From the vantage point of 2008, it is all too also easy to dismiss the whole disco era which Hercules And Love Affair evoke. Viewed retrospectively through a prism of Studio 54, Saturday Night Fever and your local ’70s revival night, disco doesn’t so much suck as spew great stinking chunks of cheese. This is the sound of the Bee Gees. This is the source of all the celebrity/cocaine bullshit that still passes for glamour in certain retarded nightclubs. This is a wet Friday night in Romford, drunk on WKD, fending off formation-dancing hen parties to the sound of Ottawan’s ‘DISCO’. While wearing a comedy afro.However, as any serious student of dance music history – say, Hercules And Love Affair’s mainman Andrew Butler, or his DFA patrons James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy – knows, disco was once as punk as, well, punk.
In the period between the Stonewall gay liberation riots of 1969 and the release of Saturday Night Fever in 1977, disco brought a seismic sense of liberation to New York nightlife. In seminal clubs like The Loft and The Sanctuary the DJs played an astonishing new mix of soul, funk, groovy rock and African tracks – the base elements of disco – to dancefloors packed with gays, blacks, straights, whites, freaks, hipsters and bohemians united, often for the first time in such social spaces, by a revolutionary mix of hippy idealism and polyrhythmic percussion. Plus sex and drugs, of course.
It also explains why mainstream America felt so threatened by disco. By the time radio DJ Steve Dahl was organising Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey baseball stadium – where thousands of knuckle-dragging rock fans chanting “Disco Sucks!” burned 10,000 disco records – disco had become a symbol of everything right-wing America hated: sex, racial equality, gay rights, feminism, drugs, freedom.
Ironically, by that time in 1979, the major labels had already neutered and commercialised disco. The scene originators had gone underground again, where disco’s pioneering spirit and its sounds continued to resonate. Andrew Butler knows all this. Which is why, although ‘Hercules And Love Affair’ is steeped in the rhythms and starry percussion, the strutting basslines and shimmering musicality of 1970s disco, it is not some painstaking recreation of the Salsoul classics. Butler and his very New York cast of vocalists – Antony of the Johnsons, DJ/jewellery designer Kim Ann Foxman, hip-hop vocalist and CocoRosie collaborator, Nomi – bring all sorts of son-of-disco sounds into play, particularly house and electro. The result is 10 tracks which, if not exactly groundbreaking, sound freshly minted and frequently beautiful. If you’ve heard the single, ‘Blind’ – a seamless blend of Butler’s teenage love of Yazoo, his fondness for vintage disco, and his years following San Francisco’s Wicked Crew house music soundsystem – you will already know that ‘Hercules…’ contains at least one stone-cold classic. ‘Blind’ is the best kind of dance record: physical and emotional, euphorically happy and deeply, irredeemably sad. It clips along weightlessly; all disco bass, trumpets and rippling synthesiser, as Antony, his voice like tears rolling down the cheeks of a beautiful 40-year-old woman, muses intoxicatingly on lost innocence and ageing. Antony’s other contributions, his voice made to drape itself across twinkling electronics, are almost as good. The opener, ‘Time Will’, is a queasy, acoustic guitar-flecked disco (not disco) fix, Antony repeating mysteriously, “I cannot be half a wife”. It’s an excellent statement of anti-rockist intent – The Pigeon Detectives it ain’t. He then casts an unearthly shadow across the Ibiza sunset ambience of ‘Easy’, while ‘Raise Me Up’, another goosebump-inducing NY torch song, propels us back on to the dancefloor. If the rest of ‘Hercules…’ doesn’t match those 9/10 heights there is still much of interest. ‘Hercules’ Theme’ and ‘True False/Fake Real’ reference the string stabs and vocals of classic disco, but like ZE Records’ art-disco mutations, they’re too mischievous and odd to lapse into pastiche. ‘Athene’ is like a great New Young Pony Club tune, while ‘This Is My Love’, not unpleasantly, brings to mind a very refined Chromeo. For all this, however, ‘Hercules And Love Affair’ isn’t quite the great album that the hype machine would have us believe.
It isn’t 2008’s ‘Sound Of Silver’, it doesn’t have the musical bravado. ‘You Belong’ is superb, but it’s essentially just an old Chicago house tune given a digital spit’n’polish. While much of ‘Hercules…’ operates within a similar (safety) zone, cross-breeding conventional styles rather than – in the style of DFA’s remixes – seeking to completely reinvent something still recognisable as disco for the 21st century. Maybe that will come later. For now though, this is a very fine record. Not Herculean exactly, but certainly something that NME loves.