The book arrived with a note from the friend who sent it, “Who would have thought Disco was the defining cultural expression and experience in 70’s America? Where was I ? Not under the glitterball, apparently." Neither was I.
But I have to admit that Alice Echols makes a very convincing case in her new book, HOT STUFF Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (W.W. Norton 2010).
A former disco dee jay at the Rubyiat in Ann Arbor and now a professor of America studies and history at Rutgers, her prose is often often encumbered with academic wordiness but her research is exhaustive (61 pages of footnotes, 30 pages of indexes and a playlist). She also has a real affection for all kinds of music and a knack for seeing the connections between artists and their influences.
She starts her saga with the Supremes (“I Hear A Symphony”), James Brown and Isaac Hayes and traces it through the gay disco scene and into female superstars like Labelle, Chaka Kahn and Donna Summer. While there is more detail on New York clubs than I ever wanted to know(“…the Sanctuary, a club whose scandalousness earned it an appearance in the psychological thriller, Klute…”) and the psycho-sexual theorizing can get tedious at times, there are some terriffic stories.
One is how the Village People were conceived by Jaques Morali and sold to Casablanca Records as a concept before he managed to put together a group. Morali was “a gay Frenchmen and Eurodisco producer…first introduced to disco in the early seventies through a hairdresser who worked for Cher and Elizabeth Taylor.” They became second only to Kiss in Casablanca’s music empire. Who knew a gay macho burlesque group would create a song that we sing out loud in unison at every major sporting event, weddings and sock hops?
The second great story is the making of Saturday Night Fever. Based on a New York magazine story (that the author admitted later he made up) bought by music mogul Robert Stigwood it was shot on a shoe string budget at the Odyssey in Brooklyn (the $15,000 lighted dance floor added for the movie was the biggest expense outside actors’ salaries). Fever had songs from The Bee Gees that the cast did not hear until three weeks into filming. Again the rest is pretty amazing history: Fever grossed $300 million worldwide, the soundtrack dominated the charts for six months and sold 30 million copies, the largest selling album of all time until "Thriller."
Ms. Echols opens her first chapter with this line: “Disco snuck up on America like a covert operation.” Her book did that to me, overcoming my scepticism about a pop phenomenon with the real story of the music behind it. She concludes in part with this:
“Pop music is full of unlikely turnabouts, but surely disco’s history—its shift from hot to safe music—is among the strangest.”
RIP: Don Kirshner