The passing last week of Donna Summer and this week of Bee Gee Robin Gibb has seen much coverage of their role in disco, but the role of disco itself as a radical movement which changed the world is absent.
Yes, disco really was radical. It was the creation of the marginalized: blacks, gays, Hispanics and women. It was an expression of the gay liberation and women’s movements and the 70s sexual revolution, when a women’s right to an orgasm was empowered along by top selling hits like “More, More, More.”
It built on black R’n’B foundations often missing from mainstream, virtually segregated American media in the 70s. The disco beat was invented by MFSB, the in-house musicians at Philadelphia Records, in particular by Earl Young, the MFSB drummer.
First Donna Summer, particularly with the groundbreaking electronic anthem “I Feel Love,” and then the Bee Gees with the best-selling “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, took this radical underground into the mainstream. Summer later regretted her orgasmic hit and the Bee Gees were only accidentally drafted into that soundtrack, which transferred disco from its beating gay/black heart to white Brooklyn. Both were accidental disco emissaries.
“I Feel Love,” 15 minute version:
Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive”:
Those chart toppers produced the late 70s disco boom and the bizarre, like the Ethel Merman and Muppets disco albums, as well as the gay ‘entryism‘ of the Village People. Then there was the “Death To Disco” backlash from white, male rock fans, which was pretty explicitly homophobic, followed by disco’s disappearance from mainstream American radio and the ‘color bar’ of early MTV.
So it went underground again, back into the black and gay clubs and, surviving the holocaust of HIV/Aids, reemerged as House music, and is now firmly back in the mainstream.
Watch: The documentary “Maestro – Larry Levan & early DJ culture” about the early years of the NYC underground DJ/dance club culture (part one, click through to the other parts at the end):
Image: Paradise Garage mid 70s dancefloor from Youtube screen grab