In the middle and late 1970s, a special kind of dance music flashed across the horizon of big-city life in Europe and North America. It was just the kind of music the world seemed to want at the time – glitzy, sexy, and glamorous. Everyone said it would fade, like platform shoes and pet rocks. It eventually did, but it held on for about fifteen years, beginning to end.
The new dancing craze started in Paris in the mid-1950s in the after-hours and out-of-the-way nightclubs serving homosexuals as a place where they could meet, dine, and dance without being harassed by the police. The nightclub owners replaced their live bands with disc jockeys who offered a wide variety of musical styles from their extensive personal record collections. The clubs came to be called discothèques – from the 1950s' French word for "record library".
While on vacation in Europe in the early 1960s, Elmer Valentine, owner of a nightclub in Los Angeles, visited the Whiskey a-Go-Go, a very popular discothèque in Paris. In 1965, he opened his own Whiskey a-Go-Go in Los Angeles. It was a huge success as hundreds of young dancers gyrated (follow-the-leader style) with the go-go girls in the cages suspended above the dance floor.
Discos, as they came to be known, soon appeared all over America, losing their original function as homosexual hangouts. The Jet Set took over the disco fever, and it became the "in" thing for famous movie stars, wealthy heiresses, and young political wheeler-dealers to sniff cocaine and "shake their booty" all night long at the newest disco club.
An early disco hit, George McRae's "Rock Your Baby", was written and produced by two engineers at TK Studios in Hialeah, Florida, Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch. The song sold more than three million recordings, becoming a No. 1 hit in fifty-three countries of the world. The engineers formed their own nine-piece band called K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and had a string of giant hits – "Shake Your Booty", "Get Down Tonight", "Please Don't Go", "Give It Up", "Boogie Shoes", and several others.
In 1975, "The Hustle" by Van McCoy caught on and fired the imagination of American dancers. Soon there were a dozen Hustles – the California Hustle (often called the Bus Stop), the New York Hustle, the Latin Hustle, the Tango Hustle, as well as the Detroit Shuffle, the Bump, and the Time Warp. The Hustle and its variants became the basic disco dance style.
Also in 1975, Donna Summer co-wrote and recorded "Love to Love You, Baby". Its original three-minute version was extended to sixteen minutes and fifty seconds for record distributors catering to disco houses. Much of the recording consists of Summer's sensuous moaning and panting over and over again, "Love To Love You, Baby". It became a run-away hit, a smash, and it set the stage for a huge industry. Before long, entire twelve-inch records had only two songs, one on each side. The frequency range was greatly enhanced to offer the disc jockeys many sonic options for working the crowd.
John Travolta's appearance in Saturday Night Fever ignited the explosion and turned disco into a worldwide passion from 1977 well into 1979. The Bee Gees' soundtrack for the movie sold twelve million records. Disco records were suddenly hot – Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive", the Village People's "YMCA" and "Macho Man", and Taste of Honey's "Boogie-Oogie Oogie", along with the Boston Pops Orchestra's Saturday Night Fiedler and Barbra Streisand's "Enough Is Enough" (Shaw 1982, 106).
Twenty thousand disco clubs appeared out of nowhere. In Fennimore, Wisconsin (population 1,900), a $100,000 club was built in a matter of months. There were disco proms, disco wedding services, disco roller skating rinks, and non-alcoholic disco pre-teen clubs featuring disco dogs, disco burgers, and disco pizza. Two hundred radio stations soon changed to a 24-hour disco format.
Very quickly disco records gravitated toward one predominant tempo – 125 beats per minutes – to which any style or tune could be adapted. There were disco versions of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood", and "Chattanooga Choo Choo", and a Salsoul Orchestra disco version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", and a special treatment of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5" by Walter Murphy.
The record producer became a dictator. His word was law. Giorgio Moroder produced the sound track to the movie called Midnight Express in his $700,000 Musicland Studio in Munich, Germany, all by himself, playing all the instruments and programming all the other sounds. Producers usually started by laying down the rhythm track, then stacking up as many as forty-eight layers of sound from every conceivable synthesizer, ring modulator, and artificial tone generator possible, then, finally, the voices. "It's like sonic watercolors," said producer Patrick Adams.
Richard A. Peterson, Vanderbilt University sociologist, said that the four billion dollar disco industry was the music of a generation of young folks who wanted nothing more than to be left alone. No more Vietnam, no more Gulf Oil scandals, no more Watergate, no more government greed and corruption, no more commitments. "Just leave me alone."
I am good. I like my body, and I like what I am. I am a survivor, able to thrive in an anomic urban world of strangers. I can overcome alienating work and the stigma of race, sex, ethnicity. The day may belong to Them, but the night is Mine. Here I am, in control, and my fantasy is real (Peterson 1978, 27).
Research studios found that disco dancers developed an alkaline condition in their bodies after long hours on the dance floor. They got a natural high, a sense of euphoria, almost like a long distance runner gets after "crashing the wall".
Disco came to an abrupt end, however. In November of 1979, Iranian militants captured ninety Americans and held fifty-two of them hostage for 444 days. Gasoline went from forty cents a gallon to a dollar forty cents a gallon. Suddenly it was no longer fashionable to say, "Leave me alone, don't bother me with political matters." The whole nation took a conservative turn, politically and economically. In this new atmosphere, disco somehow seemed childish and almost irresponsible.
In no time at all it was fashionable to have a commitment, to be patriotic, to believe in American values. And disco – the music of a "don't bother me" crowd – began to die out rapidly. It was replaced by strong music with traditional roots: country rock, with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and the Eagles singing about values, commitment, and relationships, imperfect perhaps, by there just the same.
Disco houses folded, ten every week for a year or more. Studio 54, the most glitzy of all went bankrupt, and its owners ended up in jail for income tax evasion.
As always, the popular music of the nation reflected quickly the shifting dreams and desires, values and attitudes, hopes and frustrations of the tribe. For a short time, though, disco reigned supreme as the music of the 1970s. It was indeed a colorful chapter in American pop music history.