Suffocated By Disco [part 1]

hustle-sleeveI’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.

Bee_Gees_154.jpgOver 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.

ethel merman disco album“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

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25 Responses to Suffocated By Disco [part 1]

  1. Steve Shafer says:

    CHiPs definitely had a disco episode or two.
    Love the fact that Ethel Merman had a disco album. Ain’t America great!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Steve Shafer – CHIPS was only the tip of the iceberg. By the time aliens kidnapped Bert on “Soap” and made disco moves, the writing was on the wall. Don’t get me started on “disco versions” of hits pre-dating Tin Pan Alley and clawing their way into the top 40.

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  2. Taffy says:

    ooh, i wonder if you’re gonna mention those ghastly Stars on 45 type medleys, all driven by the same canned beat. yuck.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – Ugh! I forgot all about those, but they were part of the nails in disco’s coffin that late in the game. Squeeze did have a larf with “Squabs On Forty Fab,” though!

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  3. Tim says:

    There’s some Andy Williams disco out there, too.

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  4. Echorich says:

    Ah disco, I too grew up on AM Top 40 and being the older brother found my own way around music as I grew into my teens. Oddly for me, I somehow latched onto Bowie and Roxy Music by the time I was 11 – much to my fathers chagrin (he couldn’t make head or tails of Bowie or Elton John for that matter). Disco for me in those mid 70’s yrs was definitely Hue Corporation, Ritchie Family, Silver Convention…radio sounds. By the time I was 13 though, I had begun to discover what was going on in NYC…I read The Village Voice and found out everything I could about what brewing in downtown Manhattan. I knew who Television was and Ramones. I even went into NYC to find Max’s Kansas City one Saturday afternoon and took a picture of it with my Kodak Hawkeye Camera.
    But even as I was growing into an NYC Punk, Disco still made sense to me. I learned all I could about Kraftwerk and that led me – sideways as it may have been to learn about Giorgio Mororder and what was happening in Europe. I’m gonna leave my comment hear in anticipation of the next installment, which I think I will be ready to contribute to…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Ooh, Silver Convention! The really insipid disco that probably did much to give the whole genre a bad name! I know they colored my view of disco string sections for years forward. When Duran Duran released the disco string version of “My Own Way” [I bought the import 7″] it put me off of them for quite a few months. I didn’t buy anything else of theirs until the point where I heard “Hungry Like The Wolf” on MTV.

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      • Echorich says:

        As insipid as Silver Convention was, and it was, it is a great example of German producer pop that rose to dominate European Charts through the 70’s and well into the late 80’s and 90’s. Producers Levay and Kunze later worked with Moroder and Jim Steinman respectively and brought their sympho-disco background to both.
        And were it not for Get Up And Boogie and it’s memorable vocal riff, I would never have gotten my favorite ABC remix in the Be Near Me – Munich Disco Mix – “That’s Right!”

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – Do you mean that the “that’s right” sample was from “Get Up And Boogie?!!” Jeez-ow! You have a better memory for that than I do. I haven’t heard Silver Convention since they were hits on the radio… 38 years?

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – As if to prove a point, the satellite radio at the gym this morning had been changed from 80s CHR to disco/funk and I entered the gym to the sound of “that’s right!” I heard “Get Up And Boogie” for the first time in 39 years this morning and that hook was as bold as life, but yeeeesh, insipid doesn’t begin to describe that song! I had mercifully forgotten the “chorus” of “…boogieeeeee!” I find is fascinating that I had suppressed the memory of this track as early as 1985 when the ABC mix came out!

          On the plus side, karmic balance paid off with The Brother’s Johnson’s sublime “Strawberry Letter 23” and the powerhouse groove of Parliament’s “Flash Light.” My wife pointed out that it sounded like 10cc’s 1978 single “Dreadlock Holiday” sounded like it was cribbed from 1977’s “Strawberry Letter 23” and I think she’s onto something, though it’s been 36 years since I’ve heard the 10cc hit.

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  5. It’s interesting to me that you single out “Rock the Boat,” as I too noticed that song in particular as a standout from the disco wash. I was living **in Miami** during the disco craze, and remember how our high school was split into “disco” and “rock” camps. Needless to say disco was and still is the proper soundtrack for that city.

    Fortunately I had spent some time in England, which exposed me to glam rock and folk so as to widen my musical tastes, but when in the US one listened to Top 40 and little else. The rise of disco forced me off that diet of FM fodder and back to the “good” rock I had heard when I was younger, particularly anything androgynous (Roxy, Bowie, Elton John) or anti-love song (Kraftwerk, later Devo and Talking Heads).

    In hindsight I think disco had some good elements. It widened the audience for “black” and “hispanic” types of music, gave a lot of work to starving R&B artists, and was generally optimistic and dancey, which is a good thing. There was just *too much* of it in a short period, and much of it from the same source! It was like music froze for a good two years or so and we just kept playing that soundtrack over and over and over. It even got into Star Wars, remember MECO?

    Man was I glad when the (delayed) punk and early New Wave records came along as a counterpoint! Still, at least you can point to the disco era and say that that period of time had its own sound and style. Not so these days, where (musically speaking) nothing much has changed in the last 20 years as far as I can tell!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      chasinvictoria – Excellent commentary! You make many cogent points as I’m trying to chart pro/anti disco sentiment and my reactions to it back in the day. Like you, my reactions over time were neither black nor white, but for a few years, it was clarified into a knee-jerk reaction for the reasons you described. “Too much of it in a short time” indeed! Had the disco been drip fed more moderately, I might have kept with Top 40 for for a few more years instead of getting detoured into FM Rock. But that was where I heard Talking Heads…

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    • Echorich says:

      chasinvictoria – My HS years were spent as a Proto Punk (New York Style) surrounded by a sea of Led Zeppelin, Rush, Iron Maiden, KISS and Black Sabbath t-shirts. Satin Jackets with Rolling Stones and Swan Song Records logos abounded. The African American kids were definitely more tuned into late 70’s Disco and R&B. NYC still had two popular FM Disco stations and I have to say I listened to them more than the burgeoning Album Oriented Rock stations. I was an odd man (kid) out in my Talking Heads 77 denim jacket, NY Dolls tshirt and white jeans scrawled with Ramones, The Clash, Television, Blondie and other bands in blood red nail polish.

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  6. Taffy says:

    Sure, there was bad disco. But there was good disco too. And disco was basically a singles medium, so while Donna Summer and Chic, Gloria Gaynor and the Village People all had number 1 singles in 1979 (the absolute height of the disco explosion before the bubble burst), the album charts were ruled by Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Supertramp, etc. I think it was still ’79 when disco-informed new wave tracks like M’s Pop Muzik, Ian Dury’s Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, and others first came out and blurred the lines.

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    • Echorich says:

      Great point. You find both of the track you mentioned on European Disco compilations. And were it not for Disco, Blondie might never have broken through…

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      • postpunkmonk says:

        Echorich – I can’t believe that you mentioned Blondie before Taffy! Taffy – you just lost a Blondie stripe!! Drop down and gimme 50, maggit!!!! Yeah, I recall hearing “Heart Of Glass” for the first time on radio stations while visiting relatives in South Carolina. I was taken by its eerie version of minor key disco that was heavily influenced by Moroder’s production of “I Feel Love.” When I found out that Blondie wasn’t just a disco band, I became intrigued, then quickly smitten!

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        • Taffy says:

          You’ve no freaking idea how much I restrained myself from just typing out Heart of Glass= evidence that disco can be great (and great bedfellows with rock)! But I thought I was already a walking cliche, shilling for Debbie and the boys at every opportunity, so I passed. But yeah, even after the ten trillionth listen I still marvel over the genius behind Blondie’s Donna Summer/Kraftwerk pastiche (paraphrasing Chris Stein here).

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – Personally, I think the best music has hybrid vigor! Where the DNA lines are so blurred that it can’t be put into any neat little box. In the 50s when gospel, blues, and country were coalescing into rock, it was a thrilling time. 25 years later, Post-Punk provided another explosion of cross pollination. Have I missed anything exciting lately?

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  7. Tim says:

    I’ll take a lot of the disco and while I am at it I’ll take a lot of the music that was contemporary to it. Most of it pastes the current “Hot 100.”

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    • Tim says:

      I forgot to mention this book; it marries two of my favorite things, (oral) history and music.
      It is a really good book and contextualizes a lot of what was going on with women’s rights, equal rights and gay rights contemporary to the explosion in disco music.

      http://www.amazon.com/Hot-Stuff-Remaking-American-Culture/dp/B005B1LLMO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1401833957&sr=8-1&keywords=hot+stuff+book+about+disco

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      • postpunkmonk says:

        Tim – That sounds like a great read! One uncomfortable thing that was at least part of the anti-disco subtext had the whiff of racism and homophobia. Disco was forged in the African American/Latin/Gay communities before becoming mainstream. Even if you didn’t read the magazine articles on disco, one could sense that it was not coming from a white, straight, male perspective and that undoubtedly had something to do with events like Disco Demolition Night. On the other hand, many anti-disco people I knew in school were just lunkheads! Moving back to incorporate disco after the backlash made for a lot of thrilling music in ’79-’83. Even Robert Fripp made a disco record in 1980… after electrifying the brilliant Talking Heads/Hugo Ball track “I Zimbra” the prior year.

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