Various Artists (VA) – The Greatest Soul/Funk & Disco 12” Singles of the ‘70s & ‘80s

Various Artists – The Greatest Soul, Funk & Disco 12” Singles of the ‘70s & ‘80s

What the ????

Yes, you read that right. Cherry Red Records, in association with Robinsongs, has compiled some of the more outstanding dance mixes from the golden age of disco into one glorious, joyous, can’t-stop-moving compilation that will leave you exhausted in the best way possible.

Before you scoff at the notion of a website centred on progressive music reviewing a package of dance mixes, consider this: in both long-format prog and dance, the goal is to take the listener somewhere new. That might be accomplished by the addition of a new musical direction, an instrumental passage, or a breakdown of the music before building to a huge crescendo. All of this is shared by the best of both prog and dance. The main difference to these ears is the strictures imposed by the imperative to appeal to the need to keep dancing. At times that might get in the way of listening. However, the juiciest 12-inch mixes reach out to the head as well as the feet.

Although 12” singles had been available since 1970, it wasn’t until Tom Moulton created the first dancefloor eighteen-minutes plus “DJ mix” in January 1975 out of several Gloria Gaynor tunes that extended mixes caught on. For the next year-and-a-half, extended dance mixes were marketed primarily to DJs. It wasn’t until Salsoul Records released Double Exposure’s Ten Percent in May 1976 that the format became commercially available. The song was hot in the clubs but sold poorly in its seven inch single and album versions, leading to the release of the dance mix. Thankfully, that track is included in this compilation, and it’s easy to see how it started a revolution. A variety of percussion instruments coalesce to birth a much looser, more swinging song, as opposed to the typical four-on-the-floor bass and drum beat that permeates much dance music of the seventies in particular. Here the vocals soar while electric piano and synthesiser combine with the guitar and horns to make for an unrelentingly happy tour de force.

One of the tropes of the classic disco era was the addition of strings and brass as a means of pushing the song along. Tunes such as Sister Sledge’s He’s the Greatest Dancer and Ultrafunk’s Gotham City Boogie relied heavily on traditional symphonic instrumentation to add tonal colour and a sense of movement. When it came to horn arrangements, though, few could compare to those in almost any Earth Wind and Fire song. Boogie Wonderland has the band supported by female protegees The Emotions for an impressive tune performed by master musicians with a penchant for songwriting chops second to none. For over eight minutes the song remains consistently mesmerising in its all-around brilliance.

Dance musicians were some of the early adopters of synthesisers on a large scale. G.Q.’s Disco Nights (Rock Freak) sounds dated by its use of ARPs, but Atmosfear does Hawkwind proud on the trippy Dancing in Outer Space. The latter tune, however, is stretched to breaking point by repetition without development. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis lent their production expertise to S.O.S. Band’s Just Be Good to Me, one of the finest cuts in the collection. Synth-heavy slabs of sound, one hook after another, and impressive vocal and instrumental performances sit atop a chord progression that could easily fit in a prog epic. Synths also rule the day in Lakeside’s Fantastic Voyage, a fun song with a buoyant melody anchored by an insistent funk groove.

By the eighties especially, synths were used to replace or enhance classic orchestration, and for a period even the bass guitar. Listen to what Bernie Worrell does with the synth bass on the Parliament classic Flashlight. With a groove so seductive and languorous its easy to understand why Talking Heads recruited his talents for their records as well. Flashlight, though, is a good example of a song drawn out much too far. It suffers from the cut-and-paste approach that does nothing to enhance the song’s strengths, of which there are many. Rubbery synth bass is an essential element of Chaz Jankel’s You’re My Occupation and Zapp’s More Bounce to the Ounce. The latter is also notable for its use of talkbox vocals.

Jazz was an important element in many funk and soul bands, and often this aspect was highlighted in the extended mix. Take, for example, the aforementioned Disco Nights (Rock Freak) and Lonnie Liston Smith’s hippie-dippie Expansions, where jazzy guitar chords and flute spice things up.

One element that could really trip things up was the vocals. When they are an afterthought, as in Hi-Tension’s Hi Tension and Instant Funk’s Got My Mind Made Up, it’s hard to derive any enjoyment from the song. Contrast that with songs where the vocalist is the star, and the difference is palpable. Before he began his solo career, Luther Vandross was a session vocalist. As such, he contributed to Italian-American studio project Change’s Searching. His incredible talent is already evident on this bass synth-driven track. Chaka Kahn’s younger sister Taka Boom provides a stirring vocal turn on Undisputed Truth’s You + Me = Love. In addition to Boom’s noteworthy chops, the song uses the instrumental sections to show off everything from widdly synths to funky horns. Other songs from the era have become positively anthemic thanks to the talents of their vocalists. McFadden and Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stopping Us Now is pure pop perfection that sticks to the ears like superglue. The message and the music are uplifting, but it’s the vocals that sell it. Ditto for Shame by Evelyn “Champagne” King. A classic pop number by any standard, the 12” mix puts her vocals front and centre where they belong. Powerhouse female vocalists were not exactly in short supply for the genre, and Loleatta Holloway was one of the finest, as evidenced on her track Love Sensation. She could peel wallpaper with her vocal chords, and I mean that as the ultimate compliment. Her voice commands the entire song, making the sensational piano accompaniment almost forgettable by comparison. Not to be outdone, The Trammps take a nearly 11-minute classic and sing the hell out of it for the entirety of Disco Inferno. Impassioned vocals ride a synth riff thickened by guitar and bass. Even though the rhythm never varies, there is so much colour coming from the vocals, horns, keys and guitar that the song never feels like it is running in place. And if you want to know where Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall learned to sing, listen to the original version of Money’s Too Tight (To Mention) by The Valentine Brothers.

Probably the single most important instrument in any dance music band’s arsenal has always been the bass, and this collection offers some stellar examples. Would sampling even exist without Chic’s Good Times? The bass riff is so iconic that Bernard Edwards could have quit after recording it and been guaranteed a place in music history. No slouch himself, Mark King of Level 42 presents a masterclass in slap technique with Love Games. The bass grabs you by the throat right out of the gate and throttles you into submission – you WILL dance! I Shoulda Loved Ya by Narada Michael Walden and Maze’s Twilight also impress with funky, slinky moves that prove it’s the low end that elevates the music.

Not every song is worthy of an extended mix, or at least not the ones they got. Sometimes you can love a friend but wish they’d just go home already. Three minutes is plenty for some tunes – that’s enough, now GO! The best songs, however, make you wish they’d play forever. The extended mix highlighted this conundrum, as exemplified by this collection. Happily, the fine people at Robinsongs and Cherry Red got it right more often than not with these selections. Having come of age in the disco era and attended some of the most iconic clubs in NYC, I found myself thinking “I love this song” more often than not. Now that my dancing days are over and I find myself actively listening to those same songs, I can appreciate the brain, heart and talent that went into so much of this music. Hindsight can make some memories appear better than they really were. Then a collection like this one comes along and reminds you that yes, they really were good times.

Disc One

01. The Undisputed Truth – You + Me = Love (11:16)
02. McFadden and Whitehead – Ain’t No Stopping Us Now (6:57)
03. Earth Wind and Fire with The Emotions – Boogie Wonderland (8:18)
04. T-Connection – Do What You Wanna Do (7:15)
05. People’s Choice – Do It Any Way You Wanna (5:37)
06. Instant Funk – Got My Mind Made Up (8:01)
07. Crown Heights Affair – You Gave Me Love (5:47)
08. Whispers – And the Beat Goes On (7:34)
09. Arthur Adams – You Got the Floor (5:59)
10. Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes – Expansions (6:07)
11. Chaz Jankel feat. Brenda Jones – You’re My Occupation (7:05)

Time – 79:56

Disc Two
01. Brass Construction – Movin’ (8:43)
02. Skyy – Call Me (6:24)
03. Parliament – Flashlight (10:48)
04. Zapp – More Bounce to the Ounce (Parts ! & II) (9:29)
05. Midnight Star – No Parking on the Dance Floor (8:01)
06. S.O.S. Band – Just Be Good to Me (9:11)
07. The Jimmy Castor Bunch – Space Age (6:28)
08. Lakeside – Fantastic Voyage (6:10)
09. Aquarian Dream – You’re A Star (5:31)
10. Maze/Frankie Beverly – Twilight (Instrumental) (7:27)

Time – 78:12

Disc Three
01. Chic – Good Times (8:08)
02. Sister Sledge – He’s the Greatest Dancer (6:13)
03. G.Q. – Disco Nights (Rock Freak) (8:46)
04. Double Exposure – Ten Percent (9:47)
05. Loleatta Holloway – Love Sensation (6:37)
06. Edwin Starr – Contact (7:20)
07. Narada Michael Walden – I Shoulda Loved Ya (6:39)
08. Voyage – From East to West (5:55)
09. C.J. & Co. – Devils Gun (7:21)
10. The Trammps – Disco Inferno (10:54)

Time – 77:40

Disc Four
01. Change – Searching (8:05)
02. Roy Ayers – Running Away (6:59)
03. The Valentine Brothers – Money’s too Tight (to Mention) (6:03)
04. Evelyn “Champagne” King – Shame (6:32)
05. Rose Royce – Is it Love You’re After (5:08)
06. Third World – Now That We Found Love (7:56)
07. Hi-Tension – Hi-Tension (5:19)
08. Freeez – Southern Freeez (5:46)
09. Ultrafunk – Gotham City Boogie (5:34)
10. Level 42 – Love Games (7:42)
11. Atmosfear – Dancing in Outer Space (9:37)

Time – 74:41

Total Time – 310:29

Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 24th March 2023

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