Could This Be the Summer of Disco?
Sometimes dancing is better than being angry.
Photo by Victor Frankowski.
Look at yourself; your life's a mess. A government that defines itself by helping the rich and fucking the poor has slashed your benefits and priced you out of an education. You haven't been able to afford a holiday in years, you've just endured a seven-month winter and the happiest you've been in weeks is when you were celebrating an old woman's death in the streets with a bunch of crusties. When the voice in your head starts to sound like John Cooper Clarke, what do you want to do on a Friday night? Hang out alone listening to Jello Biafra spoken-word lectures, displacing your knuckles on your bedroom walls? Or take enough drugs to forget about how terrible your life is and embrace smiling strangers to "Everybody Dance"?
When the world is mired in the shit, popular music generally reacts in one of two ways. Typically, in the way that Mojo and BBC Four are fond of, it tends to address social problems by becoming explicitly angry about them. However, we don't currently have artists like Public Enemy or Joan Baez to do that for us, we have the clunky, new-left analogies of Plan B’s iLL Manors, Frank Turner’s libertarian folk and a slew of wishy washy, “We’re tryna make a change here, people!” charity pop offerings. Unfortunately, the vast majority of "socially conscious" music being made today possesses all the subtlety of a George Galloway anti-Zionist rant.
Our culture seems desperate for some kind of catharsis from the nightmares of rising youth unemployment, makeshift missile throwing and easily consolidated debts, yet none of our musicians seem to want to take it on. Which is understandable. It's all relative: The internet's done to their industry what Thatcher did to mining communities. You imagine many young musicians are just as keen to keep that drip-feed of royalties, easy sex and bad drugs coming in as you are to keep your home internet up and running.
Photo of Hackney looters in 2010, by Henry Langston.
The limp wrist of apathy has wafted the pendulum back towards another idea – rather than let the bastards grind you down, why not just turn the lights off, shut your eyes and play music so loud you forget the bastards even exist? Legendary Manchester DJ, promoter and A&R guru Mike Pickering told me that club owners "always say that it’s during recessions that clubs do the best business". While dance music has flirted with politics in the past, it's always been more inclined to offer an escape from everyday travails. And that's not necessarily a criticism – offering someone that escape route can be just as socially responsible as writing a protest song. It certainly seems like it's gotta be worth more to public morale than whatever shitty Thatcher joke Chris T-T has RT'd in the last few hours.
It’s not just returning veterans like Daft Punk channelling David Mancuso rather than David Guetta these days. On almost every Boiler Room set (bar those from rappers and the mutant techno hardcore crew), you’re bound to hear something at least a little bit disco. The likes of Krystal Klear, Medlar, Floating Points and Disclosure have all been proving that there’s a world beyond pitched vocals and Poundland synth breaks. Even the godfather of suburban fearstep, Skream, has recently been heard playing the kind of stuff that was, until recently, resigned to Monte Carlo roof parties, while his Croydon comrade Loefah’s new Norwood Soul Patrol show on Rinse sound more like Tony Hadley’s shift on Heart FM than a Night Slugs b2b.
Bear in mind that Todd Terje’s camp, stomping “Inspector Norse” currently occupies the nation’s dive clubs with the same omnipresence previously reserved for “Skeng” or “Cockney Thug” and – weirdly – you begin to suspect that our tastes have lightened up a little. It could just be that disco is simply the next island of safety for producers to move on to, a dance music halfway house before the inevitable reintegration with urban dread. But I have the feeling it's down to electronic music needing a bit of flamboyance again after years of dragging its feet through the trenches of sub-bass and supposedly profound moments of silence – sonic tropes usually associated with a kind of "kitchen sink" clubland, the sound of weeping single mums echoing off the walls of piss-stained estate stairwells.
Even aspects of our culture that have nothing to do with the old cliches of hairy chests and syncopated bass-lines have begun to appropriate the disco manifesto. Take Spring Breakers, for instance. Sure, it's got Gucci Mane in it and has the kind of trap-step soundtrack you'd expect from a movie set in the Florida of 2013. But it also harks back to the Saturday Night Fever idea that a youth film should submerge itself in the silly, decadent world around it rather than take on any objective moralising stance. It's a 1977 movie in a way that This Is England could never be.
Photo by Holly Lucas.
On the surface, disco might seem like fluffy, materialist nonsense about sex, expensive clothes and the mythical state of grace that is "Funky Town". You might think that a reversion to this sound is basically admitting defeat and jumping on the good ship free-market towards a nu-Dubai.
Well, while I won’t deny that it sounds better with a chilled bottle of Dom than a frozen tin of Skol, disco is still essentially a rebel sound. There might not be any Commodores joints blasting out of "cycle soundsystems" at Thatcher death raves, and Diana Ross never released anything on Dischord, but – in its purest form – disco is the escapist sound of the oppressed. Both culturally, in that it began as the sound of gay, black and Latino New Yorkers who wanted to flee the AM radio rock nightmare the rest of the nation was trapped in, and musically, too. Go out to a club where they play disco at the volume it's supposed to be played at, and you'll hear a new sharpness to it, a kind of hedonistic, top-end viciousness you don't get when you're listening to Magic FM through a cab radio at 2AM.
I’m not saying that Jamie XX playing a Rose Royce track is the rallying cry for a British spring, but it's surely a statement suggesting that perhaps all we really want to do now is forget about our problems and have some fun, rather than dwell in the weed paralysis nightmare that was clubland in the latter part of the last decade. In fact, listening to SpaceGhostPurpp and Denzel Curry, I can’t help but wonder if we just shipped our skunk paranoia off to the States in return for the “party every day” manifesto of the Black Eyed Peas (though obviously their parties would be shit).
While political (or just miserable) art will always play a part in any society, ours doesn’t seem to want to listen to the steel shutters of Foot Locker screeching as they're pried open any more. Instead of the deathly silence of public apathy, why not disco? It makes sense that the society that suffers together should celebrate together, too.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive