What did you see when NASA unveiled the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope? Your answer may depend as much on your astrophysics breath as it does on your record collection.
Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and ex-astronaut, was shocked by “the deepest, sharpest infrared image of the distant universe, yet,” for example.
But music fans were more interested in comparing the images to dream pop, funk and disco album covers from the Cocteau twinsParliament and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in an aesthetically appropriate, if astrophysically inaccurate, response to these new ideas from heaven.
Los Angeles Times reporters Corinne Purtill and Sumeet Kulkarni were also drawn to the cosmic connections, when they described the arc twist in the telescope’s initial image as “galaxies swirling around a central point like the light emitted by a disco ball”.
So, is the entire universe just an aesthetically derived redesign of 1970s disco futurism?
While scientists might regard these images as startlingly new renderings of light from eons ago, those with a closer eye on the clubs and record racks in use than the night sky can look at each other. end of the telescope and feel like we’ve been here before.
Watch Interstella 5555, Daft Punk’s animated rendition of their 2001 album, Discovery; peep vintage disco videos such as Space by Magic Fly; or stream archival mixes from Italian DJs, and the visual connection between the outer limits James Webb walks and the inner space of the disco dance floor becomes apparent.
Music has long been obsessed with the extraterrestrial: from Haydn’s astronomical opera Il mondo della luna and Gustav Holt’s The Planets to Ziggy Stardust and Dark Side of the Moon.
But it was the futuristic disco pioneers of the 1970s who began to refine and beautify the images we saw from space, adding more sparkle to the stars and a brighter color spectrum to the cosmos. Now James Webb’s stunning funkadelic imagery suggests they were right to do it: space really is so groovy. Or, as legendary Afro-futurist jazz hero Sun Ra proclaimed, Space is the Place.
Nevertheless, the cosmic entanglement of disco and outer space runs deeper than cover art. David Mancuso, creator of New York’s Loft club night, is the DJ widely credited with laying the foundations of disco. His sets favored space records like Dexter Wansel’s Life on Mars and Lonnie Liston Smith space princess.
Larry Levan, resident DJ at Paradise Garage who kept disco alive in the 1980s, chose an equally alien playlist with tracks like Galaxy by War and Ednah Holt’s Serious, Sirius Space Party.
However, the person who really launched disco into deep space has to be Italian DJ Daniele Baldelli, who was hired in 1979 by a club called Cosmic, in Lazise, a seaside resort on Lake Garda in northern Italy. There, Baldelli combined conventional soul and funk records with British and European technopop, imported African and Brazilian sounds, as well as snippets of German “kosmische Musik” (known in English as krautrock), by bands such as Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel.
Baldelli and other cosmic DJs such as Brescia, Italian Beppe Loda and Claudio “Moz-Art” Rispoli of the Baia degli Angeli beach club on the Adriatic coast, were hugely popular. Local music producers began to reverse engineer the sound so they could get their records played by DJs. This led to spatialized and hi-tech records such as Capricorn by Capricorn or Feel the Drive by Doctor’s Cat which found favor in the Italian peninsula, in neighboring Germany and in the distant clubs of Chicago and Detroit, among fledgling house and techno DJs. These singles, prized by collectors, reached a new audience in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to reissue labels such as Radius Records in Belgium, clubs such as Horse Meat Disco in London and producers of today like Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas.
In response to Webb’s photos, the Nasa media team, perhaps more aware of the place of candy-colored space gas and infant stars in our cultural universe, reminded us all that the glistening wall of interstellar matter in the Carina Nebula is known colloquially as Cosmic Cliffs – a track that sounds like a 1980 Italo-disco deep-cut by Kano.
Now, 40 years after Disco Demolition Night sought to end the genre, the cosmic vitality of disco seems as eternal as the starlight of the Webb telescope. So maybe NASA should show some love?
In 1977, atop the nightclub, Nasa launched its deep space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Each was fitted with a specially commissioned gold-plated copper 12-inch disk engraved with recordings of Earth, as well only universally understandable reading instructions for whichever alien crate digger stumbled upon the probe first. Featured tracks included Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode; excerpts from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; and an address by Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, who in the years since the launch of Voyager was exposed as a former Nazi Party member. Come on, NASA, it’s not very cosmic. Next time you approach the record tower, aiming to propel the finished record deep into the universe, maybe you should choose something a little more disco?