One of the shortest-lived phases in American musical history, disco took the nation by storm in 1977 and was declared "dead" just three years later. (For part one of the story, click here.)
SATURDAY NIGHT POSERS
When most people think of "disco music," they think of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. But most die-hard disco fans scoff at this. True disco, they maintain, was the underground dance club scene of the early to mid-1970s, frequented primarily by gays and minorities, and fueled by deejays and independent record labels. So what's the problem with the 1977 film about a troubled Brooklyn kid named Tony Manero (Travolta) who goes to the discotheque every Saturday night? A lot, it turns out. "That movie was about a group of straight, homophobic, racist, Italian-American twentysomethings in New York who went dancing wearing odd-looking clothes and probably too much aftershave lotion. They looked nothing much like the people I saw or knew in gay discos." That review comes from disco historian Dennis Brumm, who's been active in the dance scene since the early 1970s. And many in the disco community feel the same way.
FROM FRAUD TO FAD
The idea for Saturday Night Fever came from a 1976 New York magazine article about the New York disco scene, written by British journalist Nik Cohn. Cohn later admitted he made the whole thing up: He'd just arrived in the United States, and had no clue what the real "scene" was like when he was assigned to write about it. So he completely fabricated the character that eventually became Tony Manero.
Nevertheless, the film came out the next year, and the public ate it up: It earned $74 million, the third-highest gross of the year (after Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The soundtrack, featuring disco songs by the Bee Gees, was even more successful. It quickly became the highest-selling movie soundtrack ever, and was the highest-selling pop album until Michael Jackson's Thriller eclipsed it six years later. Almost overnight, disco went from a fringe movement to a mainstream fad. And just as suddenly, the major funk and R&B record labels all took an interest in the craze and began cranking out disco hits for all ages.
But in their book Saturday Night Forever: The History of Disco, Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen try to set the record straight -that real disco was not The Village People, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Gloria Gaynor: "For every chart hit pounded into the public's consciousness, 50 far superior tracks from all over the world were being played at some hard-to-find basement club."
Disco started showing up everywhere:
* In 1978, the State of New York declared one week in June "National Disco Week."
* On television, Dance Fever and Soul Train were ratings hits.
* Film scores to popular movies like Star Wars and Superman were re-released in "disco mixes."
* Even Disney got into the act with the 1980 album Mickey Mouse Disco.
* Established rock artists added some disco elements to many of their songs in the late 1970s, further angering die-hard disco fans -and alienating their own long-time listeners. Examples: The Rolling Stones ("Miss You"), Wings ("Silly Love Songs"), and even The Grateful Dead ("Shakedown Street").
Slowly, a counter-movement began to spread throughout the United States. In the popular movie spoof Airplane! audiences cheered when the doomed plane knocked down a disco station's antenna. And on the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, rock deejay Dr. Johnny Fever regularly wore his "Disco Sucks" t-shirt. It was becoming cool to hate disco.
THE DAY THE DISCO DIED
On July 12, 1979, the anti-disco sentiment reached a fever pitch when the Chicago White Sox held a "Disco Demolition Night" during a double-header at Comiskey Park. The event was the brainchild of Chicago deejay Steve Dahl, who had lost his previous job when his station went to an all-disco format. Now working for a rival station, Dahl wanted revenge. The rules for Disco Demolition Night: Fans who brought their unwanted disco records to the game only had to pay 98 cents to get in. Bonus: After the first game of the double-header, Dahl promised to blow up the records on the field. White Sox officials hoped for an additional 5,000 fans -but nearly 60,000 showed up, most of them with little interest in baseball. During the first game, drunk fans started flinging their disco records at each other and at the players on the field. After the game ended, Dahl put on Army helmet and drove a Jeep around the field while the fans chanted "Disco sucks! Disco sucks!" Then crates filled with more than 1,000 disco records were detonated in the outfield, ripping a hole in the grass. While players ran for cover, fans jumped the fences, stole the bases, toppled the batting cages, and tore up the infield. The White Sox were forced to forfeit the second game. And another nail was hammered into disco's coffin.
But was the "Disco Sucks" campaign just a natural backlash to a popular fad, or was there something more sinister behind it? Some claim the whole protest was manufactured by the executives of rock record companies, who secretly paid deejays to bad-mouth disco. Gloria Gaynor, known as the "Queen of Disco," sees no other way to explain the sudden outburst of hatred: "It was started by someone who felt the popularity of disco was dipping into their pockets," she said. "Because, let's face it, young people ...were buying my music instead of someone else's. Certainly some record companies or producers may have been getting miffed, and I always believed that that whole thing was started by them."
So far, the theory's never been proven. But whether disco was murdered or died a natural death, it was still a target years later. Even in 1989, 10 years after the height of the backlash, the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music defined disco as "a dance fad of the 1970s with a profound and unfortunate influence on popular music."
Yet to say disco "died" isn't completely accurate. Disco evolved into the mainstream dance music of the next two decades, such as house, drum and bass, and techno. All were more or less stripped-down versions of disco. Full orchestras were replaced by synthesizers, drum sets were replaced by programmed drum machines, and musical breaks were added by sampling pieces from funk, soul, and -appropriately enough- disco songs. All of these recording methods began in disco studios in the early 1970s and would flourish in years to come in dance, electronica, and even rap music.
Meanwhile, true disco music never really died, either. It quietly went back to its underground roots, where it lives on at dance clubs today -even more so after the popularity of disco-fueled acts of the mid-1990s like Cher, Erasure, and the Pet Shop Boys. And like most fads, a couple of decades later, disco started to become cool again. Says Gloria Gaynor: "I always say that disco music is alive and well and living in the hearts of people all over the world. It simply changed its name to protect the innocent."
[Ed. note: This two-part post on disco music was pre-scheduled, but coincidentally ends up as bookends for the deaths of disco icons Donna Summer and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, who both passed away this past week due to cancer.]
_____________________________________The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.
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