Disco revised and revisited

I will never forget the look on the face of a macho acquaintance during a conversation circa 1990 when it sunk in that new wave dance music a la Depeche Mode and New Order was really just British disco. It may not be as evident (and it certainly seems silly) all these years later, but the visceral hatred of disco in the late 70s was a major step in the flowering of rockism that was made permanent by reaction to the emergence of rap soon after. All these years later, you are either convinced of disco’s 70’s pop centrality or not. If you are an enlightened dilettante you’ve settled on your own core collection that probably includes some ace compilations (the Rhino Disco Years CDs are the cream; EMI’s 4-CD and hard to find The Best Disco… Ever! offers a more expansive view of where disco came from and what it influenced), some Donna Summer and perhaps a collection of Chic’s singles. Aficionados have endless nooks and crannies to explore, but both camps might think Rhino’s Nile Rogers Presents The Chic Organization: Up All Night a redundant exercise.

That would be missing the point. In this year of getting lucky, Up All Night brings together in one place 25 Nile Rogers/Bernard Edwards productions, ten by Chic and the rest by disco’s finest (Sister Sledge, that one Diana Ross record) and not (Johnny Mathis? Carly Simon??? Oh my). So the mission of this 2-CD release isn’t to identify the best of disco or even the best of Chic. It’s not even a mission, it’s a message: That the Chic Organization combined the best songwriting team left of Becker/Fagen with a production unit that shames the Roy Thomas Bakers and Jimmy Iovines of the era. As diverse as the artists here are, especially on the second CD that captures the Rogers/Edwards reputation starting to explode, what is remarkable is how seamless this is track-by-track. There are few duds in the canon of Chic long-players, but Up All Night is the best argument I can think of for placing Rogers and Edwards in the inner circle of pop music greats. I’d play it head to head with Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits any day.

Too obvious for you?  Try Taana Gardner then. Her self-titled (and only) album, released as two 12” singles comprising five songs on West End in 1979, literally resulted because the intended singer was too ill to sing. Paradise Garage productions with DJ Larry Levan on the mixing console showcase Gardner and her little-girl-grown-up voice that wraps around tunes vacillating slow-jam to danceable tempos that don’t quite have an ecstatic agenda but peak nonetheless. Compared with Rogers and Edwards, the ambiance here is much to the stoner side of disco with a touch of the Browder brothers thrown in. This inspired magic was recaptured on Gardner’s one unequivocal classic, 1981’s “Heartbeat”, which has reappeared in many guises through the years. (Remember “Here Comes the Hotstepper”? How could you not?)

Thankfully, and usefully, Big Break Records, the reissue subsidiary of punk-era Cherry Red Records, has now committed the Taana Gardner LP to digital format, appending “Heartbeat” and two other singles (as well as two superfluous remixes, but they are at the end so never mind) on one CD. Right now it’s not appearing as an option in the usual online shopping venues, but it’s easy to order direct and my service (twice) has been great. If there is a disco album that is as quixotic and semi-self-consciously arty as, oh, Tin Huey’s Contents Dislodged During Shipment, Taana Gardner is it. And if there is another semi-self-consciously arty album that is as heart-throbbingly danceable as this one, Fresh Fruit In Foreign Places or Remain In Light might come up. And I won’t argue with that.