City Breakin’, Everybody Shakin’

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.

5 responses

  1. I’m just going to go right ahead and say it: I had no idea about the roots of disco. Raised in small-town Wisconsin and educated in Madison at the University of Turmoil (’65-’69), I have recollections similar to yours about “gayness.” There were, of course, gays on campus then; but (and I’m not trying to be unkind here) they were termed “unusual”, but were accepted, never ridiculed or derided in my circle of acquaintances, because…well, the whole “free love” thing and all. In high school (’62-’65), the term “homo” was used as a pejorative, mainly to describe only “un-manly” behavior….like, being a good dancer or having a major role in a school play. When disco hit, I was living in southern California, but to me, it was just another genre of popular music. And….maybe it’s simply because I’m a bit older than you, JB… the Village People were ALWAYS just a bunch of guys dressed as particular characters – and I had no idea until having read this post that the obvious had escaped me.

  2. I was 6 years old when I watched Saturday Night Fever…my Mom had me accompany my Dad to the theater (It was several years later that I learned that Dad had a girlfriend, so sometimes Mom had me go with him to prevent any encounters). At that young age, I still remember that opening scene with John Travolta and those paint cans. In fact, other than the guy falling off the bridge, I don’t remember much else about the movie from that first viewing besides the music…and the fact that the people in that dance club looked like they were having a blast. The fact that some of my earliest pop music memories sprung forth around 1977-78 probably explains a lot about me.

    As for the “gay” part…when I was in high school, my close friends and I called each other the “other” F-word from time to time but didn’t mean anything by it. I’d never even consider using the word today…except for two of my buddies because it’s a part of our youth. It’s kind of like the scene in “The Hangover” when the guys show up to pick up Stu.

    And…my father was in the Navy during the late 1970s. I was young, so The Village People were just these characters to me. Anyway, I figured Dad would have loved “In the Navy” but he would just say, “Turn that s—t off!” when it played. I still don’t know whether that was a factor of him being a country fan or whether the caricatures were just hitting a little close to home for him. One of these days, maybe I’ll ask him about that.

  3. Add my name to those who didn’t appreciate that there were any gay aspects to the origins of disco, and even though I was in college (in Long Beach, Calif.) when the Village People’s hits charted, I also thought they just had a gimmick of costumes. Now when I hear the songs, I think, “How could we have missed that?” But hey, that’s how it was back then. I can recall getting tired of disco by the end of the ’70s, but in recent years I’ve rediscovered just how much great music came out of that format, and to my 53-year-old years, so much of it sounds great again. The hooks, the arrangements, and the beats in so many disco records are works of art.

  4. Growing up in NY, disco never died post July 1979. The disco music of the early 80s was a lot darker and more melancholy. I just remember there was apoint by 1983 that everyone wanted to forget about the 70s, period. That could have been pushed by politics as well due to Reagan’s election and the rise of the religious Right. I remember when Hot103.5 do their disco lunch in the late 80s, I would privately listen, sharing the experience with no one, thinking I was totally uncool for doing so. But they began to open a part of upbringing and musical enjoyment that the 80s seemed content on keeping closed.

    I love disco…always have and always will, even when it morphed into new wave, house, techno, etc. The best book I ever read on the genre is Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 by Tim Lawrence. I highly recommend it!

  5. As a (not-yet-out) gay man who grew up in the Midwest in the ’70s, I have a little bit of a different take on this than you did. While I agree to a certain extent that homosexuality wasn’t as much on the radar culturally then as now, growing up in Chicago and the suburbs, I definitely felt a clear though rarely spoken connection between disco and the gay community among the teenage guys at my all-boys Catholic high school. The same guys who used the slurs of gay men to refer to anyone/anything they deemed effeminate went after disco music with a sharp venom in the spring of ’79. I’ve no doubt many of them were at Sox Park in July on Disco Demolition Night. As for me … our family moved from Chicago to South Bend, Ind., that summer, and the timing couldn’t have been better.

    Musically, I liked much of the music considered disco between 1974 and ’78, though I was much more fond of the Top 40/R&B side than the mechanical/robotic/dance chart stuff. I liked the Village People more for the goofiness of the group than for the music (“San Francisco” was more of a favorite than “YMCA,” though). Loved Donna Summer, though, and I wished she had continued her hot streak past the early ’80s.

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