Fall and memories of loss and regret crowd in with lowering skies, shortened days and dropping temperatures, music from a past life helps to gain some kind of perspective on what has been, and may still be. Classic disco tracks have the power to be both nostalgic and strangely contemporary. Spinning vinyl versions of records bought decades ago is pure nostalgia, evoking in the feel and smell of the record instant memories of where each click, jump or stick will be, and how they were caused. Clicking on an old favourite in iTunes or Spotify has a different effect, though. Being clear, clean and compressed to a clinical EQ which works to both make it sound like it's 2011, and remind us of the thirty five years since the song first made our body groove.
Candi Staton's Young Hearts Run Free was—is—one of my favourite disco tunes. Whenever it was spun in the disco where I spent every other night during the long, hot summer of 1976, the hairs on the back of my neck would raise and my feet would move to the ever-crowded dancefloor, preferably with the then love of my life alongside me. Candi's regret-filled voice sang a warning that was undoubtedly heartfelt, but almost impossible to heed because you couldn't believe that she meant it. She was so hung up with her man that no matter how bad things were—and by all accounts things between Candi and her second husband, the blind singer Clarence Carter, were pretty bad—there was something compelling about the experience that gave her voice a timbre impossible to impersonate; the sound of pure heartbreak.
While the song was not 'written' by Candi, the experience which informs it is all hers. Songwriter and producer David B Crawford was a close friend to the singer and she'd told him all the terrible detail of her abusive relationship. In return he'd written Young Hearts for her, and it proved to be the biggest hit that either of them would enjoy.
The message of 'save yourself even if it is too late for me' added to a wave of disco songs sung (and sometimes written) by female artists who, like Candi (born 1940), had lived a life before becoming stars. Shirley Brown's Woman To Woman is structured as a phone call between a wronged wife and a mistress, and is remarkably free of threat, warning or revenge. Shirley simply wants to let her rival know, 'woman to woman' that she loves him enough to do what it takes in order to keep him. The lack of rancour in the lyric and way it's sung keeps the song from being a masochistic submission to chauvinist repression. Not that standing by your man was a dominant trend for post-feminist disco women. Two years after Young Hearts had made her an international star, Candi had another hit which referenced that song; Victim ('of the very songs I sing'). In the 1978 number, also written by David B Crawford, she laments falling for another man who leaves her for another woman, and noting that 'if my advice is good for others/it's good to be good for me', but ending with the sentiment that 'I'm lucky if I can break these chains'. However, the self-accusatory chanting of 'victim' works as well as a reproach against depending on any man as the chorus of Young Hearts Run Free.
Also in 1978, Chaka Khan became a solo star singing Ashford and Simpson's I'm Every Woman, which while it depends on a traditional male-female sexual dependency, stridently makes the point that one woman is every woman—or should be—and all that any one man could want or need.
In October 1978 the great disco anthem for wronged women was released; I Will Survive was Gloria Gaynor's second huge international hit (after Never Can Say Goodbye in 1974), and became the one for which she is still remembered. Written by Freddie Perren who'd already created hit disco numbers for the Jackson 5, Tavares and the Sylvers, and Dino Fakaris, with whom he'd create hits for Peaches And Herb, I Will Survive takes the form of a first-person address by a women to the man who's wronged her by dumping her and turning up unannounced at her place. The chorus' assertion of self-determination and independence has unsurprisingly carried through the decades and remains as popular as it ever was.
It's surprising that the emphasis on 'love' between a woman and a man persisted in disco lyrics until well into the 1980s, since the scene was driven by lust and instant gratification. Even the great Weather Girls' smash hit It's Raining Men (1982, though written in 1979 by Pauls Jabara and Shaffer) speaks of angels arranging things so that every single girl can find her 'perfect man'. Not that the song was interpreted in a literal sense by the people who danced to the extended mixes in discos around the world.
In truth, as the new decade dawned a less romantic and more realistic lyric was being used in hardcore disco numbers. Loose Joints' fabulous Is It All Over My Face (1980, Arthur Russell and Steve D'Acquisto) is a stripped down funk workout—in it's Larry Levan remix—with minimalist lyrics sung by a foreign-sounding anonymous female (although the first version used three male voices), the main refrain of which 'Is it all over my face' is lyrically linked to 'how I love dancing'. But everyone 'knows' that the 'it' refers to something more substantial than a look, something linked to 'love' as biological matter. It's a deconstructed hymn to the sexual act, non-gender specific and physically compelling.
Is It All Over My Face lacks the emotional complexity of Young Hearts Run Free, even if contains within it the same message and perfectly captures the mood of the coming decade of materialistic desire and consumer greed.