Disco infernalPeter Shapiro and Dave Haslam take Gary Lachman back to the 70s with Turn the Beat Around and This Is Not Abba
Saturday June 11, 2005
Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco by Peter Shapiro (339pp, Faber, £12.99)
This Is Not Abba: The True Story of the Seventies by Dave Haslam (359pp, Fourth Estate, £12.99)
I never understood 70s nostalgia. Having lived through the decade, to resuscitate its icons strikes me as aberrant. Bad TV, such as Starsky and Hutch. Bad fashion, such as flares. Bad hair cuts (take your pick). And, worst of all, bad music. Exercises in pomposity such as Yes; paragons of banality such as the Osmonds. Just plain boring, like the Eagles. Even Bowie's transgressive space opera strikes me as almost unlistenable today. I'm biased, I know, but except for a few anomalies, for me the decade really didn't get going until what we call "punk" lifted its spiky head out of the gutters of New York and London. In both cities, giving the finger to the bloated hierarchy of rococo and roll was punk's brief raison d'être. But in Manhattan in 1975, there was an even more immediate target: disco.
Disco sucked, full stop. So, according to the author of Turn the Beat Around, I and my friends, who wore buttons announcing this, were part of the campaign of "racism" and "homophobia" that brought disco down. We were discophobes, to coin a phrase. But I was never afraid of disco. It just sucked. It sucked at Hurrahs, it sucked at Club 82, and it sucked the one time I got into Studio 54. Repetitive, vulgar and dull, listening to disco was like having the morning after without the night before. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that I could nevertheless enjoy a book about it. Turn the Beat Around didn't make me like it any better (don't expect miracles), but it did show that something repellent could still be the focus of an interesting work of cultural history. I was familiar, sadly, with the later stages of disco's career, from the cloying mindlessness of "Staying Alive", to Rod Stewart's excruciating "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" (to which everyone I knew answered "No"), so I was particularly caught by Peter Shapiro's earlier chapters. Not many who got off on poppers, cocaine and pre-Aids promiscuity could link their anonymous hedonism to the Swing Jugend (Swing Kids) of Nazi Germany, teenagers who risked their lives by breaking the ban on "decadent" jazz, and indulging in clandestine dance parties, gyrating to stacks of Louis Armstrong records, nor to their Parisian counterparts, the Zazous. Shapiro sets the tone for his revisionist apology by placing the later community of disco pleasure-seekers in the same outlaw light. I'm not entirely convinced by the connection, but Shapiro's rundown on the "prehistory of disco", from Motown, the early New York "loft scene", through northern soul, and Sylvester and the San Francisco sound, for example, is a good read, and full of enough musical arcana to keep a trivia anorak up at night. There is, in fact, sometimes too much information about DJs, clubs, producers and records - at times I felt I had been cornered by an over-fervent devotee, eager to communicate his zeal - but anyone with an interest in the people who made the music will be grateful for Shapiro's knowledge.
His bigger picture prompts consideration too. Shapiro argues that, tossing off the 60s' bogey of relevance, and embracing an ethos of uninhibited egoism and decadence, disco, for all its superficiality, was really an expression of America's dark psyche, emerging from the debris of the Black Power movement, fuelled by a failing economy, and focusing gays into a self-aware community. Its mechanical beat - guaranteed to drive someone like me batty - opened the doors to techno, house and hip-hop, and so made possible the rise of the DJ. The point's well taken and I put down the book knowing a great deal more about disco than I ever wanted to. But it didn't change my mind. It still sucks.
There's some disco in Dave Haslam's This Is Not Abba: The Real Story of the 1970s; the bad kind, according to Shapiro, the stuff Saturday Night Fever spawned. Haslam paints a broader canvas and Shapiro's complaint, that the disco we all know (the Village People, and so on) is really the decadent finale of a much more vital musical genre, fits in well with Haslam's thesis. This Is Not Abba takes as its starting point the insidious effects of "abbafication", Haslam's decade-specific term for what is really a perennial bad habit: sentimentalising the past. Nostalgia is false memory, highlighting "good" and "fun" elements of a previous time, while ignoring the rest.
In Haslam's case, the 70s nostalgia industry has erected a false image of the decade, anchored in Abba, and festooned with flares, platforms, spacehoppers and glitterballs. Haslam is determined to set the record straight and offers an exhaustive survey of a 70s the revival merchants want to avoid. A quick checklist gives us Iggy and the Stooges, Linda Lovelace, football hooligans, the Symbionese Liberation Army, Rock Against Racism, Son of Sam, gay lib, sinking economies, IRA bombings, the Yorkshire Ripper, Patti Smith, Baader-Meinhof, punk and lots of drugs. Having not, I think, been abbafied myself, much of the evidence Haslam marshals was familiar; nevertheless, I enjoyed the refresher course and, aside from a couple of snags (there's some repetition and his "eye witness" accounts sometimes slow the narrative), I was happy to remember all those Mott the Hoople and Velvets albums I hadn't heard for awhile.
The 70s, of course, isn't the only decade to suffer from misrepresentation; think of all that 60s rhetoric about peace and love, which ignores the darker side of the decade. And some 70s characters themselves indulged in their own brand of abbafication: think of the punk appropriation of the swastika, aes- theticising the symbol but jettisoning its history, or, perhaps worse, revelling in its power to shock, while ignoring why it could. Unfortunately, the kind of false memory Haslam rejects isn't limited to a particular time, and given the available technology, it will more than likely become par for the course: witness the new breed of adverts that manipulate past media for present purposes, Gene Kelly doing the robot, Churchill scratching discs. Funny, maybe, but remembering faithfully is tough work.
Besides presenting welcome revisions, both books are grab bags of 70s anecdotes. My favourite from Shapiro is his account of the "Death to Disco" bloodletting, instigated by a US red-neck DJ and resulting in a real disco inferno, when fans stormed the field and mounds of LPs were set ablaze at a baseball stadium. Haslam recounts a similar if less violent expression of disgust when, in 1973, a DJ in Los Angeles locked himself in the studio and played "Puppy Love" non-stop for 90 minutes, in protest at the saccharine hit. Eventually, fearing for his sanity - and, I guess, that of his listeners - the police broke in and lifted the needle. They just don't write 'em like they used to. "Hustle", anyone?
· Gary Lachman was a founding member of Blondie, as Gary Valentine, and is the author of New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation, 1974-1981 (Sidgwick& Jackson).