Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979

Article excerpt

too black, too gay the disco inferno TIM LAWRENCE Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2003 ISBN 0-8223-3198-5 RRP $23.95 (pb)

The event that supposedly announced 'the death of disco' is almost certainly better known than any event that marked its more obscure, subterranean beginnings. The July 1979 'disco sucks' riots in Chicago's Comiskey Park saw rock fans flood the sports ground and ritually burn their spurned disco records. Radio stations and clubs soon abandoned the sound in droves, declaring themselves opponents of 'plastic' and 'mindless' musical tastes. What was it about disco-ostensibly just another musical subculture-that elicited such an unusually public and virulent backlash? While the Comiskey Park spectacle has become one defining visual picture of the period, another more generic set of images, repeatedly endlessly since on TV, film, and in advertising, is the Saturday Night Fever, flares, Abba 'n' Bee Gees version, which has now achieved a status almost beyond cliché.1 Disco, as made instantly stylistically identifiable by the media industries, caught the mainstream American public imagination for only perhaps two or three years. It saw a deluge of identikit fashion, cash-in films and Studio 54 paparazzi shots. The disco fad burned so brightly, and then turned to ash, the story goes.

In Love Saves the Day, Tim Lawrence faithfully documents the accurate record of an exciting musical and subcultural journey, rescuing it from any diminished status as either an unfortunate glitch in the rock 'n' roll journey, or hokey nostalgia. From the late 1960s, weekly parties in David Mancuso's Soho Manhattan loft saw Blacks, Italian-Americans, and Latin-Americans-mostly male, mostly gay-dancing to soul and funk records at all-night parties that would reach a kind of frenzied nirvana. Mancuso would scour record stores for seven-inch Motown, Salsoul, and Stax/Volt soul and funk singles, and intersperse them with anything from classical preludes to African percussion records. He was also obsessed with fine-tuning the various elements of his parties -the lighting, decorations, refreshments and, most of all, the sound system-to maximise the powerful atmosphere of the event. Where for decades the jukebox had been the default record selector, the 1970s underground scene initiated the now-familiar idea of the DJ as part shaman, part superstar. As DJs competed to be the best, innovations were introduced, on an almost party-by-party basis. They were soon spinning two copies of the same single to extend the playing time, using records with a strong and heavy groove. DJs then started preparing their own extended versions of tracks with longer introductions, added instruments and a stronger bass drum. The effect was electric; converts increasingly came to base their waking lives around the parties, and friendly competition saw new parties established in otherwise disused spaces around New York.

One of the difficulties in writing a history of a phenomenon that has now become a wellworn facet of popular culture nostalgia rests with how to effectively evoke a sense of how the events at the time felt open and undetermined. For all its efforts to describe the excitement of the scene, Love Saves the Day has a curious lack of suspense. This is forgivable; we know roughly what was going to happen, the most interesting part is how. Yet, this topic of the underground-overground dynamic, which is of particular interest for cultural studies theorists writing in the area of music subcultures, is one that Lawrence could have more thoroughly explored. He is not able to clearly explain how a movement that began with secretive, exclusive events could quickly come, by the mid-1970s, to apparently appeal to almost everyone (the evidence is the proliferation of mobile discos, sports club discos, office party discos, and even church discos). Particularly when we consider that the parties challenged many basic American social norms concerning sexuality, musicianship, drug use and forms of bodily interaction, we might expect Lawrence to consider whether dancing all night in a non-partnered format represented, for more mainstream audiences, a form of subversive escape, or perhaps an unleashing of dormant urges. …