- Words Joe Zadeh
- All images from DISCO: Photographs by Bill Bernstein, RRP £40 published by Reel Art Press
Between Studio 54 and this year’s season of The X Factor, we’ve seen disco coming and going from the mainstream stage — but did it ever really disappear?
There’s no denying – disco is back at it yet again. You can hear it, see it and experience it everywhere. As part of a bigger cultural move towards streamlining queerness, the past few years have witnessed disco being brought back into the mainstream. As usually happens though, the purity of all the moments created get watered down via the process of normalisation. But, there’s no denying – disco never was and never will be normal. It’s masterful, extraordinary, beyond sensational expression of a fantasy world that never really existed. Not even in 1973. As a blinded fan of the word and all it stands for, I come here to express my love and show you why exactly the beat of this genre never stopped blasting from the speakers.
The year is 1974. McDonalds opens their first UK restaurant in Woolwich, London. Erno Rubik invents the Rubik’s Cube. Gloria Gaynor’s Never Can Say Goodbye becomes the first ever #1 single of the American Disco Action charts. This came as a response to radio charts, making it the first time ever a top 40 list focused on discotheque music played by disk jockeys in the world of NYC clubland as opposed to the most-played songs on the radio. Soul Train has been running on TV since 1971, bringing the sweat of Studio 54 into homes all over America. In a world where rock was dominating the radio waves, disco seemed like a clear antidote to the anger and frustration. It was a world of love, and everyone wanted a piece of it.
Even if you try to argue I’m hereby glorifying disco and all it stands for – remember that this lifestyle was based on glorifying itself and all that had to do with it. In disco-land, there was no space for sulking and negativity, everything was poured into the four-on-the-floor beats and staccato baselines. That same notion that made many love it, was exactly the same reason behind a severe hatred of disco. In many ways, it was completely unsustainable, because let’s face it – life isn’t all glitter, rainbows and hustles. It was a mantra of overindulgence – beats, colours and sequins, as well as alcohol, drug and sex… But just like Cheryl Cole said in her groundbreaking hit Fight For This Love: “Too much of anything can make you sick.”
'Le Freak' by Chic
Few things stood in the way of disco and the genius of DJs and producers like Larry Levan and David Mancuso. In 1977, Saturday Night Fever was released, with music by The Bee Gees, who offered up the soundtrack to John Travolta’s finger pointing and pelvic thrusts. Disco was officially mainstream, a washed-out version of the fabulosity that emerged from the sleepless nights fuelled by dance floor drug-taking. Two years later, on July 12 1979, between two games of Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, as a response to this emergence of the genre, an anti-disco rally escalated on a baseball park in Chicago, Illinois with tens of thousands of people lighting up disco records in protest to all this music stood for. Out of fear and hatred for the black and LGBT communities which were obviously thriving within the excellence of disco, these baseball fans lit up vinyl in order to purify their universe. Earlier in the year it was Donna Summer, Amii Stewart and Anita Ward topping the US Charts. But by September of the same year, the disco revolution has reached its climax. It was official – disco had left the building. But not for long.
It’s clear that even in queer communities of today, the sound of disco is often frowned upon. Yet, if this lifestyle was deleted out of the wider cultural lexicon, contemporary queerness would not be the same. The majority of RuPaul’s Drag Race lip sync songs? Gone. Hits by icons like Madonna, Kylie and Ariana? Gone. If there wasn’t for Donna, Sylvester and Gloria, we wouldn’t have so much of what we have in music today. And we’re not just talking inspiration and looks. Without a doubt, disco is one of the most sampled genres of music to this date, with some pretty iconic pop hooks coming directly from the books. Think Madonna’s Hung Up sampling Abba’s Gimme, Gimme, Gimme. And we’re not just talking about queer music here. Getting Jiggy With it by Will Smith? A sample of Sister Sledge’s He’s the Greatest Dancer from start to finish.
'Lost In Music' by Sister Sledge
Thanks to acts like Horse Meat Disco and Dmitri From Paris as well as many contemporary record labels such as Disco Deviance and Z Recordings, the sound of disco in its true form is alive and kicking once again. More and more club nights dedicated to the genre are popping out east, west, and central. You can catch original disco bands on tour – Sister Sledge, Chic, Odyssey are just a few examples of those still making the rounds and selling tickets. If tuning into Saturday night TV this past weekend, you could even find the man himself – Nile Rodgers – as a judge on X Factor. Who would’ve ever thought the visibly intoxicated man from Le Freak music video will be giving his feedback on the lacklustre cover of My Heart Will Go On? Whatever happens next, disco is here to stay – with or without a bottom-two sing-off.