It's Time For Us to Praise the Godfathers of Gospel Disco
As a new compilation celebrates the very best of spiritually-leaning disco, we look at how even the stoniest atheist can find salvation on the dancefloor.
In the winter of 2015, Sam Shepherd (better known as Floating Points) was interviewed by THUMP about the then-imminent release of his album, Elaenia. Discussing the creation of the album and his influences, he said the following:
"Something I find difficult to reconcile is how I can be most interested in spiritual music and not actually be religious."
Shepherd is by no means the first popular/progressive musician to ponder such a thing—Brian Eno has spoken extensively about his own atheistic love of spiritual music—but it does seem to be an increasingly noticeable concern amongst a generation of music lovers (particularly in the unwieldy world of dance music). According to a recent report by influential "insights-led communications agency" Protein, 89% of the millennials they surveyed feel that "faith no longer plays a role in their lives," yet take a glance across the racks of even the most mildly-discerning of record shops you frequent and you'll see a whole host of intrinsically "spiritual" music flying off the shelves just as fast as whatever nihilistic ode to cold, hard machinery L.I.E.S. have just put out.
We're talking predominantly here about disco, of course, a genre that's been enjoying one of its many renaissance periods for a while now. In fact, we've been mining the quasi-mythological set lists of Larry Levan et al for so long that increasingly we're looking to more niche sub-genres to help transform our grotty little pre-vibes at a mate's Peckham flat into something more akin to a transcendental moment beneath the mirrorball of the Paradise Garage.
Having exhausted the more obscure—and therefore more reassuring—allusions to faith amongst those subgenres, we seem to finally be recognizing the straight up joys of gospel disco. A couple of excellent releases from a pair of diggers-par-excellence in the last month or so mine this very niche: the latest volume of Record Mission Edits from Nick The Record and Dan Tyler (of the Idjut Boys); Greg Belson's sterling compilation, Divine Disco. Not so much banger after banger as epiphany after epiphany.
Of course, both Nick and Greg are seasoned guys. Nick is one of the most respected record dealers in the world and has been DJing with the likes of DJ Harvey since the Tonka days. Greg is pretty much untouchable when it comes to collecting/playing rare soul and funk. You get the sense that they're bemused more than anything that the music they've loved and pushed for decades is now resulting in people like myself trying to get them to comment on maybe-zeitgeists.
Nick in particular is a for-the-dance purist. "There was no specific reason behind bringing out [a selection of specifically gospel-focused edits] now," he says. "I have been researching and selling gospel for a good few years." He acknowledges that he has seen a burgeoning interest in gospel amongst his customers but attributes that to the same "appetite for discovering funky music that has led collectors to check out soundtracks, library LPs...It's another vein of music to mine." Greg has also witnessed firsthand an increased wider interest in his own enduring passion for gospel. After spending the best part of two years assembling Divine Disco with label Cultures of Soul ("We didn't take into account how much work it was going to take to locate some of these artists..."), Greg has experienced his busiest year yet in a decades-long career, playing "mostly gospel disco to ever expanding audiences." This summer he undertook a 60 date tour that culminated in a closing slot at Glastonbury with the Block 9 crew. "There's even been mainstream interest with Lauren Laverne naming Divine Disco as her compilation of the week [on BBC Radio 6]," says Greg, happily perplexed.
There's a "-but why" nestled at the heart of all this. It's music that was cynically created by the conservative Christian church—as Nick says, an organization "famously big on recruitment, so presumably trying to reach out to secular audiences." It's also music that was, if not exactly re-appropriated then re-contextualized on the predominantly queer, counterculture dance floors of seventies New York and beyond. One doesn't instinctively imagine that the marginalized LGBT communities of that scene or the more generally religiously-disinterested that populate today's clubs would respond positively to, say, the titular refrain of Belson favorite 'Give Yourself To Jesus' by Herman Harris, no matter how sublime its mid-tempo groove is.
Of course, the reason is—somewhat heartwarmingly—that despite the things that might divide us, the things that bring us together invariably win out. "A pastor delivering a fiery sermon is in his very delivery trying to rally the congregation into a state of euphoria and vocal groups at the alter will often end their sets with a Blues Brothers-esque religious hoedown. It totally relates to similar reactions at any quality club night," says Greg. "Raising smiles, hands in the air, feeling uplifted..."
Nick agrees: "I have always thought of the dance floor as the closest thing I have to a church. It is a timeless and natural thing to seek connection to people, to nature, to access the lesser used parts of the mind. That's my idea of spirituality and music is one of the best ways to open yourself up to it."
For those still skeptical, Greg paraphrases his friend James Hillard of Horse Meat Disco, responsible for some of the best parties in recent times, from their iconic Vauxhall residency at the Eagle, to open-minded venues further afield (I once took a particularly memorable trip down the Thames on a steamboat with HMD, their loyal revellers and a very confused crew of old-timey sailors). "Look, if you just think of Jesus as some really sexy Mexican guy, the ideas and the emotions are the same. It's about love and giving yourself over to someone completely."
For our generation that can sound like an almost scary thing: our whole lives are built for skipping along the surface of things, disregarding supposedly concrete things like religion and history and True Essential Love. All of the things that kept our parents and grandparents in check. In other words, our lives are supposed to be fragile. That's what is supposed to allow us to reinvent ourselves to varying degrees, to transgress borders both physical or otherwise with such ease. Fragility can be thrilling, liberating even—but it can also be fucking terrifying. Safety nets like a higher power don't seem so bad when in actuality your experience of the adult world has been defined to date by global financial crashes, the ruthless ideology of austerity and the existential malaise of post-Brexit, pre-Trump politics.
Maybe that's why the gospel overtures of the music that selectors like Nick and Greg share with us have such an impact. We may not quite be ready to go down in the river and pray yet, nor ever need to. But if a few stolen, glorious moments each weekend amidst the straightforward euphoria of a spiritual disco track allow us to feel something more than the sorry lot we've been handed to date then, well, praise be.
Greg Belson's Divine Disco: American Gospel Disco 1974-1984 is out now on Cultures of Soul US.
Nick The Record and Dan Tyler's Record Mission Edits Vol. 3 is out now on their own Record Mission label.