Why Disco Happened

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.

Love it or hate it, disco music will always be associated with the 1970s. But did it all begin and end in that decade? Not by a long shot- It actually had its roots in World War II Paris.


When you think of disco, what comes to mind? Probably polyester, mirror balls, and lines of dancers doing the Hustle. But surprisingly, the seeds that would one day grow into disco were first planted by the Nazis.

During their brutal occupation of France in World War II, the Germans outlawed any form of art and music that they deemed "impure." The American jazz movement, which had experienced a renaissance in Paris in the 1930s, was high on the Nazi's cultural hit list. In 1940 Hitler's army began to shut down any cabaret that featured the "rhythms of belly-dancing negroes" and sending offenders to internment camps. (At the same time, however, the Nazis formed their own jazz band called Charlie and his Orchestra to broadcast taunting, satirical propaganda songs to the Allies over the radio.)


Unwilling to give up their beloved jazz, partying Parisians formed secret nightclubs that required passwords to get in, changed locations frequently, and tried to stay as quiet as possible. And without any jazz bands left, their only choice was to play records. The most famous club, Le Discotheque (French for "The Record Library"), opened on rue de la Huchette in 1941. With a discaire, or disc jockey, spinning jazz records all night long, the main attraction was dancing. Thumbing their noses at the occupying Reich, Le Discotheque and other underground clubs opened their doors to blacks and homosexuals, the same groups who would first embrace disco music 30 years later. The main ingredients that would result in disco in the 1970s were now in place.


When the Twist dance craze swept the United States in the early 1960s, it drew thousands of patrons to nightclubs like the Peppermint Lounge in New York City and the Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles. Nightclub owners realized what the French had already figured out: As long as they played music that had the right beat, people would turn out in droves to dance. They also realized that it was cheaper to hire a deejay to play records than to pay a band (and deejays were far less temperamental). By 1965 more than 5,000 discotheques had popped up in the United States.

As the 1970s began, the innocence and idealism of 1960s counterculture had been mostly quashed by the escalating war in Vietnam and a conservative president in the White House. But the new found sexual freedom that had begun in 1967's "Summer of Love" had blossomed with the first widespread use of the birth control pill in the early 1970s. The sexual revolution was now in full swing, and it was about to find its perfect partner: disco.


Just like in 1940s Paris, minorities and homosexuals were welcome in America's underground dance clubs of the early 70s, and quickly became their primary patrons. While the Twist and similar dances featured two partners who danced without touching each other, the dancing in these new clubs was much more intimate- especially after salsa dancing spiced things up. Salsa, a style popular among Cuban immigrants on the Miami club scene, eventually blended with swing in a new dance called "disco swing," which spread around the country, one discotheque at a time.

In the Northeast, the dance was dubbed the "New York Hustle," later shortened to the Hustle (and then treated with many variations in the late 1970s). But each style shared the same basic elements: the couple moved side to side, then back and forth, while swiveling their hips and rotating around each other.

By 1973, the word "disco" was being used to describe both the discotheque scene and the music most often played there. The term entered the mainstream when Rolling Stone repeatedly used it in an article titled "Discotheque Rock '72: Paaaaaarty!" But which record, exactly, was the first true disco song isn't quite as clear. Some music historians cite 1973's "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango. "Law of the Land" by the Temptations is another strong candidate, as is Gloria Gaynor's 1974 megahit "Never Can Say Goodbye." And still others cite the song "The Hustle" by Van McCoy, released in 1975, as the first song to truly have that "disco sound." But what exactly is the disco sound?

The simple answer is a combination of beat, tempo, instrumentation, and song length. The disco beat has four beats per measure, with equal emphasis on every beat: BUMP BUMP BUMP BUMP. Rock and funk beats typically have four beats per measure as well, but with emphasis on the second and fourth beats: ba BUMP ba BUMP. Disco is also much faster paced than most rock or funk, sometimes up to 120 beats per minute. The faster, the better.


But what about that other staple of discotheques, he "long dance mixes" that kept people on their feet for hours? That idea was mostly the work of pioneering record producer (and occasional fashion model) Tom Moulton. During a photo shoot at a Long Island nightclub in 1971, he was amazed by the energy on the dance floor. "I got a charge of it, all these white people dancing to black music." The only problem was that the songs were usually three minutes long and had slightly different beats, making it difficult for dancers to stay in the groove. Inspired, Moulton went home to his studio and spent 80 hours remixing and editing soul songs together, over and over, altering their speeds to keep a continuous beat going. Result: a 45-minute tape of nonstop, thumping dance music. His tape was a hit at the Sandpiper Club in Fire Island, New York, and as word of the extended mix spread, budding disco artists wanted "Tom Moulton mixes" of their songs.

That led to another problem: the 7-inch single (45 rpm), which was common at the time, could only hold four to five minutes of music, not nearly enough to make an extended dance record. So Moulton experimented with larger formats, and created what would become the disco deejay's favorite: the 12-inch single. In 1974, Moulton was given the chance to extend a single called "Do It 'Til You're Satisfied" by B.T. Express from three minutes to nearly six. The extended dance song was a huge success, peaking #2 on the Billboard pop chart.

He was then brought in to mix Gloria Gaynor's debut album Never Can Say Goodbye. With the focus on making the best dance record possible, Moulton filled one side of the album with a nonstop 18-minute dancing experience. Each of the three songs smoothly segued into the next, and the vocal sections were limited to one minute at the beginning of each track, allowing melody and beat to carry the rest of the song. Record executives were skeptical about the experiment, but Moulton proved his case when Never Can Say Goodbye became a huge hit on dance floors across the country. It solidified the golden rule for disco deejays and recording artists alike: Keep the beat going.


Although disco scored a few early hits, for the most part, radio steered clear of it. The songs were often too long for airplay, and they needed thumping bass speakers to sound their best. As the large record companies ignored disco, dozens of independent labels cropped up, some only to produce one single before folding. But these small record companies fueled the growing dance scene: Labels like Westend, Prelude, and SalSoul were in high demand, producing a library of disco music with thousands of dance tracks. "Disco is the best floor show in town," reported writer Truman Capote. "It's very democratic, boys with boys, girls with girls, blacks and whites, capitalists and Marxists, Chinese and everything else, all in one big mix."

By 1976, the beat, the sound, and the underground dance club scene -all of disco's components- were firmly in place. But a Hollywood movie was about to infiltrate that big mix and take disco to worlds where no disco dancer had gone before.

(YouTube link)

See part two of this article: Why Disco Died.

[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.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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