Ahead of his appearance at the Melbourne branch of The School of Life to give a talk on the history and philosophy of disco we caught up with ARIA award winning author, broadcaster and radio producer Craig Schuftan to get a crash course on all things Disco; and to find out why the much mocked genre is worth serious discussion.
What was it that made you want to give a talk about Disco, perhaps the most maligned of all musical genres?
**Laughs** Well you know partly as a device to defend Disco, to combat the belief that you just mentioned. Because like a lot of people who like Disco, I always wonder, and I don’t know much about sport, but I think it’s like supporting a football team that always loses. Because people make so much fun of it, and because it’s such a target for ridicule, we’ve become staunch in our desire to defend it. I think that’s part of it for me.
But there are other reasons too. A lot of what I wrote about in that last book (Entertain Us) about alternative rock in the nineties was about the different distinctions between pop and it’s opposite, which was a real point of pride for those alternative rock or grunge bands in the early years of the 90s. They saw themselves as restoring authenticity to music, which to them meant drums, bass and guitar played in real time, all that kind of stuff. And I guess disco, well disco wasn’t so much the enemy at that point because it was already retro, but those people have in their minds things like commercial house music and techno, and computerised chart pop. The music they were making was seen as being self-evidently better than that because it was less produced and less processed and there was less make up involved and less artifice.
And I think one of the key stories I tried to tell in that book was of the slow unpacking of that idea from both the point of view of artists and audiences, as it became clear over the course of the decade that there is artifice, and construction and deception in every kind of music if you’re involved in the music industry and you’re playing it and selling it to millions and millions of people the distinctions are not that great.
But at the same time that argument has always been interesting to me, what is the difference between “real” music, which it is implied is better for you, or the “fake” music or dance music or synthesised music, and I just think disco is a classic test case for that stuff, it’s obviously very fun and colourful to talk about and the songs are well known by a lot of people, but also in a lot of ways it was the first time that those arguments were played out on a large scale in the discourse of pop music, so it’s always interesting to think about and talk about.
It’s interesting when you look at the history of popular music there always seems to be that dichotomy, there’s always a mentality of “us” and “them”, there never seems to a universal music, there are always groups or factions at war with each other on who’s music is better or more real.
Yeah and I think that reflects Pop music’s and modern rock music’s roots in folk music to some extent and in rural blues music. I think that argument and those ideas not only come from the musicians who wrote those songs and made that music which have formed the roots of rock, but also from the people who supported it and promoted it. The identification of folk music with the workers movement in the fifties and sixties is a very important thing, in some ways that identification has never really gone away, and to this day when we see someone with a cloth cap strumming an acoustic guitar we straight away think “oh right voice of the people” “protest!” and there are all kinds of associations that go along with it, a certain leftist politics, a certain idea of maybe revolution or social justice, all those things that are wrapped up in that kind of image.
At the same time, as you said, there is always if that’s “us”, then there is also “them” the spectacle that unfolds in the world of pop music where we see this really, what looks like, very capitalistic and consumerist lifestyle being promoted and the image of luxury and hedonism and forgetfulness and escapism that had long been perceived as the enemy of conscious music.
And yeah I think you could pick any point in the history of pop or rock music as we know it and see this playing out, whether it be the arguments say between somebody who likes indie music and maybe their younger brother or sister who likes commercial RnB or Hip Hop. I’m sure you would hear the same kind of arguments play themselves out. I certainly remember those arguments.
One of the reasons why I wanted to give this talk was to compare the highbrow discourse of music, the arguments of the Frankfurt School and critics since then, with what Paul Morley has called the low discourse or low theory of pop music which consists of the arguments you have with your brother or your sister, or the kids on the playground, or when you’re drunk at the pub of why your music is real and there music is not. This is all part of the conversation.
I find the idea that certain musics are seen to be “real” or “authentic” to be an thought-provoking one, and in doing a bit of reading beforehand preparing for this interview I read a quote from Bill Oakes, the music supervisor for Saturday Night Fever in which he describes disco as being “real” music. It seems that a certain music’s “realness” is in the ear of the listener.
Yeah well that’s true, I mean it is very flexible. One of the more interesting developments over the last couple of years I think was that Daft Punk album, Random Access Memories, which I don’t think is their best album by any means. But I think the conversation around the album was fascinating, because that was, I mean obviously they were expected to invent the future of music again, they were perceived to have done it once and everybody was waiting for Daft Punk not to release an album, but to release a statement. If they dictated the direction of dance music for so long in the past what would they do now for the future?
And their response to that was really curious, they repeatedly implied, I mean they insisted that they saw that album as a blueprint for the future, but it was in fact a blueprint based on the past. Like quite deliberately and consciously it was linked to a certain sound of disco and post-disco of about 1977 to 1984, the period roughly bookended by say the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack or the classic CHIC albums and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, this was Disco for the 80s, that for them was the ideal of music and a standard to go back to and a standard to move forward from. And that is weird, because at the time a lot of critics, like people who work for Rolling Stone magazine, people who like rock music, saw that music as precisely the enemy because it was seen as so soulless, mechanical and overproduced, it’s really weird that now it is held as a standard of authenticity of “real” music played by real people as opposed to the computerised dance music, or the computerised dance music as Daft Punk see it in the charts today.
There are a couple of different conclusions you can draw from that I guess. It’s possible that we are in an age of perpetual decline and everything is getting worse and worse, it is possible that we need to go back to the past to find certain things that mean things to us as certain times.
I suppose that is similar to the retromania debate that always seems so prevalent, the idea that there is nothing new in pop music now and that we always have to rely on the past; and maybe Robin Thicke’s recent court battle is perhaps suggestive of that.
I think that argument that pop music has kind of run out of ideas that there is nothing new, you can read people making that argument as early as 1972, that pop music has run out of future. But again it doesn’t mean that things are getting worse, it is possible that our music imagination is getting more and more crowded and there is less room to move.
But honestly listening to the radio today, or listening to the music that I see my friends posting and sharing I don’t see that. I don’t think by any objective standard a board listening to the music that is being created today would tell you that it is absolutely not true.
Of course there are elements of the past and of old music, in the music we are making today, because we have all grown up with a musical heritage and there is more and more of it, but the shapes it is being twisted into today are new and in some ways unprecedented.
If you were introducing someone, like me, to Disco for the very first time what would be five songs you would start off with and why?
Oh that’s a good question. I think I would probably play you “Got To Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn. I think that’s a good introduction because it is classic disco in the sense that it’s ecstatic and danceable and compulsively funny and pretty, and the production is immaculate. It has got this incredibly precise way of sort of placing all the elements with lots of space around them, but it still builds really full and exciting.
It is ecstatic in a, well what seems in a real repetitive way and disco is criticised a lot for being repetitive, which is one of the problems I address in this talk, but actually sometimes I think its reliance on repetition is a little bit overstated and that is true of dance music generally. Post-Disco dance music generally does develop, it just does so in a way a rock fan might not be able to anticipate or appreciate straight away.
This particular song is an amazing example of that, you might think on first listen “oh this is the same thing over and over again” but actually it has this incredibly – and I don’t think I have enough technical musical knowledge to explain to you exactly how this is done – it has this really strange kind of spiral staircase structure where the key of the music seems to be constantly moving up although I don’t know if it actually does, but you can imagine the effect of that on a dance floor at the right moment; you would get this feeling of happiness building until you think it’s going to burst. Amazing!
After that I think “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer, produced by Giorgio Moroder is also one of the first things I would play for you. I think because, well we talked before about the criticism of Disco and that it is inauthentic and that critics of disco see the proof of that in the music’s reliance on repetition, disco performers that you hear on record are more often than not are not a single performance by a group in a studio; it’s not the White Stripes or Bob Dylan. It’s a confection, which has been layered and constructed, with lots of overdubs and effects and studio technology to make it like that.
What is really interesting about the evolution of disco is the way that it kind of digs its heels in as the eighties approach, it makes less and less concessions to realism in its production, and actually it goes further and further into technology. And this record is a really important landmark in that process, because it is the first disco record where the band has actually been effectively sacked. All the sounds on it are produced by synthesiser, and the human soul in it is of course provided by the vocal; a technique that has been made much of in disco and post-disco music like house, ever since the contrasting of the warm identifiable human presence in this strange alien landscape and this is one of the first examples of that and also one of the best.
Alright yeah, I know you asked me for five examples and I’ve taken forever to explain those two, shall I give you just one more?
Yeah go for it.
I think another good example; I think I’ll probably want to play you something by CHIC. I think CHIC are a really great example of how disco records could have it both ways. Another criticism of disco, which is another thing I cover in the talk, is that it has no intellectual content, that it is just stupid music, that all the lyrics are about partying or love or sex or dancing and there are a lot of songs like that, and CHIC wrote a lot of songs that seem to be like that. But they were actually really interesting songwriters.
They were very eclectic in their influences, when you hear them talking about the period in which they developed the technical disco sound you learn they were listening to Roxy Music as much as they were listening to punk records. They were absorbing influences from all kinds of things and even from punk later on as the seventies moved into the eighties. And if you listen carefully to CHIC records, and they are worth listening to in that way, you can hear this weird kind of punky spirit of protest and actually a very heavy, no I won’t say heavy, actually a very subtle but powerful sense of irony in their descriptions of the good life. Because even as they’re celebrating it and aspiring to it to some degree, and enjoying it, they’re also offering a critique of that mentality or even just a philosophical reflection on it; What is all this? What is this lifestyle? What is this thing we have become involved in? What kind of future if anything does it have? There is a gentle but persuasive skewering of the culture around disco from inside disco.
That is why when later in the eighties when a lot of the post punk groups in Britain were looking for a way out of what had become the formula of punk a lot of them were attracted to disco and especially to CHIC. You had artists like Scritti Politti and others who looked to CHIC as part of a blueprint for the future that allowed for this really sumptuous and adventurous presentation of music, but also still with a spirit of protest and critique. You could have all the things people wanted out of folk music, or supposedly wanted from real rock and roll, but also let people dance and give them something that is sumptuous and beautiful.
There seem to be a number of alternative reasons provided online for why Disco ended, from its own commercial success to the disco sucks movement, one suggestion was that the emergence of HIV and AIDS also brought about the end of Disco. What do you see as being the principle factor in its downfall?
I think Disco it was born to be bold in a lot of ways and so it is one of the more spectacular sell out processes in the history of pop music. I guess because it was a studio based formula and it embraced that, which meant that there was no reason why you couldn’t, disco is very easy to fake basically is what I’m getting at. You could do Disco as Art, in the way that CHIC did or Giorgio Moroder did, or you could knock off really quick cheap disco if you had a few session musicians and a sequencer and some money from the record company to spend and there was so much of that. I think whilst it didn’t break the rules and the record companies and the record industry simply killed the goose that laid the golden egg, they exploited disco to such a degree that it became boring, it became a cliché.
And of course there’s that whole sociological process going on too. Disco was what today we would call a hipster phenomenon in the beginning, it was an underground thing and it was enjoyed by the people who loved it, specifically the gay urban communities and often people who felt or acted different from the mainstream of their city or society. It allowed them to be individuals together, and form an imaginary community around that. That is the period of the music’s early development, once it crossed over it became a suburban phenomenon; people had to kind of move away from it and find something else or find a more extreme version of the same thing, which is why electro disco happened.
But then there is also an argument that you could make that disco never really went away. If you listen to a lot of the music like what they were by that point calling dance music that they were releasing on 12” in the 1980s it was really disco by another name. The songs are changing of course because technology is changing but there is obviously a really easy continuum to follow between say the albums of CHIC and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. A lot of the same people played on eighties funk or eighties dance records that did on disco records; it is as a case of if you remove the label it is quite easy to view them as a continuum of this thing.
Another thing I read before this interview that I want to get your take on is the notion that Disco was a “blue-collar” music, which clearly invokes a specific class connotation. Do you see social class as being an important factor in disco?
Yeah it is a major factor in that I would say. Disco was one of the most boldly or obviously aspirational music of pop history; that’s one of the reasons why vaguely leftist rock critics hated it so much, because from their point of view the point of rock music, or rock music and youth culture was to be from the streets and to stay on the streets. That was always something of a myth, but a really tenacious one. It was really weird experience for those bands and critics to be confronted by this music that blatantly said I want the good life, that kind of changed things.
But then I think that it’s important not to generalise too much, but I think that idea of rock music, or folk rock, as being working class expression and also soul music as working class pure kind of expression is a middle class fantasy. And often you have the expectation that it should come from there, it is an overly simplistic reading of the music and it also limits it.
I guess as disco became more popular so too did that idea that stood for the good life, it meant that it looked like upper middle class or high class music, but I think that was simplistic reading of something that was more about people who felt like they had nowhere to go, nowhere to move in life and it’s all about imagining a better life. In that way if you listen to it now, if you have the inclination to read off of music like disco what was going on in the seventies, it is fascinating; it says so much about what people were hoping for at that particular time.
What do you think is the reason behind the disco revival of the last few years?
I do think that idea of disco standing for or signifying the good life is a really important part of its on-going appeal. It’s the reason why, it’s kind of the secret equation behind house music, which was really made from short loops of old disco records, that’s really the key to the classic house sound to take little fragments of disco and kind of repeat and interpolate. I guess what’s interesting about house music is that even when you take the vocal content and a lot of the narrative out of disco songs and just reduce them to a sound or a texture it still signifies it still for people who love that music there is still the feeling that it was aspirational that it allowed them to bring themselves out of the world they were in into a better one.
And when I hear people using those disco motifs there is always a little bit of that, there is always that feeling. I make a little bit of electronic music myself and it is just kind of magic, you’re putting something together and you add a tiny little loop or a little section of something from that era or of that style and the disco world and all of a sudden your music seems to sound more expensive. It just invokes this world of fancy entertainment.
There is something kind of irresistible about that, especially for bedroom producers and of course that is one of the reasons why that Daft Punk album was so joyous, because it was made effectively, and I am exaggerating, it was effectively made on a computer in a bedroom and it sounded like a million dollars. Part of it was because those guys are geniuses at putting things together but also because all of the records, almost all the records they sampled on that album are from the classic disco era or from a little later than that; and a little bit of the message or the idea of disco transfers when you sample it or take things from it like that.
So the idea then is that it is a response to the world we’re living in now? Because economic disparity is quite high again now, is that aspirational message again more resonant?
Yeah I guess that’s the thing, and it’s something that I’ll address at length at this talk I’m going to give at the School of Life. When we hear people doing that, when we hear musicians doing that, kind of offering us a fantasy of the good life, or in this case in the circumstances we find ourselves in, the question is always, not that it’s usually put in such high and colourful language, but is this false consciousness, is this means to act as a sort of unofficial social control.
And this is the argument of people like Theodor Adorno, which goes back to the Frankfurt School, and the idea that this kind of music allows us to think we are escaping our circumstances for the time being that we’re listening to it or dancing to it, but actually it just enmeshes us further into this immovable process. In consuming the stuff we are contributing to the process that keeps us down and nothing ever changes.
One of the things that inspired me to write this talk, was a wonderful essay called “In Defence of Disco” by Richard Dyer and he writes it partially from the point of view of a socialist listening to and consuming music through the seventies, who also just really loved disco. And its very personal of course because this created actual problems in his life, his friends saw the way he entertained himself, the kinds of things he liked to do on a weekend, as a betrayal of his politics.
I guess it’s a starker version of the experience a lot of music fans have when they find themselves liking something they feel like they shouldn’t. Maybe it’s an experience that is more familiar to us today through Hip Hop, which is also quite nakedly aspirational and that presents a bit of a problem for people who think of themselves as less politically or socially conscious or environmentally conscious. We can’t condone that stuff, but we also can’t resist the music, there is something about it that still really powerful and whilst we like to express correct ideas it is always confounding us.
I think part of the excitement and confusion of Disco is exactly that, it speaks to our desires even though they are desires that a lot of music lovers would rather not have or know better than to have. So there is a little short circuit that goes on in the brain sometimes when we’re enjoying that kind of music and should I be?
Are there any plans for you to turn the talk into a book at a later date?
I’ve always just seen this thing as self-contained. There are little elements of it that are found in other ways in other things that I have done, and I’m not saying it might not ever grow into something bigger. Like I said I think of it as a kind of case study for something I have been writing about for quite a while and plan to be for a lot longer.
It’s a chance to turn up the volume on this very confusing but also very important argument within the discourse of rock and pop music which is just about what is real music and what’s not, what’s serious and what’s not, is there a difference and does the distinction mean anything.
So what I try to do in this talk is to condense that idea, or that thoughts I’ve had about that problem into a way that is as entertaining as possible. And one of the ways I hope I’ve done that is by presenting the thing itself as a kind of disco DJ set. So if you come and see the talk, I’m giving a lecture but the whole thing is synchronized over the top disco records I am talking about, with the voices of those records themselves forming part of the counterpoint to what I’m talking about; and the two things are quite closely integrated.
Are you working on any other writing projects at the moment?
I’m doing a lot of writing but none of it is a book really. I’ve got some ideas but it’s probably a little too early to talk about them. At the moment I’m living in Germany and I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing about art and writing for museum catalogues and exhibitions. I have also been doing quite a bit of teaching, teaching people about the history of music, and popular media and culture. There are all kinds of ideas floating around, which I can start to see some patterns in but it’s all a bit early for me to say whether that’s going to be a book or not.
One last thing I want to ask about is Ducks! In doing some reading earlier it looked like there was some mention of you having an album coming out soon?
Yeah we do, we do. We are mixing it, so I would say the middle of the year you should start to hear some more stuff from that. I think there are so many reasons why I like making music with Ducks! Lani is an amazing singer and such a treat to work with, and what I really like about it is that process of music as collage or assembling, which is how our music is made.
But also as a music writer I think it keeps me honest **laughs** obviously I’m talking all the time about the theory and the discourse and the ideas behind music, but its easy to forget sometimes the reason why people do it, is because it’s just more fun than anything else. Hours and hours can disappear whilst I’m sitting there trying to make the ideal disco or soul track. That is just not work. Well it doesn’t feel like it.
I think it’s good for someone like me to remember that is where the process starts and all the trouble comes later. Which is when you have to figure out what as a writer or composer what you’re doing in the world and where your music belongs.
The Philosophy of Disco with Craig Schuftan takes place on Wednesday April 8th at The School of Life in Melbourne. More information and tickets can be found at http://www.theschooloflife.com/melbourne/shop/classroom/the-philosophy-o...