(Pictured: Gloria Gaynor with Clifton Davis, writer of “Never Can Say Goodbye.”)
Here’s another ancient rerun, from August 12, 2005, slightly condensed.
Making a list of disco songs that do not suck is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It took finishing Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco to get me off the dime. Shapiro believes that the best disco never made it to the radio, and what made it to the radio was often drained of disco’s passion and/or artistry. Nevertheless, I’m picking from what I heard on the radio, and here we go (in chronological order).
“The Love I Lost”/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. I never really thought of this as a disco record—mostly because what Teddy Pendergrass is doing with the vocal is more gospel testifyin’ than disco crooning. In Shapiro’s opinion, “The Love I Lost” is one of the most important early examples of the form. And he’s right—it’s got the gliding orchestra, the chugging bass line, and the hard-working high-hat cymbal. And its full-length version runs over six minutes, gloriously extending the groove. [The Tom Moulton mix takes it to nearly 13 minutes, and to heaven. —Ed.] (Hot 100 peak: #7, December 8, 1973)
“Love’s Theme”/Love Unlimited Orchestra. According to Shapiro, this was the first song to reach #1 on the pop charts thanks in part to its exposure in discos. On the one hand, it’s elegant and sophisticated, but on the other, he says, it’s as drenched in funk as Ron Jeremy‘s basement. (#1, February 9, 1974)
“Rock Your Baby”/George McCrae. If you wanted to pick a spot where disco began to make inroads into the Top 40 and neither of the two previous records suited you, this would work. “Rock Your Baby” sounds cheap and cheesy, but similar limitations didn’t stop a lot of disco records from becoming enormous hits. (#1, July 13, 1974)
“Never Can Say Goodbye”/Gloria Gaynor. One of the first major pop hits that sounded like disco as we remember it now—a big flashy orchestra chugging at a hundred miles an hour with a diva soaring above it. And another cymbal player working his ass off. (#9, January 25, 1975)
“Doctor’s Orders”/Carol Douglas. My favorite disco record. The medical metaphor is cute without being too forced, and Douglas is a charming singer. The rhythm guitarist, whoever he is, deserves some kind of award for persistence. (#11, February 8, 1975)
“Disco Queen”/Hot Chocolate. No happy-happy-everybody-dance vibe here. It’s more like, “You will dance, or else.” Hot Chocolate’s signature noise, that ominous, low guitar buzz, runs all through it; the horns could demolish entire buildings; and the drummer damn well means business, too. (#28, July 19, 1975)
“Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention. This record gets its unique sound from the soloing string section, but the part was originally intended to be played by horns. According to Shapiro, there was a shortage of competent horn players in Germany at the time “Fly Robin Fly” was recorded. Thus, the producers used string players from the Munich Philharmonic instead. (#1, November 29, 1975)
“Disco Lady”/Johnnie Taylor. Controversial in its time for “shake it up, shake it down, move it in, move it around.” (It’s kind of cute what passed for controversial back in the Paleozoic Era.) But if you stripped off the lyrics entirely, you’d be left with one of the most gorgeous instrumental tracks of any era, disco or otherwise. Plus it’s got one of the all-time great intros for DJs to talk over. (#1, April 3, 1976)
“Whispering-Cherchez La Femme”/Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Shapiro devotes a great deal of space to the work of August Darnell, the man behind Dr. Buzzard and later, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, as an example of the artistic possibilities of disco. (#27, January 29, 1977)
“Stayin’ Alive”/Bee Gees. Shapiro disposes of the Bee Gees with a handful of dismissive comments, which is quite an omission for a history of disco. Although Saturday Night Fever was the most potent expression of disco in the marketplace, let’s not equate “commercial” with “crap” in this case. “Stayin’ Alive” is one of the most exciting records of the 1970s, and possibly of all time. There’s no question about it. (#1, February 4, 1978)
After this post first appeared, several amongst the readership wrote in to ask where KC and the Sunshine Band were, and I was forced to write an entire mea culpa. Either “Get Down Tonight” or “Keep It Comin’ Love” should have been on this list. Of the many reasons to dig KC I wrote, “[E]ven white men who claim they can’t dance can dance to KC.”