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Disco-lit

ALEX JEFFERY, AUTHOR OF DONNA SUMMER’S ONCE UPON A TIME, ON ICONIC ALBUMS AND SONGS INSPIRED BY LITERATURE.


Progressive rock and disco on the surface might look like binary opposites, natural enemies even, given the way their audiences were often characterized (one male, white, heterosexual, the other female, black, gay). However, during the second half of the 1970s, it was evident that some of disco’s more adventurous producers were attracted like moths to the same literary flames that inspired many progressive rock concept albums. 

From Bo Hanssen’s Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings in 1970 through hits like Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Rick Wakeman in 1974, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds in 1978 and far beyond, rock has been consistently drawn to the same core literary genres (fantasy and science/dystopian fiction) for inspiration. Some of the more successful lit-inspired works from this period, like The Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot (1977) and the War of the Worlds are almost impossible to classify, using elements of rock, disco, funk, space disco or the synthesizer soundscape wherever they feel appropriate for the music’s storytelling ambition. David Bowie’s aborted adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 was clearly destined to be some kind of rock opera, but what survived through to his 1974 album Diamond Dogs nonetheless drew influence from funk and proto-disco (particularly Isaac Hayes’ Shaft on the track “1984”). War of the Worlds, released in 1978, even initially marketed itself with an already disco-ready single (“The Eve of the War”) that was given a further space disco treatment by remixers Steve Thompson and Geoff Young just to make sure DJs would play it.

Almost all of the literary-inspired disco concept albums came from Europe, or at least European-born producers. “Eurodisco”, as the style coming out of the continent generally became known, was generally less focused on the absolute now of the dance floor than American disco. It often projected into a kind of global fantasia that drew inspiration from the history book, classic literature and fairy tales. Once Upon a Time was not alone in its approach to the European fairy tale, and was joined in 1979 by Pinocchio, a rather lamentable effort produced by the Russian-born Boris Midney for his studio group Masquerade. The king of the disco-lit adaptation was Alec R. Costandinos, a producer with a complex heritage that had been born in Egypt to Armenian/Greek parents, educated in an Irish Catholic school Cairo and, via a spell in Australia, had eventually moved with his family to France, where he received his first school exposure to the national literature of Emile Zola and Honoré de Balzac.

His first disco concept album Judas Iscariot Simon Peter, produced for the studio band Sphinx in 1977, was a bible story. This was followed the same year by an album inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which reproduced the entire fourteen lines of the first act prologue in its first “Act” (a term that Once Upon A Time also uses as a structuring device). Romeo and Juliet received considerable disco play, but was barely more of an adaptation than Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” or Nik Kershaw’s “Don Quixote”, two three to four-minute pop songs that barely scratch the surface of the novels that inspired them. Neither of these two artists, tellingly, had bothered to read beyond the first pages of their respective book and went with their imaginations (and rhyming schemes) instead. However, Costandinos’ enthusiasm for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a childhood curiosity thanks to its banning from the French syllabus, led to a concept album that abridges, much like Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds, virtually the entire story span of Hugo’s novel, and structures its material around the novel’s chapter titles and narrative content. It opens with the hunchback Quasimodo’s introduction at the Feast of Fools (much as the later Walt Disney film does)and ends in the same way as the novel with the discovery of Quasimodo’s skeleton, clinging to that of Esmeralda, the executed gypsy woman who provides some of the album’s most obvious musical coding. What happens between these two story points is a patchwork of disco instrumental, spoken narration, snatches of song form and sound effects that will use seemingly anything in its quest to satisfy both bodies on the dancefloor and minds in the living room. It’s never really made explicit, for example, that Esmeralda is a gypsy, and Costandinos leaves it to the music to communicate the fact in the first side sequence “La Esmeralda” on the first side, which can broadly be defined as Spanish-sounding (including the hemiola rhythm, descending Andalusian cadence, rumba male vocal chorus and melodic Spanish guitar picking). All of these musical codes are proxies for Spanish music, borrowed from a recent disco hit, the cover version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Santa Esmeralda. Like the French-produced Bimbo Jet, Santa Esmeralda were fake-Spanish, also with French producers and a singer, Leroy Gómez, who was in fact American of Cape Verdean descent. Esmeralda isn’t supposed to be Spanish anyway (the book makes it very clear that she is of French Roma descent), but how far would we expect a disco record to go with this kind of authenticity in 1978? Despite Costandinos’ evident skill in assembling his music, he was not immune to the desire to capitalize on an existing hit by copying its musical elements. It probably also saved a bit of time. Disco-lit, as with most pop music, was therefore highly opportunistic, and its sometimes rapid methods of production (the Moroder/Bellotte/Summer records were often turned out in a matter of weeks) clearly wouldn’t turn down a musical short cut if they saw fit.

Although Once Upon A Time mostly eschews narration, other albums, particularly The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the World, relied on the spoken voiceover to have a chance of providing an effective adaptation (as opposed to appropriation) of their respective novels. It was an approach to musical storytelling that could in fact be traced back to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, brought into popular music culture largely by Rick Wakeman, a huge fan of the work since he had been taken to see a performance aged eight. Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1974, the critics had it in for what they saw as a bad classical music pastiche, although the album has had some long-lasting appeal. The disco producers had no such aspirations to classicism, although many of them paid a great deal of attention to how their music was recorded. Costandinos, for example, was able on the new 48 track console at Trident Studios in London to separate different violin sections, instead of having them as a mass on a single track. That Once Upon A Time was able to deliver such a compelling story simply through musical dramaturgy and song (rather than voiceover narration or complicated liner notes) marks it out as an achievement that outclasses most of the narrative progressive rock albums that were its contemporaries.

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