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:E6 – What Makes Disco Disco? Part 2
In Part 1 we talked about disco’s rise from the underground to the mainstream.
We left off with the popularity of Casablanca Records.
Casablanca and the labels that followed the trend worked mostly with disco producers, rather than with artists. The producer would write or acquire the song, hire the musicians, pick the right singer, and book a recording session. Each producer could work on several projects at the same time.
Since they were making records to be played in discos, the songs didn’t need a face or band to promote them on concert tours. It didn’t need a video. There was no need to worry about making sure it could be played live. It just had to be danceable.
A disco album could be recorded for $20,000, while a rock record could be over five times that. No wonder labels were interested.
Disco made good business sense.
Frankly, a lot of it wasn’t very good. When music becomes product, it’s no longer art.
Maxine Nightingale, who got to #2 on the Hot 100 with Right Back Where We Started From, said, music is “the only industry apart from prostitution that sells a live product.” But some disco was very good, including Right Back Where We Started From, and would make stars of Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, K.C. & The Sunshine Band, and dozens of others.
Existing rock and R&B acts hopped on the disco train. Some did just a song or two, like Miss You by the Rolling Stones and Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? by Rod Stewart.
But some of these existing acts went into a disco phase.
By far, the most successful was the Bee Gees.
They had some minor hits in their native Australia starting with their first few singles in 1963, but they became a global entity in 1967 and had multiple charting singles every year until 1980 when they released a greatest hits album.
Disco started influencing their sound on their 1975 album Main Course, and its singles Jive Talkin’ and Nights On Broadway.
The next year, their Children Of The World album produced three Top 20 singles, including the #1 You Should Be Dancing.
And then came the opportunity to write music for a low budget movie called Tribal Rites Of A Saturday Night.
The movie was already in post-production. During filming, the actors danced to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs songs, for which the production didn’t have rights to use in the finished product. The songs would have to be replaced with new ones that were the same tempos.
The movie’s producer, Robert Stigwood, also ran a record label called RSO. When his film needed disco songs, he of course asked one of the artists on his own label. The Bee Gees were already working on their next album for RSO.
They didn’t want to take time away from the album, so they wrote five songs for the soundtrack over a weekend.
Four of them hit #1 on the Hot 100:
If I Can’t Have You performed by Yvonne Elliman, and the Bee Gees’ own How Deep Is Your Love, Stayin’ Alive, and Night Fever.
Drummer Dennis Bryon’s mother passed away during the session for Stayin’ Alive and he had to leave, so the Bee Gees took a two bar section of the drums from Night Fever and looped it. I guess that made it easy for disco DJs to segue from one to the other.
Night Fever also helped give the movie a better name.
It became Saturday Night Fever.
The movie and its soundtrack album were massive hits. The album is still the second best selling soundtrack, behind The Bodyguard.
Saturday Night Fever made disco even more popular. Dance clubs opened in smaller cities and towns, and in New York City, clubs opened in midtown. Discothèques were no longer just for gay neighborhoods.
A former opera house and CBS studio on 54th Street was converted into Studio 54. It became the most famous, exclusive, and decadent disco.
Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager spent $400,000 (about $2.1 million in today’s money) on renovations. I don’t have any figures on how high the cocaine budget was.
Studio 54 became the place to see and be seen, but there was no guarantee you could get in. The unwritten admission policy said single men couldn’t enter. Celebrities could. In-between, it depended on your look. Being beautiful or extremely well-dressed helped. Regulars included Liza Minelli, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, and Bianca Jagger.
Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards of Chic were turned away at the door one night and got so pissed off they went home and wrote a song called F— Off.
Realizing that it was a good song but it would never get airplay, they changed it to Freak Out, and then to Le Freak.
It hit #1 in December 1978
Once inside, it was all dancing and sex and drugs. Studio 54 could have been called Hedonism Central, with people having sex in the balcony and doing drugs basically everywhere. While the coke gave people the energy to dance all night, the most famous patrons were offered their choice of the waitstaff for some time alone.
Disco started as a rebellion. No matter what your color or orientation, it was a way of celebrating yourself. In Studio 54, it was a way of debasing yourself.
It couldn’t last.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t drug charges that sent Rubell and Schrager to prison. They plead guilty to tax evasion and were sentenced to three and a half years each, but avoided conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. They sold the club in 1980.
Through all of that, disco’s popularity continued to grow, and every record label released as much disco as they could.
Manufacturers of basically anything put out disco versions of their products. It could be shoes, which are necessary for dancing, or sunglasses, which aren’t.
For all I know, there could have been disco breakfast cereal.
In California, a discothèque called Icecothèque opened. You could disco dance on ice skates there.
There was a Yuletide Disco album.
Even Ethel Merman had a disco album.
I won’t even bring up Disco Duck.
If you have ten minutes, check out this breathless video describing a movie that was almost made, starring Cher, Donna Summer, Robin Williams, KISS, The Village People, three Rodney Dangerfields, and either Bo Derek or Daryl Hannah in the title role of “Disco Dazzler.” It would have been the first Marvel comic book movie. How anyone thought it was a good idea is a mystery.
Speaking of the Village People, they had some massive hits.
And are truly one of the most subversive bands of the 20th century.
We have an expression now that didn’t exist in the late 70s: If you know, you know. If you didn’t know the Village People’s characters – the cowboy, the Indian, the cop, the leather-clad biker – were gay fantasy figures, as a lot of middle America didn’t, you thought they were cartoonish, harmless fun.
But if you knew some gay men like sailors and construction workers, you knew the Village People were sneaking gay, camp role playing into conservative living rooms.
To this day, their song Y.M.C.A. is played at almost every straight wedding reception I attend. I swear, most of the happy couples and their families have no idea it’s about cruising for a hookup at the gym. The lyrics don’t say that explicitly, so maybe that’s what it’s about only if you know that’s what it’s about.
There was also an uptick in straight men going to gyms.
Everyone wants to be a Macho Man.
As disco’s popularity grew, the resistance against it grew, too.
Conservative, straight, white males felt oppressed, because when you’re in a position of privilege, equality feels like oppression. Musicians weren’t happy because clubs were playing records rather than hiring bands. Radio DJs didn’t like playing music they didn’t have a hand in making popular.
Steve Dahl was one of those DJs. He lost his job when his Chicago radio station switched from rock to disco, and he held a grudge. Using the motto “Disco sucks,” he started a counter-movement. As part of that, he promoted a “Disco Demolition Night.”
He encouraged his fans to bring their disco records so he could blow them up in center field of Comiskey Park between games of a White Sox doubleheader. People who did so got discounted admission, but they brought more than disco records. They brought any record with a black person on the cover. The racism and homophobia was there for anyone who cared to see.
The 50,000 seat park was sold out, and an estimated 20,000 others either sneaked in or crashed the gates in time for the explosion. It blew a crater into center field and fans stormed the diamond. It became a riot. The batting cage was destroyed, equipment was stolen, and the field was torn up.
Security was unprepared and understaffed. They had locked all but one gate to keep people out, but that just prevented people who wanted to leave, for their own safety, from doing so. The second game was canceled and declared a forfeit the next day.
The melee was national news by morning. While the destruction was done entirely by the anti-disco side, Disco Demolition Night did its job. On Billboard’s Hot 100 the following week, the top songs were disco.
By the September 22nd chart, there were none in the top ten.
Dahl, by the way, gained an even larger following and did radio for decades after. He currently does a daily subscription based podcast. He’s in the National Radio Hall of Fame.
The following year, Ronald Reagan was elected president.
A year later, a disease called AIDS started spreading. Most of its victims were gay men. Reagan chose to do nothing about it, possibly because he beat Jimmy Carter with help from a group called Christians For Reagan who ran ads threatening, “The gays in San Francisco elected a mayor; now they’re going to elect a president.” The ads ran only in the South. Pre-internet, the rest of the country never heard about them.
Reagan remained silent about AIDS until his friend and fellow actor Rock Husdon died of the disease, and even then his response was half-hearted. A large portion of his base thought AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality, and he didn’t want to lose their votes.
AIDS gave the homophobic an excuse to be against anything remotely gay.
Disco was forced underground again.
It reemerged later in the 1980s at gay pride events and its influence can now be heard in music by Daft Punk, Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and more. Its influence can also be seen politically, though it’s only political in retrospect. No one set out to change the world. They just wanted to dance.
Sometimes, though, being yourself is a political act.
At first, disco was more underground than punk. It became aspirational music for blacks and gays and women.
It was a time when Donna Summer and the androgynous Sylvester were both known as the “Queen of Disco.”
Dino Fekaris wrote I Will Survive after getting fired from Motown, and Gloria Gaynor recorded the vocals after a break up and sustaining injuries falling off a stage. The song meant something to both of them, but it meant a whole lot more to listeners.
We will one day get to true equality globally. We will survive.
Last week, President Biden signed the Respect For Marriage Act, protecting same sex marriage nationwide.
I’m sure someone somewhere is planning a case to get it declared unconstitutional.
But for now, the time is right for dancing in the streets.
With whoever you want.
Right Back Where We Started From
The Bee Gees
Evelyn “Champagne” King
Let’s Have Some Fun
Bite Your Granny
Morning, Noon & Night
You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)
The Village People
I Will Survive
Give Me The Night
It’s Raining Men
The Weather Girls
Groove Is In The Heart
I’m Gonna Get You
Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams and Nile Rogers
Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa
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