The Secret Disco RevolutionWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
© Words Matteo Sedazzari
The Secret Disco Revolution is an ambitious, well structured, informative and entertaining documentary made by Toronto born film maker Jamie Kastner. Kastner has chosen a music genre and movement that in the year 2014 most people take for granted, not in a dismissive way, but the sheer fact that if any famous piece of disco music, such as Thelma Houston’s Don't Leave Me This Way, comes on the radio or at a party,
people will simply dance to the music and not question the origin, as disco is all about the feel good factor and partying and that is their simplistic ideology. If you were to play a basic word association and said the word disco, at an educational guess (ZANI doesn’t have the resources to support the common hypothesis) the most usual reply would be Saturday Night Fever, either relating to the film or the original album.
Saturday Night Fever, a film based on a fictitious article by British born journalist Nik Cohn, who had recently moved to New York and been assigned by the New York Magazine in 1976 to cover the disco scene that was sweeping across the USA which had evolved from the Big Apple. Unable to find an angle on it, he recalled his days back at Shepherds Bush and that of the original Mods of the sixties and The Who (local band of London W12) personal friends of Cohn, and he would go on to write a biography about them. The article was entitled The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night, which a year later produced the film that made John Travolta a super star. More people attended discos across the world and from the album made The Bee Gees one of the largest grossing bands in the world, as the other artists whose one track featured on the album, also received a nice royalty cheque. In addition, today both film and album have fared well.
In defence of Cohn, he was faced with a complex task, asked to write about people dancing. Let’s say in 1988 an American journalist was asked to attend an Acid House party and present an in depth analysis of the night, no one from doorman to DJ is going to give the time of day to someone with a notebook in hand. So what Cohn did was to use history and experience to support a theory, in this case the Mods, working class boys and girls, mostly teenagers in mundane jobs, low overheads, who spent their surplus cash on clothes, scooters, records, gigs, and clubs. At the clubs they would listen to obscure and well known soul music of black origin. In the clubs the Mods would take drugs to dance the night away to forget the working week, and appearance was important. Cohn would have seen the same formula in 1976, and saw that disco music, again of black origin, was a development of the soul music of the sixties and the kids on the New York dance floor were forgetting their problems. The same principal applies to Acid House in the UK in 1988. And all three movements, Mod, Disco and Acid House were all against the mainstream of music with their own values. So Cohn wasn’t far off the mark.
Kastner’s The Secret Disco Revolution is a stage by stage step of how disco was born and grew into a huge phenomenon, with its demise Disco Demolition Night (Disco Sucks) 12th July 1979, led by American rock DJ Steve Dahl who invited people to attend Comiskey Park , Chicago, Illinois to blow up or burn their disco records. And as pointed out in The Secret Disco Revolution, this act is on a par with the Nazis’ burning books during the height of their power. In addition The Knack’s My Sharona released June 1979 was pushed so hard by the American radio stations to knock Chic’s Good Times off billboard charts, as the ‘establishment’ wanted the US to return to rock. Even the incarceration of the famous disco Studio 54 Steve Rubell for tax invasion in January 1980 was perceived as the end of disco.
The incidents may have contributed to the end of disco but there was another underground movement developing in the clubs and streets of New York at the end of the seventies; Hip Hop, a new generation of kids learning to express themselves by rapping, scratching and break dancing, whilst donning more sport related attire, but that is another story.
Disco was forged in New York in 1971, in a small club called The Loft , which played the sound of Philadelphia soul to a gay, black and other baby boom outsiders looking for a good time whilst living in a city in decline. Kastner is quick to explain the origin and also that disco gave liberation to gays, blacks and women, and when presented with the facts it made me realise how disco really is about the freedom of expression and choice. Furthermore Kastner is intelligent to present that disco owes a lot to Nazi occupied France, youngsters who loved African Jazz would dance in underground clubs to this music and call themselves the swing kids, rebelling any way they could to a fascist regime. I think the whole world of rock ‘n’ roll has its roots with the wartime swing kids.
Not only did these ‘outsiders’ of New York want to dance to the music of their choice, they had enough of the radio stations playing rock music, even though racial barriers had been broken down by the success of Motown and Stax, black music was still very much on the outside, in terms of receiving media attention and was given a separate chart, originally called Race music chart, then changed to the more politically correct R ‘n’ B charts . Disco took on rock and in the seventies, right up until the end of the decade, was the successful musical genre in the billboard charts. The same feat was repeated over a decade later, by the third generation of Hip Hop artists, who took rock down... again. Kastner, from the onset, makes The Secret Disco Revolution thought provoking and offers far more than a celebration of the movement, uses archive footage and contributions from original disco DJ Nicky Siano, disco artists Robert ‘Kool’ Bell of Kook and The Gang , Gloria Gaynor, Evelyn King , British journalist Peter Shapiro (whose book Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco is the foundation for the film), historian Alice Echols (who states that Donna Summer's 20-minute Love to Love You Baby is "musical critique for the feminist crusade against three-minute sex", interesting) Village People’s co-creator and songwriter,Henri Belolo, The Village People and many more. It is interesting that Belolo’s views of the band he helped to create differ from the band itself.
Each, whether an opinion or a recollection, aids with the story and study of disco, including the origin of the name, which didn’t come from the participants, but New York Magazine in 1974. In 1972/73 the word didn’t exist amongst the club goers. Kastner presents, rather tongue in cheek I hasten to add, that it was a master plan, however what he truly does present is the stage by stage growth and its significance and impact on culture, and how it grew from passion and word of mouth marketing to a multi million industry that really did spawn a film of the story. It may not have been a carefully planned revolution to liberate the oppressed but a movement that gave them a voice, confidence and a sense of belonging that did change the world. Even at the film’s conclusion none of the artists, when asked, felt they were revolutionaries. However The Secret Disco Revolution is a wonderful documentary of, as stated at the start of this article, a genre that we now take for granted - disco, and proves that music is a powerful tool capable of changing the world, consciously or not.
The Secret Disco Revolution available on Net Flix