Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
S3:E5 – What Makes Disco Disco ? Part 1
If I called all my friends, invited them over for a party, and told them there would be a cover charge at the door, it would be a very dull party.
Just me and the cat. And the cat isn’t a great dancer.
But it worked for David Mancuso.
He threw invitation-only parties with a cover charge in his New York City apartment. And they became hugely popular.
The difference isn’t that he had more friends than me, though that could be true. People paid to get into his parties for the music, the dancing, and to avoid getting beat up.
In the late 1960s, many states and municipalities had laws against same sex dancing in any club that served alcohol. New York City police weren’t exactly gentle with gay dancers, often using violence when making arrests.
Mancouso’s loft apartment wasn’t a nightclub, so the law didn’t apply. Anyone who wanted to dance together could do exactly that. That’s why they were happy to pay the cover charge.
Playing records for people to dance to wasn’t a new idea.
In pre-WWII Germany, young people liked swing dancing. Swing and jazz were music made by African Americans, and most dance clubs were owned by Jews.
Both groups were in the crosshairs, literally, of the Nazis coming to power.
When France was under Nazi occupation, many jazz musicians went home to America. The dance clubs played records for people to dance to. This is when the word discothèque was invented. It’s like a bibliothèque, a library, but for records rather than books.
Many of the gay dance clubs in 1970s New York were owned by the Mafia, which makes sense because gay dancing was illegal and illegality is sort of their specialty. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was one of them.
On June 28, 1969, the NYPD raided the Stonewall, as they had done before.
But there was something different that night.
The LBTQ community spontaneously decided they’d had enough. They refused to show their IDs when the police demanded them. The cops were outnumbered and the patrons stood their ground.
Word quickly spread and a crowd of about 400 gathered outside. A rumor started in the crowd that the raid happened because the Mafia hadn’t paid off the cops. People started throwing coins at the police to “pay them off.”
It was an impromptu act of rebellion and the start of the modern gay rights movement.
There were riots and protests over the next few days, and activist groups formed to demand the right to live without being attacked by police.
The first gay pride parade was a year later to commemorate the sea change. It’s been a hard slog for the past 53 years, and there’s a gay rights vs. religious freedom case before the Supreme Court as I write this. The US still has a long way to go.
At The Loft, as his apartment came to be known, Mancouso usually DJ’d the music himself, picking out the songs and the order in which he played them.
The sign of a good DJ is a packed dance floor.
That means there’s no gap between songs, and no discernable difference in tempo.
It’s like one single song lasting until dawn, ebbing and flowing through moods and atmospheres.
To accomplish that, a DJ uses two variable speed turntables, a mixing board, and headphones. He can listen to both turntables at the same time and sync up the records so the two songs are the same speed and the downbeats match perfectly. Some disco songs have long outros to give the DJs time to cue up the next record.
The audience hears only one turntable at a time and the DJ switches from one to the other. The beat and the dancing never stop.
At first, the genre of the records didn’t matter as long as people could dance to it. Mancouso played R&B like The Temptations and Marvin Gaye, but he played Santana and Led Zeppelin, too. Whatever made people dance.
A song that was guaranteed to get people dancing in 1972 was Soul Makossa by Manu Dibango. He was from Cameroon and Soul Makossa was the B-side of a march he wrote to celebrate the national football team making it to the quarter finals of the Africa Cup of Nations.
The march isn’t danceable, but Soul Makossa very much is.
Mancouso played it at The Loft.
A WBLS DJ heard it there, and added it to the station’s playlist.
Other stations picked it up, too and it got to #35 on the Billboard Hot 100.
That wasn’t the start of disco. Record labels noticed it, of course, but thought of it as a novelty record due to its African sounds.
A year later, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes released The Love I Lost. This may not be the first intentionally disco song, but it does have the prototypical disco drum beat. The bass drum hits every quarter note. On the choruses, the hi hat sloshes on the off beats between the quarter notes.
A hi hat is two cymbals on one stand.
The lower cymbal is stationary. The upper cymbal can be moved up and down using a foot pedal.
Push down hard on the pedal and the upper cymbal clamps against the lower one.
Hitting the cymbals with a drumstick when the pedal’s down tight produces short, ticking sounds.
Release the pedal and the cymbals separate. Hit them like this and they sound like regular cymbals, because they are.
Hit them with the pedal somewhere in-between and the cymbals rattle against each other. Good drummers can get many different sounds just by changing the tension between the two cymbals.
To get a hi hat to slosh, you let up on the pedal as you hit the upper cymbal, and then step back down on the pedal.
That’s what subtly happens in The Love I Lost, which got up to #7.
Here’s The Love I Lost drummer Earl Young performing on the isolated drum track from the 1973 recording:
I asked a couple of my drummer friends about this technique. Some called it a slosh, others called it a splash, so there doesn’t seem to be a consistent name for it. However, pretty much any drum beat in 4/4 time using a kick drum on every quarter note is universally known as “four on the floor.”
Four on the floor goes back at least as far as the swing of the 1940s, but add in the sloshing hi hat between the bass drum kicks and you have the disco beat.
People wanted to dance through the night so DJs liked longer songs.
Issac Hayes was producing some music that fit the bill with a steady beat, sweeping strings and horns, and extended sections.
His #1 hit Theme From Shaft was popular, as was his version of Walk On By.
Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up falls into this pre-disco category, too. Almost any Philadelphia soul tune did the trick.
Songs that were popular in this underground would sometimes make it to the Billboard charts due to club plays and purchases by club patrons. They’d hear a song in a club, go to a record store, and buy it. Songs would chart without radio airplay.
Brothers Nicky and Joe Siano started a club called The Gallery. They were once visiting an A&R rep at 20th Century and saw a stack of records. One had a cover featuring a woman with a huge afro. They thought it looked cool and asked what it was. The A&R guy said that pile of records was going to be thrown in the trash, so Nicky asked if they could take them home.
Among those records was Love’s Theme by The Love Unlimited Orchestra.
They began playing it, other clubs began playing it, and people started asking for it in stores. It hit #1 in February 1974.
Likewise, Rock The Boat by The Hues Corporation and Rock Your Baby by George McCrea were back to back #1s in July 1974. Up until this point, no one called this new four on the floor music “disco” yet. It was just good pop music.
Another thing that made it different was the songs were romantic.
In 1974, rock band Bad Company had a hit called Can’t Get Enough with the lyric, “I take whatever I want, and baby I want you,” A year earlier, Barry White’s Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love had the line “We’ve shared love and made love.” Bad Company doesn’t give the woman a choice. For Barry White, the woman is a partner. They’re equals.
In the age of the Women’s Liberation movement and the Equal Rights Amendment, some rock sounded sexist, chauvinistic, and old-fashioned. It was for white males.
Disco was about inclusion. Gay, straight, trans, male, female, white, black, brown.
Disco treated everyone with respect.tnocs.com contributing author bill “virgindog” bois
That respect includes in the bedroom, too. Donna Summer’s first single in the US was Love To Love You, Baby, and it’s mostly known for Summer’s erotic moaning. Its extended version runs for 17 minutes.
While it’s titillating, it’s also something of a feminist statement. Women deserve orgasms, too, whether Bad Company cared or not.
Dr. Alice Echols, Professor of History and Gender Studies and a former disco DJ, said that Love To Love You, Baby is the “musical equivalent of the feminist critique of three minute sex.”
Romance was important on the dance floor, too.
The Hustle became the most popular dance in the country, and it’s the first dance since the swing era where the partners touch. It wasn’t like the Twist, the Watusi, or any dance of the 60s where couples dance sort of near each other. When doing the Hustle, partners actually held each other.
Columnist William Safire called it a return to conservative values. Apparently, he knew nothing of disco’s gay roots or the Hustle’s inventors, a Hispanic street gang called the Savage Skulls.
After several #1 hit songs and dozens in the Top 40, the genre finally got mainstream attention.
Rolling Stone published an article about the “Discothèque Rock” trend in 1973.
The next year, New York Magazine used the word “Disco” in a headline. That’s how the genre got its name.
Casablanca Records was only a couple years old and KISS was their biggest act. However, they were the label that released Love To Love You, Baby. With that success, they started releasing more disco, to the point where people would go into record stores and ask, not for a particular artist, but for the latest Casablanca release.
Disco was huge but in some ways it was the beginning of the end.
And this is the end of Part 1. See you next week in Part 2.
Walk On By
Issac Hayes & The Bar-Kays
Move On Up
The Love I Lost
Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
The Love Unlimited Orchestra
Kung Fu Fighting
Love To Love You, Baby (Extended Version)
It Only Takes A Minute
Turn The Beat Around
Vicki Sue Robinson
Don’t Leave Me This Way
I Need A Man
Got To Give It Up
The Ritchie Family
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