Disco is a profoundly important musical and social development.
Both of these statements are true and neither of them are. Such is the contradiction that lies at the heart of arguably the most important musical movement of the 70’s. Disco is tacky, slight, overblown and intentionally facile, which gives some ground to those that want to claim disco sucks. It’s also meant to be – a disposable art form that exists simply to be enjoyed. What’s the point of criticising something for not being what it was never meant to be?
Disco is just the latest iteration of dance music, something that in its modern form can be dated back to at least the 1920’s, and nobody gives the Charleston a hard time for failing to have politically relevant lyrics. Which gives some grounds to disco not sucking. Disco is profoundly important musically – in that it’s a vastly influential genre whose inspiration can still be felt today – and socially, in that it became the music that 70’s American gay liberation crystallised around. No disco, no Studio 54, no Paradise Garage. Which makes it important. It also pales next to the far more direct social and political politics of punk and what it wanted to achieve. Which makes it less important. See? Deeply contradictory. There are few genres quite as divisive as disco and even to this day disco remains surprisingly difficult to quantify.
Gloria Gaynor is, of course, a name synonymous with the disco movement, though this isn’t the song she’s most closely associated with. That would be the seemingly-inescapable “I Will Survive” – but “I Will Survive” was released at a time when disco was, if not completely on the wane, certainly starting to lose momentum. “Never Can Say Goodbye” was released very near the beginning of disco’s cultural dominance and to describe it as a smash is something of an understatement – it’s one of the reasons disco became popular in the first place. Despite never reaching Number 1 on either side of the Atlantic, the influence of Gaynor in popularising disco is absolutely vast, not least because of the album Never Can Say Goodbye. The single did well – it was Gaynor’s breakthrough – but more than that, the first side of the album consisted of three tracks, the previously-failed single “Honey Bee”, the disco-makeover of the title track originally recorded by The Jackson 5, and a disco version of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”, which were segued together into one non-stop nineteen minute track.
That might not seem like much now, but in 1975 it was an absolute revelation. It proved vastly popular in clubs – discos, if you will – because playing the entirety of the first side of the album allowed nineteen minutes of dancing without a break (and presumably meant the DJ could slip out for a quick piss without worrying that the music might come crashing to a stop if there was a queue at the urinals). All three songs would go on to be successful singles but “Never Can Say Goodbye” became the defining song of Gaynor’s early career and one of the defining disco songs – and it’s easy to see why.
All the requisite parts that make a truly great disco record are here. There’s those swirling strings in the introduction – sweeping, over-the-top and ever-so-slightly shrill, the string arrangements are a vital part of so many disco records. Gaynor’s voice itself, an absolute powerhouse performance going full pelt and completely committing to the performance, is obviously crucial. The sincerity and power that Gaynor brings to the song is a key to its success simply because it makes it so easy to buy into the song – there’s plenty of energy coming from the music but it’s all dwarfed by Gaynor when she’s going full pelt and it’s amazing just how strong a voice she has when she lets of it off the leash (something that’s not immediately clear from “I Will Survive”, which is way more restrained than “Never Can Say Goodbye”).
There’s an electricity about the song, derived in part from the syncopated drums – artificial of course, no real drummer ever came within a million mines of this song – and in part from an arrangement that never lets the pace slacken. The four-on-the-floor beat never varies throughout the length of the song – nor indeed the length of the three-song medley on the album – so once you’ve started there’s not going to be any let-up. You get pulled in and you stay pulled in. This is one of disco’s easy-to-miss tricks – it’s not just that it encourages you to dance but the sheer relentlessness of the artificial drums, running for a longer period of time than any human drummer could maintain, makes staying pretty much an inevitability, and the longer the tracks the longer you stay. That was pretty revelatory in 1975. “Never Can Say Goodbye”’s single mix is only three minutes long but it packs so much into its comparatively short running time that it feels like it goes on for so much longer.
And then of course there’s the production, a key element in all the best disco songs. The combination of electronic drums, woozy string lines, lead singer, backup singers, keyboards, other instrumentation and just about anything else you can think of makes production on a record like this a serious challenge, not to mention expensive. And the fact that “Never Can Say Goodbye” sports four producers – Jay Ellis, Meco Monardo, Tony Bonigiovi and Harold Wheeler – should tell you something about the effort put in to getting all this sounding right. And yet what an effort – for a three-minute single to pack that much punch just shows what a quality job they did. The album version tops out at over six minutes but all the tricks the song and its production pull can be comfortably compressed into the 7-inch single and carry just as much impact as the longer version. That’s quite the achievement.
And it’s not as if Gaynor’s version of the song would be the last time “Never Can Say Goodbye” hit it big, despite it being such a distinctive part of her career. Cue, then, The Communards and their Hi-NRG version of the song, which made it to Number 4 in the UK over a decade later, in 1987 (it only made it to 51 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the States, though for some pleasing symmetry it made it to – you guessed it – Number 2 on the US Dance Club charts). What’s interesting about this is not so much the fact that the song became a hit again but that the difference between the Communards version and the Gloria Gaynor version is… almost nothing. The Communards version is clearly a product of the 80’s in the way that the Gaynor version is clearly a product of the 70’s, but the truth is the differences between them are tiny.
Why? Because, in the end, disco never died. You can have as many Disco Sucks record-burnings as you like. You can criticize the lack of “authenticity” – whatever that means – that rock and roll or blues can apparently lay claim to. Have a Disco Demolition Night if it makes you feel better. But even when disco “died” in the early 80’s it didn’t. Not really. It just changed its name a bit when calling something “disco” came with too much cultural baggage. Disco became Hi-NRG which became dance which became house and so on and so on and so on. It diversified too – Euro disco, dance-punk, rave, nu disco… it’s all part of the same spectrum and it can all draw its roots back to songs like “Never Can Say Goodbye”. Punk couldn’t kill disco. Neither could New Romantic, glam’s pretentious big sister. New Wave, post-punk, goth, heavy metal… none of them could deliver the killing blow. Gloria Gaynor didn’t just make a song that popularised a newly-emergent form of music, she has, by extension, become a lodestone for whole genres that owe their existence to her success. She may not get credit for it but Gloria Gaynor might just be one of the most influential recording artists of the 20th century as a result of that – and it’s with this song, not “I Will Survive”, that she did it. If you’ve danced to almost anything in a club or discotheque since the mid-70’s onwards you owe Gloria Gaynor a profound debt of gratitude.
What Else Happened In 1975?
Like it or loathe it, it’s the year – well, one of them – of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. A very, very frightening thing indeed, though it isn’t the biggest song of the year (because its success is split almost evenly between 1975 and 1976). No, that award goes to Billy Swan’s crossover country hit “I Can Help”. Mmm. The second-biggest is 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”. Talking Heads play their first gig and Peter Gabriel leaves Genesis to go solo. Ronnie Wood becomes Mick Taylor’s eventual replacement in The Rolling Stones, which is handy as the Faces officially break up so Rod Stewart can plough relentlessly onwards with a solo career that’s still going strong. What’s that noise on the horizon? It must be punk as the Sex Pistols play their first gig at St Martin’s Art College. David Bowie embraces plastic soul with Young Americans and Aerosmith have Toys In The Attic. The Bee-Gees begin their return to cultural relevancy with “Jive Talking” and Bruce Springsteen hit it big with Born To Run. Another of disco’s big classics, Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby”, is released and astonishingly fails to get to Number 1 on either side of the Atlantic. The Rocky Horror Picture Show hits cinemas, meaning we can all do the time warp again, and perhaps most importantly of all, the seminal and vastly influential Dr Teeth And The Electric Mayhem are founded. So are Bony M, The Boomtown Rats and Iron Maiden.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
1975 was always going to be the Year Of Disco, so if it wasn’t Ms Gaynor it was going to be Ms Summer and “Love To Love You Baby”, which got to Number 2 in the US. It also means Barry White was in contention with “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything” which also peaked at Number 2 in the States. Minnie Riperton’s larynx-shredding “Lovin’ You” got to Number 2 in the UK (and all the way to Number 1 in the US) for something a bit different, and a full fifteen years after its original release our very first entry, “Three Steps To Heaven”, made it back to Number 2 in the hands of the devastatingly awful 50’s-revival band Showaddywaddy. Number of US hits for Showaddywaddy? Nil. Well done, America. And thanks to the inescapable monolith that is “Bohemian Rhapsody”’s UK chart run Hot Chocolate could only get to Number 2 with “I Believe In Miracles”. You sexy thing you.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. The Kinks – “Lola”
3. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
4. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
5. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
6. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
7. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
8. Queen, “Killer Queen”
9. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
10. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
11. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
12. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
13. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
14. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
15. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
16. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”