Why disco won

Posted in culture, music by thenextwavefutures on 27 May, 2013

1280px-Disco_Ball3I was watchng a documentary about the guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers, who together with his musical collaborator Bernard Edwards had, with Chic and (as producer) Sister Sledge, a golden run of hits in the late 1970s, at the height of the disco boom. And then – after the so-called ‘Disco Demolition Night‘ in 1979’ – neither band had another hit. Without trying to overthink it this was a cultural moment that deserves a little more reflection.

So: let’s rewind to the 1970s. In the UK we associate the musical rebellion of the decade with punk, of which more later, but with hindsight the wave of disco was far more radical.

The speed of its development was remarkable: a niche Loft phenomenon in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1970, associated with the DJ David Mancuso; the first mainstream hits in ’72 and ’73; by 1978 dominating the airwaves, before the backlash at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

The Disco Demolition Night, the third organised by Detroit “shock jock” Steve Dahl, was by far the largest. Fans who brought a disco record to be trashed got into the baseball game for only a few cents. The plan was a blow them up in the break between matches. Things got out of hand: 60,000 people showed up instead of the anticipated 35,000, a riot started, police had to intervene, and the second game was called off.

The news footage of those events is striking for the chaos and the level of anger. As Steve Knopper wrote in his 2009 book,

It’s incredible that rock fans would actually riot for the right to hear REO Speedwagon and Foreigner.

Culture wars

You don’t have to be a student of intersectionality to see the mass of oppositions playing out:

  • City vs suburbs
  • Coast vs heartland
  • Diversity vs homogeneity
  • Black vs white
  • Gay vs straight.

In fact, Dahl was quoted as saying, “Midwesterners didn’t want that intimidating [disco] style shoved down their throats.”

And there are some aesthetic oppositions as well, which might include electric vs electronic, performance vs experience, individual vs collective. I’m sure I’m missing some.

In short, this was a preview of the culture wars that have wracked the US ever since.

Optimistic music for dark times

The wider point here is that all music genres that sustain have a social and economic element to them. It is possible to be too reductive about this, but rock ‘n’ roll was fuelled by a new generation of affluent young people with money to spend (captured engagingly in the film American Graffiti, for example); punk, in contrast by the equivalent group of young people 20 years on, beached (“No future“) by the oil shocks and a receding economy. Rhythm and blues, in a different way, was the sound of a new aware black generation staking a claim on society rather than being confined to the musical ghetto of ‘race music’. And so on.

Disco brought several of these strands together, but marked them in a different way: it was optimistic music for dark times, but it was a music that could find itself a constituency only in the wake of the civil rights movement and the Stonewall riots. It is a music of communities finding a voice, but it also speaks across and beyond those communities. Rodgers is explicit about this: in the same way that dance music swept the US in the ’30s, so disco in the 1970s. Indeed, the lyric of Good Times nods explicitly at one of the biggest hits of Depression America:

Happy days – are here again.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that part of the success of Saturday Night Fever, disco’s cross-over point in 1978 (the film was released just before Christmas 1977), was because the dance sequences (songs mostly by a white band) were set against the same world that Springsteen sings about in his first records in which young white men were struggling to find work, that first generation of the young unskilled whose pathways into employment were cut off by de-industrialisation. (Spoiler alert: One of them commits suicide).

Re-making the mainstream

Disco Demolition Night cleaned the charts out of disco music, almost instantly – and also led to a slump in record sales in the US (11% down year on year in 1979). The music went back into the subcultures, as house and techno. And during the course of the 1980s, the rock mainstream came calling: David Bowie, who’d already experimented with soul music on Young Americans, Duran Duran, Bryan Ferry, Steve Winwood, Madonna, even INXS. (And this month, of course, Daft Punk). Maybe Steve Dahl should have been more careful about what he wished for.

And in cultural terms, perhaps more significantly, it also influenced hiphop, one of the truly radical musical movements of the last 30 years. Culture flows and eddies along the contours of social and economic change, and in turn influences the social and economic world. And when it gets blocked, as it was by Disco Demolition Night, it goes underground and finds another way to the surface.

The image at the top of this post is from the Wikimedia Commons and is used with thanks.


35 Responses

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  1. segmation said, on 29 May, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    I don’t know if this intersection of race and pop culture is worth having another way to come up to the surface. Perhaps it is best left where it is?

  2. waynelaw said, on 29 May, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    Yes, I was part of the “Disco Sucks” mentality- and Yes, I at one time thought Foreigner and R.E.O were worth buying tickets to go see.(Dark days indeed) As young rock fans- we were living in a time when our music ruled the earth did not want to give ground to the evil mirror ball. I am not saying we were right.

  3. rami ungar the writer said, on 29 May, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    You’ll struggle to find people who think so highly of disco as you do these days. Regardless, I think disco influence some of the music I listen to today, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

  4. McPhedran Phocus said, on 30 May, 2013 at 12:14 am

    Disco was great. Too bad it lasted only a short time

  5. 113yearslater said, on 30 May, 2013 at 12:43 am

    As someone who has heard both Foreigner and disco that I liked, I feel I have no horse in this race. Good music is good music, and everything is hated and reviled ten years after it’s released.

  6. bernasvibe said, on 30 May, 2013 at 4:06 am

    I recall the disco era fondly..The music was UPbeat, fun, hip and a ton of fun to dance to..That said the silver sparkling ball threw off a dreamy feeling..All the flashing lights made dancing what its meant to be; a fun release of energy. Ironic to see your post because my big 50th bday coming soon? Part of my party theme is going to be, yep you guessed it, disco! Chic, one of my fave disco era groups, got it right@ Good Times! Indeed..

  7. pezcita said, on 30 May, 2013 at 5:00 am

    I was born about 10 years after disco’s heyday, so I don’t remember the music of the ’70s or ’80s. Still, from what I’ve heard of ’80s music (and ’80s rock stars) your observation that “Maybe Steve Dahl should have been more careful about wished for” sure rings true.

  8. kellyscott57 said, on 30 May, 2013 at 6:12 am

    I hated disco because of its never ending style in fact in 1976 I was a DJ at a then, AM blow torch station here in Eugene,Oregon 1280 KBDF Am ,long before FM became what it is now, anyway during the last part of shake your booty by KC and his sunshine band, I ,not really knowing it? cut out I think about the last 10 shake shake shake shake your booty’s, only to get a nasty phone call from a listener asking me why I didn’t let the whole song play??? that was disco….

  9. kellyscott57 said, on 30 May, 2013 at 6:13 am

    side note…..Now I love disco…..funny how time. changes us!

  10. moodsnmoments said, on 30 May, 2013 at 7:42 am

    i love the disco era and I wish to be a part of it. It was so much fun 😉

  11. laritaraine said, on 30 May, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    It was also a precursor to house music, acid, beat box music in Chicago. Old school house music incorporated disco artists often in its mixes. It kept many young men off the streets while they danced in warehouses across the city until the break of dawn. DJs became popular for their mix tapes and they still reign to this day. Keith Farley, Scott Sills, Ralph Rosario, etc. They are still able to go to Europe and make money. I agree that Disco Sucks bit off way more than it could chew.

  12. odiousghost said, on 30 May, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    That was a really fascinating post. I’m not a big fan of ‘disco’ per se, but can see that it’s had a massive influence.

    The footage of that riot – over a genre of music!! – was amazing.


  13. mball1992 said, on 30 May, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Reblogged this on oneballtwofaces and commented:
    disco all the way!

  14. Marsha in the D said, on 30 May, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I didn’t care for disco and stopped listening to music for a bit. At the time, I was a telephone installer for the now defunct Michigan Bell in Detroit. I went into at least 1500 homes a year in Detroit. Most of the music I heard was R&B, soul, blues or gospel. I turned to R&B. And now it has been jazz for a long time which I once declared a dissonant mess. Funny how the sound track of our lives evolve.

  15. Daily Post from Bluxome Street said, on 30 May, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Reblogged this on Bluxome Street Post and commented:
    “Pop music, disco music, and heavy metal music is about shutting out the tensions of life, putting it away.” – Peter Tork, The Monkees

  16. Mia Finch said, on 30 May, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    Love the disco!

  17. RHF said, on 31 May, 2013 at 1:23 am

    Reblogged this on Real Hoopy Frood.

  18. Kylie said, on 31 May, 2013 at 7:17 am

    Smart post. I never thought about disco like this. But just like I thought that bell bottoms would never, ever come back… and they did… disco music has also come back. I LOVE the new ‘alt-disco’ (is that a thing? I think it’s a thing. Broken Bells, anyone? The JudyBats covering Jive Talking?).

  19. JC said, on 31 May, 2013 at 8:48 am

    A very enlightening read! Loved the post, Love Disco!

  20. theblackboardstory said, on 31 May, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Reblogged this on The Blackboard Story.

  21. holditnow said, on 1 June, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Disco never died, it morphed into house and was the building blocks of HIp-Hop. All the kids that are listening to EDM are listening to Disco. It’s the same 4/4 beat with the same sentiment weaved into the lyrics. Disco won all the way to the bank. Since its inception til now; it’s a billion dollar industry.

  22. David A Olson said, on 1 June, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    I was at Disco Demolition but I didn’t storm the field. It was a wild night.

  23. A.K. said, on 1 June, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    I have to admit I’m not a fan of straight-up disco, but I know it’s influenced a lot of music that I do like. So let’s give these guys some credit, absolutely.

  24. foxxyt said, on 2 June, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    Reblogged this on vividlyfoxxy and commented:

  25. Coolteenreads said, on 3 June, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    I grew up with disco but I loved bands like Foreigner too. Perhaps disco lovers were just more open-minded about music? Interesting post.

  26. thelearnedkat said, on 4 June, 2013 at 12:08 am

    I enjoyed reading this post and feel I have to add :
    “Disco brought several of these strands together, but marked them in a different way: it was optimistic music for dark times, but it was a music that could find itself a constituency only in the wake of the civil rights movement and the Stonewall riots” Disco came about BECAUSE of the black and gay movement. It definitely was the voice for minority groups to be heard at a time when music was populated by the “White” voices of pop, punk, heavy metal etc. Initially, it was “underground” and somehow came to surface and became mainstream thanks to Donna Summer and bands such as Chic, Sister Sledge. It then developed a more “popular” face with singers such as Gloria Gaynor and adopted by mainstream culture. Meanwhile, whilst all that was happening, the “underground” were swiftly moving onto a new sound called “Funk”. The black voice and antithesis to “Punk”. The sound of Disco also came to a very sorry demise when Donna Summer, dubbed “Queen of Disco” by her gay followers, ‘found’ Christianity. She denounced the same group of followers, saying that all gay men were to “burn in hell”. This led to a massive furore amongst her fans who in turn, dumped and burnt thousands of disco records in stadiums and around the world, which practically ruined Ms Summers career/reputation and the sound of disco overnight. That is one of the reasons why a lot of stars ( such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, Beyonce) in the pop world say they are forever indebted to their gay fans or advocates of the lgbt community. They know it can make or break their careers. I enjoyed “disco” as created by the black minority as opposed to commercialised “disco”. That terrible song “More, more, more!” comes to mind.

  27. Why disco won | thelearnedkat said, on 4 June, 2013 at 12:15 am

    […] Why disco won. […]

  28. thelearnedkat said, on 4 June, 2013 at 12:16 am

    Reblogged this on thelearnedkat and commented:
    I’m reblogging this post because I enjoyed listening to Disco music back in the day and this post was compelled me to respond. It comes at a time when there are a number of disco themed television programmes and there appears to be a resurgence in a new wave of “disco sounds” or “disco with a modern twist”.

  29. maggie said, on 4 June, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    great post! Good music is good music, period. I don’t understand the anger, at all. I don’t care for Country music, but I can’t imagine getting enraged over it. I am loving the Alt. Disco trend.

  30. andrewhooks1 said, on 4 June, 2013 at 6:42 pm


  31. Midwestern Plant Girl said, on 5 June, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    Being from the suburbs of Chicago & old enough to have ‘shook my bootie’, I remember the night of Disco Demo. We were on our way down to Comiskey Park (making a late entrance) and listening to the radio that the event had gotten way out of control. We never made it there, but had a big laugh at the situation.
    I think every generation has it’s ‘outlandish’ music & disco landed in the 70’s. Even KISS did a disco song, “I was made for loving you baby”. Now we have Kid Rock who mixes rap, country, blues and heavy metal.
    Thanks for the flashback!!

  32. spincyclediaries said, on 6 June, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    I love disco – to me it symbolizes tube tops, glitter, big hair and dancing! My comment may be a little less “academic” but I think it’s reminiscent of the subject matter at hand…disco was fun! And those disco backbeats that make their way into music today have a way of making you want to shake and groove!

  33. pearlsitc said, on 10 June, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Reblogged this on Get films info & news..

  34. jasonallanlapp said, on 25 June, 2013 at 2:42 am

    Speaking of disco, have any of you listened to the most recent Daft Punk album? Talk about being inspired by a genre. We actually posted a review of the album on our blog. If you like disco, but loathe new music in general, it might be worth checking out.

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