How Disco Works


By 1979, some radio stations were advertising "No Bee Gees" weekends.
By 1979, some radio stations were advertising "No Bee Gees" weekends.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A small crowd was expected at Chicago's Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979. The hometown White Sox had a terrible record that season, and they were set for a double-header against the Detroit Tigers, a team faring no better. The ballpark had 52,000 seats, but only 15,000 people had showed up the previous night; typical attendance that season was 6,000 people [sources: Behrens, Sclafani]. In order to fill some seats, the stadium owner relied on promotional nights, such as the one dreamed up by local radio DJ Steve Dahl. On July 12, Dahl told his listeners, they should come to Comiskey with a disco record for Disco Demolition Night. The record would get them in the stadium for just 98 cents, and they'd have the pleasure of watching Dahl destroy the records between the two games.

More than 90,000 people showed up, records in hand.

Those that couldn't get into the ballpark scaled Comiskey's gates. A steady chant of "Disco sucks!" echoed throughout the first game. When Dahl took the field for his stunt, the ball players put on their batting helmets because the audience was getting so rowdy. About 10,000 disco records were set on fire, and the spectacle caused the crowd to storm the field. The second game of the double-header had to be cancelled because things got so out of hand.

Disco Demolition Night represented the epitome of the disco backlash that gripped the United States in 1979. The music was awful, claimed music fans -- boring, gimmicky and vapid. And disco fares no better today. It's often treated as a punch line in discussions about the 1970s, just another thing to be embarrassed about in a decade known for questionable fads and trends. But while many people claimed that disco died on July 12, 1979, it's still remarkably present today: people get up to dance when "Y.M.C.A." by the Village People plays at weddings, and rare is the karaoke night when "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor goes unsung. Music critics identify a disco influence in many current musical artists, and social commentators note that disco doesn't get the credit it deserves for promoting egalitarianism for marginalized groups of the 1970s, including the gay, black and Latino communities.

So whether you're the kind of person who would have sported your finest jumpsuit at Studio 54 or the kind of person who would have showed up to watch Steve Dahl set fire to disco records, read on to learn the story behind disco. You just may be surprised at what you find.

Disco Music

Donna Summer, the queen of the disco
Donna Summer, the queen of the disco
Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

The word "disco" is short for discotheque, a French term for night clubs where people could dance to pre-recorded music (as opposed to live bands). In the late 1960s in New York City, discos were popular in the gay, black and Latino communities. Some trace the beginning of disco music to 1970, when a man named David Mancuso hosted the first of many legendary dance parties in his apartment, known as "The Loft." Mancuso invested in a state-of-the-art stereo system that allowed him to segue seamlessly from one song to the next without stopping to change the record.

Though "disco" originally denoted the place where dance music was played, the term morphed to describe the kind of music that was played. Disco music, above all, is music that you can dance to. It's typified by a steady beat, known as "four-on-the-floor," and it usually features prominent orchestral or big-band arrangements. These features were borrowed from a type of soul music that was popular in Philadelphia at the end of the 1960s, and it evolved to include electronic elements and synthesizers, thanks to European dance music.

Music critics are divided on the first disco single; some say that Barry White and Isaac Hayes were singing disco-sounding music in 1971, while others say that 1974 marks an official beginning of the disco era, with Hues Corporation's "Rock the Boat" and George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby" appearing on the scene [source: Henderson]. While no one single may be able to mark disco's start, the musical style had hit its stride by 1975, and for the next four years disco reigned supreme. Disco's biggest hits include songs like "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc., "Le Freak" by Chic, "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees, "Get Down Tonight" by KC and the Sunshine Band, "Last Dance" by Donna Summer and "Play that Funky Music" by Wild Cherry.

Since disco music was designed to get crowds dancing, the lyrics of the songs often took a backseat to the beat. It was also harder for musicians and bands to sustain a long career in disco. People didn't care who was singing or playing a song, as long as they could dance to it, which is why you'll see many one-hit wonders among a list of disco's greatest hits. Rather than forming allegiances to specific singers, disco-goers more often paid attention to a great DJ who could keep the party going or to producers (such as the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) who were known for turning out consistently great records.

People also became devoted to their favorite nightclubs, but no one would have headed out to dance without dressing to the nines. We'll explore disco fashion on the next page.

Disco Fashion and Hairstyles

A night at the disco
A night at the disco
Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

One of the most enduring images of the disco era is John Travolta in the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever." He wears a white suit, his black shirt open to expose his chest. His hair is carefully styled, and he's certainly not wearing sneakers, but rather high-heeled dancing shoes. A night of disco dancing was not to be undertaken in flip-flops or jeans -- both men and women spent a lot of time perfecting their looks. Disco fashion was bright, tight and meant to catch the eye.

People went dancing in what was considered the height of fashion, even though 70s fashion can look dated and tacky to a contemporary eye. Clothing was often made of polyester and spandex in hues such as silver and gold. It was meant to show off a person's body, so fabric was either skintight or barely there. Sequins and leopard prints were widespread, and a person could never wear too much jewelry. Shoes were high -- platform shoes and sharp stilettos were abundant on the dance floor. And big hair was in; men styled their hair in large pompadours, while afros and teased styles were popular for both men and women. You probably would have found drugs in many people's pockets, too, as Quaaludes and LSD were popular on the disco scene.

The amount of time that both men and women spent on their attire for a night of dancing led some people to claim that disco culture and the people within it were just as vapid as the music. Clubs such as Studio 54 in New York City only allowed the finest dressed celebrities in the door, which led the masses to spend even more time on their looks in the hopes they'd get past the velvet ropes. Disco music had originally been novel because it got everyone, gay or straight, black or white, dancing together. The velvet ropes and dress codes of the most popular nightclubs, however, led to a quick segregation by class. For instance, rock and roll fans, in their blue jeans and T-shirts, claimed disco was too divisive and exclusive.

Did those rock and roll fans have a point? Did disco die because it got too big for its bell-bottomed britches, or did other factors cause its demise? Find out on the next page.

Disco Fever

Macho men: the Village People in the 1970s
Macho men: the Village People in the 1970s
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Disco fever gripped the United States from about 1975 to 1979. By 1979, disco was a $4 billion industry and there were about 15,000 disco night clubs in the U.S. [source: Weinraub]. With the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever," disco proved to be truly mainstream. The music, which had originally been popular in gay, black and Latino clubs, was embraced by an entire nation in turmoil over Vietnam and the end of the civil rights movement. Disco provided an escape from the real world, with its racial and economic divides. For four years, people didn't worry; they just danced.

But not everyone embraced disco. For one thing, disco changed the economics of the music business. Disco listeners were only loyal to songs that made them dance; they were unlikely to buy an entire album by an artist, or even the single, for that matter -- they'd simply listen to the music on the dance floor and keep their wallets in their pockets. That behavior continued to influence consumer behavior, and as a result, record companies reported sales of 575.6 million albums, singles and tapes in 1982, compared to 726.2 million in 1978 [source: Pareles].

While these economic losses probably had some effect on record companies turning on disco, some cultural critics claim that the disco backlash was due to racism and homophobia [sources: Gavin; Henderson]. Though disco had brought many people together to dance, some people may have been uncomfortable that gay culture or black culture was taking center stage in the United States. After disco, rock and roll, with its many white artists and groups, was dominant. There were also internal pressures in some of these subcultures -- when AIDS began spreading in the gay community in the early 1980s, no one felt much like dancing.

Amidst the economic woes of the music industry and possible prejudices against some groups, disco was deemed uncool, and it seemed to die at Comiskey Park in 1979. Really, though, all that died was the name. There are still plenty of styles of music designed to get people to dance, and the disco aesthetic can be glimpsed in much of today's dance music. Disco also played a role in the rise of hip-hop. Disco DJs would segue from one song to another without stopping, using long instrumental sequences to create an effortless flow. This willingness to experiment with records, rather than playing them from beginning to end before starting a new song, would influence hip-hop's earliest artists.

If you'd like to read more about disco, hip-hop or any kind of music, then see the links on the next page.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Behrens, Andy. "Disco Demolition: Bell-bottoms be gone!" ESPN. Aug. 11, 2004. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Experience Music Project. "Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights." (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Gavin, James. "Dance Dance Revolution." The New York Times. April 4, 2010. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Henderson, Alex. "Disco." Allmusic.com. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Lester, Paul. "Can you feel the force?" The Guardian. Feb. 23, 2007. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Pareles, Jon. "Disco Lives! Actually, It Never Died." The New York Times. Oct. 17, 1999. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Reynolds, Simon. "Disco Double Take: New York Parties Like It's 1975." Village Voice. July 10, 2001. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Robinson, Lisa. "Boogie Nights." Vanity Fair. February 2010. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Rockwell, John. "Rock vs. Disco: Who Really Won the War?" The New York Times. Sept. 16, 1990. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Sclafani, Tony. "When 'Disco Sucks!' echoed around the world." MSNBC. July 10, 2009. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Weinraub, Bernard. "Here's to Disco, It Never Could Say Goodbye." The New York Times. Dec. 10, 2002. (Aug. 23, 2011)
  • Zacharek, Stephanie. "Disco Inferno." Salon. June 8, 2005. (Aug. 23, 2011) http://www.salon.com/books/review/2005/06/08/shapiro/index.html