Disco’s Dead: The Original Six, 1979 and How Far We’ve Come

by J.R.

It’s May 21, 1979. The Montreal Canadiens have defeated the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final.

It was, as you’ll hear hundreds of times in the next two weeks, the last time two Original Six teams met for the Stanley Cup.

Future soft rock radio staple “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb was the No. 1 song in the U.S. that day, soon to be usurped by this:

Between the beginning of June and the middle of August 1979, these were the songs that hit No. 1:

Chic’s anthem — as virtuosic a performance as disco ever produced — would lose out to this in late August:

The rock thump of “My Sharona” was the sound of the hammer in the nail of disco’s coffin. By the middle of summer, it was clear America was rejecting the decadence and artificiality of disco’s construct. Punk had taken hold in Britain and had its foothold here, its second wave cresting and pushing a new wave: John Peel had already scrawled 28 stars on the cover of this record:

Disco was a coastal sound, a cultural export packaged and produced in the big cities and force-fed to the interior.

But Conference III country will only tolerate so much. Indeed, if “My Sharona” is the disco’s dirge, it was a cheap-beer fueled fiasco on Chicago’s Southside in mid-July that was the chronicle of a death foretold:

By 1980, disco was done for, John Travolta having tossed away the white suit for boots and fringe. Dancing in Texas to tunes from Tennessee.

Conference III Country not only rejected disco, it killed it and then replaced it.

The NHL was changing too. The league absorbed four WHA teams that summer — a change of events that eventually led to Wayne Gretzky in LA and, later, in Conference III — and the next six Cups and 12 of the next 13 would be won by non-Original Six teams.

The same summer Chicago dynamited disco and Nashville made it obsolete, the dominance of the NHL’s First Half Dozen — which had heretofore won every Cup in the post-expansion era but the two taken by the Broad Street Bullies — would start to wane.

Fast-forward to 2013. The Original Six duopolizes the Stanley Cup, providing an easy narrative, even if it’s a counter-intuitive one. The NHL screams that it wants to “grow the game” and indeed its expansion and location strategy has — with varying levels of success — pushed the game into those warmer climes. And yet, whenever those old half-dozen get together, the league, its broadcast partners and its stodgy media fall all over themselves to paint everything in sepia.

Dave Lozo put it well at The Backhand Shelf:

The same way “God Bless You And God Bless America” alienates people, “Original Six” does the same to the 24 other teams and their fan bases. Why is Chicago vs. Boston is more meaningful than Los Angeles vs. Pittsburgh? That Tampa Bay championship in 2004? Carolina’s in 2006? Anaheim’s in 2007? Somehow these teams failing to exist when black people couldn’t vote in the United States makes them less important?

Considering how rock-solid the “Original Six” franchises are financially, a marketing campaign that treats the other 24 teams as somehow lesser is counter productive. Don’t you want to grow things in the newer cities? When you shout “Original Six,” you are the real-life version of the guy on the Internet who declares “FIRST” in the comments section of a really good blog post that eventually gets way more quality comments as time progresses.

There’s nothing wrong with the Original Six stuff, really, if it’s moderated. The problem is it’s never moderate. It’s always in-your-face and hyper-aggressive. How many pictures of Bobby Orr will we see in the next two weeks? How many black-and-white films of clean-shaven men not wearing helmets? How much retrograde drivel about the history and tradition and hockey When Men Were Men? How much about the echoes of Chicago Stadium and the lack of air conditioning at the old Boston Garden?

The fact is, like disco, when it’s all you hear, you realize how lame and reductive and overwrought it is.

In this context, it’s interesting that, this spring, Daft Punk released Random Access Memories.

This is one of the songs:

There’s no doubt Daft Punk’s latest was profoundly and personally influenced by the best of disco: Chic’s Nile Rodgers has a production credit and king of the disco knobs Giorgio Morodor was a collaborator.

And if you want to hear it as disco, all you hear is disco. Read any half-witted review of the record and it’s the Return of Disco! Disco Reborn! A Disco Record!

But that’s just one facet of the album. The synths were recorded live, copying the proggiest bands. The band acknowledged influence from California 70s bands — Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers and (shudder) The Eagles. One song has 250 elements. The entire disco era didn’t have 250 elements, unless “elements” means “types of cocaine” and even then I’m not sure.

It’s easy to say “it’s a disco record,” just as it’s easy to say Bruins-Hawks is “an Original Six series.”

But in the 34 years since Chicago lit a literal fire under disco and Nashville and Texas gave it a metaphorical boot, the culture of fun dance music has expanded beyond disco, as Daft Punk has shown. To focus on Bruins-Hawks as an Original Six match-up sells hockey short and it sells the teams short. They are more than franchises that existed 70 years ago. They are talented teams with delightful story lines. To say they are just echoes of these ancient Original Six rosters is like saying Daft Punk simply made a disco album.

Disco and Original Six are, at their best, interesting pieces of nostalgia or mindless fun. At their worst, they are lame or exclusionary or just mindless. Mostly, they are just nothing more than cheesy constructions.

We’ve come a long way since 1979 when the Rangers said “Ooh La La.” Let’s listen to the entire record.