Although the disco genre will probably always attract a certain amount of derision from music snobs, even a cursory glance at the charts from its 77-80 heyday will turn up numerous classic pop songs of the very kind that made New York’s Studio 54 a raging cocaine-fuelled inferno every night of the week. Sanctimonious critics may still guffaw over Travolta’s gleaming white slacks and pudgy, poverty-row chanteuse Tina Charles warbling about her boogie-obsessed boyfriend on Seaside Special, but disco was popular because, at its best, the music was incredibly strong, memorable, and emotionally engaging. That said, you could easily be forgiven for assuming that it has never been a genre for the serious music connoisseur or obsessive record collector. While the last decade has seen evermore obscure rock and soul albums repackaged as deluxe, remastered, 10-disc special editions, those in search of long players by cult disco artists or 12” versions of niche favourites presumably had to scour charity shops for scratched vinyl or pay extortionate sums to savvy E-bay sellers.
In 2009, Harmless launched Disco Discharge; a series of double CD compilations aimed at the more adventurous fan; those with a nostalgic yen for the era as well as well as those with a scholarly interest in the history of dance music. The kind of fan who would greedily devour the excellent liner notes – provided by Alan Jones who is perhaps better known as a film critic and the organiser of Frightfest – that come with each volume. To date, the series runs to 16 releases, each with a loose theme; from editions devoted to renowned floor-fillers, both mainstream and cult, to more quirky kitsch material (DD: Disco Exotica) and the intense Hi-NRG subgenre (DD: Pink Pounders). Generally though, it’d be sensible to expect a wide spread of everything on each set; from lovable kitsch to throbbingly sexy, timeless dance epics. And, as every song is a vintage 12” mix or full album version, ‘epic’ is most certainly the right word.
The DD focus is largely on records popular with disco-era clubbers rather than on chart hits, but amongst the obscure treasures, you’ll still find familiar standards in their longer, often superior versions. In their 12” incarnations, songs such as Taste Of Honey’s Boogie Oogie Oogie and Sheila B Devotion’s Spacer are allowed to gather the essential momentum to generate that hypnotic sense of hedonistic abandon. You certainly get the sense that this is way these songs were meant to be experienced, rather than via some cruelly emasculated edit on a radio playlist. Disco Discharge also surprises with less familiar songs by beloved household names. Sister Sledge’s deeply sensuous You Fooled Around, for example, is equally as potent as their previous international hits but, perhaps due to disco’s rapid decline in popularity by 1980, it failed to make any sizeable impression on the charts. Meanwhile, Gloria Gaynor’s storming Love Is Just A Heartbeat Away proves to be an exuberant, celebratory flipside to the relationship meltdown described on I Will Survive.
Discovering new favourite songs is certainly one of great thrills of exploring sets like this, and it’s hard to imagine even the jaded disco-freak not finding some previously unknown gem to love and cherish. The pounding string-driven monster Two Hot for Love by THP Orchestra is bound to ensnare a few new admirers with its soaring harmony vocals and orgasmic moans. Former porn star Dennis Parker’s Like An Eagle is a towering melodrama, which nearly – though not quite – transcends its campy foundations, to become a rich evocation of late night cruising on the city streets. Then there’s the irresistible Cisselin’ Hot by none other than Chuck Cissel. Distinguished by some highly arousing female backing vocals, this smooth operator is destined to get you “ho-tahhh” where it really matters. Just as seductive, and wonderfully lewd, is Marlena Shaw’s Love Dancing; a saucy ode to coital boogie with its breathy, soul-infused vocals and gigantic feel-good chorus. On a more subtle note, there’s the legendary Bette Midler with her intoxicating, sweeping masterpiece Hurricane. The Divine Miss M’s famed vocal abilities lend the song an understated, spine-tingling tenderness before it spectacularly ascends to disco heaven during the chorus.
At the risk of pandering to those who like to dismiss all pre-1990 pop music as ‘cheesy’, the Disco Discharge series intersperses the bonafide gems with charmingly dated kitsch; ranging from ill-advised dance retreads of hoary old rock standards and trad jazz / disco mutations (Area Code 212’s Duke’s Train) to the, well, frankly bizarre. Firmly in the latter camp is Jeanette’s Don’t Say Goodnight To A Lady Of Spain, a song as excruciatingly fey and passionless as it is strangely beguiling. Meanwhile, on a more sinister level, the intro to Dirty Talk features insistent, forced female laughter that proves far more disturbing than sexy, whatever the sleazy title promises. The Star Wars-inspired obsession with all things intergalactic invaded all areas of pop culture in the late 1970s, and disco was no exception. As a prime example, Disco Discharge gives us the cute, endearingly naïve, but still mightily funky Space Bass by Slick with its visions of life “in the year 3000”. Less entertaining, however, are the 17 minute (!) rendition of House Of The Rising Sun by Hot RS and the plodding monotony of Disco Circus’ take on proto-metal classic In A Gadda Da Vida. An experimental step too far, you might say.
In late 2012, clearly buoyed by the success of Disco Discharge, Harmless launched a CD series of full-length albums by individual disco artistes under the Disco Recharge moniker (certainly a far better brand name than the one assigned to the compilation series, with its unpleasant biological connotations). Already available are albums by euro-disco outfit Voyage, and Ultimate who were responsible for 1979’s extremely popular Love Is The Ultimate medley. Not to forget, the discofied version of The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack by a certain Boris Midney (a disco scene pseudonym if ever I heard one). And in March 2013, the label are unleashing THP Orchestra’s Two Hot For Love, the title track of which is an undoubted highlight of Disco Discharge: Disco Fever USA.
So, an exciting time ahead for aficionados of a hitherto neglected genre, and surely, for any music enthusiast, a heartening sign that there’s still a vibrant market for relatively obscure specialist material on CD. Sadly though, we still wait in vain for a CD release of Tina Charles’ seminal 1976 debut album!