Payfone: 20 Essential Disco Tracks

We asked the production duo to come up with 20 well-known disco classics that purists and newcomers alike could appreciate. They came back with a storming list...
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We asked the production duo to come up with 20 well-known disco classics that purists and newcomers alike could appreciate. They came back with a storming list...

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We put together this list at a time when disco’s stock has never been higher (at least since 1979). Those French robots aren’t painting the whole picture though; there’s a whole world of disco out there which has sountracked our lives and those of the people in them.

We are a production duo called PAYFONE and we are about to (plug time) release our debut 12 inch ‘International Smark’ (translation: International Taste). Me and my musical partner Jimmy Day have been releasing music under different guises since 1998, and have played our music in some of the best cities in the world.

Disco was created by outcasts in an era of Political and Social instability; it was adopted and rinsed by mainstream culture until it became a dirty word that nobody wanted to associate with.

We play disco because we love its music, its message, and these are some of our favourite cuts, in chronological order...

1. HAMILTON BOHANNON – BOHANNONS BEAT – USA 1975

Disco producer - songwriter - arranger - bandleader. Bohannon moved to Detroit from Georgia in early 60's. Formerly a sideman of Stevie Wonder, he became responsible for live arrangements for all Motown's top acts. When Motown relocated in Los Angeles, he stayed in Detroit starting his own band and his prolific career with twenty-one albums between 1973 and 1990. This cut from the start of his disco period that spanned a decade from 1973 onwards is my pick of the bunch. Guaranteed to get the dance floor rocking.

2. BRASS CONSTRUCTION – CHANGIN’ – USA 1975

Formed in 1968 in Brooklyn, NYC and disbanded in 1985. . They released ten albums in total. Their singles "Movin'" and "Changin" are considered seminal in the evolution of funk soul. If you ever needed an example of an incredible live band that completely lost its way in the 1980’s. Look no further.

3. DOUBLE EXPOSURE – My Love is Free / USA 1976

Formed in 1968, Philadelphia. First called The United Image, and recorded for Stax. Their first release for the fledgling Salsoul Records was also the first commercial 12" single ever released. This tune is full of bells, horns and powerful vocal emotion. A world-beater.

4. WALTER MURPHY & THE BIG APPLE BAND: A FIFTH OF BEETHOVEN – 1976

Topping the US Hot Hundred in 1976 and featured on the bestselling soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, this has been claimed as the track that took disco into the mainstream. Created by Walter Murphy, a classically trained pianist and former advertising jingle writer, his disco adaptation of some passages of the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, when released onto the radio became an instant classic. A great example of the high-level studio production standards of the era.

5. BEE GEES – NIGHT FEVER - USA 1977

The singing trio were born on the Isle Of Man to English parents, but got caught up in the disco explosion in NYC after a multiple award winning career throughout the 60’s and early 70’s. Contributing 8 of the 15 songs on the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ Soundtrack album, for me this song has the best atmosphere and feel.

6. NEW YORK COMMUNITY CHOIR - I'LL KEEP A LIGHT IN MY WINDOW – USA - 1978

The Joyful sound of The New York Community Choir performing a track written by Leonard Caston and Terri McFaddin 4 years previous. This is a Disco version that strongly conveys the message in the song.

7. AL GREEN – TRUTH N TIME - USA 1978

Soul/gospel singer /songwriter and Pastor Al Green appeared from Arkansas in the mid sixties. He moved towards a disco sound in the mid 70’s, and this rather unknown track works best for me. You can clearly hear the influence this track had on the Scissor Sisters 30 years later.

8. BONEY M – HE WAS A STEPPENWOLF –1978

The 1st record I ever bought as a child was a 12” version of Boney M’s ‘ Painter Man’. But being only 4 years old I didn’t by it for its club land credentials. I bought it because it was a bright Yellow disc. I had never seen coloured vinyl before and I demanded to my mum that I must have it to avoid a very public tantrum. German born Producer Frank Farian created Boney M. as a studio project in 1975. Originally Farian performed all vocals himself. Soon, demand dictated that he better form an actual group.

Boney M’s studio production is as serious as the onstage band was jokey. This album track is a dance floor demon.

9. GENE CHANDLER – GET DOWN - USA 1978

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Gene Chandler worked on both sides of the curtain as a singer but also as a record executive for Chi Sound Records. This disco stormer from 1978 is a staple 12” in my DJ sets. Powerful super funk disco delivered by supreme performers.

10. DONNA SUMMER – I FEEL LOVE (Patrick Cowley Remix) 1978 

Known as the 'Queen of Disco', her collaboration with record producer, songwriter and performer Hansjörg 'Giorgio" Moroder, Is one of the most famous musical parings in musical history. This official Patrick Cowley remix from 1978 is the best of any you will find out there. 15.45 mins of indulgent pleasure. Pretty much the birthplace of electronic dance music, as we know it. Recently Giorgio Moroder stated ‘"some days I feel I could sue the whole world".

11. ALLEN TOUSAINT - NIGHT PEOPLE – USA 1978

Another low tempo and slow building disco track that has its roots in Rhythm and Blues. American producer, songwriter, arranger, session pianist and solo artist Allen Tousaint is more famous for songs he wrote and produced like “Irma Thomas’s “Ruler Of My Heart” (1963) and Lee Dorsey’s “Working In A Coal Mine” (1966). Play this anywhere at 3 am and you have the crowd in the palm of your hand.

12. SISTER SLEDGE – LOST IN MUSIC – 1979

Formed in Philadelphia in 1971, when the sisters' ages ranged from 12 to 16 Recording since the early ‘70s, it wasn't until 1979, when Chic leaders Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards produced We Are Family that Sister Sledge really exploded commercially. "He's the Greatest Dancer" and We Are Family's title song both soared to number one on the R&B charts. But for me this song encapsulates the disco philosophy 100%: Escapism

13. ABBA –GIMME GIMME GIMME / Sweden 1979

Its very hard to choose just one ABBA song from so many world beaters. I grew up staring in awe at the cover shot for the album ‘Arrival’ – with the 4 band members in the helicopter. I still have this album cover on my wall today as it means so much to me. I was as captivated by their music as a 5 year old as much as I am today at 37. Pure genius. I could have gone for Dancing Queen or Summer Night City, but this takes the prize simply for the electro funk synth breakdown that comes at 2.50 seconds (album version) which sounds like the template for so much electro disco that followed.

14. ANITA WARD – RING MY BELL – USA 1979

Born in Memphis in 1956, Anita Wards classic just punches through the sound system wherever I have played it. Covered many times, but this original on the famous T.K. DISCO label written by Producer Fred Knight cant be beat.

15. Rahni Harris & F.L.O.* ‎– Six Million Steps (West Runs South) Germany 1979

At the age of 19, Rahni Harris and Jim Ragland. Formed a record company called Emprise. 7 years later Rahni was a regular collaborator with P-Funk pioneers George Clinton and Bootsy Collins. This solo track performed with the Family Love Orchestra from 1979 shows what talent he had when left to his own devices. This is what I call kitchen sink disco. Musically it has everything thrown into it but the kitchen sink.

16. SPACE BASS – SLICK / USA 1980

Produced by Butch Ingram, I picked this up for £ 1 on original 12” a few years back at a car boot sale. It’s just incredible. It has everything. It’s even got a horn section that sounds like prelude to a Foxhunt, like hundreds of horseman is about start the chase. Eclectic Disco at its finest.

17. GINA X PERFOMANCE– NO GDM - GERMANY 1979

Slow at 114 BPM – This song is a massive influence on the type of electronic sound that has vocals spoken rather than sung. Released in1979, this single No G.D.M. was a club hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

18. DIANA ROSS – UPSIDE DOWN – USA 1980

Another gem written and produced by the hit making team of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards from Chic.

A fine combination of groove and lyric with Diana at her post Motown peak. The aim of this record was to re-invent Diana Ross for the disco generation. Job done.

19. ARTHUR RUSSELL / LOOSE JOINTS -IS IT ALL OVER MY FACE – USA 1980

What a party slammer! Music is jumping out of every orifice in this song. You just cant tell what’s going to happen from 1 bar to the next from the mad Prince of New York himself who sadly died far to young at the age of 40. Thankfully his eclectic & spontaneous music survives to be his legacy.

20. ONE WAY – MR GROOVE – USA - 1984

Groundbreaking little Electro ditty this. Sounds just weird and wrong and perfect at the same time. Love the strangeness of this. Pure Vibe.

More...

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Random Access Memories: Daft Punk's Disco Opus

Check out this 70 minute vinyl mix from PAYFONE here, and the video for "International Smark" below