The Last Days of Disco

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1980s / Annuals

Disco 81 Annual coverDisco 81 Annual

Brown Watson, 60pp, 1980

What were the signs that disco had reached its peak in the USA?

The events of 1979 provided plenty of evidence that the party might soon be at an end. Newsweek magazine declared on its cover in April of that year that ‘Disco Takes Over’ – a sure sign that the beautiful people were moving on to something new. The infamous ‘Disco sucks!’ demolition took place in Chicago in July, when a local disco-loathing DJ and the son of the White Sox baseball team promoted a home game by allowing members of the public free admission in exchange for a disco record. The pile of records collected was then detonated in front of the 90,000-strong crowd. One of the records on the pyre may have been The Ethel Merman Disco Album, another triumph from that year, where the foghorn-voiced Broadway legend bellowed musical standards over a dreary disco beat.

Back in Britain, we were enthusiastic enough about the phenomenon for the publisher Brown Watson to bring out their first dedicated Disco annual at the end of 1979. “High steppin’ ELECTRIFYIN’!”, the book announced ungrammatically over a picture of John Travolta, and to mark the arrival of the new decade its young readers were treated to features on Leif Garrett, The Village People, The Bee Gees and Michael Jackson. Evidently buoyed by the success of the first issue, the 1981 annual kept the beat pumpin’ with all our favourite disco stars: Boney M, Chic, Hi-Tension, The Bee Gees (again), Rod Stewart, Bob Marley, Showaddywaddy. . .

Boney M

(From the book) Boney M: They even mimed for their holiday snaps.

Rod Stewart? Showaddywaddy? Well, you might have already spotted the issue here. The annual is not just about disco, but about the disco. And this is the disco at your mate’s wedding or a nightclub somewhere in provincial Britain, where genuine disco sounds rub a sweaty bare shoulder with a rum selection of chart familiars.

Authorship of Disco 81 is credited to June Brown. Even with the intrusion of Bob Marley et al, she does her best to convey something of the music of the book’s title. The feature on Boney M (“Germany’s newest raves”) is as much about producer Frank Farian as the public faces of the group, and we can hardly deny that his “consistent disco slanted production ensures a feast of disco singles on every album.” And top marks to her for the short entry on, and quite stupendous photograph of, Sheila B. Devotion, who released the Chic-produced ‘Spacer’ in 1979.  Apparently, ‘Sheila’ was the singer, and ‘B. Devotion’ were her own group of dancers. Who knew?

We probably shouldn’t look to annuals for definitive coverage of the music of the times. Music writer and publisher David Hepworth recently posted an illusion-shattering entry on his blog about annuals (‘Pop Annuals and the Ghosts of Christmas Past’ – read it here) in which he reveals that “publishers traditionally regarded them as money for old rope”, filled with “editorial. . .recycled from the files”. This is all too apparent in Disco 81. Nine different record companies are thanked on the first page of the annual, and their influence on its content is very clear. This is why we’re told specifically that Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ became “the biggest selling 45 in the history of the massive WEA Records Organization”, and that The Isley Brothers’ “unique history is typified by the two generations of brothers who have comprised the band since T-Neck [the Isley family record label] and CBS Records joined forces in 1973.” It’s surely also the industry’s heavy-handed involvement with the annual that explains the curious mix of acts it covers; Showaddywaddy’s hit at the end of 1980 was a distinctly non-disco version of ‘Blue Moon’, for heaven’s sake.

(From the book) Sheila B Devotion: The circumstances in which this picture was taken may never be fully understood.

(From the book) Sheila B. Devotion: The circumstances in which this picture was taken may never be fully understood.

Less cynically, the book has features on the televised disco dancing championships held each year at the Empire Ballroom, Leicester Square. 19-year old Julie Brown (no relation, we assume) is pictured triumphing in the 1979 British contest “wearing a costume she had made herself” before defeating all-comers in the World Championships. Let’s pause awhile to enjoy her performance from the British Championships – skip to 6’24” in the clip below. As the voiceover man promises, “When she dances, the sparks they do fly!”:

Elsewhere in the annual, the piece on The Village People and its founder, the composer and producer Jacques Morali, is fascinating for its coy use of language:

Morali, a Frenchman, was inspired by the varied life-styles and role-playing he saw in New York’s Greenwich Village. For him, it represented all the male American images that, somewhat romantically, Europeans have come to idolise. 

[. . .]

In many ways, Village People represent a final stage in the redefinition of machismo that’s been going on throughout the last decade in the wake of various liberation movements. “We’re redefining ‘Macho’ in a positive sense,” says Randy Jones [The Cowboy]. “Previously, it meant that a man who was macho had to put other people down to build up his self-image. For us, ‘macho’ is an inner strength that everyone can draw on to face the world assertively and independently.”

Varied life-styles; redefinition of machismo; various liberation movements. Ms Brown is telling us about a vital element of disco here, albeit in the coded terms one might expect of a kids’ annual from 1980. One wonders how many of her readers understood exactly what she was trying to convey.

And what, if anything, does the book tell us about the future of disco and dance music? For all its limitations, even Disco 81 is alert to a new style. On the last page and inside back cover, The Sugarhill Gang are pictured next to the opening lines from ‘Rapper’s Delight’. This is “the rappin’ craze”, defined here simply as “the disco phenomenon that started the eighties.”

We are moving into a world where Showaddywaddy and The Sugarhill Gang could no longer co-exist peacefully. Coincidentally or not, the Disco annual for 1981 would be the last edition to be published.

(From the book) The Sugarhill Gang: Delightful indeed.

(From the book) The Sugarhill Gang: Delightful indeed.

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