By Maurice Long
Disco is a genre that rarely appears to be taken very seriously and, in the present day, often seems to be disregarded as novelty music that people do not genuinely believe to be of supreme quality. However, during its emergence from the late 1960s to the 1970s, it represented a very important outlet for a lot of people who, away from the dancefloor, were the target of much discrimination at this point in history. As well as this, revisiting a lot of disco music is an enjoyable thing to do because, despite how it sometimes tends to be perceived today, it is a genre that produced a considerable amount of very good music. It went though something a crisis with the ‘Disco Sucks’ campaign and the film Saturday Night Fever, which seemed to ignore so many of the important themes that were at the centre of the disco movement but, through a retrospective look at the disco scene, it is clear that it deserves a lot more respect that people have often been willing to give it.
The origins of disco and its initial popularity are usually traced back to the DJ David Mancuso and his parties at The Loft in New York in the early 1970s. An Alex Petridis article in The Guardian after Mancuso’s death in 2016 says: “The crowd Mancuso’s parties drew were pansexual and racially mixed – about 60% black and 70% gay, according to one estimate – a gathering of ‘the disaffected and disenfranchised’”. This was in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which had empowered communities who had been consistently targeted by police and oppressed for so long and had led to the formation of groups like the Gay Liberation Front. The music and nightlife were important as a means of exercising that liberation and as expression for racially and sexually diverse groups of people. Musically, what Mancuso played was dance music that had its origins in funk, with distinctive basslines and horn sections. These characteristics can be heard in songs like Manu Dibango’s 1972 jazz-funk hit ‘Soul Makossa’
Artists such as Donna Summer and Grace Jones emerged as standout stars of the genre. Particular highlights from their respective discographies include Summer’s 16-minute disco epic ‘Love to Love You Baby’ from 1975 and Jones’s irresistibly funky bass-driven 1977 reworking of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en rose’ from her first album, Portfolio. The sexual liberation that disco fans were enjoying was reflected in the music. The lyrics to ‘Love to Love You Baby’ are punctuated by moans that are clearly there to emphasise the intensity of the sexual experience the song appears to be referencing.
The early years of disco were characterised by freedom and diversity, and also by musical innovation. Nicky Siano, a DJ who opened his club The Gallery in 1973, is acknowledged as the pioneer of various new DJing techniques, such as beatmatching and the use of multiple turntables. As an interview on the Vinyl Factory’s website highlights: “In the history of DJ culture, Nicky Siano’s presence looms large. His club The Gallery was instrumental in forging the disco culture of the 1970s in New York, while his technique on the decks helped further the art of mixing records as we know it.” In terms of the history of dance music as a whole, Siano’s innovation that was central to the disco scene in New York has been very influential.
It was not just in the USA where disco took off. It was also prominent in European popular music. Boney M, made up of four vocalists from the Caribbean but formed in West Germany in 1975, were particularly successful. Musically they had unmistakably disco elements but also took inspiration from reggae. Their live performances were characterised by the energetic dancing and costumes of Bobby Farrell and they enjoyed chart success throughout Europe with singles such as ‘Daddy Cool’ and ‘Sunny’ as well as the uniquely unforgettable 1978 track ‘Rasputin’.
ABBA were also involved with eurodisco and remain one of the most successful bands of all time. The disco tracks that these acts put out may be a bit poppier and perhaps less interesting than the music of Donna Summer and Grace Jones but they are still fun to listen to and the early days of disco were all about people having the freedom to express themselves and have fun in a way that had previously not been so open to them.
The release of 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta, brought disco very much into the mainstream. However, what was represented in the film was not a particularly accurate depiction of the disco scene. It centred on white, heteronormative characters and was soundtracked by the Bee Gees. It would be difficult to describe it as a celebration of the racial and sexual inclusivity that was so fundamental to the development of disco music and dancing.
While Saturday Night Fever’s portrayal was perhaps unhelpful for how disco was received, the ‘Disco Sucks’ campaign, started by rock radio DJ Steve Dahl, was to prove more damaging. As a Hadley Meares article for Aeon describes: “Dahl saw disco as slick and inauthentic, and he took to playing popular disco tunes, only to ‘blow ’em up real good’ with sound-effects live on-air.” He had a lot of fans who agreed with him and the movement kept growing. This culminated in the 1979 public demolition of many disco records and subsequent riot at a Chicago White Sox baseball game. Dahl distanced the movement from racism or homophobia but it did involve many young white men who appeared to find the disco scene, which welcomed so many marginalised people, threatening to their notions of constructions of masculinity.
Disco did slow down and the scene became less prominent into the 1980s but it is impossible to deny the influence that it has had on popular music styles since then. It undoubtedly deserves to be loved and appreciated for what it represented, and for the joy and freedom that the music communicated.
Music mentioned can be found here: