Disco: the weight of the groove
So disco’s back, apparently by courtesy of Daft Punk, although that may have been last week and it could be all over by now. But I have to say I’ve never felt I needed the permission of the fashion police to listen to the extended mix of Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “Shame” any time I wanted over the past 30-odd years. (You don’t know it? Go there now! And join me in a prayer to be reincarnated as one of those guitarists!)
While looking for something or other to do with disco on the internet yesterday I came across an old thread containing contributions from Bobby Eli, the great session guitarist who was a member of MFSB — the Philadelphia International house band — and played on records by the O’Jays, Billy Paul, the Spinners, the Stylistics and countless others.
Here’s what Eli (posting as phillysoulman) had to say a couple of years ago in defence of disco: “People had some understandable issues with disco. But it wasn’t all the same. A lot of it was R&B with a four-on-the-floor. Songs like that put a LOT of musicians to work, and also paid for a LOT of studio time.”
Someone else on the thread chose to inform him that the soul and disco records coming out of Philly at the time tended to be characterised, in harmonic terms, by the use of the “phrygian dominant scale”. Eli’s response deserves to be preserved for posterity (and this is how he laid it out, like blank verse):
We never discussed scales.
We just played what we felt.
It’s all about the groove.
We were not technical cats.
We just vibed together and instinctively knew each other’s next move.
Scales are for weighing shit, but our grooves had their own weight.
It definitely felt like a victory for Disco true believers when “Shame” became the MM Single of the Year in 1978. Unanimous choice? Bobby Eli always makes me think of the wonderfully fluid guitar solo that closes “Children of the night” by the Stylistics, one of Bell & Creeds greatest songs. However, looking at the sleeve, I am reminded that Harris, Chambers and Tony Bell also played guitar on the album, so, perhaps it was not his ?
I’d completely forgotten that “Shame” was the MM’s single of the year. Since I was editing the paper at the time, I might have had something to do with it. Certainly it wouldn’t have been the result of any kind of democratic process. I dread to think what that might have thrown up.
Re “Children of the Night”: that’s spooky. In my first draft of this piece, I closed with links to Billy Paul’s “Your Song” and that particular Stylistics track to demonstrate the quality of the Philadelphia/Sigma Sound rhythm section. I cut that paragraph because I decided that Bobby Eli’s words should stand by themselves. But “Children of the Night” is absolutely marvellous, a real favourite (like the epic “Your Song”).
Interesting that this post focuses on the R&B aspect of disco – which allows it to be subsumed within the “tradition”. But a lot of disco didn’t have any weight (“Fly Robin Fly”) and the genre is perhaps best characterized not by any adherence to principles but by its omnivorousness – which is why “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Miss You” are not only two of the very best disco records, but two of the very best records by the respective artistes.
It’s true that the disco I prefer is the stuff with a strong R&B content. That’s where it came from, after all. I’m afraid we’ll have to differ over “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Miss You”; for me they’re not in the same universe as “Mandolin Wind” or “Gimme Shelter”.
It’s great to be reminded of ‘Shame’ and the Bobby Eli quote is wonderful!
I must admit I always thought of ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ as a remake of Bobby Womack’s ‘(If You Want My Love) Put Something Down on It’ and I’m not sure you can get any more R&B than Bobby. There is something though about the weightlessness of disco that I guess carried through into some early electro.
Now realised that my comment is pretty weightless. I was thinking of Rod not Mick and Keith…
There’s a Bobby Womack documentary on BBC4 tonight. It looks as though it might be pretty good.
Eli’s quote….wow. That needs to be above ALL studio doors. There’s some rhythm sections I could name that need it drip-feeding into them too!