"Disco is the ultimate cyborg music, the ultimate coupling of organism and machine. In this way disco is a parallel to academic Donna Haraway's championing of the cyborg as a way to undermine the 'biological-determinist ideology' that stands in violent opposition to both the women's and gay rights movements." - Peter Shapriro, Turn the Beat Around, Faber, 2005
"More, more, more/ How do you like it/ How do you like it ..." - Andrea True Connection, 1976
We have now arrived in the machine age. The future starts here.
The history of the synthesizer in pop music has a longer pedigree than is sometimes realised. John Lennon played a Moog on I Want You (She's So Heavy) on the Beatles' 1969 album Abbey Road. Mickey Dolenz was playing a Moog two years earlier, although it was really Wendy Carlos's electronic take on the classics, Switched On Bach in 1968 that introduced it to a wider audience.
That was soon to change and by the seventies synths were soon associated with the musical giantism of prog rock (Emerson Lake and Palmer spring to mind), or the Tomorrow's World kitsch of Hot Butter's Popcorn. Thankfully, the Germans were coming. (The French, too, to be honest, although personally I never warmed to the gloopy futurism of Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene.)
In 1977 Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express was the culmination of Krautrock - the dismissive label for the music of Faust, Can, Neu, Tangerine Dream, as well as Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider's revolutionary outfit. While the tracks namechecks Iggy Pop and David Bowie - who were by now based in Berlin reinventing art rock - it was a blueprint for the future of music, one picked up by Afrika Bambaataa in 1982 when he sampled the track for his 1982 hip-hop hit Planet Rock. It was also a primary influence on the birth of techno in Detroit a little later (And I don't need to spell out the influence on the emerging synthpop bands in the late seventies here in the UK, do I?)
But there was another electronic track released in the summer of 1977 from a rather less "credible" source, that was to prove almost equally influential. Machine music with an icy sheen and blood-heat throb that manages to talk about sex and desire and the technological sublime. Plus, it makes you want to dance.
Giorgio Moroder, born in Italy in 1940, sang pop covers in coffee shops and ballrooms before decamping to first Berlin and then Munich in the mid-sixties where he turned his hand to bubblegum pop for the German market. Then he started listening to Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream and decided he could try to be more ambitious too. His experimental 1975 album Einzelganger didn't sell, though. So he thought he'd sex things up.
Donna Summer was an expat American singer brought up singing in church and making a living in Europe from musical theatre (performing in Hair for a time). She was working as a backing singer in Moroder and his partner Peter Bellotte's studio when the producer decided that she could front his attempt at matching the Philly sound. Their first try was Love to Love You Baby, which, in building to a simulated orgasm, is the aural equivalent of seventies porn. Moroder had to turn off all the lights in the studio to persuade Summer to sing the track and then had to cajole her into allowing it to be released. It was a hit. Sex sells. But it was their next collaboration that was the prize.
For I Feel Love Summer was wrapped up in machinery. The sound of the record is thrillingly dislocated electronica that still has a hint of the other about it (and imagine, Bob Stanley points out in his new history of pop Yeah Yeah Yeah, how much more unusual it must have sounded in 1977 when it entered the charts sandwiched between the wimp-pop of Alessi's Oh Lori and a Muppet singing Halfway Down the Stairs).
The track starts with a rising synth wash and then that sinuous Moog bass line kicks in and carries on relentlessly, with another phased synth echoing it; the two weaving in and out, in and out, in and out, as synthetic sonics swell and fade, whoosh and retreat, and Summer sings - in ecstasy? in icy disassociation? - of surrendering. Surrendering to what, though? To love, to sex, to the machines, to the technological numinous? Interpret as you will.
"Set loose in this Bacofoil hall of mirrors, Summers sings about the pleasures of the flesh as if she was disembodied, or at least lying back and thinking of Munich, "Peter Shapiro has written. "The epitome of the cocaine chill and metal gloss (your teeth hurt after listening to it) of the seventies, 'I Feel Love' could only have better encapsulated the decade's obsession with the detachment of anonymous sex if the record was sheathed in latex."
And the result of that anonymous sex? The birth of Eurodisco.
Sex and sexuality is, I think, always the best place to start any defence of disco. The fact is rock in the seventies - now too for that matter - is phallocentric. It's hetero male in its outlook. Disco - in both the music and the dancehalls that took the name - offered an outlet for an expression for both homosexuality and female sexuality (when Anita Ward sang You Can Ring My Bell I don't think she was talking campanology). As Madonna would sing some years later. "Only on the dancefloor can I feel this free."
As disco historians like Shapiro and Alice Echols have pointed out, disco quickly became associated with the idea of the synthetic, the artificial, the "unnatural" even. And it wasn't just white rockers who saw it as such. It was attacked by black musicians too. "Chuck D of Public Enemy called disco 'the most artificial s*** I ever heard,' music that was 'sophisticated, anti-black, anti-feel,' ..." Echols recalls in her book Hot Stuff.
That was after the fact. But musicians like George Clinton were saying as much at the height of disco. Of course that was part of the appeal to musicians and consumers who were, because of their sexuality in many cases, labelled "unnatural" anyway. As Shapiro argues, "disco was sceptical of the 'certainties' of the material world."
You can hear that in I Feel Love. It's a song that embraces the artificiality of the new sound, eroticises it too.
The disco throb would eventually enlarge enough to appeal to everyone. In some senses that was the death knell of disco - or the seventies version of it anyway. When Ethel Merman and Rod Stewart were knocking out disco tracks in a half-hearted manner, the writing was on the wall. It usually read disco sucks - and can't you see the implicit brutish sexism in that remark given disco's appeal to the gay community? Fear of a gay planet, you might say.
The conventional history suggests that disco died in the wake of the infamous "disco sucks" riot in Chicago during a game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. Geed up by a local DJ, records were blown up and even thrown at players. Some 7,000 fans rushed the field. The subsequent rioting lasted around half an hour and led to 39 arrests.
Disco was a dirty word by the eighties, the punchline of bad comics and advertising execs. No one called themselves disco any more.
Except it didn't really go away. Disco just renamed itself dance music, forged links with British indie bands and resurfaced as hi-energy, house and techno. The beat went on.
Disco's problem for much of the last four decades is that it has been defined by its excesses, by the cheap cash-ins and the rote production tricks. Too often it lapsed into shabby, kneejerk Jive Bunnyisms. But to dismiss it for that is a bit like rejecting rock music because of the haircuts of poodle rock bands (although, admittedly, I do have some sympathy with that idea).
What disco represented was a challenge for many. Both culturally and sonically. But who would want to live in a world robbed of, say, the sleek, funkified ambition of Chic, or even better, Moroder and Summer's stark sci-fi vision?
Electric dreams, so hard to beat ...
Knowing Me, Knowing You, Abba
Sound and Vision, David Bowie
Heroes, David Bowie
Lust for Life, Iggy Pop
The Passenger, Iggy Pop
Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk
God Save the Queen, Sex Pistols
Alison, Elvis Costello?©
Watching the Detectives, Elvis Costello
The Best of My Love, The Emotions
Wait in Vain, Bob Marley
Take a Chance on Me, Abba
Spanish Stroll, Mink De Ville
Uptown Top Ranking, Althea & Donna
Native New Yorker, Odyssey
The NME Single of the Year 1977: Pretty Vacant, Sex Pistols
And the best-selling single of 1977: Mull of Kintyre, Wings