It came from outer space
Take a recession, add the freedom of the internet, and get a DJ to stir at varying speeds. Jude Rogers finds the recipe for cosmic disco
Down a dark road in the south London district of Vauxhall stands the Eagle, a gay pub with blackened windows, where a bearded bouncer bares his teeth at the door. "This is Horse Meat Disco, love," he grins, ushering me inside, and suddenly my world turns from black-and-white to Technicolor. Here are giant glitterballs, smily faces dusted with sparkles, and a dancefloor full of men, women and transsexuals dancing to Ennio Morricone's theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is being slowed down to a trudge, then speeded up until it's a series of shimmering sounds. The Eagle may not be Studio 54, but what is happening here is an illustration of what is happening to disco in the 21st century.
Thirty years ago, club culture was all about disco. In 2009, an offshoot of the genre is spiking in popularity. This is "cosmic disco", a slower, more eclectic style of music named after a cult Italian nightclub, called Cosmic, which was open from 1979 to 1984. The DJs who pioneered it - among them Daniele Baldelli, Beppe Loda and Claudio "Mozart" Rispoli - played whatever took their fancy, mixing up melodies from soundtracks, Krautrock, funk, reggae, African pop, electronic and modern classical records over a disco beat. And they did so however it took their fancy, often deliberately playing records at the wrong speed. In the 1980s, the cosmic style barely left Italy, but today it is growing in popularity in both gay and straight clubs in Britain, inspiring new DJs here and abroad, and producing a wealth of compilation albums and mixes.
But why is cosmic disco hitting a nerve now? Bill Brewster, founder of DJHistory.com and author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: A History of the DJ, has a theory. He has watched cosmic disco grow in popularity over the last decade, since turntablists such as DJ Harvey started making new, cosmic-inspired mixes and artists such as Lindstrøm started making new music inspired by its eclecticism. Having seen virtual communities set up forums and mp3 blogs about it, Brewster believes it is the first real internet dance phenomenon.
"Crate-digging for new tracks is done virtually now, by DJs, amateurs and clubbers themselves," he says. "And as cosmic disco is all about mixing together strange tracks over a disco beat, the internet provides a massive pool of resources. It also makes it much easier to find music released in other countries outside the UK and the US, and cast your net wider."
The eclectic nature of cosmic disco also reflects the way mp3 players have changed our relationship with music and made us more open minded, says Simon Ashton, one of the Manchester-based DJs behind the mp3 blog and website CosmicDisco.co.uk. He refers to this development as an effect of shuffle culture: "I really believe that the iPod shuffle feature had a huge effect on listening habits, and people no longer accept a programmed playlist. This has enabled DJs such as ourselves to navigate through different styles, and open people's ears to unfamiliar music."
But in the last decade, the popularity of mash-ups, bootlegs and Balearic music could also be said to be an effect of this shuffle culture, so what makes cosmic disco different? Firstly, there is the way it relies on the futuristic gleam of synthesiser melodies, but more important is the four-on-the-floor kick drum that dictates its rhythm, giving DJs a solid base upon which they can experiment.
Brewster has another theory, this time concerning why disco becomes popular in particular times. "Cosmic disco is popular now because of the recession, definitely. Disco originally exploded during a recession, and escapist music really flourishes when people want to go out and forget about things."
He also believes minimal house and techno, the stripped-down, cerebral music that has dominated club culture in the last decade, has alienated people who want their nights out to be full of fun and joy rather than elitist one-upmanship. That's reflected, too, in the way people are also turning away from big name DJs in state-of-the art clubs and returning to small venues, and looking at club culture's roots in the late 1970s for new inspirations.
Lindstrøm, the Norwegian DJ, producer and composer whose first solo album, Where I Go You Too, was released in 2007, also believes DJs and clubbers are less hung up about fashions that they used to be, especially when he considers how unfashionable disco was when he started making music. "Five years ago, people told me that disco was a no-word. Now, there is far less worry about cool, and DJs care far less about how they are perceived." He refers to his sometime collaborator, Prins Thomas, and artists such as DiskJokke, and suggests they make music inspired by the original disco period because it was all about sounds that were weird, wonderful and fun.
This is where clubbing fits into a wider trend for old-fashioned fun. Look at the TV listings: the biggest hit shows, the likes of Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, are versions of old variety formats that used to dominate Saturday night TV. "Look at the world we live in now," says the cultural commentator Jon Savage. "Light entertainment is king again, and rock music has become incredibly static. Looking back 25 years could just be about the cyclical nature of pop nostalgia, but I think it's about people looking back to a brilliantly hedonistic, fusion moment for music, and wanting to be part of that. The more stuff they find, the better things will be."
And so the 21st-century incarnation of cosmic disco is slowly moving towards the mainstream from its original home in gay clubs. The Horse Meat Disco DJs brought together mixed crowds at The Big Chill and Bestival, for instance, and many fashionable clubs are incorporating cosmic disco into their nights, and including the word "cosmic" in the names to gather in the punters.
But what do the original Cosmic DJs think of the revival? Daniele Baldelli, who headlined Horse Meat Disco's New Years Eve and New Year's Day parties, and last year released the mix album Cosmic Disco? Cosmic Rock! with Marco Dionigi, is boggled by it all. Still, he has one idea: that people might be interested in the original Cosmic DJs because of their naivety, as well as their playfulness.
Italy, he says, is the forgotten part of this story. "Because in Italy, our music has no roots in rock or funk - it is all about opera and lyrics. So DJs like me only listened to music from other countries in terms of sounds, rather than words." This, he explains, is why DJs like him never worried about changing the pitch and speed of records. As they couldn't understand what was being sung, they simply considered the voice to be another instrument, and played with its timbres and textures to make exciting new sounds.
He also thinks cosmic disco has risen again because people are bored of the compartmentalisation of dance music. "Dance music has become so split into tiny little things and cultures: house DJs, techno DJs, progressive DJs." He exhales with disdain, adding that DJs were a new a concept to him at the time, so he just played whatever records he wanted to. Perhaps, he concludes, people are fascinated today by the enthusiastic and innocent love of sounds that cosmic disco stands for, as well as the willingness of the original cosmic DJs to do anything to make people think, as well as dance.
And so 25 years after the original Cosmic club closed, is Baldelli happy that the spirit of such a long-forgotten place has survived? "I am because I am having my second life! The joy of mixing strange and wonderful tracks together, for everyone, is having its second life. And Cosmic is having its second life, too."