"In the beginning there was rhythm," Ari Up of the Slits yelled in 1980, and a new compilation of British post-punk bandsí enthusiastic plunge into dance music (on the Soul Jazz label) takes its name from her battle cry. For a couple of glorious years in the early í80s, even scenes that had once seemed the hardcore opposition to the gaudy excesses of the discotheque gave themselves over to the beat. True, as much as the likes of A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo lift from disco (Nile Rodgersís splintery guitar playing in Chic is a favorite reference point), few of the bands on In the Beginning . . . could be mistaken for the real thing. Yet the raging noise that filled punksí heads could be channeled into a beat easily enough. Gang of Fourís "To Hell with Poverty" is dragged across its four-on-the-floor beat by the feedback shrapnel of Andy Gillís guitar, but its real hook ó the chorusís yell of "ah-ah-ah-OW!" ó isnít too far from something Donna Summer mightíve sung. Even noise monsters Throbbing Gristle flip on the drum machine for a slow, atonal groover thatís snarkily called "20 Jazz Funk Greats."
The same thing was happening all over the world. The two astonishing Disco Not Disco compilations (on Strut) assembled by DJs Joey Negro and Sean P are subtitled "leftfield disco classics from the New York underground." What "leftfield" means here is that they were made around 1980 by disco outsiders (the jazz veteran Don Cherry, abstract filmmaker Dieter Meier of Yello, noise goofers Liquid Idiot, who became Liquid Liquid) ó and the farther away from disco theyíd begun, the more they had to bring to dance music. Can were a German experimental rock band with a drummer, Jaki Liebezeit, who believed in inventing a new beat for every song. A stuttering groove from bassist Rosko Gee (whoíd played with prog-rock band Traffic) and a little nip-and-tuck operation from tape editor Holger Czukay and their collective improvisation "Aspectacle" became a terse, raw, dance-floor favorite. In the Beginning . . . closes with the Clashís "This Is Radio Clash" ó a former punk bandís bear-hug embrace of disco that became an international hit.
You could even argue that it was an avant-garde cellist who became the most creative dance auteur of the era. The late Arthur Russell began experimenting with dance music in the late í70s, but even after he co-founded the post-disco label Sleeping Bag Records, his idea of a groove was nothing like anyone elseís. Four of his brilliant tracks appear on the first volume of Disco Not Disco, and "Letís Go Swimming," a late-period Russell jam, is the highlight of the second. "Letís Go Swimming" starts with rubbery beats that might be processed cello scratches, then throws in layers of percussion that seem to locate the beat in different places ó itís there, all right, but it seems refracted, as through ripples in clear water. Russellís murmured, free-floating vocal and clipped stabs at a keyboard shy away from any kind of tonal center; youíre halfway through the eight-minute track before itís becomes clear what key itís in or where the downbeat is. This was hardly standard operating procedure for club music ó itís the kind of idea that only an outsider would come up with.
Another new compilation, Canít Stop It! (Chapter), surveys the circa 1980 Australian post-punk scene. Unlike the American and British artists on In the Beginning . . . and the Disco Not Disco comps, the DIY bands Canít Stop It! documents didnít have any commercial prospects, and they knew it. They had barely anyone to impress and lots of people to annoy: the Slugfuckersí 1979 "Cacophony" is the height of inspired crudeness, and Voigt/465ís "Voice: A Drama," from the same year, is as giddy, awkward, and astringent as the early Slits. But prickly noisemakers warmed to the beat Down Under, too. Ash Wednesdayís "Love by Numbers" is half arty frigidity, half dizzy bounce ó its verses are simply Wednesday counting up to 100 or so through a robotic filter while a drum machine burbles away happily. By 1982, the bug had bitten everyone: one highlight of Canít Stop It! is "Lamp That," a sourly funky little instrumental by Equal Local, and the liner notes mention that a handful of the discís messier, rockier bands eventually "went disco" too. It could have been a surrender, but it mostly sounds like their discovery of their bodies.