musically, it isn’t, and, amid the backing singers, fifteen-year-old Whitney Houston, already instantly identifiable. Ashford and Simpson turn up here in their own right too, with the non-charting “Flashback,” and it’s not at all bad; indeed, I note the similarity of the song’s string-dominant arrangement and chord structure to those of “Last Train To London.”

Moving from “I’m Every Woman” to “One Nation Under A Groove,” you briefly wonder whether music can get any better than this. What more can be said about George Clinton, except that if he is the black Zappa, as some myopic people say, then “One Nation” wipes the borough, not just the floor, with “Dancin’ Fool”; using endless puns to a very serious intent (it is a more patient yet more frantic counterpart to Parliament’s contemporaneous “Flashlight”), the record works brilliantly because of its mix of schoolboy humour, rebellious insurrection and arrangemental complexity; as with Gil Evans, there is always something going on, no matter how minor the detail, in the background, middleground and foreground. Obama was seventeen when this came out, and I can’t imagine how he wouldn’t have been touched and moved and inspired by the record and its delivery. “Here’s a chance to dance our way/Out of our constrictions”; how many other records put such an emphasis on so rarely used a word? By the time we get to the climactic “We shall all be moved,” the impetus is beyond unstoppable; about Funkadelic, all I can say is that none of their main sequence of albums, from 1970’s eponymous debut to 1981’s Electric Spanking Of War Babies, is anything less than essential (and the same can be said of Parliament).

“Fire” is much more a rock record than a disco one, which is unsurprising since this is how writer Bruce Springsteen makes his Then Play Long debut. The arrangement is ingenious – it could almost be a reggae song – and the Pointers’ great, shared vocals join the dots between sixties girl groups, seventies rock (sometimes, especially in the guitar-heavy middle eight, they can sound like a trio of Carly Simons) and R&B’s future. Wonderfully sensual – with that long, meaningful pause after the aforementioned middle eight – it doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of this record, but is always good to hear again.

Would that the same could be said of “Young Hearts Run Free,” a record I’d be very glad never to hear again in my lifetime. Nothing against Candi Staton, or Dave Crawford, or the record itself (which in 1987 was voted the ninth greatest single by NME writers), but it has been so overexposed by lazy radio programmers that its central message has effectively been neutralised, or traduced to a safe round-the-handbags option (it was a #2 hit, however, so Lena will be lending her own perspective to it in due course). Moreover, in 1979 – when the record was scarcely three years old – or in a 1979 context, it sounds dated, anachronistic, its beat positively arthritic. Set it against the slow, patient, electr(on)ic future that Norman Whitfield was building for Rose Royce in the same period – I’m purposely not saying much about the two songs here as I’ll be covering Rose Royce in much greater depth shortly – it is remarkable, not to say questionable, how only a year could separate it from the astonishing Corbusier astral skyscrapers of “Wishing On A Star” (which here is played right to its last, loudly agonising fade).

After “Wishing On A Star,” though, the record runs into a bit of a cul-de-sac; “Young Hearts” is succeeded by “Weekend.” Ah, Mick Jackson, the German-born Brit jumping up and down, and frankly trying very hard, in his white suit and beard on the rear cover, who wrote “Blame It On The Boogie” and therefore presumably has nothing to worry about; and all that can be said for “Weekend” is that it is eager, possibly over-eager, to please with its archaic lyrics (“Let’s go down the discotheque!,” “What a DRA-AG!,” “Jump into my Chevrolet!,” “Down to the disco PLACE!,” “Exciting nights and lazy days” – what is this, The Fast Show?) and very beefy British production. Actually, Jackson’s slightly hoarse and grainy voice reminds me of Joe Jackson. He goes through all the days of the week as a handy reminder of what they are. Jay Kay is five going on six.

Then Stewart returns with her Three Degrees-ish midtempo ballad-cum-requiem (no, I don’t know why they couldn’t have included “Light My Fire/137 Disco Heaven” instead; go check out Stewart’s parent eponymous album, of which side one is, as some people used to say, a right go-er) and Boney M’s atonal synthy steel drums bring the record to a rather muted end. Was this all there was? Nothing like it; Off The Wall was just around the corner, for a start. And disco would eventually mutate and, ultimately, take over pop. With the Chic work in particular, this record is not so much digging a premature burial place for disco, but merely firing an early warning shot.