Styles & Forms | Disco | Dance

The Afro wig. The mirror ball. Platform heels. A pair of lurid flares. The enduring iconography of the mass-market disco era might seem laughable now, but to reduce such a revolutionary social force, and creative musical explosion to a few items of fashion tat would be very short-sighted indeed.

As has happened with many other musical forms, the black (and, in this case, also gay) origins of disco have tended to be somewhat brushed over. Indeed, for many, disco is summed up by the movie Saturday Night Fever or disco late comers like The Bee Gees. It may be true that the all-dancing John Travolta film took disco overground, and the previously washed-up Gibb brothers made disco more widely known in the late-1970s, but the first discotheque dates back to the 1940s.

Discotheque literally means ‘record library’, derived from the French word bibliotheque. During their Second World War occupation of France, the Nazis banned dancing to, or playing, American-sounding music. The French Resistance took to playing the jazz records of black America furtively in the dark, makeshift cellar bars, and the term discotheque gained a more widespread parlance. When English speakers picked up on the concept of discotheques, their very Frenchness leant these early establishments a degree of sophistication.

As New York DJs like Francis Grasso began mixing records together in late-night joints – keeping the beat going so that the music constantly flowed – revellers could begin to party harder and longer. Boundaries and prejudices were being broken down on the dance floors, and the cultural climate was heading towards a kind of post-civil rights inclusivity. Other DJs, such as David Mancuso, at his New York loft parties, would emphasize the spiritual journey a musical evening could take, while Nicky Siano – opening The Gallery – realised that Mancuso’s vibe could still work on a more commercial club level. By the mid-1970s, there were more than 100 nightclubs in NYC. The disco sound had genuinely begun to germinate.

Soul, Sex And Dancing

In general, disco had a soulful feel about it, boosted by a quality, post-Spector production that incorporated uplifting, orchestral strings or brass. In addition, Giorgio Moroder’s productions introduced a hi-NRG European influence, on classic cuts such as ‘Love To Love You Baby’ and ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer. The definition of disco remained quite open: essentially, it referred to what would work on the dance floor. Even non-disco songs would become disco tunes, such as the Sugar Hill Gang’s hip-hop prototype ‘Rapper’s Delight’‚ or Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’. Some artists even seemed to become disco for one week only, and not simply to revive a flagging career – the list of opportunists included Kiss, Cher, Bryan Adams, Queen, Bay City Rollers, Burt Bacharach and Diana Ross.

Some key musical innovations went hand in hand with the rise of disco. DJs fuelled the demand for remixes or re-edits of records, many of which were, initially,...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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