When we think of disco, we think of Sister Sledge, the Village People and Michael Jackson; groovy basslines and shimmering synths — a call to dance with no regard for tomorrow, in the words of Martha Reeves. Its heyday may seem confined to the faded neon-emblazoned LPs of the late 70s and early 80s, but the enduring influence and appeal of this genre resurges every decade, be it through innovative sampling or retro-tinged production.
Dua Lipa’s latest release Future Nostalgia is an essay in majestic disco pop and is spearheading its most recent revival; similarly, The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’ resounds with polished 80s disco glamour. A decade ago, Bruno Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories gave a nod to the classic disco sound with a modern twist (and the latter with Nile Rodgers’ Midas touch). Back at the turn of the millennium, Kylie Minogue dabbled in nu-disco on Fever whilst the crate-digging DJs of the early 00s repackaged disco beats for the house generation, giving way to French Touch and tracks like ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’ and ‘Music Sounds Better With You’.
To celebrate the enduring appeal of disco, here are a few of the key moments, songs and icons.
Love Train // The O’Jays – The Genre Takes its First Steps (1972-76)
The disco genre has its roots in Motown and R&B, furthered by the introduction of 12” vinyl singles for extended remixes and maximum dance potential.
The early 70s spawned several proto-disco releases that paved the way for the glittery, go-go-booted revolution that was to come, The O’Jay’s soulful ‘Love Train’ among them. Other precursors of the disco explosion were ‘Love’s Theme’ by Barry White’s The Love Unlimited Orchestra and The Hues Corporation’s ‘Rock the Boat’ in 1974, as well as Thelma Houston’s rousing ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ in 1976.
Disco was beginning to emerge from the underground party scene into mainstream consciousness like the hedonistic Club Kids returning home from the night before.
I Feel Love // Donna Summer – The Queen and the Father Collaborate (1977)
Written to be the sound of the future, the Queen of Disco Donna Summer joined forces with the Father of Disco Giorgio Moroder in 1977 to create one of the most influential tracks of all time. The sequencer-driven global chart topper is emotionally-charged, with breathy vocals and flickering bassline. While helping to propel the disco genre to international ears, it was an equally seminal record in the birth of synthpop and techno. ‘I Feel Love’ even made a recent return to the charts this year in the form of Sam Smith’s loyal cover of the disco anthem. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Summer’s six minutes of disco ecstasy changed the face of dance music forever.
Saturday Night Fever: Disco Becomes a Mainstream Cultural Powerhouse (1977)
Despite its veneer of farce conjuring up images of John Travolta in white bell bottoms, few albums have been as significant as the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It embedded the disco phenomenon in the cultural consciousness on both sides of the Atlantic and is one of the best-selling albums of all time. The Bee Gees dominate the double LP with some of their most illustrious hits such as ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘Night Fever’ and ‘How Deep is Your Love’.
The tracklist reads like a roster of disco’s finest, featuring contributions from Tavares, Kool & the Gang, KC and the Sunshine Band and The Trammps; Yvonne Elliman’s impassioned ‘If I Can’t Have You’ is among its highlights.
Sylvester – A True Icon and Embodiment of the Disco Ethos (1978)
Holding the same title as Donna Summer as the Queen of Disco, Sylvester was an openly gay icon on the disco scene and represented the genre’s queer and Afro-American roots. Unlike the style of disco John Travolta embodied, Sylvester was a flamboyant and androgynous cross-dresser, living out the era’s decadent excesses through his funk-driven falsetto on hits like ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and the tongue-in-cheek ‘Do Ya Wanna Funk?’.
Good Times // Chic – Nile Rodgers Shakes Up the Charts Forever (1979)
No one is more synonymous with disco than Chic pioneer Nile Rodgers. ‘Good Times’, with its ever-sampled bassline and simple vocal and piano arrangements, is the best-selling single in the history of Atlantic Records. Not only does the Chic catalogue boast some of the most definitive floor-fillers (think ‘Le Freak’, ‘Everybody Dance’, ‘I Want Your Love’), but it has helped other artists to find their sound, with acts as diverse as Grandmaster Flash and The Smiths citing their influence. With Rodgers on production duties for some of the biggest LPs of the following decades, the likes of David Bowie and Diana Ross dipped their toes in the genre to dazzling success.
21 July 1979 – The True Pinnacle
Much like the starting point of a genre, pinpointing the exact moment that a movement was at its peak may seem needless and subjective. However, in terms of chart success, the week of 21 July 1979 marked the zenith of the disco’s chart domination, with the top six songs in the US featuring a disco sound. Among them were Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘Boogie Wonderland’ by Earth, Wind & Fire with The Emotions and classic one hit wonder Anita Ward with ‘Ring My Bell’. From 1977 to 1980, the Billboard Hot 100 #1 spot was occupied by around 22 disco-style tracks, but the genre was to suffer an irredeemable fall from grace; it all but disappeared following The Knack’s six-week run at the top with ‘My Sharona’ from August.
Disco Demolition Night, 1979
Disco Demolition Night was arguably a catalyst for disco’s decline post-1979. During a Major League Baseball game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, local radio DJ and rock devotee Steve Dahl organised for a huge pile of disco records to be blown up between games. 50,000 people flooded the stands, throwing the uncollected vinyl and brandishing slogans like ‘Disco sucks’. A riot ensued, forfeiting the baseball game. Disco Demolition Night was the darkest point in the genre’s history, with sinister overtones of racism and homophobia from its participants. Despite never fully recovering from this blow, disco-influenced tracks continued to bother the charts into the next decade and beyond.
In spite of everything, disco has stuck around. To what does it owe its survival? Why do we (unknowingly) seem to like it so much? Beyond cynical claims of sampling being derivative and overly reliant on nostalgia, disco revels in its simplicity.
The choruses are catchy and uplifting and the rhythms are irresistibly danceable. In other words, disco is fun. As one of its most famous anthems declares, it will survive.
Words by Kristen Sinclair
This article was originally published as part of The Indiependent’s May 2020 charity magazine, which is still on sale and is raising money for the British Lung Foundation. Find out more here.