Scholars who have examined the history of disco place its origins in the early 1970s, and locate them in the gay clubs of post-Stonewall New York, where newly empowered gays were able to create and openly celebrate their own culture for the first time. Disco reached critical mass with the public in part because several key executives who supported and encouraged their record labels to market disco were homosexual themselves. The first disco records to break through to mainstream Top 40 appeared sometime in 1974 or thereabouts. As celebrities of the mid 70s embraced the disco scene and got publicity doing so, people far removed from the nation’s urban centers became interested in the disco experience, and clubs began to proliferate. The opening of Studio 54 in 1977 was national news, and it helped prime the pump for the disco explosion that rocked the country with the release of Saturday Night Live at the end of the year. In 1978, disco came to Holiday Inn lounges by the hundreds as John Travolta’s Tony Manero and the Bee Gees stood astride the pop world. But by this time, the people who had pioneered disco a half-decade before were proclaiming it dead. And within two years, it would indeed be dying, done in by a rock-n-roll backlash.
Perhaps, if you were in New York City during the 70s, that’s the way you saw it unfold. But in the Midwestern United States of my teenage years, it went down another way entirely.
For most of us, disco began as a radio phenomenon, although for a long time, it didn’t seem all that different from the rest of the stuff we were hearing on WLS, or whoever we were listening to. I was an R&B fan with catholic tastes, so I wasn’t automatically prejudiced against anything. Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Fly Robin Fly” by Silver Convention, and “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” by Tavares had a distinctive sound, but they did not seem like harbingers of a new era—they were just other ways to do R&B. Not until disco performers and their records became interchangeable, and you couldn’t tell by listening who was who, did I start to dislike the stuff. And that wasn’t until sometime in 1979.
Every history of disco talks about its roots in the gay community—but out in the Midwest, we tended to miss that part of it entirely. That part of this disquisition is on the flip.
To us, the Village People were did not signify particular types of gay men; they were just guys in crazy costumes. Neither did we get the in-jokes of “Macho Man,” “YMCA,” and “In the Navy.” It wasn’t until years later that powerful symbolism of the Village People became obvious. That’s because in my town circa 1978, we were pretty sure we didn’t know any gay people, and gay culture—even the very idea that such a thing might exist—was a mystery. Homosexuality simply didn’t register. (We would discover in a year or two that one of the guys in our circle of friends was gay, but even after we found out, he seemed no different than the guy we’d known for years, so it didn’t matter.)
In my teenage world, guys didn’t dance, not because it was “gay,” but because it was just something guys just didn’t do, apart from the occasional slow dance-cum-grope with a girlfriend. (Calling someone or something “gay” was not part of our insult vocabulary.) Even though we would not have admitted that Tony Manero was someone to emulate—the cultural gap between Italians from Bay Ridge and the Swiss and Scandinavians of rural Wisconsin could not be bridged by a mere movie—he did as much as anybody to make disco-dancing palatable to guys like me. If he wore that white suit and danced to the Bee Gees and still got laid, then maybe the whole thing was OK.
This post is a roundabout recommendation of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols. She’s a former disco DJ and the author of the Janis Joplin biography Scars of Sweet Paradise. Her breakdown of the impact of the Village People and Saturday Night Fever is the best part of her book. Her chapter on the disco backlash describes just how fast the bubble burst, and cites the 1979 Disco Demolition Night incident in Chicago—and the rock-radio machinations around it—as the key event in disco’s demise. Yet she also reminds readers about the continuities between disco and the danceable rock music that followed it in the 80s, some of which was disco in all but name.
Your perceptions of disco as you remember it back in the day are welcome, as are your opinions about it now that 30-plus years have passed since disco’s heyday.