From New World Encyclopedia
Disco ball: a standard decoration at 1970s dance clubs.

Disco is a genre of dance-oriented music popular from the mid-1970s through the early '80s. Musical influences on disco include Motown, funk, soul music, mambo, and salsa. Strings, horns, electric pianos, and electric guitars created a lush background sound from the music, with orchestral instruments such as the flute often used for solo melodies. Unlike in rock, a lead guitar is rarely used.

Well-known late 1970s' disco performers included Chic, the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, the Village People, and The Jackson 5.

While performers and singers garnered the lion's share of public attention, the behind-the-scenes producers played an equal, if not more important role in disco's development, creating the innovative sounds and production techniques that were a key part of the "disco sound." Films such as Saturday Night Fever contributed to disco's rise in mainstream popularity.

A lively club culture developed around disco, characterized by youth-oriented fashion, strobe-lighted dance floors, and often drugs and promiscuous sex. Disco's popularity began to fade in the 1980s but has experienced a revival in recent years.

Disco was also important in the development of Hip-Hop music, as well as disco's direct descendants: the 1980s and 1990s genres of house music and its harder-driving offshoot, techno.


Role of producers and DJs

Disco has its musical roots in late 1960s' northern soul music, especially the Philly and New York soul, both of which were evolutions of Detroit's Motown sound. The Philly Sound is typified by lavish percussion. Music with proto-"disco" elements appeared in the late 1960s and with "Tighten Up" and "Mony, Mony," "Dance to the Music," and "Love Child." Two early songs with disco elements include Jerry Butler’s 1969 "Only the Strong Survive" and Manu Dibango's 1972 "Soul Makossa." A number of Motown hits also resembled the disco style and were later covered by disco artists. The term disco was first used in print in an article by Vince Aletti in the September 13, 1973, edition of Rolling Stone magazine titled "Discotheque Rock '72: Paaaaarty!"

The disco sound was also shaped by the producer Tom Moulton, who wanted to extend the enjoyment of the music and thus created the "Remix," which has influenced many other latter genres such as Rap, Hip-Hop, Techno and others. DJs and remixers would often re-edit existing songs using reel-to-reel tape machines. Their remixed versions would add in percussion breaks, new sections, and new sounds. Influential DJs and remixers who helped to establish what became known as the "disco sound" included Moulton, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Shep Pettibone, Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, and later Frankie Knuckles.

Disco was also shaped by nightclub DJs such as Francis Grasso, who used multiple record players to seamlessly mix tracks from genres such as soul, funk, and pop music at discotheques, creating the forerunner to later styles such as hip-hop and house.

Chart-topping songs

The Hues Corporation's 1974 "Rock The Boat," a U.S. number-one single and million-seller, was one of the early disco songs to top the charts. Others included "Walking in Rhythm" by The Blackbyrds, "Rock Your Baby" by George McCrae, and "Love's Theme" by Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra. Also in 1975, Gloria Gaynor released the first side-long disco mix vinyl album, which included a remake of The Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye" and two other songs, "Honey Bee" and "Reach Out (I'll Be There)." Also significant during this early disco period was Miami's KC and the Sunshine Band. Formed by Harry Wayne Casey ("KC") and Richard Finch, KC and the Sunshine Band had a string of disco-definitive, top-five hits between 1975-1976, including "Get Down Tonight," "That's the Way (I Like It)," "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty," and "I'm Your Boogie Man."

The Bee Gees used Barry Gibb's falsetto to garner hits such as "You Should Be Dancing" and "Staying Alive." In 1975, hits such as Van McCoy's "The Hustle," Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," and "Could It Be Magic," brought disco further into the mainstream. Other notable early disco hits include The Jackson 5’s "Dancing Machine" (1973), Barry White’s "You're the First, the Last, My Everything" (1974), LaBelle’s "Lady Marmalade" (1974), The Four Seasons’ "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" (1975), Silver Convention’s "Fly Robin Fly" (1975), and The Bee Gees’ "Jive Talkin'" (1975). Chic's "Le Freak" (1978) became a classic and is heard almost everywhere disco is mentioned; other hits by Chic include the often-sampled "Good Times" (1979) and "Everybody Dance" (1977). Also noteworthy are Walter Murphy's various attempts to bring classical music to the disco mainstream, most notably his hit, "A Fifth Of Beethoven" (1976).

Prominent European pop and disco groups included Luv' from the Netherlands and Boney M, a group of four West Indian singers and dancers masterminded by West German record producer Frank Farian. Boney M charted worldwide hits with such songs as "Daddy Cool," "Ma Baker," and "Rivers of Babylon."

1978–1980: mainstream popularity

Gloria Gaynor's disco hits included "Never Can Say Goodbye" (1974) and "I Will Survive" (1979).
Stylistic origins: U.S.:Funk, salsa and soul music.

Europe: French and Italian Pop, Eurovision

Cultural origins: U.S., United States, New York City/Los Angeles/Atlanta Early 1970s.

Canada: Toronto/Montreal Early 1970s

Europe: The Eurovision Song contest

Typical instruments: Electric guitar, Bass guitar, Electric piano, Keyboard, Drums, Drum machine, horn section, string section, orchestral solo instruments (e.g., flute)
Mainstream popularity: Most popular in the late-1970s and early 1980s.
Derivative forms: Post Disco, Hi-NRG, House music, Eurodisco, Space Disco, Italo Disco, Disco house, Techno, Trance, Old school hip hop
Fusion genres
Regional scenes
In U.S.:New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles In Canada: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver
Other topics
Discothèque Nightclubs, Orchestration
Disco artists

The release of the film and soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever in December 1977, which became one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time, turned disco into a mainstream music genre. This in turn led many non-disco artists to record disco songs at the height of its popularity. Many of these songs were not "pure" disco, but were instead rock or pop songs with disco overtones. Notable examples include Helen Reddy’s "I Can't Hear You No More" (1976), Marvin Gaye’s "Got to Give It Up" (1977), Barry Manilow’s "Copacabana (At The Copa)" (1978), Chaka Khan’s "I'm Every Woman" (1978), and Wings’ "Silly Love Songs" (1976); as well as Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer's duet "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" (1979), Electric Light Orchestra’s "Shine a Little Love" (1979), Michael Jackson’s "Off the Wall (song)|Off the Wall" (1979), Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover" (1980), Lipps Inc's "Funkytown" (1980), The Spinners' "Working My Way Back To You" (1980), Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" (1980), and Diana Ross's "Upside Down" (1980).

Disco hit the airwaves with Marty Angelo's Disco Step-by-Step Television Show in 1975, followed by Steve Marcus' Disco Magic/Disco 77, David Bergman's Soap Factory (1978), and Merv Griffin's, Dance Fever (1979), hosted by Deney Terrio, who is credited with teaching actor John Travolta to dance for his role in Saturday Night Fever. Several parodies of the disco style were created, most notably "Disco Duck" recorded by Rick Dees, at the time a radio Disc Jockey in Memphis, Tennessee. The Rolling Stones, tongues firmly in cheeks, released a long playing (8:26) disco version of the song "Miss You" to accompany their 1978 album Some Girls. Frank Zappa famously parodied the lifestyles of disco dancers in "Dancin' Fool" on his 1979 Sheik Yerbouti album.

The "disco sound"

The "disco sound," while unique, defies a simple description, since it was an ultra-inclusive art form that drew on as many influences. Generally it tended to emphasize instrumental music over vocals and its rhythm was driving and upbeat, thus very dance-oriented. Vocals could be frivolous or serious love songs, even socially conscious commentary. The music tended to be layered and soaring, with reverberated vocals often doubled by horns over a background "pad" of electric pianos, rhythm guitars, and a variety of other instruments, both orchestral and electric.

Synthesizers were fairly common in disco, especially in the late 1970s. The rhythm was usually laid down by prominent, syncopated bass lines and by drummers using a drum kit, African/Latin percussion, and electronic drums, such as Simmons and Roland drum modules. The sound was enriched with solo lines and harmony parts played by a variety of orchestral instruments, such as harp, violin, viola, cello, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, clarinet, flugelhorn, French horn, tuba, English horn, oboe, flute, and piccolo.

Disco club scene

By the late 1970s, many major U.S. cities had thriving disco club scenes that were centered around discotheques, nightclubs, and private loft parties where DJs would play disco hits through powerful PA systems for the dancers. Some of the most prestigious clubs had elaborate lighting systems that throbbed to the beat of the music.

The decadent culture at Studio 54 got its start in disco's heyday.

Some cities had disco-dance instructors or dance schools that taught people how to do popular disco dances such as "Touch Dancing," and "the Hustle." There were also disco fashions that dancers wore for nights out at their local disco, such as sheer, flowing Halston dresses for women and shiny polyester Qiana shirts with pointy collars for men, preferably open at the chest, often worn with double-knit suit jackets.

For many dancers, the primary influence of the 1970s disco age is still predominantly the film Saturday Night Fever. In the 1980s this developed into the music-and-dance style of such films as Fame, Flashdance, and the musical Chorus Line.

In addition to the dance and fashion aspects of the disco club scene, there was also a thriving drug subculture, particularly for drugs that would enhance the experience of dancing to the loud music and the flashing lights, such as cocaine. Famous disco bars included the very important Paradise Garage as well as cocaine-filled celeb hangouts such as Manhattan's Studio 54, which was operated by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. Studio 54 was notorious for the hedonism that went on within; the balconies were known for sexual encounters, and drug use was rampant. Its dance floor was decorated with an image of the "Man in the Moon" that included an animated cocaine spoon.

Some historians have referred to July 12, 1979, as the "day disco died" because of an anti-disco demonstration that was held in Chicago. Rock-station DJs Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, along with Michael Veeck, son of Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, staged Disco Demolition Night, a promotional event with an anti-disco theme between games at a White Sox doubleheader for disgruntled rock fans.

However, the backlash against disco was tame compared to the early days of rock and roll. Also, unlike in the U.S., there was never a focused backlash against disco in Europe, and the discotheques and club culture continued longer in Europe than in the U.S.

From "disco" to "dance sound"

The transition from the late 1970s disco styles to the early 1980s dance styles was marked primarily by the change from complex arrangements performed by large ensembles of studio-session musicians to a leaner sound, in which one or two singers would perform to the accompaniment of synthesizer keyboards and drum machines.

In addition, dance music during the 1981-83 period borrowed elements from blues and jazz, creating a style the diverged from the disco of the 1970s. This emerging music was still known as disco for a short time. Examples of early 1980s dance sound performers include D. Train, Kashif, and Patrice Rushen.

Faster tempos and synthesized effects, accompanied by guitar and simplified backgrounds, moved dance music toward the funk and pop genres.

Disco revival

In the 1990s, a revival of the original disco style began to emerge. The disco influence can be heard in songs as Gloria Estefan's "Get On Your Feet" (1991), Paula Abdul's "Vibeology" (1992), Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman" (1993), U2’s "Lemon" (1993), Diana Ross's "Take Me Higher" (1995), The Spice Girls’ "Who Do You Think You Are" (1997), Gloria Estefan's "Heaven's What I Feel" (1998), Cher’s "Strong Enough" (1998), and Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat" (1999).

The trend continued in the 2000s with hit songs such as Kylie Minogue’s "Spinning Around" (2000), Sheena Easton's "Givin' Up, Givin' In" (2001), Sophie Ellis-Bextor's "Murder On The Dance Floor" (2002), S Club 7's singles "Don't Stop Movin'" (2001), The Shapeshifters' "Lola's Theme" (2003), Janet Jackson's "R&B Junkie" (2004), La Toya Jackson's "Just Wanna Dance" (2004), and Madonna’s "Hung Up."

More recently, many disco-influenced hit songs have been released, including Ultra Nate's "Love's The Only Drug" (2006), Gina G’s "Tonight's The Night" (2006), The Shapeshifters' "Back To Basics" (2006), Michael Gray's "Borderline" (2006), Irene Cara's "Forever My Love" (2006), Bananarama's "Look on the Floor (Hypnotic Tango)," Dannii Minogue's "Perfection" (2006), Akcent's "Kings of Disco" (2007), the Freemasons "Rain Down Love" (2007), Claudja Barry's "I Will Stand" (2006), Suzanne Palmer's "Free My Love" (2007), Pepper Mashay's "Lost Yo Mind" (2007), Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s "Me and My Imagination" (2007), Maroon 5's "Makes Me Wonder" (2007), Justice’s "D.A.N.C.E." (2007) and others.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved my Life: the History of the Disc Jockey. New York: Grove Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0802136886
  • Jones, Alan and Jussi Kantonen. Saturday Night Forever: The Story of Disco. Chicago: A Cappella Books, 1999. ISBN 1556524110
  • Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-822-33198-5
  • Michaels, Mark. The Billboard Book of Rock Arranging. New York: Billboard Books, 1990. ISBN 0-823-07537-0
  • Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. New York: Faber and Faber, 2005. ISBN 9780571211944

External links

All links retrieved January 29, 2024.


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