What did you see when Nasa unveiled the first images from the James Webb space telescope? Your answer may hinge as much on your gasp of astrophysics as on your record collection.
The Nasa administrator, Bill Nelson, a former senator and ex-astronaut, was agog at “the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe, so far”, 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 apt, if astrophysically inexact, response to these new insights from the heavens.
The Los Angeles Times reporters Corinne Purtill and Sumeet Kulkarni were equally turned on to the cosmic connections, when they described the arcing twist in the telescope’s initial image as “galaxies swirling around a central point like the light thrown off from a disco ball”.
So is the entire universe just an aesthetically derivative rehash of 1970s disco futurism?
While the scientifically inclined might view these images as startlingly new renderings of light from aeons ago, those with a closer eye on the clubs and used record racks than on the night sky may look down the other end of the telescope and feel we’ve been here before.
Watch Interstella 5555, Daft Punk’s anime rendering of their 2001 album, Discovery; peep vintage disco videos such as Space by Magic Fly; or stream archival Italian DJ mixes, and the visual link between the outer limits that the James Webb surveys and the inner space of the disco dancefloor become 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 sharpening and embellishing the images we were seeing from space, adding more sparkle to the stars and a brighter spectrum of color to the cosmos. Now the stunning, funkadelic images from James Webb suggest they were right to do so: space really is that groovy. Or, as the legendary Afro futurist jazz hero Sun Ra proclaimed, Space is the Place.
Nevertheless, the cosmic entanglement of disco and space runs deeper than sleeve art. David Mancuso, creator of the Loft club night in New York, is the DJ widely credited with laying the foundations of disco. His sets favored spacey records such as Dexter Wansel’s Life On Mars and Lonnie Liston Smith’s Space Princess.
Larry Levan, resident DJ at the Paradise Garage, who kept disco alive in the 1980s, chose an equally extraterrestrial playlist with tunes like Galaxy by War, and Ednah Holt’s Serious, Sirius Space Party.
However, the person who truly launched disco into deep space has to be the Italian DJ Daniele Baldelli, who in 1979 was hired by a club called Cosmic, in Lazise, a resort town on the shore of 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 snatches of German “kosmische Musik” (known in English as krautrock), by bands such as Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel.
Baldelli and fellow cosmic DJs such as Brescia, Italy’s Beppe Loda and Claudio “Moz-Art” Rispoli from 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 the DJs. This led to spacey, hi-tech records such as Capricorn by Capricorn or Feel the Drive by Doctor’s Cat finding favor in the Italian peninsula, in neighboring Germany, and in the distant clubs of Chicago and Detroit, among nascent 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 Belgium’s Radius Records, clubs like London’s Horse Meat Disco, and latter-day producers including Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas.
Responding to the Webb pictures, Nasa’s media team, perhaps more alive to the place of candy-colored space gas and nascent stars within our cultural universe, reminded us all that the shimmering wall of interstellar matter in the Carina nebula is known colloquially as the Cosmic Cliffs – a title that sounds like a 1980 Italo-disco deep-cut by Kano.
Now, 40 years after the Disco Demolition Night sought to bring an end to the genre, disco’s cosmic vitality seems as undying as the Webb telescope’s starlight. So perhaps Nasa should show a little love?
In 1977, at disco’s apex, Nasa launched its deep space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Each was fitted with a specially commissioned gold-plated copper 12-inch record, etched with recordings from Earth, as well as universally comprehensible playback instructions for whichever alien crate-digger first chanced upon the probe. Featured tracks included Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry; excerpts from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; and an address from Kurt Waldheim, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, who, in the years following the Voyager launch, was unmasked as an former Nazi party member. Come on, Nasa, that’s not very cosmic. When you next approach the record lathe, with a view to wanging the finished disc deep into the universe, maybe you should pick something just a bit more disco?