Caught by the River

Vince Aletti: The Disco Files

18th May 2009

Jon Savage, writing exclusively for Caught By The River (more on Jon later in the week…)


With Disco going through one of its periodic revivals – in this case the Italian inspired ‘Cosmic Disco’ sound – the first generally available publication of this brilliant book is very welcome. “The Disco Files: 1973-78” is a collection of the columns that Vince Aletti wrote for Record World between November 1974 and November 1978 (together with his September 1973 article for Rolling Stone, ‘Discotheque rock ’73’), that introduced the whole genre.

During those four years, Disco went from the deep (Latino, black, gay) underground to being the biggest musical force in America, and Aletti was writing about it nearly every week. “The Disco Files” therefore works as a blow-by-blow account of a musical revolution as it happened, and as an insider’s diary – written with the immediacy of a blog – that is a master-class in music journalism.


The columns are extremely detailed, with playlists from the top DJ’s and clubs of the period – including, perhaps, the scene’s originator, David Mancuso from the Loft – and run-downs of the week’s prime releases. Adopting a conversational, informative style, Aletti is careful to note each track’s style, tone, instrumental breaks, lyrics and effectiveness for the prime purpose: dancing.

The amount of people who are still prejudiced about Disco is astonishing, and it is totally based on ignorance. Before it was codified for the mass market by “Saturday Night Fever” – a problematic film in many ways, of which more later – the style was extremely loose, eclectic and idealistic – a true explosion of music, lifestyle and subculture.

In ‘Discotheque Rock ‘73’, Aletti cited various key records as ‘exotic hothouse flowers’: the Afro- funk of Manu Dibango, and Osibisa, weird white records by the likes of Everyday People (the killer “I Like What I Like”), as well as Motown, James Brown funk and Euro oddities like Barabbas – whose “Woman” displayed the lyrical minimalism and drum-heavy, chant-like feel of the new style.

What’s so great about Early Disco was its pragmatic eclecticism. If it works, use it; don’t fight it, just relax. So you had records as apparently bizarre as Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky Mick and Tich’s “Save Me”, or the Glitter Band’s “Makes You Blind” becoming part of the mix. Many of the tracks from 75 and 76 – like “The Mexican” by Babe Ruth – became ‘classic hip hop breaks’ – weird, considering the homophobia of the latter genre.

Early Disco was super spacey – a feel captured by the perfect, two-volume ‘David Mancuso Presents The Loft’ CD’s – and as it developed, a major theme would be outer space and futuristic technology. Aletti picked up on Kraftwerk early, and was right on the button with Space’s “Magic Fly”, obviously the immortal “I Feel Love”, and ‘the ultimate disco synthesizer album’, Giorgio Moroder’s “From Here To Eternity”.

This of course ties in to one human reaction to the difficulties faced both then and now by gay people. Thinking you’re from outer space is a great way of avoiding an unpleasant present and, although Aletti doesn’t belabour the point, the gay/ outsider origins of Disco are a sub-theme in his columns.


He notes the appearance of Valentino’s “I Was Born This Way” which, picked up by Motown in 1975, was the first promotion of an out-gay singer and record. When Carl Bean’s version came out in early 1978, he observed that ‘the message is a relevant one for the disco community, though many of us are something considerably more militant and aggressive’.

“Saturday Night Fever” – released at the end of 1977: the soundtrack album is covered here – broke Disco for the mainstream, but at a cost. I don’t know whether you’ve watched it recently, but there is one scene which stuck in my mind the last time I did: John Travolta is walking along the street and sees a couple of obvious queens, whom he sneers at and threatens.

This petty repudiation heterosexualised the genre but such homophobia still lies behind the routine rock crit trashing of Disco. Well, more fool them. It’s their loss, because contained in these pages you will find a dazzling record of some great, great, great music. Disco is still so relevant today for very good reasons: it’s sexy, it’s spacey, it’s fun, it’s funky, it’s futuristic, and it’s life-affirming.

So beware all of you who read this book: you will enter the twilight world of Discogs, Musicstack and eBay, not satisfied until you have found THAT promo 12”, THAT rare 45. Ataraxia, anyone? You will begin to dance and you will not stop. Like all the best music writing, Aletti mirrors his subject’s inclusive spirit and makes you want to hear the records RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW! Happy hunting!

“The Disco Files: 1973-78” by Vince Aletti, published by DJ History – a big tip of the hat to Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster for making this available.