Cerrone: The True Ambience Of Disco
Articles on disco now tend to be written by a generation that wasn’t alive when the music was made – present author included. Many evince a desire to have ‘been there’, to have lived among the glamour, hedonism and emancipatory spirit of The Loft, Paradise Garage and elsewhere. Perhaps such articles are part of some society-wide ‘retromania’ of the kind described by Simon Reynolds; maybe we’re too creatively stunted by neoliberalism (as Mark Fisher argues) to imagine a new dance music that would do for our times what disco did for the 1970s. Whatever the reason, disco persists. Many of us still defer to disco for our good times.
Disco was about having fun as much as it was about anything else, and Marc Cerrone knows this better than most. Responsible for a few mega-hits (Supernature, Love in C Minor, Paradise, etc.) in the 70s, Cerrone infused a ludic and stereotypically-Gallic eroticism to everything he did. Since then, several albums, and even a time judging people who thought they could sing on the French version of The X Factor. Now, he returns to promote a Greatest Hits collection on Because Music. In heavily-accented English, Marc gave us his views on disco, why it persisted after the ‘Disco Sucks’ backlash, sampling, and influencing subsequent generations. Throughout, he exhibited the undimmed enthusiasm common to disco musicians of his generation. To Cerrone, true disco is – and we use the present tense deliberately – the sonic, authentic expression of fun, sex and glamour.
In bleak times, we need such expression.
Lots of people say we’ve been experiencing a ‘disco revival’ these past few years: Nile Rodgers is having a career renaissance, you’re back with a greatest hits collection. Why disco, why now?
Disco has always been there. No matter what people added to it to make other ‘colours’ – techno, electro, garage, house, whatever name was put on it – for me the disco is still alive. But today it’s in the mainstream, thanks to Daft Punk, thanks to Bruno Mars, thanks to a lot of guys like that. So if, after 40 years, [journalists] are still interested in the original generation – that’s the best gift life can give to me. This kind of [career renaissance] has happened every 8-10 years. 10-15 years ago was ‘the sample’. I got sampled so many times, made a ‘big splash’ on the world stage. Remixes too. Now, this period I’m being asked to do stuff again. Recently we did the cover of Supernature with Beth Ditto and The Shoes – it was great! The music continues.
So you’re pretty comfortable people sampling / editing your music. How do you feel about Kon’s edit of Hooked–
I don’t want to talk about one particular song, just generally. I can’t remember them all. There’s been so many! What I sense from all of them though, is that all of the producers that use my music are… [discusses with PR people] …trendy. That can break down barriers between generations, like mine and theirs. When a younger person likes my music, samples it and makes a new track, it brings it to a new audience, and that’s great.
If the sample is taken by a small producer for the clubs, I don’t react. If it’s Paul McCartney, Lionel Ritchie, Pink or Daft Punk, then I do. In those cases, we have to clear the sample. Usually I suggest we go 50/50. If I can bring them inspiration, plus the way I play and my groove, then it’ll be 50/50, and I never get a bad answer around that. Everyone says ‘of course’.
Let’s talk album covers. On Paradise, there’s a naked model on top a fridge…
It was a funny period. Sex in everything. It’s of its time: sex, drugs … that’s why there’s a jar of white powder on the sleeve. If you read the lyrics on the sleeve, letter by letter of it is sex, drugs, fun, and dance…
So you conformed to the image of a disco musician?
What else would I have done? When you’re a musician, in your 20s, successful… It’s different now, but back then, and especially for disco musicians, you’re in a different place to the ‘system’. Every night in Studio 54 – you’re not ‘crazy’, but you are different to the mainstream. It was a lot of fun. But I didn’t try to ‘do disco’. I didn’t have ‘I want to do this and this’ in my mind. I did [1976’s] Love in C Minor and thought, if this doesn’t work, I’m quitting music. That LP was so different to anything else out at that time. It wasn’t commercial – 16 minute versions don’t play on the radio. And the drums were out in front. For me, that was logical, I’m a drummer, but for the music industry, that was absolutely not logical. That was about two and a half years before disco really got big. I did Love in C Minor, Supernature and Paradise in that time. Then The Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever arrived. That period from 1978 is when disco exploded. The media… [searches for word] …exploded in my face with this word, ‘disco’. They were saying, ‘two guys made that disco before – Giorgio Moroder, and Cerrone’. So, this thing ‘disco’ came to us, not the other way round.
Are you still in contact with Giorgio Moroder?
You know what? I’ve never met him. I’ve never talked to him at shows, backstage, whatever. Maybe it’s because, when I first became successful, I was 20 and he was 34 already. I’m not saying he was an old guy, but when you’re 20 you don’t make friends with 34-year-olds. We’re often put together by the media, but we’re from different generations.
What did you think about the Disco Sucks movement?
Certain elements of the media were saying ‘Disco Sucks’, and they were right. The disco of the late 70s was the [Patrick Hernandez] Born to Be Alive stuff. The major labels would take a big star from whichever locality, and ‘apply’ disco to them. But that wasn’t real disco. Real disco is an atmosphere, an ambience. It’s not a pop song. It doesn’t matter that some of the real disco became massive hits. DJs will always be able to tell between the real disco and the disco that sucks. This is something they intrinsically understand. Some of them take the tiniest bit of vocal [when sampling], and that’s all they need – just enough to get that atmosphere of real disco.
"I don’t think it makes much difference what family you’re from – religion, country, whatever – what matters is the passion for the music"
Is that why you routinely perform in front of thousands of people?
Performing live is the whole point of the business. When I first started, that was all I wanted to do. I’ve been lucky and have been able to do it for … about 40 years now! The funny thing about that is, I’m a drummer. After two hours, you’re dead. The drums are really physical. A couple of years ago, the label said I should play drums and then DJ when touring, and I was like, ‘What?! Are you crazy?’ Then I asked a few DJ friends of mine and they all told me to go for it, so I did. Now I’m on stage for twice as long – I haven’t stopped the live element, but DJing as well now. Yes, age is coming, but that’s not a reason to stop. DJing has opened up the big festivals to me – last summer I played a festival with 60,000 people there and it was like being 20 again.
So I read somewhere that your parents are of Italian descent. Is there something about Italians that means they’re so good at electronic disco? And the French?
[laughs] Ooh, I don’t know! Something’s born inside of them that makes them really good with synthesisers? I don’t think it makes much difference what family you’re from – religion, country, whatever – what matters is the passion for the music. From France, I think ‘French touch’ means something now. I remember the first time I heard [the expression]. When I was touring in the US recently, a lot of journalists asked me ‘Where are the rest of French disco musicians? You record with American or English musicians, you record in London, your singer is American – what’s French about that?’ and I said ‘the French touch’. From 1995, Daft Punk and others helped create French Touch … lots of filter, disco samples and so on. And now we have Justice, Breakbot, The Shoes … there’s something a bit different about them compared to British or American artists.
Finally, tell me about being a judge on the French X Factor.
It was completely fun. I was never that exposed to the media, so it was a new experience. When the British producers came over and asked to see me, I thought they wanted me to write some music for the show. And the guy said, ‘No no no, you have to be a judge’. Obviously I said yes!
The Best Of Cerrone Productions is released 12 January via Because Music