A Short Guide to Four Decades of Disco
In the 1970s and 1980s, the new genre of disco set extravagant rhythms which fired up the dancefloors of clubs all around the world. It drew inspiration from funk, soul, African beats and the then-burgeoning genre of psychedelia.
The appearance and swift rise to popularity of disco proved a valid point: people wanted to dance and couldn't do it to rock music. Disco accelerated the heartbeat and guided the limbs. It was also functional - it could be played from records, without the presence of an entire band. The beginnings of disco are linked with minority social groups; the clubs of New York gathered American Italians and Latinos, the black community and sexual minorities. From North American big cities to Europe, disco quickly made its way across the ocean and spread throughout the world.
Italo Disco (the Italian branch of European disco) took over clubs in Turin, Hamburg, Belgrade, Moscow, Riga, and came all the way to Poland, to Sopot and Opole. Poland was getting on board with the trend and the first Polish Tournament of Disco Presenters (DJs) took place in 1973 in Wrocław. By the 90s, the country was flooded by its own brand of disco called disco polo – a genre between electronic music and party music, derived from disco, Euro disco and contemporary folk tunes, and influenced by Italo disco and Polish folk songs. It can be compared to Balkan turbofolk, which mixes the keyboard with folk music. Since then, many "fascinating" disco polo songs, ones that stand out from mainstream commercial hits, have continued to surprise. "Someone once accurately said that disco is about dancing and crying at the same time," journalist and blogger Olga Drenda said in an interview for Culture.pl,
Before the appearance of disco there was the so-called "dancing music", which was a variation of concert music that one could dance to. In Poland, there was the band Happy End and Zbigniew Wodecki's song Chałupy / Welcome to. When I think back to Polish disco from the 70s and 80s, I either think of a type of eurovision music, slightly pompous, or sounds mixing jazz and funk which, today, are reactivated by authors of the compilation The Very Polish Cut Outs. The other side of the coin is the need to cry on the dancefloor, which Poles could do thanks to Italo disco, then through the gently melancholic hits of Germany (especially those of Dieter Bohlen and his followers). Disco polo was founded on these currents - those of dance, put into minor scales on synthesisers.
Halina Żytkowiak – A Moment Lasts a Moment
Polish Disco Vol. 1 Magnetic Tape on Cassette. The lyrics "Taste how the moment lasts a moment aha!" captures the essence of disco culture. Halina Żytkowiak's 1978 record Jestem tylko dziewczyną (I'm only a girl) was the first genuine Polish disco record. It can be easily recognised by the sound of wind instruments.
You're tired of the world, come to the disco with me come aha
Don't hug me, keep your distances aha
ah ah ah at least once
taste how the moment lasts a moment aha
don't say anything to me, just be the rhythm aha
I'll give you strength, close your eyes as if you were dreaming, oh yes
Zdzisława Sośnicka – Forgive me, Forgive me Once More
The look of the album cover of Odcienie samotności ( Shades of Loneliness) from 1980 is deceiving. The songs on the album are dance hits and not music to a Passion Play, though the comparison isn't entirely incorrect. The album is an example of Slavic ''melancholic disco'' and the songs are more like the progressive rock of singing legend Czesław Niemen than disco hits.
Forgive me, Forgive me Once More, this one time more
Forgive me, Forgive me Once More, this one time more
A year has gone by, I wait still for you to come, to come
Krystyna Prońko – Who Gave Us Rain
Another example of Polish melancholic disco. Kto dał nam deszcz (Who Gave Us Rain) shows how disco can be close to high culture. The song has more in common with jazz than dance music.
When on the sixth day the Lord
Lit up a smoke and sat by the river,
He thought that the time of hope had come...
and created us.
Kombi – Hug me (Old Spice Edit)
Przytul mnie (Hug Me) is one of Kombi's greatest compositions. Its blissful and lounge-like sound reminds of the Ibiza sounds of the mid 80s. This version is a club remix by Old Spice from Zielona Góra, one of the members of the band The Very Polish Cut Outs – a group which took it upon itself to revive forgotten Polish disco songs (or the ones which we don't want to remember?).
Anna Jurksztowicz – Hej man!
Disappointed by a date, Anna Jurksztowicz sings about it. To accompany her singing, she uses only a synthesiser and a drum set with the addition of a couple of cut-up vocal samples. The result is a surprisingly accomplished assembly of microsounds. Synthesisers were scoffed at throughout the 80s and 90s in Poland. Olga Drenda writes,
Polish dance music from the mid 90s was an intriguing hybrid of hi-nrg, eurodisco, rough techno-dance (called "dancefloor" by Bravo magazine) and neighbourhood music. It was too aggressive for fans of disco polo, too rudimentary for techno listeners, but it would probably interest Simon Reynolds [British music critic, expert in electronic music] as a local, more melodic, Slavic variety of happy hardcore.
Brutal – Sorrow
This disco polo band from the city of Suwałki exemplifies the strange musical hybrids that were made in Poland in the 90s. The composition and the vocalist's style give it the vibe of a party song but the drum machine gives it a heavy, aggressive, industrial feel that would qualify it as EBM (Electronic Body Music, an aggressive industrial type of dance music). We can hear constant noise, and some distortion. On the one hand, it's the embodiment of bad taste and exaggeration, but on the other, it's a historical testimony to the difficult years of transformation in suburban Suwałki and listening to it can be pleasurable. The music is so strange and undefinable that it becomes interesting and not only to be listened to ironically. Why would anyone like it? Konrad Jeliński, music journalist and DJ promoting suomisaundi music, answers,
"First of all, there's an attractive dissonance in disco polo which probably arises when joyful amateur musicians get help from professional producers. While admiring the exploits of the amateurs sucked into the mafia-governed production machine (it's a well-known fact that the mafia controlled a large part of the disco polo market), I feel as if they were not just enlisted but rounded-up, forced to perform; what they're doing looks like fun but their facial expressions say otherwise."
Boys – This Is Not The USA
Records and tapes with disco polo music took over the Polish phonographic market. Hundreds of thousands and even millions were sold. Disco polo concerts took place everywhere, at countryside fire stations and the elegant Congress Hall of the Palace of Culture in Warsaw where, until recently, official meetings of the communist party had taken place. Unleavened rhythms reverberated from TVs and radio stations, and records crowded the shelves of supermarkets. Disco polo singers even campaigned for Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who became President of Poland in 1995 (Ole, Olek! Na prezydenta tylko ty! was a song by Top One). According to newspapers, the mafia headed the Polish disco polo industry. A journalist from Wprost pointed to the prasko- ząbkowski gang, (commonly called Wołomin). In an article published in 2007 under the title ''Mafiopolo'', Rafał Pasztelański and Piotr Krysiak revealed that a man under the alias of Wariat (Crazy person), also known as the king of Polish amphetamine, had shares in companies that made money from disco polo. Marcin Miller, lead singer of the band Boys, said:
''Until the year 2000 we knew nothing about the criminals. I only realised who we worked for when I saw a gang arrested on TV, and then another one. That's when it dawned on me: "For Christ's sake, I was at a banquet with that guy, I had a drink with him".
To nie USA (This is not the USA) is a clip from 1995 and features two Soviet statues from the Palace of Culture. One represents a woman with a chisel, the other a man with a discobolus. They face Emilia Plater street and were made in the Lenin Communist Youth Union Ceramics Factory in Estonia.
Hey, hey, hey, this is not the USA
Here you'll learn what life really is
Haj, haj, haj, this is my country
It will be your paradise
Jauntix – Atlantis
Jauntix, a band from the city of Wieliczka (famous for its underground salt mine) brought out three cassettes and performed at the Polish Song Festival in Opole. "Risk it, although you may die, let's escape together from here [...] the people created a world in which we will die, this civilisation of humans in which there is not enough room for us" they sing in Polish with lyricism. These existential texts moved audiences. But their music can't exactly be called disco, it's Depeche Mode-inspired synth-pop. Depeche Mode followers behind the Iron Curtain who listened to and dressed like the band were called "depesze". Another source of inspiration for the Jauntix lads was Krystyna Prońko, featured above.
''Thirdly, I become all sentimental when it comes to disco polo. And feeling sentimental about something that aims to be sentimental is naturally reinforcing" – adds Jeliński.
Mig – What You Will Give Me
These young roadside hooligans are well known in Poland for their embarrassing music video (and oddly enough in Lithuania, where the song spread like wildfire thanks to a parody). It's impossible to take this music seriously at present due to the inherent prejudices and stereotypes, but it's possible that in a dozen years, or even several dozen, MIG's work may perhaps be considered a full-fledged, though naive, piece of music. Swedish journalist Gabriel Stille, who has organised events like Polish Summer and Polish Nights in Malmö, explains why he finds it attractive,
I think many people all over Europe have memories of this kind of music, from growing up in the Nineties and later. It is maybe connected with fond memories of youthful parties (and for some, of course, with a lack of style they still detest, so it will have to be a "guilty" pleasure.) So it is both something fairly easy to relate to, but also intriguing in terms of the national differences. Mostly German, Dutch (and some Swedish) acts made it really big internationally, singing mostly in English, in the Eurodance genre (in Sweden more often known erroneously as "eurodisco"). Personally, I think whenever there is a possibility of letting go of the "guilty" feeling in appreciating a particular genre (of one's own country or in general), that it can be a liberating and often illuminating experience.
MC Diva – Girl from St. Pauli
After euro dance came power dance. No one made it more popular than MC Diva (Krystyna Stolarska). Her music brought together European hi-nrg from the label ZYX Records and American dance hits. She was a Polish star but she also had followers in the U.S. She performed with DJ Bobo, Fun Factory and E-Rotic. The Polish element in Dziewczyna z St. Pauli (Girl from St.Pauli) is the subversive violin.
In the end, disco polo was the final nail in the coffin of the traditional wedding music which used to be played, among others, on the violin. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are witnessing a revival of rural music and... disco polo. In 2011, a TV station entirely dedicated to the genre, called Polo TV, was set up. One of its greatest hits was Ona tańczy dla mnie (She Dances For Me) by the band Weekend. It got 80 million views on YouTube, which is twice as many as the mega hit by Donatan.
''Fourthly, disco polo is often very lively, it has the rhythm of life in it" – adds Jeliński to shed light on his passion for disco polo – "Fifthly, the very original choreographies are reminiscent of the formal systems of martial arts (kata in karate, quyen in viet vo dao).''
Atlantis – So small
Atlantis was one of the first disco polo bands, born on June 1st, 1990, in the city of Sochaczew. The band serves as a great example of what is (or was?) disco polo. The text, which is not sung but spoken out in moans (thus making the message of the song a lamentation), is accompanied by a steady rhythm mixed with syncopated drum samples. And the whole thing is covered by the delicate, though rather untamed, sounds of the synthesiser. That doesn't sound like an easy recipe for a pop song, but countless bands of today would be happy to have such a sound.
I loved her, and she loved me,
I liked her, and she liked me,
I was happy,
As if in a dream.
This recording was made during a Gala event at the aforementioned Congress Hall (Gala Piosenki Chodnikowej). The stage was occupied by a model Palace of Culture, a disco polo axis mundi. One of the members of Atlantis later performed his own more radical music under the alias D.J. Albert.
Karolina – In an Empty Church
Many a person would think that disco polo only deals with love (both the happy and unhappy kinds) and having fun. And they wouldn't be wrong, but every now and then, some religious themes appear, as in this dance song W pustym kościele (In an Empty Church) by Karolina.
I spent the entire night by myself
In any empty church I strongly prayed
Perhaps I'll be heard at least once
And you'll recognise me in a crowd.
Tropical – Simple Mistake
Konrad Jeliński describes the song of the band Tropical from Siemiatycze,
''It's a surprisingly primitive song, and at the same time what we're dealing with is, I think, an involuntary masterpiece; the verse and the chorus are based on one melodic-harmonic element. But it's thanks to the structure of the syllabic text that the dynamic dies out''
Tede feat. Zdzisława Sośnicka – How to Live?
Leaving disco polo behind, let's come back to disco. Or rather, hip-hop made from samples of disco. This is Tede, a rap celebrity in Poland in a song that uses the voice of Zdzisława Sośnicka. Other disco hip-hop crossovers include Grammatik's Friko based on a song by Urszula Sipińska, and Trzyh and Warszafski Deszcz's Mam tak samo jak ty (Same Goes For Me) based on samples of Czeslaw Niemen.
Ptaki – Krystyna
In the year 2013, and under the alias Ptaki, two DJs from Warsaw brought out the song Krystyna, inspired by Krystyna Prońko's Specjalne okazje (Special Occasions). A part of the chorus: ''In more convenient situations, say as much as you want, say as much as you want'' is played in a loop and the song by Ptaki is built around it. Maintained at a slow pace, this is an example of leisurely house music.
10 months after its release, the song Krystyna had been listened to 90 thousand times. Both the vinyl and the CD on which it featured (with songs by Maciek Sienkiewicz on the reverse) completely sold out. Resident Advisor, the online alpha and omega of all things dance music gave the EP a four out of five star rating, commenting,
The Very Polish Cut Outs make funky, oddball disco by re-editing their homeland's Soviet-era music. It's a pretty unlikely concept. The tag line of their blog is "Polish dance music? Are You Fucking Braindead?" But somehow it works.
Super Girl & Romantic Boys – Calm
Many of the Polish disco polo bands are worth mentioning, others are plainly embarrassing. I would like to end this narration by looking into the not so distant past: it's the late 90s, almost the year 2000. Disco polo is dying out and nobody in their right mind is ready to publicly declare their approval of the genre. At the same time in a squat in Berlin, a young group of people use a synthesiser, a sequencer and corny lyrics to bring back to life the spirits of Zdzisława Sośnicka (or Dezerter), Krystyny Prońko (or maybe New Order?) and Kombi. Calling themselves Super Girl & Romantic Boys, they are part of the punk scene, and no longer dance or disco polo, but pogo. An ironic twist of fate or a local speciality?
Author: Filip Lech, revised in September 2014, translator: MJ 12/09/2014