Disco inferno: From unifying safe haven to creepy dystopia

Music critic Peter Shapiro's Turn the Beat Around opens with a graphic depiction of New York in the '70s that could make even the most hardened city dweller cower behind the nearest gentrified storefront. The Bronx is getting leveled by flames; all five boroughs are being torn by racial and social unrest; Son of Sam is on the loose. Add devastating municipal cutbacks, stagflation, and a crime rate galloping faster than any Giorgio Moroder bassline ever could, and you have the recipe for total meltdown. Or disco. Or both.

It's tempting to cast disco as the ray of light in this grim urban dystopia and the discotheque as the safe haven where all the bitterly divided races, sexual orientations, and ethnicities could gyrate under a single unifying beat. Shapiro certainly offers that democratic point of view—and his book, which gives equal ink to "The Hustle" and to underground party-starter David Mancuso, is wholeheartedly populist in its approach. But Shapiro is quick to point out disco's less-than-utopian aspects too. It could be a force for exclusion (look no further than the A-list-infested confines of Studio 54) and for creepily nihilistic excess (see the mechanized coke spoon at 54, the life-size Donna Summer–shaped cake transported via ambulance).

Details

Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco
Peter Shapiro
Faber & Faber
369 pp., $26

Turn the Beat Around will inevitably draw comparisons to Tim Lawrence's Love Saves the Day . Although they cover several of the same characters and events, they're wildly different. Lawrence's finely tooled passages are flecked with technical details, like the specific placement of Mancuso's beloved Klipschorn speakers. Shapiro bypasses most of this for another kind of audiophilia— rapturous passages describing the way songs feel, including a dazzling reading of "I Feel Love." That particular tidbit, which takes up almost an entire chapter, is worth the asking price alone.

 
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