Disco is a genre of music that peaked in popularity in the late 1970s, though it has since enjoyed brief resurgences including the present day. The term is derived from discothÃ¨que (French for "library of phonograph records", but subsequently used as proper name for nightclubs in Paris). Its initial audiences were club-goers from the African American, gay, Italian American, Latino, and psychedelic communities in New York City and Philadelphia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disco also was a reaction against both the domination of rock music and the stigmatization of dance music by the counterculture during this period. Women embraced disco as well, and the music eventually expanded to several other popular groups of the time.
In what is considered a forerunner to disco-style clubs, New York City DJ David Mancuso opened The Loft, a members-only private dance club set in his own home, in February 1970. Allmusic claims some have argued that Isaac Hayes and Barry White were playing what would be called disco music as early as 1971. According to the music guide, there is disagreement as to what the first disco song was. Claims have been made for Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" (1972), Jerry Butler's "One Night Affair" (1972), the O'Jays' "Love Train" (1972, #1 hit), the Hues Corporation's "Rock the Boat" (1973), and George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby" (1974). The first article about disco was written in September 1973 by Vince Aletti for Rolling Stone magazine. In 1974 New York City's WPIX-FM premiered the first disco radio show.
Musical influences include funk, Latin and soul music. The disco sound has soaring, often reverberated vocals over a steady "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 sometimes consisting of octaves. The Fender Jazz Bass is often associated with disco bass lines, because the instrument itself has a very prominent "voice" in the musical mix. In most disco tracks, strings, horns, electric pianos, and electric 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 employ the use of electronic instruments such as synthesizers.
Well-known late 1970s disco performers included ABBA, Donna Summer, The Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, The Trammps, Van McCoy, Gloria Gaynor, The Village People, Chic, and The Jacksons--the latter which first dipped its toes into disco as The Jackson 5. Summer would become the first well-known and most popular disco artist--eventually having the title "The Queen of Disco" bestowed upon her by various critics--and would also play a part in pioneering the electronic sound that later became a prominent element of disco. While performers and singers garnered the lion's share of public attention, producers working behind the scenes played an equal, if not more important role in disco, since they often wrote the songs and created the innovative sounds and production techniques that were part of the "disco sound."
Many non-disco artists recorded disco songs at the height of disco's popularity, and films such as Saturday Night Fever and Thank God It's Friday contributed to disco's rise in mainstream popularity. According to music writer Piero Scaruffi, the disco phenomenon spread quickly because the "collective ecstasy" of disco was cathartic and regenerative and led to freedom of expression. Disco was the last mass popular music movement that was driven by the baby boom generation. Disco music was a worldwide phenomenon, but its popularity declined in the United States in the late 1970s. On July 12, 1979, an anti-disco protest in Chicago called "Disco Demolition Night" had shown that an angry backlash against disco and its culture had emerged in the United States. In the subsequent months and years, many musical acts associated with disco struggled to get airplay on the radio. A few artists still managed to score disco hits in the early 1980s, but the term "disco" became unfashionable in the new decade and was eventually replaced by "dance music", "dance pop", and other identifiers. Although the production techniques have changed, many successful acts since the 1970s have retained the basic disco beat and mentality, and dance clubs have remained popular.
A disco revival was seen in 2013, as disco-styled songs by artists like Daft Punk (with Nile Rodgers), Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars and Robin Thicke filled the pop charts in the UK and the US.
Origins of Disco as a Term and Type of Nightclub
By the early 1940s, the terms DJ and Disc Jockey were in use to describe radio presenters. Because of restrictions, jazz dance halls in Occupied France played records instead of using live music. Eventually more than one of these venues had the proper name discothÃ¨que. By 1959, the term was used in Paris to describe any of these type of nightclubs. That year a young reporter Klaus Quirini spontaneously 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 used when going out to nightclubs. In September 1964, Playboy Magazine used the word disco as a shorthand for a discothÃ¨que-styled nightclub.
Proto-disco and Early History of Disco Music
In New York City musicians and audiences from the female, homosexual, black, and Latino communities adopted several traits from the hippies and psychedelia. They included overwhelming sound, free-form dancing, "trippy" lighting, colorful costumes, and hallucinogens. 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 Philadelphia Sound. In addition, the perceived positivity, lack of irony, and earnestness of the hippies informed proto-disco music like M.F.S.B.'s album Love Is the Message. To the mainstream public M.F.S.B. stood for "Mother Father Sister Brother"; to the tough black areas where they came from it was understood to stand for "Mother Fuckin' Son of a Bitch".
Philadelphia and New York soul were evolutions of the Motown sound, and were typified by the lavish percussion and lush strings that became a prominent part of mid-1970s disco songs. Early songs with disco elements include "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (The Supremes, 1966), "Only the Strong Survive" (Jerry Butler, 1968), "Message to Love" (Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys, 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 & The Blue Notes (1973). "Love Train" by The O'Jays (1972), with M.F.S.B. playing backup band hit Billboard Number 1 in March 1973, and has been called "disco".
The early disco was dominated with 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 -- thus creating the extended mix or "remix". DJs and remixers would often remix (re-edit) existing songs using reel-to-reel tape machines. Their remixed versions would add in percussion breaks, new sections, and new sounds. 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 "Godfather of House" Frankie Knuckles.
Disco hit the television airwaves with 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 upcoming role in the hit movie Saturday Night Fever.
Rise to the Mainstream
"Kung Fu Fighting" (1974), performed by Carl Douglas and produced by Biddu, helped popularize disco music.
From 1974 through 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. #1 single and million-seller, was one of the early disco songs to hit #1. The same year saw the release of "Kung Fu Fighting", performed by Carl Douglas and produced by Biddu, which reached #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. Other chart-topping disco hits that year included "Rock Your Baby" by George McCrae.
In the northwestern sections of the United Kingdom the Northern Soul explosion, which started in late 1960s and peaked in 1974, made the region receptive to Disco which the region's Disk Jockeys were bringing back from New York. 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)".
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, 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 1. 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 "Mac Arthur Park" by Donna Summer was number one on the American pop music sales charts 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 "Mac Arthur 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 Mac Arthur Park was Summer's first single to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100; it doesn't include the balladic second movement of the song, however.
A 2013 remix of "Mac Arthur Park" by Donna Summer hit #1 on the Billboard Dance Charts marking 5 consecutive decades with a #1 hit on the charts.
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 "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).
In December 1977, the film Saturday Night Fever was released. The film was marketed specifically to broaden disco's popularity beyond its primarily black and Latin audiences. 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 chronicled the disco culture in mid-1970's New York City.
Chic was formed by Nile Rodgers -- a self described "street hippie" from late 1960s New York -- and Martin Dow, a DJ from Key West, Florida who pioneered the NYC sound across that state. "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 movements 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.
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 Mike Oldfield's "Guilty" (1979) Blondie's "Heart of Glass" (1978), 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), 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), and Diana Ross' "Upside Down" (1980).
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 #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), Chicago did "Street Player" (1979), The Beach Boys did "Here Comes the Night" (1979), The Kinks did "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" (1979), and the J. Geils Band did "Come Back" (1980). Even heavy metal music group Kiss jumped in with "I Was Made For Lovin' You" (1979).
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 covered Tommy Tucker's "High Heel Sneakers" in 1979.
Disco Revisions of Songs
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". 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 wasn't 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..
Several parodies of the disco style were created. Rick Dees, at the time a radio DJ in Memphis, Tennessee, recorded "Disco Duck" (1976) and "Dis-Gorilla" (1977); Frank Zappa parodied the lifestyles of disco dancers in "Disco Boy" on his 1976 Zoot Allures album, and in "Dancin' Fool" on his 1979 Sheik Yerbouti album; "Weird Al" Yankovic's eponymous 1983 debut album includes a disco song called "Gotta Boogie", an extended pun on the similarity of the disco subgenre name "boogie" to the American slang word "booger" and its British counterpart "bogey".
Backlash and Decline
By the late 1970s, a strong anti-disco sentiment developed among rock fans and musicians, particularly in the United States. The slogans "disco sucks" and "death to disco" became common. Rock artists such as Rod Stewart and David Bowie who added disco elements to their music were accused of being sell outs.
The punk subculture in the United States and United Kingdom was often hostile towards disco. Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys, in the song "Saturday Night Holocaust", likened disco to the cabaret culture of Weimar-era Germany for its apathy towards government policies and its escapism. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo said that disco was "like a beautiful woman with a great body and no brains", and a product of political apathy of that era. New Jersey rock critic Jim Testa wrote "Put a Bullet Through the Jukebox", a vitriolic screed attacking disco that was considered a punk call to arms.
Anti-disco sentiment was expressed in some television shows and films. A recurring theme on the show WKRP in Cincinnati was a hostile attitude towards disco music. In one scene of the comedy film Airplane!, a city skyline features a radio tower with a neon-lighted station callsign. A disc jockey voiceover says: "WZAZ in Chicago, where disco lives forever!" Then a wayward airplane slices the radio tower with its wing, the voiceover goes silent, and the lighted callsign goes dark.
July 12, 1979 became known as "the day disco died" because of Disco Demolition Night, an anti-disco demonstration in a baseball double-header at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Rock station DJs Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, along with Michael Veeck, son of Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, staged the promotional event for disgruntled rock fans between the games of a White Sox doubleheader. The event, which involved exploding disco records, ended with a riot, during which the raucous crowd tore out seats and pieces of turf, and caused other damage. The Chicago Police Department made numerous arrests, and the extensive damage to the field forced the White Sox to forfeit the second game to the Detroit Tigers, who had won the first game.
On July 21, 1979, the top six records on the U.S. music charts were disco songs. By September 22 there were no disco songs in the US Top 10 chart. Some in the media, in celebratory tones, declared disco dead and rock revived.
Impact on Music Industry
The anti-disco backlash, combined with other societal and radio industry factors, changed the face of pop radio in the years following Disco Demolition Night. Starting in the 1980s, country music began a slow rise in the main pop charts. Emblematic of country music's rise to mainstream popularity was the commercially successful 1980 movie Urban Cowboy. Somewhat ironically, the star of the film was John Travolta, who only three years before had starred in Saturday Night Fever, a film that featured disco culture.
During this period of decline in disco's popularity, several record companies folded, were reorganized, or were sold. In 1979, MCA Records purchased ABC Records, absorbed some of its artists, and then shut the label down. RSO Records founder Robert Stigwood left the label in 1981 and TK Records closed in the same year. Salsoul Records continues to exist today, but primarily is used as a reissue brand. Casablanca Records had been releasing fewer records in the 1980s, and was shut down in 1986 by parent company PolyGram.
Many groups that were popular during the disco period subsequently struggled to maintain their success--even those that tried to adapt to evolving musical tastes. The Bee Gees, for instance, only had one major hit in the United States after the 1970s--even though later songs they wrote and had others perform were successful. Of the handful of groups not taken down by disco's fall from favor, The Jacksons--and Michael Jackson in particular--stand out: In spite of having helped define the disco sound early on, they continued to make popular and danceable, if more refined, songs for yet another generation of music fans in the 1980s and beyond.
Factors Contributing to Disco's Decline
Factors that have been cited as leading to the decline of disco in the United States include economic and political changes at the end of the 1970s as well as burnout from the hedonistic lifestyles led by participants. In the years since Disco Demolition Night, some social critics have described the backlash as implicitly macho and bigoted, and an attack on non-white and non-heterosexual cultures.
In January 1979, rock critic Robert Christgau argued that homophobia, and most likely racism, were reasons behind the backlash, a conclusion seconded by John Rockwell. Craig Werner wrote: "The Anti-disco movement represented an unholy alliance of funkateers and feminists, progressives and puritans, rockers and reactionaries. Nonetheless, the attacks on disco gave respectable voice to the ugliest kinds of unacknowledged racism, sexism and homophobia." Legs McNeil, founder of the fanzine Punk, was quoted in an interview as saying, "the hippies always wanted to be black. We were going, 'fuck the blues, fuck the black experience'." He also said that disco was the result of an unholy union between homosexuals and blacks.
Steve Dahl, who had spearheaded Disco Demolition Night, denied any racist or homophobic undertones to the promotion, saying, "It's really easy to look at it historically, from this perspective, and attach all those things to it. But we weren't thinking like that." It has been noted that British punk rock critics of disco were very supportive of the pro-black/anti-racist reggae genre. Robert Christgau and Jim Testa have said that there were legitimate artistic reasons for being critical of disco.
In 1979 the music industry in the United States was undergoing its worst slump in decades, and disco, despite its mass popularity, was blamed. The producer-oriented sound was having difficulty mixing well with the industry's artist-oriented marketing system. Harold Childs, senior vice president at A&M Records, told the Los Angeles Times that "radio is really desperate for rock product" and "they're all looking for some white rock-n-roll". Gloria Gaynor argued that the music industry supported the destruction of disco because rock music producers were losing money and rock musicians were losing the spotlight.
Students from Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Mexico City performing disco during a cultural event on campus
In 2013, several 1970s-style disco and R&B songs charted, and the pop charts had more dance songs than at any other point since the late 1970s. The biggest disco hit of the year as of June was "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk, featuring Nile Rodgers on guitar. The song was initially thought likely to be a leading candidate to become the summer's biggest hit that year; however, the song ended up peaking at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for five weeks behind another major disco-styled song, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines", which spent twelve weeks at number 1 on the Hot 100, and in the process became the eventual song of the summer itself. Both were popular with a wide variety of demographic groups. Other disco-styled songs that made it into the top 40 were Justin Timberlake's "Take Back The Night" (No. 29), and Bruno Mars' "Treasure" (No. 5).
As disco's popularity sharply declined in the United States, abandoned by major U.S. record labels and producers, European disco continued evolving within the broad mainstream pop music scene. European acts Silver Convention, Love and Kisses, Munich Machine, and American acts Donna Summer and the Village People, were acts that defined the late 1970s Eurodisco sound. Producers Giorgio Moroder, whom Allmusic described as "one of the principal architects of the disco sound" with the Donna Summer hit "I Feel Love" (1977), and Jean-Marc Cerrone were involved with Eurodisco. The German group Kraftwerk also had an influence on Euro disco.
By far the most successful Euro disco act was ABBA. This Swedish quartet--with such hits as "Waterloo" (1974), "Fernando" (1976), "Take a Chance on Me" (1978), "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" (1979), and their signature smash "Dancing Queen" (1976)--ranks as the eighth best-selling act of all time. Other prominent European pop and disco groups were Luv' from the Netherlands and Boney M, a group of four West Indian singers and dancers masterminded by West German record producer Frank Farian. Boney M charted worldwide hits with such songs as "Daddy Cool", "Ma Baker" and "Rivers of Babylon".
In France, Claude FranÃ§ois who re-invented himself as the king of French disco, released "La plus belle chose du monde", a French version of the Bee Gees hit record, "Massachusetts", which became a big hit in Canada and Europe and "Alexandrie Alexandra" was posthumously released on the day of his burial and became a worldwide hit. Dalida released "J'attendrai", which became a big hit in Canada and Japan, and Cerrone's early hit songs, "Love in C Minor", "Give Me Love" and "Supernature" became major hits in the U.S. and Europe.
Role of Motown
Diana Ross was one of the first Motown artists to embrace the disco sound with her hugely successful 1976 outing "Love Hangover" from her self-titled album. Ross would continue to score disco hits for the rest of the disco era, including the 1980 dance classics "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" (the latter immediately becoming a favorite in the gay community). The Supremes, the group that made Ross famous, scored a handful of hits in the disco clubs without Ross, most notably 1976's "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking" and, their last charted single before disbanding, 1977's "You're My Driving Wheel".
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), and Walter Murphy's various attempts to bring classical music to the mainstream, most notably his hit "A Fifth of Beethoven" (1976).
The music tended to layer soaring, often-reverberated vocals, which are often doubled by horns, over a background "pad" of electric pianos and wah-pedaled "chicken-scratch" guitars. Other backing keyboard instruments include the piano, organ (during early years), string synth, and electroacoustic keyboards such as the Fender Rhodes piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, and Hohner Clavinet. Synthesizers are also fairly common in disco, especially in the late 1970s.
The rhythm is laid down by prominent, syncopated basslines (with heavy use of octaves) played on the bass guitar and by drummers using a drum kit, African/Latin percussion, and electronic drums such as Simmons and Roland drum modules. The sound is enriched with solo lines and harmony parts played by a variety of orchestral instruments, such as harp, violin, viola, cello, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, clarinet, flugelhorn, French horn, tuba, English horn, oboe, flute (sometimes especially the alto flute and occasionally bass flute), piccolo, timpani and synth strings or a full-blown string orchestra.
Most disco songs have a steady four-on-the-floor beat, a quaver or semi-quaver hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a heavy, syncopated bass line. This basic beat would appear to be related to the Dominican merengue rhythm. Other Latin rhythms such as the rhumba, the samba and the cha-cha-cha are also found in disco recordings, and Latin polyrhythms, such as a rhumba beat layered over a merengue, are commonplace. The quaver pattern is often supported by other instruments such as the rhythm guitar and may be implied rather than explicitly present.
It often involves syncopation, rarely occurring on the beat unless a synthesizer is used to replace the bass guitar. In general, the difference between a disco, or any dance song, and a rock or popular song is that in dance music the bass hits four to the floor, at least once a beat (which in 4/4 time is 4 beats per measure), whereas in rock the bass hits on one and three and lets the snare take the lead on two and four. Disco is further characterized by a 16th note division of the quarter notes established by the bass as shown in the second drum pattern below, after a typical rock drum pattern.
The orchestral sound usually known as "disco sound" relies heavily on strings and horns playing linear phrases, in unison with the soaring, often reverberated vocals or playing instrumental fills, while electric pianos and chicken-scratch guitars create the background "pad" sound defining the harmony progression. Typically, a rich "wall of sound" results. There are, however, more minimalistic flavors of disco with reduced, transparent instrumentation, pioneered by Chic (band).
In 1977, Giorgio Moroder again became responsible for a development in disco. Alongside Donna Summer and Pete Bellotte he wrote the song "I Feel Love" for Summer to perform. It became the first well-known disco hit to have a completely synthesised backing track. The song is still considered to have been well ahead of its time. Other disco producers, most famously Tom Moulton, grabbed ideas and techniques from dub music (which came with the increased Jamaican migration to New York City in the seventies) to provide alternatives to the four on the floor style that dominated. Larry Levan utilized style keys from dub and jazz and more as one of the most successful remixers of all time to create early versions of house music that sparked the genre.
The "disco sound" was much more costly to produce than many of the other popular music genres from the 1970s. Unlike the simpler, four-piece band sound of the funk, soul of the late 1960s, or the small jazz organ trios, disco music often included a large pop band, with several chordal instruments (guitar, keyboards, synthesizer), several drum or percussion instruments (drumkit, Latin percussion, electronic drums), a horn section, a string orchestra, and a variety of "classical" solo instruments (for example, flute, piccolo, and so on).
Disco songs were arranged and composed by experienced arrangers and orchestrators, and producers added their creative touches to the overall sound. Recording complex arrangements with such a large number of instruments and sections required a team that included a conductor, copyists, record producers, and mixing engineers. Mixing engineers had an important role in the disco production process, because disco songs used as many as 64 tracks of vocals and instruments. Mixing engineers compiled these tracks into a fluid composition of verses, bridges, and refrains, complete with orchestral builds and breaks. Mixing engineers helped to develop the "disco sound" by creating a distinctive-sounding disco mix.
Early records were the "standard" 3 minute version until Tom Moulton came up with a way to make songs longer, wanting to take a crowd to another level that was impossible with 45-RPM vinyl discs of the time (which could usually hold no more than 5 minutes of good-quality music). With the help of JosÃ© Rodriguez, his remasterer, he pressed a single on a 10" disc instead of 7". They cut the next single on a 12" disc, the same format as a standard album. This method fast became the standard format for all DJs of the genre.
Because record sales were often dependent on floor play in clubs, DJs were also important to the development and popularization of disco music. Notable DJs include Rex Potts (Loft Lounge, Sarasota, Florida), Karen Cook, Jim Burgess, Walter Gibbons, John "Jellybean" Benitez, Richie Kaczar of Studio 54, Rick Gianatos, Francis Grasso of Sanctuary, Larry Levan, Ian Levine, Neil "Raz" Rasmussen & Mike Pace of L'amour Disco in Brooklyn, Preston Powell of Magique, Jennie Costa of Lemontrees, Tee Scott, Tony Smith of Xenon, John Luongo, Robert Ouimet of The Limelight, and David Mancuso.
Disco Clubs and Culture
By the late 1970s most major U.S. cities had thriving disco club scenes, but the largest scenes were in San Francisco, Miami, and most notably New York City. The scene was centered on discotheques, nightclubs, and private loft parties where DJs would play disco hits through powerful PA systems for the patrons who came to dance. The DJs played "... a smooth mix of long single records to keep people 'dancing all night long'". Some of the most prestigious clubs had elaborate lighting systems that throbbed to the beat of the music.
In October 1975 notable discos included "Studio One" in Los Angeles, "Leviticus" in New York and "The Library" in Atlanta. The library Disco chain had locations in New City, Syracuse N.Y., Pittsburgh Pa., a short lived version in Denver, Co. as well as Atlanta Ga.
In the late 1970s, Studio 54 was arguably the most well known nightclub in the world. This club played a major formative role in the growth of disco music and nightclub culture in general.
In the early years dancers in discos danced in a "hang loose" style. Popular dances included "Bump", "Penguin", "Boogaloo", "Watergate" and the "Robot". By October 1975 The Hustle reigned. It was highly stylized, sophisticated and overtly sexual. Variations included the Brooklyn Hustle, New York Hustle and Latin Hustle.
During the disco era, many nightclubs would commonly host disco dance competitions or offer free instructional lessons. Some cities had disco dance instructors or dance schools, which taught people how to do popular disco dances such as "touch dancing, "the hustle, and the cha cha. The pioneer of disco dance instruction was Karen Lustgarten in San Francisco in 1973. Her book The Complete Guide to Disco Dancing (Warner Books, 1978) was the first to name, break down and codify popular disco dances as a dance form and distinguish between disco freestyle, partner and line dances. The book hit the New York Times Best Seller List for 13 weeks and was translated into Chinese, German and French.
In Chicago, Step By Step launched with the sponsorship support of the Coca-Cola company. Produced in the same studio that Don Cornelius used for the nationally syndicated television show, Soul Train, Step by Step's audience grew and became an overnight success. The dynamic dance duo, Robin and Reggie spent the week teaching disco dancing in the disco clubs. The instructional show which aired on Saturday mornings had a following that would stay up all night on Fridays so they could be on the set the next morning, ready to return to the disco Saturday night equipped with the latest personalized dance steps. The producers of the show, John Reid and Greg Roselli routinely made appearances at disco functions with Robin and Reggie to scout out talent and promote upcoming events such as Disco Night at White Sox Park.
Some notable professional dance troupes of the 1970s included Pan's People and Hot Gossip. For many dancers, the primary influence of the 1970s disco age is still predominantly the film Saturday Night Fever (1977). This developed into the music and dance style of such films as Fame (1980), Disco Dancer (1982), Flashdance (1983), and The Last Days of Disco (1998). It also helped spawn dance competition TV shows such as Dance Fever (1979).
Disco fashions were very trendy in the late 1970s. DiscothÃ¨que-goers often wore expensive and extravagant fashions for nights out at their local disco, such as sheer, flowing Halston dresses for women and shiny polyester Qiana shirts for men with pointy collars, preferably open at the chest, often worn with double-knit polyester shirt jackets with matching trousers known as the leisure suit. Necklaces and medallions were a common fashion accessory.
Drug Subculture and Sexual Promiscuity
In addition to the dance and fashion aspects of the disco club scene, there was also a thriving drug subculture, particularly for drugs that would enhance the experience of dancing to the loud music and the flashing lights, such as cocaine (nicknamed "blow"), amyl nitrite "poppers", and the "... other quintessential 1970s club drug Quaalude, which suspended motor coordination and gave the sensation that one's arms and legs had turned to Jell-O."
According to Peter Braunstein, the "massive quantities of drugs ingested in discotheques produced the next cultural phenomenon of the disco era: rampant promiscuity and public sex. While the dance floor was the central arena of seduction, actual sex usually took place in the nether regions of the disco: bathroom stalls, exit stairwells, and so on. In other cases the disco became a kind of 'main course' in a hedonist's menu for a night out."
Famous disco bars included the very important Paradise Garage and Crisco Disco as well as "... cocaine-filled celeb hangouts such as Manhattan's Studio 54," which was operated by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. Studio 54 was notorious for the hedonism that went on within; the balconies were known for sexual encounters, and drug use was rampant. Its dance floor was decorated with an image of the "Man in the Moon" that included an animated cocaine spoon.
Influence on Other Music
The transition from the late-1970s disco styles to the early-1980s dance styles was marked primarily by the change from complex arrangements performed by large ensembles of studio session musicians (including a horn section and an orchestral string section), to a leaner sound, in which one or two singers would perform to the accompaniment of synthesizer keyboards and drum machines.
In addition, dance music during the 1981-83 period borrowed elements from blues and jazz, creating a style different from the disco of the 1970s. This emerging music was still known as disco for a short time, as the word had become associated with any kind of dance music played in discothÃ¨ques. Examples of early 1980s dance sound performers include D. Train, Kashif, and Patrice Rushen. These changes were influenced by some of the notable R&B and jazz musicians of the 1970s, such as Stevie Wonder, Kashif and Herbie Hancock, who had pioneered "one-man-band"-type keyboard techniques. Some of these influences had already begun to emerge during the mid-1970s, at the height of disco's popularity.
During the first years of the 1980s, the disco sound began to be phased out, and faster tempos and synthesized effects, accompanied by guitar and simplified backgrounds, moved dance music toward the funk and pop genres. This trend can be seen in singer Billy Ocean's recordings between 1979 and 1981. Whereas Ocean's 1979 song American Hearts was backed with an orchestral arrangement played by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, his 1981 song "One of Those Nights (Feel Like Gettin' Down)" had a more bare, stripped-down sound, with no orchestration or symphonic arrangements. This drift from the original disco sound is called post-disco. In this music scene there are rooted sub-genres, such as italo-disco, techno, house, dance-pop, boogie, and early alternative dance. During the early 1980s, dance music dropped the complicated melodic structure and orchestration that typified the disco sound.
During the 1970s, many TV theme songs were produced (or older themes updated) with disco influenced music. Examples include S.W.A.T. (1975), Charlie's Angels (1976), NBC Saturday Night At The Movies (1976), The Love Boat (1977), The Donahue Show (1977), CHiPs (1977), The Professionals (1977), Dallas (1978), Kojak (1978), The Hollywood Squares (1979). The British Science Fiction program Space: 1999 (1975) also featured a soundtrack strongly influenced by disco. This was especially evident in the show's second season.
The rising popularity of disco came in tandem with developments in turntablism and the use of records to create a continuous mix of songs. The resulting DJ mix differed from previous forms of dance music, which were oriented towards live performances by musicians. This in turn affected the arrangement of dance music, with songs since the disco era typically containing beginnings and endings marked by a simple beat or riff that can be easily slipped into the mix.
As the Disco era came to a close in the late 1970s, rave culture began to see significant growth. Rave culture incorporated disco culture's same love of dance music, drug exploration, sexual promiscuity, and hedonism. Although disco culture had thrived in the mainstream, the rave culture would make an effort to stay underground to avoid the animosity that was still surrounding disco and dance music.
Hip Hop and Electro
The disco sound had a strong influence on early hip hop. Most of the early rap/hip-hop songs were created by isolating existing disco bass-guitar lines and dubbing over them with MC rhymes. The Sugarhill Gang used Chic's "Good Times" as the foundation for their 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight", generally considered to be the song that first popularized rap music in the United States and around the world. In 1982, Afrika Bambataa released the single "Planet Rock", which incorporated electronica elements from Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" and "Numbers" as well as YMO's "Riot in Lagos".
The Planet Rock sound also spawned a hip-hop electronic dance trend, electro music, which included songs such as Planet Patrol's "Play at Your Own Risk" (1982), C Bank's "One More Shot" (1982), Cerrone's "Club Underworld" (1984), Shannon's "Let the Music Play" (1983), Freeez's "I.O.U." (1983), Midnight Star's "Freak-a-Zoid" (1983), Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" (1984).
The post-punk movement that originated in the late 1970s both supported punk rock's rule breaking while rejecting its back to raw rock music element. Post-punk's mantra of constantly moving forward lent itself to both openness to and experimentation with elements of disco and other styles. Public Image Limited is considered the first post-punk group. The group's second album Metal Box fully embraced the studio as instrument methodology of disco. The group's founder John Lydon told the press that disco was the only music he cared for at the time. No Wave was a sub genre of post-punk centered in New York City.
For shock value, James Chance who was a notable member of the No Wave scene penned an article in the East Village Eye urging his readers to move uptown and get "trancin' with some superadioactive disco voodoo funk". His band James White and the Blacks wrote a disco album Off White. Their performances resembled those of disco performers (horn section, dancers and so on). In 1981 ZE Records led the transition from No Wave into the more subtle mutant disco (post-disco/punk) genre. Mutant disco acts such as Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Was Not Was, ESG and Liquid Liquid influenced several British post-punk acts such as New Order, Orange Juice and A Certain Ratio.
In the early 2000s the dance-punk (new rave in the United Kingdom) emerged as a part of a broader post punk revival. It fused elements of punk related rock with different forms of dance music including disco. Klaxons, LCD Soundsystem, Death From Above 1979, The Rapture and Shitdisco were among acts associated with the genre.
Nu-disco is a 21st-century dance music genre associated with the renewed interest in 1970s and early 1980s disco, mid-1980s Italo disco, and the synthesizer-heavy Eurodisco aesthetics. The moniker appeared in print as early as 2002, and by mid-2008 was used by record shops such as the online retailers Juno and Beatport. These vendors often associate it with re-edits of original-era disco music, as well as with music from European producers who make dance music inspired by original-era American disco, electro and other genres popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is also used to describe the music on several American labels that were previously associated with the genres electroclash and french house.
References and Notes
(2003) A history of rock music 1951-2000, ISBN 978-0-595-29565-4, p.152: "Funk music opened the doors to the disco subculture"
(2003) Out of the Revolution, ISBN 978-0-7391-0547-4, p.398 :"
(2003) A history of rock music 1951-2000, ISBN 978-0-595-29565-4, p.152: "Funk music opened the doors to the disco subculture"
(2003) Out of the Revolution, ISBN 978-0-7391-0547-4, p.398 :"
(2000) Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, ISBN 978-0-8021-3688-6, p.127: "Its [disco] music grew as much out of the psychedelic experiments ... as from ... Philadelphia orchestrations"
(2008) The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism, ISBN 978-1-4165-3218-7, p.140: "Disco, which emerged from the psychedelic haze of flower power infused with R&B and social progress that was being cooked up at the Loft ..."
Disco Double Take by The Village Voice: "And the scene's combination of overwhelming sound, trippy lighting, and hallucinogens was indebted to the late-60s psychedelic culture." Retrieved on November 29, 2008
Disco: Encyclopedia II - Disco - Origins. Experiencefestival.com. Retrieved on November 29, 2008
(2001) American Studies in a Moment of Danger, ISBN 978-0-8166-3948-9, p.145: "It has become general knowledge by now that the fusion of Latin rhythms, Anglo-Caribbean instrumentation, North American black "soul" vocals, and Euro-American melodies gave rise to the disco music"
(2003) The Drummer's Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, ISBN 978-1-884365-32-4, p.67: "Disco incorporates stylistic elements of Rock, Funk and the Motown sound while also drawing from Swing, Soca, Merengue and Afro-Cuban styles"
(2006) A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America, ISBN 978-0-472-03147-4, p.207: "A looser, explicitly polyrhythmic attack pushes the blues, gospel, and soul heritage into apparently endless cycle where there is no beginning or end, just an ever-present "now"."
It's Happy, It's Danceable and It May Rule Summer New York Times May 29, 2013
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The History of Rock and Dance Music by Piero Scaruffi
Disco Double Take: New York Parties Like It's 1975. Village Voice.com. Retrieved on August 9, 2009.
What's That Sound? â€¢ W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.. What's That Sound? â€¢ W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. wwnorton.com. Retrieved on August 4, 2009
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(1998) "The Cambridge History of American Music", ISBN 978-0-521-45429-2, ISBN 978-0-521-45429-2, p.372: "Initially, disco musicians and audiences alike belonged to marginalized communities: women, gay, black, and Latinos"
(2002) "Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music", ISBN 978-0-8147-9809-6, ISBN 978-0-8147-9809-6, p.117: "New York City was the primary center of disco, and the original audience was primarily gay African Americans and Latinos."
(1976) "Stereo Review", University of Michigan, p.75: "[..] and the result--what has come to be called disco--was clearly the most compelling and influential form of black commercial pop music since the halcyon days of the "Motown Sound" of the middle Sixties."
Shapiro, Peter. "Turn the Beat Around: The Rise and Fall of Disco", Macmillan, 2006. p.204-206: " 'Broadly speaking, the typical New York discotheque DJ is young (between 18 and 30), Italian, and gay,' journalist Vince Aletti declared in 1975...Remarkably, almost all of the important early DJs were of Italian extraction...Italian Americans have played a significant role in America's dance music culture...While Italian Americans mostly from Brooklyn largely created disco from scratch..." .
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Don Henley commented on "One of These Nights"'s disco connection in the liner notes of The Very Best Of, 2003.
Paul Stanley, a guitarist for the rock group Kiss became friends with Desmond Child and, as Child remembered in Billboard, "Paul and I talked about how dance music at that time didn't have any rock elements." To counteract the synthesized disco music dominating the airwaves, Stanley and Child wrote, "I Was Made For Loving You." So, "we made history," Child further remembered in Billboard, "because we created the first rock-disco song."[volume & issue needed]
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Amyl, butyl and isobutyl nitrite (collectively known as alkyl nitrites) are clear, yellow liquids inhaled for their intoxicating effects. Nitrites originally came as small glass capsules that were popped open. This led to nitrites being given the name 'poppers' but this form of the drug is rarely found in the UK. The drug became popular in the UK first on the disco/club scene of the 1970s and then at dance and rave venues in the 1980s and 1990s.
Peter Braunstein DISCO, American Heritage Magazine
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