Tuesday, 6 March 2012
Seven Days Is Too Long
Last weekend the BBC in the UK broadcast a documentary about Disco, and it was every bit as predictable, safe, cursory and piecemeal as any hour-long documentary about a significant subject can be. Exactly who the programme makers thought their audience were is unclear to me. I accept that I wasn't on their list of desirable consumers (and if I was I'd be mortified), but plenty of people I know who would be interested in watching a good, in-depth exploration of the Disco phenomenon on TV can only have been left shrugging their shoulders with a "Meh"after watching this.
My mid-teenage daughters were not particularly interested in the documentary, either. The youngest enjoyed matching pages from my book with the 2-minute segments in the programme which made good use of similar material, but she was soon lost in the pages of the book and ignored the talking heads. Why Alexis Petridis? Too young to have been there at the time, he's not to know that Boney M were never played at any disco where you had to be over 18 to gain admittance. His, like the programme makers, view of disco is based purely on what can be found out about it from the archives of mainstream media, none of which were interested in the real throbbing heart of disco at the time. The defining and essential disco discourse exists outside of the mainstream, and although people now accept that many discos were gathering places for oppressed minorities, still they focus on pop charts as background for what was a cult movement. That is like reading tabloid newspapers for in-depth news analysis.
White, male music journalists working at mainstream publications ignored Disco in the 1970s and well into the 1980s. But then they generally ignored all black music except some Jazz played by white people who were Prog Rockers in disguise. Soul, R&B and Reggae—when Johnny Rotten said it was OK—might have gained some review coverage, but only Bob Marley ever got the front page of music magazines until the 1980s. As late as 1991 Ice T was denied the cover of a mainstream UK monthly music magazine because, as the publisher put it, 'black artists on the cover caused a drop in sales'.
When the white, hetero mainstream music press started bigging up 'gangsta rap' (silly boys with mother complexes and impotency problems I always thought; both rappers and the boys who wrote about it) in the 1990s, it was the first time that an overtly black urban music found any kind of space in that kind of media. During the heyday of disco the only 'club scene' to be written about, if only cursorily, by mainstream music press (including the NME; a wholly owned part of an enormous magazine corporation called IPC) was Northern Soul. Bizarrely it was featured in the disco documentary which found no time to go into HI-NRG.
The Northern Soul scene grew up in a few tatty dance halls in the increasingly depressed and depressing Northern industrial towns of England, in the 1970s. Every Saturday night, predominantly white males who were ex-Mods, skinheads and their younger brothers, insisted on showing off fancy footwork, physical prowess and shoes like dead pigs noses while throwing identical moves to any obscure Motown, Argo, Stateside, Mojo and Stax single that they could get hold of. It was a small scene and essentially conservative, which is why it persists to this day. Northern Soul nights still look, smell and sound exactly as they did in the 1970s, and that's the way they have to stay: Northern Soul is strictly, staunchly nostalgic—for people too young these days for the nostalgia to be anything but imagined and desired. Today's dancers were not at Wigan Casino in 1974 but the places and the sounds have stayed the same, so for one night they can pretend to to be.
Which is kinda the way it always was. Northern Soul dancers of the '70s liked to imagine that they were at some Southern State dancehall, with chicken grease solidifying on paper baskets in 1966, before Otis took his last plane ride. The music played at a Northern Soul clubs back then, as now, had to be obscure (i.e. never a hit on the charts), have the standard Motown/Stax/Funky Drummer snare beat and be available only on 7" vinyl. Oh, and it was always the b-side that got played. There was no way that Northern Soul dancers could possibly show off for as long as a 12" single would take to spin out.
The thing is, that scene was avidly, determinedly and vehemently anti-disco. No records pressed later than 1971 could be danced to by Northern Soulers (until the end of the '70s, anyway), and certainly nothing with that smooth, sexy Philly Sound. The Northern Soul dance floor was not for meeting, greeting, picking up and loving, like discos were. It was a purely gladiatorial arena. Northern Soul dancers competed in unspoken contest with one another, pirouetting, dropping, knee-bending, high-kicking and doing the splits harder, faster and for longer than any other guy on the floor was the main aim of a 'proper' Northern Soul dancer. There were no 'couples' dancing at Northern Soul clubs.
Northern Soul dancers were proud to not be disco dancers, to not be reminded of the date, time and place in which they had to exist (Doncaster could be Chicago if you squinted hard enough in the rain…). When fashions changed and people everywhere stopped wearing high-waisted, 40" flares and cap-sleeve t-shirts, Northern Soulers had to start buying them at charity stores.They would only visit a straight disco club if there was a Sixties Soul Night or similar, specially themed evening on and no records of the day were being played. Not that this point was made in the documentary, of course. But hey, the film makers are young, and they got an interview with a 'legendary' DJ who liked the Northern Soul scene. Plus, there's been a recent resurgence in popularity for the Northern Soul sound in England, with clubs across the land filling up with people desperate to 'keep the faith'. They even replicate old designs on posters in order to capture that long-lost 1960s soul feeling.
The story of Disco according to the BBC, starts with Stonewall and ends with the Disco Sucks demolition night. According to the BBC it is a Gay Pride off-shoot, purely American and became very silly when Ethel Merman made a disco album. Also, Bony M are as important to the movement as Donna Summer and The Bee Gees. At least Tom Moulton made a very brief appearance, although he didn't get to tell us how he invented the 12" single, which is a shame.
Thankfully there are plenty of sites which promote the real story of disco for anyone interested enough to want to know. Like life though, Disco is complicated, and not easily packaged into bite-size chunks. It's best enjoyed loudly and with plenty of room to dance.