I’ve been reflecting on the experiences I had a Moogfest in April and the one thing that seems fascinating to me was that there were a lot of powerful disco experiences there. I saw a panel by Giorgio Moroder and when they played “I Feel Love” I was reduced to tears. I saw a great Chic concert even though the original band is gone with only Nile Rodgers remaining to anchor it. Finally, the absolutely devastating Escort gig was disco at its most potent; a transcendent experience. You might think that I was a big fan of disco in its heyday, but you’d be wrong. Here’s my background.
I was a kid in the 70s who grew up on nothing but Top 40 radio from day one until about 1978. I had no older siblings or anyone else to point me in any particular musical directions. I gulped down the hits as if there were literally nothing else to listen to, which, in my case, was the truth. I had a record player and a few dozen 45s like any kid had [at least I hope so] but only a handful of albums, and even those were comps of hits. My main drip feed came from the transistor radio that was my close companion. I had likes and dislikes, but I pretty much listened to anything that became reasonably successful on US radio in the 70s.
Over my life, I’ve seen many pop culture scholars point to “Rock The Boat” by the Hues Corporation as the first “disco” hit. It was a good pop song. You could have heard a lot worse in 1974! It had a certain beat and was arranged to make dancing as smooth and easy as possible; the raison d’être of disco music. I didn’t dance as a kid, so this was not one of my concerns. I just liked pop music, and this was a good enough pop song.
Over the next few years, the trend line of disco began to creep upward. This caused me little concern as I was still chugging down the Top 40 brew fairly indiscriminately. Some things really piqued my interest more than others [Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Bowie, Kraftwerk] but they remained fringe phenomena on the US charts. Not so for disco, which had a watershed moment in 1977 with the release of “Saturday Night Fever,” a movie that I still have never seen. The soundtrack as dominated by the Bee Gees, who’d changed their stripes from pop rock to a more R&B styled output in the mid 70s, became the prototype monster soundtrack album with multiple hits peeled off of it for what seemed like years at the time. Either the Bee Gees or some of the other artists from that album were never off of the charts for at least 18 months.
“Fever” seemed to spark a disco event horizon, where the entire pop cultural horizon tilted in the direction of disco by 1978. I can remember that disco went from being one flavor of many on the pop charts, to being the dominant style of music that charted in that period. There were established rock bands trying on disco garb in the pursuit of hits [Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart] but also performers who were way older than your parents, cashing in on the new sound. “The Ethel Merman Disco Album” in 1979, was probably the public nadir of that trend! But it didn’t stop with music.
What was probably the deal-stopper for me, was that disco engulfed our entire popular culture in the ’78-’79 period. There were more disco movies, quickly made to cash in on “Saturday Night Fever’s” success [“Thank God It’s Friday,” “Can’t Stop the Music,” “Roller Boogie,” “Xanadu”] but the killing stroke, for me, anyway, were the disco episodes of TV shows! It seemed like every TV series extant had to have a “disco episode” in this period be they comedies or drama series! The amount of disco material on the radio was getting oppressive, but turning on the tube just another vector of disco infection, and by the end of 1977, I had enough! And I wasn’t the only one.
Next: …The Anti Disco Movement