That '70s Something

Author:
Publish date:

For as long as we've been alive, the '70s have been lampooned via strap-on Afros, bad pimp costumes, and sketch comedy gags set to pop-disco anthems like "Y.M.C.A." and "It's Raining Men." But the decade also gave us a veritable bible full of real musical heroes. And thanks to the magic of the internet, reissue labels, and used record stores, those too young or too geographically challenged to have partied at the Paradise Garage, pogoed at CBGB's, or posed at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco can now have infinite knowledge of all the obscure and wondrous 1970s music that fell through the cracks. This uncovered history has birthed a slew of new bands whose sound is underpinned by the soaring synths and space effects of '70s disco, but incorporates other decade-specific touches (punk-funk vocals, prog-rock solos) into the mix. Bedroom knob-twiddlers be damned, because these four bands really get live. Vivian Host

Zombi: Unlikely Italo soundscapes from the land of pierogi and punk rock.

Zombi is Steve Moore, 32, and A.E. Paterra, 29, a couple of band guys from Pittsburgh, PA who make dynamic, spacey prog-rock sagas perfect for long hours spent beating pinball games and driving around stoned in the wizard van. Inspired by '70s synth pioneers like Vangelis, Silver Apples, and Jan Hammer (the man behind the Miami Vice soundtrack), the duo amassed a decent collection of analog synths–to the point where friends began half-jokingly suggesting they make some disco tracks. Moore took up the challenge, creating "Sapphire" and "Long Mirrored Corridor," two roiling outer-space Italo-disco numbers that nod to '70s Italian horror-movie soundtracks by the likes of PFM and Goblin.

Moore–who is more likely to hang out with Relapse Records labelmates like Dillinger Escape Plan or Cephalic Carnage than disco nerds–was surprised when he received a frenzy of calls from friends who had heard "Sapphire" on the Cybernetic Broadcasting System, the definitive underground disco radio show broadcast out of The Hague by I-F and the rest of the Viewlexx posse. Though Moore is stoked people like the tracks, he's not ready to trade in his hard-rock scene card for an Italo-disco laminate quite yet.

"I like to be a little bit wary and not immerse myself too much in all this music," says the former music student. "Sometimes people can get too caught up in collecting music and then there's no creativity anymore. There's too much influence. I'll go for huge, long periods of time without listening to anything sometimes, just to spark some ideas."

But don't get the idea that the Zombi boys aren't under the influence–they've been proud to copy their heroes from the beginning. "A.E. and I were playing in different no wave bands when we discovered that we were into a lot of older progressive rock and film scores, plus John Carpenter and Rush, and we deliberately set out to make music that referenced these things. A lot of bands will say that they're influenced by composers and artists, but you never hear it in their music. We wanted to be more literal in our influences." Vivian Host

New Young Pony Club: Disco-punk meets Blondie and Bowie on the high street.

New Young Pony Club is the kind of band that inspires multitudes of ill-fitting hyphenates. Some say dance-punk, some say post-disco, some even summon that mysterious new compound known as nu-rave. Nobody knows quite what to do with the tarted-up little sister The Slits never had, and the naughty girlfriend Tom Tom Club always wanted.

Frontwoman Tahita Bulmer says she's happy to occupy the in-between spaces. "We're massive fans of Blondie and Bowie; we love that cross-pollination between genres. It was only a matter of time before disco and punk discovered each other at the back of the club; both of those scenes [were] about exuberance and hedonism, a bit of nihilism."

On record, New Young Pony Club is more dancefloor than squat party, with lots of pop appeal and post-DFA studio polish. Hardly surprising, given that NYPC was a studio project first. Bulmer and guitarist Andy Spence had been casually writing music together in Spence's studio for a couple years when they decided to print 1,000 copies of "Ice Cream" on Nuphonic offshoot Tirk. The single sold out in three days, leaving the flummoxed duo with a press following before they even had a set list.

After putting together a proper band–including Lou Hayter on keys, Igor Volk on bass, and drummer Sarah Jones–the London outfit signed to Modular and released its first, self-titled EP, a briskly churning mix of tightly wound guitars and marching cowbells massaged by Bulmer's laconic, bedroom-eyed sing-speak. Its three tracks, already club-ready in their own right, lend themselves instinctively to techno re-rubs, as evidenced by "Ice Cream" remixes from Comets, Van She, and DJ Mehdi.

So is it punk-funk or nu-rave? "Labels can be misnomers, but it's just a way to re-brand indie bands that make dance music. It's great, actually, because it means people are interested again in the bands that didn't get any attention the first time around." Anna Balkrishna

Thomas Barford: With Tomboy and WhoMadeWho, this Dane takes live electro-disco off the grid.

Now that LCD Soundsystem and !!! are staples on retail compilations from Forever 21 to Diesel, it's only a matter of time before the kids catch on to Copenhagen's live disco trio WhoMadeWho. Helmed by DJ/producer Tomas Barfod (a.k.a. Tomboy)–a drummer since age 10–they spew forth energetic, humanistic disco rooted in loose live drumming, incessantly grooving basslines, and raw vocals. They also do some mean cover versions, as evidenced by their 2004 12" "Two Covers for Your Party," where they turned Benny Benassi's "Satisfaction" into a roiling punk-funk number and Mr. Oizo's "Flat Beat" into a jangly circus of plucky bass and jitterbug synths.

Despite the heaps of new technology available, Tomboy and WhoMadeWho records are crafted in truly underground fashion, which perhaps accounts for their vital, occasionally shambolic feel. "They're made on a cracked version of Logic 4.7 on a Mac running OS 9, which is soooo old school," jokes Barfod via email.

Though it's only been a few years since its inception, WhoMadeWho–which consists of Tomas Hoefding (bass, vocals), Jeppe Kjellberg (guitar, vocals), and Barfod on drums–drew extreme praise with their self-titled 2005 debut on Gomma (followed in 2006 by Green Versions, a beatless, space-rock reworking of the record). Since then, their raw, hybrid disco has garnered many admirers, from the Get Physical and Turbo labels to Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, who covered their groove-heavy "Space for Rent."

"The biggest disadvantage [of balancing two projects] is that I can't be in two places at one time," says Barfod of his love for touring. "I like the direct contact with people and my co-musicians. The best thing is when you can [turn] a crowd from tired and lazy to wild and crazy just by taking the raw simplicity of club music and cutting it down to the essentials." Fred Miketa

Escort: A Brooklyn band reaps disco's hidden timelessness.

A proud NYC disco band, with no samplers in sight, may give some people nightmares about the '70s. Not that Escort could care. "[Disco] does have a lot of negative connotations for a lot of folks, but not for us," says the band's keyboardist/guitarist/engineer Dan Balis. Truly, Escort's live disco proves they know the sound front to back–connecting the dots between DJ Nicky Siano's all-nighters at The Gallery, Chic's minimalist grace, and the cigarettes and sweat of the Paradise Garage. Their debut single, "Starlight," turned heads last year for its faithfulness to Carter-era disco and early electro. Legendary Hacienda DJ Greg Wilson will soon release his re-edit of "Starlight," and Morgan Geist and The Rapture have shared the love by remixing Escort tunes. "It reminds me of Jay Dee's 'Plastic Dreams' meeting Baltimore club, but in a really good way," says Balis of The Rapture's version.

Escort formed in 2005 when several musicians began jamming with DJs who loved to spin disco. The band's tastes ranged from Gino Soccio and Kid Creole and the Coconuts to old-school disco released on the Prelude, West End, and Cerrone labels. They recorded their first singles in various bandmates' apartments, but soon ditched their sampler for actual musicians.

"It's really limiting to use samples," Balis says. "With real strings you can make them play the notes you want them to play."

"And you can ask a drummer to play a million drum fills," adds keyboardist Eugene Cho.

"We've got great musicians," continues Balis. "We give them a sketch and they'll bring something amazing that's all their own to it."

Escort has self-released all their singles, and they're currently working on a debut album. "We're pretty meticulous and obsessed with how everything comes out," says Balis. But don't expect any mirror balls or flared trousers here. When asked if there's any polyester involved in an Escort show, Balis quickly replies, "Oh, God no." Cameron Macdonald