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The Disco Box
Discs 1 and 2
Rhino Records

My ideal life has been lived out by an impostor. I've always thought the cowbell player in KC & The Sunshine Band should've been me. There's no question I could've done as serviceable a job as anyone else in a sequined orange jumpsuit (feathers across the groin) with said instrument. So why wasn't it me? Was it because I was five years old at the time KC was burning up the charts, so to speak, or because I had no idea what "shake your booty / do your duty" really meant?

Whatever the case, nothing stopped me from at least pretending. Same goes for today. So when I open my brand-new Disco Box and plop in Disc 2 -- of four -- and hear the first track, "Shake Your Booty," I'm right back in the disco that was my attic bedroom, circa 1976. But instead of a pot and wooden stir spoon, I actually have my very own drumstick and cowbell. Where the hell's KC and his "band" when they need you?

"Shake Your Booty" is one of four KC & The Sunshine Band tunes on this 80-song disco compilation, which comes to us by way of Rhino Records, of classic pop music reissue fame. However, for as many KC tunes and Kool & The Gang tunes and Chic tunes as are included on these discs, there are some dastardly omissions. The names Barry, Robin and Maurice, for three, might ring a bell.

In addition to the Bee Gees, who scored more No. 1 disco hits than any other act of the day, Earth, Wind & Fire and Grace Jones -- without whose beauty and talent no gay disco or neopunk disco movement would've ever taken shape -- are also conspicuously absent. But let's not dwell on this box's deficiencies, which probably have as much to do with purchasing rights as they do taste. No one buys music for what's not there. So for as far as what's on these discs, many dancing nights lie ahead for us all.

There's at least one CD's worth of reason to get hold of this set, which retails for about $60. As for the still-breathing tunes, "standards," anything by KC, the bizzaro James Brown, is the tops. Of "Get Down Tonight," "That's the Way (I Like It)," "Shake Your Booty" and "Keep It Comin' Love," only "That's the Way" could make even the stodgiest tough guy shake his booty. And though it's easy to think nothing can surpass the sonic whirlwind that is "That's the Way," "Get Down" comes awfully close. One can only imagine how bell-bottomed revelers twirled beneath mirror balls as "do a little dance / make a little love / get down tonight" in KC's very monotone voice, the plunky keyboards and, of course, the cowbell coursed through the bright lights and swanky atmospherics of the disco.

When folk from different backgrounds, ethnicities and sexes (of the big three) found space, usually on the lit dance floor, in these discos to celebrate their lives through music, beautiful things resulted. Casual sex. Casual drug use. Casual escapist fantasies. This was a hedonism not so much unlike that of the late '60s. But instead of a collective push toward a better society, disco said, Let's make ourselves better, and the community will follow. (Hear the fascist direct address commands of the songs "Rock the Boat," "Turn the Beat Around," "Play That Funky Music," "Get Up and Boogie," "Get Down Tonight," "Get Dancin'," etc.)

As the apotheosis of disco music, "Boogie Nights" is simply a culmination of all things polyester. The song incorporates almost every necessary piece of what disco music should be. There are the strings. There's the high-low singing. There's the sashy high hat. The jangly, muted guitar work. The occasional tambourine. The lyrics about dancing and partying.

And then there's all of this at once. The song. It begins with a flighty harp and jazzy percussion intro over which the band wonderfully harmonizes to the phrase "boogie nights / whoah-WHOAH-whoahhhhhh." Then snap. A boingy bass line propels the song into a foot-stomping rush of funky synth sounds, hand claps and clean, fast chord strumming. The phrase "got to keep on dancin' / keep on dancin'" sung repeatedly in a bass, provides great counterpoint to the airy refrain and the anchor line, "if you wanna boogie / boogie / boogie, boogie nights." As all this is sung in a round toward the end of the three-and-a-half-minute song, the effect is brilliantly hypnotic.

Other popular gems on Discs 1 and 2 of The Disco Box include the "I believe in miracles" song, "You Sexy Thing," by Hot Chocolate, "Everybody Dance," by Chic, "Shame," by Evelyn "Champagne" King and -- my personal fave -- "I Love the Nightlife (Disco 'Round)," by Alicia Bridges. I'm embarrassed to say I always mistook her talent for corniness the way she sang, "Ahhhhk-shawn!" Now I know better.

 

As for a song on this record that is great for its, well, greatness and uniqueness, there is the Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte-produced "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer. While the tune could probably be considered the first electronica dance tune -- what with its mechanized beat(s), wind cries and Summer's otherworldly, whispery "ooooooooooh"s and "watcha do, watcha do, watcha do, watcha do to me"s -- it received little rotation or attention anywhere outside of the disco itself. Unlike every KC hit today, it has never been heard by most patrons of Poly Esther's or Have A Nice Day Cafe, either.

Not that there's anything wrong with being proficient in KC & The Sunshine Band and its music. At his reunion performance in '98, the guy was just plain likable. He almost fell on his ass every time he tried to spin himself in a circle, the way he planted one foot on the stage and kicked himself round with the other like a dog scratching itself. But what bad could be said about someone once so skinny and handsome who carries on as if he were a much younger, happier and, yes, thinner person? Nothing. Get down, KC.

-- Anthony Mariani

The Disco Box
Discs 3 and 4
Rhino Records

In the last two discs of the incessantly entertaining Disco Box, there are three revelations that loom throughout the 40 tracks: 1) Much like the songs of previous decades, most of these disco numbers carry the same general theme of trying to find that special someone, looking for true love in a self-involved era of sexual ambiguity, one-night stands and syphilis treatments; 2) You find out which songs Will Smith sampled for his Big Willie Style album; and 3) Deep down, you really love disco.

Admit it, people -- it was a shock even to me. I was born in the middle of the decade, and I don't remember that much about it. But, for the more than 20 years I've been on this planet, I've heard most of these songs more than five times. Why do I like it? Maybe it's the nostalgia factor, looking back on a time when you could do just about anything, or anyone, you damn-well pleased. Or maybe it's the fact that, unlike the aggressive social-phobia feel you get with today's music, disco is music you can actually dance together to. Or maybe it's the fact that most of this music sounds -- dare I say -- good. Face it: If people of this or any other generation didn't like disco, then CD collections like this wouldn't pop up every couple of years. There wouldn't be "disco nights" at upscale clubs. And you wouldn't hear the music in rap songs, movies or goddamned Burger King commercials. Just like rock and roll, folk, rap and just about every other 20th-century musical genre that has been frowned upon by older people, disco is a rhythmic art form whose willful neglect of the previous generation only draws new generations to appreciate it all the more, whether you like it or not.

Disc 3 chronicles disco at its most successful, and most dubious, peak. Mostly centering on songs released during 1978 and 1979, this disc is filled with the more-familiar tunes performed by disco's prominent icons. All the faves are here: Gloria Gaynor's Helen Reddyesque "I Will Survive," Donna Summer's ode to hoes, "Bad Girls," Amii Stewart's blustery rendition of Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood" and McFadden & Whitehead's perpetually positive "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now."

The flamboyantly jiggy songs of Chic, one of the biggest chart-topping bands of the era, are peppered throughout the album as well. Even the Village People's gloriously campy "Y.M.C.A." gets spun into the web. Dropping the Village People into the mix documents another unofficial but highly acknowledged fact about disco: The gay community loved the music. Performers such as Gaynor, Summer and Sister Sledge became goddesses to the homosexual set. This sparked gay performers to come out and become discotheque divas their own damn selves, such as the Village People and the late male diva Sylvester, whose cosmic "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" appears on this disc.

The rest of the songs sprinkled on the album are memorable tunes performed by less-than-memorable performers, such as Bell & James's sprightly "Livin' It Up (Friday Night)," Dan Hartman's rollicking "Instant Replay" or "I Shoulda Loved Ya" by Narada Michael Walden, who's best known today as Aretha Franklin's most frequent collaborator.

Disc 4 catches disco on its last legs. The '70s were coming to a close, and producers were trying to squeeze some more pulp out of the genre before it became utterly sour. Opening this particular disc with "Heart of Glass," the crossover hit from new-wave royalty Blondie (a song some die-hard Blondie fans still haven't forgiven Debbie Harry and Co. for), shows the last-ditch efforts made to keep disco afloat before it sank. Disco was slowly but surely morphing into "dance music," with booty-bumping songs relegated to club floors or black radio. There were a couple of tunes that are heard here that made it to the top of the pop charts: Lipps, Inc.'s kooky "Funkytown" and Kool & The Gang's classic 1980 bar mitzvah rouser "Celebration." But, as the Reagan Era began to rear its Gumby-shaped head, fewer dance tunes were breaking out into the mainstream arena.

 

Musical production shifted from extravagant and majestic (Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music") to slick and bubbly (Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots"). The change can be heard in the music of, ironically enough, Change, from 1980's "The Glow of Love" (featuring vocals by a then-unknown Luther Vandross) to 1985's "Change of Heart" (written and produced by pre-Janet Jackson hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis). Novelty songs, such as The Weather Girls' gay-club anthem "It's Raining Men" (co-written by David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer) and Indeep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," became cult favorites. Obscure tunes by obscure acts, such as the less-than-up-there tracks by Young & Company and The Boystown Gang, failed to crack even the R&B charts. The inclusion of Freeez's "I.O.U.," produced by '80s beatmaster Arthur Baker, shows how disco was being obliterated by a new form of high-flying, synthesized club music/electro. By the time you get to the end of the disc with "Fresh," an irony-free Kool & The Gang number that was released in 1985, disco finally submerged as a best-forgotten relic of the Me Decade, music you wouldn't be caught dead listening to.

Fortunately The Disco Box is crafted and coordinated in a way that makes the once-despised music respectable again. Despite its glaring omissions, the box fully captures disco music in one funkily paced package. With The Disco Box nestled in your collection, you no longer have to go to Boogie Nights to get your groove back.

-- Craig D. Lindsey


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