Well, author Peter Shapiro would like to beg to differ with critics of the music and the dances. Disco may be everybody's favorite whipping boy, but in his new book, Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, recently published by Faber and Faber, Shapiro, a music critic who's written for Spin and Vibe, argues that there was a lot more to disco – whether it was the music, the clubs or the people – than the terrible clichés that have become its legacy.
He doesn't buy it all, of course. He's a discerning enough social critic to understand that certain strands of disco – and he insists that there were many, and some still exist underground – were pure musical saccharin, so sticky and sunshiny bright that they could pull out a few loose fillings in a single bound.
But there were other elements of the experience, especially in the early days of the movement, when spirited and inventive D.J.s were creating tracks and musical patterns – first learning to scratch and blend songs – that would go on to influence what we now know as hip-hop and rap, and even more mainstream types of music.
But Turn the Beat Around – named after the Vicki Sue Robinson one-hit wonder that Gloria Estefan remade in the '90s – is more than just a chronicle of music, dance, club madness and excess. Shapiro is a diligent historian, and places the story of the rise and fall of disco in its proper context.
In fact, one of his main points is that disco as a social and musical phenomenon could not have arisen except in the hysterical, economically precarious terrain that was New York in the 1970s. Not for nothing is his first chapter titled "The Rotten Apple"; it's also, appropriately, prefaced by a quote from David Berkowitz, aka the "Son of Sam," who terrorized the city with his violent assaults against mostly amorous couples snuggling in cars.
"To many," writes Shapiro, "disco is all about those three little words: 'Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci.' Others undoubtedly have images of long-legged Scandinavian ice queens in metallic makeup and dresses 'cut down to there' dancing in their heads. Or maybe it's the tête-à-tête between Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger in the VIP room of Studio 54, each trying to outdo the other with their looks of supercilious boredom. Disco is all shiny, glittery surfaces; high heels and luscious lipstick; jam-packed jeans and cut pecs; lush, soaring, swooping strings and Latin razzmatazz; cocaine rush and quaalude wobble. It was the humble peon suddenly beamed up to the cosmic firmament by virtue of his threads and dance moves. Disco was the height of glamour and decadence and indulgence. But while disco may have sparkled with diamond brilliance, it stank of something worse. Despite its veneer of elegance and sophistication, disco was born, maggot-like, from the rotten remains of the Big Apple."
All That Was Wrong With America
According to Shapiro, in the 1970s, the words "New York City" became emblematic for all that was wrong with America during the debacle in Vietnam and the pre-Watergate days. If you look at some of the prominent movies – Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Panic in Needle Park, Dog Day Afternoon and Death Wish – they all portrayed the city as being on the brink of some terrible disaster – "a cesspool of moral and spiritual degradation; a playground for drug dealers, pimps and corrupt cops; the government an ineffectual, effete elite running its fiefdom from cocktail parties in high-rise apartments seemingly miles above the sullied streets; the only recourse for the ordinary citizen to grab a gun and start shooting back."
Just a few years earlier, in 1967, the play and movie Barefoot in the Park depicted the city as the perfect place for young love to scamper about; in fact, the title referred to the young wife's love of running barefoot in Washington Square Park. If the movie had been made in 1971, suggests Shapiro, "the newlyweds would've been played by Ernest Borgnine and Karen Black, and walking barefoot in any of the city's parks would have got them one-way tickets to Mount Sinai for a tetanus shot." So how did things change so quickly and so drastically?
What happened in New York in the '70s was a product of what had gone drastically wrong in the previous decade when the progressive agenda fell off its course. The "liberal experiment," as the author calls it, was fueled by the "youthful enthusiasm and swaggering confidence" of a generation of people who had known nothing in their lives but excessive prosperity – the greatest prosperity ever known till then in world history. Yet once the economy went off track – the easy and abundant funds that had made the Great Society a possibility in the first place – the national dream turned to disillusionment, the promises were retracted, and the "sweeping vision" was hit by myopia.
Writes Shapiro: "The civil rights marches devolved into 'race riots,' 'flower power' wilted and turned into 'the year of the barricades,' and 'groovy,' 'peace' and 'love' were traded for 'Up against the wall, mother—.' " In the face of such despair, both the political right and left, says Shapiro, became hardened in their positions and militant in their actions. "Gone were the beloved communities of the civil rights marchers, protest singers, antiwar activists and Woodstock nation, and their spirit of inclusion, participation and democracy in action." Particularly in Manhattan a blue funk seemed to envelope the city.
It was from this extremely fertile – and equally fetid – ground that disco would arise with its cheery, all-inclusive, positive dance spirit – all the glitz, glitter and glamour – that was disco in its early phases.
Shapiro makes many other fascinating points in his wide-ranging study. He insists that an echo of disco – in fact, it's actual roots – cropped up in, of all places, Hitler's Germany. It was there that an alternative youth movement began in Hamburg in reaction to the formation of the Hitler Youth. The Swing Jugend (or Swing Kids), "a number of loosely organized youth groups … that, in their own small ways, opposed the relentless and draconian homogenization that Hitler enforced," quickly spread throughout the country. The kids involved were mostly middle- and upper-class (and for the most part apolitical, according to Shapiro) who wore their hair long strictly against Nazi orders, dressed flamboyantly and particularly loved the music the Nazis had called degenerate: the hot American jazz that dominated the air waves and was generally the creation of African-Americans and Jews.
Shapiro also sets out to prove that disco was "a shotgun wedding" between the newly out-and-proud gay movement, with all its beefy sexuality right up front, and the first generation of post-civil rights African-Americans, all of whom were getting down to a sound propelled by the recently created synthesizer. It was not always an easy relationship, as the author demonstrates conclusively.
His book analyzes all the different New York clubs – both public and private, gay and straight – that sprang up over the decade, and what each stove to accomplish or prove through its decor, music and clientele. (What is most interesting is how many of the behind-the-scenes entrepreneurs who drove the disco craze were Jewish.)
And the author also charts the connection between the yellow smiley-face buttons – declaring "Have a Good Day!" – and disco.
Perhaps his most interesting point is that this particular music genre still exists these days – and not just as a phenomenon of nostalgia. It could, and may yet, rear its ugly head once again on these shores. But for the time being, it's safely ensconced in Europe, and even the author seems happy about that. u