Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
If the title of this piece sounds like a metaphor … just read on.
The actual roots of disco are a little hard to pin down. The name is short for discotheque, which literally just means a collection of records in French. It first came to refer to a club where records were played (as opposed to live music, like normal clubs) during the Nazi occupation of France—the Nazis had banned jazz and bebop music as “decadent American influences,” so underground clubs sprang up to spin the latest wax from across the pond. It worked well enough that the idea stuck around after World War II, and gradually new features were added, like flashing lights and dual turntables—the latter of which allowed for continuous music with no breaks.
As a style of music, though, disco owes its roots to a post–Stonewall New York City. After the turmoil of the late sixties, and minorities—blacks, Latinos, gays—had retreated a bit into their own underground subculture. This ended up coalescing around the already-established discotheque venues, which at the time were spinning the sort of records already popular with east-coast black American listeners: Motown, Philadelphia soul, and funk. These sorts of records were often lushly produced with full orchestras, but the disco sound solidified around an electronic, synthesized core when Donna Summer released “I Feel Love” in May of 1977.
That wasn’t what opened the floodgates, however.So now you had a nationwide craze over a genre of music that barely existed (having just broken off from Motown and R&B), based on a piece of long-form journalism that was entirely fictional and a movie made by people with no real connections to the original disco scene.
What opened the floodgates was a piece published in the June 7, 1976, issue of New York magazine titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.” In the piece, journalist Nik Cohn told the story of Vincent, a young Italian American who worked a decidedly unglamorous job in a hardware store in Brooklyn by day, but at night cut loose as the disco king of the dance floor. “Vincent was the very best dancer in Bay Ridge”—wrote Cohn—“the ultimate Face. He owned fourteen floral shirts, five suits, eight pairs of shoes, three overcoats, and had appeared on American Bandstand. Sometimes music people came out from Manhattan to watch him, and one man who owned a club on the East Side had even offered him a contract. A hundred dollars a week. Just to dance.”
It was a heck of a story—and, of course, Vincent never existed. Cohn, who was a recent immigrant from the United Kingdom to the States, had had nothing but trouble actually finding his way into the disco scene. The first time he had shown up at a club to report on the new dance craze, a drunken brawler had thrown up on his pants as soon as he cracked open his car door. He had shown up once again, but failed to dig up the one clubgoer who had made an impression on him the first time: a young Italian guy watching, aloof, from the entrance. Since Cohn couldn’t dig him up to tell his story, Cohn had invented his story instead. The piece he ended up turning in had essentially nothing specific to do with the disco scene—and was, in fact, based mainly on people Cohn had known growing up in Ireland and hanging around the London “mod” scene in the late sixties.
Despite the fact that the article was entirely made up, though, it proved to be a huge hit for New York and was quickly adapted into a little screenplay you might have heard of called Saturday Night Fever. John Travolta took on the role of Vincent (whose name the screenplay changed to Tony Manero, because one good stereotypical Italian American name deserves another), and the movie proceeded to blow up the box office. Launching six months after Star Wars—which, as one of the objectively biggest movies of all time, was still doing gangbusters—Saturday Night Fever nevertheless managed to more than double its budget in its first two weeks. Meanwhile, its soundtrack album, which prominently featured the Bee Gees (who had started as a psychedelic rock group but were more than happy to jump on the latest trend), spent twenty-four weeks at number one on the charts, and—like every album that sells a few copies—won multiple Grammys. Overnight, dance studios promising to teach housewives to disco dance were springing up around the Midwest. Novelty hits like “Disco Duck” suddenly dominated the airwaves, and “upscale” disco clubs like Studio 54 began to dot major metropolitan areas.
So now you had a nationwide craze over a genre of music that barely existed (having just broken off from Motown and R&B), based on a piece of long-form journalism that was entirely fictional and a movie made by people with no real connections to the original disco scene. Given all this, the backlash to the disco craze was almost inevitable—but maybe the actual, literal chaos wasn’t.
I’m the millionth person to acknowledge this, but there was a definite racial component to the backlash here. At the time, disco was seen as “black” music while rock (though admittedly invented mainly by black people) was seen as “white” music. Less frequently acknowledged, though, is a definite class component—musicians, especially the guitarist set, tend to come from working-class backgrounds and often need those gigs to make ends meet; the rise of recorded music meant a significant financial hit to many of them. What was merely the latest fashion to the upper classes was an actual threat to certain people closer to the bottom.
In any case, “Disco Demolition Night” was the brainchild of a Chicago–area DJ named Steve Dahl, who had previously made his bones playing album-oriented rock on local station WDAI; when said station had fired him and switched to a disco format, he transferred over to WLUP and began his running gag of scratching, breaking, or otherwise destroying disco records on-air. He also recorded some anti-disco parody tunes and helped popularize the slogan “Disco sucks” (this was back when people still thought the word “sucks” was risqué). Disco Demolition Night, on the surface, was both the culmination of his agitation and just one of those gimmicks mediocre sports teams always engage in when they’re failing to fill the seats with their win-loss record: If you brought a disco LP, Dahl promised listeners, you could get into July 12’s planned doubleheader between the White Sox and the Tigers for only ninety-eight cents; between games, they would throw all the disco records in a dumpster and literally blow them up.
Not to everyone’s taste, but it seemed like an innocent bit of fun—until the whole thing resulted in an actual riot. When the literal dumpster fire went off, fans took that as a cue to start their own metaphorical dumpster fire, rushing the field and starting fights—fights that weren’t without apparent racial motivation. One black man who worked as an usher at the time reports a fan breaking a record in his face and yelling, “Disco sucks!” Nakedly racist? Hard to say but … probably.
After Disco Demolition Night, it was as if the entire country woke up from a hangover, realizing they’d done an awful lot of things they weren’t proud of. While disco had dominated the charts in 1978 and the first half of 1979, by the end of the year, it was just gone. The Grammys—who have never met a musical genre they didn’t want to give an entire award category to—gave out a Best Disco Recording award in 1980, and then immediately pretended that the category had never existed. Even multi-platinum-selling disco acts like Chic (of “Le Freak” fame) complained that their record labels just stopped taking their calls.
But maybe you already know the happy (?) ending to this. Disco went back underground, and its new nexus became Detroit, where clubs began to emphasize the DJ over the recording artist, leading to new genres like techno, house, and every other flavor of what’s now generally known as electronic dance music, or EDM. Meanwhile, disco itself never really went away; they just started calling it pop. Eighties pop legends like Madonna and Michael Jackson borrowed shamelessly from the disco sound, and by the 2000s, pop singers like Lady GaGa even dropped lyrics that unashamedly used the word disco in the hook, when she declared a desire to “take a ride on your disco stick”—proving once and for all that passé words never really die, they just morph into phallic euphemisms nobody asked for.
If there’s a lesson to all of this, it’s probably that “authenticity” is in the eye of the beholder. To the rock fan in the “disco sucks” T-shirt, there was something inauthentic about music that wasn’t played live; and yet, there was nothing inauthentic about the moves unleashed on the dance floor, or the genuine sense of community that the early venues brought to NYC. Meanwhile, Cohn’s article was “inauthentic” in the most literal sense of the word—and yet, it must have hit on something that resonated, or else it wouldn’t have turned the world upside-down, even momentarily.
But of course, if you’re a record exec, “authenticity” isn’t a thing. There’s only the latest money-making enterprise. The problem with that is, sometimes it blows up in your face.