A brief guide to disco music

Simon Button

Strap on your boogie shoes for a trip through the history of a genre that dominated dance floors in the 1970s 

Origins 

Discothèques (the word means “library of phonographic records” in French) actually date back to France in the late 1930s, when the occupying Nazis banned jazz, bebop and the jitterbug—forcing hoofers to meet in underground clubs where music was played on jukeboxes or turntables rather than live bands. Discos became popular around the world in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, although they catered to swing and rock ‘n’ roll fans until, in the early 1970s, the world was ready for a brand new beat. 

 

The sound 

Springing out of soul and rhythm and blues, disco music calls people to the dance floor through an irresistible combination of bass-drum-heavy beats that drive a song along, soaring strings and blaring horns, and choppy syncopated rhythms. In its most commercial form it features euphoric melodies and big choruses. This exciting new sound was hugely popular in New York gay clubs before strutting into the mainstream. 

 

Getting into the groove 

Isaac Hayes, The O’Jays and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes are among the artists credited with fusing R&B and soul with disco elements, but the first pure disco smash is widely regarded as Gloria Gaynor’s 1975 energetic re-do of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye”.  

That same year saw Van McCoy popularising a new dance style called The Hustle as Barry White and KC & The Sunshine Band enjoyed disco hits, while the following year the genre produced its first new superstar in Donna Summer—whose highly sexual “Love To Love You Baby” was banned by the BBC but still reached Number Four and, in its 16-minute form on the album of the same name, launched a trend for extended versions designed to keep punters dancing. 

 

Catching the fever 

Summer bettered her UK chart position in 1977 by topping the pops with the innovative synth-driven “I Feel Love”, by which time the world had gone disco crazy. The soundtrack of hedonistic paradise Studio 54, disco was leant a sophisticated sheen by the group Chic (whose “Le Freak” the following year was actually inspired by the fact frontmen Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had been refused entry to the club and originally featured rather more profane lyrics) and by year’s end gave the Bee Gees a new lease of life with their Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. 

 

Everybody dance 

John Travolta’s iconic white suit from Fever inspired a new fashion trend. The huge popularity of disco also inspired rockers like Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones, Blondie and even Kiss to jump on the bandwagon, to the advantage of their bank balances but not always to the pleasure of critics. As covered in our feature on 1980s music the genre also fanned the wrath of rock DJs Steve Dahl and Gary Meier—resulting in a disco inferno on July 21, 1990, when they blew up a stash of disco records between baseball matches in Chicago.   

 

The beat goes on 

After Dahl and Meier’s so-called Disco Demolition Night, the sound that had dominated the decade quickly fell out of favour, though music historians also note that the 1970s party scene had begun to burn out as the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as US President signalled a shift towards more conservative values. But you can’t keep a good beat down, as proven by the resurgence of Rodgers’ Chic as a nostalgia circuit favourite, films like Boogie Nights celebrating disco culture and such artists as Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and Dua Lipa paying homage to the genre.  

 

Read more: 10 Of the greatest rock songs in history

Read more: Are these rare jazz records in your attic?

 

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