‘I hate playing this song’: when rock stars go disco

Clockwise from top left: Debbie Harry; Mick Jagger; Ringo Starr; Freddie Mercury; Gene Simmons; Elton John; Rod Stewart.

A few weeks ago, Noel Gallagher announced that his forthcoming album would have a “70s disco” feel. No one batted an eyelid. Here was more evidence of Gallagher’s newfound spirit of boundless musical adventure: a man who has spent years sticking rigidly to the accepted canon of classic rock delving outside of it, into a genre that still never makes the 100 best albums lists in the heritage rock mags and whose practitioners struggle to get elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, however successful and influential they were. Why wouldn’t an artist who appears to have finally tired of making the same record over and over again – “There’s only so many times you can write a song about the rain or use the word ‘shine’,” he sagely noted, “and I’ve got away with it a fucking shitload” – signify that he’s broadened his musical horizons by dabbling in disco?

How different things were in 1979, when the Beach Boys released their new single, the first fruit of an $8m contract with CBS Records: it was a freshly recorded, 11-minute-long disco reworking of their 1967 hit Here Comes the Night. A record clearly intended to reinvent the Beach Boys for a new era, the disco version of Here Comes the Night alas had rather the opposite effect. It wasn’t just that it was an ignominious commercial failure, although it was. It didn’t even make the Top 40, while the accompanying album stiffed so badly that the boss of CBS, Walter Yetnikoff, began to regard the $8m contract with a certain rueful air (in fact, Yetnikoff’s actual words were “I think I’ve been fucked”, but you get the general gist). Worse, their fans actively hated it, clearly viewing it as an entirely unacceptable capitulation to market forces, a belated bit of bandwagon-jumping beneath even a band whose standards had slipped so badly they’d recently released a tennis-themed song called Match Point of Our Love. According to the journalist Nick Kent, the band “felt obliged to apologise whenever they played it live”. They eventually stopped performing it altogether after what Wikipedia describes as “adverse audience reaction” at a New York show.

Critical opprobrium, a collapse both of sales and artistic credibility, fans who paid good money to see you baying for your blood: you couldn’t wish for a more vivid illustration of the risks awaiting the late-70s rock artist who chose to go disco at disco’s height. It was a hell of a gamble. There was always the chance of some short-term commercial gain but the odds were stacked against you: the back catalogues of umpteen 70s artists are flecked with ignored attempts to cash in on the success of Saturday Night Fever, remembered largely by fans as catastrophic career aberrations. Even if you did get a hit out of it, your success would almost invariably be accompanied by mockery or even anger. “Rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely,” thundered Rolling Stone, perhaps a trifle melodramatically, of Rod Stewart not long after Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? went to No 1.

If the stakes were so high, why did many 70s artists feel impelled to do it? There were definitely artists who went disco because they loved the music. One of the reasons Elton John’s Are You Ready for Love and Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust are great records is because Freddie Mercury and Elton John knew of what they spoke: they were both regulars in the New York gay clubs that were disco’s natural habitat. But you get the feeling that most of the rock bands who went disco had something rather basic and craven on their minds.

Initially, it was largely to do with opportunism: if a bunch of no-hopers like the Bee Gees – so washed-up before writing Jive Talkin’ that they were reduced to playing Batley Variety Club and appearing on a local TV station in Sheffield that only broadcast in black-and-white – could suddenly become the biggest band on the planet, then it was surely a signal that disco was a world in which all bets were off, where virtually anyone could reinvent themselves. And after Saturday Night Fever became a multi-platinum phenomenon, there was clearly a sense that making a disco record was almost imperative to commercial success.

For nine solid months in 1979, every single that topped the US charts was a disco record. Radio stations across the country altered their output completely, following the lead of New York’s WKTU Mellow 92, a failing soft rock station that rebranded itself as Disco 92 and swiftly became the most popular radio station in the country. The spark for the infamous Disco Demolition Night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park was DJ Steve Dahl being fired from his job at the city’s WDAI station because it was changing its format from rock to 24-hour disco.

The result was that a vast number of wildly improbable artists gave disco a try, with some fairly mind-boggling results. The Grateful Dead went disco on 1978’s Shakedown Street. So did the Kinks, whose single (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman sounds oddly not unlike Blur’s Girls and Boys. So did Kiss, apparently much against the better judgment of bassist Gene Simmons: “I hate playing that song,” he said of 1979’s I Was Made for Lovin’ You. “Stadiums full of people jump up and down like biblical locusts … kill me now.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you would politely describe the results as being of mixed quality. There seemed to be a general feeling abroad that making a disco record was straightforward. Kiss’s Paul Stanley subsequently claimed that I Was Made for Lovin’ You was the result of a bet to show how easy writing a mere disco track was, as opposed presumably to the divine inspiration and hours of sweat required to write more heavyweight, meaningful material such as Love Gun, Lick It Up and Rock and Roll All Nite. But if it had been that easy, there wouldn’t be so many terrible disco records made by rock bands.

There were certainly inspired rock/disco crossovers: the Rolling Stones’ peerless Miss You, ELO’s brilliant Shine a Little Love and Last Train to London, and Blondie’s Heart of Glass. But there were also scores of records that, in retrospect, beggar belief. Who wouldn’t want to hear a disco version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by cape-sporting prog rock keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman? Who wouldn’t find the idea of a disco album by Ringo Starr (1977’s Ringo the 4th, featuring the unspeakable, castanet-heavy Tango All Night) anything other than delightful? And who among us can honestly say that their heart doesn’t beat a little faster at the thought of Jethro Tull recording a Gaelic-themed, bagpipe-heavy disco number called Warm Sporran?

In absolute fairness to the Beach Boys fans howling their disapproval at Here Comes the Night, there was something deeply uncool about much of the rock/disco crossover. Clearly, no self-respecting DJ in a hip gay disco was going to play this stuff, so it was music aimed at the lowest common denominator: the naff suburbanites who’d belatedly got their Travolta on, the people for whom disco meant, as the writer Peter Shapiro put it, “hearing YMCA six times in one night at the Rainbow Room of a Holiday Inn … while doing line dances with a bunch of travelling salesmen”.

That is not what disco means today. Anyone with a brain views it the way Brian Eno did at the time (“I have heard the sound of the future,” he breathlessly told David Bowie during the sessions for “Heroes”, before playing Donna Summer’s I Feel Love) – as radical, groundbreaking, revolutionary music that permanently changed how we think about pop, filled with daring sonic innovations and experiments. It invented the 12-inch single and the remix, turning a song into something malleable and unfixed, which could be released in umpteen different versions, altered according to the whim of whichever producer or DJ to which you handed remix duties.

That is why no one gets upset when a rock artist says they’re going disco in 2018, and that’s presumably the spirit that Noel Gallagher thinks he is tapping into. Unless, of course, his next album sounds like YMCA.