There is disco and there is disco. The pair run parallel to each other. The most common view has it as, “a dance fad of the 70s with a profound and unfortunate influence on popular music,” according to the Penguin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music. This disco is celebrity-obsessed, wears polyester slacks, hangs out with John Travolta at Studio 54 or, even worse, dresses like an imbecile from an episode of Starsky & Hutch and dances underwhelmingly to Tina Charles.
But there is another disco: one that is gritty, real and emancipated. This disco changed society for the better, was responsible for some of the finest soul music of its era and played a huge part in the liberation of gay men and women during the 1970s.
During his time at Scepter, Mel Cheren would frequently come into the office on a Monday morning and rave about a club he had attended or records that were blowing up. Initially, his enthusiasm was met with a muted response. The first inkling Scepter had that this new movement bubbling under their feet would have any impact on their business was when the Independents’ ‘I Love You, Yes I Do’, the B-side to ‘Leaving Me’ in 1972, became a minor disco hit some months after it had originally been released.
That notion was reinforced the following year when Mel Cheren persuaded the label to issue an instrumental version of ‘We’re On The Right Track’ by Ultra High Frequency on the flipside of the main song. It was the first disco 45 to include an instrumental and won Cheren the Trendsetter of the Year at the Billboard awards in 1974. The instrumental versions that became a regular fixture of B-sides were a key component in the DJ’s armoury, allowing them to use two copies of the same record and work them together to extend certain passages of the song (a precursor to remixing). “Scepter was more like a family than a group of co-workers,” wrote Cheren in his autobiography. “From outside the company, Tom Moulton was pushing me to put these hot new records out. From inside, I continued to push Ed Kushins and Florence [Greenberg] to do just that. Collectively, we pushed and pulled each other into the heyday of disco.”
“Disco Gold” was both the culmination of Mel Cheren and Tom Moulton’s relationship and the label’s last hurrah. Greenberg retired shortly after and Ed Kushins joined Cheren in launching West End Records. Although all of the songs contained on the album had been previously released, almost all were re-worked and extended by Moulton for the project. Two of them, Bobby Moore’s ‘(Call Me Your) Anything Man’ and ‘Breakaway’ by Ernie Bush, were among the first disco songs ever to appear on a new format accidentally created by Tom Moulton: the 12-inch single.
A few years after its release, the world couldn’t move for disco records, discotheques, cash-in compilations, the horror of Studio 54’s celebrity culture and, eventually, disco demolition derbies, before it all crashed and burned in a frenzy of quality-collapse and over-production. But its early years, led by producers and remixers such as Tom Moulton and the many DJs of New York and beyond, were truly special. “I thought if we can make this disco thing work,” asserts Moulton, “and we can get people to buy a record, and it’s not actually on the radio, we could influence radio stations so much that they would have to play it, that would be amazing.” The evidence is right here.
(Bill Brewster is co-author of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disc Jockey, published by Headline Books, 1999.)
By Bill Brewster