Disco without shame 

Disco will probably always be a dirty word. When the Bee Gees came through town to promote a comeback album a couple of years ago (it flopped), the local press was condescending--the Bee Gees, it seemed, still had to live down their status as the kings of disco. And kings they were, of course: during one of the most lucrative periods in recording-industry history, the late 70s, they dominated the nation's Top 40 charts as very few groups ever do, pulling off a dozen or so hits of their own (a couple of them among the decade's biggest) and writing a bunch more for brother Andy (a couple of them among the decade's biggest) and associates like Yvonne Elliman and Tavares. Though most people associate the band's success with Saturday Night Fever, we shouldn't forget that the Bee Gees' comeback (they were odd, folky popsters in the 60s, remember) was already well under way by the movie's 1977 release: their 1975 album Main Course had already produced two big, weird, and very good hits, "Jive Talkin"' and "Nights on Broadway," and in 1976 Children of the World contributed a couple more, the eerily voiced "You Should Be Dancing" and the schmaltzy "Love So Right." Then came Saturday Night Fever, and the Bee Gees entered their uncertain pantheon.

If the Bee Gees were kings, KC and the Sunshine Band, the pride of Miami's T.K. Productions, were--what? Court jesters, or counselors to the monarchy? The group in recent years has been little more than a joke, an unhappy end for one of the most important rock 'n' roll bands of the last 20 years. You can make the case that KC masterminds Harry Casey and Richard Finch, writers and producers not only of the band's various hits but also of George McCrae's seminal "Rock Your Baby," helped invent disco. They're certainly among those most responsible for the music's half-a-decade-long penetration deep into the public psyche. The Sunshine Band, true to its name, served up a blithe, upbeat series of hits and a lot of terrific moments: the swirl of noise at the beginning of "Get Down Tonight" (apparently it's an electronically treated, speeded-up guitar), the sexy drive of "I'm Your Boogie Man," the irresistible, brassy chorus of "That's the Way (I Like It)," and in general the band's scintillating use of horns and stellar percussion tracks--none of the Bee Gees' synthesized hysteria for them.

A rather loopy KC and the Sunshine Band came to town recently, prompting these postmortem thoughts on disco. Sure the Brothers Gibb were pretty ridiculous-looking in their leisure suits, and yeah, KC and the Sunshine Band, from the name on down, did seem a bit light. But what does either aggregation have to live down? Both groups easily mastered the pop form of a particular time and place. What should they--not to mention other equally worthy talents, Donna Summer most particularly--be ashamed of?

The distrust and then the hate disco engendered is often described as a racist or homophobic phenomenon. With no evidence to give but my memories from the time (as a rock-consuming teen and record-store clerk through most of disco's formative years), it has always seemed to me that it actually had its roots in something a little different, namely the tendency of American kids to buy into a mythos of authenticity in their rock 'n' roll. I remember the British critic Simon Frith saying that while the British music press plays to its audience's craving for novelty, the American way of writing about rock generally invokes the audience's perception of a sort of graph of rock 'n' roll realism, and then demonstrates how this or that band measures up on it. Maybe suburban Sunbelt teens--the shock troops of the antidisco movement--couldn't relate to the disco milieu because they balked at rubbing shoulders with urban blacks or Hispanics in crowded clubs. But mostly they didn't like disco because they liked guys playing guitars and sporting the rock 'n' roll imagery that Rolling Stone and Hit Parader told them was proper.

Disco obviously reflected little of rock's hallowed iconography, and it lacked one other important thing as well: sincerity, or at least the appearance of it. Sincerity in rock 'n' roll takes many forms--from slice-of-life thoughts on drinking and womanizing to the appalling sentimentality that almost every 70s rock band took occasional refuge in. Rock 'n' roll fans crave schmaltz; they'll run out and buy a million copies of any record put out by a guy with long hair, a bulge in his pants, and the chutzpah to sing something along the lines of "Baby, I love your way" or "Everything is dust in the wind." From the most sophisticated of the old-fashioned rock (say, Neil Young) to the stupidest and most pretentious (say, Kansas) the most popular stars purveyed "messages" that could be understood even when they weren't, if you see what I mean--you got what Neil Young was talking about in "After the Gold Rush" ("Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor comin'") or the meaning of Kansas's lines "Carry on, our wayward son / There'll be peace when you are done," even if both songs are demonstrably just about meaningless. Both songs played to an inchoate appreciation of a sort of romanticism--knights, wars, a little sci-fi surrealism--and that's what made them "readable" to kids.

There's nothing wrong with any of this; it's just the way rock 'n' roll works. What's sometimes painful to think about is that the rock fans who had the real problem with disco weren't the dumb ones but the ones who thought (or thought they thought) just a little too much. If you didn't have a clue, or you just didn't care, you went to the school dances and boogied and hustled along with the rest. But if you were part of that not insignificant part of the audience that actually believed all that jazz about what "true rock 'n' roll" was supposed to be, and you tried your standard deciphering moves on disco, you came up against a dead end. "Shake shake shake / Shake your booty," "Do the hustle," "Push, push / In the bush," "Fly, robin, fly"--all of these were basically unparsable on the subtextual level rock fans were used to getting their information from.

It's not that the creators of a lot of disco didn't have anything to say--in a way they were saying all that needed to be said. As rap would soon be, in a much more logorrheic way, disco was cheerfully tautological; it was its own raison d'etre, insular and dense, and this mightily confused the rock lumpen proletariat. That disco spoke this way was probably a consequence of its origins in the gay or black (or otherwise ethnic) dance clubs; its function was to be subcultural pop music. Once the beat caught on, the music's "messages" became corresponding badges of subcultural pride, and messages like these even a dumb kid could figure out after a while; it was then that the latent racism and homophobia started rising to the surface. It all reached a rather ignoble height with Steve Dahl's crypto-fascist record burning in Comiskey Park in 1979. Then as now, Dahl's cultural clock ran a little slow; by that time disco was fading fast.

So what if time has passed disco on--it's done the same number on punk, and that hasn't stopped a million latter-day practitioners a whit; the sad part is watching people living in the past. KC and the Sunshine Band's show at the Edge this summer was, if you squinted your eyes just a little, amusing, inoffensive, and kinda sweet. But it was also kinda scary, this mostly having to do with the onstage persona of Harry Casey. (His old partner Finch was nowhere in sight.) It's difficult to convey the disturbing picture Casey presented: the closest I can come is to say that he looked vampiric, with stretched, almost translucent skin and a Leona Helmsley smile. In the good old days he was a fresh-faced kid with a shaggy hairdo; now he has the pasted-on smile, feel-good patter, and antediluvian stage moves of the long-distance entertainer. Casey didn't seem to be living in the past so much as trapped in it.

When KC and the Sunshine Band came to be, Casey and Finch were at T.K. Productions, an umbrella for half a dozen small Miami labels including T.K. Records. While the pair certainly made T.K. Productions' fortune, they weren't its first auteurs: the company's first major hit was a brilliantly constructed, almost chilling single by Timmy Thomas, "Why Can't We Live Together." The song's relatively edgy, politically tinged lyric tips its hat to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" even as its minimalist instrumentation--apparently nothing but an organ, a drum machine, and a hand-held shaker--anticipates Prince's "When Doves Cry" by about 15 years.

Casey and Finch, both engineers at T.K., formed their band in the early 70s. They had an ear for dance-based pop, but this was long before disco's mechanical years, and their lineup bore this out: no synths or drum machines, just a nine-piece band with some funky horns and a Caribbean flavor to the percussion. The band's first singles ("Sound Your Funky Horn" and "Queen of Clubs") hit in England but went nowhere Stateside. (This is according to the rather erratic liner notes to Rhino Records' otherwise splendid The Best of KC and the Sunshine Band.) Casey and Finch's U.S. success came not from the Sunshine Band but from the spectacularly conceived "Rock Your Baby," which the pair wrote and produced for George McCrae in 1975. Predicated on the same synthesized, high-pitched bongo beat that distinguished "Why Can't We Live Together" (there's also a nice homage to this, incidentally, at the beginning of Blondie's "Heart of Glass"), the song's propulsive rhythm tracks combined with a coursing guitar line and McCrae's heavenly vocal to make it a very large international hit. (The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock 'n' Roll says the song sold a "reported" 11 million copies worldwide, which seems a bit overstated; but even half that many would make the song one of the very biggest selling singles of all time.)

"Rock Your Baby," along with a noveltyesque number called "Rock the Boat" by the Hues Corporation, is generally cited as disco's commercial breakthrough. The gentle soul underpinnings of "Rock Your Baby" build on the extraordinary music of the time--the bounce of protodisco hits like the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" or Eddie Kendricks's "Keep on Truckin"'; the sexiness of Barry White's overwhelming epics; the suavity of Al Green's timeless singles; and the grace and precision of songs like Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" or Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones." Yet at the same time the song was unmistakably disco--most noticeably it lacked any effort at a meaningful lyric, and its insistent rhythm backing (including an unrelenting synthesized snare) set it apart from the dance-pop of the time.

What the song represented, of course, was a split in the disco road. In the clubs, particularly the upscale ones, disco would evolve inwardly, becoming more and more insular as the mechanics of Eurodisco and a tendency toward sexual explicitness came to the fore. At the same time, people like Casey and Finch were embarked on a brilliant crossover move to de-ethnicize and de-raunch the music for popular consumption. Following close on McCrae's heels were the two songs that would forever define the music. Casey and Finch found a hit for KC and the Sunshine Band with "Get Down Tonight" later in 1975; the lyric ("Do a little dance / Make a little love / Get down tonight") put the disco message in PG terms, and the song speedily became the first of three number-one hits in a row for the band. At around the same time came one of the friendliest quickie exploitation songs of all time, Van McCoy's immortal "The Hustle," whose lyric consisted of just four different words (as in "do it" and "do the hustle"), marking a new high--or a new low, depending on your point of view--for the music. (Rhino's been doing some nice excavation work on this period. Besides the KC compilation mentioned above, check out Get Down Tonight: The Best of T.K. Records and The Disco Years, volumes one and two. Volume one particularly is an almost unrelievedly winning tour of roughly 1974 to 1978.)

Everyone has favorites from this period; mine include Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," an often forgotten Ur-statement of feminist strength with a fabulously influential rhythm track (Jon Bon Jovi's brother, Tony Bongiovi, helped produce it); Shirley and Company's rollicking "Shame, Shame, Shame," one of the best examples of the early disco minimalism; just about anything from Donna Summer; Diana Ross's masterpiece of dynamics, "Love Hangover"; the plaintive, slightly disturbing "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" by Indeep; the Trammps' lethal, over-the-top "Disco Inferno" from the Saturday Night Fever sound track; Cheryl Lynn's hook-laden sole hit, "Got To Be Real"; and Disco Tex & the Sex-O-Lettes' vastly underappreciated "Get Dancin'."

KC ruled for a couple of years--they managed five number-one singles in two years--but were soon overtaken in various ways. Commercially, the Bee Gees melded the music to the lushest production work of the period with the help of Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten, and to more traditionally "rock" lyrical concerns; they quickly overshadowed KC with both hits (the Saturday Night Fever sessions) and misses (the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band fuck-up). And the happy, sprightly KC and the Sunshine Band sound soon seemed a bit declasse next to the aloof, high-toned tales of romantic anomie proffered by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers' Chic. After some weirdness (Blondie's "Heart of Glass") and some surprising resurgences (like Donna Summer's two-record tour de force, Bad Girls), disco disappeared quickly--KC, the Bee Gees, and Chic all went out with the decade and haven't been much heard from since. Disco's last gasp was probably the pathetic "Stars on 45" Beatles medley, and by then there were new trends in dance music. Michael Jackson, for one, was constructing a sturdier, more rock-based club music that while eminently dance-based really couldn't be called disco. And in England the vestiges of new wave were working their way into a computer-based music that would make its mark with the synth-pop "haircut" bands.

In their appearance at the Edge, KC and the band--all nine pieces, still no drum machines--went through their paces. The hits, every one--"Get Down Tonight," "That's the Way," "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty," "I'm Your Boogie Man," the late ballads "Please Don't Go" and "Yes, I'm Ready" (a Casey duet with a singer named Teri DeSario), and a few lesser numbers--came out swimmingly. Compared to what you hear today--from the hard-edged drive of, say, Janet Jackson to the corrosive beats on most rap records--it all sounded a bit faded, of course, but there was still a veneer of sweetness. Just the hits would have made for a relatively short show, so Casey filled in the gaps with long jams and a variety of other blasts from the past, among them "Rock Your Baby" and bits of disco fluff like "Boogie Oogie Oogie" by Taste of Honey, notorious not (as the liner notes to The Best of T.K. Records have it) for winning a best-new-artist Grammy, but for winning a best-new-artist Grammy over Elvis Costello. Casey, stretched-tight skin and all, beamed out at the crowd with an undisguised ferocity. You couldn't tell whether he was on the road to pick up a few bucks or just back doing what he felt he was born to do. If it was a tour of financial necessity, that sure is a hell of a lot of royalties down the drain. On the other hand, it's got to cost a lot of money to keep a nine-piece band on the road; there must be more cost-efficient ways to undertake a nostalgia tour. So maybe he was doing it for fun.

And why not. Remember what white pop music was like in the mid 70s? Over the month or so before "Rock Your Baby" hit number-one, the spot was occupied by Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown," Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods' "Billy Don't Be a Hero," and Roy Stevens's "The Streak." Casey's music, scorned though it may be, reminded us then and reminds us now that rock 'n' roll is supposed to be dance music, supposed to be fun. Disco's rhythmic diligence and focused attack were surely an inspiration to the new-wave movement and of course are the direct ancestors of much of the dominant music of the 80s--the synth-pop glories of New Order and Depeche Mode, most of Madonna's singles, and the whole genre of hip-hop. Harry Casey sold millions of records, changed the course of pop music, and reestablished some of pop's priorities in a way that still drives the music to this day. I say let the influence continue.

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