January 2024 - 200 Episodes of Sunshine After Dark

New Year's Eve is the ritual celebration of the final demise of the year, but January is the month when we actually shake off the mental remnants of the old and begin anew. This year, the month of January holds double significance for Sunshine After Dark: January 25th marks the 200th episode of the show and, within the ongoing chronological survey of disco I've been obsessively constructing on the show, I have finally reached the shores of 1979, the year that disco crashed.

There's not much to say about the 200 episode mark (it's just a number, right?), except that I have now surpassed my previous CJSR show, Clocks and Clouds, which I co-hosted with my friend Chris Waterton, and which ran for 188 episodes, from late 2003 to the fall of 2007. I started Sunshine After Dark in the fall of 2019 because I wanted to rejoin the community of CJSR volunteers, where I have met some of the coolest people, and because I thought I should finally get around to really, truly listening to all the disco records that I had been collecting since 2004.

Tim Lawrence's book, Love Saves the Day, set me on the path to collecting disco. Before then, I collected house and techno and knew there was underground disco beyond ABBA and the Bee Gees, but I didn't know what artists to look for. After devouring the book, which included lots of playlists, I started going to flea markets and slowly assembling the pieces of the story. Later, I picked up other books, like the collected Disco File columns of Vince Aletti, and eventually I had a pretty good idea of the major labels and major artists. I figured I had pierced through the veil of ignorance, and found the good stuff: Salsoul, Prelude, Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, etc. But sometimes a little knowledge is dangerous. You think you know it all! Well, I had learned about the highlights. But I still harbored a notion that there was a lot of 'bad' disco, which I believed generally coincided with the supposed excesses of 1978 and 1979, when disco supposedly became 'commercial,' and which was to be avoided at all costs.

But that simplistic story starts to break down when you encounter the songs in their original context, or the context that I've managed to recreate for the music on the show: namely, when you encounter them as individual points in a continuous stream of new releases, and when you play them together in mixes with their contemporaneous fellows. Instead of approaching each song from the point of view of having to pass judgement: 'is this good or is it bad', you starting asking yourself, 'could this be useful?' and 'what would this sound like next to this other song?' And then you start noticing little wonderful details all over the place.
And so the significance of reaching 1979 is more personally satisfying to me than 200 episodes, because my understanding of the musical developments that lead up to that precipice has been greatly expanded, especially over the past 12 months of 1978. Previously, I knew that so-called Eurodisco had come to predominate and that this was, in a general sense, synonymous with "cookie-cutter" music and that disco might have gone on its merry path of "authentic" orchestral soul if that other style had not come along and ruined everything. But what I have come to appreciate is the shallowness and implausibility of this narrative. The division between these two styles on a musical basis is not so black and white as one might expect and both styles influenced each other in their development.

The Europeans were emulating the orchestral sound of Philadelphia to begin with. Take the first Ritchie Family album, Brazil, which featured American singers, the usual orchestral players of the Philadelphia scene, but was produced by Jacques Morali. It sounds like an American record. The cinematic scope and dramatic scale of orchestral music became the register or measurement of scale (in the sense of size) for disco's sonic peaks. Arguably, that was true for American and European music alike. And with such a large vertical scale of dynamics, it was inevitable that the horizontal length or duration would reach towards the orchestral length of symphonies too, where structures are broken up into different connected movements, which artists like Alec Costandinos explored in albums like Romeo & Juliet.

Vince Aletti talks about pace and changes as two elements to consider when listening to a longer suite-style disco pieces (or any disco music, really). Pace means the pacing of the changes between different sections of the composition. Do they keep you interested as a dancer? And the changes themselves: are they contrasting or gradual, do they catch your interest, are the hooks catchy, do they build on each other? This is the same kind of overall effect that a DJ wants to achieve when mixing records together, and on these longer disco records (usually 15 to 20 minutes long), this composition is "pre-coordinated" (to take a term from my library profession). Aletti was reviewing all the disco that came out. He would note that a certain record was Pop-disco or Euro-disco, but those were not a comment on their quality. There was a time and a place for them, just as there was for the traditional "Philly" sound. In putting the show together, I've really enjoyed playing with these different colours on the palette and finding fun ways to combine them.

Besides the lengthening of compositions to create suites, which I differentiate from the lengthening of songs by remixers like Walter Gibbons, who created peaks and valleys by introducing instrumental and drum-only break downs into conventional soul song structures, the Europeans were responsible for two other stylistic innovations that both appeared in 1977 and went on to become fully exploited in 1978. These were synthesizers and the rock attitude. Europeans had long been associated with synthesizers, and they weren't new to disco but usually they were employed in songs by groups like the Peppers or Bimbo Jet to play a melody in a funny sound.

It turned out that synthesizers were really good at two things that other instruments couldn't do quite so easily: the ability to play chords and tones that were sustained for long stretches and that could be modulated in timbre and character; and the ability to be triggered by an electronic sequencer to create a hypnotic rhythmic pattern. These two characteristics could be combined, as they most famously were on I Feel Love, where slow modulation of the sound over a whole section of 32 bars or longer softens the rigidity of the octave-popping baseline without taking away from its hypnotic effect. Both of these aspects of synthesizers were highly compatible with the evolution of disco structures towards long, unfurling, seemingly unending music, not unlike a Wagnerian opera*. (*Can it be a mere coincidence that Jim Burgess won a prize for singing Wagner?). This gave producers a lot of room to experiment and explore.

The second European innovation (or third, really) is what I'm calling the "rock attitude" or "rock-vocal". The song that really brought this forward was Santa Esmeralda's Please Don't Let Me be Misunderstood, which, truth-be-told, was more of a Spanish, flamenco style song than anything. But the straining vocal style of Leroy Gomez and the electric guitar solo introduced the strutting, peacockish intensity of the rock star into the sonic theatre of the dance floor, which gave dancers a fun new attitude to act out. This "rock-innovation" was the thing that I really did not expect to discover in 1978. I already knew about the synthesizer introduction. But I think the rock style had just as much effect. The two elements often show up together. As I say, it was as much about the attitude in the music as it was about the music itself. And really, it was less of an introduction and of more a revival of the rock attitude that was found in some of the very early disco DJs sets. Francis Grasso famously played Whole Lotta Love over top of Chicago's I'm a Man. And then you've got Barrabas, Babe Ruth, Titanic, etc. Interestingly, many of these groups were English or European.

As I say, having been introduced in 1977, by 1978 these three elements had simmered together long enough and together were propelling disco in a new direction. Disco style became even more dynamic than it had been before, because new combinations of these elements were being created all the time. That's why the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, while it sold incredible numbers, arguably had little impact on the evolution of the music. The non-Bee Gees songs on it were already a year old or more when it was release in December of 1977. Disco was already moving in new directions, full steam ahead. In 1978 you still got those longer suites of music, but they were toned down a bit. Take Amant, for example. Or Celi Bee's Fly Me on the Wings of Love. Apparently, the music for that 15 minute suite was supposed to be for the Rice & Bean Orchestra's version of Dante's Inferno, but instead it was converted into a song with more conventional lyrics.

Putting the show together the past 12 months, I have to say that following the week-to-week development has been very compelling. Each release does something new, if incrementally, which creates a feeling of openness and possibility. I track my playlists and I generally don't repeat songs once I've played them. It's hardly surprising that I wasn't able to play all of my records from 1978, let alone records I don't have, but imagine if you were a working DJ back then and you had an hour or more of new music to learn every week.

These days, there are so many dance music genres and thousands (I would bet) of new releases a day in each genre, it's almost unimaginable the volume to keep track of. But it is harder to find music that really is innovative once genres stabilize. Something new comes along for a while, its possibilities are exploited, and then, if it's lucky, it settles in to becoming a standardized template, like the blues. Even old school (rave) hardcore has devotees lovingly producing new tracks with original Amiga software. Nothing wrong with that. Music doesn't always have to be on the bleeding edge to be valuable or worthwhile. But it gets harder to sustain excitement and enthusiasm in a "scene", by which I mean an audience that's been following a genre or set of bands, without some element of the "new". Disco had that in spades in 1977 and 1978. I'm about to find out how it all plays out in 1979.