Disco’s mirrorball had lost its lustre by the onset of the early ’80s, and was destined for the back of the cupboard next to the dusty lava lamp.
But before house music bloomed then boomed to assert its full-on, 4/4, feet-to-the-floor dance dominion domination, there was a rarely defined and disparate golden spell of post-disco dance music deliciousness, which sent up a soulful flare for house’s incoming heroics, writes Andy Stevens.
With one too many swishes of Tina Charles’ Abigail’s Party-styled bell tent on ‘I Love To Love’, and the arrival of K-Tel’s big-selling 1978 ‘Disco Fever’ compilation (track one is ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ by Baccara – of course it is) alongside ‘The World of Ken Dodd’ (not that we’re dissing dear old Doddy) democratising Auntie Jean’s metal Timothy Whites record rack, you knew the game was up.
The Bee Gees remain blameless throughout disco’s death rattle end of an era non-events, we hasten to add. The trilling, thrilling Steradent-slurping triumvirate of song should be forever lauded for driving disco’s platinum-clad commercial charabanc to unimagined heights and previously uncharted octaves, with such style, zest and songmanship as Saturday Night Fever –pound for pearly pound one of the most important albums of the ’70s – ruled the global record-buying roost.
Disco. Disco for all. Like they once said about sport. The end did indeed arrive somewhere between Rick Dees’ dreadful Disco Duck’s tail-feather ruffling, comedic kazoo-klaxon mating call to town and country dancefloors, and the no less alarming tartan terror of Kelly Marie (‘Feels Like I’m In Love’, she reckoned) plus her bloke dance duo on a pay-as-you-grin bonus, careering disco’s spluttering Commer tour van over the pop precipice in a clattering mangled heap, while all the sensible folk tuned in to 2-Tone.
John Lydon might in 1979 have prodded and snarled at the twitching dance zeitgeist on PiL’s Death Disco. But that corpse chalked out on the dancefloor was a chimera. A new chrysalis was about to emerge and the dance music map was recharted, with many key A-roads leading all the way to a gleaming new town called House Music.
Technology was to earn its keep once again on this fresh path to house, as it has a habit of doing.
New tech provided the trigger to the gas lighter which precipitated the plucking, boiling and discarding of gristly old canards and overly-commercialised laboratory abominations like the Disco Duck to widespread relief – even among the nightclub-snubbing twitching community, no doubt.
Brace yourselves, birders, it was brutal.
The game-changing sensations that were synthesizers and drum machines such as the TR-808 and TR-909 – Roland’s gift to budding DJs and record producers (such as Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and Larry Levan) with beats and soulful sounds in their bones – lit the post-disco multi-coloured floor-tiles back up to full beam.
Any song writing sorts worth their sack of Saxa now had au courant studio-land’s latest box of tricks at their fingertips. And with it, all the miraculous techie gubbins’ endless electronic capacity for mixing, remixing, looping, layering, flanging, sampling, sequencing and all that jazz with no flunk; to bend and shape dance music in the pre-house interregnum into all manner of previously unimagined contortions.
Song writers, producers and soulful vocalists were looking through the keyhole to house, like a Loyd Grossman of rhythm without a restraining order.
Here – in absolutely no order and with a few surprise additions – we set off a tracer straight into a crate of terrific tracks which rattled those freshly-cut keys to the house music era, and also influenced dance music’s many other multifarious and nefarious genres and sub-genres:
Imagination – Burning Up (1982) – So Good So Right (1981)
It’s a proper pity that Imagination’s Leee ‘Three Es’ John is remembered primarily in the annals of pop-dom for an injudicious prime time flash of his wedding tackle on Top of the Pops (you know how to use YouTube, so we don’t have to). Perhaps the chain-mail mini toga was worthy of a wardrobe rethink after all, Leee old son.
Still, Leee’s shimmering three-piece (that’s himself, Ashley Ingram and Errol Kennedy) eclipsed the codpiece cock-up and did kind of invent proto house music for a British audience. So not all bad, then.
Imagination’s Burning Up and So Good So Right are pristine plinky piano prize guys, with the band’s trademark polish so beloved in early ’80s UK clubs and discos, and record producers Jolley & Swain on knob-twiddling duties (quiet at the back there).
Soft Cell – Memorabilia (1981)
Nice and sleazy now to Leeds after a quick drop-off to see a shady someone or other in Soho.
A record of magnificent, brooding malevolence that pretty much presaged house music in its acid incarnation, with its hallucinatory, ansty urgency.
Soft Cell songstrel Marc Almond pores over fading Polaroids of dubious provenance, while Dave Ball scatters his synths in all directions because the cops are coming.
Cindy Ecstasy meanwhile leaves the Charing Cross Road phone box unmanned for a few minutes to guest on vocals. She’s a one.
Freeez – Stay (1981) and IOU (1983)
London jazz-funk/Brit-Funk trailblazers Freeez don’t elicit the praise they deserve, as what’s lumpenly misrepresented as ’80s music battles for head and floor space after decades of ill-judged historical rewritings, rebrandings, omissions and revisionisms.
Still, never mind, eh: they wrote and performed stonking tracks like these. Their mainstay super-hit Southern Freeez is their well-known and much-loved biggie, of course – and an undimmed beacon of joy from youthful salad days for soul boys and soul girls everywhere.
Freeez, however, also pass muster majorly in the pre-house taste test. Their dancefloor-driven embrace of the time’s new-fangled electronica, spelt 100 per cent successful searches for the groove on every outing, coupled with soul-searching vocal lines adding depth and richness to their output 40 years on.
Central Line – Don’t Tell Me (You Know) (1981)
The vocal/confessional style that pushes itself to the fore on many a house track makes an airing here in this club-rooted favourite, from another of the early ’80s Brit-Funk bubble’s luminaries.
Junior Giscombe’s Mama Used To Say is itching to get out and board the Central Line train. And it’s got trace elements of the hook, the look and the piano licks of future house lineage.
A Certain Ratio – Do The Du (1979)
An ahead of the game, existential dance ache from New Order’s under-sung Factory Records colleagues, while the former were still – just about – Joy Division.
A quasi-militaristic exercise in drum-riven, arch industrial electronica, and a vocal that’s equal parts emotionless and motionless straight off the Manc mood board. They used to call it art school.
Kraftwerk – Numbers (1981)
Ultimate electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk have never been unduly heaped with praise for their James Corden-esque forced jollity, nor their aptitude at family-friendly Butlins style Steps dance routines.
Nonetheless, these boys knew how to get a decent noise out of a circuit board.
Here, Florian, Ralf, Wolfgang and Karl move the Audi onto the drive and retreat to the garage to tinker with their Texas Instruments, thereby inventing templates for soon-to-come studio tricksters on a busy metronomic U-Bahn ride to the starker stations of house.
Rockers Revenge – Walking On Sunshine – (1982)
Trust me on this: everyone had clean forgotten this was an Eddy Grant cover when it came out. No offence to Eddy or his royalty cheques, but that fact is a trifling footnote.
The mantle this Rockers Revenge version instantly assumed was that of instant, timeless floor-filler, still prone to elicit purrs and nodding dog groove approval to this day and beyond.
To craft such beautiful beastliness, production genius Arthur Baker eschewed yet another trip to the barbers to shore up instead his godlike studio status with a benchmark 12” that still shows all-comers how to ‘do it, do it…’.
Donnie Calvin’s power-pack vocal meanwhile drips pure house, as Baker tills up the topsoil ready for the dance harvest to come.
New Order – Confusion (1983)
That Arthur Baker fella then did it all again on a production shift with New Order – and so soon after the game-changing musical meteor that was Blue Monday.
Far from merely showing off, Confusion is every bit a worthy coda to its illustrious 12” predecessor.
A bustling, jarring electronic event buffered and battered with beats and breaks, stricken and straining to release themselves from the studio asylum.
Quando Quango – Love Tempo (1985)
Still within the wider gravitational orbit of Manchester’s Factory family came Love Tempo.
Tempo being the operative word, as future Hacienda DJ honcho Mike Pickering ploughs a clattering percussive furrow on an upbeat record with a suitably experimental feel, which is often kite-marked as the UK’s first, proper home-produced house track. It’s still a busy field.
First Light – AM (1983)
Be-permed hit-maker Paul Hardcastle (19, You’re The One For Me, Don’t Waste My Time) was the project-managing protagonist on this perky club classic purred over by the Brit-Funk cognoscenti.
Synthy stabs and bright-eyed arpeggios give way to the kind of jaunty jazz-ercise groove that made house its happy home.
TW Funk Masters – Love Money (1980)
It’s 1980 already. And barely four minutes in, past the video-gamey pows and kapows, the irrepressible sound of house piano finds a comfort zone in the groove. These kids are settled down now for the day and going nowhere.
Peech Boys – Don’t Make Me Wait (1983)
Claptraps provide their own welcome party, keeping those boys Peech-y keen.
This West End Records release gains a well-polished footnote in house music history for its distinctive vocal stylings that were to find their own footing as a hallmark of the genre.
Stargaze – You Can’t Have It (1981)
A Tony Humphreys mix on Brooktown Records, soulful vocals with a memorable hook hoist You Can’t Have It firmly up the house mast.
An archetypal post-disco cut, clamouring for new beginnings and seeking out a subculture.
D Train – You’re The One For Me and Music (1982)
No sleep(ers) ’til Brooklyn when James ‘D Train’ Williams is powering along the downtown tracks.
D Train’s two major league dance monsters are the HS1s of pre-house club classics, advanced prototypes that take neither prisoners nor passengers.
These two singles pack out the concourse of Grand Central with a rush-hour surge of huge, soul-slathered vocals, unimpeachable driving grooves and the slickest high-end production values that make them still sit-up-and-listen sensations to this day.
Did somebody just shout ‘house’? Thought so.
David Joseph – You Can’t Hide (Your Love From Me) (1982)
This side of the big Atlantic drink, the UK’s very own David Joseph (ex Brit-Funk pioneers Hi-Tension) was distilling equally quaffable and unquenchable dance grooves, albeit with a quality vocal range that was more stylish midfield libero than burly quarterback.
First Choice – Let No Man Put Asunder (1977 and 1983)
Around the same time Shep Pettibone’s remixed rediscovery of First Choice’s swaggering 1977 glitterball disco beauty was laying strong house foundations.
The track gave extra vent for Frankie Knuckles to start showing his majestic mettle, as acapella and vocal version virtuositywere added to the future house music armoury.
Sharon Redd – Can You Handle It (1982)
Those same timeless virtues of soulful vocals that are such an essential item in the house music pantry are forever replenished here, on the late Sharon Redd’s sassy dance floor challenge to post-disco dissenters. A track that still stands tall.
ESG – Moody (1983)
A record that’s exerted a slow-burn influence from the post-disco phase, widely-sampled and stark in its originality, with a high-hat-driven line redolent of the lighter side of Joy Division (now there’s a challenge).
With the late great Manchester production kingpin Martin Hannett at the controls, and ESG’s South Bronx three sisters act on the mics, Moody distinguishes itself with low-budget indie inclinations on a stripped-back mantra of a track, spooling forward a few years to simple house-style hooks and acapellas of years yet to come.
Change – A Lover’s Holiday (1980)
A stone-cold, scoop it straight from the fridge club favourite and future soul radio staple, A Lover’s Holiday is packed tight with New York City sass.
Steady-as piano rhythm, light touch bass slaps and the most sparing of two-note guitar grooves interplay with a savvy female vocal chorus keen to spell out the scene.
Colonel Abrams – Music Is The Answer (1985)
Best loved and known for his Harry Houdini invocations on Trapped, elsewhere the Colonel was busy answering his own question with a track cut to the quick with house hallmarks in both sound and vocal.
Positivity, unity, and other good type stuff of that ilk, here we recall the late Colonel Abrams mercifully unshackled to lay down his musical mission.
Players Association – Ride The Groove (1979)
One of the ’70s last great disco 12”s on Vanguard Records remains a powerhouse peppered with production perfection.
The electronic effrontery soon to impute the next decade’s dance music and herald the start of house is given the full shop window treatment here.
Having successfully implored UK record buyers to Turn The Music Up months earlier – which they duly did, dishing out a top 10 hit – the Players Association man the bucking dance bronco once again.
And what you get for your hard-earned is a recidivist dancefloor hijacking, replete with echoey wah-wahs, full vocal TKO submission and confession to the groove in question, plus a series of stabs from squelchy clavs which quite frankly they should get seen to.
Candido – Thousand Finger Man (1979)
We kids of an uncertain age (!) all took to the sticky youth club lino to line-dance dutifully to Jingo. But little did many of us know of this miraculous multi-digit mayhem secreted up Candido’s (understandably) capacious sleeves.
More spacey than Sheila B Devotion strapped to a Space Shuttle, someone’s brought a piano into mission control and is pontificating about pinky prowess, atop an unfurling string of starry keys-led rhythmic resolves.
MFSB – K-Jee (1977)
Saturday Night Fever slinks in with a second mention in these despatches, although this cut from the film soundtrack by Philly’sfeted Sigma Sound Studios musical collective first took flight in 1975, two years prior to the Travolta white suit malarkey.
Why here, why now? Why, it’s that moreish Latin-infused keys groove and rhythm section which underscores many a house track, and which grants it a long-time-coming slot in the heredity of house.
Conway Brothers – Turn It Up (1985)
Another post-disco minor hit, much played but plundered less so in the purchase stakes. My personal copy was plucked from Esso garage 7” carousel ignominy on my way home back then.
The Conway Brothers might still be deliberating over the volume and annoying the neighbours, but the intervening 36 years have been kind enough to the boys to merit a house-influencing play-off spot. It’s that chanting thing, as The Clash once muttered.
Mystic Merlin – Just Can’t Give You Up (1980)
When Mystic Merlin knew you well enough to reveal what he’d conjured up under the special hat he bought in 1980, you’ll be thrilled to find it’s all about the acapellas from the off, and not a rabbit in sight.
Having set out the song’s stall with a gnawing earworm of a hook, this lush production pleasingly gives rein to a strong deep soul vocal and the slickest of strings to steer it by.
The Salsoul Orchestra – Ooh, I Love It (Love Break) (1982)
Shep Pettibone gave this suitably saucy Salsoul disco dish a seriously swish studio scouring, when a bucket of water just wouldn’t suffice.
Kicking in with congas, slick bells, swoopy strings, oohs, a fair few aahs and even the odd doobie-do, all ardour thankfully remains undampened, with its house-friendly top-line territory underpinning quality dancefloor credentials for a post-disco dawn.
Skipworth and Turner – Thinking About Your Love (1985)
Skipworth and Turner could on paper be misconstrued as the name of a trusted firm of family solicitors. But if you’re looking for a quote on their conveyancing fees for a house purchase, then you’re barking up the wrong kind of building.
What Skipworth and Turner actually, brassily constructed on 1985’s dance chart-topping barnstormer Thinking About Your Love was a sassy built-to-last post-disco dance floor classic with foundations more solid than the swankiest Upper East Side mansion block, delivered with 4th & Broadway Records’ mid-’80s aplomb.
In this case, the radio/7” edit considerably shades it over the 12”. Thinking About Your Love shows out from right the start with a house-leaning unshakeable piano-driven refrain of a Nuyorican style street groove at its heart, punctuated by proper up-and-at-’em synth horn stabs and a highly infectious funk guitar loop.
With all this gloriously in place, there’s still house room in the irrepressible groove for lush, soulful vocals with sure-fire shades of a Kool & The Gang thing going on.
In the song’s lyrics, Skipworth & Turner’s narrative essence conveys in a nutshell how the daily grind merely serves as a displacement exercise for all the love-thinking stuff that’s bothering them. Now that’s quite enough introspection: just get dancing.
Loleatta Holloway – Runaway (1977)
Musical and personal freedom underpin this classic, joyous paean to big city sisterhood from the timeless egalitarianism of the Salsoul label stable.
It’s one of those soaring beauties that speaks of summer, hope, light and good times ahead, making you want to spring out of your pit nice and early and crack on with the whole carpe diem thing.
For those singular virtues, and Loleatta Holloway’s unforgettable melodious vocals running rich with feeling, Runaway forever holds a direct hotline to all things house.
Yazoo – Situation (1982)
So what is the situation, then? It seems to be panning out as an unlikely pair playing and hollering a gutsy floor-straining, high tempo dance classic with vim and gusto – also known as Vince and Alison.
Yazoo (for it was they) slice through this much-sampled and many times mixed synth sensation like all early Depeche Mode royalties and Jools Holland appearances depended on it.