Ellis' younger brother Johnny told the Observer, "Doesn't matter where you go, who they are — everybody knows when they hear the words, 'Burn that mother down!' and 'Burn, baby, burn,' that the song is 'Disco Inferno.'"
I have my own deeply affecting experience of "Disco Inferno." The song changed my views about the meaning and importance of disco years after its release.
To say that I didn't like disco during its late-'70s/early-'80s heyday would be a gross understatement. But if you had asked me if my “Disco Sucks” attitude was about race or homophobia, I would have been offended. Of course not, I would have said, defending myself and waxing eloquent about how I liked soul, funk and blues. To my rock-centric teenage mind, disco was the music of high school proms. It was fluffy, insubstantial, mind-numbing mainstream pablum for Buffy and Bif, useful only for brainless partying after Friday-night football games. Yes, I was a little pretentious.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong. This music was downright revolutionary. It was as political as any obvious protest song by Phil Ochs, the MC5 or the Clash. At 17, I had only a vague idea that disco came from the Philly streets, that it was an outgrowth of the sound of Philadelphia International Records. I had no idea that it also was the soundtrack for the erupting gay-rights movement in Lower Manhattan. I may have read about Studio 54 in Rolling Stone and Creem magazines, but as a rock-loving teenager, I didn’t understand how important that scene was in the early gay-rights struggle and sexual revolution. Donna Summer’s mainstream hits may have played well at proms in small towns like the one I came from — Asheboro, N.C. — but I had little clue that the extended mixes of Summer’s “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby” were also epic anthems for gays celebrating their coming-out on dance floors the world over.
What does this have to do with Jimmy Ellis, a guy who grew up in a shotgun shack in Rock Hill? It has everything to do with him. When the producers of Saturday Night Fever chose “Disco Inferno” for the soundtrack of their movie about working-class kids from the New York outer boroughs participating in dance competitions, the song became inextricably connected to the height of disco mania. And it was that song that changed my mind about disco about a decade later, when I was living in New York’s East Village.
I was hanging out at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A when the DJ slipped “Disco Inferno” onto his turntables. It was 1987, and I had just moved from North Carolina to New York and hadn’t thought about disco in years. I had gone to New York to write about punk and hip-hop — music I saw as clearly political. There I was, standing in a club amid a dance floor packed with a rainbow coalition of art-damaged East Village denizens: punks, trannies, hip-hop fans. When the refrain of “Disco Inferno” gave way to a deeply funky, hypnotic repetition that was going full force a good ten minutes later, I had an epiphany. It all came together. I understood. I was free.
So, thank you, Jimmy Ellis of Rock Hill, South Carolina. You and your Trammps opened my mind and expanded my world.
Listen to the long version of “Disco Inferno”: