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Sometime ago, it occurred to me that I should introduce the Girl to disco.
I think there’s some pop song or other on the radio about now that samples “Le Freak” by Chic. Well, I suppose it’s not the first time that’s been done. Anyway the Girl was heard to proclaim “awwww FREAK OUT!” by me at one point. So, I suppose that was the initial inspiration.
Also, disco in its original incarnation was orchestrated music with all of the musical food groups; guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, sure. But, also brass, piles of strings, mallet percussion, and even things like oboes. It’s great music for “spot the instrument”, a leaping off point for teaching the Girl about instruments in general; how they sound, and what part of the music is made better because of them.
I guess another source of inspiration is that disco is all about women. It’s a genre that is unique in Western popular music because it’s dominated by women singers – Donna Summer, Sister Sledge, Thelma Houston, Diana Ross, and a bunch of others. There are a lot of guys who made disco music too, of course. But, disco was one of the only genres where the default was a female lead singer. The call for “girl songs” is a pretty easy button to push when it comes to disco.
In addition to coming out of gay culture, black culture, and immigrant culture, this woman-centrism may be one of the reasons why there was such a backlash against disco toward the end of its original incarnation. For a while, it represented a cultural inversion, when the feminine voice became mainstream, and the Rule, before The Man noticed it was happening.
So in the light of all that, I did what any self-respecting music geek does when they love someone; I made her a mix. And here’s what she thinks of it.
Freak Out! Disco 1974 – 1980
1. “Le Freak” - Chic
This one is the lead-off, the original daddy. This one got her wondering about how the music actually works; which is the on-beat, which is the off-beat, what the heck is a backbeat? There aren’t too many tunes that can set a kid up for this kind of musical lesson, and be this much FUN.
Said the Girl: “It makes me want to DANCE!”
Or, Freak out, as it were. Presumably.
2. “We Are Family” – Sister Sledge
This is of course a tale of sisterly, and womanly, togetherness and empowerment. Disco is great for that kind of thing.
Said the Girl: “What does ‘birds of a feather’ mean? Are they really sisters? “
I think this one appeals to the Girl’s love of family, which is considerable. Otherwise, see the above “it makes me want to DANCE!” sentiments.
3. “Rock With You” – Michael Jackson
My favourite Jackson track. It just exudes innocence and fun that he himself, by all accounts, was denied.
Said the Girl: “He died?”
Yes. But only bodily. We can listen to him anytime.
4. “Upside Down” – Diana Ross
One time Motown pop-soul queen works with Chic (see above) to create an impossibly funky disco smash.
Said the Girl: “respect a me I say to knee…”
The correct lyrics: who needs ‘em?
5. “Funkytown” – Lipps Inc.
Partially instrumental disco/electro crossover hit that’s apparently annoying to some, maybe because it was ubiquitous on the radio in 1980. But, we love it.
Said the Girl: “Talkaboudit, talkaboudit, talkaboudit, talkaboudit …”
Well, what part do you sing?
6. “September” – Earth, Wind & Fire
Indecipherable lyrics against an undeniable funky groove – what’s not to love? And with lots of horns!
Said the Girl: “This is my favourite because September is my birthday.”
This was a charmingly predictable response. Actually, this was soon amended to second favourite when she heard …
7. “Car Wash” – Rose Royce
The boss don’t mind sometimes if you act a fool. We can all relate to that, I think.
Said the Girl: *Clap. Clap. Clap-cuh-clap-clap-clap.*
Sometimes, keeping the beat is more important than words. And yet …
8. “The Hustle” – Van McCoy
Philly-soul influenced semi-orchestral dance-craze disco hit out during the summer of 1975 – thirty years before the Girl was born! One drawback: not enough words, apparently.
Said the Girl: “I like it when there’s words.”
This is said just before a serious, committed vocal rendition of the melody, with appropriate “doo doo doo-duh-doo-duh-doo-doo-duh” phraseology.
9. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Thelma Houston
A dramatic, danceable operatic tragedy. What’s more disco than that?
Said the Girl: “I hear the froggy thing!”
I should explain. The “froggy thing” is the clavinet part. Don’t know what a clavinet is? Well, check out the song. It’s the froggy sound you’re hearing. Glad I could clear that up for you.
10. “Young Hearts Run Free” – Candi Staton
Superb soul singer Staton (check out her earlier recordings on the FAME label, kids) has a big hit with a disco tune about getting trapped in a bad relationship. It’s a sad song that sounds happy. This is also a disco staple, of course.
Said The Girl: “She sings like Adele!”
Ah, yes. The musical threads are coming together as I had forseen …
11. “Ring My Bell” – Anita Ward
A cheeky little tune about grown-up things that was a hit in 1979 when I myself didn’t know it was a cheeky little tune about grown-up things.
Said The Girl: “Is it ring A bell, or ring MY bell?”
Um. It’s “Ring my bell”. No follow up questions, please.
12. “Night Fever” – The Bee Gees
Falsettoed British singer-songwriters with matching white jumpsuits and dental work with a song appearing on a soundtrack album that would define an era.
Said the Girl: “They sound like they’re really small. They sound like they’re as small as ants and they’re singing into a giant microphone that’s turned up really loud… “
But, they were BIG!
13. “Rock The Boat” – Hues Incorporated
A latin-influenced early disco forerunning hit that strains a single, seagoing metaphor to its limits.
Said The Girl: That’s one boy singing with two girls.
Gender parity, erring on the side of “more girls” is important to the Girl.
14. “Last Dance” – Donna Summer
One of the greatest vocalists of the disco era, and a part of a sea change in dance music as the world knew it with Giorgio Moroder’s “I Feel Love”. But, this is my favourite Summer track, and a great closer to the mix.
Said the Girl: “How do you become a singer? Who do you have to ask?’”
This led to a very rough description of the music business as I understand it. She files it away for later. But, I think the Teacher-Veterinarian career path is still pretty secure.
Well, I hope!
Anyway, there it is – disco. A part of her ongoing cultural education.
Sure, it’s old and it’s supposedly dead. But, disco is the basis for a lot of the pop music she loves that’s new, both directly and indirectly too. I guess the larger thing here is the idea that stuff happened before she was born that affects how things are now, and that still has value in itself. It’s a history and music lesson all in one.