Glitterball and high octane music = DISCO. In the dark, hundreds of tiny mirrors sparkling together look like a spinning, silver planet. Someone, somewhere, is zipping up their spandex shorts (or boots, as Odyssey would have it) and practising their best John Travolta moves. This, my friends, is the age of disco. Here in the article, Disco Glare, we are going to look at the history of disco music and culture, and give you a pretty solid playlist to delve into along the way.
Disco was the music that brought us pornstar-turned-singer Andrea True, disco biscuits (quaaludes), Donna Summer’s shameless, 23 orgasms in Love to Love you Baby (before she finally decided to pack it all in and become a born again Christian), and the best scene from Full Monty, when Gaz and his gang of reluctant male strippers are practicing their strip routine to Hot Stuff in the dole queue.
But before we look at the elements of disco that we already know and love, first let’s look at the beginning of the disco scene and meet some of the greats who inspired a generation to take control of their own identities, take pride in their culture, and to create a community that would leave positive, lasting change – along with a legacy of music that is still lighting up dance floors today.
We’re travelling back to a time of glaring rainbow colours, flashing cameras, and the swirling lights of New York City. Across discotheques, the beat of a new type of dance music is emerging.
Through the mid-60’s, in predominantly black and gay underground night clubs in New York, diverse audiences were coming together for the first time to openly celebrate a dynamic turn in culture.
David Mancuso (arguably disco’s first DJ) had been casually playing music for friends visiting his squat on Broadway Street, but his house parties soon evolved to become the legendary, invite-only, birthplace of disco: The Loft. It was cheap to get in, Mancuso was a major proponent of LSD, which set the tone for most of his parties, and he introduced his large circle of friends to a whole span of black music that had everyone dancing all night, and returning the next day for more. The crowd was a diverse mix of races and genders, hip heterosexuals, gays and queer folk, who all had one thing in common: to find a refuge from the not so with it New York police department, who had already raided most of the cool queer bars in New York.
After the Stonewall riots, which thousands of gay and straight protestors attended over 3 days in 1969, the urgency of the LGBT movement and a widespread shift towards social justice politics, became part of public consciousness. What followed in the coming decade was the emergence of a growing demand for the legal recognition of LGBT rights and a popular vision of society in which everyone was equal, regardless of race, gender, class, and sexuality.
Then came The Sanctuary a few years later, shaped by resident disco DJ Francis Grasso. It became a home of sorts (like many discos in New York and Philadelphia in the 60s and 70s) for a community of predominantly Latino, black and gay men. Grasso’s music choice was funky, drawing on Latin influences and African drums. And his style of DJing was innovative and vastly different to other DJs (he prolonged and fluidly mixed tracks, which was not typical at the time – DJs usually just played a record until it finished). He had a talent for finding and layering seemingly opposing tracks to create unusual, high-tempo dance music, and he played a set that was creative and atmospheric, rather than just a list of popular music.
The old idea that dancing was for heterosexual couples, and should be reserved for formal dancehalls and stuffy social gatherings, was going down the drain. Fast. New York’s illegal, underground gay scene was not so secret by the late 60s – and it looked way more fun than anything straight society had to offer. Even venues that were well-known hotspots for gay people to have casual sex, were embraced by straight people and celebrities.
The much-loved Continental Baths was bought by a former opera singer and went from being a seedy dive, to boasting not only a sauna and swimming pool, but also a disco room, DJ booth and 400 private rooms. It was visited by Mick Jagger, and even Alfred Hitchcock (who apparently just sat around watching, no surprise there), and of course a whole host of gay and straight customers happy to dance around in the nude.
Far from the vision of the dance floor that would have monogamous straight couples dancing the two-step, this new experience of clubbing became a melting pot of diverse audiences in an environment that was dynamic and hyper-sexual. It shattered the traditional clubbing experience forever.
As disco culture grew, it saw some of its grittier homo-erotic tracks that had come directly from the gay scene, exchanged for a more pop-influenced, commercial sound, that would appeal to a mainstream heterosexual audience. From its beginnings in back-alley clubs and house parties, it finally came of age in Midtown Manhatten, where the good, the bad and the famous all congregated at the now infamous studio 54. Enter the beginning of the commercialisation of disco.
It’s now 1977, and all you can hear is I Feel Love blaring through the speakers, which has captured everyone in a type of trance. Apparently, the owners of Studio 54 (Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager) have flooded the smoke machines with cocaine and now a dusty mist is billowing out from the ceiling over all of the sequin-clad divas below.
Oddly enough, some of disco’s greats hailed from the church. But disco was far from gospel music, and it most certainly was not trying to appeal to church-going audiences. Artists like Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer and Sylvester developed their vocal technique singing gospel in church choirs; but the LGBT community needed them more. Disco was making waves, and money, and when Casablanca Records took on Donna Summer for heretical moaning, groaning and grinding, it was, in effect, giving a big fat finger to old establishment values. It’s a move which, of course, was everything disco gleefully stood for. There was no room on this dance floor for notions of sin, or shame; that could be left at the church door.
The beauty of disco is that from its conception, it pushed to democratise the exclusive, segregated nightlife scene of New York, and that had a knock-on effect when it hit the mainstream: disco took the ‘Singer’ off the pedestal and made them dance with the rest of us. In fact, I Will Survive was the closest disco ever got to a ballad. Like the sexual revolution, the music of the movement pushed boundaries. It was recorded for the clubs – for the experience of donning your best gear, peacocking on the dance floor, and letting go of your sexual inhibitions. Fuelled by psychedelics and sex-obsessed music, the whole of the club became a hedonistic space for people to openly have sex and take drugs, and nowhere was out of bounds: take Nile Rodgers, of disco legends Chic, who spent most of his time at Studio 54 with women in the bathroom.
We know that disco didn’t come from sweet-toothed beginnings, but how exactly did it materialise into the sparkling, sugarcoated, overdressed catwalk show that we’ve associated with the genre since the late 70s? Disco served up some outfits that were… a little out of this world.
From the infamous 60s hippie culture, that saw disillusioned white suburban kids doped up and dismantle the fabric of white picket fence society, disco took three things: an issue with authority, sex and psychedelics. Sure, musically the genre emerged from the smooth grooves of funk and soul and the crooning hearts of motown, but the aesthetics of disco are indebted to experimentation.
Singlehandedly, the hippies that birthed Woodstock would alter the look of the 70s. Mind-altering substances broke down societal norms and expectations of sex and gender roles. A whole youth culture adopted a lifestyle that was concerned with experimentation and experience; from LSD, to cults, to drag culture, and clubs. Music became a heady, sensual experience, which disco naturally evolved from, to create a kaleidoscopic dance floor that was alive with disco lights, sweat, fantasy and glitter.
Transgression at its very best is what disco grew from. Take for example Sylvester, who is the ultimate, indisputable disco queen. He was a powerful representative of what was still the genre’s beating heart: the newly sexually liberated black, gay, and queer community.
Both his dancing and his high notes were unparalleled. Even the Weather Sisters (who went on to have their own fame) took a side step into lower harmonies: they played the Two Tons O’ Fun cheerleaders, as he strutted centre stage in glorious gospel-inspired falsetto. And he created his own fashion moments that ranged from the androgynous, to dazzling sequinned dresses, 1920’s cloche hats, and large, vibrant wigs.
His eye for gender-bending fashion was no doubt inspired by his former years living and performing with the nonconformist drag-hippie theatre group The Cockettes, which also happened to be one of the most creative and outrageous free love communes of 1970s San Fransisco.
When we think of the genre today we imagine that well-honed fantastical aesthetic which was (and still is) a celebration of self-expression and self-love. Larger than life ball gowns, glittery blazers, spandex bodysuits, and of course, Saturday Night Fever, all come to mind.
The disco ball is synonymous with Saturday Night Fever (a film which saw disco reach new heights of global recognition), and also with every local disco in town. It has become somewhat of a spiritual fixture in all our nightclubs even to this day.
Originally, the disco ball belonged to ballroom; in fact, the first disco ball was erected in the late-1890s as ‘the myriad reflector’. It was then torn from its formal ballroom setting, hoisted out of 1920’s jazz clubs and dance halls, and was, for decades, largely forgotten about, before it presided over the hedonistic 1970’s dance floor.
The first time a disco ball was recorded on film was for a German silent film in 1927. Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt is documentary montage film, perhaps more worth watching for historical value, rather than for entertainment – unless, of course, you’re a hardcore film buff.
At the end of the day, the disco ball and lights, the dance floor and the fashion, were all only as important as the music itself. New-age synthesisers were fast, rhythmic and soaked in reverb. The music was hung up on its own sensuality – and that sensuality drove it toward the sound of the future. Modern Pop, R&B, and Hip Hop are the most obvious descendants that come to mind.
From all those mentioned and the hits from Tavares, The Trammps and George McCrae (Harry Styles’ ‘Adore You’ has undoubtedly taken musical influence from McCrae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’) and producers Quincy Jones and Giorgio Moroder, disco evolved to give us a shining, vibrant culture which has had a lasting impact on music and fashion. Artists such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, Daft Punk, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Doja Cat, Rina Sawayama and Bruno Mars have all dabbled in disco to create some of their best music. Up-and-coming artist Glamour Hammer, who works with a distinctly nostalgic sound, is another artist to watch out for.
Whether you’re unknowingly listening to disco-inspired tracks while you’re getting ready for a night out, or you’re singing along to the Bee Gees (but you’re not entirely sure what they’re saying), or you’re digging through old disco vinyls because you’re serious about your music, disco isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The roots of disco’s original conception may be hazy for younger generations, but it has undoubtedly remained the sound of sexual empowerment, positive social protest, celebration and constant change.