Disco as a genre was defined in opposition. In the 70s its radio dominance, Black, queer creators and Black, queer audience enraged guitar rock fans and critics. Steve Dahl, an anti-disco DJ in Chicago urged his listeners on to several near-riots against disco fans.
The Chicago White Sox held an event where they promised to blow up disco records; enraged over-stimulated attendees destroyed the playing field. In the 80s, the new radio dominance of white nerdy often British bands was labeled the “New Wave,” largely in contrast to disco’s aesthetic of cosmopolitan cool. The 1982 hit “Safety Dance” by Canadian band Men Without Hats was written after lead singer Ivan Doroschuk was tossed out of a disco club for pogo dancing in the New Wave style.
As its title suggests, Strut Records’ Disco Not Disco compilation incorporates disco thesis and anti-disco antithesis into a single new ecstatic butt-shake. Compiled by British DJs Joey Negro and Sean P., the subhead says the album contains “leftfield disco classics from the New York underground.” That might fit some songs, like Arthur Russell and Dinosaur’s poundingly velvety “Kiss Me Again,” with Rush background vocalist Myriam Vale emoting in a Gaynor- Esque manner while an uncredited David Byrne adds some angular guitar snarl to jazz-funk bassist Wilbur Bascomb’s throb.
The collection is also often described as post-punk, which again, fits some selections, like Was Not Was’ “Wheel Me Out,”for example, by Detroit oddball rockers David Weiss and Don Fagenson. The pair recruited Weiss’ mom to declaim and whisper sensuously, “I’m really in the mood today/I’m a former scientist” over proto-industrial rhythms an occasional jazz honk, and a fiery cock rock solo.
But as a whole, the selections don’t quite groove into disco, or post-punk, or into any one genre. Yoko Ono moans through her half New Wave, half No Wave 1981 sort-of classic “Walking on Thin Ice.” Don Cherry teams up with French- Chilean producer Ramuntcho Matta and members of the South American diaspora in Paris for a hip stroll through Latin funk with free jazz skronk on “I Walk.”
Yugoslavian producer Began Cekic, aka Common Sense, shamelessly retools the Police’s insular “Voices Inside My Head” for club-going extroverts. Rocker and disabled polio survivor Ian Drury launches a joyfully pissed-off, herky-jerky screed against condescending abled charities on “Spasticus Autisticus.” The lyrics (“Hello to you out there in Normal land/you may not comprehend my tale or understand/As I crawl past your window give me lucky looks/You can read my body but you’ll never read my books”) got the song banned from the BBC.
And just to thoroughly confuse everyone, the comp concludes with the Steve Miller Band’s 16-minute long “Macho City,” the kind of classic rock behemoth that punk was supposedly founded to stab in the bloated heart. The common ground for all these tracks isn’t really style or creative movement, but the venue.
As the Allmusic review explains, “what binds these strange bedfellows together is the fact that they were popular on the dancefloors of New York City clubs in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”
Disco Not Disco is not a brief for or against disco, but a demonstration of how musical divisions and animosities—whether founded on genre, race, sexuality, nationality, high-brow or low-brow—can be set aside for at least as long as your sweating out there to that perfect DJ set. Soul icon Nona Hendryx fits her powerhouse vocals and rock swagger to spiky Avant jazz profligate Bill Laswell’s “Over and Over”; Liquid Liquid’s funky percussive “Cavern,” later lifted without attribution for Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines,” slides easily into Arthur Russell and Steve D’Acquisto’s “Tell You,” with its whistled theme, harmony vocals, and horn flourishes, as you’ve suddenly stumbled upon Brian Wilson out on the floor with his own brass band. Russell was a classical experimental cellist who made both dance-floor fodder and semi-ambient inward-turned abstractions.
He has three tracks on the compilation, including “Treehouse/School Bell,” which manages to fuse disco with dreamy psychedelia. Russell’s spirit—adventurous, idiosyncratic, collaborative, and loving— hovers over the entire comp, which blows up disco not to clear a path for something else, but to stick the pieces of vinyl back together and make some new old odd familiar beat to which everyone can shimmy.