Disco: maligned & misunderstood

 Disco is music that goes far beyond white polyester with a black collar jutting out, dancefloors lit in primary colors, the Brothers Gibb, Harry Wayne Casey and the almighty Donna Summer. Disco at its essence represented the freedom to write, to choose and of course - to dance.

 Let us begin at the end. 1979. Comiskey Park. Chicago. An AOR radio station feeling the heat of a recession combined with the prevalence of Disco decides to host a Disco Demolition Night in between the games of a twi-night doubleheader. If it sounds like something out of Fahrenheit 451 - it truly was. 20,000 were expected. 50,000 showed and paid 98 cents to come onto the field and burn a record. The second game had to be forfeited.

 Elsewhere in America at its height in that same strange year, 14,000 discotheques were in operation. Eight of the Top 10 selling singles of 1979 were disco songs (the aforementioned queen was beaten by the Knack's "My Sharona" for No. 1-both strangely enough June releases.) Rock stations reacted after refusing to incorporate Punk into those playlists (it had to be rebranded "New Wave") and more importantly responded to this societal change before four of the biggest Rock albums ever were released (September: The Eagles-"The Long Run," October: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers-"Damn The Torpedoes" and Fleetwood Mac-"Tusk," November: Pink Floyd-"The Wall.")

 It all began in the vast lofts of New York City. As the hippie movement drifted into the Seventies, a new culture emerged whose soundtrack could easily be a handful of records. Much like the dreaded night at Comiskey Park, patrons could pay less than a dollar, come into a venue and dance all night. Turntables improved and DJ's could literally turn an armful of music into an experience beyond words. When David Mancuso took a break from the city and traveled to upstate New York, he was staring at a flower beside a babbling brook and had a vision. When he returned to the city, he designed his new speaker array to resemble that same flower and suspended it from the ceiling over the center of the dance floor. Audiences were captivated. The whole space now enveloped you with sound and with that the records the DJs were bringing in were designed to maintain that exposure.

 By 1975, Disco became the talk of the town. Europeans had caught on quickly and while the novelty "Fly Robin Fly" from Silver Convention pushed its way to the top of the charts. Artists like Cerrone and a German Electronic composer named Giorgio Moroder took notice. In the States, it seemed like every piece of music on the radio suddenly begged for that four-on-the-floor beat and listeners wanted DJs to tap into that endless groove. By the time Disco earned its pop stature in 1977, the formula was almost untouched from the original songs that left people spinning on the crowded floors in early Seventies New York City.

 Faceless sometimes even nameless groups could release a massive hit. However, self-confessed "street hippie" Nile Rodgers and his bass playing confrere Bernard Edwards saw that this music needed sophistication. After seeing Roxy Music play in London, Rodgers saw the future. Multiple singers. Strings. Music as multi-faceted as David Mancuso's arrays of speakers.  Chic was born. The band released three albums that still stand as shining examples of what disco truly was. Using voices like Fonzi Thornton and Luther Vandross, a Chic song was sculpted to set alight any dancefloor and make anyone listening feel like the next incarnation of Astaire and Rogers. The hits-you know. However, beneath those carefully orchestrated grooves, Rodgers and especially Edwards were telling stories. Songs like "Happy Man", "I Want Your Love" (#7, 1978) and the vastly underrated "My Forbidden Lover" (#43, 1979) spoke to the Gay community in addition to dancers around the world.

 As the recordings grew more sophisticated and producers emerged as the true stars, Disco represents a quantum leap for African-American female singers. While many males did manage hits (some did not like Tony Orlando's fantastic 1978 leap in to Disco with "Don't Let Go" ), many of the most exemplary used their high registers to their advantage (Sylvester's 1978 liberation anthem "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" peaked at #36.) Females led the way. Giorgio Moroder brought in Gospel singer Donna Sommer (her original spelling) to sing over his sequencers and loops in 1975. For the next ten years, dancefloors heard Gloria Gaynor, Anita Ward, Grace Jones, Chaka Khan and more.

 On the producer-driven releases, the best voices were heard and sadly uncredited. Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan was one of the best producers in the game in the Eighties using the amazing Gwen Guthrie's massive wail to keep "Padlock" (#102, 1983) pounding for seven enthralling minutes. Loleatta Holloway's name appears on 1980's "Love Sensation" but her squall lay untapped until it was sampled in 1989 on Black Box's "Ride on Time." Jocelyn Brown first sang for Cerrone in the Seventies, before dominating the women's liberation tale that is the 1979 Inner Life single "Caught Up (In A One Night Love Affair.)" However, Brown's only chart hit ever from 1986 ("Love's Gonna Get You" peaked at #38) would become one of the most famous samples of all time when German group Snap! employed her explosive "I've Got The Power" in 1990.

 

Beneath the surface, it is possible that Disco grew too large too fast. The insistence of the groove could only take this music so far. However, to hear Disco's interminable groove still propelling more striated funk-based singles (1984's "You Used To Hold Me So Tight by Leland native Thelma Houston and produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) or even returning in Africa music via Harari's still-infectious "Party" from 1980 kept it from meeting the demise those 50,000 rock fans sought on that steamy July day in 1979.  

 

In the end, Disco in name did die in 1979. Chic's tongue-in-cheek "Good Times" (#1, June 1979) introduced irony and satire into this music that was out to truly capture ecstatic joy. The 12" singles and 7" singles that Disco pushed also pushed down sales as "Good Times" and "Le Freak" were the two biggest singles in Atlantic Records history selling over 5 million copies each. Their respective albums went Platinum. Prince's first chart hit "I Wanna Be Your Lover" (#12, 1979) was marketed as a Disco cut (and written for Patrice Rushen whose brilliant "Haven't You Heard" peaked that same year at #42.) Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall" was a smash hit (even including a track called "Burn The Disco Out"), but "Thriller" would transcend even Pop music.

 

Disco brought everyone, regardless of their background, occupation or even upbringing, together on a fluorescent but level playing field. Disco made DJ's into stars and led to the EDM/Electronic acts of today. When the Disco radio stations dropped the format in the Eighties, many adapted to an Urban format breathing life into the music that is our dominant format today.  

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