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Sam Hope reveals the forgotten truth of the disco movement.
When reminiscing on disco now, it is easy to reduce the movement to its hits, simplifying it to such classics as Dancing Queen and Saturday Night Fever. As iconic as the most remembered films, albums and songs are, they present a revised version of the culture surrounding the music, devoid of the social progression that made disco so influential. Formed in the wake of breakthroughs in the LGBT+ rights movement; increasing Afro-Caribbean/Latin American immigration and the emergence of communal counter-culture from the hippie movement, one cannot consider disco music without the subculture which formed it. This subculture was based on freedom of identity not yet present in wider American society. Alex Rosner saw a disco party as a broader sign of the culture, “It was probably about sixty percent black and seventy percent gay. There was a mix of sexual orientation, there was a mix of races, mix of economic groups. A real mix, where the common denominator was music.”
Although we look back with gleeful nostalgia on the idea of roller skates gliding across glowing dancefloors, disco culture was widely hated in its heyday, representing in the eyes of traditionalist suburban America and Europe a form of metropolitan decay of moral values. With its embracing attitude to the revived phenomena of psychedelic drug-taking and open sexuality, disco stood as the proud antithesis to not only the reactionary conservative movement to secular liberalisation of societies but also the rock and punk subcultures. This has pervaded to the lack of serious critical analysis of disco that has, in contrast, been afforded to the likes of punk. Rather than being seen as a society transforming force, in the public conscious, it remains as defined only by seminal hits and stereotypes. Combining this oversight with other influential music fans such as PUNK magazine founder Legs McNeil declaring disco an “unholy union” between “homosexuals and blacks”, it’s near impossible to consider the backlash to the genre without seeing it through the lens of rampant homophobia and racism that defined the time, as the music stood as a bold statement against the tide of American supremacist ideals.
Yet despite the widespread supremacist hatred for its existence, disco remains one of the most colourful, lively and enjoyable movements across musical history. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the widespread economic downturn, it offered a vivid escape to the bleak surroundings of everyday 70s life. With catchy string leads, glossy keys and 4 to the floor beats, the association of the genre with dancing is no coincidence, as it sought to bring back the presence of dance crazes in music where they had declined with the late 60s mellow, slow-paced rock and folk music. So clubs were born, drugs were taken, and parties were exclusive gateways to another universe, where pervasive laws against men dancing together did not exist, and the restrictive limits on gender and sexual orientation were left at the door. Venues like The Loft and Studio 54 incubated the black gay youth against the existentially dangerous conditions in the outside world, allowing for a full expression of culture and identity without the fear of suppressive consequences.
On this, we must consider how we view disco today, and how sanitised that image has become. We often remember ABBA and The Bee Gees most strongly from the period, and their demographic difference to the subculture does not feel accidental. Where they remain the modern face of the music, the true origins and depths of futuristic influence lay in the club scenes, where queer black and latinx figures were able to use revolutionary synthesiser sounds to create the sound of music to come. Nowhere was this seen greater than with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, breaking ground as the first global hit to only use synthesisers in its production. Its atmospheric ongoing yet everchanging beat is monumental to this day, conjuring images of a club night nearly half a century ago whilst still maintaining its ultramodern image despite several decades of musical evolution. This immortal catchiness and immunity to aging is present across huge numbers of disco hits, seen in the particularly modern resurrection of Earth, Wind & Fire fandom, to even the constant use of “Ring My Bell” by Anita Ward in a recent episode of commercial and critical hit, The Good Place.
Like all great things though, disco inevitably had to come to an end, with the fires stoked against the culture culminating, especially in 1981. With the inauguration of Ronald Reagan to office, on a socially conservative platform that would continue to ignore the AIDS crisis that devastated disco’s traditional gay and black communities, the national mood was set against the vibrant freedom of the movement. Nowhere was this clearer than Disco Demolition Night in the same year, where rioting sports fans blew up hundreds of disco records at the home of the Chicago White Sox. Extending beyond the literal, the metaphorical form of this violent fiery destruction had rapid implications across the music scene, as disco acts with huge success collapsed in the light of the new decade.
Yet for a brief gleaming moment, the music business was dominated off the backs of pioneering LGBT+ BAME men and women, inspiring a whole wave of new artists and active music fans. The 80s continued the influence of disco’s dance roots, with artists born of the genre like Michael Jackson going on to shape the face of music to come. Even today, from frequent sampling in hip hop to international acts like Daft Punk basing their albums on the sound, as well as obviously the ever-present Kool & The Gang at wedding reception parties, it remains musically far more present than often believed.
However, beyond this, its cultural influence can’t be overestimated. For me, disco remains one of the most influential forces in post-war music, being the home for artistic and civil rights pioneers who set the course of history. With openly queer non-white men finding a home in the culture, it gave a mainstream voice to the previously voiceless. The empowerment songs like “I Will Survive” gave to such persecuted communities was life-changing, becoming anthems of soul and love against violent hatred.
Rather than merely a collection of recognisable hits for a themed house party, disco to me is one of the most transformative subcultures in Western history. In a music industry that now takes such open inspiration from African American and queer artists and genres, it is hard to see the positive state of our social progression without the brave cultural origins of that search for liberty.