Sunday, March 09, 2014

Were "Disco Sucks" Kids Racists?

You can probably gather by making a question the title of a post, my answer leans towards no.  The issue here is it seems like common knowledge now that all those white rock fans in the 70’s who hated disco and would often chant “disco sucks” at live shows were really a bunch of racists and homophobes.

I’ve already gotten into my issues with the word “homophobe” – much like labeling someone a fascist, the word no longer has any meaning or power.  Anyone who has even the most minor issue with homosexuality is routinely labeled a homophobe and dismissed.  Never mind that there are millions of people out there with more than minor issues with homosexuality.  Kids in the Hall had a running sketch with two Canadian traffic cops who would walk around looking at people in the distance, take their index fingers and thumbs, frame them around the visual image of a person in the distance and joyously (and imaginarily) “crush” this person with their fingers.  People who over-use “homophobe” strike me as being just like the cops in this sketch.

“Racist” is an even more loaded term that no longer has any meaning.  I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t racist to some extent.  I’ll often hear people say, “I’ve never met a racist” when describing themselves, a group of friends, some publicly identified grouping that’s been called into question, and this response indicates these are really good people who are not guilty of any accusation of racism hurled at them.  It’s often white people saying this who’ve never lived as a minority in any community.  I have and would recommend everyone try this at some point in their lives.  They have no realistic frame of reference to make any sort of judgment call on racism.  But this is just another of those childish linguistic issues, like the magical “n word” we’d all be wise to avoid, lest we start a raging fire of nothingness that won’t matter to anyone five minutes later.

I’ve been reading David Byrne’s book, How Music Works, about his life with and in music, most of which is fantastic, but every now and then, he’ll come up with what I recognize as typical Manhattan liberal blather masquerading as common knowledge … the big one being his short reference to the “disco sucks” crowds of the late 70’s being homophobic and racist.  It’s not an uncommon theory – I hear it routinely when otherwise knowledgeable music fans discuss disco.  I recently borrowed a documentary about disco from the NY Public Library, found it a fun watch for the 70’s film footage of decadent and decaying Manhattan (which seems so impossibly far away compared to how it is now), but, again, with the stock “homophobe and racist” routine.  Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

There’s no denying that part of disco’s genesis in the early 70’s relied on the music being played in gay clubs in New York City.  I’d imagine it wasn’t just New York either, although every documentary implies this.  Harry Casey, of KC and the Sunshine Band, was making disco music in Miami at the same time with TK Records.  It was a nascent trend growing from the end of 60’s soul, music, with key albums like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Isaac Hayes’ song Theme from Shaft” and just about everything Barry White, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green were doing at the time pointing in the direction of smoother, more-orchestrated soul music geared more towards dancing.  The Philadelphia International label may well be the birth place of disco … please note that none of these bands, artists or labels had anything to do with New York.  Such is the vanity mirror we call New York City that it gazes into the past and imagines the world spinned on its axis.

We’re fed the history that disco was born in the underground crucible of gay clubs in Manhattan.  No.  Gay clubs in Manhattan played disco, and apparently the guys loved it.  The TV show Soul Train was going strong at this time, and I’d wager if we could go back in time and watch each Saturday’s show, week to week, we could trace the beginning and flowering of disco as a trend.  (Soul Train was based in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles.)  Most of the artists were black and had soul music backgrounds: their fans were predominately black.  That’s how it worked.  I would wager that going to a Parliament Funkadelic show in the early/mid 70’s would find about a 70/30 split between black/white audience members.  Who knows, maybe there were less white fans, but I’d feel comfortable betting money on this.

It’s good to point this out, because if you went to a country music show back then, or even now, the audience was, is and will be overwhelmingly white.  I’m not sure why black people haven’t had charges of racism leveled at them for not embracing country music in easily recognizable mass numbers?  What was that?  They’re not racists because this supposition that just because you don’t like a certain kind of music made by a certain race of people makes you a racist is complete and utter bullshit?  Oh, I get it.  So why, in this day and age, is it still so easy to slip in this “disco sucks = racist” canard into tasteful documentaries and books and get away with it?

I guess because you can?  Because most people who position themselves as valid cultural commentators are nothing more than rank bullshit artists looking to make names and money for themselves?  Oh, no, that can’t be true!  These people support their local public radio stations and listen to “All Things Considered” nightly on NPR.  They’re smarter than you!

I’ve spent a lifetime watching and listening to people supposedly smarter than I am spout the most misleading sort of bullshit in support of personal agendas that have nothing to do with history, reality or any version of the truth to which they subscribe.  Sometimes it’s fairly innocent (I suspect I could have an intelligent conversation with David Byrne about disco), other times, you’re dealing with people who have severe agendas, mental issues and media connections most of us will never get a crack at.  Them’s the breaks.

But getting back to disco, let’s consider a white kid in the 70’s hearing “disco” for the first time.  Understand, at that time, it wouldn’t have been called disco.  It wasn’t called anything but soul, or dance music, or R&B.  I remember in elementary school falling in love with the song “Doctor’s Orders” by Carol Douglas.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this was surely an early disco song.

This was 1974.  The summer of 1974 is indelibly stamped on my mind in so many ways.  That year seemed like a particularly trashy year for pop music.  I can recall tracks like “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” “The Night Chicago Died” and “Seasons in the Sun” being all over the radio around that time.  These songs always make me think of summer.  But there were two songs that dominated the summer of 1974: “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae and “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation.  Listen to them.  This was disco: mind you, probably not called disco at the time because this was 1974, and the trend was not fully recognized as such yet.

There were other songs like this that came along in the early stages of disco, and I love that short-lived era.  Loved it at the time as it was fed to me in bits and pieces on AM radio and 45 singles, didn’t delineate in my mind at all whether the artist was black or white, had little inkling what "gay" or "straight" meant, or what kind of music this was.  I was a kid.  I loved the trashy pop singles of 1974.  And when I heard songs like “Jive Talkin” and “Nights on Broadway” by The Bee Gees a year later, man, it was just mind-blowing how good these songs were.  Great pop music!  Was then, and still is now.

But I was a rock-and-roll kid.  By far.  Started with Elton John.  Fell in with The Beatles, Stones, Kinks and Who: among many other great British rock bands, they were all over the local AOR stations back then.  Grew into the teenage rituals of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd that seemingly all kids had to either accept or reject at some point.  Having older siblings helped, as they pointed the direction I “should” be listening.  So much of being a teenager was ritual adopted from older kids.  Brother M was a huge rock fan, and most of what I started learning came from him and that old ragged stereo console he had in the basement.

If anything … we were racist against white people because we hated, and I mean fucking hated, country music, as rock kids in the 70’s.  Of course, I’ve already pointed out the problem with attributing racial points of views to taste in music.  We didn’t hate white people.  We were white people.  But we hated country music.  Our record collections were predominately white rock artists, but there were plenty of black R&B artists thrown in the mix, especially with singles.  I think we hated country music because in our minds it represented “rednecks” and other adults whom we considered hicks, and that was the last thing we wanted to see ourselves as, especially once we got into stuff like David Bowie and Queen, and realized these rock gods appeared to be the polar opposites of “hicks.”

It should also be noted that when punk rock rolled around in 1977-78, and then new wave, most rock-and-roll kids hated, and I mean hated, this shit almost as much as disco.  Homophobia?  To listen to The Talking Heads and Elvis Costello as a high-school kid in rural America was to invite open taunts of “fag” and “homo” … partially because these artists didn’t look like traditional rock stars with long, flowing hair and bare chests.  They looked normal, nerdy, they wore glasses.  Fags!  That seemed to be the logic … it was probably mine to a point until I actually listened to the music and realized it was fantastic.  But no one ever sat around fretting over how rock fans felt about punk and new wave, because punk and new wave never posed a threat to cultural domination the way disco did.  (In America, at least – I gather punk was much more a national threat in England.)

Although there were hundreds of songs that could be classified as disco released through the mid-70’s, it wasn’t really until 1977 and the Saturday Night Fever movie and soundtrack that disco became a dominant force in the overall culture.  It became a lifestyle choice for a lot of people, building their lives around dance clubs and all that entailed.  It surely was before then, but that movie put everything over the top, and made The Bee Gees poster children of disco, the archetypes everyone had to respond to positively or negatively.  They had long, blow-dried hair, were immaculately dressed, tight white pants, open-necked, silk leisure shirts, gold necklaces.  Keep in mind, your average rock fan was going around in t-shirts, ripped jeans and Chuck E. Taylor hi-tops.  Stylistically alone, there was a wide gulf between disco and rock fans.

And this is where the backlash started.  Disco took over everything.  The pop charts were rife with disco tracks, and people who had no business making any type of records made disco records, which was fucking insane.  You had people like Ethel Merman, among many others ill-suited to do so, making disco singles and albums.  You had dogshit like Rick Dees doing “The Disco Duck.”  I even remember members of the Philadelphia Phillies, and more than likely other sports teams, making disco singles where they simply talked over disco beats.  The weird thing about disco,:even the good stuff ... elevator versions of disco songs sounded almost exactly like the original versions of the songs.  Trust me, the posted examples of how horribly askew disco went are the tip of a massive ice berg of shit that came along with the ascendance of disco in the 1970's.

Young people were made to like disco.  Old people were made to like disco.  Senior citizens and teenagers took classes to learn how to do "The Hustle" ... there was something really wrong here.  The theme from the TV show Love Boat was a disco song.  Many TV show theme songs were.  If there was music in a TV commercial, more often than not, it was disco.  In gym class, we were forced to take dancing.  Only two types of dancing: square dancing and disco dancing.  It was like eating shit sandwiches for most of us.  In our minds, we equated disco with these horrible square dances because we were forced to do it in gym class.  What on earth did gym teachers think they were doing, dictating terms to us like this about shit we were in charge of?  It was surely one of the least cool experiences I had in high school.

From 1977 through at least 1979, disco ruled the charts.  It wasn’t all bad.  Even at the time, I respected Donna Summer’s singles, although I wasn’t buying them: they sounded great on the radio.  There are certain disco songs, like "Native New Yorker" by Odyssey, "Cherchez La Femme" by Dr. Buzzard's Original  Savannah Band, and "Jack and Jill" by Raydio that sounded phenomenal the first time I heard them on the radio and still sound good on the iPod now.  You can laugh at The Bee Gees all you want, but those disco singles were works of art … which I really, really didn’t like at the time!  Blondie blew the doors open with “Heart of Glass”: a previously new-wave band coming out with a perfect disco single that still sounds relevant today. 

It was a polarizing track at the time: I didn’t know how to feel about it.  I loved it, but didn’t buy it.  By that point, like so many rock fans, I was really getting tired of disco being injected into every aspect of culture, it had become such a smothering presence in the late 70’s.  (Surprise, much like hiphop would be in the 90’s, and the same shit-headed accusations of racism if you were white and didn’t like it … some things never change!)  I was tired of rock bands either choosing or being forced to do one disco song to acquiesce to the perceived new market of disco fans.  Much like “Heart of Glass,” “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones was a controversial track, pissing off a large number of their fans, but not enough to dump them.  It helped that the Some Girls album was their last great artistic statement and “Miss You” the only disco track on it.  I listen to “Miss You” now and hear a raw-edged, gritty disco song.  When I first heard Lenny Kravitz’s “Dancing Til Dawn” in the 00’s, I thought, man, finally someone has nailed that “Miss You” vibe.

The other big disco/rock single was “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart, which isn’t a bad song, but again, was so huge at the time, and such a departure from the artist’s traditional “rock” style, that it gave many fans a very hard time.  Unfortunately for Rod, this signaled a career-long trend of trying to make himself hip and current with whatever was on the radio, and thus he spiraled off into a less sincere, more commercial direction through the 80’s.  Of course, early Rod Stewart, solo and with The Faces, is some of the best rock and roll ever made, but there are plenty of worthwhile moments thereafter, even if his slick image became too much to handle for many fans.

It was odd how some rock bands had a disco song and some didn’t.  It wasn’t a requirement, but it also seemed like managers and record companies thought it was a good idea for aging rock bands to have a disco song.  I can still listen to “Superman” by The Kinks, but one of the better rock/disco hybrids was Ian Hunter’s “We Gotta Get Out of Here” … wherein the protagonist of the song is dying to get out of a trendy disco while his angry girlfriend (portrayed expertly by Ellen Foley) harangues him for being so out of touch.

As I recall, Ian Hunter fans in particular were very much into the “disco sucks” ethos.  He sometimes worked “disco sucks” into the lyrics of his hit single “Cleveland Rocks” when playing live, although I gather getting the crowd to chant the name of their city as the one that rocks hardest was the bigger crowd-participation goal.

So, was Ian Hunter a racist homophobe?  No.  Not at all.  He … just … didn't ... like … disco.  And all it represented in terms of how it dominated and infiltrated so many aspects of our overall culture.  It felt empty and plastic.  It didn’t start that way, but it became that way after the Saturday Night Fever craze.  And in 1978, it didn’t appear to be letting up any.  As record companies do, they were laying it on thick, bombarding the charts with disco acts, pushing the trend as hard and fast as it could to make as much money as possible before it tailspinned … throwing as much shit against the wall to see how much would stick.  And a lot of it did.

Understand, your average rock fan in the 70’s didn’t know or care where disco came from or how it started.  All they knew was they didn’t like it.  They didn’t like anything but rock.  It was like a religion to many of its fans.  When rock stars gave interviews in magazine, they read like sermons on the mount.  Journalists would ask them important questions about politics and life … their opinions mattered.  This was during rock’s glory days, so it only makes sense that these artists were recognized as cultural leaders of some sort.  That really was a golden age for rock music: most of these bands put out albums in the 60’s that are still legendary, and they may have gone down a level in the 70’s, but were still major forces.  Along with newer artists like Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, The Eagles, Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, etc., putting out music that was hugely successful commercially and creatively.

So, one day in 1977, it becomes obvious that this new thing, disco, was threatening that cultural hierarchy.  Not just threatening in that sense of overtaking the culture.  Threatening in that there was little or no meaning in it.  Most disco songs were meaningless love songs: they’re about dancing, fall in love, having fun.  It was pretty rare that a disco song, lyrically, would have any social relevance.  The Village People never wrote a song about being gay.  It was just sort of understood, this bunch of fucking weirdoes, singing a nonsensical song about hanging out at the YMCA … there must be some really strange shit going on at the YMCA!  “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor was a major song in that had an actual theme of empowerment, sung by a black woman.  Most disco songs got nowhere near that level of lyrical relevance.  They were fluff … I’ve since come to realize, a lot of good pop fluff.  But at the time, I, and many other rock fans, felt offended by how empty and vacuous so much of disco seemed.

(Personal confession: I must have re-watched that Village People video at least a dozen times in the past week.  Again, vestiges of old New York.  It's no accident those guys were filmed doing their thing on the West Side piers, and just down the street from a bar called The Ram Rod.  God damn what New York City has become ... it's a tragedy.)

Much is made of The Disco Demolition night in Chicago in the summer of 1979.  Where the evil white rock fans made clear their homophobia and racism by blowing up disco records and rioting!  Look at the film footage. They let kids in for a dollar if they brought a disco record.  It was summer.  I gather most of those kids came drunk and stoned: this was rock and roll.  Look at Steve Dahl.  Asshole morning-zoo DJ … just look at him in these film clips.  Imagine his fans.  Clearly, stadium security had no idea this many kids were going to show-up.  I’d be curious to know how many of them kept on drinking in the stadium: keep in mind it was a lot easier in the 70's to get served an under-aged beer than it is now.

I’m willing to bet if you shoved a microphone into the face of any number of those kids on the field, the message would not have been: “Yeah, fuck those niggers and fags!”  It would have been: “Disco sucks!  Disco sucks!  Disco sucks!”  If they had anything disparaging to say about fellow humans, it would have concerned The Bee Gees, Rod Stewart or John Travolta.

And that’s not to say while those kids might have blurted one thing into the microphone, some of them might have been thinking, “Yeah, fuck those niggers and fags!”  I’m willing to roll with the concept that some of the “disco sucks” sentiment at that time did concern racism and homophobia.

But those were two relatively minor points in the much larger picture of why so many rock fans at that time firmly held forth that disco, truly, sucked.  So to look back now and write it all down to “racism and homophobia” is chickenshit.  It’s playing into any number of cultural trends that have come into play since then, that make it seem obvious that, well, these must be the reasons all those evil white rock fans hated disco at the time.  No.  I hate when people with agendas try to rewrite history to suit their personal/political persuasion, and you better believe, it happens constantly in our culture.  They think they're doing all of us favors by applying what they perceive as current common knowledge to a past issue, but all they're doing is stamping a current, popularly-held opinion on history that may or may not hold water, 20, 50 or 100 years from now.  It's misleading, at best, and, as noted, just the worst sort of chickenshit.  God only knows how much history of the world over the centuries has been skewed this way.

Disco sucked for a number of reasons.  While there are dozens of disco songs that are fantastic pop songs deserving of whatever chart success they received at the time and lasting fame they have now, there were many more as the trend wore on in years that were mediocre to flat-out awful.  There is a spiritual and intellectual emptiness, a deep void to much of the music … as there is with so much dance music.  It’s meant for dancing, partying, blowing off steam, and often doesn’t hold up well when listened to out of that context (while working brilliantly in that context).

Record companies forced the trend: they blew it up, released too much of it in too short a time period, looking to cash in fast, which overwhelmed the charts for a year or two, but surely generated a backlash as it went along.  Rock fans rightfully recognized that record companies were forcing this music on them.  Of course, none of those rock fans recognized that this was standard operational procedure with the recording industry, and the same cultural strong-arming had been done with rock music when it first came into being.  If you listened to music in the early 60's, you were made to feel as though you should get with the program and dig these crazy new sounds, or just get lost.  It’s the predatorial nature of the music business.  Most rock fans never grasped this and felt offended when record companies ran the same number with disco on them, deeply threatening their teenage sense of cool.  They had reason to be angry, just as previous fans who were a little too old to grasp The Beatles surely felt threatened and culturally misplaced when The British Invasion rolled around in 1964.

And disco didn’t die … it simply became a less dominant cultural force, which was good.  There were still disco songs becoming hits in 1979 and thereafter.  It just wasn’t called disco as we moved into the 80’s.  A lot of British new-wave bands were essentially making disco music with synthesizers. If you think “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League isn’t disco, I don’t know what to tell you.  It is.  Many 80's new-wave hits were.  Dance music thrived throughout the 80’s and thereafter – it never went away.  Disco as a dominating cultural force simply reached a breaking point in 1979 and rightfully receded.  It never died as a musical force, and there are any number of songs over the course of decades that are pure disco, and many more dance tracks incorporating trends that followed in the dance clubs.

But in our professional wrestling-style culture, everything must suck, and then die.  It’s the American Way.