In the 43-week span between September 1978 and June 1979, disco songs topped Billboard’s Hot 100 for 27 weeks.
And that number is likely low.
If you were tempted to count:
…Exile’s midtempo thumper: Kiss You All Over,
…The Doobie Brothers’ bouncy pop-rock of What a Fool Believes,
..Or the disco-adjacent ballads Reunited by Peaches and Herb.
…Or Too Much Heaven by the Bee Gees, or even the Gibb brothers midtempo strutter Love You Inside-Out – none of which I included:
That weekly total would rise to 39.
(In case you’re wondering what led those remaining four weeks? That would be one-week stays each for Nick Gilder’s Hot Child in the City and Anne Murray’s You Needed Me and two weeks at the top for the Streisand/Diamond duet You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.)
Any music style as dominant as Disco that was so strong, for so long, would be certain to head for a fall.
By July, the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park gave public voice to simmering disenchantment with the leading genre on pop radio. Within few months, disco went from having its own American Top 40 countdown special to having its obituary discussed throughout the media.
Could anyone listening now to the dance-pop compilations of the time get the sense that they knew the end was coming?
I don’t think so.
As late as June in 1979, the bigwigs behind Studio 54 collaborated with Casablanca Records to put out the double-LP set, A Night at Studio 54, a compilation that went gold.
It, and two other sets of the time, K-tel’s Hot Nights & City Lights, and Ronco’s Disco Super Hits give insight into both the genre’s limitations and its brilliance.
By 1979, the stylistic dominance of disco meant that compilation albums needed to mimic the effect of club DJs.
They kept the beat going nonstop, segueing from hit to hit until they inserted a needed “breather,” in the form of a popular ballad or midtempo number.
Fortunately, K-tel and Ronco stepped up their game, providing albums of segued dance music.
Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell of Studio 54 had an inside track, using club DJs Marc Paul Simon and Roy Thode to do the sequencing of their set.
The results are three compilations that do a pretty solid job of keeping your toes tapping. (Even if, as in my case, they’re tapping as I’m typing.)
With so much in common, what distinguishes them?
First up: K-tel’s Hot Nights & City Lights:
This one has Bionic Boogie’s track Chains, a song that features the immediately recognizable backing vocals of Luther Vandross. It also features two of the Summer of ‘79’s biggest hits, Sister Sledge’s We Are Family and Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell.
Its side two has the best segue of any of the three: T-Connection’s At Midnight moves into the Instant Funk hit, and then into Evelyn “Champagne” King’s I Don’t Know If It’s Right.
Musically, the three fit well, and lyrically, there’s an intriguing story they tell of a guy who’s ready and a woman who’s not. The resolution? The Jacksons’ Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground), a song whose energy shows where dance pop will head long after disco is declared “dead.”
Next: Ronco’s “Disco Super Hits:”
This collection boasts 16 hits, compared with K-tel’s 14, and leads off strong with McFadden & Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now. More of this collection hit AT40 (81%) as compared with either the K-tel (71%) or Studio 54 (65%), so the instant recognizability factor helps.
And as for the tracks that didn’t, one is the memorably goofy No. 41-peaking Keep on Dancin’ by Gary’s Gang. Its biggest drawback is an odd decision: With two G.Q. tracks included, the choice to slow the energy on side 1 by placing the soul ballad I Do Love You rather than the high-energy Disco Nights after Got to Be Real is a head-scratcher. It would have been better to flip the tracks and put I Do Love You as the penultimate song on side two, preceding I Will Survive.
A Night at Studio 54:
It does a good job of playing out its conceit.
With tracks like Cher’s Take Me Home, Karen Young’s Hot Shot and Musique’s vulgar In the Bush, it’s easier for listeners and dancers to get a feel for the hedonistic pleasures of the New York City hotspot. And, given its origin story as Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards’ rejoinder to Studio 54’s questionable bouncer policy, it’s ironic that Le Freak leads off the 2-LP set.
But for all the hoohah in the liner notes for being “specially engineered and sequenced…”
… the “Studio 54” sore spots stand out.
Why is I Love the Night Life and its soft open segueing out of Take Me Home? Why include the Muppet-on-helium sound of Patrick Juvet’s I Love America when stronger 1979 tracks were available (if the producers needed a “Foreign Patrick,” Mr. Hernandez’s Born to Be Alive was right there waiting). And why take the best 1-2 sequence – Dan Hartman’s Instant Replay and Peaches and Herb’s Shake Your Groove Thing – and save it for the end of side four?
Still, the sequencers did do something right:
A seamless yet effective effort in finding the right moments to shift into the Village People’s Y.M.C.A. and Donna Summer’s Last Dance.
This gave both of these evergreens a fresh sound.
With so many tracks to note, instead of the usual “Top-shelf”/”Decent”/”Yuck” summary, let’s imagine what could have been (and what our friend Bix could do easily) if given 16 tracks, the average of these three sets:
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