Disco's Legacy - In Conversation with Tim Lawrence (FoH2016)
The main thrust of this project explores Chicago house's roots through conversation with authoritative voices. Tim Lawrence, author of the spectacular Love Saves The Day, was kind enough to share his thoughts with me on the development of disco, and where ideas of tolerance/intolerance intersect with dance culture in the 1970s and 80s. I should point out at this early stage; this is not the interview itself, rather it's an analysis of the ideas and points that came up during our conversation.
Also don't forget to check out the specially created playlist that follows the interview. Some classic disco, early garage and the very first 12" single.
The narrative we're presented with on innumerable BBC 4 style music history documentaries, radio retrospectives, countdown shows charting the events of a given decade, or anecdotal stories told by DJs in interviews all present the 1970s as a decade that was obsessed with disco. Whilst it's true that dance music culture took on a new style and a new vigour in the 1970s, the notion that this was a decade dominated by Travolta-esque clones and Black guys breakdancing on cardboard on every street corner may not be as prevalent as we're lead to believe. Even in my discussion with Tim I found myself guilty of making assumptions based on the over-arching and overly simplistic narrative we're constantly fed through various media. That simplified narrative certainly has a place in terms of educating a mass audience quickly within a prescriptive limit of a few minutes. Most audiences don't care about the minutiae of whether gospel tracks were adopted by the underground disco cannon, or whether dancers were fully engaging with potentially cognitively dissonant experiences of dancing to tracks with lyrics that promised salvation. I do.
A portion of our discussion was spent exploring the potency of the Disco Sucks agenda. The existing retrospective narrative is presented as White, heterosexual, christian, rock music vs. Black, homosexual, atheist, disco music. Tim is quick to point out that this as one of those over simplifications that's so prevalent in the sources. He believes the real truth of the matter is much more nuanced. The Disco Sucks movement was somewhat driven by racial or homophobic ideologies in some of it's participants. However, what proportion the movement had those thoughts/beliefs, and what proportion of the movement just sincerely disliked the omnipresence of disco on their radio stations is certainly worth questioning. Even some Black cultural output was relegating disco to the vinyl bargain bin. According to Simon Reynold's Energy Flash (his blog around modern dance culture is superb!) many Black musicians disliked the genre, perceiving it as artificial and lacking any real soul.
Tim believes that disco, along with minorities, became the scapegoats for something that, in actuality, wasn't really anything to do with them. It seems bizarre to look back and watch people blame disco for economic deprivation, but through a lens of cultural diversity and differentiation (and out of sheer desperation for some constituencies) disco seems to have become emblematic of the decline of the post-war powerhouse that was the USA. The dialectics surrounding disco suggest it is almost even un-American (making it by definition pinko, lefty, communist, degenerate etc.). In a reversioning/revisiting of Richard Dyer's seminal essay "In Defence of Disco" published in 1979 in the wake of the infamous Disco Sucks rally at Comiskey Park (called In Defence Of Disco (again) published in 2006), Lawrence quotes Walter Hughes (literary critic) as a voice that sums up this prevailing attitude:
The previously mentioned established narrative also presents the church as a homophobic institution, and there must, as a result, exist a tension between religious ideas in disco and house music, and the church. Given the connection between christian morality and the historic persecution of homosexuals it's easy to infer the church is homophobic. Leviticus, Sodom and Gomorrah, Adam and Steve spring to mind. But is it actually homophobic? There were certainly no shortages of conservative christian figures making reference to GRID or AIDS as the gay plague/the gay cancer as a punishment for a sinful lifestyle in the 1980s, (and still to this day American republican presidential candidates often take a hardline, religiously informed stance on homosexuality, Cruz being the latest in a long line). Or suggesting that disco had a feminising influence on good catholic boys. In fact Lawrence's next book will cover those first 4 years of the 1980's and will obviously cover the impact AIDS had on the New York dancefloor. But it's plain to see that here again lies that over simplification. Lawrence points out that it's just not that cut and dry.
Whilst this isn't incontrovertible, it appears a reasonable assumption. But it seems odd that, according to Lawrence, disco wasn't overtly religious in any particularly way. There may heave been some notions of spirituality, or at least the spirituality offered within music (those ideas surrounding joyfulness, community, and celebration of life) but Lawrence's overall tone suggests that religious really didn't get a look in as far as disco was concerned. Conversely, when we look at house music we see religion everywhere; lyrically, in the instrumentation, in the naming of artists and labels, even in honourifics applied to musicians. This begs the question: did religion just spontaneously appear in house music? Was it always an undercurrent in disco? Or was there another reason?
This brings us to the point in the timeline where recollections and understanding become fuzzier. The space between the "Death of Disco" at Comiskey Park in 1979, and the birth of house in 1984 (the exact start date varies depending on your sources) leaves a widening lacuna of doubt and interpretation that creeps in unopposed. Hopefully this might be something that Tim's next book will clarify. What certainly is clear, is that Lawrence (and many, many others) believe that disco and house are contiguous, leading on from one another in a direct line of ascendency (something I'm very inclined to agree with, even if only from a musicological perspective rather than that of the social historian). But this highlights the dissonance between them with respect to religious aspects in the music.
I've been working under the assumption that religion became a part of house music in an attempt to recreate something the gay men dancing at the clubs were ostracised from in the 1980s (i.e. the church or organised worship). But given the thoughts that Tim has to offer on this it becomes a much more difficult prospect to engage with. If the gay men at a disco were oppressed why was it so un-religious? And if house music wasn't as gay as we're lead to believe why did it incorporate so many religious references? If house was "straight" why didn't people simply go to church?
You see the difficulty? These slight shifts in perspective change the entire conception of the idea. I wouldn't normally stay wedded to an idea such as ostracisation and reclamation if it didn't have such strong evidence in other places. Even Lawrence offers the reclamation/subversion/recontextualisation defence as a potential rationale for the inclusion of stylistically rooted gospel elements in disco. Those religious threads may not have been as obvious and as pervasive in disco as they were in house music a decade later, but the reason for their inclusion and their possible utilitarian function for dancers may well be the same.
Finding a compromise between these two opposing points won't be solved by this interview alone. More evidence is needed, more opinion and thought teased out. Was religion hiding in disco all along? And if it wasn't then where did the "straighter" house music derive it's spiritual tendencies?
I'm incredibly grateful to Tim Lawrence for taking the time to speak to me, and being so generous with his thoughts and expertise. It was sincerely a really interesting experience. If you haven't read Love Saves The Day I heavily recommend it, and I can't wait to read what happens after 1979 in his new book (out September).