FOR many born in the 1960s, Donna Summer would have been an early favourite. After all, they would be in their teens when the disco craze swept the music world. The earlier generation would have had direct exposure to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Cliff Richard, whereas the next generation would have caught Michael Jackson and MTV in the early stages of their popularity.
With Donna Summer’s death on May 17, the pop universe has lost a trendsetter. Suddenly, memories of growing up on the songs ‘Love To Love You Baby’, ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘I Feel Love’, ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘She Works Hard For The Money’ are doing the rounds. Her collaboration with producer Giorgio Moroder, which blended her sensuous vocals and a dance music flavour with a very Kraftwerk-influenced electronic sound, is being talked about. After all, nobody deserved the title of ‘Disco Queen’ more than her.
Donna’s fame came during the golden era of disco — the second half of the 1970s. At that time, many acts were blossoming across Europe and the US, resulting in a wide variety of fresh sounds, ranging from disco and Europop to synth-pop and funk-pop. Michael Jackson had arrived, but was yet to become the worldwide phenomenon he became with 1982’s ‘Thriller’.
Those were the days when pop music was heard, and not seen. There was no MTV, and the radio played an important role in artiste promotion. Compared to the 1980s, media hype was much lower. And yet, artistes became popular strictly on the basis of the quality of music they produced.
On hearing of Donna’s death last night, that entire disco era came flashing back to mind. Besides her, some of the biggest pop acts those days were ABBA, the Carpenters, Boney M and Bee Gees. Of these, only the Carpenters didn’t come in the disco segment, though their melodic pop was immensely popular. Most of ABBA’s songs were pure Europop, but hits like ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Voulez Vous’ and ‘Summer Night City’ were a rage on the dance floors. Boney M were the champions of Euro-disco, and Bee Gees changed their earlier balladsy sound to spearhead the disco movement with ‘Saturday Night Fever’.
Those days, disco hits were produced like cakes at a bakery. Before 1975, we had Manu Dibango’s ‘Soul Makosa’, George McRae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’, the Jackson 5’s ‘Dancing Machine’, Barry White’s ‘You’re The First, The Last, My Everything’ and the Carl Douglas-Biddu collaboration ‘Kung Fu Fighting. That list only kept expanding.
Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’, Giorgio Moroder’s ‘From Here To Eternity’, Village People’s ‘YMCA’, Van McCoy’s ‘The Hustle’, KC & The Sunshine Band’s ‘That’s The Way (I Like It)’ and ‘Shake Shake Shake’, the Trammps’ ‘Disco Inferno’, Ottowan’s ‘D.I.S.C.O’, Kool & The Gang’s ‘Celebration’ and Lipps Inc’s ‘Funky Town’ are played to this day. Cerrone was a rage of the time, with the hits ‘Love In C Minor’ and ‘Supernature’. And some of Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ songs — specially the extra-popular ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ — fall in the disco category.
Some songs came, conquered and vanished. ‘Le Freak’ by Chic, ‘Ring My Bell’ by Anita Ward,’Shadow Dancing’ by Andy Gibb, ‘One Way Ticket’ by Eruption, ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ by Baccara, ‘Born To Be Alive’ by Patrick Hernandez, ‘WeAre Family’ by Sister Sledge and ‘Dance Little Lady’ by Tina Charles had their phases. Artistes from other genres also cashed in on the disco wave — notable examples being Rod Stewart’s ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’, David Bowie’s ‘Johnny I’m Only Dancing Again’, Diana Ross’s ‘Upside Down’ and George Benson’s ‘Give Me The Night’. Western classical music got a disco twist with the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ piece ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’. Here in India, music directors like Bappi Lahiri got into disco too, with ‘Disco Dancer’ and ‘Disco Station’.
Alas, like many sudden crazes, disco too died a natural death. By the beginning of the 1980s, the genre had become passé. Artistes began getting repetitive, and the new entrants never added any value.
Tastes changed too. The same audiences who grew up on disco were now describing it as unfashionable, primarily because they themselves had moved on to other genres like rock, metal or jazz. With the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Whitney Houston, the next generation was exposed to another brand of pop. Following MTV’s launch in 1981, even pop musicians changed their approach and sound. Video had killed the radio star.
No one can, of course, deny the huge influence the disco phase has had on future generations. Electronic dance music is huge these days, and its various variants — techno, house, trance and dubstep, to name a few — actually find their roots in the dance music and disco of the 1970s. In that sense, Paul Van Dyk, Sasha, Armin Van Buuren, David Guetta and other currently-popular DJs owe it directly or indirectly to the era of Girogio Moroder and, yes, Donna Summer. Rest in peace, Disco Queen.