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Saturday, March 6, 2004

Pogo don't count
Last week's column.
The disco divide: A new way to look at the music that segregated rockers and dancers
Aaron Wherry - National Post
Monday, March 1, 2004
Aaron Wherry

This being '70s week at the National Post (check Wednesday's paper for Raymond J. de Souza's fuzzy memories of Studio 54), it seems as good a time as any to reconsider the relative merits of disco. Thing is, after approximately two-and-a-half minutes of careful reconsideration, the conclusion remains the same; disco still sort of sucks.

Not entirely, of course. To be fair, it's nearly impossible for anthing to completely "suck" or, conversely, "rule." But its legacy -- bad clothes, bad music, bad drugs -- is a diffcult one to ignore.

For every minor bit of brilliance from, say, ABBA or the BeeGees, there were the Village People or K.C. and the Sunshine band. It ruined Rod Stewart. And nearly did the same to the Rolling Stones. All the while making a career for John Travolta (some sins may never be forgiven).

If nothing else though, it got white people dancing. Sweeping aside the cloistered history of square dancing, polka and American Bandstand, disco made it safe for the sort of sexual, hedonistic, reckless, loose-limbed, pelvic-thrusting gyration that became its trademark. To be sure, this was no small achievement. In fact, so groundbreaking was this dancing, that we quickly suppressed it -- banishing it to the furthest reaches of pop culture, safe only for punchlines, VH1 specials and ironic night at the Karaoke bar.

This has forever segregated white music -- danceable pop on one side, stridently anti-dance rock on the other. But a few decades after the fact, we might finally be getting around to the idea that dancing need not be embarassing, frowned upon, sinful or, for that matter, packaged around truly awful music.

It's an idea we've been struggling with ever since that infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago's Comiskey Park brought the whole tawdry affair to a close. From that night onward, there has been a clear line down the middle of the club. On one side, stand (quite literally) the rockers, willing only to nod the odd head or pump the odd fist to the beat. On the other, the dancers, their everlasting love of disco redirected at the latest in pop music.

(And maybe the divide was even deeper than that. We would be remiss at this point if we didn't at least acknowledge the popular theory that genres like punk and the entire "disco sucks" phenomenon carried with it an undercurrent of racism and homophobia -- the idea being that the disco backlash was in no small part due to white conservative America's discomfort with disco's origins in the black and gay communities.)

Of course, disco didn't so much cease to exist after that as much as it was simply swallowed up by rock 'n' roll and pop.

On the plus side, this gave us New Wave (maybe the closest rock has yet been to full-endorsed dancing). Sadly, it also gave us the rest of the '80s -- a decade of pop music that only recycled the mantra of bad clothes, bad music, bad drugs. For every Madonna, there was a Tiffany. And a Hall & Oates. And a Toto or two.

In the '90s, pop continued to prattle on (the cheese growing only more rancid with age), while rock continued to rage against it (see Nirvana and the early '90s alt- rock explosion).

Then along came raves, as much a sequel to disco as they were a new awakening for rhythm-challenged skinny white kids. This was Disco Part II: The Drugs Still Don't Work, complete with bad clothes and bad music. And it took a load of E to distract you from the fact that the music, in large doses, was a load of crap.

Rave and club culture was banished back to the fringes. Rock and pop cherry-picked bits and pieces for their respective causes. And the status quo, for the most, remained. Which goes a long way to explaining why Junior Senior's D-D-Don't Stop The Beat -- one of last year's truly outstanding records -- seemed such a revelation. Here two Danes -- one skinny, one fat; one gay, one straight -- had created the perfect mash-up of disco and rock, a joyous celebration of both. Shy white boys found the courage to dance. The world seemed a better place.

In Toronto at the moment, one of the more buzzed about bands is a five-piece called controller.controller. Hailed not for thrashing rock or angsty melodrama, they are instead celebrated as the first band in memory to get the city's legions of skinny white indie kids to dance.

Their manic, raging debut, on Paper Bag Records, is an unabashed homage to disco's reckless abandon, no less indie cool, but no less demanding that you shake something.

And from Scotland last week came Franz Ferdinand, a Talking Heads for the 21st century who quite famously like to say that they only ever wanted to make music "that girls could dance to." In an interview last week, they spoke as affectionately of Morrissey as they did of ABBA.

Their show at Toronto's Horseshoe was a battleground. In some corners, full on flailing. Elsewhere, the head bobbers and fist pumpers fought history and programmed prejudice to move an appendage or two. Maybe a little late to the party, rock seemed at that moment to be taking its first tentative steps back onto to the dance floor it had long dismissed.

Not quite a revoltuon just yet, of course. But a new way to look at disco's legacy all the same.

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