Disco is coming back! In fact, says Mike Atkinson, it never really went away.
Over thirty-five years after the music industry tried to declare it dead, disco remains the genre that refuses to go away.
Take this year, for instance. There are new releases from Chic and Giorgio Moroder, two of disco’s greatest practitioners. The early work of Grace Jones is being reappraised, thanks to a comprehensive boxed set, The Disco Years. Jimmy Somerville, arguably the first big-selling artist to revive the genre in the first place, has returned to disco with his latest album, Homage.
To the delight of the crate-digging cognoscenti, the legendary French disco producer Cerrone is making his Glastonbury debut. At the Berlin Film Festival, Mark Christopher’s radically revised director’s cut of (Studio) 54 wowed the critics. Meanwhile, 70s-inspired looks have been a major story in many of this year’s spring/summer fashion collections.
Once derided by rock fans for its superficiality, and sniggered at by style snobs for its excess, disco has been enjoying the last laugh ever since.
The movement’s roots stretch back to east coast America in the early 70s, and an unlikely collision between seemingly disconnected underground scenes. Emerging from decades of oppression, and now openly striving for both personal and political liberation, a new generation of gay men were finding salvation every weekend on the dance floor, as documented by writers such as Andrew Holleran in his novel Dancer from the Dance and Edmund White in States of Desire.
Elsewhere in the same urban centres, a similar new mood of confidence and optimism was re-shaping black culture, soundtracked by a smoother, more luxuriant take on soul music that found its perfect vehicle in the richly orchestrated Philadelphia sound (and equally eager audiences in working-class Italian-American and Latino communities).
Add the lingering influences of post-psychedelic drug culture into the mix, sprinkle with bohemians, fashionistas, artists, dealers, hookers, slumming high-lifers and hustling low-lifers, and you have a unique melting pot that would soon bubble over from the underground to the mainstream.
By the time that the Saturday Night Fever phenomenon had repackaged disco culture for the masses (an unlikely development, given the gritty, glamour-puncturing nature of the film itself), there were dance clubs in every town in the Western world, where dolled-up suburbanites shimmied to the Bee Gees, entirely unaware of the subcultures which had spawned their weekend rituals.
Disco had become big business, and record companies and radio stations fuelled the glut. Rock superstars, showbiz legends and new wave upstarts alike jumped on the bandwagon, with results ranging from the sublime (Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, The Rolling Stones’ Miss You) to the ridiculous (Rod Stewart’s Da Ya Think I’m Sexy, the unspeakable horror of Ethel Merman’s Disco Album).
A backlash had become inevitable, and nowhere did it strike more sharply than in disco’s homeland, the USA. In July 1979, just as the music was reaching its highest commercial peak, a “Disco Demolition Night” in a Chicago baseball stadium, where piles of disco records were literally exploded on the pitch, turned into a riot, making national headlines and coining a new slogan: “disco sucks”. Chastened by the wrath of the rock fans, the American music industry beat a hasty retreat. The Knack’s My Sharona replaced Chic’s Good Times at the top of the Billboard chart, and by the autumn of that year “disco” had become a dirty word. Collars, lapels and trouser legs all shrank, bouffants were trimmed and shirt buttons were re-fastened over chests, as the 80s loomed into view.
Over here in Europe, where nobody quite got the “disco sucks” memo, the genre was permitted a more graceful decline. The melting pot fragmented once again, as smaller scenes re-grouped. A dedicated soul/funk crowd continued to carry the torch for the cooler, less hyped-up end of the spectrum, while disco’s zingier, sparklier side became more expressly linked with gay dancefloors, re-emerging a couple of years later as Hi-NRG. Meanwhile, Shalamar, Kool and the Gang and Odyssey all enjoyed respectable hit-making careers, regardless of whether anyone called them “disco” or not, and continental summer holidays continued to be soundtracked by the brash and breezy strains of Euro-disco.
Other legacies were also brewing. In one corner, there was hip hop: disco’s bastard offspring, quietly biding its time. In another, even tinier corner, a group of black and gay Chicago DJs were keeping the faith, preparing the way for the house music explosion – or “disco’s revenge”, as some commentators wisely put it.
There were wider and equally enduring legacies, too. Disco had introduced us to the art of seamless beat-mixing, and the pleasures of dancing until dawn in a darkened room, whether chemically assisted or not. And it had given the world a new breed of performer: the glamorous dance diva, defiantly masking her pain, and giving a soulful voice to our joys and sorrows, our dreams and our desires.
The genre itself might have dipped in and out of style over the years (although we never seem to be more than a few years away from its next revival), but most of its key elements – dressing to impress on a Saturday night, the communal ritual of the dance floor, the craft of the DJ, door policies, velvet ropes, lasers, smoke machines, and that biggest totem of them all, the hallowed mirror ball – will probably always be with us.
Ten all-time disco classics
Boogie Oogie Oogie – A Taste Of Honey
Don’t Leave Me This Way – Thelma Houston
Everybody Dance – Chic
Never Can Say Goodbye – Gloria Gaynor
On The Radio – Donna Summer
Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King
The Boss – Diana Ross
Turn The Beat Around – Vicki Sue Robinson
Vertigo/Relight My Fire – Dan Hartman
You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – Sylvester
Ten disco crate-digger cult cuts
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (The Garage Version) – Inner Life
Change – Zulema
Dancer – Gino Soccio
Haven’t You Heard – Patrice Rushen
I Know You, I Live You – Chaka Khan
Law Of The Land – The Temptations
Souvenirs – Voyage
Take Off – Harlow
Tell You (Today) – Loose Joints
The Hills Of Katmandu – Tantra
To hear a playlist of Disco Classics and Cult Cuts go to: