Disco Fun Facts

The following is reprinted from the May - June 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine.


What do D-Day and disco have in common, besides the letter D? Nazis, of course! During World War II, when the Third Reich occupied Paris, jazz clubs were closed and live music of a liberal nature was strictly verboten! But Parisians couldn't live without their jazz, so they took it underground, opening illicit cellars where they could drink booze freely and listen to pre-recorded music. One such club, on Rue de la Huchette, called itself La Discothèque - coined from the French words for "record" (disque) and "library" (bibliothèque).


Many elements of what we now call disco music appeared in songs like The Jackson 5's 1969 smash "I Want You Back" and Isaac Hayes' 1971 hit "Theme from Shaft." (Actual movie tagline: "The mob wanted Harlem back. They got Shaft ... up to here.") Chubby Checker even released a song back in 1964 titled "At the Discotheque."

[YouTube link: Soul Makossa live performance by Manu Dibango]

But most historians agree the first real disco record was 1972's "Soul Makossa" by the Cameroon-born sax player Manu Dibango. In the song, Dibango can be heard chanting Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-koo-sa. Sound familiar? It should. Michael Jackson used it 10 years later in his song "Wanna be Startin' Somethin'"


Oddly enough, members of the disco super-group The Bee Gees never dug their moniker. In fact, after Robert Stigwood signed on as the band's producer in 1967, the group lobbied to change its name. But what could possibly be better than The Bee Gees? The band suggested Rupert's World. Luckily, their manager nixed the notion. Years later, singer Barry Gibb remarked, "It was like changing your name from Charlie S--t to Fred S--t."


The success of "Saturday Night Fever" changed the face of disco forever. Suddenly, everyone was sporting white polyester suits - and not just Travolta wannabes. Rod Stewart, Cher, Bette Midler, The Rolling Stones, Dolly Parton, Andy Williams, David Bowie, Neil Diamond, and, yes, even Cookie Monster all donned disco-wear.

(Disco Kermit via Jonathan Mc [Flickr])


Sometimes, bold experiments result in mundane things like polio vaccines (yawn.) But other times, they result in wild, earth-shattering breakthroughs! Case in point: 1953's birth of the DJ. That's when 24-year-old Regine Zylberberg, manager of Paris' famous Whisky a Go-Go, undertook an experiment to replace the club's jukebox with two turntables and a microphone.

In no time, DJs were pumping up the jam at parties the world over, as was Zybelberg. By the 1970s, she was running 25 clubs across Europe and the Americas. In fact, you could boogie down at Regine's establishments somewhere in the world 17 out of every 24 hours - assuming you could get in.


Because 1970s discos were often frequented by African-Americans, homosexuals, and working-class white women, the scene was perceived as a threat to the rock 'n' roll community, which had long been a Viking ship of straight white males. Their establishment's witty, orginal slogan - "Disco Sucks" - became popular in the later part of the decade and was available for purchase wherever fine rock T-shirt were sold. (Photo: Rich.lionheart via Wikipedia)

Album-oriented rock (A.O.R.) stations also fueled the anti-disco fire. On July 12, 1979, Steve Dahl, longtime DJ at Chicago's WDAI, staged Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey PArk, where the White Sox were playing a doubleheader. Fans bearing disco albums were admitted into the stadium for a mere 98 cents. Then, between games, they stormed the field to set their records ablaze. Some even detonated them with bombs.

As the fires roared, the masses chanted "Disco sucks!", whipping the stadium into a chaotic frenzy so threatening, the second game of the doubleheader had to be cancelled. Fittingly, more records were broken on July 12, 1979, than on any other day in baseball history.


IN THE FILM: Based on a 1976 article written by English rock critic Nik Cohn and published in the New York magazine under the title "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night."

IN REAL LIFE: In 1997, Cohn admitted the entire story was fabricated. He knew nothing about the world of disco and interviewed no one for his article.
IN THE FILM: The only two gay men in the movie appear in the basketball court scene, when Tony's cronies verbally harrass them.

IN REAL LIFE: Discos helped establish an openly homosexual community for thousands of gay men (not just the Village People).
IN THE FILM: Blacks appear on screen a whopping three times.

IN REAL LIFE: Discos were nothing if not places where blacks (and gays) went to escape the oppression of the straight, white world of rock 'n' roll.
IN THE FILM: The Bee Gees hold court - an all white, Aussie-Brit pop band that cut its teeth writing soft-rock ballads in the 1960s.

IN REAL LIFE: Discos were thumping to the groove of African-American soul and funk bands like The O'Jays, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Love Unlimited Orchestra, and The Jackson 5.

The article above is reprinted from Scatterbrained section of the May - June 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!

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Newest 5 Comments

hello -

with regard to your comments about `white males' and rock'n'roll.

this is a total myth, that somehow, `white males' uniquely did not like disco, which was in turn the music enjoyed by gays and blacks.

A couple of things: blacks tend to be more `homophobic' (a much overused term for prejudice against homosexuals) than whites: the idea that discotheques were places where `blacks, gays, and blue collar white woman' mixed in splendid peace, before `disco sucks' white males came along and spoiled the party, has about as much foundation in facts as `the Tribal Rituals of the New Saturday Night...'

Disco became popular BECAUSE white males started to like it; rock'n'rollers fought back just because they hated the music, regardless of whom was listening to it (and bands such as the Stones, Bowie - even the Grateful Dead if you can believe it - started incorporating disco into their music).

I only started hearing about this `white males' destroyed disco' garbage years and years after disco finally died out...
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Speaking as someone who was 13-14 at the height of Disco's popularity(the majority of the top ten hot 100 singles of 1978 and 1979, respectively, each sold over 2 million copies in the US), I can say that I genuinely became tired of disco. It was all that was played, and I think that anyone listening to Top 40 radio 30 years ago, no matter what race, would have been bloody sick of a steady diet! For the poster of this entry to attribute the backlash to racism is no better than to attribute all negative emotions from a woman to PMS. Keep in mind that everyone, his dog, and his dog's fleas was putting out a disco record, even country artists. Furthermore, AOR stations' complaints, I believe, was that they were being pressured to play disco music. Imagine if today a hip-hop station was pressured to play Nirvana and Pearl Jam in the '90s; it was that absurd.
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I think there is an important difference that is being over looked.

Disco on middle of the road radio bore little if any resemblance to the stuff actually played in discos at the time.

Most things when they are "the underground" or "alternative" are worlds apart from what makes it big in Casey Kasem's universe.

As Blondie was to punk/new wave, the Bee Gees were to Disco.

And yes R&R was a straight white male bastion.

No doubt ass deep in closeted souls desperate to do the bump, the slosh and the hustle.
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