When Frankie Knuckles famously described house music as disco’s revenge, it set in motion an origin story tantamount to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. House and disco have been inextricably linked ever since and the term disco has morphed into a catch-all term for dance music before house. But, quite simply, that’s not true and we didn’t go from ‘I Feel Love‘ to ‘Strings Of Life‘ overnight, there was a very important bridge that connected the dots between US and Europe, man and machine.
In 1979, disco had reached its commercial nadir, filtering its way into TV, advertising, comics and even music from Ethel Merman. The backlash was quick and punishing and the implicitly homophobic and racist ‘Disco Sucks‘ rally at Chicago’s Comiskey Park that year all but killed the sound in mainstream America. Disco was forced back underground where it would mutate and diversify into a myriad of genres that eventually came to be house music. Boogie, Italo disco, new wave, no wave, punk funk, synth pop, early electro and dub were all part of the post-disco landscape where the proliferation of synthesisers and drum machines helped artists pastiche their creations together.
And it wasn’t just musically that post-disco would influence the incoming house and techno scenes. With major labels steering clear of a sound full of glitz and glam, disco became about independent labels in a singles-driven market, giving power to DJs like Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, Frankie Knuckles at the Power Plant and Ron Hardy at the Muzic Box. Dance music culture was born; the club became a place of worship and the DJ became the preacher.
So, from ’79 to the first-ever house record, we take a look at a period where there were no rules and music was open to all sorts of influences. Don’t think of it as a stop-gap, but the bridge to music’s next big movement that produced some fucking great tunes in the process. Here are 10 of the best.
THE FINEST POST-DISCO TRACKS OF THE EARLY 80S
Described as funk, post-punk and no-wave on Discogs, ESG‘s ‘Moody’ is a perennial proto-house track, one that was favoured by Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage and The Warehouse in Chicago. Stripped-back and full of attitude, ‘Moody’ gave disco the punk injection it needed in early-80s New York when the city was falling apart and rent was at its lowest. It used aspects of dub to create a tune that was intended to hypnotically capture a dancefloor, whether that was at CBGBs or later on The Haçienda, ‘Moody’ taught producers less is more when it comes to the club.
IMAGINATION ‘BURNIN’ UP’
House music loves a good piano riff (hello ‘Move Your Body’, hello ‘Get Get Down‘) but where was that idea first fully crystallised? On Imagination’s belter ‘Burnin’ Up’. The British band had a surefire house hit before it was house and were ahead of the game in loopy, dancefloor-orientated grooves with this cut from their debut album ‘Body Talk‘.
KLEIN & MBO ‘DIRTY TALK’
Italo disco gets a lot of heat for its cheesiness, but there’s no denying its influence on house music. As disco filtered back underground in the US, DJs and dancers had to look overseas (where everyone was a little behind) for their music. While Italo was important, it also sometimes bordered on the histrionic. But in 1982, Italian/American duo Mario Boncaldo and Tony Carrasco made the defining Italo banger that has gone on to inspire countless dance music producers. Klein & MBO’s ‘Dirty Talk’ is a minimal and moody monster that takes listeners to outer space. The kick drum drives along wavy synths that break out into a bassline playing the octaves. Carrasco is largely credited as breaking house music in Italy, but he may have done it to the world with this track.
ELECTRA FEATURING TARA BUTLER ‘FEELS GOOD (CARROTS & BEETS)’
How could we not include this beauty. Another slice of Italo that had a very important role in Frankie Knuckles’ and Jamie Principles’ ‘Your Love‘ – a track considered one of house music’s first ever. You’ll notice the bassline around the four minute mark has been directly ripped off as has the sound of the arp for one of dance music’s most well known tunes. But it just shows how far ahead of the game Italian producers like Franco Falsini and Fred Zarr were with their use of synthesisers. As for the track itself? Campy, kitsch gold that will still have a heaving dancefloor popping.
PEECH BOYS ‘DON’T MAKE ME WAIT (DUB MIX)’
According to Michael de Benedictus, keyboard player in the Paradise Garage’s very own boyband, ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ was the first record to utilise a handclap from a drum machine. It’s a bold claim and might not quite be true, but, it is a big reason Peech Boys is included in this list. Started in 1981 by Larry Levan and coinciding with the release of the LinnDrum, the band were quickly signed up by West End Records, with ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ their first release. With its gospel piano and chintzy synth stabs, the main version is good…but it’s not where we see the seeds of house music being planted. That would be on the Dub version which starts with those delayed pads and muscles through five-and-a-half minutes of stripped-back 4/4. Perhaps the most forward-thinking part of the track though is the way the kick is without doubt the focus, sucking in the rest of the track with some compression to give it the kind of pump that wouldn’t be out of fashion on the modern era’s soundsystems.
A NUMBER OF NAMES ‘SHAREVARI’
A track consisting of just pounding drums, a bleeping bassline, menacing repetitive vocal and a few eerie synth licks. Sound familiar? No, it’s not the new Ben Klock but instead Canadian trio A Number Of Names. Having only released one record, Paul Lesley, Roderick Simpson and Sterling Jones left their mark on dance music history with the ‘Skitso/Sharevari’ record in which they adopt a French(?) accent and talk about cigarettes and cassette tapes.
NEW ORDER ‘BLUE MONDAY’
OK. Yes, this is one of the biggest tunes ever made and you have heard it a billion times. But it’s also a) still amazing and b) makes a lot of sense in this list. The beating heart of this track is disco with its drums and bassline. The oil running it is post-punk angst and a band recovering from the tragic loss of their lead singer. Its shiny exterior is fully futuristic, a look of things to come and also something that will last. Like all the best house tunes, ‘Blue Monday’ doesn’t feel tied to its era. The highs still sizzle, the low end still kicks and the general upbeat gloominess is still indicative of what’s happening in the world in 2018. It’s bloody timeless.
QUANDO QUANGO ‘LOVE TEMPO (MIX)’
Another belter from the disco-not-disco camp, Quando Quango‘s takes its inspiration from the New York art-schoolers like Arthur Russell and Talking Heads. Produced by future Haçienda DJ Mike Pickering, ‘Love Tempo (Mix)’ is a perfect fusion of natural percussion and Roland-808 while a bouncing bassline keeps the track bumping. Using A Certain Ratio‘s percussionist Simon Topping, the track prophesied the kind of sounds that would regularly grace the hallowed Haç.
KASHIF ‘I JUST GOTTA HAVE YOU’
With major labels and an emphasis on excess gone from disco, much of post-disco adopted a stripped-back sound on a smaller budget. This is how we got boogie, the space between disco and r’n’b that deserves its own top 10 list. 1982 was the sound’s golden era with the likes of Mtume, D-Train and Sharon Redd all keeping it extra funky and also laying the foundations for more mainstream dance pop. A lot of people will associate boogie with West Coast hip hop but tracks like Kashif‘s ‘I Just Gotta Have You’ show how important it was for budding house producers, using serious swing on the drums in the same way US garage and UKG would adapt.