Why disco won
I 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.
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.