In 2001, I went to an exhibit of record album art at a gallery in New York. The walls were papered from floor to ceiling with covers of every description. The crowd was enthralled, pointing at familiar pop stars, reminiscing about where they were when they first heard a certain song, or connecting again with an album that seemed to never stop spinning all through college. I wondered what it was about a twelve-by-twelve-inch album cover that could engage just about anybody.
The curators of the show were people like me — so dedicated to records it’s almost as if free will doesn’t count. I envied their ability to express their devotion and dreamed about what I could do to celebrate album art. As my wheels turned, I realized that conspicuous by its absence was any spotlight on the disco era, a particular favorite of mine, and I decided at that moment that I had a mission, a calling, to change that. To Disco, With Love is the result.
I thought I knew this history because I had lived and loved it. But as I started to research, I realized what I knew was far from the whole story. Studying the “Disco Action” charts found in scratchy, microfilmed issues of Billboard magazine at Lincoln Center’s library was an eye-opener. The first disco chart appeared in November 1974, with record positions calculated by audience response, as reported by a few New York DJs, and by sales reported by select New York record shops that specialized in this new music. It was barely enough to fill two skinny columns. But by September 1976, a little less than two years later, the magazine was devoting an entire page to what was being played in fifteen major cities across the country.
Billboard magazine, the music industry bible, was telling the country that disco had arrived. Each city, unsurprisingly, had its own personality. Philadelphia was to disco what Detroit was to Motown, with the City of Brotherly Love’s signature sound of smooth orchestral soul. Miami had its own sound, exemplified by K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s catchy beats, breezy hooks and tempered by the endless summer and miles of beaches. Los Angeles often danced to a song that wasn’t being played in any other city — it should come as no shock that David Bowie’s “Fame” made disco playlists there and nowhere else. By September 1979, there were so many tracks that disco had its own National Top 100.
As demand for music specifically designed for dancing increased, a new aesthetic emerged. Nothing like it had been heard before. In the three years between the debut Disco Action column and the release of Saturday Night Fever in November 1977, the amount of original disco music released was staggering. Each week a new stack of singles and albums would come on the scene. A door had opened and the new sound of disco allowed established artists such as Patti LaBelle, the Jackson Five and Frankie Valli to reinvent themselves, as well as great new talent like the Trammps, Donna Summer and Paul Jabara to rush onto the scene and express themselves.
Disco distinguished itself from traditional Top 40 songs by experimenting with the length of its tracks. Disco dancers wanted to be fully involved in a song, wrapped up in it. No one knew this better than Tom Moulton, who is universally credited with inventing the extended “Disco Mix” with his work on early, longer tracks like “Peace Pipe” by B.T. Express. It became common for a song to be seven or eight minutes long, during which it would break down and then build itself back up to another climax. Eurodisco took it a step further—exploring variations on one song’s theme for an entire side of the disc was not unusual. Dancers loved this! Often the floor erupted in screams of joyful approval as the songs progressed. Furthermore, disco benefited from strides in sound reproduction. The better discos were installing state-of-the-art sound systems. Grinding bass lines, crash cymbals, soaring violins, and tinkling keyboards played at rock concert volume took dancers inside the sound.
By the mid-1970s, album art for the 12-inch record had evolved into a mirror of social values, and the covers of disco — possibly pop music’s most notorious — are no exception. The classic disco era, a period ranging from mid-1974 through the early 1980s, evolved into an international obsession and an enormous body of music was created to support the demand. The music provided the soundtrack and the album art promoted the package.
It is easy to dismiss much of this art with an eyeroll, but that would be a mistake. The album art established its own vocabulary in much the same way as the music. If it wasn’t for disco, would we have had paintings of dancing aliens in a transparent spaceship streaking through space? Or photographs of a girl-group dressed up as motorcycle riding dominatrices surrounded by Speedo-wearing body builders? Looking at these covers is like catching Saturday Night Fever all over again. We are reminded how good it feels to shake off our worries and just dance.
Much, too, has been made of the last days of disco. Disco did not die. Disco didn’t end because the general public got sick of it and staged a symbolic funeral pyre at Comiskey Park. This disco dancer and DJ has no personal recollection of that event. It made no impression on me while I was grooving to the fresh releases of summer 1979, like “The Boss” by Diana Ross, and “Good Times” by Chic. Disco, like it did from the beginning, continued to evolve. Disco was the springboard that launched rap, hip-hop, and break dancing into the mainstream. Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Boy George and other mega-stars of the 1980s owe a huge debt to disco and the dancefloors that were still in full swing. To this day there are numerous venues where patrons gather to dance, dance, dance the night away.
Disco is alive and the beat goes on and on…
Wild Cherry, Wild Cherry [Epic]
Of all the records collected for To Disco, With Love, the photograph on Wild Cherry’s debut album sums up the over-the-top quality of the disco era best. Photographer Frank Laffitte’s stunning capture of lips smeared in bulletproof gloss about to pop a juicy cherry is pure sex, but somehow not vulgar. Laffitte was sought after to bring his flair for the ultra-hot to the business of album art, and this album contains the legendary “Play That Funky Music” which told of the once stubborn singer’s joyful discovery of funk, and his eventual surrender to the groove, a feeling shared by the masses in the fall of 1976.
Average White Band, Average White Band [Atlantic]
Who knew one line could be so cheeky? Lead singer Alan Gorrie’s idea of incorporating a sexy bottom into Average White Band’s logo was inspired! AWB hailed from Scotland and are probably best remembered for “Pick up the Pieces,” the hit single from this album.
KC and the Sunshine Band, KC and the Sunshine Band [T.K.]
These packages are essentially type treatments. KC had a custom logo from the beginning, and he got a lot of use out of it, applying it to all the band’s covers. Time, as well as budget, might have been a factor. Often these albums were rush-released to capitalize on the momentum of a surprise hit single.
Harry Wayne Casey, a teen with a dream of recording his own record, met Richard Finch, an engineer at TK Records based in Hialeah, Florida, and the world was never the same. They wrote and produced numerous records for the label. Recording their own group, The Sunshine Band, was the most successful. Joining forces with the studio session players at the TK studio, their multiracial sound of sunshine was perfect for the summer of ‘75, when this album broke out. Their high-energy performances, which featured a four-piece horn section, tambourine-shaking backup girls, color-splashed outfits, and choreography, appealed to a huge audience. This was their second album — it went triple platinum — and to this day it isn’t surprising to hear “That’s the Way (I Like It)” or “Get Down Tonight” at a wedding, a football game halftime, or even at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The Salsoul Orchestra, Nice ’N’ Naasty [Salsoul]
The now very-collectible Dance Your Ass Off T-shirt was a promotional item from Salsoul Records, founded in 1974 by three brothers, Joe, Stan, and Ken Cayre. Worn here by Ellen Michaels, a Playboy centerfold and prominent New York model known in the industry as “The Body,” this cover was a sensation. Ellen appeared on several other album covers like Barrabas’s Watch Out.
Salsoul Records became one of the most influential labels of the era. Their blending of salsa and soul created a musical signature heard around the world. Much like MFSB, The Salsoul Orchestra backed up the label’s roster of talent, such as First Choice and Double Exposure, as well as recording their own albums. Under the direction of producer, conductor, and vibraphonist Vincent Montana Jr., the group not only explored salsa and soul, but a full spectrum of styles like swing, classical, and rock. Unlike many disco productions, they could play Montana’s arrangements live, and performed for wildly enthusiastic audiences at such prestigious venues as Radio City Music Hall. This album, their second, released in the fall of 1976, has many popular tracks with “Nice ’N’ Naasty” being the best.
Donna Summer, I Remember Yesterday [Atlantic]
Arms and hands were used as compositional elements to frame the subject’s face, often seductively. Eye contact was working its magic, but 1977’s crop of artists was far less innocent — and far more glamorous — than they were the year before. The concept for Donna Summer’s fourth album is nostalgia — 40s, 50s, 60s flavored songs. But the album ended with the super-futuristic Eurodisco “I Feel Love.” Marlena Shaw recorded for the legendary jazz label Verve before signing with Columbia, which put her in the mainstream. Whether she liked the material or not, she brought it to life and recorded some classics. From this album, “Pictures and Memories” as well as the title track were hits.
Meco, Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk [Millennium]
Robert Rodriquez’s Art Deco–styled airbrush and acrylic painting for Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk is out of this world. Wearing space suits that would get them in to any disco on Earth, travelers take some time out to do the bump. Star Wars was a phenomenal success that quickly became massively merchandised — action figures, lunch boxes, stationery, T-shirts, lightsabers, and more, more, more. Anything that referred to the film was hot. In a flash of inspiration, producer Meco Monardo, along with Tony Bongiovi and Harold Wheeler, invented a sixteen minute disco synopsis of John Williams’s movie score. Memorable themes and spacey sound effects mixed with flashing disco lights made a perfect fit, and their single outsold Williams’s soundtrack. The “Cantina Band” segment is disco at its unbridled wackiest. Williams credits Meco for taking Star Wars to a “vast audience who otherwise would not have heard it in its original symphonic setting.” Disco interpretations of movie scores, like The Wizard of Oz and Superman, became Meco’s signature.
The Philharmonics, The Masters In Philadelphia [Capricorn]
The dancers in The Masters in Philadelphia painting strike static poses resembling “disco statues.” A closer look shows their ability to be in several places at the same time. The Philarmonics was a group of session players assembled by arranger/conductor Steve Gray. The album was recorded in England, nowhere near Philly, and disco-fied the revered works of classical composers from centuries past.
Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express [Capitol]
In the spring of 1977, the more progressive DJs were playing Trans-Europe Express. Kraftwerk’s sound of faceless technology was created entirely by electronic synthesizers, sequencers, vocoders, etc., many of which were custom-built for the artists. No one dreamed that not only would this sound provide an inspirational template for the soon-to-emerge techno and synth-pop trends, but it would also be appropriated by Afrika Bambaataa’s Soul Sonic Force and provide the hook in one of hip-hop’s first anthems, “Planet Rock.” It is remarkable that the cover of such a futuristic work is so decidedly retro, referencing the glamour photography of the 30s.
Blondie, Parallel Lines [Chrysalis]
Not all were enamored of disco’s unbridled frivolity. New wave and punk followers wanted their music to be more about a black-and-white unpolished reality than a scripted fantasy. Many in the anti-disco movement considered Blondie to be their property, so when the group released the very disco-sounding “Heart of Glass” in early 1979, fans were shocked and felt the group had sold out. Regardless of this controversy, Blondie would experiment with many musical styles, like reggae and rap, and achieve international acclaim. “Heart of Glass” was instantly added to playlists in early 1979, and that was a sign of the future: The public was growing bored with disco’s formula and more and more songs on the charts would come from rockers and new wavers.
Chic, Risqué [Atlantic]
Guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, aka Chic, had a unique musical signature and made their two instruments sound like nobody else could. Their third album, Risqué, offered the summer 1979 anthem “Good Times.” Mid-tempo, the sunny sentiment and thumping bassline were perfect for disco roller-skating, which was enjoying tremendous popularity. Edwards’ bassline was so hot it was appropriated as the foundation of several other very successful songs.
Within weeks the groundbreaking “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang was climbing the charts. Next summer, it inspired “Another One Bites the Dust” by rock group Queen. This could only have happened in a world that hadn’t yet given much thought to the nature of sampling and intellectual property. The pair also lent their considerable talents to other artists, producing a string of acclaimed albums for such A-list talent as Diana Ross and Debbie Harry. The old-fashioned black-and-white feel of Risqué stood out. It looks like the murder scene in an Agatha Christie novel. The butler, the nurse, the girlfriend… Whodunit?
Giorgio Moroder, E=Mc2 [Casablanca]
Disco was often slandered, with some radical extremists going as far as to say it sucked. That said, it is interesting that the first to explore new technology that would transform the entire recording industry was disco’s leading architect, Giorgio Moroder. With sleeves rolled up and ready to work, he produced and performed the groundbreaking, first-ever, direct-to-digital recording, E=MC2. Presented as if he literally embodied the future of recording by having achieved a true bionic man/machine state, Giorgio never looked better.
Michael Jackson, Off the Wall [Epic]
As star of the Jackson Five, no one doubted Michael’s enormous talent. Dressed in a tuxedo, a symbol of maturity and important occasion, the cover of his first solo album, Off the Wall, shows him on the verge of superstardom. The singles “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You” launched him on a spectacular career path. His vocabulary of shrieks, screams, and shouts spoke more than mere lyrics. A mesmerizing dancer, it is impossible to take your eyes off his glowing, magic feet.
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