For my second blog interview, it is my pleasure to get a chance to find out more about Britain's brilliant writer on the topic of music, Johnny Morgan. I highly recommend checking out his blog, Rum Do (see below), to read his entertaining, thoughtful and often uniquely personal views on pop music. His book, Disco: The Music, The Times, The Era is one of my all-time favorite books on the subject of dance music and, in particular, classic '70s disco.
Johnny Morgan: Thank you. It was a labor of love and memory. Disco was a formative part of my growing up and the music, the dancing, the clothes and experience of hearing, seeing and feeling the rush (un-chemically aided) on the dance floor as different tracks blended into one another has remained with me. It was always ignored by mainstream media at the time (1970-1978 particularly) and the kind of tough, male working-class guys I grew up with all preferred rock music — and I hated Prog Rock — at the time. Disco introduced me to a new circle of friends; mostly female and gay, and helped me to discover who I wanted to be aged 14.
BB: How long was this book in the making, from your first draft to your final edits?
JM: I’d tried to sell the idea to publishers around 2004, and had written the outline, had pages designed etc., but no-one wanted to know. It went back into my ‘pending’ file until 2009 and after the success of the Gaga book. It took almost a year of writing and researching the images etc.
BB: I was thrilled to find the foreward was written by Gloria Gaynor! How did that come about?
JM: Very easily. Essential Works (the company who put the book together) simply emailed to ask Gloria, and she said ‘yes’.
BB: The book covers Disco so thoroughly, I can't imagine you left anything out. In retrospect, is there anything you felt you omitted or would like to go back and add?
JM: There are always things that get left out of any book of this kind, simply because you can’t constrain every aspect of such a social, sexual, and political movement like disco into 400 pages. There are some great non-illustrated books on the subject out there, and many have first-person accounts given by DJs and club owners who were there (reading some can be like getting caught in a DJ booth during a screaming queen bitch-fest, though). But there are a wealth of images from back in the day still to be put into context and shown off; the people who were there and took photos haven’t all been published; the flyers, posters, magazines etc. were all fantastically original and ground-breaking works of graphic art and have influenced the fine and commercial art scene and let’s not even mention the fashion world! Because disco was about a hidden world for so long and then when it went overground was so derided by the homophobic, racist ‘disco sucks’ assholes, it hasn’t been afforded the same degree of consideration as other social movements like punk or grunge, New Romanticism or New Wave (puh-leeeze!) by the art world. I’d like to create an art book, consider more of the creative artists and their influence on mainstream and underground art. See Leigh Bowery for example…
BB: Disco: The Music, The Times, The Era is available on Amazon.com and, obviously, I highly recommend it to everyone reading this. In New York, it's been a big seller at Rainbows & Triangles in Chelsea, which is where I scored my copy. Steven, the owner (who calls Rainbows "New York's gay general store"), keeps restocking it. You should have your publisher arrange a book signing next time you're in NYC.
JM: I’d love to. Thanks for the tip.
JM: Ah. Sorry, but I can’t talk about that…
BB: Like The Art of the LP, a book you co-authored, Disco is a physically large, "coffee table"-formatted book, filled with amazing pictures that accomodate your text. Because of the layout and all the brilliant archival images (many I've never seen before), I think buying a hard copy of the book is the way to go. Kindle wouldn't allow you the same experience. What's your view on that?
JM: It’s a problem with illustrated books. At present you can’t integrate text and images on an ereader, because when you zoom in on a pic, you throw the text out of kilter and unless you embed captions in the image (thus ruining them), you can’t easily access what is what. Then again, lovely looking, hefty tomes such as Disco + Art of the LP are the reason why physical books will continue to be printed. How’d you give an ebook as a gift and get the same lovely smile when it’s ‘unwrapped’? Doesn’t work.
BB: According to the brief liner notes in Disco, "Johnny Morgan has written popular music books for more than tweny years." How did you get started?
JM: It’s a long story, but basically I got my first staff writing gig (at Time Out London) because I owned a Johnny Cash album at a time when it was very uncool to own Cash albums (i.e. pre-American Recordings), to become their Country Music editor. I got to interview him later, at the House of Cash, but that’s another story, too. Best thing about the first job was getting to know kd lang as she was breaking in 1988. I also freelanced from day one and worked for a lot of different magazines and newspapers.
JM: It’s tempting to say ‘the advance’ attracted me, but it’s also fair to say that I was intrigued by Gaga and saw so many inspirations from my musical past (Bowie, Bowery, LaBelle etc.) in her look, that researching it was a pleasure — and kinda easy because I knew where she was coming from. Well, her and Lady Starlight…
BB: As a follower of your blog, Rum Do(johnnymorgansrumdo.blogspot.com), I really enjoy the way you blend personal, even autobiographical, details with the history of pop music and write about the interrelationship, through the years. How do you perceive your blog and how do you choose your topics?
JM: Back in the day, writing was a joy and the reader was guaranteed because they bought the magazines (and books) I wrote for. In the late 1990s writing became a chore and while the reader was still there, the musicians, artists and creatives that I used to interview and write about were becoming strictly policed by PRs who no longer let the journalist get their client drunk and tease stuff out of them that they should not reveal. I gave up writing about stuff I liked because it wasn’t fun any more, plus no-one was interested — or so the people running the mags, papers and presses kept insisting. My blog is an excuse to enjoy writing again. Hopefully there are people out there who have lived a similar life and recognize the things I write about, or else want to know something about elements of a past which is now gone and beginning to be forgotten.
A friend of mine who lectures at a major University told me the other day that he mentioned David Bowie in a lecture and was met by blank stares. He had to explain who Bowie was. I also occasionally lecture and last year found myself explaining what a Teddy Boy was. So, the blog is there to help me to remember what my life once was, how the world used to be and hopefully inform, entertain and interact with people who are similarly interested. Topics for blogs choose themselves, I get the urge to write and because of the immediacy of the medium, it gets done.
BB: I actually had no idea what the British phrase "rum do" meant, so I looked it up. (Obviously nothing to do with rum, as in Cpt. Morgan's.) What I read was the term originally meant variously "good, fine, excellent or great" but, around 1800, came to mean "odd, strange or peculiar." Which interpretation applies to your blog title?
JM: Definitely the later definition — I’m not so old that I would use the pre-1800 definition. My name also played a part in the naming because of the Captain — a distant relative, I’m sure.
BB: Thanks for your time and for answering my questions, Johnny. I'd just like to ask one last thing: Is there another book you're working on and can you say anything at all about it?
JM: Thanks for asking me. At present I’m ‘between books’, but as soon as I
fix on something, I’ll let you know.
Note: Johnny Morgan's Gaga, Disco & Art of the LP are available on Amazon, Barnes & Nobles and -- of course -- wherever fine books are (still) sold. Additionally, if in New York, visit Rainbows and Triangles, 192 Eighth Avenue between 19th & 20th Streets to purchase a copy of Disco: The Music, The Times, The Era. Please check out Johnny's blog. If you're into music, you'll love it.