Stayin' Alive through the years: a brief history of disco music

Stayin' Alive through the years: a brief history of disco music

Like punk, disco had a short-lived lifespan, but a huge impact on much of the music that followed – especially dance house music


John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John grooving to disco in Grease.
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Disco’s name came from the growth of house parties in small communities in the US, and the rise in number of clubs for late night dancing throughout Europe in the late ’60s. These nightclubs were known as “discotheques” in France, and soon after, the shortened name was commonly used by journalists to describe the style of dancing used at these clubs.

Unlike most other genres we’ve looked at in our Young Post series, there was no real watershed moment for disco to break into the mainstream. It reached its peak around 1977 and 1978 with the releases of popular films Saturday Night Fever and Thank God It’s Friday. Subsequently, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.

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Disco in the US was derived from R&B, psychedelia and Motown music with lush orchestral arrangements, with acts like the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the O’Jays creating hybrid disco in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Disco began taking over radio from 1974 onwards, and TV shows Soul Train, Disco Step-By Step and Dance Fever went the same way.

Barry White scored the second number one disco hit with Love’s Theme in 1974, and this was quickly followed by MFSB’s The Sound of Philadelphia before Kung Fu Fighting became the biggest-selling song of the year in both the UK and US – going on to sell 11 million copies worldwide.

Other prominent songs included several hits from KC and the Sunshine Band, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Electric Light Orchestra’s Evil Woman, and Donna Summer with hits I Feel Love and MacArthur Park. One of the most successful acts was the Bee Gees, with their instantly recognisable falsetto voices. Tracks such as Night Fever, More Than A Woman and Stayin’ Alive are all mainstays in retro clubs to this day. Another group often cited as defining the era was Nile Rodgers and his band Chic with their 1978 hit Le Freak. Abba remain one of the biggest-selling acts in history thanks to hits such as Money Money Money, Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia and Gimme Gimme Gimme!

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The late ’70s saw a crossover of pop singers releasing disco tracks with The Jacksons’ Blame It On The Boogie, and Michael Jackson topping the charts with Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough. Other performers and groups included Rod Stewart, Blondie, David Bowie and Earth, Wind & Fire. The Village People also had massive hits with YMCA and Macho Man, appealing to disco’s prominently gay audience.

Despite its popularity, there was a cultural backlash to disco, and genres such as punk and hip hop were spawned as an antithesis to disco’s squeaky-clean production. Disco maintained its popularity until the early ’80s but then fell out of favour, disappearing from popular culture by 1983.

Disco has had a small revival in recent years, with big thanks to French dance duo Daft Punk. Get Lucky and their Random Access Memories album were monumental when released in 2013, dominating both singles and albums charts. Other popular disco-revival songs include Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, as well as disco-inspired albums from Arcade Fire and Lady Gaga.

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Recommended listening:

Chic – Le Freak
Donna Summer – I Feel Love
Bee Gees – Stayin’ Alive
Michael Jackson – Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough
KC & The Sunshine Band – Baby Give It Up
Earth, Wind & Fire – Boogie Wonderland
Daft Punk – Get Lucky

Recommended viewing:

Saturday Night Fever

Thank God It’s Friday

Recommended reading:

Turn The Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco – Peter Shapiro

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture – Alice Echols

Edited by Pete Spurrier

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
What is… disco?


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