Disco music is a disease. I call it Disco Dystrophy. The people victimized by this killer disease walk around like zombies. We must do everything possible to stop the spread of this plague. -- Steve Dahl
What we talk about when we talk about disco: The Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival's got 2b there
It was with those words that Dahl, a Chicago FM radio DJ, opened a 1979 anti-disco rally in the Comiskey Park baseball stadium, an event that would end with the dynamiting of 100,000 disco records and the capacity crowd rushing the field in a frenzied riot. What on earth could have propelled such emotions? It's hard to imagine any of today's pop stars inspiring such Nurembergesque events; ex-Mousketeer Britney Spears may summon condescension from adults, but few would seriously call for the torching of her CDs as a remedy for safeguarding America's youth. The key to understanding disco -- and its haters -- is in looking beyond the music itself. Subtext is everything. In this case it explains the strange journey of a musical style from an ostracized underground to a billion-dollar industry. Birthed in gay black clubs such as New York City's Loft and later developed at the Paradise Garage and Chicago's Warehouse, disco drew on everything from '70s Philly soul to Kraftwerk, in the process fashioning a new sound that was nothing less than secularized gospel. Fast-forward several years, post-Saturday Night Fever, and you find a music that has been stripped of those roots and bleached -- literally -- until it is nothing short of a parody of itself (pace Ethyl Merman Does Disco).
Nearly twenty years after disco's "death," this revisionist history continues to hold sway. The public face of disco remains the Bee Gees, while the music's original transformative vision lies hidden somewhere inside John Travolta's white suit.
Which is precisely why the recent format change of WPLL-FM (103.5) is so refreshing. Rechristened Mega 103.5, the station has been airing a steady diet of late-period disco nuggets, thankfully moving beyond the obvious selections from the Village People, and free of any condescending vibe. Sure, you have to wade through some mid-'80s fluff, but hang in there and you're rewarded with little-heard chestnuts such as The Brothers Johnson's "Strawberry Letter 23" and the Andrea True Connection's "More, More, More." The end result is the most consistently listenable FM station in Miami, hands down. Although Mega 103.5 has yet to scratch the surface of disco club classics that never made it from the dance floors to the charts (Carl Bean's "I Was Born This Way," Eddie Kendricks's "Date the Rain," Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat," Slyvester's "Over and Over"), it's a blast just to hear Miami natives like Timmy Thomas, Betty Wright, Foxy, and George McCrae back on daytime radio. Moreover Mega 103.5 regularly shows up the disturbingly conservative nature of the local club scene. For example the supposedly über-hip "Nu Disco" evening at Bar Room, where the DJ rarely digs deeper in her crates than Abba, falling back instead on the "Friday night at Bennigan's" paradigm of disco as nothing more than a camp pose for white (and most definitely straight) suburbanites. Here's hoping that as Mega 103.5 adds on-air DJs (an unfortunate inevitability), it strengthens its commitment to unearthing lost treasures rather than conforming to the desires of record companies, aging rockists, and the marketplace.
Of course disco never really died. It simply went back underground, or as Farley "Jackmaster" Funk once explained, "House music ain't nothing but a harder kick drum than disco, that's it." The outcome of that evolution is explored in got 2b there, a new documentary about the present-day phenomenon of gay circuit parties, screening this Saturday, at 11:00 p.m. at the Beach's Colony Theater as part of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. The documentary is slightly muddled and lacks a clear focus, but director José Torrealba does a good job portraying the sheer energy summoned by the thousands of gay men drawn to the all-night circuit dances held around the nation, with a particular emphasis on Miami happenings. The bulk of got 2b there plumbs the controversy surrounding drug abuse and unsafe sex at circuit dances, delving into whether the parties' very bacchanalian nature promotes the widespread ingestion of crystal meth, ketamine, and GHB, which induce euphoria which in turn leads to a willingness to engage in unprotected sex. While there is no doubt a cruel irony in events intended to raise money for AIDS foundations unintentionally spreading HIV, several other important issues are only touched on briefly in the picture.
Namely the music itself. In one onscreen interview, Susan Morabito, reigning DJ queen of the circuit, recalls her arrival in New York City in the late '70s, and her decision to apply for a job spinning at the Saint instead of the Garage. It's a disingenuous moment, notable for its sole mention of the legendary Paradise Garage, where DJ Larry Levan laid down much of the template for today's electronica. More to the point, it represents a road not taken for the once intimately intertwined strands of gay liberation and cutting-edge electronic dance music. Morabito never applied to work the decks at the Garage because its predominantly black clientele, weaned on the most progressive and groundbreaking grooves, would've laughed her whitebread aesthetic out of the building. The Saint, which attracted an upscale Anglo crowd (and its admirers), was a perfect fit for her. It's telling that in 1999, Morabito and her smoothed-out take on house is a staple of the circuit parties, while the "Garage" sound is relegated to the fringes of the gay scene (particularly here in Miami), attracting more attention from techno experimentalists fishing in retro waters for inspiration.