Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mixing Pop and Politics (8)

Part of me is a wee bit wary in pointing people in the direction of Richard Dyer's 1979 article, 'In Defence of Disco'.

Not because I have any particular issue with Dyer's impassioned defence of disco, as outlined in his thesis, as:" a discussion of the arguments against disco in terms of its being ‘capitalist’ music and, second, an attempt to think through the- ambivalently, ambiguously, contradictorily- positive qualities of disco . . " but because the language and the jargon employed in the piece is so dripping in its time frame of radical academese that I wonder who the hell he was writing it for. (His right hand, perhaps?)

He was right enough to call out those on the left who were quick to dismiss disco for its supposed lack of "authenticity", but he's missing the main point on why disco was relevant, necessary and central to working class experience in the late seventies: it sounded fucking amazing. What's with the need to drape his article with sentences such as "The anarchy of capitalism throws up commodities that an oppressed group can take up and use to cobble together its own culture . . ." as a means to placate some cloth-eared member of the Militant Tendency* back in '79? It doesn't matter if it's 1979 or 2008: until a member of the SP/CWI can point me in the direction of a readable article by Peter Taaffe, I'm not prepared to hide away my Rose Royce mp3s.

I love my political music as much as the next member of Generation iPod but what's with the constant need to find political relevance in the music you plug into? There's this insinuation that it lacks weight if it's not explicitly saying something of major political import when we all know in our heart of hearts that Simple Minds went shite when Jim Kerr got his Amnesty International membership card through the door and that, more often than not, we'll fast forward through 'Ideology' to get to 'Levi Stubbs' Tears'.

OK, I know Dyer is one of the good guys and with his piece he was trying to get the archetypal left folk music merchant to pull his finger out of his ear as a prelude to pulling his head out of his arse, but what's with the final paragraph apologia of :

" . . . disco can't change the world or make the revolution. No art can do that, and it is pointless to expect it to. But partly by opening up experience, partly by changing definitions, art and disco can be used. To which one might risk adding the refrain, if it feels good, use it."

No need to be defensive about such things, comrade. If the missing piece in achieving the revolution was a decent mixed CD, then the SPGB would have secured its Parliamentary majority back in 2003. I think we've finally got past the point where it was once might have been claimed that the barricades don't go up until the soundtrack's in place. And that's a good thing. The left's split enough as it is without throwing in rows about the tracklisting into the mix.

But it does have to be mentioned in passing that the daft thing about the whole disco versus diabolical materialism argument that beset the bedsitter left in the late seventies is that Chic's Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers were shifting million of units whilst mixing the political commentary in with the reverberated vocals. Sadly, it went over the head of many:

"Here’s what’s great about “Good Times.” At the time that we wrote “Good Times,” the country was undergoing the worst economic depression that it’s seen like the since the Great Depression, which is what they used to say, and people were furious with us for writing a song “Good Times.” And we used to look at people, and we were befuddled, and we went, “What are you talking about?” And we realized that we had done our job so effectively that all of our lyrics were shrouded in double-entendre because there was no way that I was ever just gonna write a song about partying and dancing. I mean, I’m a Black Panther, what are you talking about? And so it was always about compromise." [Nile Rodgers quoted during Black History Month]

Much too subtle for your average Central Committee member, but I hold out hope that even the most seasoned cadre can catch on late in the day. In that munificent spirit, I'm happy to offer up a couple of mp3s for sampling purposes: The 12" version of Chic's classic - for those of you want your subversive disco tunes to last longer than the sycophantic applause at a George Galloway gig - and Beverley Knight's 'Made It Back (Good Times)', which dates from 1999 and is one of my favourite ever tracks for making use of a Chic sample:

  • Chic - 'Good Times' mp3
  • Beverley Knight - 'Made It Back (Good Times)' mp3
  • Hat tip to Bob-from-Brockley for pointing me in the direction of Richard Dyer's article.

    * I put my hands up to a uncalled for sectarian attack on the Millies. I knew that AVPS loves his dance music. It's just not very good dance music. ;-)

    1 comment:

    Transpontine said...

    I kind of agree, even as I was posting it I thought that in some ways the most significant line was Dyer's statement that disco 'hardly needs any defence'. It stands or falls on musical merits rather than on how many ideologically sound points it scores. Nevertheless I think it is pretty clear what the context was, with leftists of all kinds slagging off 'pop music' then as now. I wonder what the SPGB had to say in the 1970s about disco - have you trawled through old copies of Socialist Standard?