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The Ultimate Guide to Disco

An in-depth look at classic Seventies disco music and its history

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The Ultimate Guide to Disco
The scope of disco music's influence arguably can't be overstated. After all, it gave rise to an entire area of electronic dance music (i.e., electronica) that exists separate from rock or pop as its own entire field, much in the same way that jazz or classical does. Yet disco was widely reviled during its initial inception by rock fans who perhaps saw just this sort of revolution coming. After disco, dance music and rock music were separated forever.

Before The Beat

Disco was born from two different impulses: the drive to reduce funk music to its simplest, most energetic groove possible, and the continued commercialization (and sentimentality) of post-soul R&B music. Its sleek contours and flashy style appealed to a new generation of upwardly mobile African-Americans immediately.
  • Funk Music The groove that inspired disco, dance music, and hip-hop began with James Brown, more or less... but as with other kinds of history, music history isn't always so simple.
  • Philly Soul Sweet on top, funky on the bottom, socially aware and yet utopian, equally at home on AM radio or the dance floor, "Philly Soul" -- and Philadelphia International, the label that created it -- was an crucial element in disco's development.
  • Oldies Music Playlist 111: The Story Of Disco When disco hit in 1977, many suburban fans had no idea that the music had already been a big part of black, Latino, and gay culture for a full half-decade. This more-or-less chronological playlist bears that out.

The Beginning

The disco phenomenon began in urban centers around the US, appealing therefore to several different subcultures at once -- black, Latino, and gay audiences most specifically. As it expanded, it became immediate enough for use in action movies, and, at the other extreme, glossy enough to revive ballroom dancing.
  • What is disco? Love it or hate it, disco was a cultural powerhouse, spawning modern dance music while providing an important signifier for the black, gay, female and Hispanic communities.
  • Isaac Hayes The "Black Moses of Soul" and the genius behind the "Theme From Shaft," Hayes practically created disco before going on to star in action films and his recurring (and ultimately controversial) role as Chef on TV's South Park.
  • Barry White R&B's first real (and, some say, still greatest) seducer... Barry brought romance back into soul and experimented with lush arrangements and danceable grooves without which disco would not have been possible.

The Explosion

Disco had become popular enough by 1975 that several white artists began experimenting with the style, but the fad seemed to have died off by the next year -- that is, until the Saturday Night Fever juggernaut gave bored suburbanites a reason to shine on the weekends. As a result, discotheques sprung up like arcades and video stores would for future generations, and several artists who'd already paid their dues took advantage of the new style.
  • The Bee Gees The band that made disco a national phenomenon had already enjoyed a stellar career as Australia's answer to the Beatles, proving themselves a group equally adept at blue-eyed soul, chamber pop, and psychedelia. The fact that they went on to another career as one of the top-selling acts of all time just proves their boundless talent.
  • KC and the Sunshine Band Had it not been for the Bee Gees, this big-band disco mainstay might well have defined an era. As it was, America's greatest party band ensured their place in music history with their crafty blend of Latin funk, "junkanoo" and disco, not to mention their keen pop songcraft.
  • Donna Summer The Queen of Disco started out as a novelty singer of sorts, creating "orgasm records" with a proto-electronic flair before barnstorming the pop charts with genre-defining divaesque classics, and ironically injecting a little rock into the genre, as well.

The Legacy

The impact of disco was monumental, coming as it did to a nation that mostly rejected glam and punk and who hadn't had a bonafide cultural phenomenon of such magnitude since Beatlemania. But the very size and scope of its popularity also doomed it to the same fad status it took decades to overcome, and its identification with American subcultures also inspired a major backlash in rock circles.
  • The Top 10 Biggest Disco Songs Disco has two histories -- one as a dance-club style which appealed to the fringes of society and only occasionally poked its head into the top 40, and another as a cultural movement that dominated pop radio so completely it hastened its own demise. This list of the biggest disco records of all time takes both audiences into account.
  • Rock Goes Disco "Disco Sucks" was the rallying cry of rock and roll fans in the late Seventies, fans who thought that guitar bands were dead on AM radio, during disco's heady 18-month rule. And some rock artists who badly needed to stay afloat on top of the charts -- including many who loved the new sound -- risked alienating their core audience by flirting with the style.
  • The Top 10 Worst Disco Songs Sure, there are some folks out there who think all disco sucks. But what of the really horrible 45s (and worse, 12" singles) unleashed by the me generation's most monumental fad? The ones that even disco lovers hate? Can you stand to make it through the worst disco had to offer?
  • American Idol 2009: Disco Night American Idol's disco night was a perfect theme for the struggling hopefuls of the show, most of whom were groomed for pop divadom. Wondering what the originals were like, who performed them first, and where you can buy them? Wonder no more... this list will tell you all you need to know.
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