Thought we’d have some fun with disco this week.
Disco is a genre of music that peaked in popularity in the late 1970s, though it has since enjoyed brief resurgences including the present day. The term is derived from discothèque (French for “library of phonograph records”, but subsequently used as proper name for nightclubs in Paris). Its initial audiences were club-goers from the African American, gay, Italian American, Latino, and psychedelic communities in New York City and Philadelphia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disco also was a reaction against both the domination of rock music and the stigmatization of dance music by the counterculture during this period. Women embraced disco as well, and the music eventually expanded to several other popular groups of the time.
In what is considered a forerunner to disco-style clubs, New York City DJ David Mancuso opened The Loft, a members-only private dance club set in his own home, in February 1970. Allmusic claims some have argued that Isaac Hayes and Barry White were playing what would be called disco music as early as 1971. According to the music guide, there is disagreement as to what the first disco song was. Claims have been made for Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” (1972), Jerry Butler’s “One Night Affair” (1972), the O’Jays’ “Love Train” (1972, #1 hit), the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” (1973), and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” (1974). The first article about disco was written in September 1973 by Vince Aletti for Rolling Stone magazine. In 1974 New York City’s WPIX-FM premiered the first disco radio show.
Musical influences include funk, Latin and soul music. The disco sound has soaring, often reverberated vocals over a steady “four-on-the-floor” beat, an eighth note (quaver) or 16th note (semi-quaver) hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line sometimes consisting of octaves. The Fender Jazz Bass is often associated with disco bass lines, because the instrument itself has a very prominent “voice” in the musical mix. In most disco tracks, strings, horns, electric pianos, and electric guitars create a lush background sound. Orchestral instruments such as the flute are often used for solo melodies, and lead guitar is less frequently used in disco than in rock. Many disco songs employ the use of electronic instruments such as synthesizers.
Well-known late 1970s disco performers included ABBA, Donna Summer, The Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, The Trammps, Van McCoy, Gloria Gaynor, The Village People, Chic, and The Jacksons—the latter which first dipped its toes into disco as The Jackson 5. Summer would become the first well-known and most popular disco artist—eventually having the title “The Queen of Disco” bestowed upon her by various critics—and would also play a part in pioneering the electronic sound that later became a prominent element of disco. While performers and singers garnered the lion’s share of public attention, producers working behind the scenes played an equal, if not more important role in disco, since they often wrote the songs and created the innovative sounds and production techniques that were part of the “disco sound.”
Many non-disco artists recorded disco songs at the height of disco’s popularity, and films such as Saturday Night Fever and Thank God It’s Friday contributed to disco’s rise in mainstream popularity. Disco was the last mass popular music movement that was driven by the baby boom generation. Disco music was a worldwide phenomenon, but its popularity declined in the United States in the late 1970s. On July 12, 1979, an anti-disco protest in Chicago called “Disco Demolition Night” had shown that an angry backlash against disco and its culture had emerged in the United States. In the subsequent months and years, many musical acts associated with disco struggled to get airplay on the radio. A few artists still managed to score disco hits in the early 1980s, but the term “disco” became unfashionable in the new decade and was eventually replaced by “dance music”, “dance pop”, and other identifiers. Although the production techniques have changed, many successful acts since the 1970s have retained the basic disco beat and mentality, and dance clubs have remained popular.