Disco returned dancing to the forefront of pop music, and it did so with a verve and drive fueled, at least in part, on a disregard for many of the conventions held dear by rock enthusiasts. This perceived slight on the part of rock establishment would ultimately elicit a widespread negative reaction sufficient to drive the movement back underground.
The genre emerged out of an urban subculture in the early 1970s. Discos had been quietly serving its core audience for years. They originated as settings where one could dance to recorded music. The deejay deploying two turntables, a mike, and a PA system was a fixture in black communities. Whites deployed a similar arrangement for dances featuring oldies in church basements and community centers. Discotheques such as the Peppermint Lounge helped popularize the twist and countless spin-off dances in the early 1960s. For a short time, even wealthy jet-setters found it hip to mix with the masses in New York hot spots.
By the 1970s, however, discos promised escapism and release. With music and lighting choreographed to manipulate the mood of the dancers, the experience melded 1970s self-absorption with a 1960s sense of community. Ed Ward, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (2nd edition), notes that, in this setting, who was playing the records was often more important than what the records were.
The genre appears to have received its impetus from venues such as The Loft and The 10th Floor on Fire Island and in Manhattan because gay men had trouble securing live acts to perform at their social soires. These places combined the functions of private clubs, dance parties, and avant-garde hangouts. In short, gay culture circumstances in the 1970s, partially out of the closet but still not welcome in mainstream society, played a significant role in the evolution of disco.
In light of these social forces, disco may well have the first pop music form dictated by consumers; if dancers related to a record at these venues, it was classified as disco. The style was rooted in smooth black urban pop best exemplified by Gamble and Huff's Philly Sound and the seductive raps of Barry White, Isaac Hayes, and the like. However, it also incorporated a quirky, unpredictable side: left-field oddities sometimes went on the mainstream success by way of the discos; e.g., Many Dibango's "Soul Makossa" (1973), considered by some to be he first true disco hit. By 1974 the dance club scene was regularly responsible for breaking major hits; within another year it was helping determine the way records were made. Album-sized singles were introduced to fill deejay needs; these "disco singles" became so popular that a large number of them were released commercially. In addition, many pop recordings were issued in a "Disco Version," most notably new arrangements of show-biz oldies, rock chestnuts, soul classics, classical music's greatest hits, etc.
The Disco Version's extended length, use of musical drama, and emphasis on instrumental texture rather than vocal personality or verbal complexity predisposed the genre to a strong European influence. European composers and arrangers were instrumental in freeing disco from its tendency to cannibalize the past by developing forms which were more appropriate to its dance imperatives. Rather than lengthening conventional pop songs with gimmicks, studio wizards such Munich-based Georgio Moroder developed long, structured compositions calculated to fill an entire album side with music that ebbed and flowed in one beat-driven, but melodically varied, cut. Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" (1976) typified this approach with its avoidance of the widely used verse-chorus-instrumental break-verse-chorus format in favor of an extended track suggesting a compressed movie soundtrack (perhaps even a classical music work) with its different movements. This spin-off form, known as Eurodisco, could be, in Ed Ward's words, as light (or shallow) as French pop, as dramatic (or pompous) as a German symphony, as cerebral (or cold) as experimental avant-garde music, or as minimalist (or repetitive) as a chant (or ad jingle).
Disco ultimately secured mainstream acceptance through the success of Saturday Night Fever. Released in 1977, the film cut across all demographic lines, while the soundtrack--featuring the Bee Gees and an assortment of minor dance hits--became the best-selling LP in pop music history. Up to this point in time, the disco scene had remained outside the pop mainstream because (1) few real discos existed anywhere other than in the major urban centers, (2) music that was specifically disco (in contrast to crossover hits) continued to be boycotted by many pop radio stations, and (3) the absence of recognizable stars meant there was no handle by which less informed fans could sort through the disco section in record stores.
In the wake of disco's breakthrough, established artists (e.g., Rod Stewart, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones)—even new wave trendsetters, Blondie--rushed to cash in, recording in this style. Radio stations didn't just add disco cuts to their playlists, they often went all disco. Record companies competed to hire disco insiders and artists.
After a brief run as the top pop music genre in 1978-1979, disco began to lose its patented dance groove. In addition, its success stimulated a cultural backlash from the more reactionary elements of the white establisment. "Disco sucks" dominated bumper stickers and graffiti of the day. There were disco record bonfires and anti-disco protests that occasionally degenerated into riots (e.g., a Yankee Stadium baseball game). The rock press widely criticized the genre.
By 1980, the best dance music was again coming from its original source, black pop. Disco was absorbed back into the underground, to be resurrected in the 1980s as dance-oriented rock (DOR), alternative dance, house, go-go, electronic dance music, and, ultimately, techno. Donna Summer was the only notable disco artist to maintain past chart successes.
Top Artists and Their Recordings
The Bee Gees--"You Should Be Dancing" (1976); "Stayin' Alive" (1977/8); "Night Fever" (1978)
James Brown--"It's Too Funky in Here" (1979): a perfect marriage of funk and disco.
Cafe Creme--"Discomania" (1978): a muzak-like medley of thirty-five Beatles songs within a ten-minute time span; it removed the aura of pomposity surrounding the Fab Four, restoring them to their original condition as alluring pop music interpreters.
Cerrone--"Love in C Minor" (1977): an exponent of the Franco-Italian school.
Chic--"Le Freak" (1978); "Good Times" (1979)
Gary's Gang--"Keep on Dancin'" (1979)
Gloria Gaynor--"I Will Survive" (1979)
Thelma Houston--"Don't Leave Me This Way" (1977/8)
KC and the Sunshine Band--"Get Down Tonight" (1975); "That's the Way (I Like It)" (1975); "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" (1976); "I'm Your Boogie Man" (1976)
Kool and the Gang--"Ladies Night" (1979)
Kraftwerk--"Trans-Europe Express" (1977): provides a German focus on synthesizers and the theme of urban alienation.
Lipps Inc.--"Funky Town" (1979)
McFadden and Whitehead--"Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" (1979)
Diana Ross--"The Boss" (1979): reveals how the genre was able to revitalize slick black acts, songwriters, and producers; for the first time since her Supremes tenure, Ross recaptured her feel for superficiality accented by eroticism.
Shalamar--"Uptown Festival" (1977): a medley of 1960s Motown hits sung by Stevie Wonder-Smokey Robinson--Diana Ross soundalikes; demonstrates how disco was able to revitalize the past by not being able to toy with it.
Sister Sledge--"He's the Greatest Dancer" (1979)
Gino Soccio--"Dancer" (1979): the Montreal native assumed Eurodisco ideas of theme variation and repetition but removed the violins and other flowery embellishments, putting new emphasis on the bass track.
Amii Stewart--"Knock on Wood" (1979)
Donna Summer--"Love to Love You Baby" (1975/6); "I Feel Love" (1977); "Last Dance" (1978); "MacArthur Park" (1978); "Heaven Knows" (1979)
A Taste of Honey--"Boogie Oogie Oogie" (1978)
Andrea True Connection--"More, More More" (1976); "What's Your Name, What's Your Number" (1978)
Village People--"Macho Man" (1978); "Y.M.C.A." (1978): best remembered as caricatures of the gay subculture.