At Reason this month, Jesse Walker is tackling the important topics, reviewing “Jamie Kastner’s The Secret Disco Revolution, a documentary/mockumentary hybrid from 2012:”
The movie is happy to mock the musicians as well as the academics. In the film’s funniest sequence, the current members of the Village People brazenly assert that there was nothing gay about their material, claiming that “there was not one double entendre in any of the music” and that “In the Navy” was written as an earnest celebration of sea life. This is intercut with an interview with Henri Belolo, who wasn’t a member of the band but produced their records, co-wrote many of their songs, and played a major role in inventing their image. As the singers issue their denials, Belolo talks about “how we created a gay-positive message” and discusses the barely hidden gay-cruising subtext of “YMCA.” At that moment, the Village People become a different type of revisionists, rewriting their history with the self-confidence of a Soviet censor snipping Trotsky out of a photo. Or maybe they’re being poker-faced jokers, too. But I don’t think so: At the end of the movie, right before the credits roll, we see some post-interview footage of a Village Person pretending to throttle Kastner as he warns the filmmaker that he reads too many books.
Naturally the film mentions “the infamous Disco Demolition Night of 1979, when disco-hating rockers blew up a bunch of dance records in a baseball stadium,” dubbing it and other anti-disco rhetoric from the period an attack on disco’s “mass liberation of gays, blacks, and women from the clutches of a conservative, rock-dominated world.”
Because, racism. And homophobia. And fear of white polyester suits as well, I guess.
But in reality, 1979 was a unique quiet highpoint for rock. MTV was two years away, and dinosaurs still thundered the earth: all four Beatles were still alive and recording, Led Zeppelin was still around and released their underrated last album as an intact band, In Through the Out Door, Pink Floyd released The Wall, and Bill Wyman was the only member of the Rolling Stones over 40. While Keith Moon had recently gone off to The Great Practice Hall In The Sky, The Who were more visible than ever, with multiple albums, movies, tours, and the debut of Pete Townshend’s solo career. And while Punk Rock had been something of a bust in America, a group of New Wave artists with the same DIY ethos of punk, but with much better chops: Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, The Police, The Cars, Blondie – and even Tom Petty was shoved into the New Wave slot for his early albums (QED). On Saturday nights in South Jersey, I used to tune to the car radio to 91.3 FM WTSR, the College of New Jersey radio station, which when atmospheric conditions were right, could be heard pumping out these and more obscure artists, little knowing it would be my future alma mater.
So no wonder disco, with its constant four-on-the-floor drumming, limited dynamics, and ultra-slick production seemed like “plastic soul,” to coin a phrase, considering how vibrant rock was, before it eventually garnered a plastic sheen all its own:
However, as I said last year when I wrote a lengthy review titled, “Turn the Beat Around: A Reformed Disco Hater Looks Back at Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco,” had I known what was coming for black music – the non-melodic dead-end of rap music – I would never been as dismissive about disco.
But then arguably, rock would exhaust itself by the end of the 1980s. You could probably make a case that both genres ended on similar notes: Disco was the last gasp of the pop-oriented R&B professionalism of Motown; the hair metal of the following decade was the last gasp of the genre of hard rock invented by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Yardbirds, and Led Zeppelin. Rap would replace disco, death metal would replace its more melodic predecessor, and both would quickly hit brick walls.
Today, as Mark Steyn recently noted, “A performance of the Village People’s disco classic “YMCA” by the Bennett Elementary School First Grade class has been canceled because …oh, go on, guess.”
“Wrong, it’s racist,” Mark added. A class of Fargo first graders can’t perform the song, not because of its camp gay single entendres, but because one of the kids’ mothers “said asking her daughter and her classmates to dress up like an Indian is offensive.”
However weird the 1970s were – and believe me, they were plenty weird – at least political correctness wasn’t yet an issue. These days, in sharp contrast, as the headline on Mark’s post notes, “Young Man, There’s Any Number of Needs to Feel Down.” (And don’t let anybody hear you sing another disco-era hit, “Kung Fu Fighting,” whilst hitting the bars on the Isle of Wight, either.)
In other words, come back Deny Terrio – all is forgiven!