DI ANOTHER WAY
It is sometimes easy to forget just how powerful and all-pervading Disco was a genre. The launch of "Saturday Night Fever" set loose a bandwagon that just kept on going right into the early 80s. So strong was it's pull that its backlash was equally savage in the US in particular with the "Disco Sucks" movement seeing piles of disco records set alight by irate music fans and so consigning America to a decade of REO Speedwagon and driving dance music underground.
I have a very good friend who is in absolute agreement with me that Disco never sucked and perhaps that's why dance music remained so popular and mainstream in the UK and Europe long after the Disco pogroms Stateside. Although if you've had to witness both "Sesame Street Fever" and "Disney Disco" you might think things had started to go a little too far.
Perhaps one of the key reasons for the severity of the response is that even the titans of rock seemed to enjoy playing around in the genre more often than not with quite successful results for their new-found experimentation with four-to-the floor rhythms. The Rolling Stones hit #1 in the US with "Miss You", leopardskin-panted Rod Stewart #1 in the UK with 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" and even Queen (though, as you know, I don't really like to reference them) produced one of the few records I can bear with "Another One Bites The Dust". Even Paul McCartney managed to knock out "Goodnight Tonight" with Wings in about twenty minutes. Of course, the Bee Gees, themselves, had really been an AOR band.
They all had the obligatory extended instrumental jam versions and correspondingly sold by the bucket load.
No wonder rock fans became disoriented.
It always seemed fairly easy for the behemoths to swap across temporarily because disco seemed much more of a home for classic singles rather than for more "serious" album artists. Hence, a classic disco compilation will be full of one-hit wonders like Anita Ward, McFadden & Whitehead and Alicia Bridges - none of whom will set off a single visual memory in your head but you'll know exactly how to sing along to "Ring My Bell" or "I Love The Nightlife". One of the biggest hits of the time, "Funky Town" was literally put together by some studio session artists who then had to be given a name to accompany the record as it set dance floors across the world alight - hence Lipps Inc.
Some artists did establish a more enduring career such as Odyssey or KC and The Sunshine Band but again this was largely on the back of some epic dance singles rather than albums.
It was not impossible for a disco artist to deliver a body of work as an LP however though they were few and far between and probably only a few still resonate. Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall" is still a beautifully complete piece of work and Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" is a truly epic recording stretched over a rock-like double album no less and is still an incredible achievement - a veritable Dark Side of The Disco Ball.
Another is certainly our latest Vinyl Voyage "Diana" by Diana Ross from 1980 - an album that very nearly never appeared thanks to a face-off worthy of any hostile commercial takeover.
The Motown Corporation versus The Chic Organisation.
Back in the late seventies, the once surefire Ms Ross who bestrode the pop world like a the Supreme being she was, could not buy a hit. Two previous albums, "Baby It's You" and the excellent "The Boss" had had plenty of production budget lavished on them but she just seemed out of kilter with the rest of the new dance mood.
However, a rare remix on Disconet of her 1976 hit, the wonderful "Love Hangover", had been a really big hit in the New York clubs in early 1979 and this initiated a hard 90 degree turn for Diana, which coincided with a crossroads in her own life as well as career. She had decided to break out from the controlling influence of Berry Gordy Jr who had had so much control of her career and personal life since the mid 60s and moved from LA, where Motown now located its HQ, to New York.
She knew well enough that she needed a hit without the powers of Motown telling her and made a conscious decision to take on a more contemporary approach, not unlike her rock contemporaries. Who better to help her than Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards who had exploded onto the music scene in 1977 with a distinctive and tight sound that had brought immense success for them. They had produced increasingly strong albums under their own name - "Chic","Risque" and "C'est Chic" (and I encourage you to listen to the latest Abbey Road half-speed remastered versions) - but had really exhibited their skills with resurrecting Sister Sledge's flagging career with the "We Are Family" album.
Diana would now be the biggest star with whom these new young innovators had worked. And they were more than aware of that.
They spent a great deal of time with her at her apartment getting to know her as she explained where she felt her life was going and how her career was changing and correspondingly, they worked tirelessly to create songs that would reflect her state of mind, knowing that this would generate an even more accomplished performance from her. She talked of wanting to "Have Fun Again" and turning her world "Upside Down" and consequently, to hear was to obey.
However, they also saw this as an opportunity to really show off their own vision and create a real musical panorama for the Chic sound with a major star as the pathfinder for this mission.
And this is where the problems started. Because, Motown had always said this was a risk for "Diana" and she, herself, knew the whole recording approach had been completely different from anything she had done before and so carried her own doubts. A trip to one of her most advised confidants, radio DJ, Frankie Crocker, with the first mixes of the album confirmed all of these.
By the time, Motown got wind of this - they told her that if she released this album it would kill her career for good. As an aside, they told Marvin Gaye this when he was about to release "What's Going On".
This flashpoint particularly centred on "I'm Coming Out" which had been written by Rodgers after he had seen three incredibly tall Diana drag impersonators in a club and thought it would be a great source of inspiration for her audience. Diana had always thought it was about her own experience and coming out of her shell from her previous persona. Take a look at Francesco Scavolo's beautifully simple cover photo if you want to see how far she wanted to move from her sequinned past. She had no idea about the meaning the phrase had for the gay community until she met Frankie Crocker.
Nile Rodgers managed to persuade her she should see it as an anthem about her but the record company still felt that this was a risky and controversial move to pander (as they saw it) to a gay audience still very much closed and not discussed publicly - certainly not on pop albums.
She feared what people would think the record applied to her. Now of course, it is her very own fanfare.
What is more interesting to me is simply the quality of the backing on "I'm Coming Out". There are all the elements of the Chic sound in there, the scratchy guitar, the virtuoso bass and the horn stabs but Tony Thompson's drumming is extraordinary. You could swear he is hitting as hard as John Bonham.
No wonder, Notorious BIG borrowed it as the bedrock for "Mo Money Mo Problems".
Although Chic had been granted creative control, Berry Gordy chose to ignore this completely and fearing the worst for the album, gave it to Russ Terrana who had mixed all of Diana's singles right back to "You Keep Me Hangin' On" in 1966 and so knew the artiste well.
To his credit, although working very much in isolation, he knew that Diana was looking to find a new kind of expression with this album and really rated the songwriting qualities Rodgers and Edwards had evidently worked so hard to match her persona. However, for him it was a Chic record stretched out to allow a little of Diana to float over the top. They had deliberately chosen rougher more live vocal performances to fit their musical panorama. Moreover, the trademark extended Chic intros also left an audience wanting Diana, having to wait a long to time to hear her.
So Terrana cut down most of the tracks to make them tighter, substituted the solos for shorter workouts, sped up tempos and most noticeably put in the more closely mic-ed vocal performances which had a more Diana-like pure delivery or indeed re-recorded some of them entirely back in LA.
Chic flipped out when they heard it and even threatened to have their manes take off the record, which for an artist looking for a little contemporary cool would have been a marketing disaster.
Cool heads prevailed and the record was released in May 1980. However, it had no lead single which was unheard of for a label like Motown but after four weeks, as the album rose up the US charts, they released the joyful bounce of "Upside Down" which turned everyone's views around as it soared to number one in the USA and across the world in the summer of that year.
And the success of the album carried on throughout the year with "I'm Coming Out" despite all reservations being a huge hit as well. It certainly wasn't killing Diana's career.
A third top 10 success would follow with "My Old Piano" which is probably the least personal songs on the album but is most Chic-like in its construction. Of all the tracks in side by side comparison, this is the one where I notice the vocal delivery change so markedly. The original is much looser and feels more spontaneous though as intended, less characteristic.
Interestingly, the promo sees a return to a more old-style glamorous and opulent Ms. Ross very much at odds with the effortlessly cool album cover star.
So the question remains who was right and who was wrong.
There is no doubt that "Have Fun Again" is destroyed by the pointless fade-out and fade-in that was crowbar-ed into what is one of Chic's best ever rhythm lines. Nile Rodgers says it still makes him wince.
"Friend To Friend" has some added strings which actually create a strangely much less saccharine slow jam and actually makes a more contemporary and less cabaret ballad. This had been something an albatross that had been weighing Diana down in her efforts to remain current.
"Tenderness" is one of my favourite tracks on the album and it is quite dramatically truncated from the original mix. I think it benefits from the breadth of the longer version and is still one of the best Chic workouts on the album.
Chic were not bad boys per se although the original lyrics to "Le Freak" were not "freak out" but "f*** off" after being refused entry to Studio 54. They were seen as quite a rebellious outfit back in the late 70s - revolutionising recording and production and creating a distinctive sound in a way not dissimilar to the one Motown had managed in the 60s. At this point in time, they were at the height of their writing powers and "Diana" is testament to that. But they were still learning their trade and perhaps lacked quite the discipline to know how to handle a star with their own signatures and incorporate them into their own sound.
Nile Rodgers said they learnt so much about how to do this from this entire experience and so would go on to successfully work with other major stars with strong creative opinions particularly Madonna and David Bowie. By then, he had become much more surefooted in his approach.
Clearly though Chic, despite the 'Disco Sucks' movement, were one of the hottest acts on the planet and everything they touched seemed to turn to gold at the time so the nervousness of Motown is probably unjustified as the record has such a great portfolio of songs that it surely would have found its market easily.
However, they would make contributions that ensured their major artist remained recognisable and not be written off as making a needlessly over-trendy attempt to stay current by becoming too experimental.
So who is the winner - well Diana Ross, of course.
"Diana" was the best selling solo album of her career by quite a considerable margin. She knew she needed change but knew enough of her own brand to seek opinions and trust her instinct. Within a year and a half she would have struck out from Motown and signed her own more lucrative deal with RCA. She never reached the heights of this album again and though it cemented her status as a diva, it gave a new wrapping for it. The album reframed her position as a performer rather than an act.