The Unsung Hero of Dance Music
A pulsating kick drum and atmospheric string trill set the scene for the distinct, sexy chatter that opens up Jean Marc Cerrone’s 1976 hit “Love in C Minor.” Always looking to be left-field from the “norm,” Cerrone, the distinctly French musician and producer who was out of touch with American music trends, unknowingly incorporated the “talking” or “background chatter” technique that Marvin Gaye brought into the pop- sphere in 1971 with What’s Going On; though Cerrone’s version of this was overtly sexualized, in typical 70’s disco fashion. Cerrone infamously gave the vocalists enough champagne in the studio until they screamed “Oh Cerrone!” as heard throughout “Love in C Minor.” His use of unknown female vocalists, outlined in this aspect of the song, is key to his aesthetic, and gives more power to him as the prolific ‘star’ of his musical endeavors, whereas his contemporaries like Giorgio Moroder had popular singers like Donna Summer to fall back on. His sophisticated approach to disco led him to fill a unique role in the late-70’s dance scene in both Europe and America, while his unconventional approach to traditional songwriting led him to push the genre of disco forward and pioneer dance production techniques that are still key to the genre today.
As a restless child, Marc Cerrone grew up with drumming as an outlet for his energy, which led him to start his music career after moving to St. Tropez in his teenage years. Here, he was playing in local venues and clubs with his original disco/funk outfit, Kongas. Cerrone’s importance as a producer actually begins here, before his big break as a solo artist, with the production of their track “Africanism.” Released in 1977, Cerrone actually sampled “Gimme Some Loving” by Steve Winwood, to make the horns and the beat on “Africanism,” which became a cult hit. (Cerrone, A Documentary. Pitchfork. 2015.) At the time, he explains now, he simply saw it as combining one song with another, while being very aware of crediting the original musician. In reality, he was actually sampling, before it was a commonly adopted technique.
After seeing success with “Africanism,” Cerrone left the Kongas. This change was not only the biggest decision in his career, but defines the character of Cerrone so perfectly. As Cerrone reminisces in the Pitchfork Documentary “Cerrone,” he left Kongas because he got bored of the pop structure the band was pursuing, and sought out to make, as he calls it, “out there” music on his own. Here, we see the character of Cerrone as someone who not only isn’t pursuing pop stardom, but rather a much more noble dream of truly creating something new with the disco format, as well as an artist who extremely perseverant in achieving this goal — he can do it himself, and he did. His biggest hit ever, 1977’s “Supernature,” which is hailed as his magnum opus and sold over 8 million copies, was self-released. Originally, no labels would take his tracks, and once he was a big star, the labels didn’t want to release tracks like “Supernature” due to a lack of conventional song structure. That didn’t stop him, however, taking it upon himself to find manufacturers to press the records and hand-delivering them himself to the shelves of France’s DJ-friendly record stores. This tense dynamic with labels, however, also further played into his iconically kitsch aesthetic. Because he was independently releasing, Cerrone had to use his album covers as a way to stand out on record store shelves — resulting in the use of shocking objects in a lot of the photos, like men in creepy animal masks, crawling on the cover of Cerrone 3 — Supernature, and the early use of naked women seductively sprawled over album covers like “Love In C Minor,” a trend that stayed as an integral part of his album covers even until modern times with the release ofThe Best of Cerrone Productions (2014). Yet the common thread between all of these covers, is that they had Cerrone as the focal point, in his unbuttoned shirt and 70’s euro-cut, surrounded by, and oddly fitting in with these unconventional, and often sexual photographic scenes.
There seems to be something else other than his long-form song structure that seemed ‘too ahead of time’ for the labels of the late 70’s to adopt sonically. Cerrone’s kick drum was “like a motif from the avant-classical world, or a madman’s idea of throbbing, rhythmic Zen... a listen to his first big international hit, “Love in C Minor,” certainly shows that Cerrone could keep the kick drum loud, up-front and infectious” (Cerrone: The Disco King of Avant-Garde Sleaze. D.M. Collins. 2016). Most dance music of today is based on this incredibly simple musical trope. Some may argue that it was popularized by 70’s US disco artists of the likes of Chic and Earth Wind & Fire, or the grandfather of Disco, Giorgio Moroder. The early popularization of the beat can even be traced before these popular bands to proto-disco songs like MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” for instance. But no one accented the kick drum more than France’s own playboy. His productions put so much emphasis on the drum sound that Ahmet Ertegun and the crew at Atlantic saw it as cacophonous for the pop and dance charts of the time in America, which led to the previously explained falling out when it came time to release “Supernature.” No other artist accented the drums enough that it cost them their release through a major label, proving how Cerrone was the true pioneer and popularizer of this sound that’s still heard in today’s pop and dance records — LCD Soundsystem being a perfect example of a band today that adopted Cerrone’s style of putting the drums in the forefront of the mix, almost as to overpower the rest of the track and put the listener in a trance-like state, a track like “Freak Out / Starry Eyes” on 45:33 comes to mind, which also adopts Cerrone’s over-the-top elongation of song structure; “Freak Out/Starry Eyes” is 12 minutes long, still not beating Cerrone’s 14 minute “Love in C Minor.”
The root of his accented drums can be traced all the way back to his beginnings in St. Tropez. Prolific French music producer, Eddie Barclay, was the first to truly notice his drumming abilities. Barclay was so impressed that he signed him and his band, the Kongas, to his label. Being the one who attracted the attention to his band because of his drumming, Cerrone started building up huge confidence in his unique drum sound which later developed into the drums we hear on his solo work. His story only gets more enchanting, as after leaving the Kongas, he self-released his solo work, which eventually made its way all the way across the pond to the U.S. to land in the hands of DJ’s in NYC, who spun “Love In C Minor” into popularity, eventually reaching the U.S. charts, peaking at #3 and selling over 3 million copies. American labels began the search for the mystery man creating these atmospheric, visceral disco soundtracks, but because Cerrone manufactured his vinyl in the U.K., all the labels were searching the clubs of London for any sign of Cerrone, who was unknown at the time in London. Meanwhile, Cerrone was in France, constantly checking in on how many copies of his record he sold in local stores, averaging 20 a week. When a few friends got back from a trip to New York, they broke the news to Cerrone that he was huge in America. He was on the next flight to Disco-utopia, otherwise known as Manhattan in the late 70’s, and was met with open arms. As the go-getter he was, he went straight to Atlantic Record’s office and ended up meeting with Ahmet Ertegun, resulting in his signing to Atlantic. He appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in 1977, and was instantly thrown into NYC’s thriving disco scene centered around Studio 54, where he met and was praised by huge names in art like Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and Jean Paul Gaultier amongst other NYC socialites. For a few moments at least, Cerrone’s naively French and intriguingly mysterious character took the U.S. by storm; “I am very happy to be here with you” he reads off of a paper in broken English after his American Bandstand appearance, to the cheering of American girls fetishizing the European accent, not unlike the Beatles’ early TV performances.
Though ’77 and ’78 were Cerrone’s peak in popularity, his perseverance to be in the industry and continuous effort to keep creating new soundscapes kept him in a comfortable place. Not to mention the endless royalty checks that came with the rise of house and French NuDisco in the 90’s, spearheaded by Daft Punk and their contemporaries, who notoriously sample many Cerrone records and breaks, leading to a revival of his praise in a new generation. “We are the two most sampled musicians, Nile Rodgers because of his guitar, and me because of my way of playing drums” boasts Cerrone. (Cerrone, A Documentary. Pitchfork. 2015.)
With everything said and done, however, Cerrone still has this sense of mystery attached to him — especially today. He’s not a household name like Giorgio, or CHIC, and he is often overlooked as an important figure in dance music history. Part of this stems from his French origin. Although his biggest peak in popularity was in the U.S., his language barrier and inescapably unconventional outlook on life and music, as well as his stubborn (albeit fruitful) ability to take matters into his own hands, means he was never going to fully integrate into the American popular music industry, and holds more of a “cult” status today for those who know a lot about Disco and dance music. Despite this, he still spends his time playing live music, touring mostly Europe as a half drumming/half DJ’ing live act. He actually had a slew of releases around 2006, showing a more modern style of production leaning towards a NuDisco/sample-based electronic aesthetic in the style of close collaborator of his later years, Dmitri From Paris, on releases like Orange Mechanique in 2006, or Celebrate! in 2008. These releases, though, never caught on due to a highly competitive market in this sound, with newer artists like Justice, Breakbot, and Dmitri From Paris himself, bringing a more fresh and interesting sound to the table.
Cerrone’s most successful and influential period still remains that of the late 70’s. Traces of his influence can be heard all throughout modern dance music — and even stretching into hip hop. A drum break from Cerrone’s “Rocket In The Pocket” was taken by early hip hop DJ’s and sampled on various records, including “Gotta Rock” by The Treacherous Three, released on Sugar Hill in 1985, for example. Yet, we still don’t hear his name in the same way we hear other influential artists from dance music history. Though it seems unfair that he isn’t getting credit where credit is due, Pitchfork’s recent documentary on Cerrone shows us a rather content musician in his later years, reminiscing on a dream career coming true: “Knowing where I came from, and to have lasted that long... It’s a gift from life” (Cerrone, A Documentary. Pitchfork. 2015.) he states with a content, yet aware, smile — almost as if he knows something we don’t.