Disco Infernal – The Glory Days Of The Compilation LP

Looking back at the heyday of the randomly thrown together disco collection from K-Tel or Ronco.

Regardless of the music genre, there has probably been at least a handful of compilation albums acting as an instant record collection for lazy fans. Okay, not all – we’ll probably never see the K-Tel Best Of Industrial Noise or Ronco’s Black Metal Compendium. But any musical form that has ever troubled the charts and appealed to the masses will have seen hastily knocked out collections. In the days before the Now That’s What I Call Music series and its imitators – which allowed unimaginative people to catch up on whatever had been in the charts that month, with no level of discernment of collation involved – and long before people could put together their own playlists on streaming services, the compilation LP was both a good way of getting a taste of a genre and collecting all the hits it might have spawned.

Of course, some musical genres lent themselves to the format more than others, and none more so than disco. While disco has been deservedly reassessed as a musical form over the decades, there’s no denying that at the end of the 1970s, it was not taken especially seriously, even by the people who bought the records. Disco was as disposable as bubblegum, nightclub fodder for people to dance to and not seen as having much substance – and so random collections proved very popular with people who wanted all the hits to play at parties, destined to be spun a few times and then forgotten. Car boot sales and charity shops used to be awash with disco compilations until recently – when collectors and DJs started to see their worth – because they were seen as throwaway stuff. And because there were so damned many of them.

Licensing disco hits in the late Seventies and early Eighties must have been a lucrative game to be in, given the number of LPs that emerged. the fact that no one took these albums especially seriously can be seen in the often bizarre selections of songs – everything from lightweight pop to retro rock ‘n’ roll – that would turn up on these albums. Basically, if you could conceive of people dancing to it at a wedding, it was good enough to include.

If there was little imagination put into the collation of the LPs, then even less went into the covers. There were three main themes: a title that screamed almost apocalyptic excitement – Disco Explosion, Disco Fever, Disco Shock – or pushed the wild party atmosphere; an emphasis on ‘hits’ and the value for money offered by the sheer volume of tracks included, and assorted variations on ‘super’ and ‘non-stop’ (many albums tried to recreate that discotheque feel by having tracks run into each other, though this was less a megamix and more a case of ‘no gaps between tracks’ – ironically a pain in the arse for anyone running a Seventies retro night using these albums now). Cover images were often rather blurry images designed to capture the disco feel, proving how hard it is to make people dancing in a dark club look fun on a still photo, or simply a dancer looking very, very exciting. Some went for photos of the performers, though disco stars all too often lacked rock-star cool and were somewhat anonymous – the music was the thing. Others tried to match the hyperbole of the title with explosions, vivid colours and the like, a few tried to cash in on current trends (sci-fi, Superman) and others fell back on the tried and trusted sales technique of a sexy girl without many clothes on. Well, it worked for the Top of the Pops Cover version LPs for years…

Speaking of which – while there were many albums out there featuring the original hits, plenty of chancers tried their hand at cashing in on the disco boom with cover versions. Some of these were in the Top of the Pops tradition, vague soundalike tracks sold at a budget price for the less fussy. Hell, if you’ve had a few drinks at your Christmas party, it probably all sounded the same. Others offered disco-themed versions of easy listening standards, movie themes (and movie soundtrack albums) and Christmas songs. You could get Latin versions of disco hits, and vice versa. The number of LPs that were ground out to cash in on the trend seemed endless, and continued until 1982 – at least – before disco (or at least the word) finally dropped out of fashion.

Of course, the disco compilation has never gone away. No sooner does a trend finish than it becomes nostalgia, and you can get countless disco collections – from budget box sets to full price major label collections that pretend they’re doing something new. The level of curation on these remains variable, though if you want to get a pretty complete collection of all the big disco tunes, alongside numerous also-rans, fellow travellers and novelty songs, then you can do so pretty cheaply on CD. But few current collections even come close to the random desperation and tackiness of the Seventies LPs, and we encourage you to snap them up whenever you can.

DAVID FLINT

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