Vince Aletti's Disco Diaries

A new book celebrates a mid-'70s scene's surprising diversity in real-time

On my way to interview former Village Voice art director (and current New Yorker photography critic) Vince Aletti, I happen to pass a poster proclaiming, "Disco Is Back! Now playing at Bloomingdale's." This is strangely appropriate, as I'm meeting Aletti for lunch to discuss the publication of his first book, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York's Underground Week by Week, which, as its title attests, collects five years' worth of articles he wrote about the burgeoning disco scene as it happened.

So with this mighty new tome of his, is Bloomingdale's right? Is disco back? Aletti laughs at the notion: "I feel that disco never really went away, as much as it was declared 'over' as the spotlight of the media moved somewhere else." Seated across from the sixtysomething scribe in a St. Mark's Place café, we are but a stone's throw away from the Ukrainian National Home, which, every few months, hosts David Mancuso's still-extant Loft parties. First reported on by Aletti in these very pages (June 16, 1975, to be exact, as part of a news story entitled "SoHo vs. Disco" and reprinted in the book), he was the first writer to address disco and the first to pen a story about Mancuso, the inscrutable DJ and consummate party host universally hailed as the genre's founding father.

Aletti first started going to the Loft in 1972—"David is such an institution," he says. "It doesn't surprise me that he would still have a following. Back then, it was very casual, with balloons and streamers, just like a kid's birthday party." In the intervening decades, that evergreen party's vibe has matured, along with its host and audience: "Now I love that it has whole families there, middle-aged people, kids, all these Japanese kids—just this broad range of the kind of people who always flock to his party, but also people who grew up with him."

A page from Vince's book/life
Toby Old
A page from Vince's book/life

Such broad inclusiveness is what first drew the young writer to disco, just as its earliest practitioners and DJs drew on obscure soul, hard funk, Latin music, left-field rock, and fusion jazz to make dancers move, before a more rigid "disco formula" descended upon dance floors across the country. Aletti's weekly column for the nationwide industry mag Record World provides the bulk of The Disco Files' content and illuminates this point. "It was a constant processing of what's new in music, week by week," he recalls. "What was interesting to me about doing the column was being in touch with all of these DJs in every city that I could rely on to be awake at a certain hour, who could tell me what they were playing night in, night out." Each page runs down four DJs and their selections, as well as Aletti's own favorites, making it invaluable to crate-diggers the world over. It's no wonder that The Disco Files (originally printed by White Columns gallery for an Aletti retrospective in early 2008) has now been published by the zealots at the DJ History website, who were also responsible for the classic book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.

From such a privileged vantage point, it's remarkable to re-investigate what's often perceived as a flat music-scape consisting of little more than Saturday Night Fever, "Play That Funky Music," and Larry Levan (who first crops up in late '77). Instead, Disco Files reveals a much more nuanced and surprising topography. Club names run from Mind Shaft in San Francisco to the Poop Deck in Fort Lauderdale. Flipping randomly to Aletti's column from August 16, 1975, we can see recently deceased Times scribe William Safire lauding "The Hustle" as a "return to discipline and responsibility" on the dance floor. That same week, Boston moved to the Boogie Man Orchestra, while in L.A., they dug "Chinese Kung Fu" and "Do the Choo-Choo." Sure, the Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancing" infiltrates every single playlist in 1976, but you also find out that crowds at one New York hot spot went crazy for Loggins & Messina.

On the strength of Aletti's ear, he ultimately quit his column to do A&R for RFC/Warner Bros., the label responsible for post-disco (but still totally disco) singles like the B-52s' "Rock Lobster" and Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" From there, he nurtured his passion for art and photography into a position at the Voice for over two decades before leaving in 2005. Today, he curates shows for the International Center of Photography, writes for The New Yorker, and listens to Mary J. Blige, Madonna, and the Junior Boys. But he has never abandoned his first love: "I loved the idea that disco could be so many things and didn't have to be Donna Summer. And I loved Donna Summer."

 
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