Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A dance fad of the '70s, with a profound and unfortunate influence on popular music. The word came from the French 'discothèque' ('record library'), a club where the entertainment consisted of dancing to records. Timme Rosenkrantz (1911-69), the Jazz Baron, wrote in his memoirs about the Travelers Club, across from the stage entrance to the Apollo Theater in the mid-1930s in New York, a jukebox club at a time when most other places had live music, and goes on to define it as a 'Discothèque, as Jean Claude Merlin was to dub the first European one, around 1949 on the Boulevard St. Germaine and the Rue de Seine, in Paris. The cave of Mephistopheles!'

The terms disco and 'go-go' were synonymous for a while, the latter from several French clubs and overseas imitations that called themselves Whisky à Go-Go, from the French title of the Ealing film comedy Whisky Galore of 1948. Go-go joints in the USA in the '60s were taverns with a juke box and a scantily-clad dancer in a cage; blue- and white-collar males alike stopped on the way home from work and tried not to blink, each hoping to see more flesh than the next fellow. But in larger cities the gay male and urban black subcultures made the disco into something more ambitious, where a disc jockey raided black pop for suitable dance music. The late '60s hits of Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown were prototypical disco records; Manu Dibango's 'Soul Makossa' '74 and Shirley and Co's 'Shame, Shame, Shame' '75 were favourites; in between came the Hues Corporation's 'Rock The Boat' and George McCrae's 'Rock Your Baby', a no. 1 international hit whose writers/producers went on to form KC and the Sunshine Band. Chic was a successful disco band formed '77. Among the first to be produced by Munich's studio wizard Giorgio Moroder (b 1941) was Donna Summer, who became a disco favourite (later, she decided she didn't particularly want to be a gay icon, and anyway had more talent than most in the disco ghetto). Black young people patronized discos because they could afford it: it is a cheaper way to run a club than hiring live music (and Rosenkrantz regretted in the 1960s that the new versions of the jukebox clubs were putting musicians out of work). Record companies began to cash in, and records had bpm numbers (beats per minute) printed on the label to make it easier for the disc jockey to segue from one record to the next. But it remained a cult until the hit film Saturday Night Fever '77 brought it to the masses: the extravagant and vulgar side of disco had been partly a send-up, but then it spread to the suburbs, where people don't know they're being sent up.

The Bee Gees were three white Australian lads with beautiful falsetto voices who had big hits in the late '70s, and were labeled disco, perhaps because their songs sounded like black soul.They also affected an androgenous look in their act, which offended some people. Disco was becoming a factor in the Reagan era's culture wars; Jerry Falwell lumped it with abortion and anything else he didn't like. In July 1979 Steve Dahl, a Chicago shock-jock, hosted Disco Demolition Night at Comisky Park, 'blowing up' disco records between the games of a White Sox double-header; 7,000 fans [of what?] rushed onto the field, setting fires and damaging the turf. The second game had to be cancelled and the White Sox lost by defaul. Most people reading about this in the newspapers probably thought that the vandals disliked disco on musical grounds, but an HBO documentary in 2020 (The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart) thought that plenty of anti-gay and anti-black sentiment was involved. Some of the records destroyed weren't disco at all, but black R&B. Alice Echols' book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (2009) is also good on this.

The big-time fad didn't last long. Also in '79 there was a sudden collapse when disco albums such as the soundtracks from Grease and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (nothing to do with the Beatles) had been overshipped and came back by the truckload. (This was hilarious if you weren't a record company executive; by then the biggest record companies were being run by people who couldn't see anything but dollar signs, and bandwagons were coming along faster than they could leap on and off.) All this had a disastrous effect on pop music for two related reasons: the producers and the technology. Because the main thing was a thumping beat, producers found it easier and cheaper to use drum machines, synthesizers and other gimmicks at the expense of musical values, also co-writing 'songs' with the 'artists' in order to make more money out of it; the black pop that disco had started with was good party music, but most disco hitmakers were anonymous. The cluttered production and the mechanical beat spread to the rest of pop music, as well as the second-rate songs foisted on a marvellous voice like that of Whitney Houston. (Mozart, Beethoven, anything could be set to the disco beat; even Frank Sinatra's fourth recording of Cole Porter's 'Night And Day' in 1977, produced by Joe Beck, was affected; and his 'L.A. Is My Lady' '84 had a hint of disco about it.) By the time disco had become a national fad its main purpose was no longer musical; it was a life-style choice for people who didn't have a life, and its trashy values became ubiquitous. It was always difficult to play dance music well, and now became too easy to make money doing it badly.

But disco had been influential and never went away entirely. It was the beginning of what is still called 'dance music' on pop charts, and just as disco had raided black pop in its beginning, so rap borrowed from disco.