Disco is a musical style originating in New York City in the early 1970s
Written by MarkCarney on 25th May 2016
Disco is a musical style originating in New York City in the early 1970s, and remained urban and largely underground until the middle of the decade when it began to emerge from America’s urban nightlife scene, where it had been curtailed to house parties and makeshift discotheques, and began making regular appearances mainstream, gaining popularity and increasing airplay on radio. It achieved popularity during the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. Its initial audiences in the U.S. were club-goers from the gay, African American, Italian American, Latino, and psychedelic communities in Philadelphia and New York City during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disco can be seen as a reaction against both the domination of rock music and the stigmatization of dance music by the counterculture during this period. Disco was popular with both men and women from many different backgrounds, with dances including the Bump and the Hustle.
The disco sound often has several components, a “four-on-the-floor” beat, an eighth note (quaver) or 16th note (semi-quaver) hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line. In most disco tracks, string sections, horns, electric piano, and electric rhythm guitars create a lush background sound. Orchestral instruments such as the flute are often used for solo melodies, and lead guitar is less frequently used in disco than in rock. Many disco songs use electronic synthesizers, particularly in the late 1970s.
Well-known 1970s disco performers included: Vicki Sue Robinson, Yvonne Elliman, Grace Jones, Thelma Houston, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Boney M., Chaka Khan, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Trammps, Sylvester, Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Amii Stewart, and Chic. While performers and singers garnered much public attention, record producers working behind the scenes played an important role in developing the “disco sound”. Many non-disco artists recorded disco songs at the height of disco’s popularity, and films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Thank God It’s Friday (1978) contributed to disco’s rise in mainstream popularity. Disco was the last mass popular music movement that was driven by the baby boom generation. Disco was a worldwide phenomenon, but its popularity drastically declined in the United States in 1980, and by 1982 it had lost most of its mainstream popularity in the states. Disco Demolition Night, an anti-disco protest held in Chicago on July 12, 1979, remains the most well-known of several “backlash” incidents across the country that symbolized disco’s declining fortune.
By the late 1970s, most major U.S. cities had thriving disco club scenes, where DJs would mix a seamless sequence of dance records. Studio 54, a venue popular among celebrities, is a well-known example of a disco club. Popular dances included the Hustle, a sexually suggestive dance. Discotheque-goers often wore expensive, extravagant and sexy fashions. There was also a thriving drug subculture in the disco scene, particularly for drugs that would enhance the experience of dancing to the loud music and the flashing lights, such as cocaine and Quaaludes, a drug that was so common in disco subculture that it was nicknamed “disco biscuits”. Disco clubs were also sometimes associated with promiscuity.
Disco was a key influence in the later development of electronic dance music and house music. Disco has had several revivals, including in 2005 with Madonna’s highly successful album Confessions on a Dance Floor, and again in 2013 and 2014, as disco-styled songs by artists like Daft Punk (with Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers), Justin Timberlake, Breakbot, and Bruno Mars—notably Mars’ “Uptown Funk”—filled the pop charts in the UK and the US.
Origins of the term and type of nightclub
The term disco is derived from discothèque (French for “library of phonograph records”, but it was subsequently used as a term for nightclubs in Paris). By the early 1940s, the terms disc jockey and DJ were in use to describe radio presenters. During WWII, because of restrictions set in place by the Nazi occupiers, jazz dance halls in Occupied France played records instead of using live music. Eventually more than one of these jazz venues had the proper name discothèque. By 1959, the term was used in Paris to describe any of these type of nightclubs. That year, a young reporter named Klaus Quirini started to select and introduce records at the Scotch-Club in Aachen, West Germany. By the following year the term was being used in the United States to describe that type of club, and a type of dancing in those clubs. By 1964, discotheque and the shorthand disco were used to describe a type of sleeveless dress worn when going out to nightclubs. In September 1964, Playboy magazine used the word disco as a shorthand for a discothèque-styled nightclub.
Early to Mid 1970s United Kingdom Usage
In 1974 there were an estimated 25,000 mobile discos and 40,000 professional disc jockeys in the United Kingdom. Mobile Discos referred to Disc Jockeys for hire that brought their own equipment to office parties, weddings and the like. “Disco Dance Music” referred to glam rock. Simon Reynolds has described Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2 as the first hybrid disco-rock song.
1966–74: Proto-disco and early history of disco music
In Philadelphia, R&B musicians and audiences from the black, Italian, and Latino communities adopted several traits from the hippie and psychedelia subcultures. They included using music venues with a loud, overwhelming sound, free-form dancing, trippy lighting, colorful costumes, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Psychedelic soul groups like the Chambers Brothers and especially Sly and the Family Stone influenced proto-disco acts such as Isaac Hayes, Willie Hutch and the soul style known as the Philadelphia Sound. In addition, the perceived positivity, lack of irony, and earnestness of the hippies informed proto-disco music like MFSB’s album Love Is the Message. To the mainstream public M.F.S.B. stood for “Mother Father Sister Brother”; to the tough areas where they came from it was understood to stand for “Mother Fuckin’ Son of a Bitch”, a reference to their playing skill and musical prowess.
A forerunner to disco-style clubs was the private dance parties held by New York City DJ David Mancuso in The Loft, a members-only club in his home in 1970. When Mancuso threw his first house parties, the gay community (members of whom comprised much of The Loft’s attendee roster) was often harassed by police in New York gay bars and dance clubs. But at The Loft and many other early, private discotheques, men could dance together without fear of police action thanks to Mancuso’s underground business model. The first article about disco was written in 1973 by Vince Aletti for Rolling Stone magazine. In 1974, New York City’s WPIX-FM premiered the first disco radio show.
Philadelphia soul and New York soul were evolutions of the Motown sound, and were typified by the lavish percussion, lush string orchestra arrangements and expensive record production processes that became a prominent part of mid-1970s disco songs. Early songs with disco elements include “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (the Supremes, 1966), “The Love You Save” by Jackson 5 (1970), “Soul Makossa” (Manu Dibango, 1972), “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder (1972) Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Truckin'” (1973) and “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (1973). “Love Train” by the O’Jays (1972), with M.F.S.B. as the backup band, hit Billboard Number 1 in March 1973, and has been called “disco”.
Early disco was dominated by record producers and labels such as Salsoul Records (Ken, Stanley, and Joseph Cayre), West End Records (Mel Cheren), Casablanca (Neil Bogart), and Prelude (Marvin Schlachter), to name a few. The genre was also shaped by Tom Moulton, who wanted to extend the enjoyment of dance songs — thus creating the extended mix or “remix”, going from a three-minute 45 rpm single to the much longer 12″ record. Other influential DJs and remixers who helped to establish what became known as the “disco sound” included David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Shep Pettibone, Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, and Chicago-based Frankie Knuckles. Frankie Knuckles was not only an important disco DJ; he also helped to develop house music in the 1980s, a contribution which earned him the honourific title of “Godfather of House”.
“The [disco] DJ was central to the ritual of 1970’s dance culture, but the dancing crowd was no less important, and it was the combination of these two elements that created the conditions for the dance floor dynamic.” In disco parties and clubs, a “…good DJ didn’t only lead dancers…[to the dance floor,] but would also feel the mood of the dance floor and select records according to this energy (which could be communicated by the vigor of the dancing, or level of the crowd’s screams, or sign language of dancers directed towards the booth).” Disco-era DJs would often remix (re-edit) existing songs using reel-to-reel tape machines, and add in percussion breaks, new sections, and new sounds. DJs would select songs and grooves according to what the dancers wanted, transitioning from one song to another with a DJ mixer and using a microphone to introduce songs and speak to the audiences. Other equipment was added to the basic DJ setup, providing unique sound manipulations, such as reverb, equalization, and echo effects unit. Using this equipment, a DJ could do effects such as cutting out all but the throbbing bassline of a song, and then slowly mixing in the beginning of another song using the DJ mixer’s crossfader.
Disco hit the television airwaves with the music/dance variety show Soul Train in 1971 hosted by Don Cornelius, then Marty Angelo’s Disco Step-by-Step Television Show in 1975, Steve Marcus’ Disco Magic/Disco 77, Eddie Rivera’s Soap Factory, and Merv Griffin’s Dance Fever, hosted by Deney Terrio, who is credited with teaching actor John Travolta to dance for his role in the hit movie, Saturday Night Fever, as well as DANCE, based out of Columbia, South Carolina.
1974–77: Rise to the mainstream
From 1974 to 1977, disco music continued to increase in popularity as many disco songs topped the charts. In 1974, “Love’s Theme” by Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra became the second disco song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, after “Love Train”. MFSB also released “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”, featuring vocals by the Three Degrees, and this was the third disco song to hit number one; “TSOP” was written as the theme song for Soul Train.
The Hues Corporation’s 1974 “Rock the Boat”, a U.S. number 1 single and million-seller, was one of the early disco songs to hit number 1. The same year saw the release of “Kung Fu Fighting”, performed by Carl Douglas and produced by Biddu, which reached number 1 in both the U.K. and U.S., and became the best-selling single of the year and one of the best-selling singles of all time with eleven million records sold worldwide, helping to popularize disco music to a great extent. Another notable chart-topping disco hit that year was George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby”.
In the northwestern sections of the United Kingdom, the Northern Soul explosion, which started in the late 1960s and peaked in 1974, made the region receptive to Disco, which the region’s Disc Jockeys were bringing back from New York City. George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” became the United Kingdom’s first number one disco single.
Also in 1974, Gloria Gaynor released the first side-long disco mix vinyl album, which included a remake of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” and two other songs, “Honey Bee” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”. Gaynor’s number one disco hit was “I Will Survive”, released in 1978, which was seen as a symbol of female strength and a gay anthem.
“Formed by Harry Wayne Casey (“KC”) and Richard Finch, Miami’s KC and the Sunshine Band had a string of disco-definitive top-five hits between 1975 and 1977, including “Get Down Tonight”, “That’s the Way (I Like It)”, “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty”, “I’m Your Boogie Man” and “Keep It Comin’ Love”. Electric Light Orchestra’s 1975 hit Evil Woman, although described as Orchestral Rock, featured a violin sound that became a staple of disco. In 1979, however, ELO did release two “true” disco songs: “Last Train To London” and “Shine A Little Love”.
In 1975, American singer and songwriter Donna Summer recorded a song which she brought to her producer Giorgio Moroder entitled “Love to Love You Baby” which contained a series of simulated orgasms. The song was never intended for release but when Moroder played it in the clubs it caused a sensation. Moroder released it and it went to number 2. It has been described as the arrival of the expression of raw female sexual desire in pop music. A 17-minute 12 inch single was released. The 12″ single became and remains a standard in discos today.
In 1978, a multi-million selling vinyl single disco version of “MacArthur Park” by Summer was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for three weeks and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Summer’s recording, which was included as part of the “MacArthur Park Suite” on her double album Live and More, was eight minutes and forty seconds long on the album. The shorter seven-inch vinyl single version of the MacArthur Park was Summer’s first single to reach number one on the Hot 100; it does not include the balladic second movement of the song, however. A 2013 remix of “Mac Arthur Park” by Summer hit number 1 on the Billboard Dance Charts marking five consecutive decades with a number 1 hit on the charts. From 1978 to 1979, Summer continued to release hits such as “Last Dance”, “Bad Girls”, “Heaven Knows”, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”, “Hot Stuff” and “On the Radio”, all very successful disco songs.
The Bee Gees used Barry Gibb’s falsetto to garner hits such as “You Should Be Dancing”, “Stayin’ Alive”, “Night Fever”, “More Than A Woman” and “Love You Inside Out”. Andy Gibb, a younger brother to the Bee Gees, followed with similarly-styled solo hits such as “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”, “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” and “Shadow Dancing”. In 1975, hits such as Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” and Summer’s version of “Could It Be Magic” brought disco further into the mainstream. Other notable early disco hits include the Jackson 5’s “Dancing Machine” (1974), Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” (1974), Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” (1975) and Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” (1975).
1977–79: Pop pre-eminence
In December 1977, the film Saturday Night Fever was released. It was a huge success and its soundtrack became one of the best-selling albums of all time. The idea for the film was sparked by a 1976 New York magazine article titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” which supposedly chronicled the disco culture in mid-1970s New York City, but was later revealed to have been fabricated. Some critics said the film “mainstreamed” disco, making it more acceptable to heterosexual white males.
Chic was formed by guitarist Nile Rodgers — a self described “street hippie” from late 1960s New York — and bassist Bernard Edwards. “Le Freak” was a popular 1978 single that is regarded as an iconic song of the genre. Other hits by Chic include the often-sampled “Good Times” (1979) and “Everybody Dance”. The group regarded themselves as the disco movement’s rock band that made good on the hippie movement’s ideals of peace, love, and freedom. Every song they wrote was written with an eye toward giving it “deep hidden meaning” or D.H.M.
Sylvester, a flamboyant and openly gay singer famous for his soaring falsetto voice, scored his biggest disco hits in 1978 – “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, and “Dance (Disco Heat)”, followed by “Body Strong” in 1979. Known as the Queen of Disco, his singing style was said to have influenced the singer Prince. At that time, disco was one of the forms of music most open to gay performers.
The Village People were a singing/dancing group created by Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo to target disco’s gay audience. They were known for their onstage costumes and achieved mainstream success with their 1979 hit song, “Y.M.C.A”.
The Jacksons (previously the Jackson 5) did many disco songs from 1975 to 1980, including “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” (1978), “Blame it on the Boogie” (1978), “Lovely One” (1980), and “Can You Feel It” (1980)—all sung by Michael Jackson, whose 1979 solo album, Off the Wall, included several disco hits, including the album’s title song, “Rock with You”, “Workin’ Day and Night”, and his second chart-topping solo hit in the disco genre, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”.
Disco’s popularity led many non-disco artists to record disco songs at the height of its popularity. Many of their songs were not “pure” disco, but were instead rock or pop songs with (sometimes inescapable) disco influence or overtones. Notable examples include Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” with the Emotions (1979), Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (1978) and “Rapture” (1980), Cher’s “Hell on Wheels” and “Take Me Home” (both 1979), Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” (1978), David Bowie’s “John I’m Only Dancing (Again)” (1975), Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (1979), Frankie Valli’s “Swearin’ to God” (1975), Electric Light Orchestra’s “Shine a Little Love” and “Last Train to London” (both 1979), George Benson’s “Give Me the Night” (1980), Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976), M’s “Pop Muzik” (1979), Barbra Streisand’s “The Main Event”(1979) and Diana Ross’ “Upside Down” (1980). The biggest hit by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, best known as a new wave band, was “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (1978), featuring a strong disco sound.
Even hard-core mainstream rockers mixed elements of disco with their typical rock ‘n roll style in songs. Progressive rock group Pink Floyd, when creating their rock opera The Wall, used disco-style components in their song, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” (1979) which became the group’s only number 1 hit single (in both the US and UK). The Eagles gave nods to disco with “One of These Nights” (1975) and “Disco Strangler” (1979), Paul McCartney & Wings did “Goodnight Tonight” (1979), Queen did “Another One Bites the Dust” (1980), the Rolling Stones did “Miss You” (1978) and “Emotional Rescue” (1980), Chicago did “Street Player” (1979), the Kinks did “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” (1979), and the J. Geils Band did “Come Back” (1980). Even hard rock group KISS jumped in with “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” (1979). Ringo Starr’s album Ringo the 4th (1978) features a strong disco influence.
The disco fad was also picked up even by “non-pop” artists, including the 1979 U.S. number one hit “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” by Easy listening singer Barbra Streisand in a duet with Donna Summer. Country music artist Connie Smith covered Andy Gibb’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” in 1977, Bill Anderson did “Double S” in 1978, and Ronnie Milsap recorded “Get It Up” covered Tommy Tucker’s “High Heel Sneakers” in 1979.
Also noteworthy are Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” (1978), Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “Shame” (1978), Cher’s “Take Me Home” (1979), Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” (1979), Geraldine Hunt’s “Can’t Fake the Feeling” (1980), Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife” (1978) and Walter Murphy’s various attempts to bring classical music to the mainstream, most notably his disco hit “A Fifth of Beethoven” (1976), which was inspired by Beethoven’s fifth symphony.
Pre-existing non-disco songs and standards would frequently be “disco-ized” in the 1970s. The rich orchestral accompaniment that became identified with the disco era conjured up the memories of the big band era—which brought out several artists that recorded and disco-ized some big band arrangements including Perry Como, who re-recorded his 1929 and 1939 hit, “Temptation”, in 1975, as well as Ethel Merman, who released an album of disco songs entitled The Ethel Merman Disco Album in 1979.
Myron Floren, second-in-command on The Lawrence Welk Show, released a recording of the “Clarinet Polka” entitled “Disco Accordion.” Similarly, Bobby Vinton adapted “The Pennsylvania Polka” into a song named “Disco Polka”. Easy listening icon Percy Faith, in one of his last recordings, released an album entitled Disco Party (1975) and recorded a disco version of his famous “Theme from A Summer Place” in 1976. Classical music was even adapted for disco, notably Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” (1976, based on the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony) and “Flight 76” (1976, based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”), and Louis Clark’s Hooked On Classics series of albums and singles.
Notable disco hits based on movie and television themes included a medley from Star Wars, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” (1977) by Meco, and “Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone” (1979) by the Manhattan Transfer. Even the I Love Lucy theme was not spared from being disco-ized. Many original television theme songs of the era also showed a strong disco influence, such as “Keep Your Eye On the Sparrow” (theme from Baretta, performed by Sammy Davis, Jr. and later a hit single for Rhythm Heritage), “Theme from S.W.A.T.” (from S.W.A.T, original and single versions by Rhythm Heritage), and Mike Post’s “Theme from Magnum, P.I.”.