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Donna Summer, Robin Gibb: Accidental Revolutionaries

Donna Summer, Robin Gibb: Accidental Revolutionaries

The passing last week of Donna Summer and this week of Bee Gee Robin Gibb has seen much coverage of their role in disco, but the role of disco itself as a radical movement which changed the world is absent.

Yes, disco really was radical. It was the creation of the marginalized: blacks, gays, Hispanics and women. It was an expression of the gay liberation and women’s movements and the 70s sexual revolution, when a women’s right to an orgasm was empowered along by top selling hits like “More, More, More.”

It built on black R’n'B foundations often missing from mainstream, virtually segregated American media in the 70s. The disco beat was invented by MFSB, the in-house musicians at Philadelphia Records, in particular by Earl Young, the MFSB drummer.

First Donna Summer, particularly with the groundbreaking electronic anthem “I Feel Love,” and then the Bee Gees with the best-selling “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, took this radical underground into the mainstream. Summer later regretted her orgasmic hit and the Bee Gees were only accidentally drafted into that soundtrack, which transferred disco from its beating gay/black heart to white Brooklyn. Both were accidental disco emissaries.

“I Feel Love,” 15 minute version:

Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive”:

Those chart toppers produced the late 70s disco boom and the bizarre, like the Ethel Merman and Muppets disco albums, as well as the gay ‘entryism‘ of the Village People. Then there was the “Death To Disco” backlash from white, male rock fans, which was pretty explicitly homophobic, followed by disco’s disappearance from mainstream American radio and the ‘color bar’ of early MTV.

So it went underground again, back into the black and gay clubs and, surviving the holocaust of HIV/Aids, reemerged as House music, and is now firmly back in the mainstream.

Watch: The documentary “Maestro – Larry Levan & early DJ culture” about the early years of the NYC underground DJ/dance club culture (part one, click through to the other parts at the end):

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Image: Paradise Garage mid 70s dancefloor from Youtube screen grab

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2:48PM PDT on Sep 19, 2012

EARTH CRY video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jppmMcjgWS0

4:30AM PDT on Jun 8, 2012

"Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Gil-Scott Heron all had something to say about what was wrong with Disco, and I'd prefer to listen to them as revolutionaries than Robin Gibb!"

The problem with that, is Sly Stone himself incorporated endless difference influences in his own music. If he can have a catholic taste in digesting different elements and filtering them through his creativity, it makes no sense others cannot do the same. What he has a problem with is corporatization, but that goes for ALL the acts who had some market presence, were signed to a record label granting them access to distribution channel. Mayfield and Heron are luminaries of their respective fields, and they are entitled to their opinions - but still none of them grants them ownership of the disco genre. Chic's Niles Rodgers, saw Donna and Bee Gees' impact as positive, because a wave built could only benefit others to add their own different voices. The trick was to find resonance in the public so they would open up and be more receptive. The way disco and SNF became pervasive, show a huge hunger for that form of leisure, and the backlash showed who were still the real bosses dictating what goes down for real entertainment. The nails that stick out always gets hammered down, fast. If you think "true" disco on the stealth has more integrity in its preferred mode of evangelism, I can't disagree but only see outside of the tall walls that separate us ALL, the basic human yearning is to just create, enjoy,

4:13AM PDT on Jun 8, 2012

(cont'd) an organic development of a form that, like any musical form that which is NOT DEAD, isn't subject to individual creative license, is also dogmatic. Because then you're getting into the terrain of some gray-area questions: Are mainstream artists only allowed to co-opt minority expressions once the minorities "stood up for themselves" (i.e. bearing in mind, not all minorities hated it and actually enjoyed it as music accompanying social life in public space), are self-composed, performed and produced music all that more inorgnic and reel-to-reel splicing and spinning of underground disco?, is it truly "inorganic" when the high-pitched falsetto was the most unlikely thing for a straight white Brit to experiment on the request of a Turkish producer behind Aretha Franklin and other Soul artists, at risk of ridicule and perceived lines someone of his social demographic should NOT cross?) What I am saying is, the definition of authenticity or not, organic or not, etc. are much fuzzier and even quite "tainted" at this point by the VEHEMENCE from both sides (dominant & minority cultures): that just like the east and west, never the twain shall meet, without some bloodshed or sacrificial lambs (though it never died as clubbing, dance culture just took on different names subsequently, with the new comings and goings of different social sub-groups in the mix).

4:12AM PDT on Jun 8, 2012

and instill with us urgency and clarity of purpose, but I don't think culture should be dictated in any dogmatic, pristine/purist way because for whatever "inauthenticity" mainstream disco was, it brought people together dancing, socializing, in an atmosphere of collective pursuit of leisure instead of hostility, suspicion and hate. Obviously the society at large hasn't moved at each whim and prophecy of Heron and his like, nor did they completely allow disco to stay - the casualty of Bee Gees' post-SNF career in America is the proof (& including the on-going, free-for-all ridicule of their perceived sexuality - just as "true" disco culture's participants/originators themselves would've been strung up even worse; no I'm not calling them martyrs, but anyone who gets in the liminal space in-between dominant and minority cultures, and naively thought they were simply building a bridge while answering demands of their record contracts, DO NOT escape unscathed for the social forces in our world, full of isolated communities in mutual, constant strife.) Straight White Male Hegemony will always rule, over true or watered down disco alike. To think that this "watered down" version killed it for the authentic strain or variety, is wishful thinking that the grassroots form would have stood a better, more "honorable" chance at mainstream acceptance. And to think that the mainstream version is wholly without merit because it isn't an organic development of a form that, like any music

4:10AM PDT on Jun 8, 2012

(cont'd) through the claptraps and instill with us urgency and clarity of purpose, but I don't think culture should be dictated in any dogmatic, pristine/purist way because for whatever "inauthenticity" mainstream disco was, it brought people together dancing, socializing, in an atmosphere of collective pursuit of leisure instead of hostility, suspicion and hate. Obviously the society at large hasn't moved at each whim and prophecy of Heron and his like, nor did they completely allow disco to stay - the casualty of Bee Gees' post-SNF career in America is the proof (& including the on-going, free-for-all ridicule of their perceived sexuality - just as "true" disco culture's participants/originators themselves would've been strung up even worse; no I'm not calling them martyrs, but anyone who gets in the liminal space in-between dominant and minority cultures, and naively thought they were simply building a bridge while answering demands of their record contracts, DO NOT escape unscathed for the social forces in our world, full of isolated communities in mutual, constant strife.) Straight White Male Hegemony will always rule, over true or watered down disco alike. To think that this "watered down" version killed it for the authentic strain or variety, is wishful thinking that the grassroots form would have stood a better, more "honorable" chance at mainstream acceptance. And to think that the mainstream version is wholly without merit because it isn't an organic development

4:08AM PDT on Jun 8, 2012

@ John B: Funk was never going to have a mainstream appeal, and its influence on disco and subsequent synth-new wave, clubbing culture, R&B going mainstream, is undeniable. I for one wouldn't do without the hardcore, incisive visions of Gil Scott Heron and his like, but it is a bit short-sighted to think only revolutions based on self-conscious, -driven, agenda of clear goals and methodology to be the only one with lasting and "authentic" legacy (then again that's what political strife is all about, on the level of intra-group bickering.) I see the popularization by Donna and BGs, of "this" music form as INSPIRED by the "real" grassroots level of "true disco", as a SOFT variety of revolution (that INFILTRATES the dominate culture slowly, over time, in spurts and through much resistance and debate.) Why? Gays and Blacks I know today, still embrace and enjoy music of both artists. They've become part of the cultural fabric - even with detractors aplenty. When you say "White recording industry", well it is more complicated than that: Bee Gees' producer Robert Stigwood was gay, part of the "Pink Mafia" running the British showbiz and record industry in mid-60s. Bee Gees were doing R&B and soul-influenced folk-pop balladry long before SNF, was well-embraced by urban stations and black listeners a full album before SNF (as much as a White soul/R&B outfit could be popular with them anyway.) I repeat, we need visionaries like Heron to pierce through the claptraps and inst

9:36PM PDT on May 31, 2012

The "orgasmic hit" that Donna Summer later "regretted" was "Love to Love You Baby"--NOT "I Feel Love." This is well-documented.

5:49PM PDT on May 26, 2012

Luckily they have left an assortment of songs for us to listen to, that will help them live forever.

6:40PM PDT on May 24, 2012

She will always be remembered as the real Mother of Disco. That heavy thudding beat and base in "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff" bring feminism to the next level. Till this day I am still having those two singles together with her duet with Barbara Streisand on "Enough Is Enough." Great stuff of the 80s. RIP Donna & Robin.

7:40PM PDT on May 23, 2012

Good article, thanks for reminding us that there were wonderful things happening in the 70s.

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