Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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In a Perfect World: Disco Inferno’s “The Last Dance”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 27, 2007

What if you woke up tomorrow and everything was perfect?

In a perfect world, Disco Inferno’s “The Last Dance” would be as beloved and well-remembered as Oasis’s “Live Forever.”

Disco Inferno hold a very odd place in rock history. They never had a hit single, probably never had an album that sold more than a few thousand copies, have few if any existing photographs, never get namechecked by flavor-of-the-month artists, and rarely get even a passing mention in most music publications, mainstream, indie or otherwise. Yet, among certain critical communities, you will not be able to find a band more unanimously and unreservedly praised–Disco Inferno have emerged as something of a secret handshake for critics, bloggers and the like, the kind of band that barely anyone has heard of, but for whom everyone who has can’t stop raving about them. Or, at least, the band is distinctive and divisive enough that those who don’t care for it simply discard it instantly–you’ll never hear anyone complaining that DI are overrated, because so few people bother to rate them at all.

Part of the reason for this obscurity is the fact that not only were the band’s full-length albums out of print up until very recently, but because the work considered by most of the band’s fans to be their definitive document technically doesn’t even exist. The Five EPs, a one-disc compilation of the five non-album singles & EPs the group released between the years of 1992 and 1994, was assembled by All Music Guide scribe and I Love Music regular Ned Raggett some years ago, and dutifully distributed by Ned to anyone who showed interest. The distribution quickly snowballed, until The Five EPs came to rightly be regarded as the band’s masterwork, far more diverse, fascinating and all-around mindblowing than any of their one-note full-lengths.

The centerpiece of this compilation is undoubtedly the Last Dance EP, released in 1993, just as Britpop was starting to gain steam with Suede’s first album, Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish, Select’s famous “Yanks Go Home!” cover and the beginnings of Oasis. Disco Inferno were in the right place at the right time with apparently the wrong sound; “The Last Dance”ended up going where every previous DI release had and every future DI release would go–absolutely nowhere.

It’s hard to say why Disco Inferno never quite caught on with “The Last Dance.” Unlike most DI efforts, the song was far from inaccessible–truth told, it practically sounds dated in its lush, chiming wistfulness, like a cross between the far more successful 90s relics James and Toad the Wet Sprocket. The structure is simple enough, the tune is unremittingly catchy and heatfelt, and the production is as crisp as on a Collective Soul single. DI often promised to go pop (including on the single’s equally enthralling and significantly less accessible b-side, but that’s for another entry), but “The Last Dance” was the only time they actually did, unhesitatingly and unapolagetically.

Meanwhile the lyrics, if anyone had bothered to listen to them, make up a generational anthem as powerful as any I’ve ever heard, including the aforementioned “Live Forever.” “The Last Dance” might not ever go quite as big as Oasis did on their legendary single, but it’s a surprisingly straightforward lyric for a band as traditionally enigmatic as DI (whose lead singer and lyricist, Ian Krause, is surely one of the most underrated singer/songwriters of the last 20 years). Krause sings of the anxiety and pressures brought on by memories of the past (“Every step that we tread / the dead are behind us”) and the oppression and pointlessness of the present (“No oceans left to cross / No mountains left to climb / ‘Cause that’s what I’ve been told”), while dreading the possibilities of the future (“And a fear of the future is so deep within our hearts / they will all but destroy ourselves”). Like the Gallaghers, however, Krause finds joy and hope in living in the moment (“Was there ever a time like this?”) and in walking on unafraid (“But now my eyes point ahead / from the ghosts of the dead”). Just as relatable as “I think you’re the same as me / we see things they’ll never see,” and utlimately far more poignant.

Still, it’s “Live Forever” that caught the nation’s imagination, which continues to place towards the top of every major UK song poll, which is universally beloved by all audiences, even American ones who couldn’t spot Jarvis Cocker or Brett Anderson out of a lineup of insurance salesmen, while “The Last Dance” seemingly lives on only through blogs like this one, never to make a dent in the real world. Maybe it was bad PR, lack of a real image, lack of a real live show, disappointment over the song having nothing to do with disco (c’mon, band/song title combo?), who knows.

More likely, though, it’s because even though the tune is so sweet and the lyrics so anthemic, there’s still a quality about “The Last Dance” which makes it not only stand out from all other pop songs of its day, but perfectly fit in with the rest of DI’s decidedly outsider catalogue. It’s the brilliant clock ticking sounds that run throughout the song, it’s the breathtakingly imagistic lyrics like “Books burning, barrels turning / A billion wasted futures light up the night sky,” it’s the perfect synth wurbles which close out the song and it’s the lack of an immediately idenitifable chorus, or in fact, any chorus at all–things that you just don’t hear on hit records. Whenever I write about Disco Inferno, I always feel like I ultimately come up short in doing them justice–probably the sign of a truly great and unique band (or of a truly subpar writer, whatever). And it’s probably that quality that ensured that they would never break the top 40, and would ultimately miss out on soundtracking one of the great moments in UK popular music.

Still, in a perfect world, this is the song that hundreds of thousands of screaming fans hold up their lighters to as it’s played at Knebworth for the second straight night.

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2 Responses to “In a Perfect World: Disco Inferno’s “The Last Dance””

  1. Joe said

    So it’s impossible to actually buy this collection on one disc? I wonder how the band feel about this, even if it has helped bring them (back?) into a humble sort of prominence. I also wonder if this encourages new fans to actually buy D.I. Go Pop or to just go ahead and download it for free like they did with The Five EPs.

  2. Garret said

    It’s songs like this that make me love pop music. Like Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” or This Heat’s “Paper Hats,” “The Last Dance” is simply EXPLODING with brilliance, and they achieve the effect without sounding like Yes or some (other awesome) shit (because Yes rules and aren’t/isn’t shit.)

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