Culturally, the latter prevailed.
It was the opinion voiced most loudly by the popular boys.
Dissenters pushed back at their own peril.
I didn’t know what YMCA was about, and I’m not convinced the ski jacketed, puka-necklaced alpha males at my school did either.
(My father, who sang along joyfully whenever it came on the car radio, definitely did.)
Disco’s been dead for a long time now.
In the four plus decades since disgruntled Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl commandeered a baseball stadium for a Disco Demolition Night where fans tossed around homophobic and racist epithets while destroying records, there’s been notable social progress.
This progress is the lens that makes Noah Lefevre’s Polyphonic video essay The Untold History of Disco, and other investigations into the racial and sexual underpinnings of disco possible.
I certainly never heard of Stonewall as a kid, but many contemporary viewers, coming of age in a country that is, on the whole, much more LGBTQ-friendly than the world of their parents and grandparents, are familiar with it as a gay rights milestone.
Lefevre ties the birth of disco to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, and a subculture born of necessity, wherein gay men improvised underground dance clubs where they could cut freely loose with same sex partners.
Instead of live dance music, these venues boasted DJs, crate diggers open to any groove that would keep the party going on the dance floor: psychedelic, classic soul, progressive soul, jazz fusion, Latin American dance music, African pop…
(Thus the name discotheque)
You can hear it in Jimmy Nolen’s chicken scratch lead guitar for James Brown and session drummer Earl Young’s open high hat and four-to-the-floor beat on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ The Love I Lost.
In the beginning, crowds were primarily Black, Latino and gay at New York City discos like The Loft, which started out as a rent party, and The Sanctuary, housed in a deconsecrated midtown German Baptist church. Mapplethorpe model Leigh Lee recalled The Sanctuary’s cachet to the Village Voice’s Peter Braunstein:
It was supposed to be a secret, but I don’t know how secret it could have been when faggots and lesbians can come out of a church from midnight till sunrise.
As discotheque DJs began driving the record charts, mainstream producers took note, opening the gates for such monster hits as the Barry White-helmed Love Unlimited Orchestra’s Love’s Theme, Donna Summer’s Love to Love Ya, and Chic’s Le Freak.
A glitter-bedecked nude man rode a white horse into Bianca Jagger’s birthday party at Studio 54 on the stroke of midnight, while hinterland squares did The Hustle at their local Holiday Inns.
Little twerps like me, whose mothers wouldn’t let them see the R‑rated Saturday Night Fever bought Bee Gees 45s from our local Peaches and sang along to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, as did some of our dads…
(An unexpected pleasure of Lefevre’s video is seeing all those familiar record labels spinning just the way they did on our precious stereos — Atlantic! Casablanca! Polydor! RSO! Somebody pass me a Dr. Pepper and a yellow plastic insert!)
Radio DJ Rick Dees’ novelty hit with Disco Duck seemed so harmless at the time, but it was surely music to the mainstream “disco sucks” crowd’s ears. (Good luck to any punk who betrayed a fondness for Disco Duck )
Disco’s reign was brief — Lefevre notes that its end coincides with the beginning of the AIDS crisis — but its impact has been greater than many assume at first blush.
Disco’s emphasis on turntables and long play versions influenced hip hop and electronic dance music.
Nearly half a century after discomania seized the land, its deep connection to Black, Latino and LGBTQ history must not be tossed aside lightly.
Watch more of Noah Lefevre’s Polyphonic video essays here.
- Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto. Her Indiana ties resulted in an invitation to Rick “Disco Duck” Dees’ 1977 wedding. Follow her @AyunHalliday.