"I don't think DISCO is a dirty word at all." --Francois K. "Well, there was disco before, and eventually they just changed the name to 'house.'" -- Garth (Wicked)
IX. DISCO: A REFLECTIVE INTRODUCTION
I have very ambivalent feelings about the subject of "disco."
Disco music is certainly a crucial part of the evolution of house music and modern electronic dance and music culture. At its best disco was the music of both liberation and unification for a generation. The life-blood of the gay liberation movement was the discotheque and disco. Further, disco was a remarkable testament of the power of music and dance to bring discordant groups together on the dance floor. Before 1975 very few people who defined themselves as heterosexual would have dreamed of spending an evening with a group of gays, let alone dance on the same floor with them. But during the heyday of disco, from 1977 through 1979, such experiences became commonplace in most major cities.
There was a lot of great disco music. Some of the best recordings, like anything by the extraordinary Sylvester, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way," were big hits and still have the power to move the body and soul. Then there was the "dark disco" that never made it to the glitzy uptown clubs but helped define the sexy, sweaty ambiance of the underground gay dance and sex scene. This music was far more interesting and had greater impact on the evolution of house than above ground disco.
At its worst, the disco movement produced a cheesy, repulsive commercial series of one shot artists and music that is best left dead. Unfortunately the whole scene in this era evokes images of tasteless polyester, skin tight pastel suits, platform shoes, horrid cologne, gold chains, that silly film "Saturday Night Fever" and the dance "The Hustle" which, when we look at it more carefully later, you will see was based on a dreadful sociological study that became a film that I believe was both racist and bigoted.
For me personally the best of the disco days was dancing with my tribe at the Paradise Garage, The Saint, the Anvil, the Cockring, the Trocadero, Alfie's and other venues where the music and the crowd were downtown rather than uptown. I have always been uncomfortable with glitz. Especially in those days, when I was concurrently involved with the growing punk scene. So a lot of the commercial, heavily orchestrated and produced disco left me unable to dance. I've always liked music with hard, driving tribal beats.
Finally, for a short time during the disco era urban gay culture was triumphant. It quite frankly amazed me that in 1969 gays were being hauled off to jail and by the mid-seventies it was "fashionable" to be gay or admit to same-sex interests. People on all points of the sexual spectrum seemed to accept, for the first time, the possibility that having sexual feelings for a person of the same sex wasn't such an evil thing. Many celebrities, Marlin Brando and Mick Jagger, for example, openly admitted to having positive same-sex encounters.
Gender stereotypes were turned upside down, especially for men. Straight men were imitating gay men in fashion and were developing sensitivities that they previously kept bottled up. Gay men parodied macho male imagery by dressing as construction workers and leather bikers. By the end of the seventies one saw kids on Halloween dressed as the Village People while songs celebrating gay sexuality were all over the airwaves. All these cultural changes, I think, occurred primarily through the power of the dance floor and dance music.
This was not to last, however. Americans can't dance for too long without feeling guilty. And homophobia was not dead, just sleeping. In 1979 disco records were burned in a sports stadium in heartland Chicago and the "Disco Sucks" movement began. Now my punk brothers and sisters always believed that disco sucked, but their judgments were musical. This event was really the beginning of the gay backlash. Disco was "gay", and gay culture had gone too far.
The worst was yet to come. In the early eighties the AIDS horror show began and nearly destroyed underground dance culture and those beautiful dancers. Most of the men I danced with in the seventies died terrible deaths. I was one of a handful of dancers from that dance that survived. Why? I still deal with a kind of survivor complex here. Listening to some of that music now brings back wonderful memories, but it also tears my heart apart and leaves me emotionally exhausted. After AIDS hit only the brave, the life-affirming, or those in denial continued to dance It was in those dark years, importantly, that house music proper was born from the remnants of disco. It was born, I think, from the souls of all those boy dancers of the seventies who left us with their energy and love of the music.
We have discussed house music's (and its precursor disco's) roots in black music, and in particular rhythm and blues, soul, funk and gospel music and the Philadelphia sound.
There are a couple of other influences I think it's important to mention here: Salsa and Euro Disco.
A. SALSA AND THE LATIN INFLUENCE
I love Latin music, especially Salsa. I used to listen to Latin stations on a short wave radio as a boy and danced in my room to those hot beats. But it was in New York that I got a real feel for the music and the culture.
The New York and Chicago sounds have always been heavily influenced by Latin dance music. For good reason. Since the 1920's Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants arrived in New York and later Chicago and created wonderful subcultures. They brought with them their Afro-Caribbean rhythms and instruments.
Salsa means, in Spanish, "sauce" and is characterized by fast rhythms and syncopated drumming. There was a thriving "Latin Motown" recording industry in NYC in the seventies and, indeed, one of the big disco recording companies, Salsoul Records, began as a provider of Latin music.
Then there was the Miami sound, typified by the music of K.C. and the Sunshine Band. This music added guitars, Caribbean drums and other percussion instruments, and horns to the mix.
B. EURO DISCO
Ralf Hutter and Florian Schnieder-Esleben formed the group Kraftwerk in the early seventies. These two music students were experimental electronic musicians and were influenced by the likes of the Tangerine Dream and composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Ralf and Florian used synthesizers, drum machines and tape decks to create an early kind of minimalist industrial music.
Their first couple of albums received little notice.
Then Wolfgang Flur and Klaus Roeder joined the group and they all, fortunately, decided to work with the great producer Giorgio Moroder (more about him later). Giogio produced Kraftwerk's first hit album "Autobahn" in 1975.
Although "Switched on Bach" (1968) was the first completely synthesized record, "Autobahn" was the first time Americans had wide exposure to electronic sounds in popular dance music. Not only that, Moroder and the Euro Disco movement brought the bass drum out front in dance music: the "four on the floor."
These two innovations, putting the bass line out front and adding electronic sounds, were to play a key role in the evolution of disco and house music.