"Review of 'Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture' by Alice Echols". Journal of Popular Music Studies, 23, 2, June 2011.

Following the powerful discrediting of disco across 1979, close to two decades passed before anyone published a book on the culture. Then, unfolding in fairly quick succession, Anthony Haden-Guest authored the Studio 54-centric The Last Party (1997), Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen traced the genre’s best-known artists in Saturday Night Forever (1999), Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton dedicated two chapters to the era’s DJs in Last Night A DJ Saved My Life (1999), Mel Cheren penned the autobiographical My Life and the Paradise Garage (2000), I published my own account as Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79 (2003), and Peter Shapiro followed with Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (2005). Even in 2005, Shapiro’s subtitle seemed a little melodramatic given that so much of the story had been told, yet that didn’t prevent Alice Echols, a professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, from beginning to research disco “in earnest” (xii) that same year. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2010, is the result. Once dubbed a “dreaded musical disease” by the backlash brigade (Love Saves the Day, 374), disco has evidently regained something of its contagiousness.

Echols (xvi-xxii) begins by describing the time she worked as a DJ in a Michigan discotheque shortly after the peak of the disco sucks campaign, and notes how the anecdote brings attention to disco as it unfolded outside of New York. But instead of developing that line of research, which remains the untold story of disco, she turns to a series of familiar themes, including the impact of “feminism, gay rights, and the struggles of racial and ethnic minorities” (xxiii), disco’s “one-Nation-under-a-thump impulse” (xxiii), disco’s “assault on the rules of rock music” (xxvi), disco’s “slick” and “synthetic” aesthetic (xxvi), disco’s “promiscuous and omnivorous” (xxix) propensity to absorb other sounds, and disco’s broadening of the “contours of blackness, femininity, and male homosexuality” (xxv). Apparently aware that these perspectives coincide with the way earlier authors have framed disco, Echols concludes her introduction by questioning  the approach of earlier historians, or “disco revisionists,” who “in an effort to debunk the pervasive view of disco as crassly commercial, exclusionary, and politically regressive, have emphasized instead its subcultural purity, democratic beginnings, and transgressive practices,” which have in turn created their “own distortions” (xxvi).

Hot Stuff is organized into six chapters. The first recounts how soul, R&B, funk, soul, and European imports formed the foundation of what would come to be known as disco. The second outlines the impact of the Stonewall Inn, the Stonewall rebellion, and gay liberation groups on the opening of gay dance venues. The third traces the position of women and in particular the female diva in disco. The fourth continues the gay male thematic of the second, focusing on the rise of macho culture, the novelistic evocation of male gay disco, and the articulation of gay male sensibilities in disco. The fifth retells the story of Saturday Night Fever and the Bee Gees. And the sixth, describes the post-Saturday Night Fever commercial expansion of disco. Some narrative glitches emerge, such as the moment Echols discusses the onset of AIDS before she addresses Saturday Night Fever and the subsequent explosion of disco, but overall the writing is dextrous, engaging, and sophisticated.

Echols develops several important arguments. She explores the link that existed between funk and disco in greater depth than earlier chronicles, and in so doing sets up a powerful reply to authors who have argued that disco amounted to a watering down of that sound. She goes on to provide a detailed account of the dance floors of the Stonewall Inn and the Firehouse, and argues that even if the Stonewall rebellion of June 1969 didn’t directly inspire disco, it nevertheless created a general climate of liberation that fed into what followed. She adds depth to the argument that disco went much further than rock in foregrounding female desire, and develops her point with eloquent case studies of Chaka Khan, Labelle, and Donna Summer. “The seventies were the decade of the Big O, the female orgasm,” she notes (78) in a characteristically forthright and witty aside. She also maintains that earlier critics have wrongly maligned Saturday Night Fever for being a regressive film, and expands on Barbara Ehrenreich’s argument that Saturday Night Fever was written as a critique of masculinity to develop her point. “The hotness of seventies’ disco doesn’t just refer to its raunchiness or its rhythmic drive; it also signifies its politically incendiary quality,” she concludes with gusto (239).

Less convincingly, Echols refers repeatedly to the erroneous ways of the so-called “disco revisionists” who have attempted to rescue disco’s name by overemphasizing its radical roots and underestimating the potential of its commercial articulation. Because the job of the historian is to revise the past, the very evocation of the notion of revisionism indicates that the historians in question have done more revising than is appropriate, yet the critique is never deployed consistently because Hot Stuff traces a similar arc, admiring the way disco “snuck up on America”--here and throughout the reference is to the United States--“like a covert operation” (1) and “lingered below the radar” (2) before questioning the integrity of the “absolutely generic disco that record companies were cranking out” (211) across 1978 and 1979. The closest Echols comes to complicating the perspective of the revisionists is when she discusses Saturday Night Fever, but even if she is right in her ultimately contestable claim that the film’s challenge to established gender roles is progressive, there can be no doubting that the film popularized a model of the culture that elided the core demographic groups of early disco as well as the dance floor dynamic they helped establish--and that has always been the key point made by the “revisionists.”

Echols undermines her critique of the disco revisionists further by asserting that the culture’s two most important early venues, the Loft and the Sanctuary, were gay venues. Such claims were once the stuff of hurried journalism, and prop up the “straw man” binary model Echols is so keen to contest, but she returns to them to support her argument that the Stonewall rebellion was the key precursor to disco. Echols doesn’t interview anyone who went to the Loft or the Sanctuary--of six interviewees, she quotes from only one (Nona Hendryx of Labelle) in an otherwise quote-rich book--but cites two eyewitnesses to make her point, one per venue, even though these accounts were known to and ultimately contested by the “revisionists” because numerous other protagonists insisted upon the rainbow coalition complexion and ethos of the crowds that congregated there. In these and other instances, Echols displays an overeager desire to pick an argument where none really exists, and this becomes most problematic when she flips the research of the “revisionists” and uses it as evidence against them.[i] An otherwise rich, nuanced, and intelligent book is let down by the apparent desire of a critic to create academic space for an original argument in a surprisingly crowded field.


[i] Regarding Love Saves the Day (henceforth LSD) Echols (68) describes to me as a revisionist historian who is so “anxious to prove disco’s underground bona fides” I ignore complicating elements such as the exclusionary door policy of the Tenth Floor, even though I critique the Tenth Floor extensively in LSD (78-81). Echols (155) also notes that I adopt “a two-tier schema of ‘good’ gay disco versus ‘bad’ mainstream disco,” and quotes (156) disco commentator Vince Aletti’s comment that disco aficionados “were ready to be recognized” before she adds that disco revisionists “invariably disparage as conformist and politically regressive the new audience that Aletti was looking to win over.” However, the Aletti quote is drawn from LSD, where I have him explain how disco’s pioneers “wanted to spread their radical message” (LSD, 116). Echols (156) also maintains I consider the “commercial disco scene” to be “driven by faddish, hedonistic fashion,” but that comment was made in relation to Le Club, an elitist, private members jet-set club of the early 1960s (LSD, 50). In instances that are too frequent to cite, I also point repeatedly to the commercial imperatives and regressive elements that could ran through “‘good’ gay disco,” to the progressive potential of “commercial” disco, and to the overlaps that confounded simplistic notions of any “two-tier schema” of the “good” and the “bad.”


Works cited

Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999.

Cheren, Mel. My Life and the Paradise Garage: Keep On Dancin'. New York: 24 Hours for Life, 2000.

Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Plume, 1994.

Echols, Alice. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Fikentscher, Kai. "You Better Work!" Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Haden-Guest, Anthony. The Last Party. Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997.

Jones, Alan, and Jussi Kantonen. Saturday Night Forever: The Story of Disco. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1999.

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (1970-79). Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.



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“In Defence of Disco (Again)”. New Formations, 58, Summer 2006, 128-46.

‘Disco’ is the overburdened name given to the culture that includes the spaces (discotheques) that were organised around the playback of recorded music by a DJ (disc jockey); the social practice of individual freeform dancing that was established within this context; and the music genre that crystallised within this social setting between 1970 and 1979. Although disco has rarely been taken seriously, its impact was - and remains - far-reaching. In the 1970s, some fifteen thousand discotheques opened in the United States alone, with notable scenes also emerging in Germany, France, Japan and the UK, and the music, which revolved around a four-on-the-floor beat (an even-tempo ‘thud, thud, thud, thud’ on the bass drum), polyrhythmic percussion and clipped vocals, became the best-selling genre on the American Hot 100 during this period.

Since the 1970s, disco, which formally went out of production towards the end of 1979, has moved under a different guise, yet remains prevalent. The clubbing sections of Time Out are testament to the ongoing popularity and vitality of the social practice popularised by disco, and the music’s pounding rhythm is prominent in mainstream pop acts such as Kylie and the Scissor Sisters. Madonna wasn’t just born out of the embers of seventies disco (her debut album was rooted in the New York dance scene of the early 1980s); she also owes her recent revival to disco. ‘Hung Up’, Madonna’s first unblemished success for the best part of a decade, doesn’t just sound like disco (the album from which it is taken, Confessions on A Dance Floor, unambiguously references club culture). In sampling Abba’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’, a staple on the white gay dance floors of 1970s New York, it also recycles disco.

For the most part, disco’s political ambitions have been local. Seventies artists, producers and remixers released records that, inasmuch as they contained lyrics, were focused on the theme of dance floor pragmatics (‘Dance, Dance, Dance’, ‘Work that Body’, ‘You Should Be Dancing’, ‘Disco Stomp’, ‘Let’s Start the Dance’, ‘Turn the Beat Around’, ‘By the Way You Dance’, ‘Dancer’, ‘Can’t Stop Dancing’, ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’, ‘Fancy Dancer’ and so on). Meanwhile dancers were, and remain, preoccupied with the experience of bodily release, temporary escape and the ephemeral community of the nightclub. Private and evasive, disco and dance successors such as rave have nevertheless been dragged into the centre of mainstream political culture at key moments of ideological struggle. John Major, seeking to establish a post-Thatcherite sense of purpose, picked on dance culture (as well as hunt saboteurs, countryside ramblers and civil liberties campaigners) in his Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994. Mayor Giuliani mobilised his pre-9/11 popular conservative constituency around the clampdown on clubbing activity and the sanitisation of Times Square sex. And the American New Right, searching out a polyvalent symbol of the ‘degenerate’ values of the 1960s (drug consumption, women’s rights, civil liberties, gay liberation, excessive public spending), drew on disco as a key target around which it could mobilise the long-suffering moral majority.

The disco that riled the gathering forces of the New Right was born in cauldron conditions. Lacking alternative social outlets, gay men and women of colour, along with new social movement sympathisers, gathered in abandoned loft spaces (the Loft, the Tenth Floor, Gallery) and off-thebeaten-track discotheques (the Sanctuary, the Continental Baths, Limelight) in zones such as NoHo and Hell’s Kitchen, New York, to develop a uniquely affective community that combined sensation and sociality. Developing a model of diversity and inclusivity, participants established the practice of dancing throughout the night to the disorienting strains of heavily percussive music in the amorphous spaces of the darkened dance floor. While the nonlinguistic practices of these partygoers differed from the direct action of their counterpart street activists, they were similarly committed to the liberation of the dispossessed, and a number of faces could be spotted shuffling between the club and the street. And who was to say that civil rights, gay rights and feminist protestors didn’t experience a form of the transcendence-throughenvelopment that was so central to the dance ritual in the midst of marching, chanting crowds?

The heat and humidity on these dance floors was almost tropical in intensity, and when urbanites and suburbanites picked up on this ethicalkinetic movement (‘Love Train’ by the O’Jays, released in 1972, captured the spirit of the floor and was adopted as a pre-disco anthem) it seemed, at least for a couple of years, as if the transgressive dancers of New York’s ‘downtown party network’ - the network of sonically and socially progressive venues that included the Loft, the Sanctuary, the Limelight, Gallery, the Tenth Floor, Le Jardin, the SoHo Place and Reade Street, which were for the most part clustered in downtown Manhattan - might be about to remould the United States through the sonic and bodily practices of their queer aesthetic. As disco stretched out, however, its DJs became less attuned to the mood on the floor, its clubs more oriented towards looking rather than listening, and its music more geological (structured according to the hardened co-ordinates of the classic pop song in which the lead vocalist and lead guitarist are dominant within a set verse-chorus structure) than aquatic (built around unpredictable structures and fluid non-hierarchical layers of textural sound). The backlash, which began to gather momentum in the mid-seventies, reached its crescendo in the final summer of the 1970s when the rabid rock DJ Steve Dahl detonated forty thousand disco records in a hate fest at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox. The Left barely mustered a whisper in disco’s defence. Except, that is, for Richard Dyer.

In its commercialisation disco mirrored the folk and rock movements of the 1960s, and although its marketing, which tracked the upward curve of neo-liberalism, may have been unprecedented within the music sector, disco suffered disproportionately because it had few allies in the major record companies, whose ranks were dominated by white straight executives. Their sympathies lay with the rebellious postures of the Stones and Dylan rather than the gutsy emotional outpourings of the black female divas - among them Gloria Gaynor, Loleatta Holloway, Donna Summer and Grace Jones, as well as the black gay falsetto vocalist Sylvester, author of the gay anthem ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ - who established a foothold in the music industry thanks to the consumer support of New York’s heavily gay dance floors.

In retrospect, 1977 was a transitional year. The opening of Studio 54, the glitziest and most exclusionary venue of the disco era, in April, followed by the release of Saturday Night Fever in November, steamrollered the ethical model of the downtown party network into smithereens, at least in terms of the emergent disco industry. Whereas the dance floor was previously experienced as a space of sonic dominance, in which the sound system underpinned a dynamic of integration, experimentation and release, at Studio this became secondary to the theatre of a hierarchical door policy that was organised around exclusion and humiliation, as well as a brightly-lit dance floor that prioritised looking above listening, and separation above submersion. Meanwhile Saturday Night Fever replaced the polymorphous priorities of New York’s progressive venues with the flashing floor lights of 2001 Odyssey and the hyper-heterosexual moves of John Travolta. Whereas the dance floor had previously functioned as an aural space of communal participation and abandon, it was now reconceived as a visually-driven space of straight seduction and couples dancing, in which participants were focused on their own space and, potentially, the celebrity who might be dancing within their vicinity.

Saturday Night Fever and Studio didn’t just dominate the disco landscape of the late 1970s; they also held sway over the cultural landscape of the United States. Fever became the second most popular film of all time (the Godfatherheld onto its poll position) and the best-selling album of all time, while Studio, thanks to its unnervingly compelling combination of celebrity gossip, drug scandal and door-queue carnival, hogged the front pages of the tabloids. As disco exploded in 1978, thousands of discotheque moguls and their patrons mimicked these contorted versions of dance culture, and while the initial experience was thrilling, the effect soon began to fade or, worse still, jar. By 1979 the combination of the shrill white disco pop that had come to dominate the charts and the exclusionary, individualistic practices that had come to dominate the dance floors led disco’s swathe of recent converts to question their new affiliation. Dancing became disengaged, and when a nationwide recession kicked in during the first half of 1979 the groundwork was prepared for the popularisation of the ‘disco sucks’ movement, a network of disco haters that first emerged at the beginning of 1976 and eventually coalesced around Steve Dahl, a disillusioned Chicago-based rock DJ/talk host.

Dahl and his anti-disco followers tapped into the homophobic and racist sentiments that underpinned the rise of the Anglo-American New Right and would culminate in the election of Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher. The ‘disco sucks’ slogan evoked the way in which disco drew dancers into its seductive, beguiling rhythms as well as the action favoured by so many of its most dedicated participants, and while Dahl claims to have been more concerned by disco’s superficiality and artificiality than the identity of any of its dancers, these terms had, by the late 1970s, become euphemisms for ‘gay’. As cultural critic Walter Hughes notes, ‘even the subtler critiques of disco implicitly echo homophobic accounts of a simultaneously emerging urban gay male minority: disco is “mindless”, “repetitive”, “synthetic”, “technological”, and “commercial”, just as the men who dance to it with each other are “unnatural”, “trivial”, “decadent”, “artificial”, and “indistinguishable” “clones”’.

Gay men, however, weren’t the sole focus of the anti-disco movement’s rage. Almost as target-friendly were the equality-demanding women and African Americans who had become intertwined with disco and, much to the displeasure of the New Right’s core following, were displacing white straight men from the centre of American popular music culture. ‘I think I tapped into young, brotherly, male - and dragged along for the ride, female - angst,’ Dahl told me. ‘You leave high school and you realise that things are going to be tougher than you thought, and here’s this group of people seemingly making it harder for you to measure up. There was some kind of anger out there and the anti-disco movement seemed to be a good release for that’.

The concerns of the New Right came sharply into focus just as disco’s commercialisation reached saturation point. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter defeated President Ford, nearly seventy percent of voters declared the economy to be their primary concern, yet by 1979 national conditions had dipped dramatically. Meanwhile, the Middle American heartland began to complain ever more bitterly at the way in which sixties social values had become increasingly entrenched in US governmental policy, with Carter perceived to have introduced a series of liberal policies, on issues from abortion to affirmative action, that were deemed to be favourable to African Americans and women rather than the so-called ‘average’ voter. Building on its early formation, when it was known as the ‘middle American’ revolt, the New Right deployed its support for the Protestant work ethos and abstemiousness against the corrupting influences of pleasure and play. 

Under Carter, the argument ran, the United States had become unprofitable, valueless, sinful, profligate, stagnant, disorderly, vulgar, inefficient, unscrupulous and lacking in direction. The proponents of this critique might as well have been talking about disco and, to their good fortune, disco - populated as it was by gay men, African Americans and women - contained scapegoats galore. ‘It wasn’t just a dislike of disco that brought everyone together’, Dahl added (before he realised I wasn’t a sympathiser and abruptly ended the phone call). ‘It was all of the shared experiences. But disco was probably a catalyst because it was a common thing to rally against’.

Yet if, for the emergent New Right, disco was a metonym for a degraded capitalism, the organised Left, which had yet to adjust its antennae to the politics of pleasure, wasn’t concerned with that kind of distinction. As far as socialists were concerned, mainstream disco’s flirtation with upward mobility, entrance door elitism and rampant commercialisation was quite enough. Although Saturday Night Fever might have been set in the working class neighbourhood of Brooklyn, disco appeared to be disengaged from the concerns of class inequality, and, in contrast to folk and rock, its vocal content (which was never the point of disco) failed to address the wider social formation. Working one’s body - a common refrain in disco, in which vocal repetition, following in the tradition of gospel, emptied words of their meaning in order to open the self to spiritual inspiration - wasn’t the kind of labour that appealed to the Left in 1979, the seismic year in which Thatcher and Reagan were elected.

It was into this hostile terrain that Richard Dyer seemingly ventured with the publication of his far-sighted article, ‘In Defence of Disco’, which came out in the same month as the Comiskey Park riot. Dyer, however, wasn’t concerned with standing up to the escalating homophobia of the disco sucks bullies because he hadn’t heard their taunts. ‘I was living in Birmingham [in the UK] and was involved in Gay Liberation and I had the feeling that the kind of music that I liked was constantly being disparaged’, Dyer told me.

I was part of the Gay Liberation Front in Birmingham and we put on discos, in the sense that we played music that was on vinyl. They were free or very cheap, and we always befriended people who came along. It was meant to be a whole different way of organising a social space and there was always tension over what music should be played. There were those who thought it should be rock, and those of us who were into Tamla Motown and disco. We were criticised for being too commercial. It was just felt it was commercial, capitalist music of a cheap and glittery kind, rather than something that was real and throbbing and sexual. The article sprang out of the feeling of wanting to defend something when the last thing it needed was defending because it was commercially very successful.

Believing that the left-leaning Gay Liberation Front was out of synch with the wider gay constituency - ‘Most gay men had nothing to do with gay clubs, but gay men who had an identified gay lifestyle were probably into disco and clubbing’ - Dyer decided to pen a response in Gay Left, a bi-annual journal that he worked on alongside a collective of several other men. ‘All my life I’ve liked the wrong music,’ he wrote. ‘I never liked Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll; I always preferred Rosemary Clooney. And since I became a socialist, I’ve often felt virtually terrorised by the prestige of rock and folk on the left. How could I admit to two Petula Clark LPs in the face of miners’ songs from the North East and the Rolling Stones?’

The key problem, according to Dyer, was that disco, in contrast to folk and rock, tended to be equated with capitalism (even though the latter genres had been co-opted by the music industry much earlier than disco). Yet ‘the fact that disco is produced by capitalism does not mean that it is automatically, necessarily, simply supportive of capitalism,’ he countered. Dyer added that whereas rock confined ‘sexuality to the cock’ and was thus ‘indelibly phallo-centric music’, disco ‘restores eroticism to the whole body, and for both sexes, not just confining it to the penis’ thanks to its ‘willingness to play with rhythm’. Anticipating the queer materialist arguments of Judith Butler, Dyer concluded that disco enabled its participants to experience the body as a polymorphous entity that could be remodelled in ways that sidestepped traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity. ‘Its eroticism allows us to rediscover our bodies as part of this experience of materiality and the possibility of change’.

Dyer was virtually a lone voice however, and while his arguments would have garnered the support of disco’s most dedicated evangelists in the States, this constituency was much too busy with the business of dancing to concern itself with developing (or for that matter reading) a theoretical defence of the genre. That said, Dyer might not have written ‘In Defence of Disco’ had he lived in the unofficial capital of disco - as he did between February and September 1981 - rather than Birmingham. ‘I went to live in New York and when I was there I went to the Paradise Garage,’ he says. ‘I was in a group called Black and White Men Together, I had a relationship with an African American man, and going to the Garage was very much part of that. Obviously there were lots of white people at the Garage, but nonetheless one felt one was going to a black-defined space. That made me reflect much more upon the fact that I was white’. The experience would trigger Dyer’s future work on whiteness, yet had the peculiar effect of closing down his work on disco. ‘I just remember thinking the Garage was fabulous. Of course there was absolutely no one at the Garage or the Black and White Men Together group who spoke about how awful all this disco music was. There was no one who said that. It just wasn’t something that anyone said’. It followed that, in this congenial environment, there was no need to mount a defence.

The tumultuous summer of 1979 bears an uncanny resemblance to the present. As neo-liberals on both sides of the Atlantic aim their fire at the last remaining vestiges of social democracy, people of colour (who ‘drain the welfare coffers dry’ and support ‘gang culture’) and queers (who threaten to undermine the ‘moral fabric of Christianity’) are blamed for the destabilisation of Anglo-American prosperity and order. Meanwhile dance music, which enjoyed a period of prolific creativity during the 1980s and 1990s, when house, techno, drum ‘n’ bass, garage (in its US and UK articulations) and grime made rock look leaden-footed, is once again facing charges of excessive hedonism and aesthetic banality. In Britain, the ebb and flow of the Mercury Prize has functioned as a barometer of dance music’s sliding fortunes. Whereas dance acts such as Reprazent, Talvin Singh and Dizzee Rascal captured the prize either side of the Millennium, rock acts are once again dominant. The winners of the autumn 2005 prize, the queer-torch-singing Antony and the Johnsons, might not fit the pattern of guitar band conservatism, traditional rock acts such as the Kaiser Chiefs and Coldplay filled up the shortlist to such an extent that dance was all but obliterated. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, and seeping back into Britain, came the politicised poetics of … Bob Dylan. Riding on the back of a Martin Scorsese documentary film and an autobiography, the folk-turned-rock star’s latest and most hyped revival has been received by leftist critics as evidence of his timeless political and artistic values, even though Dylan virtually created rock’s centrifugal myth of romantic individualism: the belief that a white straight man, as a creative and authoritative being, can speak for the ‘masses’. When dance plays second fiddle to ageing as well as contemporary rock, it is clear that it has ground to make up.

Yet beneath the narrative of these coincidences and echoes with the late 1970s, the status of disco has shifted considerably and the genre, somewhat surprisingly, has now acquired the aura of an undervalued cultural formation that is rich in musical material and political example. As such it is much easier now than at any point in the last twenty-five years to defend disco, and the reasons for this lie in the effects of AIDS, the death of legendary disco DJs, the commercialisation of rave, a growing interest in the genealogical excavation of the ‘sample’, and the emergence of anti-digital discourses in dance culture.

Fuelled by the rise of Chicago house (a DIY form of post-disco dance music put together with cheap synthesisers and drum machines) and the spread of Ecstasy (the popular feel-good drug of choice that was popularised in the UK during 1988), the rapid expansion of British club culture in the late 1980s was interpreted by dancers, as well as a good number of spinners, as the negation of disco. The pointedly ‘stripped down’ (naked except for the bare bones of percussion and minimalist instrumentation) non-musicality of Acid house, a subgenre of Chicago house, was contrasted with the elaborate productions of the high disco period, and while the early formation of acid and rave culture produced progressive versions of a de-masculinised and deheterosexualised dance floor, discourses around the music were less queer, with house/acid posited as the male straight (stripped down, hard, serious) antithesis to feminised gay disco (elaborate, soft, playful). There was no such disavowal of disco in New York, but nor was the culture valued. The high point of the AIDS epidemic from the late 80s to the early 90s created a milieu for nostalgia, yet the ruling DJ-production forces of the era - Todd Terry (the producer of sample-heavy tracks such as ‘Party People’, ‘Can You Party’ and ‘Bango’) and Junior Vasquez (the DJ at the Sound Factory, who developed a relentless tribalistic aesthetic) - were also moving into the territory of a hard house sound divorced from disco.

The roots of this revival were initially difficult to discern. Following the backlash against disco, the music industry in the States laid off its disco promotion staff - incidentally (but not coincidentally) the first group of openly-gay employees to be employed by corporate America - and replaced the name ‘disco’ with ‘dance’. Disco classics were still much loved, but their heavy rotation by DJs was motivated as much by necessity as desire, the major records companies having reeled in their dance output. Even Chicago house, which broke through towards the end of 1984 and gathered momentum during 1985, became something of an estranged cousin to the 1970s genre. Lazy history has it that ‘house was disco’s revenge’ (the phrase was first uttered by Frankie Knuckles, the DJ at the Warehouse, the key dance venue in Chicago between 1977-83). However, the most influential producers within the nascent genre - Marshall Jefferson and Larry Heard - were more concerned with imagining a contorted, technological future (synthesiser patterns and drum tracks that didn’t imitate disco) than referring back to a wholesome, organic past (synthesiser patterns and drum tracks that did), and the crucible for their experimental tapes wasn’t the Power Plant, where Frankie Knuckles, the mythological ‘Godfather of House’, was spinning a refined selection of disco classics and, when it was sufficiently sophisticated and well-produced, house, but the Music Box, where DJ Ron Hardy, blasted on heroin, was playing anything that sounded strange. The producers of techno, which emerged in Detroit a little after house surfaced in Chicago, were even more decisive than their Windy City counterparts in breaking with disco (even if Donna Summer’s futuristic disco recording, ‘I Feel Love’, was an important inspiration), and when New York started to run full throttle with the house baton in the late 1980s and early 1990s its most influential protagonists were the producer-remixer-DJs Todd Terry and Junior Vasquez, who dipped into disco but were primarily dedicated to developing the merciless sound of hard house - house that was heated in a Petri dish until it was reduced to its disco-inspired, electronically-fortified breaks.

The reverberations of disco were even harder to discern in the British club boom of the late 1980s, which drew heavily on the Chicago subgenre of acid house yet, according to the historians of the rise of house in the UK - Matthew Collin (Altered State) and Sheryl Garratt (Adventures in Wonderland) - was primarily inspired by the holiday island of Ibiza. There, the story goes, a group of white straight lads on holiday (Trevor Fung, Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Ian St Paul) sampled the bitter-yet-ultimatelysweet taste of Ecstasy while listening to Balearic music (music popularised on the Island of Ibiza that featured a comparatively slow R&B beat with Latin, African and funk influences, including lots of classical guitar) and house, dancing under the Mediterranean night skies.Within months of their return, Ecstasy-fuelled parties were springing up in London and, to remind them of their Ibizan roots, clubs were regularly decorated with fake palms while employees handed out ice pops and the like. As it happens, house had already taken off in the north, where black dancers - in contrast to their black southern counterparts, who remained committed to the softer humanism of soul - consumed it as a black futurist outgrowth of electro. However this narrative was marginalised by the historians of UK dance, who paid tribute to the black roots of dance in New York and Chicago before attributing the ‘discovery’ of this music not to the Black Atlantic inter-connections forged by black British dancers but by the post-colonial narrative of white British dancers on holiday in the Mediterranean.

At this particular juncture and location, disco wasn’t even pre-history. Acid house’s stripped-down non-musicality provided the ultimate contrast to the elaborate productions that had come to dominate disco, and the UK dance scene simultaneously developed a progressive dance floor politics of sexuality that revolved around de-masculinised and de-heterosexualised identities (amorphous, baggy, intentionally sexless T-shirts were all the rage, while Ecstasy had the partially progressive effect of making straight men want to hug each other rather than chase after women). When the first analysis of this culture was published in a collection of essays edited by Steve Redhead, Rave Off: Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture, most of the contributors drilled their analysis with Baudrillardian theory and posited the experience as motivated by an aesthetic of disappearance. The fact that the Haçienda, the most popular club in Manchester during the halcyon days of the early house boom, had already been running successfully on an unlikely diet of black electronic music and indie rock prior to the introduction of house was erased by the contributors to Rave Off, as was the direct, New York-based inspiration for the venue, Danceteria, which opened just as disco was mutating into post-disco dance. According to this discourse, the Haçienda didn’t have a history; instead it arrived from a parallel universe (which is probably how most dancers understood their experience).

These years 1987-89 marked a noticeable shift in dance music’s centre of gravity. Whereas New York had been dominant during the 1970s and, in spite of inroads made by Chicago and Detroit, retained its pre-eminent position in the United States during the 1980s, the city’s dance culture was struggling to maintain anything resembling momentum by the end of Reagan’s second term in office. Of course it was AIDS, rather than the histrionic gestures of Steve Dahl, that killed, or at least came close to killing, disco. So rampant was AIDS within the city’s gay clubbing population that the virus was initially dubbed ‘Saint’s disease’, after the Saint, the biggest, most renowned white gay venue of the 1980s, where dancers were dropping in disproportionate numbers. The Paradise Garage, regularly touted as the most influential club of all, was also struck by the virus and closed its doors in the autumn of 1987 when its owner, Michael Brody, fell sick and decided against renewing his ten-year lease. The Saint shut down a short while later in the spring of 1988. ‘One of my best friends was [the owner of the Saint] Bruce Mailman’s assistant, and she said that towards the end the number of letters for membership renewals that were coming back marked ‘addressee unknown’ or ‘addressee deceased’ was just unbelievable’, Robbie Leslie, a resident DJ at the Saint, told me. ‘It wasn’t that the living were cancelling their memberships. It was just that they were dying off and there was nobody to fill the gap. It became an unfeasible operation’.

Ex-gay men, queered through ACT-UP’s trenchant campaign for statesponsored medical treatment and political acceptance, were politicised by the AIDS crisis. As the number of new cases reached its peak in 1993, dancing became less and less of a priority for those who survived. For those who continued to go clubbing, there was no room for nostalgia - the dominant aesthetic of the period was the rough, edgy sound of hard house - so when pioneering DJ Walter Gibbons, the Jimi Hendrix of the disco era who moreor-less invented the modern remix, passed away in 1994 his funeral was unceremonious and attended only by a handful of people. The fate of his record collection, which was donated to a San Francisco AIDS charity only to be returned because they could not be sold, was indicative of disco’s status. Here was a used-up culture for which there was no demand. (Today the collection would attract bids of tens of thousands of pounds, in all likelihood, if it were to be auctioned on eBay.)

Effective HIV therapy was adopted in 1996 and, as it gradually became clear that gay men with AIDS could live with the disease, disco began to come back into soft focus as the ultimate symbol of pre-AIDs abandon, a culture of innocence and release that could never be repeated. Memories and emotions inevitably coalesced around the Saint (especially if you were white and gay) and the Paradise Garage (especially if you were black and gay), and thanks to its greater influence on straight ‘Clubland’ the Garage soon began to bake up the largest slice of the nostalgia cake. The preciousness of the memory of the Garage was heightened further by the death of its resident DJ, Larry Levan, who passed away in 1992. For some, Levan died, at least in spirit, when the Garage (where he had worked as the resident DJ for ten years) closed in 1987. He continued to play at other venues, but the mystique and aura he had nurtured so successfully at the Garage were impossible to sustain, and his extraordinary remixing career ground to a rapid halt. When the spinner was invited to launch the Ministry of Sound, the London venue modelled on the Garage, he showed up empty-handed, having sold his records to feed his heroin addiction. Two years later, significant numbers of diehard New York clubbers turned up to his funeral, and for his next ‘birthday’ ex-Garage heads put on a birthday party, which became an annual event, with each celebration more nostalgic than the last (Garage classics and, in particular, Levan’s productions and remixes, would be played back-to-back at these events). The anniversary parties reached their crescendo when Body & Soul, which opened in 1997 and was quickly honoured as the latest New York party to pick up the torch of the ‘dance underground’, put on a Levan celebration and invited Nicky Siano, a supremely gifted disco DJ and one of Levan’s most influential mentors, to come out of retirement and play. Siano’s performance, true to the spirit of the 1973-77 era, when he played at the Gallery was widely considered to be New York’s most talented and influential DJ, was an extrovert affair and came to symbolise the moment when the latest generation of New York’s downtown clubbers, who had been introduced to the 1980s at previous Levan anniversary parties, began to grasp their culture’s roots in the 1970s and, more specifically, disco.

Plucked out of their cultural and institutional context, which, like any other, was riven with conflict and struggle, disco and Levan became the rose-tinted signifiers of lost communal harmony and musical sophistication. To refer to either one became a way of highlighting a set of aesthetic preferences and paying homage to the past while entering into a coded system that, combining seriousness and cool (two words that were rarely associated with disco during the 1980s), offered the prospect of privileged status to dance aficionados. Around this time it became seemingly obligatory for dance remixers and producers to dedicate their vinyl releases to Levan or the Garage or, more occasionally, the Loft (the influential party organised by David Mancuso from 1970 onwards), and record labels, picking up on the trend, started to release bootleg disco and Garage ‘classics’, largely because demand for these records, for so longer unwanted, was spiralling and fleet-footed Japanese kids, spurred on by Levan’s last ever gig, which took place in Japan in 1992, had been hoovering up the originals with consummate skill.

Unable to fall back on their own history of subterranean party networks and groundbreaking DJ innovators, British club kids were introduced to the sonic if not social possibilities of disco through the dreaded antagonist of the live musician - the sampler. Having come to characterise the cut-andmix aesthetic of 1980s hip hop, the sampler began to influence the shape of house when dance producers and remixers came to understand that their electronically produced tracks could gain a third dimension if they were interspersed with carefully chosen live quotation (a distinctive horn riff, or drum break, or guitar lick, or vocal phrase) from an old disco record. The groundwork for this trend was established by Chicago’s early house producers, who regularly copied (rather than sampled) favourite disco extracts, and this practice was taken to its logical conclusion when Todd Terry, the first major New York house producer and, not by coincidence, a hip hop devotee, placed the postmodern imprint of the sampler at the centre of his house releases during 1987-88. Terry’s technique was well received in New York, but it was the British dance press that, unable to contain its enthusiasm, declared Todd to be God. More or less coinciding with the Japanese hunt for disco rarities, British DJs and remixers, hoping to access disco’s apparently infinite seam of sampling possibilities and having almost invariably missed out on the vinyl first time around, started to do exactly the same.

The trend inspired the musician and writer David Toop to publish a piece on disco and its revival for the Face - the style magazine that had helped break Chicago house in the UK and which was still considered to operate at the cutting edge of British fashion and cool - in 1992. Citing ‘neo-disco tracks’ such as Joey Negro’s ‘Enter Your Fantasy’, Deep Collective’s ‘Disco Elements’, the Disco Universe Orchestra’s ‘Soul On Ice’, Grade Under Pressure’s ‘Make My Day’, the Disco Brothers and Sure Is Pure’s ‘Is This Love Really Real?’ and M People’s Northern Soul, Toop noted the way in which British house tracks were successfully negotiating a ‘space between nostalgia and machine futurism’. In between references to disco’s history of sonic innovation, camp extravagance and commercial saturation, Toop added: ‘Studded with (studied) disco clichés now distant enough to resonate with Antiques Roadshowmystique, throbbing with a new cyber-strength that the old classics could never match, they are smart enough to avoid a headlong plunge into unabashed shallowness’.

The sampler inadvertently introduced unknowing British house heads to the sonic possibilities of disco - however much they were curtailed, these snippets were often the high point of the track - and when streetwise labels started to release compilations featuring the full-length versions of disco tracks that had been popularly sampled, thousands of non-collectors were able to easily access non-commercial disco classics for the first time. These collections demonstrated the consummate skill of the producer/remixer, whose job it was to pick out these fleeting quotations from the complicated, layered text of the disco original. Yet, more often that not, the house track that had rejuvenated the live seventies version suffered in comparison, with the sampled house track sounding shallow and gimmicky when played backto-back against the disco records that had garnished their grooves, largely because the sampler, by highlighting and repeating an unoriginal phrase ad infinitum, can easily become the ultimate producer of cliché.

Even if the house version sounded good in the clubs, where the use of the post-disco technology of the drum machine came into its own via reinforced sound systems (Toop’s point above), the tracks didn’t stand up to - and, importantly, weren’t intended to stand up to - repeated listening. That wasn’t the case with disco, which would regularly employ the finest session musicians of the era in the pursuit of freeform, jam-oriented, transcendental grooves. Disco, so often characterised as worthless ‘cheese’ by UK-based house heads in the late 1980s, started to resemble a fine pecorino, with the full complexity of its flavour only coming to the fore when allowed to mature over time. (House tracks, meanwhile, began to take on the characteristics of a ripe briethanks to their tendency to provide intense pungent bursts of flavour over a relatively short period of time, after which they would start to go sour.)

The backdoor entrance of disco into contemporary house more or less coincided with a structural shift in the organisation of British dance culture. As Collin recounts in Altered State, published in 1997, British dance culture was born in the clubs but started to spread to disused warehouses and hastily erected tents around the M25 when dancers became frustrated with the early closing-time restrictions of Britain’s antiquated licensing laws. The birth of rave at the end of the 1980s ushered in an era of high-tempo techno and progressive house - stripped down, track-oriented music that complemented the spacious, echo-oriented contours of these improvised venues - but the rapid commercialisation of this culture in the early 1990s followed by the passing of the restrictive Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994 dampened the momentum of rave.

That left dancers with a conundrum: having revelled in the initial transgression of Ecstasy culture, after which they rediscovered their enthusiasm through the daring spatial transgression of rave, dancers where beginning to wonder about the true oppositionality of their practices. The almost total failure of ravers to participate in the campaign against the punitive Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which offered an opportunity to join forces with other outlawed groups including ramblers, hunt saboteurs and civil rights organisations, further undermined the sense that dance culture was rebellious as well as hedonistic. With the number of outdoor events in decline, and those that remained tamed by the process of local authority licensing, many dancers returned to the clubs. There they discovered that the multinational drinks companies, whose products had been wholly marginalised by Ecstasy consumption during the late 1980s and early 1990s, were once again calling the shots. Offering clubs lucrative sponsorship deals, alcoholic brands now permeated flyer and related publicity material, and the drinks themselves were repackaged, usually through the deployment of fluorescent colours, in order to appeal to the aesthetic preferences of drug users, who didn’t so much stop taking Ecstasy as combine this consumption with alcoholic intake. As Collin notes, it was around this time that clubbers also started to complain about the quality of the drugs they were taking - an indication that either the active ingredients of Ecstasy were being diluted more and more, or that the effect of the drug was diminishing with repeated use (this being one of Ecstasy’s traits).

Faced with the additional comedown realisation that they were participating in a highly commercial culture in which so-called ‘Superclubs’, which prided themselves on their corporate identities, were coming to dominate the nightscape, a number of dance writers began to seek out an alternative political narrative to contextualise their practice and, looking west rather than south, came up with a new chronology of British dance culture that began not on an Ibiza beach during the 1980s but in NoHo lofts and Hell’s Kitchen discotheques during the 1970s. Collin opened Altered State with a section on the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, the Sanctuary, the Loft and the Paradise Garage, while Garratt devoted the opening chapter of Adventures in Wonderland to the rise of the modern discotheque, culminating in the opening of the Sanctuary, and chapter two to the black gay continuum that began at the Loft and culminated at the Paradise Garage. Sarah Thornton might have commented that the evocation of ‘black gay’ culture served the purpose of endowing the British club and rave narrative with a dose of ‘subcultural capital’ (Bourdieu’s cultural capital within a clubbing context) had she considered disco to be worthy of a single mention in her 1995 book on dance culture, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital.

The move to highlight the contribution of African American gay men to the culture of disco to the point where, in its earliest formation, disco was black and gay, added an important layer to the historicisation of the genre, even if the black gay element was central rather than dominant at this juncture. Anthony Haden-Guest’s Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, published in 1997 and the first substantial book to be published on disco since Albert Goldman’s Disco (which came out in 1978), had erased this narrative in favour of a scandalous focus on the ultimately marginal celebrity contingent at Studio 54. Yet there was a sense that the switch in popular historiography towards highlighting the black gay presence in early disco culture was motivated less by the desire to produce a history of the marginalised than by the craving for a hip marginality that could lend glamorous credibility to Britain’s increasingly vacuous club culture. The authors of this popular historical narrative of UK dance culture were at the time employed, after all, by trend-setting magazines such as the Face and i-Dthat retained an investment in preserving the fashionable identity of the dance cultures they had helped break, and the black gay component of early New York dance culture seemed to be safe to write about because it was something that had happened in the past - and overseas. If any commitment to a politics of inserting a history of the dispossessed into the history of dance existed, surely they would have also drawn attention to the important incubator role played by early London clubs such as Stallions, Pyramid and Jungle, where black and white gay men constituted the core crowd, and northern venues such as Legend, Wigan Pier, Placemate 7 and the Haçienda, where black (and white) straight dancers embraced the challenging sounds of American dance. That they didn’t do so suggests a willingness to tick the boxes of alternative identity so long as they were positioned at a safe distance. Otherness, in this revised official history of dance, functioned as a prologue to a familiar main narrative: the centrifugal role of the white straight men (who just happened to now be wearing a Hawaiian shirt).

The excavation of disco in the late 1990s was also a sign of the maturation of dance culture - a phase that, for some, represented the scene’s loss of energy, cultural institutionalisation and sedimentation. Just as Britpop had, in the mid-1990s, reminded music consumers of the bleached version of rock history that has the genre beginning with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, now, for the first time, at least in the UK, dance culture participants were being asked to explore the roots of their own practices. The move was in many respects counter-intuitive. Whereas rock fans tended to follow the career of an artist, collecting their records as, true to the Romantic roots of modern artistry, they developed over time, disco/dance functioned according to the pragmatics of the dance floor. If a piece of music worked, that is, made dancers dance, participants might go out and buy the record; if it didn’t they wouldn’t. However, as the generation of late eighties clubbers grew older, and ostensibly started to spend as much (if not more) time listening to dance music at home as in the clubs, their listening priorities shifted. Record-collecting became more important, especially amongst male consumers, and alongside this process came a new emphasis on the historical genealogy of dance, which invariably led back to disco. Early house heads, who had despised disco when they discovered Chicago house in 1987-88, now began to treat seventies dance as an object for connoisseur-like attention. In addition, as dance consumption shifted from the club to the home, repeated listening became a greater priority and disco, more than house, was able to bear this kind of close sonic scrutiny. The sample might have been a creative tool that could contribute to sonic combinations not available to seventies producers, yet its repetitive and fragmentary logic tended to produce its eventual redundancy. If the sample existed as a superior fragment from a wider text, why settle for just the fragment?

In the second half of the 1990s New York producers, responding to the limitations of the sampler as well as the drying up of the archival well, started to re-emphasise the ‘live’ component of their recordings. Having turned to sampling first time around because they lacked the musical know-how required to produce the sounds that were so abundant in seventies disco, house producers and remixers such as Masters at Work - ‘Little’ Louie Vega and Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez - began to invite session musicians into the studio in order to jam over technologically-generated tracks. In 1997, operating under the Nuyorican Soul moniker, Vegan and Gonzalez took this trend to its logical conclusion and released an entire album, titled Nuyorican Soul, of live recordings that featured legendary seventies performers such as Jocelyn Brown, Vince Montana and Roy Ayers re-recording seventies classics alongside a live band or, in the case of Vince Montana, a whole orchestra. The album sent mild shock waves through Clubland where house fans, raised on a diet of pulsating drum machines, didn’t quite know what to make of the subtler and superficially less dynamic sound of live drums. In terms of its wider politics, the clearest message of the album - that dance music was in danger of eating itself alive if it failed to employ musicians to generate new sounds and reintroduce the ‘feel’ of grooving musicians into the dance matrix - was compromised by the over-emphasis on cover versions of soul classics. The mining of disco and its wider aesthetics, however, was unmistakable and largely welcomed by DJs, dancers and other producers.

The resuscitation of disco in the US and the UK coincided with the wider shift in political culture in which the morally conservative alliances of Reagan/Bush and Thatcher/Major, which propped up their economic liberalism with intermittent bouts of racism and homophobia, gave way to the comparatively progressive social politics of Clinton and Blair. Although there was no let-up in the neo-liberal agenda following the election of the Democratic President and the Labour Prime Minister, the Anglo-American cultural context shifted in important ways, with women, people of colour and gay men/lesbian women co-opted into the newly multicultural, liberal feminist, gay-friendly marketplace. Disco’s revival in the second half of the 1990s can, in this regard, be understood as part of the historical continuum that witnessed the rise of ‘Bling’ - untamed materialism based around the champagne lifestyle of expensive jewellery, fast cars and designer clothes - in US hip hop and UK garage. More amorphous in terms of its black and Latin roots, disco offered a milder entry into the quagmire of racial politics and, following the breakthrough introduction of protease inhibitors and cocktail treatment strategies, which produced dramatic results in the containment of AIDS, it also became a safer and more marketable gay lifestyle product. Disco, having been pronounced ‘dead’ as the New Right swept to power, came back to life (at least in terms of its public profile) as this era came to a close.

Disco’s status as a source of radical musicianship received its ultimate affirmation in the summer of 2005 with the publication of Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco by Wire journalist Peter Shapiro. Notorious for its high-minded avant-gardism, general seriousness and penchant for arrhythmic music, the Wire was never a likely home for complimentary articles about disco. David Toop’s feature on Giorgio Moroder was a rare exception, as were Peter Shapiro’s pieces ‘The Tyranny of the Beat’ and ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’. As such Shapiro’s book was to be welcomed not so much for its arguments about disco music, which had been set out in other publications, as for the fact that he was taking these arguments, along with a new level of musical detail, to a cynical audience. If only Shapiro’s publishers had understood the wider critical contest that was at stake: their use of sparkling effects and lurid fluorescent colours on the covers of the US and UK editions of the book undermined Shapiro’s attempt to stake out disco’s right to be taken seriously.

The aspect of disco musicality that Shapiro fails to articulate adequately, which also happens to be the aspect that has proved to be the most enduring in terms of aesthetic innovation and global influence, is the role of the DJ. Spinners such as David Mancuso, Francis Grasso, Michael Cappello, Ray Yeates, Bobby Guttadaro, David Rodriguez, Tee Scott, Richie Kaczor, Nicky Siano, Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles developed a mode of communication that mirrored the marathon trance grooves emerging from artists as diverse as Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead and War, although in contrast to the practices of these musicians they functioned as engineers of collage, melding found objects (vinyl records) that originated as distinct entities (works of art) into an improvised aural canvas, and as such challenged traditional notions of musicianship.floor. Experienced producers, vocalists and musicians stood by and gasped as weedy, know-nothing DJs were let loose in the studio and slashed their carefully constructed recordings, highlighting some tracks and cutting out others. The resulting releases, which revolved around an aesthetic of stripped down beats, the groove of the rhythm section and clipped vocals, set out the blueprint for house - the genre that would later return to these records for sample-friendly material.

One of the attractions of the seventies dance environment was the streetlevel status of its DJs, who were for the most part anonymous, low-paid music enthusiasts. In their hunger to search out new sounds and put on parties for friends, they became conduits for a new genre of music, but in spite of the often-adoring reception they would receive from the floor, only the most deluded could have imagined that they were a star or celebrity outside of their cocooned mini-universe. DJs were lucky to get an occasional mention in the media. Nicky Siano was probably the best-known spinner of the decade, yet his cuttings library consisted of a three-paragraph mini-feature in New York magazine and a couple of quotes in articles about disco that ran in the nationals. Some, such as Mancuso, and to a certain extent Levan, were media shy and believed that a higher media profile might undermine the feverishly protected privacy of their parties at the Loft and the Paradise Garage. But this fails to explain how the Paradise Garage, during a ten year reign at the apex of Nightworld that spanned the seventies and the eighties, didn’t receive a single feature exploring its dynamic - and only a short obituary in Billboard when the venue finally closed. Larry Levan and owner Michael Brody might not have favoured press coverage, but the press also wasn’t especially interested in a micro-scene whose black gay core continued to exist outside of the public eye.

Today, following the repeated excavation (and defence) of disco, a Google search on the Paradise Garage or Levan will yield results of some 135,000. Even Mancuso, perhaps the most influential pioneer of seventies disco, yet a barely-known figure outside of the downtown party network until Nuphonic Records released a compilation of Loft classics in 1999, achieves about 52,000 results. Fascination and the desire to experience in some respects go hand in hand, and many attribute the resurgent popularity of figures such as Mancuso to a wider desire to taste a slice of seventies disco. Of course the clock cannot be turned back to the 1970s, but the persistence of seventies and classics nights - adorned with, in the worst-case scenario, an industrial quantity of glitter, neon, wall mirrors and Bee Gees/Village People pop - indicates that promoters and, presumably, dancers are not about to tire from trying. To dance to disco at one of these events is not akin to experiencing the 1970s, for seventies music, played in the seventies, would have sounded new and challenging, while today it will normally sound like music that is thirty years old (whatever the symbolic or affective significance of that might be).

Some, such as Energy Flash author Simon Reynolds, argue that disco is a reactionary force in contemporary club culture. Writing for the Village Voice in July 2001, Reynolds is gently critical of New York’s ‘double take’ around disco, whereby a number of clubs - most notably Body & Soul - are seen to be evoking dance music’s ‘roots, origins, and all things ‘old school … With clubbing tourists coming from all over the world to experience ‘the real thing’ as a sort of time-travel simulacrum, New York’s ‘70s-style dance underground has become a veritable heritage industry similar to jazz in New Orleans’. Reynolds, however, overstates his case. Even the Levan birthday parties can’t be equated with disco nostalgia nights - the Levan remixes that form the staple of these nights were for the most part recorded in the post-disco era of the 1980s, and the classics (tried and tested favourites from the seventies and eighties) normally give way to newer music that references the past while teasing out the future - and nobody in New York has produced what might be called a disco record since the very early 1980s. While Todd Terry initiated the trend of sampling disco in New York, his biggest audience was in the UK, and it was in the UK that the practice was deployed to the point of saturation. New York producers and remixers responded to this particular malaise by combining live instrumentation with technologically generated beats - a step ‘backwards’ that is implicitly criticised by Reynolds (‘New York dance culture hasn’t delivered the shock-of-the-new in well over a decade’), but which has been a regular tool of the progressive music makers that Reynolds lauds elsewhere (such as jungle producers digging through their old record boxes in order to redeploy the bass from Jamaican dub into breakbeat techno).

Reynolds’s real problem with New York’s ‘disco-house tradition’ would appear to be ‘the scene’s premium on old-fashioned notions of ‘musicality’ and ‘soulfulness’’, which runs in opposition to his preference, outlined in Energy Flash, for dance music that is part of a rave/hardcore continuum built around ‘noise, aggression, riffs, juvenile dementia, hysteria’. Yet while the producers of hardcore have contributed to the creation of a dance market in which subgenres develop and disappear with startling speed, the mutant disco producers of the so-called deep house scene are engaged in a project that, evoking Amiri Baraka’s concept of the ‘changing same’, is more concerned with continuity and longevity than disruption and transience. Political struggle can only be ongoing if affiliations, rather than being dropped as soon as a more futuristic option emerges, are maintained over time.

(When the two paths converge - around, say, drum ‘n’ bass, which added jazz riffs and dreamy synthesizers to jungle’s throbbing rudeness - Reynolds tends to disapprove. Nevertheless such a strategy, which finds contemporary expression in the Deep Space dub-meets-techno-meets-disco framework developed by François Kevorkian, as well as Maurizio’s techno-oriented dub productions for Rhythm & Sound, offers a potentially productive solution to the conservatism and radicalism that runs through much of dance culture. For now, demand is strong enough to sustain all three approaches.)

Veteran seventies DJs who are still playing today - including the highprofile David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, François Kevorkian, Danny Krivit and Frankie Knuckles - are to varying degrees expected to deliver a seventies agenda (even if the agenda in the seventies was to play new music, not seventies music). The arguments that flow across discussion boards such as Deep House Page (www.deephousepage.com) and DJ History (www.djhistory.com) after a Mancuso Loft party, for example, illustrate the conflict that inevitably surrounds the performance of a ‘legend’ outside of her or his original milieu. Disco nostalgists (both those who experienced the seventies first time around, and those who weren’t there but wish they had been) are critical of Mancuso’s non-disco selections, of which there are a good number, while others urge the one-time cutting edge pioneer to play a higher proportion of new records in order to demonstrate the template’s relevance to the current conjuncture.

Whether it is through the playing of a disco record, the snatching of a disco sample or the mutation of disco’s sonic imprint, disco’s reach might be shrouded yet it is also resilient and widespread. Just as significant, though, is disco’s social template. First outlined by Richard Dyer back in 1979, and developed by Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson (Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound) and Maria Pini (Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity) some twenty years later, disco’s politics of pleasure, experimentation and social equality, which draws on the potentially queer/affective experience of the amorphous body moving solo-with-the-crowd to polyrhythmic music, remains an enticing objective every time a DJ comes into contact with a group of dancers. Disco, like any music genre, is vulnerable to commercial exploitation. Yet few music genres (it is hard to think of any) have been so successful at generating and spawning a model of potentially radical sociality.


Thanks to Jeremy Gilbert for comments on an earlier draft of this article

To download this article click here.

“Disco”. In John Shepherd and David Horn, eds, Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 8, Genres: North America. London: Continuum, 2012, 180-86.


Coined to describe the broad range of danceable music played by disc jockeys in public discotheques and private parties in North America in the early 1970s, disco became a recognised genre of uptempo popular music that drew on elements of funk, gospel, jazz and soul. Disco recordings were often built on a propulsive underlying rhythm section, around which a wide range of instrumental and vocal techniques were developed, with structured songs and groove-oriented tracks both prominent. DJs became central to the popularisation of disco records, which were often characterised by the way engineers, producers and remixers deployed a series of increasingly unconventional studio techniques to manipulate vocal and instrumental takes, and the genre peaked commercially in 1978. The subsequent coincidence of disco's industrial overproduction with a deep recession culminated in a backlash against the genre and its associated culture, and during 1980 the music industry stopped using the word "disco" altogether. Although many aspects of disco could be detected in the newly coined category of "dance", as well as later genres such hip hop, house and techno, the increasingly electronic and sequenced character of these sounds also distinguished them from disco.

Emergence of disco and the role of the DJ

The practice of dancing to pre-recorded music in the United States can be traced to the spread of jukebox technology in the 1930s and record hop culture in the 1950s. Parallel practices unfolded in Germany, where "Swing Kids" set up gramophones in order to dance to jazz, and also in France, where the venues that played pre-recorded music became known as "discothèques". Having operated as a space in which resistance fighters would socialise and dance, French discothèque culture acquired an elitist, bourgeois cachet during the postwar era, and this was the version of the culture that travelled to New York when Oliver Coquelin opened Le Club at the beginning of the 1960s. In New York, discotheque culture became more democratic when Arthur, drawing inspiration from London's Ad Lib nightclub, opened in 1965, and a clientele made up of young white heterosexual workers danced the twist. But towards the end of the decade New York's discotheques entered a period of commercial decline, and when Arthur closed in 1969 the media reported that the novelty of the discotheque had worn off.

David Mancuso inside the Prince Street Loft. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. Photography by Peter Hujar. Copyright Estate of Peter Hujar.

A pivotal turning point for the culture arrived at the beginning of 1970 when David Mancuso, a resident of the NoHo district of New York, put on the first of a series of highly influential private parties that soon became known as the Loft, while two gay entrepreneurs called Seymour and Shelley took over a failing discotheque called the Sanctuary and marketed the venue to the gay clientele who frequented their bars in New York's West Village. Marked by the spirit of the countercultural era, the Loft and the Sanctuary attracted crowds that were mixed in terms of race, gender and sexuality, and the marginalised social status of many of their dancers combined with the popularisation of stimulants such as LSD contributed to the both emergence of a new dynamic on the dance floor and a non-normative way of experiencing the body. Instead of dancing in couples, participants adopted a freeform style that enabled them to dance with the wider crowd, and responding to the increase in energy, Mancuso and Sanctuary DJ Francis Grasso developed a dialogic relationship with their dancers in which they didn't just "lead" but also attempted to "follow" the dancers in their selections. Growing out of Harlem's rent party tradition, the Loft inspired a series of private parties, most of which opened in the recently evacuated industrial buildings of downtown New York, including the Tenth Floor, Gallery, Flamingo, SoHo Place, 12 West, Reade Street and the Paradise Garage. In a parallel development, public discotheques such as Better Days, Hollywood, the Ice Palace, Le Jardin, Limelight and the Sandpiper were structured according to the model of the Sanctuary. In contrast to the largely unregulated private party network, the public discotheques were bound by New York City's Cabaret Licensing legislation.

Between 1970 and 1973 private party and public discotheque DJs were required to search hard for their music, as record companies were unaware of the nascent dance market and appropriate tracks were in short supply. Drawing on funk, soul and rock as well as rare imports, DJ selections reflected the diversity of their dance crowds, and also contained elements of what would become disco. The break featured not once but twice in Eddie Kendricks' "Girl, You Need A Chance of Mind"; the Temptations' "Law of the Land" accentuated the power of the disciplinary beat; Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes "The Love I Lost" called attention to the four-on-the-floor bass beat; the funk alternative, which became prominent in disco, ran through James Brown "Give It Up or Turnit A Loose"; Chakachas "Jungle Fever" included Latin percussion and clipped, sensual vocals; the parallel move of developing politicised lyrics was evident in the Equals' "Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys"; Olatunji's "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion)" foregrounded African derived rhythms and chants; swooping orchestration was a hallmark of Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft"; WAR's "City, Country, City" revealed the dance floor preference for long records; an ecstatic gospel aesthetic was integral to Dorothy Morrison's "Rain"; emotional expressiveness ran through the Intruders' "I'll Always Love My Mama" and Patti Jo's "Make Me Believe in You"; and Chicago's "I'm A Man" demonstrated an openness to danceable rock. In September 1973 Vince Aletti published an article titled "Discotheque Rock '72 [sic]: Paaaaarty!" in Rolling Stone that drew attention to the way in which the records that were being played on New York's dance floors tended to feature these recurring traits.

Entering an industry dominated by radio DJs, private party and discotheque DJs demonstrated their ability to promote and sell records when Alfie Davison and David Mancuso became the first spinners to play the import single "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango, which subsequently entered the Billboard Hot 100 before receiving radio airplay. The new breed of DJs reiterated their rising influence when they helped transform neglected singles such as "Never Can Say Goodbye" by Gloria Gaynor and "Love's Theme" by the Love Unlimited Orchestra into chart hits. Having functioned initially as shorthand descriptor for the public institution of the discotheque, disco began to be used to refer to the music played in these settings, and when the Hues Corporation and George McCrae scored successive number one hits with the similar sounding "Rock the Boat" and "Rock Your Baby" in July 1974, it became clear that a new genre had come into existence.

Led by Paul Casella, Steve D'Acquisto and David Mancuso, DJs established the New York Record Pool, the first record pool in the United States, in June 1975, and soon after they persuaded a large gathering of major and independent record company representatives to start supplying them with free promotional copies in return for the de facto marketing they received every time a DJ played one of their records. DJs didn't only operate as tastemakers and marketers, however, and many of them became notable for the way in which they strung together their selections. David Mancuso (who considered himself to be a "musical host" rather than a DJ) pioneered the craft of piecing together records so they told a story that unfolded across an entire night. Francis Grasso used headphones and a mixer to blend records into a beat-matched flow. Nicky Siano asserted the creative power of the DJ when he began to interrupt records in mid-flow if the mix sounded right, and he also popularised the practice of working with three turntables simultaneously. Walter Gibbons became the first spinner to make his own homemade edits, and he also developed the art of mixing between the breaks of two records in order to create a "tribal aesthetic". Combining the distinctive styles of Mancuso and Siano, Larry Levan took the art of DJing to unmatched levels of artistry and drama. And although only a few spinners could play a conventional musical instrument ¾ Jim Burgess was a notable exception ¾ they demonstrated that the much-maligned practice of DJing was in fact a skilled art form.

Loleatta Holloway. Photograph by Waring Abbott.

Loleatta Holloway. Photograph by Waring Abbott.

Capitalising on the rising prominence of New York's DJs and the associated dance network, independent record companies such as Roulette, Scepter and 20th Century started to produce and mix records for the dance market, and when Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of the renowned soul label Philadelphia International released "Love Is the Message" and "TSOP" by MFSB towards the end of 1973 it became clear that the music market was beginning to shift, with feel-good disco displacing message-oriented soul. The development was decried several years later by the critic Nelson George, who identified Philadelphia International's conversion to disco as a key moment in the decline of R&B. In reply it could be argued that disco was simply assuming an alternative form of engagement in its development of a politics of the body that deployed black aesthetics within a gay and feminist framework. Records such as "That's Where the Happy People Go" by the Trammps referenced disco's prominent gay male constituency, while the emotionally articulate Carl Bean, First Choice, Loleatta Holloway, Thelma Houston, Grace Jones, Chaka Khan, Evelyn "Champagne" King, LaBelle, D.C. LaRue, Cheryl Lynn, Sylvester and Karen Young joined Gloria Gaynor in forging disco as a terrain where masculinity could assume no easy dominance. Far from abandoning black aesthetic priorities, New York labels such as Prelude, Salsoul and West End recorded dance music that combined rhythmic drive with instrumental sophistication, while Florida's TK Records developed an eclectic, funk-tinged roster of artists that included Peter Brown, KC and the Sunshine Band, and T-Connection.

Development of the disco sound

In a parallel development, European producers started to release disco recordings in 1975, and their collective efforts soon acquired the label of Eurodisco. Silver Convention demonstrated the shift was aesthetic as well as geographical when "Fly, Robin, Fly" featured a strikingly heavy four-on-the-floor bass beat along with a clipped female chorus, and Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte entrenched Eurodisco's thudding four-on-the-floor bass drum motif when they recorded "Love to Love You Baby" with Donna Summer. These and other instances of early Eurodisco retained a connection with the soul orientation of US disco, but during the second half of the 1970s Eurodisco acquired a more obviously mechanical aesthetic. Although the self-consciously technological Kraftwerk are not normally associated with disco, recordings such as "Trans-Europe Express" were popular with many DJs, and Moroder produced an equally innovative and influential futuristic anthem when he teamed up with Summer to release the Moog-driven "I Feel Love". Gesturing towards the western classical tradition, Moroder and other prominent Eurodisco producers such as Cerrone, Alec Costandinos, Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo introduced elaborate orchestral instrumentation and grandiose conceptual themes in many of their recordings.

Eurodisco's rising share of the disco market was bolstered when the Los Angeles-based disco label Casablanca Records signed up a significant number of its most prominent producers and artists. Propelled by its hyperactive and uncontained owner Neil Bogart, Casablanca became the most commercially successful disco label of the second half of the 1970s, and counted Cher, Love and Kisses, and the Village People, along with the ubiquitous Donna Summer, among its most prominent artists. Disco acts on other labels also scaled the Hot 100, including the Bee Gees, Chic, Tavares, the Ritchie Family, Diana Ross, the Trammps, and Barry White, yet one-hit wonders such as Van McCoy ("The Hustle") and Carl Douglas ("Kung Fu Fighting") were also salient presence as well as an indicator of the ephemeral nature of many disco acts. Indeed that status even loomed over Gloria Gaynor until, who endured four years of failure until she scored her second hit, "I Will Survive", which was originally released as a B-side until DJs revealed it to be more effective than the A-side. The startling transience of these and many other disco artists can be partly explained by the fact that the rock-leaning record executives of the majors were notably reluctant to set up disco departments to help provide the genre's artists with a more consistent national profile. Yet as Will Straw has argued (1990), disco's relative fragility can also be traced to its consumers, whose primary concern tended to be the effectiveness of a particular recording in relationship to other contemporaneous recordings. In this disco differed from the rock market, where consumers were more likely to be committed to following the career of an artist or artists.

Instrumentalists and vocalists remained integral to the disco sound, yet as the 1970s unfolded a group of engineers, producers and remixers began to play a dominant role. Among this group, Giorgio Moroder and Alec Costandinos went on to enjoy reasonably successful artist careers, but the influential engineer Bob Blank and groundbreaking remixers such as Walter Gibbons, François Kevorkian, Tom Moulton and Larry Levan remained notably anonymous. Having reconstructed and extended records by artists such as BT Express, Don Downing, Gloria Gaynor, Patti Jo and South Shore Commission in order to make them more dance-floor friendly (often to the consternation of the recording artist), Moulton spearheaded the art of remixing. He also inadvertently recorded the first twelve-inch single when he placed a mix of an Al Downing song on a twelve-inch blank and was struck by the resulting increase in volume and sound quality. Designed to facilitate the circulation of extended records that could satisfy the needs of DJs and dancers, the twelve-inch single became one of the key innovations of disco, and the iconic format was commodified for the first time when Salsoul released a commercially available twelve-inch remix of "Ten Percent" by Double Exposure. The label also took the bold move of hiring Walter Gibbons to carry out the remix on the basis that a working DJ was more likely to understand how to reshape a record in the interest of the dance dynamic than a studio-bound engineer or producer. In this manner the twelve-inch single came to embody a dance floor sensibility, and Gibbons, who also completed groundbreaking remixes for Loleatta Holloway, Love Committee, Bettye LaVette and the Salsoul Orchestra, took the art of remixing into an experimental, leftfield direction. His far-reaching reconfiguration of Holloway's "Hit and Run", on which he was provided with access to the multitrack tapes of a recording for the first time, revealed the creative potential of remix culture.

From local scenes to mainstream saturation

While New York City remained the most important centre for private parties and discotheques throughout the 1970s, important scenes also developed in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and Toronto, as well as cities in Europe and Asia. When the network of dance venues continued to expand during the economic slowdown that followed the oil crisis of 1973, commentators noted the way in which the entertainment institution of the discotheque provided good value for money in comparison to the cost of going to see live music, and during 1977 and 1978 three major discotheques ¾ Studio 54, New York, New York, and Xenon ¾ opened in midtown Manhattan. Competing over set designs, lighting systems, door queues and, most notably, the number of celebrities they could count as their clients, these venues began to appear regularly in New York's tabloid newspapers, as did more general interest features about disco culture. Some of the more thoughtful pieces discussed the way in which disco foregrounded novel ways of producing music and experiencing the body.

Far from being confined to urban centres, disco culture also expanded rapidly in suburban areas, where a markedly compromised version of the Loft/Sanctuary format took hold thanks to the fact that venues were often situated in ex-restaurants, DJs were given less autonomy, and couples dancing was re-popularised in the form of the Hustle. Nevertheless Suburban disco culture acquired an unexpectedly high profile when RSO released the film Saturday Night Fever, which was based on Nik Cohn's partly fictional account of Brooklyn discotheque culture for New York magazine. Released at the end of 1977, the film went on to generate the second highest box office takings of all time (behind the Godfather) and recording-breaking album sales (of thirty million copies). Starring John Travolta as the working-class Italian American shop-worker/dancer Tony Manero and a sound track dominated by the Bee Gees, the film portrayed disco as being both white and heterosexual, and this contributed to the rapid popularisation of the culture during 1978. Although it was less commercially successful, the Casablanca film Thank God It's Friday helped disco consolidate its growth, as did the annual Disco Forum, which was organised by Billboard magazine.

Previously sceptical about disco's aesthetic and commercial potential, major music companies including Warner Bros. and CBS responded to the post-Saturday Night Fever boom by establishing dedicated disco departments, and artists such as Alfredo De La Fe, Herbie Hancock, Johnny Mathis, Dolly Parton and the Rolling Stones started to record disco, albeit with mixed results. Around the same time WKTU, an anonymous soft rock station based in New York, switched to an all-disco format and increased its ratings from a one-point-three share to an eleven-point-three share overnight. Along with the sweeping success of Saturday Night Fever, the rise of disco radio encouraged the majors to switch their promotional focus from discotheque DJs to radio DJs, and they also took the decision to expand their disco output exponentially in the belief that anything that contained disco's recognisable four-on-the-floor bass beat would climb the charts. As a result, DJs and dancers alike were faced with a rush of disco releases that were deemed to be substandard, yet the shift towards a more profit-driven release strategy was not absolute, and 1978 saw the release of records such as Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up", which brought together many of the aesthetic borrowings and innovations of disco, as well as Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", which included Patrick Cowley's synthesiser and served as an early imprint of the "San Francisco Sound". Released the following year and combining hard-edged drums, a prominent bass riff and shimmering vocals, Chic's seminal "Good Times" aligned the feel-good quality of the discotheque experience with black upward mobility.


Disco reached a formal end-point during the second half of 1979 when the hostile "disco sucks" movement helped persuade record companies to abandon the generic label. Originating with John Holmstrom's "Death to disco shit!" editorial in Punk magazine, which was published in January 1976, the anti-disco movement acquired momentum gradually during 1976 and 1977, in part because disco's primary constituency was black, female and gay (in contrast to rock's white, straight and male demographic base), and in part because disco emphasised the female vocalist, the aesthetic of the collective groove, and the near-anonymous work of the producer and the remixer (whereas rock revolved around male musicianship, the primacy of the vocalist and the lead guitarist, and an ethos of authentic performative musicianship). The post-Saturday Night Fever proliferation of substandard disco records made disco increasingly vulnerable to attack, while the onset of a deep recession in the first quarter of 1979 contributed to the creation of a constituency of alienated young men who were searching for a scapegoat to blame for their lack of security. It was within this context that the backlash against disco peaked in the summer of 1979, and when the talk host DJ Steve Dahl staged an explosion of approximately forty thousand disco records in the middle of a baseball double-header at Comiskey Park in Chicago the movement reached its symbolic peak. During the next six months US record companies reduced their disco output radically, closed down disco departments, and started to use "dance" in place of "disco".


Disco Sucks riot at Comiskey Park, Chicago, 1979.

Disco Sucks riot at Comiskey Park, Chicago, 1979.

As consumers grew tired of the overkill of Saturday Night Fever, the limitations of suburban discotheque culture, and the unabashed elitism of Studio 54 and its imitators, thousands of discotheques closed during the second half of 1979, and disco soon ceased to be a media story. Yet in New York private parties such as the Loft and the Paradise Garage continued to flourish, while influential new dance venues such as Bond's, Danceteria and the Saint opened for business in 1980, just months after disco's reputed death. No finite distinction can be made between the disco records released during 1979 and the newly-coined dance output of 1980, and a record like Dinosaur L's "Go Bang!" contained enough links to disco for it to be hailed as one of the founding tracks of so-called "mutant disco". Yet the increasing prominence of synthesisers and drum machines during the first half of the 1980s signalled a shift in dance aesthetics, and the move towards a more technological sound was consolidated when the first tranche of Chicago house tracks were released during 1984. The rise of house in the middle of the 1980s marked a shift away from the skilled musicianship and often costly production processes of disco towards a culture in which music was made on cheap electronic equipment by untrained musicians, yet many of these younger producers attempted to ape the aesthetic priorities of disco, and house recordings have repeatedly featured samples from disco recordings. Early hip hop artists and producers also drew heavily on disco aesthetics, as did pop figures such as Michael Jackson and Madonna.

The failure of house to match the commercial impact of disco confined dance and its various offshoots to the margins of mainstream US pop culture during the 1980s, even if the genre achieved a more pronounced impact in Europe. Meanwhile the general shift in pop music culture towards the deployment of electronic and sequencing technologies resulted in disco acquiring a new significance. Often judged to have been slick and mechanical during the 1970s, by the early twenty-first century disco was notable for just how "live" it sounded in contrast to electronic dance genres such as house, techno, and drum and bass, as well as hip hop. The 1970s remains the last period in western popular music culture when trained musicians from a wide range of generic backgrounds (including funk, soul, rock, jazz and orchestral music) were employed on a regular basis to record music that would be played in dance venues, and this is one of the principle reasons the period has continued to be such a productive terrain for sampling. At the same time the 1970s practice of a DJ selecting records in relationship to a dancing crowd across the course of an entire night has remained the central dynamic of contemporary club culture, while the ethos of remix culture has stayed grounded in the principles forged by the likes of Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons.

To sum up, the sound of disco emerged out of a wide range of danceable genres that were being played by DJs in the setting of the public discotheque and, less prolifically but perhaps more influentially, the private party. The sound came began to coalesce when a small number independent labels began to record music that was specifically designed for the nascent dance market and, around the same time, the music industry began to recognise that club play could boost a record's commercial performance. Consolidated during 1974 and 1975, the genre of disco featured a wide range of instrumental and vocal techniques that revolved around an uptempo four-on-the-floor bass beat (which ran at approximately one hundred and twenty beats-per-minute). Initially disco's open-ended structure enabled it to develop in eclectic and unpredictable ways, but during 1977 and 1978 a deluge of gimmicky releases drew on the genre's simple, easily identifiable rhythmic foundation, and in so doing undermined the credibility of the sound and contributed to its market collapse. The rise of disco-related genres such as house has led to a revival of interest in disco, especially in Europe, where house has enjoyed its most sustained level of success. Yet within the broader popular imagination, disco is regularly associated with "bad taste", and hip hop and rock commentators are often openly disdainful of the culture.

The literature on disco has been shaped by its shifting historical status. A flurry of books, many of them glorified dance manuals, came out in the US in late 1970s, when disco was enjoying its commercial peak; of these, Albert Goldman's Disco, which was published in 1978, is easily the most broad-ranging, even its content and voice are somewhat erratic, while Night Dancin' by Vita Miezitis provides an important turn-of-the-decade guide to the New York club scene. Published in 1979 and 1994 respectively, Richard Dyer's "In Defence of Disco" and Walter Hughes' "In the Empire of the Beat" contributed to the intellectual framing of disco, yet no book-length study appeared until 1997, when the US writer Anthony Haden-Guest published The Last Party, which framed disco through the lens of celebrity culture and Studio 54. Around the same time an alternative attempt to historicise disco within the context of dance music began to unfold in Europe, and while books by Ulf Postchardt (1995), Matthew Collin (1997) and Sheryl Garratt (1998) were heavily dependent on Goldman, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton conducted original research for the two disco chapters that appeared in their broad-ranging account of DJ culture (1999). Following the publication of Mel Cheren's engaging if sometimes unreliable disco memoir, Keep On Dancing', the author of this entry researched the first book-length study of disco, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79, which came out in 2003. Since then, the British authors Daryl Easlea (Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco) and Peter Shapiro (Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco) have contributed to the growing bibliography on disco, the length of which makes Shapiro's subtitle somewhat anomalous.



Aletti, Vince. "Discotheque Rock '72 [sic]: Paaaaarty!" Rolling Stone, 13 September 1973.

Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999.

Cheren, Mel. Keep On Dancin': My Life and the Paradise Garage. New York: 24 Hours for Life, 2000.

Cohn, Nik. "The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night". New York, 7 June 1976.

Collin, Matthew (with contributions from John Godfrey). Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House. London and New York: Serpent's Tail, 1997.

Dyer, Richard. "In Defence of Disco", Gay Left, summer 1979. Reprinted in The Faber Book of Pop, ed. by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage. London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995, 518-527.

Easlea, Daryl. Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco. London: Helter Skelter, 2004.

Garratt, Sheryl. Adventures In Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture. London: Headline, 1998.

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm & Blues. New York: Plume, 1988.

Goldman, Albert. Disco. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978.

Haden-Guest, Anthony. The Last Party. Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997.

Holmstrom, John (ed.). Punk: The Original. New York: Trans-High Publishing Corp., 1996.

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Can't Stop the Music. Anchor Bay, 1980, directed by Nancy Walker, screenplay by Bronte Wood and Allan Carr.

Saturday Night Fever. Paramount Pictures, 1977, directed by John Badham, screenplay by Norman Wexler.


Discographical references

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Chakachas. 'Jungle Fever.' Jungle Fever. Polydor. PD-5504. 1972: US.

Chic. "Good Times". Twelve-inch single. Atlantic. 37158. 1979: US.

Chicago Transit Authority. 'I'm A Man.' Chicago Transit Authority. Columbia. GP 8. 1969: US.

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Dinosaur L. "Go Bang! #5" Remixed by François K. Twelve-inch single. Sleeping Bag Records. SLX-0. 1982: US.

Double Exposure. 'Ten Percent.' Remixed by Walter Gibbons. Twelve-inch single. Salsoul Records.  12D-2008. 1976: US.

Douglas, Carl. 'Kung Fu Fighting.' 20th Century Records. TC-2140. 1974: US.

Equals, The. 'Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys.' President PT-325. 1969: UK.

Gaynor, Gloria. 'I Will Survive.' Twelve-inch single. Polydor. 887 036-1.1978: US.

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Intruders, The. 'I'll Always Love My Mama.' Philadelphia International Records. ZS8 3624. 1973: US.

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Kendricks, Eddie. 'Girl You Need A Change of Mind.' People… Hold On. Tamla. T 315L. 1972: US.

Kraftwerk. 'Trans-Europe Express.' Trans-Europe Express. Capitol Records. SW-11603. 1977: Germany.

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Trammps, The. 'That's Where the Happy People Go.' Twelve-inch single. Atlantic. DSKO 63. 1975: US.

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