It is widely acknowledged that the development of Disco in the 1970s had a significant cultural impact on the American public. They listened to it on the radio. They danced to it at nightclubs and bars. They watched movies about it. It even influenced the clothes that they wore. In shot, disco was taking over the country.
The origins of disco came from many places. It had ties to R&B and Funk, but it was also influenced by New York City’s urban gay culture, which gave birth to the genre. Disco swiftly gained popularity as a result of a succession of top-selling singles by singers ranging from Donna Summer to the Village People. After the tremendously successful 1977 film Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta and featuring the soundtrack of The Bee Gees, Disco’s commercial prominence reached unexpected heights, with the genre gained widespread acceptance. The soundtrack of the film spawned a slew of Top 10 songs, and the record went on to sell more than 15 million copies.
Donna Summer, Chic, and Gloria Gaynor were the top-charting artists of the year. Only a few months prior, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack had been named Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, and the film itself had been nominated. Several radio stations were converting to all-disco programming
Where it all Began: The Birth of Disco
The origins of disco may be traced back to nightclubs that debuted in New York City and Philadelphia during the mid- and late-1960s, respectively. At the same time, following the publication of Jerry Butler’s 1968 smash single “Only the Strong Survive,” the “Philly Soul” sound gained prominence, and this identical Philly sound would go on to become the pattern for disco music in the following years. Soul, funk, and TSOP are all genres that draw inspiration from the music of Philadelphia. The music features lavish musical arrangements, soaring string arrangements, an underlying strong (4×4) backbeat, and a dreamy feel to the sound.
Soul Train, the renowned television show, premiered on national television for the first time in 1971, and became an instant popularity with Black people all over the country, especially in the South. Don Cornelius, the smooth-talking host of Soul Train, promoted disco’s morals and amplifying abilities while also portraying Black people in a positive light: everyone wore sleek styles and maintained healthy Afros, there were talented amateur dancers and incredible performers, and they were all led by the smooth-talking host, Don Cornelius, who pitched the show as “the American Bandstand of color.” Because of the success of the show, more white people were exposed to more positive images of Black people in mainstream media and disco music, fashion, and culture as a result of it.
Why Was Disco so Popular?
Young people were able to escape from what film critic Roger Ebert described as “the general depression and drabness of the political and musical atmosphere of the seventies” through the colorful sound and explosive dance moves of Disco. During the 1960s, the country experienced economic prosperity and countercultural enthusiasm that has since vanished. By the mid-1970s, crime rates had skyrocketed, and the “Misery Index,” which measures the combination of unemployment and inflation, had reached new highs.
As a result of this setting, the allure of Disco was particularly strong for working-class teenagers. According to Pauline Kael’s 1977 review of Saturday Night Fever in The New Yorker, the film and the Disco era were centered on “something deeply romantic: the need to move, to dance, and the need to be whoever you want to be.” You are nirvana while dancing; when the music stops, you revert to your ordinary state.” The pushback against Disco, on the other hand, was virtually as powerful as the acceptance of it. When it came to individuals who grew up with three-minute songs, bands playing instruments, and the raw aesthetic of early Rock and Roll, Disco represented the beginning of a new crisis. Ultimately, the rise of disco contributed to the fragmentation of the 1970s and the transformation of popular music culture.
Even rock ‘n’ roll radio stations with a strong commitment to the genre switched to disco-only programming. Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977, and it was inspired by an essay written by British journalist Nik Cohn about New York City’s disco culture. It was the culmination of America’s love of disco. Tony Manero, played by John Travolta, is a sexually promiscuous, hot-headed, and somewhat vain young Italian-American paint store worker in Brooklyn who lives for the opportunity to dance with his buddies at disco clubs on the weekends. As evidenced by the film’s nomination for multiple Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture, it was hailed as the best picture of 1977 by a large number of film critics. Funny enough, the cast of characters in Fever is the polar opposite of the disco scene: they are chauvinistic, homophobic, and racist in their attitudes toward women. And, not surprisingly, Cohn later acknowledged to creating the article about New York City’s disco culture and to knowing very little about the culture itself, indicating that the film’s acclaimed premise is based on a fabrication.
The Death of Disco: Disco Demolition Night
Almost overnight, disco went out.
Following attacks from anti-disco movements around the country in 1979, disco was forced out of favour virtually overnight. The “Disco Demolition Night” rally at Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979, was one of the most memorable and severe anti-disco demonstrations ever held.
Steve Dahl, a 24-year-old loudmouthed disc jockey who had been dismissed from a Chicago radio station after it went all-disco, was the rally’s main organizer. Dahl told of his dissatisfaction with his new position as a rock radio personality on air at The Loop Radio starion, which was a competitor to WDAI, where he was fired and would take the lead in an anti-disco battle against the station. During his morning program, he used to destroy disco records with a sound effect: “Back in the day when we had turntables, I would drag the needle across the record and blow it up with a sound effect, and people liked that.” Dahl was known for mocking disco on the radio, and he even recorded a song called “Do You Think I am Disco?” that was a parody of Rod Stewart’s smash “Do Ya Think I am Sexy?”. Dahl’s antics drew the attention of talk show hosts, who invited him to appear on their shows.
Mike Veeck became interested in Steve Dahl’s radio show after hearing it for a while. During that time, Veeck’s father, Bill, was the owner of the Chicago White Sox, and he used to run all kinds of ridiculous promotions before the games to persuade people to buy tickets. Dahl was requested by Bill Veeck to conduct a “Disco Demolition Night” on July 12th during a double-header game to encourage ticket sales on the same day. Anyone who brought a disco record to be blown up by Dahl with them would only have to pay 98 cents to get into the event. As one of the witnesses to Disco Demolition Night recalls, “it could not have been more outrageous, but it was really fun.” He also recalls free haircuts and a shower set up in the outfield of Comiskey Park. In the memories of Jim Maines, a white witness to the violence, there was a raucous mob who threw disco records around like frisbees. A Black usher and budding musician, Vince Lawrence (and early house pioneer), on the other hand, had hoped to be able to take some disco records with him when he left the party. Lawrence recalls being one of only a handful of African-Americans in attendance at the game (he worked there as an usher working his way to his fist synthesizer), which drew 50,000 people. “Tyrone Davis records, frigging Curtis Mayfield records and Otis Clay records,” Lawrence recalls as examples of the types of records that were brought to Comiskey Park, which were “clearly not disco,” but rather music by Black people.
As the first game ended, Dahl, dressed in military gear, took centerfield and began to fire up the crowd on the mic: “these disco records that you brought tonight, we got ‘em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ‘em up real good” *cheers*. In response to a chant of “disco suckers,” they did exactly that, creating an enormous crater in centerfield. The White Sox began to warm up for the second game as fans continued to cheer and rave when, suddenly, hordes of people rushed the field , stealing bases, sliding down the foul poles, attempting to break into clubhouses , and lighting fires. Sox player Steve Trout remembers almost being hit by a The Village People record that came careening from the stands, lodging into the grass near his right foot, and player Ed Farmer got into a fistfight in the parking lot. Vince Lawrence recalls a stranger running up to him, breaking a disco record in his face , and screaming “Disco sucks! Ya see that?,” as if he were a physical representation of disco. Unsurprisingly, the White Sox were forced to forfeit the game.
“House Music is Disco’s Revenge”Frankie Knuckles, 1955 – 2014
The chaos descended into a full-blown riot, ending with 39 people arrested and a once-raging bonfire smoldering in the grass. Even Andy Lansing, one of the white witnesses, remembers the event not feeling “completely safe.” The riot would be celebrated 40 years later during pride month of 2019, with Steve Dahl throwing the first pitch at a White Sox game and 10,000 commemorative “Disco Demolition Night” t-shirts being given away.
The popularity of disco waned significantly after “Disco Demolition Night.” The event also became a catalyst for a nationwide stance against disco. Many still believe the anti-disco movement was a result of homophobia and racism. The sales of disco records dropped. US record labels had to look at alternatives and DJs were forced to experiment and explore new approaches to create new ‘disco’ music to dance to.
Disco to House: The Transition
Disco rose from the grave a decade or so later as house music – and that’s still big news, especially in the club, bar, lounge, beach scenes.
House music, (or disco 2.0), has evolved into a variety of genres and subgenres of electronic music. It has even had an impact on pop music, hip hop, and other contemporary musical styles. Until this day, the cultural effect of house music continues to inspire new generations of fans as well as new generations of musicians, technologists, and entrepreneurs.
When disco was on its way out, early mixing and remixing techniques breathed new life into the genre of dance music. In Chicago, a distinct sound known as “house music” began to form. Although the original roots of the term house music are unknown, many believe it was named after the “The Warehouse” nightclub on Chicago’s South Side. In order to attract lovers of the burgeoning sound, Chicago record retailers began labeling dance albums “as played at The Warehouse,” which was later abbreviated to “house music.”
In the early days of disco, pioneering DJs such as Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, as well as DJ Ron Hardy and others, played a crucial part in the evolution of disco into early house music. These legendary DJs have had a profound impact on the modern dance scene.
Larry Levan was a DJ at Paradise Garage. DJs at cutting-edge nightclubs in the late 1970s experimented with innovative ways to edit, mix, and remix records. They also experimented with cutting-edge techniques in order to circumvent the constraints of the DJ gear. It was also during this period when DJs began to combine the responsibilities of DJ, producer, composer, and remixer into a single entity. Frankie Knuckles, dubbed the “Godfather of House,” would remix older disco tracks (as most record labels had stopped releasing music that had anything to do with that ‘D.I.S.C.O crap…’) using a reel-to-reel tape machines, which he used to create his signature sound. He would incorporate percussion breaks into the older disco songs, rearrange sections, alter the tempo, and expand breakdowns or energetic passages of the songs he produced. He ‘remixed’ live; disco classics, funk, soul, electro-pop, and other genres to create tracks that were more focused on getting people to dance than anything else. It was the rebirth of disco,disco 2.0 or ‘house music’.
With the advent of technology, the sound of house music has also evolved at a quick pace. By combining synthesizers, samplers, effects processors, and drum machines, DJs were able to take house music to the next level, introducing the steady 4/4 beat that is still in use today. These early pioneers also began to loop basslines, add percussion layers, mix in effects, add vocals, and use various remixing techniques in addition to their other innovations.
This brand-new and cutting-edge electronic music (electronic dance music not to confused with EDM) immediately attracted the attention of the free world, and to this day is still the number one music genre for clubs, bars, parties, sunsets, beaches, pools and for anyone who loves to jack, and it’s all owed to disco.
So how did this new ‘disco 2.0’ or house music end up in a recording studio so it could be produced and sold on-masse? Read on…