Before I start, I’d like to make it clear that I think irony is great. Whoever invented it should have been given a tye-dye formica Nobel Prize replica, possibly with a Banksy slogan replacing the Roman Numerals or something. Maybe he or she is dead. In fact, he or she is definitely dead. Ironic, innit?
Someone should write a history of pop-cultural irony. It’d be great- you could start with some highfallutin’ reference to Madame Bovary or Persuasion, and end with a picture of Lemonjelly drinking eggnog with William Shatner. Or Leonard Nimoy being mystical in JJ Abrahams’ Star Trek. Or some menus from Bistrotheque’s “1988” popup. Or George Shaw’s Turner Prize-nominated Humbrol paintings.
Or, for that matter, pretty much anything… Irony has long since become the most useful bit of kit in the hipster toolbox- and since almost every city-dweller in the Western hemisphere has by now, knowingly or not, skirted on the fringes of hipsterdom, this means that- put simply- Irony is king.
This is not new, and if you don’t believe me, go and see the Postmodernism show at the V&A. The exhibition documents the “movement” that brought irony into everyday life, beginning with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Las Vegas adventures and ending with the video to New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle. It is made crystal clear that Postmodernism was never really superseded as the defining nametag of modern times. It was the great liberator, allowed people to use whatever they wanted in terms of reference, and, Neo-Minimalism notwithstanding, there has been no serious challenge to its hegemony since its ascent to the mainstream.
Irony was Postmodernism’s sword and shield. It meant you couldn’t find yourself being held accountable to questions of taste. It is the great cultural Get-out-of-jail-free card, used indiscriminately by the Good, the Bad and errr… the Very, Very Bad indeed. Thus, for every Klaus Nomi, for every Quentin Tarantino, for every Rei Kwakubo, there is a legion of Nathan Barleys (or- perhaps I flatter myself- Digby Warde-Aldams).
Naturally, in terms of reclaiming the past, this is sort of great. An example; for the duration of the 1970s, the Beach Boys were so naff that none but the most earnest geek would touch them. Come 1997 and readers of Mojo Magazine (ie the most insecure, and therefore most picky cultural snobs of them all) have voted Pet Sounds the “Greatest Album of All-Time”.
Further to the point, was 1980s synthpop regarded as anything other than the embodiment of cheesiness circa 1997? I need not even finish this paragraph.
We love 80s synthpop. Yes, even you- face it (and if you don’t, I don’t know what you’re doing reading this blog). Yet there is always an uncertainty behind our self-consciously terrible dance moves- it’s all “charmingly crap” as one particularly beardy hipster acquaintance of mine put it. That’s our defence, anyway- the truth is, we’re just too scared to fess up to wholeheartedly enjoying it.
Irony has made us slippery fans- how would you like to be a member of Bucks Fizz, playing Making your Mind Up whilst staring into the crowd, knowing that anyone under the age of 48 is only cheering because “it’s so bad it’s good”.
I’m starting to feel a bit uncomfortable listening to all these groovy records with my tongue stuck so firmly in my cheek. On my last trip to the South London Gallery, I stopped off at Rat Records on Camberwell Green, where I purchased not only the finest compilation of retro-hipster-frisco boogie ever compiled (James Murphy and Pat Mahoney’s Fabriclive CD from 2007), but classic Disco’s very own Rosetta Stone. Whether you know it or not, you know this record’s grooves better than the Bible, Harry Potter and the collected works of Delia Smith combined. The home of no fewer than nine hit singles, it has sold over 15 million copies since its release in 1977.
The disc to which I refer is, of course, the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack.
Like almost any newcomer to Saturday Night Fever, I was shocked by how much of it was already imprinted onto my longterm memory jukebox, whether from school discos, hip-hop samples or just about every ITV continuity link since the 1980s. More shocking (and by this, I mean really shocking) was how different it sounded on my CD player at home. I’d expected glitzy muzak with 70s kitsch value. What I got was 74 minutes of the most exciting pop music ever made, let alone in the 1970s.
For those wary of such uncharted areas of the provincial nightclub repertoire (which is now pretty much all dubstep and R&B anyway- Irony is already working its magic with the Coalition years…), start in the obvious place; Track 1, Side 1- Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees.
I defy anyone not to sway just a little bit to this fonk. Try it out on headphones when you next go to the supermarket. You’ll strut like Travolta, do a thousand-yard stare at the own-brand Baked Beans display, and growl “Fo’sho… Whatchoo lookinatanyways?” when the guy at the till asks whether or not you’d like cashback. You’ll ask for a hundred pounds and prance around the exit with the notes portruding prominently from the breast pocket of your (white, sequinned) jacket. Or perhaps that’s just a quirk of mine.
Ahem. Whatever happens, you’ll want to listen to it again. Immediately. And this time you’ll listen to the words.
Stayin’ Alive is about as depressing a song as you’re likely to find. It’s not like Leonard Cohen or Morrissey or any of those mild-doom-mongerers, but a gloriously inarticulate expression of the despair that so often lies behind bravado. The refrain, sung by all three brothers in harmony (“Think I’m goin’ nowhere… I’m goin’ nowhere… somebody help me yeah…) is the song’s unconscious, an all-too desperate counterpoint to all the unconvincing “ladies’ man” stuff in the verse. Fuck How Soon Is Now or This is Hardcore, this is the true sound of loneliness turned up to ten.
It’s not all doom and gloom. How Deep is Your Love, as recently covered by the Rapture, is about as good as ballads get. Night Fever is the perfect synthesis of funk and harmony. Even the filler is great; Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven has somehow survived being used on a commercial for a Gok Wan show, and Ralph McDonald’s Calypso Breakdown would be the centrepiece of any lesser incidental soundtrack LP.
I’m a sucker for Disco instrumentals, but even so, David Shire’s contributions to SNF are spectacular by any means. Manhattan Skyline‘s subway-train rhythm is married to squeaky guitar and off-kilter strings to create what might be the best soundtrack to a District Line journey I’ve ever had the pleasure to jive to. But this is nothing compared to what follows.
A Night On Disco Mountain (based, as the CD cover so helpfully informs me, on “Night on Bald Mountain”, whatever the hell that is) is quite easily the best thing on the album.
It is superlative in every sense; the most melodramatic, the most overproduced, the most pompous, the least modest and very possibly the greatest song of the Disco era.
How the hell did anyone ever hit upon the idea for it? Can they possibly have handed over the master tapes with a straight face? And how come I’d never heard it before (except, unwittingly, as the main sample on Justice’s vastly inferior Stress single from 2007)?
I fear I may never know.
For all the intense enjoyment I get from A Night on Disco Mountain, it’s just too ludicrous- can something that fits into the “progressive baroque disco” bracket be anything else?- and is in truth the only moment on the soundtrack where a bit of irony is indispensable to our enjoyment.
This is a crying shame, as it completely craps all over my efforts to make you listen to SNF without prejudice.
I’m kidding myself here- the Bee Gees wore terrible clothes and, with Tragedy, went on to make one of history’s most annoying records, which after traumatising one generation on its release in 1980, repeated the trick when covered by Steps in 1998.
Disco will never again be taken seriously, which seems ridiculous when you consider that people believe the Beats were cool. Disco became a symbol for not one but two of the most significant social phenomena of the 20th century- a new, aspirational and confident assertion of identity for Black America and a clarion call for the ongoing Gay Rights struggle. A lot of crap has been written about the Beats, but what did they ever do for us? I struggle to answer this with anything but a mental image of a bunch of pretentious middle class “artists” in polonecks spouting drug-fuelled nonsense in the hope of getting a shag. I hate the Beats. But that’s enough bile for now.
I could conclude with my own words, but, as is so often the case, Whit Stillman has already said everything I want to say with far more élan.
I leave you with this, from his excellent 1998 movie The Last Days of Disco;
“Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this, that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die. Oh, for a few years – maybe many years – it’ll be considered passé and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at, or – worse – completely ignored. People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits and platform shoes and people going like *this*
[strikes disco pose]
…but we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco. Those who didn’t understand will never understand: disco was much more, and much better, than all that. Disco was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever! It’s got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes… Sorry, I’ve got a job interview this afternoon and I was just trying to get revved up, but… most of what I said, I, um… believe.”