In close parallel to the 1978-83 post-punk renaissance (as documented in Simon's Rip It Up And Start Again), funk, disco and the poppier side of side of soul was also having a damn good run of it at the same time (covered in Peter Shapiro's equally excellent tome Turn That Beat Around). With a vicious backlash, and fatigue at the cultural hegemony of Saturday Night Fever, the dust of disco settled into all kinds of interesting shapes - from the first stirrings of hiphop to hi-concept New York punky funky disco eccentrics like James Chance, Arthur Russell, the Was Bros. and Kid Creole/August Darnell. Punk, Afrobeat, reggae, fusion, electropop and Latino music were cheerfully appropriated for dancefloor use. Add the ominous dynamics of Reagan's victory and the constituencies he came to destroy, it made for a heady, implicitly political brew. It was perhaps unsurprising that new wavers like Talking Heads and The Clash hitched along for the ride. It was also apt that Bowie would end his run of greatness with Nile Rogers instead of Brian Eno. The integration of the audience was frequently as seamless as its collage of musical styles. It wasn't so much mutant disco, as hybrid; lending it a frequently unpredictable pizazz.
Of course, the arrival of Thriller, its almost totalitarian commercial impact, and the (arguable) backlash it provoked in the form of hiphop, swept this mini-utopia away; leaving dancefloors between a desexualised, deracialised, deradicalised Disneyland and the harsh admonition to 'keep it real' (until rave, itself a different kind of Disneyland, albeit existing largely in the head). Funk was eventually pushed to the margins, but for a while there the influence of George Clinton could be heard all over the place (yaoww!), and not just among his own P-Funk collective. This was before the horrors of AIDS and conservatism, when sexuality was openly celebrated; unlike the paranoid disgust of Jacko and his many imitators, or Material Girls insisting the only thing going on was the rent. Disco was assimilated into the default pop mainstream by the likes of Stock, Aitken and Waterman and Hi-NRG-lite like New Order and the Pet Shop Boys (their one true classic 'West End Girls' - the source of this blog's title - emerged from the New York scene mentioned above, but itself riddled with noirish sexual dread). The only Utopia Madonna pledged allegiance to was her own neoliberal success story. Jellybean Benitez served his instrumental purpose many movers and shakers ago. Despite her (increasingly desperate) bumping and grinding, the actual tracks sounded as sterile as any other by the late 80s. Disco vets like Prince stood out for the idiosyncratic niche he carved, but he was a rarity; reliant on MTV and Hollywood to make his mark. There were still somewhat anomalous exceptions, like Sly and Robbie's awesome 'Boops (Here To Go)'; but rather than prove influential, they ultimately suggested lost possibilities.
Anyway, all the above is just an excuse to post some great tracks from the period. Ironically, the songs below are now most likely to be heard (if at all) in the twattier kind of hipster venue. Places that are far from sexy, integrated, adventurous, politicised or remotely Utopian. Where "fuck you" is the soulful refrain replacing "let's do it!" At least musically, things were a little more open then. Michael Henderson was an in-demand session player with fusion superstars, proving he could funk with the best of them, coiling his mighty bass around a filthy double entendre. Arthur Russell's deeply personal, spacious, spiritual style now has its due recognition. Rick James' Street Songs is the rare album that's excellent from beginning to end, and in a more just world, would have outsold Thriller to much healthier social and commercial effect. The production credits of Sly and Robbie speak for themselves, being in demand as producers with good reason. They eventually settled into the increasingly conservative and enclosed world of Jamaican pop. Frankie Beverly's Maze were relatively 'trad', reflecting the short-lived optimism of an emergent black middle-class; but never quite entered the mainstream with their lack of video glitz and high reputation as a live act. The last track (one of the greatest dance tunes ever, IMHO) is a lovely example of August Darnell's pop genius, and could be a manifesto for the whole milieu I'm lazily attempting to describe. Of course, with the exceptions of mighty Rick and Grace (for obvious reasons - look at 'em), none of these tracks had the pop videos that would be de rigeur by mid-decade. History was indeed made at night, but the Spectacle was closed to its potential; as pop (and nightlife) carried out its slowly gentrified, neutered facelift and eventual irrelevance. But whenever I hear this stuff, it can't help but evoke thoughts of a warmer world.