I spent ages reading this book (44 days to be exact). It wasn’t that it was a slog. It was such a rich, nostalgic, evocative book that I couldn’t read it quickly.
We’re talking niche writing here and I may only be interesting a small handful of people with my review of this book but that’s fine – It was such a labour of love on behalf of its author that even those with only a limited interest in the subject matter should be encouraged to seek this one out. Sometimes all that is needed is passion –and Vince Aletti’s certainly comes across in this book. It was that passion and incredible intention to detail I found so captivating.
From 1974-1978 Aletti wrote a column “Disco File” in the American magazine “Record World” and these are his columns, week by week, new release by new release, club chart by club chart providing an important body of work on disco music and perhaps the most comprehensive, chronological study of a popular music genre. The dates are significant- Aletti was there right from the start, watched the phenomenon sweep the world, from the underground New York clubs peopled by the initially largely gay, black and Hispanic audience until it imploded (in America anyway) in the late 70’s fuelled by what was largely a racist, homophobic Rock Music backlash. He is credited as writing one of the first articles about Disco for “Rolling Stone” magazine in 1973 (this article forms part of the introduction). I loved this book and spent quite a bit of money trawling obscure downloads from Amazon and building on my music collection. I have a thing about obsessives. Aletti did have a British equivalent, a man called James Hamilton who wrote a column in “Record Mirror” at much the same time. For a time it became important for DJ’s to know how many beats per minute were in a track to enable them to mix them together without bewildering dancers. In the absence of any sophisticated way of measuring this Hamilton would reputedly arm himself with wristwatch and count and did this for every track he listed!
Prior to reading this the ultimate disco music reference book has been the very likeable “Saturday Night Forever” by Alan Jones & Jussi Kantonen (Mainsteam 1999). This work is more important as it is a primary source with which we can see how history has skewed the importance of some artists in this genre (eg; The Bee Gees who for the general public are synonymous with Disco) to the detriment of others who better caught the imagination of their contemporaries. The development of the clubs over the time, from the sweaty warehouses to the monster that Studio 54 became can also be clearly tracked.
In each column Aletti wrote about what was new, what was happening and published a number of club charts which he collated together to make a Disco File Top 20. I’ve always been something of a music chart nerd so this might explain some of the appeal of this book to me. Just opening it at random I am transported back to the 1970’s and Aletti’s column is, like Disco Music itself, full of surprises.
My random opening is August 6th 1977 and in his column Aletti has this surprise to reveal;
“Much of the Demis Roussos album (“The Demis Roussos Magic” on Mercury) is heavy-handed and sentimental and slow, but two tracks – “Let It Happen” (4.04) and “I Dig You” (4.17) are real departures, dipping as they do into the particularly European, lushly electronic sound dominating the disco charts right now. Roussos’ version is closer to Randy Pie and Barrabas than Love & Kisses and Donna Summer, but there are touches of both styles, and plenty of synthesizers, in these two cuts. Left field, perhaps, but worth checking into…………..”
Number 1 in the Disco File Chart that week was Donna Summer and “I Feel Love” which was also number 1 the same week in the UK charts showing how mainstream this formerly underground music had become and what about Demis Roussos as a disco star? Who would have thought…. Actually, in his appraisal of this artist’s album Aletti may have been hastening disco’s demise as the bandwagon-jumping that was occurring made disco music ubiquitous and began to alienate its original fans. Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones began to dip their toes in the Disco Pool amongst many others. The nadir that is often cited is Ethel Merman who made a Disco album in 1979 (I have a copy of it and it is something of a guilty pleasure). The soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever” was released at the end of 1977 and became one of the biggest selling albums of all time around the world. Aletti does not realise that the success of this would also be a millstone around Disco music’s neck. It was just another release amongst many that week. He recognises the album as
“ a fine collection of new and familiar material, and it certainly whets our appetite to finally see the film. (It should be noted that disco music also forms the bulk of the material on Columbia’s “Looking For Mr Goodbar” sound track album too).
By the time Aletti gave up his column, the secret world of disco he loved so much was not so secret any more and the establishments were no longer about the music, but about the money. The “Disco Sucks” movement drove Disco and Dance music back into the underground in the USA (we Europeans never totally let it go) back to the Latin, gay and African American clubs it emerged from morphing eventually into the Club Dance music which is the mainstay of the industry still today some forty-two years after Aletti began chronicling the rise of this popular music form.
Aletti survived Disco – The author info at the beginning of the book states he went on to become a senior editor at The Village Voice and photography critic at The New Yorker. “He donated his record collection to the Experience Music Project, but still has one of the greatest collections of fashion magazines in the world.” Vince Aletti, I salute you!
“The Disco Files 1973-78” was published in 1998 by DJhistory.com