(In Part II we looked at the DJs’ role in breaking Disco into the mainstream and the innovations that came along with it. In Part III, we’ll follow Disco to its headiest heights before its ultimate demise.)
In 1976, America celebrated its 200th birthday. A feeling of nostalgia was in the air even while something new was brewing just below the surface. On the radio, songs like “More, More, More” and “Love to Love You Baby” were battling for space with “Show Me the Way” and “Take it to the Limit.” Newsweek ran a cover story called “Get Up and Boogie” while the two year old publication People Magazine started showing America how the rich and famous enjoyed their night life. The media was on to something. We are a society that is fascinated by celebrity. By the young. The rich. The fabulous. The media was catching on to this new wave of music and lifestyle. What Tom Wolfe called “The Me Decade” was beginning to gain momentum.
With little attention or fanfare New York Magazine printed an article called “Tribal Rights Of the New Saturday Night.” The story’s hero, Vincent, is a member of a gang called “Faces” and “the best dancer in Bay Ridge.” Vincent and his boys are blue-collar workers who live for Saturday night and their local club. Nik Cohn researched the article by hanging out in
Brooklyn’s 2001 Odyssey for weeks. He admitted later that Vincent and his crew were fabrications, yet he captured many of the elements of the “early” disco scene, including Vincent’s sexual ambivalence. Robert Stigwood bought the rights to Cohn’s story immediately. Stigwood was an entertainment maven whose company, RSO, operated a record label and a film production company. In one of those moments when the stars align in absolute perfection, RSO’s talent roster at the time included the Bee Gees and John Travolta. The title changed to “Saturday Night Fever“, the script changed Vincent’s name to Tony (and cleared up any question about the protagonist’s sexuality) and the movie went into production.
Also during the summer of 1976, right around the time Robert Stigwood was searching for Nik Cohn’s phone number, two men named Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were growing increasingly frustrated. They owned a club in Queens called the Enchanted Garden. From Queens, you can see the lights of Manhattan. You can make out the skyline, yet you seem, at times, to be a million miles away. Rubell and Schrager definitely felt that way. All the energy and excitement of the Manhattan nightlife dissipated by the time it reached their humble club. Both men were ambitious. They pointed west, at the glow and throb of the city, and thought, “if we can make it there…”
The stage was now set for Disco’s coming out party. In the Spring of 1977, Rubell and Schrager opened Studio 54. Its name, its guest list and its infamous velvet rope became synonymous with disco. Later that year, Saturday Night Fever presented Hollywood’s repackaging of the disco culture. All of America hopped on board and rode the disco wave. Night clubs opened up at historic rates. Record labels wanted anything that even sounded like disco. Fashion followed the trend. 1978 became the year of the beat. The year of the platform shoe and the hustle lesson. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack dislodged Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the number one spot on the album charts in January of 1978. It would be summertime before it relinquished that spot. The Bee Gees, with “Night Fever”, “Staying Alive” and “You Should Be Dancing“, became the first group since The Beatles to have three songs in the top ten in the same week.
And it wasn’t just disco songs from Saturday Night Fever that were selling well. Chic had a top ten hit with the critically acclaimed “Dance, Dance Dance, (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah.)” Donna Summer scored with “Last Dance,” a song from the other disco movie of 1978, Thank God It’s Friday. The Village People broke through with “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.” and Earth Wind and Fire finished their transition from a funk group to a disco group with “September” and “Boogie Wonderland.” 1978 was also the year that rockers tested the Disco waters, with Rod Stewart releasing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and The Rolling Stones (yes, those Rolling Stones) infuriating their fans with “Miss You.”
Once radio and TV caught the “boogie fever,” disco was ubiquitous. In the summer of ’78, during the firestorm that disco had become, a New York radio station with a failing soft rock format, decided to change to an “all disco” sound. Within weeks, WKTU went from last to first, not just in New York but the entire country. Soon, any station in America with a ratings problem was switching to disco. TV followed right along with Merv Griffin producing Dance Fever and the usually rock oriented American Bandstand featuring disco bands virtually exclusively. Also, what had begun in 1970 as a local TV show in Chicago, Soul Train became syndicated in almost every market in America. And even if you weren’t watching a disco oriented show in the late 70’s chances are you heard the beat. Products from fast food hamburgers to shampoo to beer were incorporating disco in their ads and loving the upbeat, feel-good vibe that the music provided.
Just like any bandwagon, disco could not support the weight of an entire country. Some would even argue that the music itself was never meant to be taken out of context. Taken out of the clubs. Just like the early club DJs struggled with the “format” of pop songs and yearned for different mixes and a different sound, maybe the music that works best at 2am on a hot steamy dance floor isn’t right for radio or TV. Watch Saturday Night Fever sometime in that context. The fictional DJ at 2001 Odyssey (played by an actor not a DJ) never actually “mixes.” Oh, there are some basic segues thrown in and at one point we even see him manipulating the sliders on the mixing board (you want an example of the rudimentary equipment from the 70’s, how about that mixing board!) But as far as the club scenes go, you’ll never hear a song in its entirety without some dialogue covering a large chunk of the song. “You Should Be Dancing” is a perfect example. If you clock it, the movie does include over five minutes of the song. This is the scene where Tony takes over the lit up dance floor and shows off his awesome moves. Yet right before that great break, the break that in any nightclub setting would be the ultimate tension release, Tony leaves the dance floor and begins a conversation with his brother. The congas of the break can be heard under their dialogue but the best part of the song is missed. The producers of the movie knew what would be a highlight in the club at 2am would have been a weak part of the movie. The things that capture you when the lights are pulsating and the bass is shaking your clothes and you’ve given in, absolutely surrendered, to the music, those are not the same things that will capture you in a movie theater. Or listening to music in your car. Disco had always been the music of 2am and maybe one of the big reasons it flashed in the pan is that it obviously wasn’t the music for 2pm.
For whatever reason, by the summer of 1979 the backlash was in full force. “Disco sucks” and “Kill the Bee Gees” tee shirts were hot sellers. In Chicago, radio DJ Steve Dahl invited fans to bring their Disco records to Comiskey Park for a “Disco Demolition Night.” In between games of a double header, Dahl blew up the records in centerfield, sparking a riot that forced the White Sox to forfeit the second game. Virtually overnight, Disco had truly become society’s pariah. By the early 80’s disco was declared DOA and the very word became verboten. The term “deader than disco,” was a common joke throughout most the 80’s.
Disco was a music that became a culture that exploded into a phenomenon. On its way, it lost most of what got it there (ain’t that always the way.) The music, which had started as a fresh and vibrant sound, became repetitious and cliché. As record labels fell over themselves in a race to release anything with a disco sound, producers who knew nothing of the music were called in to copy whatever it is that was selling. Artists with no association to the early disco scene – or to R&B, soul or funk – were seeing disco as an elixir to their ailing careers. Where five years earlier club DJs scrambled for new records – and the few that they could get their hands on were truly innovative – now the music was abundant. Overly abundant. Sickeningly abundant. What Steve Dahl blew up in Chicago was not the early, courageous sounds of Barry White, KC, and Gloria Gaynor. What Steve Dahl blew up were the formulaic works of late-comers to the all night party. Disco had become a copy of itself. No, a copy of an imitation of itself. And while it’s certain that Dahl was railing against anything called “disco,” in hindsight “The Disco Demolition Night” was a poetically fitting end to the bloated beast that disco music had become.
Disco, as a culture and as an ideal, had changed as well. David Mancusso’s club, The Loft, had personified the democracy and freedom that the early disco scene strove for. Social outcasts were stars here. Early Disco did not bias against skin color or sexual orientation. It demanded only one thing: Rhythm. The power to dance. The energy to move. The scene at uber club Studio 54 was far different. The velvet rope personified this. The velvet rope kept out anyone that lacked the required celebrity, power or beauty. Make no mistake, gays, Hispanics and blacks were allowed in. But only in the right percentage. Rubell and Schrager were exact in their elitist vision and what they created, the deliberate amalgamation of actor, model, debutante et al, was as far from the scene at The Loft as you could get. Other clubs, both before and after Studio 54, have utilized a “velvet rope” for much the same intent yet no one has been as obvious and brazen about it. Saturday Night Fever fed this new image as well. Instead of being open-minded and accepting, Tony Manero and his Faces are completely prejudiced. They push around a few gays in the park, they clear the dance floor when a song with a Latin beat comes on and at the movie’s climactic scene, the dance contest, they are derogatory towards every other race group but their own.
There are a myriad of reasons disco collapsed under its own weight. America’s innate prejudices – like Tony Manero and his crew’s – are undeniably one of them. Captivated by the beat and the mystique of the music, it’s like America was briefly hypnotized into loving disco, only to wake up one day and realize, “this is fag music!” The “watered down effect” of disco music cannot be dismissed either. What went from a few, select and awesome songs, became a deluge of, quite frankly, some very mediocre offerings. Too, we are a disposable society. With the medias help, we get captivated by something, we squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it, and then we leave it for the “next great thing.” Ironically enough, in terms of musical trends, the “next great thing” was ushered in by yet another John Travolta movie. 1980’s Urban Cowboy introduced country music to a nation yearning for a more down to earth vibe. So many failing nightclubs across the country tried calling themselves “honkytonks” instead of “discos,” trading in their mirrored balls for mechanical bulls.
Perhaps disco’s demise can be best analogized in the Greek myth of Icarus. He’s the young man who was given wings of wax to escape from jail. And escape he did, soaring high into the sky. Free at last and determined to make the most of his freedom, he flies too high, too close to the midday sun. His wings are melted and he plunges to his death. Had Icarus never left jail he never would have died. Had he left jail, but laid low, flown safely and conservatively, he certainly would have lived. Yet young and brazen and full of what the Greeks called “hubris,” Icarus dies his early death. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. Had disco never left the clubs it never would have been blown to bits in Chicago. Had it gotten some play outside the clubs, yet never become the sensation it did, disco would be little remembered as yet another passing fancy (think of The Lambada as perfect example.) But it soared too high. Full of youth and energy and highs (both natural and otherwise.) We all looked up at it, into that brilliant midday sun, and marveled at its majestic flight. The music made us sexy and brilliant and smooth. For a moment, we believed we could be Tony Manero, clearing the dance floor to show off our moves. However fleetingly, disco captured America’s imagination and gave us the hope of a man flying with wings of wax.
Disco’s wings melted. It plummeted to the sea and we all left it for dead. But alas, there was still a faint pulse. And it was the night clubs – don’t you dare call them discos anymore! – that attached the defibrillators, yelled “Clear!” and resuscitated the music. Like a common fugitive, disco had to change its name, die its hair and lay low for a while. And like all those records and cassettes in Comiskey Park, Disco had exploded into thousands of pieces. But its fragments survived as house, techno, Hi-NRG and even hip hop. Clubs like The Saint in New York and Chicago’s WareHouse offered dance music asylum, even as they reinvented the sound.
As we all know, from spinning music and entertaining at parties, disco and its ancestors still works. The songs that started the revolution are still the awesome at filling your dance floor. The music that had but one goal still accomplishes that one goal. And 37 years later, it’s even become acceptable to use the word Disco again.