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A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

As a responsible journalist, I won't make you devote more brain cells than you already have to disco music. But the 1978 phenomenon surrounding disco -- the fad itself, as opposed to its subject -- merits attention.

Even today, with stalwart fervor, a few embattled fans defend disco. This was no pre-fab construct of major record labels, they argue, but a musical form with roots extending back, yea, even to 1971, when the first discotheque opened in Boston. "The Hustle," Van McCoy's breakout single that inspired a national dance craze, dates from 1975. And that same year of this ancient lineage also brought the seed that would, three years later, flower (if thatÕs the word I want) as the leading symbol of discomania.

British rock writer Nik Cohn's 1975 magazine article about the New York disco scene, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," inspired Australian movie producer Robert Stigwood (Jesus Christ Superstar) to fictionalize it. (Ironically, over 20 years later, Cohn confessed he'd fabricated the original article.) Because Stigwood also managed British-born Australian musicians Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, he chose them to do the soundtrack for his discotheque film, the story of an aimless Brooklyn store clerk who finds purpose only on the lighted dance floor.

You know the rest. Released in December 1977, Saturday Night Fever hit harder than Ebola, and the Bee Gees' double album sold 25 million copies, the best-selling soundtrack ever. Ten of its songs became hit singles, six of them chart-toppers. Disco became an instant $8 billion industry. In the October 1978 ratings, disco radio stations won every major market in America. Ultra-chic celebs frequented New YorkÕs Studio 54. Platform shoe sales soared.

Donruss released its Saturday Night Fever set in conjunction with the movie. In these colorful but occasionally grainy stills, star John Travolta looks dynamic, agile, and -- heavens, was he that young? This 66-card slide show covers '70s disco fashion from top (big slick hair, polyester leisure suit with butterfly collar) to bottom (bell-bottom pants). The jigsaw backs form a giant poster of Travolta and costar Karen Lynn Gorney posturing on the dance floor, beneath the tantalizing question "Where do you go when the record is over?" Feeding the fever, Donruss printed a ton of SNF cards, so now you can find them for less than fifty cents apiece. The complete 66-card set goes for $25 today -- less than a pair of bell-bottoms!

Disco fever's only remarkable aspect was its speedy cure. In mid-1979 200 radio stations played round-the-clock disco; a year later, all had deserted. All those artists -- Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Boys, and one-hit wonders like Boney M (who sang a love song about a Russian monk, "Ra Ra Rasputine") -- after their sudden fall from feverish celebrity, where did they go when the disco record was over?

Still, like many another illness, disco has hung onto a peculiar half-life, enshrined in weekly "Dance Classic" radio shows and dozens of compilation albums. The nostalgia industry's perpetual fascination with whatever happened 20 years ago has now reached the '70s. Inexplicably, the Village People's "YMCA" has become a standard at wedding receptions. And the Bee Gees, 1997 inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, are touring again. They wrote two new songs for Saturday Night Fever's most recent incarnation, a $6 million stage musical in London's West End. Produced by Stigwood, the 1998 theatrical show adapted the vulgarity-packed film rather freely. "There will be no foul language, drug usage, or violence against women," says a press release. "Consequently [it] is a real family show!"

Responsible journalist or not, I'll stop there. I have to protect my brain cells too, you know.

If you feel that this column used your brain cells without good purpose, send the defective cells to Allen Varney for replacement.

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, March 1999.

Copyright (C) 1999 Tuff Stuff Publications, Inc.]

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