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Gold Records and White Labels

An insightful box set reconciles disco’s old reputation as a popular plague with its new one as a mystery cult.



A Complete Introduction to Disco: 1970-1980 Various artists (Universal)

Ask most people when disco went kaput and you'll likely get a consensus answer, though the signposts will vary: when Reagan was elected, when the bottom fell out of the music business, when Xanadu and Can't Stop the Music bombed, when Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were sent up for tax evasion after allegedly skimming $2.5 million from the most successful disco in nightclub history. It's become a part of the standard American cultural lexicon—Kennedy was shot in 1963, the Eagle landed in 1969, Nixon resigned in 1974, and disco died in 1980. Chicagoans may consider the defining moment Disco Demolition Night—July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park—but that's more properly considered a warning shot.

In the early 80s, disco culture retreated to the nightclubs that had birthed it—often gay, often black and Hispanic, diverse in other ways. But in 1982 and '83, the Flashdance soundtrack, Thriller, and Madonna's first album all provided clear signs that disco music hadn't gone anywhere. It simply shed the glitter and settled into an almost covert role as modern pop's undercarriage, a position it occupies more solidly than ever in 2011. By 1990, the year of Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart," even disco culture—the trappings of the music's epoch of dominance—had become an adored piece of kitsch rather than a target for knee-jerk derision. Today disco is like a favorite uncle whose taste in garish Hawaiian shirts has ceased to cause much fuss at family gatherings.

In the nightclubs that played host to underground DJ culture, though, attitudes evolved very differently. For one thing, dance fans have long understood that disco didn't "die" per se, and in their eyes it never needed to be revived or rehabilitated. There was no rupture in its history, no period of dormance. They hear the slower, synthesizer-dependent "boogie" R&B sound of the early 80s—easier and cheaper to produce than funk or disco, which called for sprawling bands and lavish string sections—as an extension of disco, not a break from it. The same goes for the trashy, synth-heavy European records of the early 80s, particularly from Italy, that form the basis of what's now called "Italo." For many current producers and DJs, disco's bloodline survives well into the 80s, and only really ends with the paradigm shift that produced house music.

Others have come to believe that disco remained a major force in the world of dance music even after the rise of house—a conviction that can persist only because the world of dance music exists in some ways in a cultural bubble. The album most responsible for the prevalence of this idea among modern fans is Metro Area's self-titled debut, which came out in 2002. Metro Area have admitted that their big club hit from that record, "Miura," draws from Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown"—one of the last disco number ones in 1980—and their stylistic referents seem to start there and move chronologically forward, creating a persuasive picture of an alternate universe where disco is the common ancestor of every present-day form of dance music.

Disco's image has also gotten a makeover from a pair of books: Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's general disc-jockey history Last Night a DJ Saved My Life (2000) and Tim Lawrence's Love Saves the Day (2004), which focuses on 70s New York nightlife, in particular David Mancuso's club the Loft and the Paradise Garage, a gargantuan Manhattan space presided over by Larry Levan, widely considered the greatest club DJ ever. Both establishments were members only: easy to get into if you knew the right people, but not an option on Joe and Jane Clubber's list. By allowing their readers to vicariously experience the atmosphere of those storied venues, Brewster/Broughton and Lawrence opened up disco's inner circle to a new generation—and even better, they included actual DJ playlists from the era, giving diligently nerdy listeners plenty of ready-made entry points.

Just as important, those books emphasized disco's birth as an underground phenomenon, not its reign as the behemoth it became, which helped give it cachet with the kind of record collectors who, in an earlier era, might have belonged to the Sub Pop Singles Club and sneered at the very idea of listening to disco. For some of those collectors, disco's reputation as the most insidious, annoying, impossible-to-get-away-from pop music ever made, the epitome of populism gone wrong, was turned on its head. Now, people who were batting at teething rings when Van McCoy died were insisting that disco was not, in fact, an airy free-for-all that invited grandma to dance along to "YMCA," but instead a cult canon whose deepest pleasures could only be truly understood by the chosen few.

Of course, neither way of looking at things is new. Disco did emerge from an underground, and plenty of popular disco was terrible. Nevertheless, too often this dichotomy leads to a version of that old indie-rock attitude: if it's popular, it isn't "real." Preferring disco-the-music to disco-the-epoch is one thing. Pretending disco-the-epoch doesn't exist, or doesn't count, is another. "People don't believe me when I tell them how impossible it was to get non-bellbottom pants in 1977!" comics artist Daniel Clowes said in a 1999 interview, republished last year in a collection edited by Ken Parille and Isaac Cates. "It was literally impossible. I had to have them made, get girls to sew them for me. You can't imagine how that would be your only choice."

So it means something that A Complete Introduction to Disco: 1970-1980, a four-CD box compiled by Mark Wood and released overseas by Universal this summer, is the first fully licensed major-label disco box set to so successfully straddle the line between mainstream and underground. (It never came out stateside, but I found an import copy in December.) The truth is, it's the first one to try—the widespread adoption of the disco-purist sensibility postdates the heyday of the major-label box set, which ended in 2002 or so. But its holistic approach nonetheless represents a breakthrough—no previous release of this kind has been assembled with an ear to the playlists reprinted in Last Night and Love Saves the Day as well as the Billboard charts. Maybe that's less meaningful now that physical media seem destined to survive merely as fetish items—as the idea of "owning" content gets blurrier, the significance of "releasing" it can only drop. But chances are your bitchin' .zip file of mondo obscuro disco (which I totally want a link to) isn't going to tell me as much about the music in its time and place as this box does.

It's useful to compare A Complete Introduction to Rhino's late-90s The Disco Box, which took its inspiration primarily from the pop charts. Focusing narrowly on hits downplays the motivation behind the music. A disco record may shoot for number one, or it may never travel further than the crates of five of the producer's friends, but in pretty much every case the goal is to move a crowd. What hit the charts wasn't always what people were dancing to, and A Complete Introduction takes that into account. There's enough here for any pop fan: nine number ones and a total of 18 top tens out of 64 tracks, not counting British, R&B, or club chart placements. But there are also DJ favorites that never get a look-in on collections like Rhino's: El Coco's almost absurdly bubbly Eurodisco confection "Cocomotion" and Bionic Boogie's ultraplush "Risky Changes" provide an invigorating new context for cast-in-stone selections like Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" and Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)."

The box's first disc, "Motown, Philly, Funk and the Roots of Disco," demonstrates its unique alchemy. Many of the songs are familiar, but hearing them in this sequence teaches you things. The pheromonal strings of the Love Unlimited Orchestra's "Love's Theme" kick it off with a Technicolor flourish that establishes the box's aesthetic base. All these years later, you can understand why music critics hated Barry White, the song's producer, in 1973—you really do hear elevator music in it. Yet today, there's something poignant about that. Music fans now are acclimated to a phenomenally wide range of genres that's getting wider all the time. In public places, you almost always hear the original hits; there's not much call for elevator music anymore. Because it's no longer oppressively ubiquitous, listeners are free to take pleasure in it.

"Love's Theme" is a DJ-perfect setup for the O'Jays' 1972 hit "Back Stabbers." Peter Shapiro's brilliant disco history, Turn the Beat Around (2005), discusses "Back Stabbers" as part of the continuum of protest soul (and it belongs there), but hearing it after "Love's Theme" highlights the O'Jays' silkiness—those floating Philly strings, that suave Latin bounce in the rhythm. Its in-the-clouds feel—rich with billows of violin, mellow brass, and lush vocal harmony—is the terrain the box explores most thoroughly. It's evident on tracks as raw with feeling as Gloria Gaynor's "Never Can Say Goodbye" or Candi Staton's "Young Hearts Run Free" and as free-spirited as the Crown Heights Affair's splashy Moog-led instrumental "Dreaming a Dream" or Shalamar's blissful "Take That to the Bank," which features the most hypnotic hi-hats ever recorded.

More significant, A Complete Introduction demonstrates that this plush aesthetic—the sound of framed gold records and piles of cocaine—occurs not just in the Gaynor and Staton hits but also in crate-digger's obscurities like the Crown Heights Affair cut and Slick's "Space Bass." Perhaps these insightful curatorial decisions—and the fact that they've taken place under the umbrella of a major label, hardly an institution with a reputation for clear thinking—are evidence that the mid-2000s record-nerd backlash to the late-1970s popular backlash has, like its predecessor, been absorbed by the continued vigor of disco itself.

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