Once the biggest sound in the charts, disco instantly brings to mind flared trousers, multicoloured floors, glitter balls and synchronised dancing. Starting in the late 60s, before truly taking off and being one of the defining sounds of the 70s, disco is one of the most influential genres of all time. Born out of Philadelphia soul, funk, latin music and brill building, its use of four-on-the-floor beats and bass syncopation would prove to revolutionise dance floors the world over. Including artists such as Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor, the Village people, Thelma Houston and Chic, disco would come to dominate the latter half of the 70s.

 Today it might sound corny or kitsch to untrained ears, but it was as radical a movement as punk, and one of the most important precursors of not only modern electronic dance music but also hip-hop and synth pop. Born in New York at the world famous Studio 54, it was the key counterpart to rock music, allowing African-American, LGBT and Latino communities their own mode of expression. In this guide we will tell you everything you need to know about disco.

The Birth of Disco | How Did it Get Started?

The term disco derives from the french discothéque, which previously referred to a physical library of records, but soon became the name for Dancing Halls in the 40s where physical records were played instead of live bands. In Sixties America, the shorthand for this style of playing became known as disco. In Philadelphia in the late 60s, Black, Italian and Latino people created their own version of R&B inspired by both hippie culture – including its psychedelic vibe, use of LSD, strobe lighting and, of course, very colourful costumes – and included groups such as Sly and the Family Stone and the Chamber Brothers.

“When Disco ruled the world” – Documentary

Another key influence was the Motown sound, which was characterised by heavy drum beats, lush orchestration and soulful singing about love, feeling free and social issues. Much like how house music got started, disco was born out of private dance parties; this time held by DJ David Mancuso in The Loft. Invitation-only events, these parties were an escape for gay patrons who would often be harassed by the police when frequenting gay bars and clubs. Mancuso was a shrewd businessman, using his connections and keeping the club underground, thus keeping police interference to a minimum. As people were taking drugs to this music, records kept on getting longer and longer, leading to the first extended mixes and remixes of songs, often going over ten minutes long.

The Key Characteristics of Disco Music

Created as the antithesis of rock music – which in the 70s favored complicated song structures and long guitar solos – disco initially kept things simple. Here its all about the rhythm. Its popularity was the way that it kept the beat steady. The bass drum is either on every single beat, or on the first and third beats; aiding by syncopated hi-hats, often open, on the off-beat. This philosophy would have a massive impact on dance music itself, and can be found today in both house and techno. The effect, aided by funky basslines – such as the one in Chic’s “Good Times“– high, luscious strings and “chicken-scratch” rhythm guitars is a delirious one. Other instruments layered on top of the rhythm guitars and funky basslines are electric piano, synthesizers and horns. As disco progressed, musical structures and compositions became more complex and song lengths increased. Singing was usually performed by either men singing in falsetto – as in the Bee Gees – or expressive soprano female vocals.

In the early days, disco music was first recorded by full bands, although usually separately in order to create a multi-tracked sound, before becoming more reliant upon drum machines. The production techniques were often inspired by Phil Spector and his concept of the “wall of sound” – creating a full sound that would overwhelm the listener. The fashion of disco was similarly extravagant, featuring bright colours, afros, flared or leather trousers, open-neck shirts and gold chains.

Drug culture was also a massive part of the disco scene. It was the 70s after all, so the most popular drug people would use on the dance floor was cocaine, followed by poppers and quaaludes. According to historians, this frequent drug use led to a lot of sexual promiscuity, taking place in the stairwells or club toilets. This was the pre-AIDs era, and was part of a broader trend of sexual promiscuity, and unprotected sex, mostly gay, in general, before the more repressive Reagan 80s came in.

Saturday Night Fever | Disco’s Explosion

Disco roared to the top of the charts after the John Travolta-starring Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977. Despite straight-washing what was originally a very gay scene, the film helped propel disco to the mainstream. The soundtrack, with contributions from the Bee Gees, as well as a disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth, was incredibly popular, and remains the best selling film soundtrack of all time with 45 million units sold. While the album stayed on top of the charts for a ridiculous 24 weeks, and was in the charts generally for a mind-boggling 120 weeks, there were seven individual number one singles. Not only did it launch John Travolta to stardom, it managed to make disco the most prominent cultural movement. The soundtrack is now considered more culturally important than the film itself, which is actually a lot darker then most people probably realise.

Everyone wanted a piece of the pie, leading 1977 and 1978 to be the most disco-dominated years in the charts. Classic hits such as “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, “Dancing Queen, “I’m Your Boogie Man“, “Got to Give It Up (Part 1)“, “Le Freak” and “I Will Survive” crushed the charts. Even rock bands and artists like The Rolling Stones (“Miss You“), Queen (“Another One Bites the Dust“), Pink Floyd (“Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2“), Rod Stewart (“Do You Think I’m Sexy“) and Paul McCartney & Wings (“Goodnight Tonight“) released disco inspired tracks. While most punk artists proclaimed to hate disco music, Ian Dury and the Blockheads scored their biggest hit with the disco inspired “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick“. The popularity of disco was not just in the USA, with ABBA , Dalida, Rafaella Carrà and Boney M. the best examples of Euro Disco.  In many ways the massive popularity of disco was its biggest downfall, leading to its backlash and almost complete removal from the charts by 1982.  

Disco Music in the 80s

At the end of the 70s disco faced a massive backlash among rock fans and musicians, who blamed the genre for ruining rock’s own popularity. There was a homophobic and racist element to their slogans, such as the “Death to Disco” and “Disco Sucks” stickers. Soon anti-disco sentiment pervaded into all elements of pop culture, such as film and television, culminating in the Disco Demolition Night on July 12, 1979, where thousands of disco records were destroyed at the Comiskey Park stadium in Chicago. The effect was quite quick. The subsequent week after that night, the top six records in the Billboard Pop 100 were disco songs; by September 22, there were no disco songs left in the top 10. Popular rock critic Robert Christgua attributed this backlash to homophobia and racism, stating that rock fans: 

“Turn the fatuity, monotonousness, and wimpoid tendencies of the worst (or most mono-functional) disco into an excuse for rejecting all contemporary black music except perhaps reggae, and I bet they don’t listen much to Otis Redding either. One hesitates to cry racism. But this is certainly a good imitation.

Power pop, rock revival and country music became the prevailing trends of the early 80s, with disco then turning into a whole host of different sub-genres. Gone was the massive band production common in disco music, instead relying on a stripped back, often electronic sound. This was commonly known as post-disco, which would have just a couple of singers backed by synthesizers and drum machines. As well as inspiring the sound of Michael Jackson in tracks such as “Billie Jean“, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and “Thriller“, genres such as Italo-Disco, Hi-NRG and Boogie – featuring artists such as D-Train, Rockers Revenge and Sharon Redd – became popular in the early 80s. 

Disco’s Influence

Along with punk rock, disco would be the most important genre to come out of the 70s, creating a sound that could be chopped up, screwed up and manipulated to create both hip hop and dance music. Yet its rhythms were also popular with traditional bands, inspiring synth pop and the new romantic movement as well as elements of New Wave and No Wave. Read on to find out about the three most important genres to have been inspired by disco music.

House

House music was born directly from disco music, and the disco concept of the extended edit or the remix. DJs would take the elements of disco music they liked the most, chop them up and loop them, while adding effects, and thus house was born. Its name comes from the club The Warehouse where Frankie Knuckles, the Godfather of House, would play in Chicago for exclusively gay black and latino men. By the late 80s and early 90s, house music became one of the most popular of electronic genres, thus seeing disco-like tunes return to the charts once again. If you want to learn more about house music in much bigger depth, read our house music guide now.

Hip-Hop

The most important track in hip-hop history is a disco record: “Good Times” by Chic. The old-school concept of Turntablism, as popularised by artists such as Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc was to take preexisting records, chop up and isolate the most groovy part and then have someone MC over it. The Sugarhill Gang recreated it for “Rapper’s Delight in 1979, which was the first hip-hop single to reach into the Top 40 in charts. It would also be sampled by Grandmaster Flash for “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheel’s of Steel“, Beastie Boys for “Triple Trouble” and Coolio for “1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New)” by Coolio. This song is emblematic of how disco music was the perfect foundation for hip-hop to grow.

Synth Pop

Punk rock and disco melded together in many ways to form New Wave music. The New wave ethos was to stop worrying about labels – to rip it up and start again. Therefore more artists with punk roots would use synthesizers, eventually forming synth pop. Again, like so many genres, “I Feel Love” – made entirely with electronic instruments would be a massive – influence on these band’s styles. It started with Gary Numan and his seminal album Replicas and was continued by bands such as Duran Duran, Visage and Spandau Ballet, as well as OMD, Japan, Ultravox and Depeche Mode. It was a particularly British genre, with “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League famously being the UK Christmas no.1 single in 1981. This would go on to be one of the most characteristic genres of the 80s.

Conclusion

From 1977-1979, disco was everywhere, creating a sound that changed the face of music forever. Its the music of escape, of hedonism, of having a good time, and although it couldn’t last until the end of the decade, its influence can still be felt everywhere. It epitomizes the sexual and creative freedoms felt in the 70s, before the capitalist Reagan 80’s changed everything. Arguably the single most important influence on electronic music there is, disco is a must-understand genre if you are serious about understanding how electronic music works. If you don’t think that disco is the genre for you, why don’t you read our guides to vaporware and trance instead?

Redmond Bacon

Redmond Bacon

Contributor

Redmond Bacon is a film obsessive and amateur music producer who can easily spend all day either at the cinema or making fresh beats. Catch his writing over at redmondbacon.co.uk.

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