Cerrone: An Open Letter
Dear Fellow Straight White Out-Of-It Counterculturalists:
Yes, "Stop in the Name of Love," "Honky Tonk Woman," and "Proud Mary" were all great, and they sure don't make songs like those anymore. But do you really want us to be banished to parties where we can only invoke our ever-more-distant youth, shuffling increasingly middle-aged legs forever to great hits from the '60s? Life goes on. New things happen. And some of them are good. There's a new kind of recorded dance music out now. They call it disco.
Yes, I know. You think that it's mindless and dehumanized. That it's not like the good old stuff. That it's stretched out, rehashed, or watered down. But none of this is really true. You see, it's actually something slightly new. And now that you've painted yourself into such a corner about it intellectually, the only way you're going to overcome that defensiveness and be able to appreciate it at all is with a little pop theory.
Most pop, as we all know, focuses on the singer, whatever else may be going on behind the scenes. In disco, however--particularly the kind sometimes called Eurodisco, which ebbs and swells with snatches of melody, chants, and instrumental riffs that only occasionally resemble the verses of a song-- the singer is reduced to one of many important musical components.
That leaves the producer. But pop music isn't set up to place producers center stage. So if you don't dance or listen to disco a lot, it gets hard to get a handle on the music. With the singers minimized, there's often no one left to identify with or hate, read about in Rolling Stone or see on the cover of People magazine.
Some producers, like Pete Bellote and Giorgio Moroder, who've worked with Donna Summer from the beginning, have been lucky enough to create a disco sound connected with a recognizable disco voice and disco pop star image. So when we think about Donna Summer we usually mean her producers too. Other disco producers have been content to hide in the background like their non-disco counterparts, or approximate non-disco pop by releasing records attached to names of groups that exist only in their heads and in the studios.
Which brings us to my man Cerrone, a big-cheese producer, along with former collaborators Don Ray and Alec R. Constandinos of French-style Eurodisco. Cerrone himself has used the non-group group identity at times. As Kongas, for instance, he made last year's disco hit of Stevie Winwood's "Gimme Some Loving." But he was also one of the first to take the auteurist nature of the disco producer by the auteurist horns and release disco albums under his own name with his picture on the cover. Giving us at least one way out, intellectually, of the disco-is-dehumanized trap. Since we can talk about his four-record history as Cerrone just the way one would about--you guessed it-- any other real live human being pop star's history. Doing it just about like this . . .
His first record, Love in C Minor, was notable mainly for its attempts to out-orgasm Donna Summer's "Love To Love You Baby." The best part of the second, Cerrone's Paradise, was the intro in which women's voices speculate about their chances of seducing Cerrone, an auteurist egomania so outlandish it's self-deprecating. Making both records just okay, particularly in retrospect, since his next record, Cerrone 3, Supernature, is, in my humble why-not-go-out-on-a-limb opinion, the best disco record ever made.
"Supernature" is a monster-movie allegory about screwing up the ecology. It's vague enough to be good pop material--the pomposity never gets too heavy--while meaty enough to move disco beyond orgasm, even beyond romance, to new vistas of speculation and even social commentary. All done with a nice hash of drums, swooshy-eerie synthesizer, and anonymous but soulful (not disco cool) singing with a bite. Side two opens with "Give Me Love," by now a disco classic, that incorporates rock and funk moves and emotionality into the swoops of Eurodisco. Like the best disco, it swerves from cut to cut with the aid of little violin-riff build ups, and it's propelled by a pounding, slightly syncopated, rock-influenced beat.
Bringing us finally to the current album, Cerrone IV, modestly subtitled "The Golden Touch." An advance and a retreat.
On the first track, "Je Suis Music," Cerrone reworks many of the ideas (and sometimes riffs) from "Give Me Love" and "Supernature" but opts for vocals cut with a new tension and anxiety, tinged with a trace of European accent. (My favorite line is "Choking on za smogs zhey made.") The lyrics juxtapose the threat of fear and loneliness against the temporary solace of solidarity and release in music. That's right, a disco-length defense of disco. And one that not only works as music, but makes it as ideology as well. In other words, I think it's true. Danny and the Juniors, move over!
"Rocket in the Pocket" caps off side one with more disco theory set off by some sci-fi crowd chanting, oddball drum work, and electric guitar solos. Great. But "Look for Love' on side two, although a jumping, don't-give-up, keep-searching disco anthem, pales for being less quirky, original, and bold. Like Don Ray's "Got To Have Loving," it's noteworthy for its post-orgam acknowledgement of alienation and affirmation of romance, but it's not as hot as Ray's hit. And "Music for Life", a hummable slow finale, fails for sounding tagged on, unlike the slow spots on Cerrone 3, which flow out of and extend the theme cuts.
So there you have it, a sketchy outline of the Works of Cerrone. With this under your belt you are now free to Appreciate Disco. Go on, listen to Cerrone's last two records. They're as disco as disco can be, yet accessible to rock-trained eras. Trust me. Before you lies a nascent portrait of the urban landscape that's worth studying, expressed in a sound that's playful and expansive yet far from mindless. Besides, it's good to dance to.
Tom Smucker, Village Voice