Making a list of disco songs that do not suck is something I've been thinking about for a while. It took finishing Peter Shapiro's book on disco to get me off the dime. Shapiro believes that the best disco never made it to the radio, and what made it to the radio was often drained of disco's passion and/or artistry. Nevertheless, I'm picking from what I heard on the radio, and here we go (in chronological order).
"The Love I Lost"/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. I never really thought of this as a disco record--mostly because what Teddy Pendergrass is doing with the vocal is more gospel testifyin' than disco crooning. In Shapiro's opinion, "The Love I Lost" is one of the most important early examples of the form. And he's right--it's got the gliding orchestra, the chugging bass line, and the hard-working high-hat cymbal. And its full-length version runs over six minutes, gloriously extending the groove. (Chart peak: #7, December 8, 1973)
"Love's Theme"/Love Unlimited Orchestra. According to Shapiro, this was the first song to reach Number One on the pop charts thanks in part to its exposure in discos. I wish I had the precise quote Shapiro uses to describe it--on the one hand, he says, it's elegant and sophisticated, but on the other, it's as drenched in funk as Ron Jeremy's basement. (#1, February 9, 1974)
"Rock Your Baby"/George McCrae. If you wanted to pick a spot where disco began to make inroads into the Top 40 and neither of the two previous records suited you, this would work. "Rock Your Baby" sounds cheap and cheesy (dig that drum machine) and McCrae isn't a very good singer--but similar limitations didn't stop a lot of disco records from becoming enormous hits. (#1, July 13, 1974)
"Never Can Say Goodbye"/Gloria Gaynor. One of the first major pop hits that sounded like disco as we remember it now--a big flashy orchestra chugging at a hundred miles an hour with a diva soaring above it. And another cymbal player working his ass off. (#9, January 25, 1975)
"Doctor's Orders"/Carol Douglas. My favorite disco record, and maybe my guiltiest guilty pleasure. The medical metaphor is cute without being too forced, and Douglas is a charming singer. The rhythm guitarist, whoever he is, deserves some kind of award--and when the record changes key for the last refrain, it's nirvana. (#11, February 8, 1975)
"Disco Queen"/Hot Chocolate. No happy-happy-everybody-dance vibe here. It's more like, "You will dance, or else." Hot Chocolate's signature noise, that ominous, low guitar buzz, runs all through it; the horns could demolish entire buildings; and the drummer damn well means business, too. (#28, July 19, 1975)
"Fly Robin Fly"/Silver Convention. This record gets its unique sound from the soloing string section, but the part was originally intended to be played by horns. According to Shapiro, there was a shortage of competent horn players in Germany at the time "Fly Robin Fly" was recorded. Thus, the producers used string players from the Munich Philharmonic instead. (#1, November 29, 1975)
"Disco Lady"/Johnnie Taylor. Controversial in its time for "shake it up, shake it down, move it in, move it around." (It's kind of cute what passed for controversial back in the Paleozoic Era.) But if you stripped off the lyrics entirely, you'd be left with one of the most gorgeous instrumental tracks of any era, disco or otherwise. Plus it's got one of the all-time great intros for DJs to talk over. (#1, April 3, 1976)
"Whispering-Cherchez La Femme"/Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. Shapiro devotes a great deal of space to the work of August Darnell, the man behind Dr. Buzzard and later, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, as an example of the artistic possibilities of disco. This is surely one of the most elegant and intelligent disco records ever made, both instrumentally and lyrically. (#27, January 29, 1977)
"Stayin' Alive"/Bee Gees. Shapiro disposes of the Bee Gees with a handful of dismissive comments, which is quite an omission for a history of disco. Although Saturday Night Fever was the most potent expression of disco in the marketplace, let's not equate "commercial" with "crap" in this case. Debate whether it's real disco if you must--but do not debate, at least not with me, whether "Stayin' Alive" is one of the most exciting records of the 1970s, and possibly of all time. There's no question about it. (#1, February 4, 1978)
Some observations about this list: I notice that I've got only one record from the period in which disco ruled the radio--the era between the release of Saturday Night Fever in December 1977 and the ascension of the Knack's "My Sharona" to Number One in August 1979. By the time disco reached the mainstream radio listener and record buyer, it rarely ventured beyond a few specific cliches, none of which were all that interesting to me, repeated over and over. That was also the period in which I graduated from high school and went off to college, so the way I listened to music and what music represented to me was changing, as was the music I was listening to.
According to Joel Whitburn's Pop Singles Annual 1955-1986, there were 10 songs making the Hot 100 whose titles began with the word "disco." (I'd have guessed more.) The earliest was "Disco Queen" in 1975. "Disco Lady" and Rick Dees' "Disco Duck" both went to Number One. The only other tunes to make the Top 20 were "Disco Inferno" by the Trammps (which nearly made my Top 10 list above) and "Disco Nights" by GQ, which was yet another of those cliche-recycling cookie-cutter disco records that clogged the charts in 1979.
Your suggestions for disco records that do not suck (or, if it's more your style, disco records that could take the chrome off a tailpipe) are welcome in the Comments section.