Feature: Disco – the rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated

Those of us old enough to remember the late 1970s witnessed a mass and abrupt rejection of disco as that decade closed out. The public’s about-face was so swift that the music was erased from our conciousness. Unlike the more resilient psychadelic rock and heavy metal from the 60s and early 70s, disco truly was dead, just as the t-shirt announced.

Thirty years later, I can appreciate disco’s lasting impact. The hi-hat dominated rhythm tracks, the squelchy guitar lines, the strong female vocals, and the orchestral strings are once again markers of coolness in today’s carefully curated underground DJ mixes.

Where did disco come from?

Several credit the partnership of Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer as the beginning of disco. Summer’s Love to Love You and I Feel Love are trancy an innovative departures from the folk-based love tunes of that era and introduced electric instruments in a much bigger way than pop music had seen.

Although Summer reached #1 with Love to Love You in 1975, there were several examples of earlier tunes with the disco sound, including 1972’s One Night Affair by Jerry Butler and Rock the Boat by the Hue’s Corporation a year later.

Arguably, the context of where the sound was heard was as important as the musicians that created it. The alternative nightclub scenes in Philadelphia and New York gave this music a space. These were not mainstream but would later evolve into the discotheques that would explode in popularity in the mid- to late 70s.

Disco was good, then some of it was bad, then it just became pop

To me, disco was at its best when it was grounded in funk and soul. And much of that era’s music is just that. KC and the Sunshine Band, Chic, MFSB and, The Jackson 5 all featured substantial songwriting with a musician’s pedigree. These qualities underpinned the disco treatment in songs like KC’s Boogie Shoes, MFSB’s The Sound of Philadelphia, and Chic’s Good Times.

Later in the 70s, with the advancement of electronic instruments and sequencers, disco got lazy. Acts like the Village People created anthems with the disco sound that was more a product of engineering and marketing than musicianship and songwriting. Some of the sparse internet reading I found on this was at www.scaruffi.com.

With disco’s death knell, the muscians and producers that lived and breathed it in the 70s moved on to pop music in the 80s. Nile Rodgers of Chic, Michael Jackson, and others transformed themselves into the kings of pop and would even outlast the next niche genre on the horizon: new wave.

Without disco, we would not have house

As disco transitioned to the mainstream in the late 70s, the underground movement that spawned it was already infatuated with something new: Garage music. Developed to a large extent in the Chicago and New York underground club scenes, Garage or Warehouse music borrowed from the melodies and vocal stylings of disco but backed it up with heavy, driving beats. DJs like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, and Joey Negro were behind some of the hits and popular acts of that era and can be viewed as the forefathers of the modern club DJ.

As garage and warehouse eventually morphed into the more popular “house” music, the underground came above ground. One of the milestones of this mainstreaming of house music was the massive hit, West End Girls, by the Pet Shop Boys. A testament to disco’s influence, one of the Boys himself, Neil Tennant, is quoted as saying he used “Barry White chords” in the composition.

Where is disco today?

Simply put, the disco sound is peppered through pop music and continues to inspire dance, electronic, and house music. In particular, anthem pop acts like Lady GaGa, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber employ bold electronic arrangements that were innovated more than 30 years ago by disco producers like Moroder.

Outside of the mainstream (where great music lives), the selections of today’s hot DJs in the rare groove and jazz/funk genres are starting to feature hits from our disco days. Underground producer KON, recently released fresh and stunning re-works of the Bee Gees Staying Alive and Cerrone’s Hooked on You.

But for me, the find of the year and one of the main reasons I was inspired to write this post was an original by Pete Dunaway from 1974, courtesy of the Sport of Selection website (home of the Friday Night Session radio program). The track, Supermarket has generous string and flute arrangements that place it squarely in the 70s. But the rhythm track, raw and naturalistic vocals, and structure of the song allow it to stand up against the hippest releases from today’s underground scene.

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