There’s a lot to take in whilst reading American journalist Shapiro’s first book subtitled “The Secret History Of Disco”. I’ve read it before back when it was first published and I’m familiar with the author’s other works “The Rough Guide To Soul and R&B” (2006) and “Soul: 100 Essential CDs” (2000) the latter being a work I consult often and a probable inspiration for my own 100 Essential CD section of the blog.
I saw this book stood looking fairly unloved on the shelves of one of the Isle Of Wight’s larger libraries. It hadn’t been stamped out for three years and yet had survived every unpopular book cull so someone must have been looking out for it. I realised I couldn’t remember anything about it, which for a book which deals in subjects I’m interested in I found surprising. In fact, this and the 1999 publication “Saturday Night Forever: The Story Of Disco” by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen are very much the standard texts for this whole period of music history. (The excellent “Disco Files” by Vince Aletti provides very much a contemporary record rather than an analysis of the genre). Jones is British and Kantonen Finnish so American Shapiro’s view has a different slant.
It is highly appropriate that this book focuses on New York as it is from the clubs of the Big Apple where the disco scene exploded and with which it is most associated through Studio 54 and “Saturday Night Fever”. It was from this bankrupt city, dangerous and corrupt, that people began to gather in sizeable numbers to seek some kind of communal uplift. Shapiro states it was from the rotten apple of New York City that disco music emerged. I’ve trodden on similar ground recently with Edmund White’s “City Boy” and it may have been that which led me back to this book. White was living in New York in this period and visited some of the clubs, although his interests lay more in cruising than the sounds from the speakers. Disco was music for the dispossessed. Black, gay and Latin sounds fused together to make some of the most uplifting music of all time and Shapiro is thorough in picking out its key moments.
He’s strong on the pre-history taking his story back to late 1930’s Hamburg, Germany where the Swing Kids were defying Nazi discipline to meet and dance to DJ chosen sounds wearing fashion and seeking out music that would enrage the authorities. It was Motown who provided the blueprint sound of disco in 72/73 with the Temptations’ “Law Of The Land” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks making Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson the first disco producers. The 4/4 steady beat and hi-hat rhythms came later in 1973 courtesy of a man who would play on so many disco classics, drummer Earl Young, who first kickstarted this new rhythm pattern on Harold Melvin & Bluenotes’ “The Love I Lost”.
Where I find Shapiro disconcerting is that it is not always clear where his enthusiasms lie. Jones and Kantonen seem to be much more fans and some of the music they profess to like best can be that which Shapiro pours most vitriol on. He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters. He is more likely to bring out negative aspects in highlighting the steps in the music’s demise than to celebrate its high spots and that to me seems unfortunate.
This may have something to do with the difference in the American and Jones’ and Kantonen’s European perspective. In the US disco famously died. Its last hours was at a Chicago baseball stadium where latent racism and homophobia exploded in a staged destruction of hundreds of disco records which ended up in a near riot. From then on disco music disappeared from radio airwaves and US pop charts. Shapiro puts this down to the continued commercialism of the scene with artists from other music worlds and earlier eras jumping on the disco bandwagon. (I have a soft spot for the Ethel Merman Disco Album and whereas Shapiro would gasp in horror at Andy Williams’ almost breathtaking reworking of his “Love Story (Where Do I Begin)” it is a huge favourite of Jones and Kantonen). America also got fed up with what disco was doing to its country with conservatism and family values back on the ascendent. Shapiro, not one to beat around the bush states;
“With its mincing campness, airbrushed superficiality, limp rhythms, flaccid guitars, fey strings and over-produced sterility, disco seemed emblematic of America’s dwindling power; the high falsettos of disco stars like the Bee Gees and Sylvester sounding the death knell for the virility of the American male.”
And with macho rock radio losing audiences there had to be a fight back. The big difference here is that in Europe we were quite happy with virility’s death knell and Disco never went away and from this we’ve largely repackaged back to the US Electronic Dance Music which is one of the most prevelant musical styles today. Shapiro does acknowledge this.
Despite the author’s thoroughness of research, music lists and detailed bibliography I prefer the more celebratory tone of “Saturday Night Forever” as it feels closer to what this music, which I first heard as an impressionable teenager, means to me.
Turn The Beat Around was published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2005.