ALEX JEFFERY, AUTHOR OF DONNA SUMMER’S ONCE UPON A TIME, ON THE WAVE OF DISCO AND POP THAT SHAPED 1970’S EUROPEAN MUSIC.
In Funk: The Music, the People and the Rhythm of the One, the music ethnologist Rickey Vincent (1996) decries Eurodisco productions for a lack of a cohesive musical song dramaturgy. They were, he says, “producer-made tunes” generally lacking in a sense of sequence, i.e. beginning, build-up, catharsis, release. They relied instead on being simple and catchy enough “to bring rhythmless suburbanites and other neophytes flocking to plush dance clubs at strip malls from coast to coast”. By song dramaturgy, what he is actually talking about, rather than story told through lyrics, is a kind of narrative structure that might be found purely in the music instead. Where the song dramaturgy may have been missing, Eurodisco often built its productions around story songs – tight pop song structures with a wealth of narrative information packed into three or four verses and a chorus (think Cher’s “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves” for a classic American example). Giorgio Moroder’s experience in making this kind of music proved essential in Once Upon a Time, whose opening track (and prologue) has to rapidly bring the listener into the narrative world within three tightly packed verses that tell you pretty much everything you need to know about its protagonist.
Most of the stories in Europop, the continental pop music that developed in the 60s and eventually fed into Eurodisco, had no basis in local realities. They often eulogised the mythic places and characters of America, although it was a distant proxy, inspired by the pop culture imported from there, rather than any direct experience. Nobody would imagine that Middle of the Road’s “Sacramento (It’s A Wonderful Town)”, Pussycat’s “Mississippi” and Teach-In’s “Tennessee Town” were written by people who had ever been to those places. Schlager, the more sentimental European pop music that had (and still has) a stronghold in Germany tended to drift off into a reverie of sunny holidays in the Mediterranean, or a nostalgic past of a half-remembered national idyll. Anything, essentially, than commit to the present moment as most American disco did to the point of rapture. The title of Summer’s own single 1974 “Denver Dream’ signalled its remoteness from the subject, while setting its words in a soundscape recreated from TV Westerns. “The Hostage”, her breakthrough European hit from the same year, is a more lurid saga where a botched ransom payment for a kidnapped husband ends in the predictable tragedy of his death. “Lady of the Night” another early hit in Germany and The Netherlands, had a Parisian setting in the Rue D’Avignon, where the song’s subject plied her wares “advertising warmly” in a half-lit hotel doorway. Summer’s producers didn’t immediately try to go sexy with her, and instead tried to capitalise on Moroder’s years making Schlager, as well as Summer’s experience in the German musical theatre world. Musically the song wasn’t particularly racy, borrowing the drum phrase from the Ronettes’ Phil Spector-produced “Be My Baby”, in the same way as Summer’s later “Love’s Unkind” pastiched The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”. Something of a dry run for another working-girl song “Bad Girls” (which really did capture the pulse of the street life), you can hear in “Lady of the Night” the nascent team of Summer/Moroder/Bellotte tentatively working at their own version of musical storytelling.
Where American disco is often more declarative or instructive (“I Will Survive”, “Shake Shake Shake (Shake Your Booty)”), Eurodisco can often be highly descriptive. It’s an attribute that can be seen fully in the disco story songs of Boney M., like “Rasputin” and “Ma Baker” or those of their German-language counterparts Dschingis Khan (“Dschingis Khan”, “Moskau”), although both of these acts, more properly, were using pop song structures set to disco backing. Amanda Lear’s ‘Queen of Chinatown’, the babyfaced girl from Shanghai, who never smiled or cried, was essentially a classic Europop national stereotype, but the pantomime of the story was laced with a little opium to add a soupçon more disco deviance. It’s equally hard to imagine American disco coming up with the sci-fi storybook of Cerrone’s “Supernature”, which opened with the line ‘once upon a time science opened up the door’ in a tale that looked back to H. G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.
“Light, fluffy, happy music. But it was geared more for the whites” was how American disco remixer and producer Tom Moulton saw Eurodisco. There were, nonetheless pockets of new European pop music that studiously avoided this kind of storytelling. “Kraftwerk” as Davitt Sigerson put it in a sounds column New Musick “does better, because they avoid people-subjects. They make their sounds with machines; their songs are textural descriptions of objects or impersonal experiences. ‘Trans-Europe Express’ is a train journey”. Moroder himself found it “difficult to talk” with Kraftwerk, who he found to have “very definite ideas” and sometimes tried to sidestep comparisons with them in interviews. As for how “European” his own music was, although he downplayed the fact that his disco might have a particularly European flavour, he would happily admit that both he and Bellotte were “Continental-style writers, well trained in Continental pop music”. Moroder’s early production history, captured in the two volumes of Schlagermoroder compliations, was geared towards the kind of European bubblegum that would go on to become one of the enduring stereotypes of Eurovision music. Its own particular flavour can be summed up in the titles of his two biggest hits “Looky Looky” and “Moody Trudy”. “Son Of My Father” marked the point at which he began working with his co-producer and lyricist Bellotte (the collaborator on all of Summer’s albums up until 1980), who provided the English lyrics. They tell the tale of a young man trying to break free from the parental mould, and while the song flopped for Moroder, it was later Chicory Tip who leant into its glam band potential and got a UK number one. When he finally got into disco, perhaps Moroder and Bellotte had learned the lesson from this – Europeans are a sucker for a good story.