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What really happened to disco?

November 4, 2011

When I first discovered that Wikipedia was designed to be edited by anyone; I was like “WOW”; an outlet for all of my trivial and factual information. I didn’t realize the “original research” criteria, and just jumped in with my spin on things. Like something I had been thinking about in the mid ’00s: what exactly happened to disco, as I had discovered the Music Choice channels, including one called “showcase” that alternated between “disco” and “old School Rap; both now replaced by two other channels).

I had saved the part of the article I reconfigured, as I think it is still an interesting read on the development, with the noting of two different strains of disco that went in different directions upon entering the eighties (some of this is the contribution of others). The parts before this had traced the genre through Motown, Philly and other sources:

On Wikipedia 15 Feb-21-Feb 2006

Transition and Descendents

The year 1980 was a transitional time for music, especially dance music, which lost its disco sound, as complex melodic structures and plush elements of the symphony orchestra gave way to a diminutive, street sound. In the early-1980s, George Benson, Rick James, Patrice Rushen, The Brothers Johnson, The Weather Girls, Madonna, Kool & the Gang, Miquel Brown, Teena Marie, The Commodores, The S.O.S. Band, and other artists continued to create many disco-enthused hits. At the same time new styles emerged – Italo Disco and Euro Disco.

Also in the early-1980s, House music was forged in the underground clubs of Chicago and New York, when the first drum machines were introduced into disco tracks.

Two strains of “disco” music

To better understand the evolution of disco into the 1980’s, we can look at the division between what can be called “white disco” and “black disco”, for both for the most part went into different directions. While all disco had some common features (like the beat), and originated in black music, the type of disco most often performed by white artists and popular with white audiences was a more mainstream sound, which can be distinguished by among other things, horns and strings that are often performed in an “extravagant” style that resembles a Broadway production. Examples of this mainstream disco sound are:

This style seems to have been largely inspired by MFSB’s “TSOP”, which, as an instrumental track, was a bit heavier on the instrumentation than many other soul records.

The black disco sound remained more true to its funk and R & B roots and was heavier on the bass and electric guitar. Horns and strings were used a bit less, and when they were used, were performed in a style that more resembled the older “Motown” and “Philly soul” sounds. The musical scales were usually more “funky” as well. The top “black” disco sound acts were:

  • Groups like Chic, Sister Sledge, A Taste Of Honey, Evelyn “Champagne” King,
  • Smaller acts like Musique, Foxy, Kleeer and Peter Brown
  • Hits like McFadden & Whitehead‘s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now”
  • Hits by The Emotions, Thelma Houston, Cheryl Lynn, The Trammps,
  • The disco ventures of Motown and former Motown acts such as The Jacksons and Diana Ross.

Acts like KC and the Sunshine Band and Donna Summer were mainstream in their popularity (The definitive “mainstream” disco album being the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack both performed on), but nevertheless more “funk”-oriented in sound (Summers’ “Last Dance” was definitely the more “mainstream” sound). Gloria Gaynor‘s “I Will Survive” was a bit of a cross between the two sounds, with a more “mainstream” production style, but the soulful singing is associated more with black music. The Bee Gee’s “You Should Be Dancing” was also a more funk-infused track than some of their other hits.

The effect of the synthesizer

The advent of the synthesizer in popular music greatly altered both sub-styles of disco. The earliest grain of this can be seen in Donna Summers’ 1977 hit “I Feel Love”, which has a completely electronic rhythm, consisting primarily of a synthesized percussion and bass sound, and is regarded as the precursor to the later “Techno” or “House” style. The same year, Kraftwerk produced its hit Trans-Europe Express, which was played and danced to as disco, even though it consists largely of a “futuristic” synthesized string orchestra sound. As synthesizers increased in usage, the first sounds to convert to the new instruments were generally the bass and strings. At first, this was done in a way that did not stand out and change the overall sound. An example of this would be Michael Jackson’s “Shake Your Body To the Ground” or Lipps Inc‘s “Funky Town”. But in the 1980’s, it became very noticeable, and eventually led to the point where the music just was not “disco” anymore. However, the dancing/partying crowds probably did not recognize this, nor care!

The transformation of the “mainstream” disco sound

You can see the gradual change in such titles as

  • Amii Stewart‘s “Knock On Wood” (1979),
  • the Bee Gees‘ “Tragedy” (1979),
  • Irene Cara‘s “Fame” (1980),
  • Olivia Newton-John‘s “Xanadu”(1980)
  • Blondie‘s “Heart of Glass”, (1980)
  • Patrick Cowley & Sylvester‘s “Do You Wanna Funk”, (1982)
  • Laura Branigan‘s “Gloria” (1982),
  • Boystown Gang’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” (1981)
  • Roni Griffith “(The Best Part Of) Breaking Up” (1981-2),

and several songs from this period by the group Lime. These songs still had the disco rhythm and bass line, but it was now synthesized, along with the background sounds, which usually replaced the horns and strings, and at the same time rock guitars (or synthesizers that mimicked their sound) also became prevalent. So basically, the more “mainstream” disco sound gradually merged into pop-rock. Another transitional song was The Weather Girls‘ “It’s Raining Men”, which uses the same basic instruments (including the bass line) of the 70’s “mainstream” disco sound, but by this time in the 80’s, the faster beat was more associated with the emerging pop-rock style, so it is sometimes not considered disco. A more synthesized example of this is The Pointer Sisters‘ “Jump”. So as rock moved a bit towards the rhythmic sensibilities of disco, [as was stated above], this segment of disco moved closer to rock. In the mid-80’s, the styles had pretty much merged into a single sound that is known as “the ’80’s sound”.

The transformation of the “street” disco sound

Meanwhile, the black disco sound was at the same time spawning the new genre of rap or hip-hop, and also as synthesizers increased, it either merged back into R & B, or some of it blended into pop-rock as well. In the 1981-83 period, a hybrid acoustic/synthesized sound emerged, where the bass and other background sounds were replaced by synthesizers, but other acoustic and electroacoustic intruments like the acoustic piano and “Rhodes” electric piano and electric bass and guitars were often retained. They were now used to produce chords which were more prominent (and often a bit more jazzy) than in the earlier disco, (in which the harmonies were less prominent than the rhythm), further changing the sound. You can compare the piano playing in songs like Silver Convention’s “Get Up And Boogie” (1976), Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real”, (1978) or Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” with this later style. You can also compare the general sound of Evelyn Champagne King’s “Shame” (1977)and “I don’t Know If It’s Right” (1979) with her later hits “Love Come Down” (1981) and “I’m In Love” (1982). These songs, and similar ones by Kool & the Gang, The Whispers, Shalamar and Dynasty, D-Train, and Kashif (including several acts produced by him before he released his first record in 1983) all maintained a danceable rhythm that is generally considered disco, but the overall sound is noticeably different from the 70’s black disco sound. It is more of a general R & B style, that maintains some features (such as the rhythm) from disco. Many of these songs are about as different from the “disco” of the late 70’s as are the “pre-disco” songs listed above. Even during the disco period, there were many great hits and groups that were generally not considered disco, though they were just as danceable, and played in discos along with everything else. Examples would include Stevie Wonder (I Wish, Sir Duke) and Earth, Wind & Fire (Shining Star, Getaway). These styles were deeper in quality, featuring more harmony and even melody, rather than just rhythm; and was put in a category above disco, which was the popular fad of sorts. However, young producers were greatly influenced by these musicians, and when the mainstream disco craze wore off in the 80’s, dance records began borrowing more elements from these great artists along with even jazz. “Disco” was more a particular sound, rather than anything with a similar rhythm, and it was generally associated with certain groups who made it big with those sounds. But when disco increased in popularity, eventually, the word became associated with anything danceable, that played in discothèques, even after the sound changed. That is, until it changed so much, that the word finally fell out of favor in the mid eighties, even though the same rhythms were being used in new styles of music. Around 1984, most black dance tracks became almost completely synthesized, and this (plus the increasing use of rock-guitars, next paragraph) made the style blend in even more with pop-rock.

Sounds associated with rock were gradually influencing this style as well. Donna Summers’ “Hot Stuff” (1978) for instance, incoporated rock elements such as the guitar riff. Later, she released the song “Love Is In Control” in 1982, in a new mostly synthesized production technique, though it retained a heavily “70’s” style funk sound overall. However, the following year, her biggest hit was “She Works Hard For the Money” which was a definite “80’s” “pop-rock” style, with the synthesized and guitar background riffs, though it still maintained somewhat of a disco bassline, and is played as “disco”. Several other R & B acts followed this style. Examples are Kool & the Gang’s “Joanna”, “Tonight”, “Misled” and “Fresh”; George Benson‘s “20-20”, Al Jarreau‘s “Raging Waters”, and Stephanie Mills‘ “Medicine Song”.

Some examples of 80’s (late) disco are:

  • Loeatta Holloway — “Love Sensation” (1980)
  • Lipps, Inc. – Funkytown (1980)
  • Young & Company – I Like What You’re Doin’ To Me(1980)
  • Vaughn, Mason & Crew – Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll (1980)
  • Diana Ross — “I’m Comin’ Out” (1980)
  • SOS Band — “Take Your Time” (1980)
  • Carl Carlton: “She’s A Bad Mama Jama” (1980)
  • Gino Soccio — “Try It Out” (1980)
  • Taana Gardner — “Heartbeat” (1980)
  • Gwen McCrae – “Funky Sensation” (1981)
  • Skyy — “Call Me” (1981)
  • Tom Tom Club – “Genius of Love” (1980-1)
  • Secret Weapon — “Must Be the Music” (1981)
  • Kleeer — “Get Tough” (1981)
  • SOS Band – “High Hopes” (1982)
  • Goody Goody – “Let Me Work On You” (1982)
  • The Weather Girls -“It’s Raining Men” (1982) [“mainstream sound” derivative]
  • Indeep – “Last Night A D.J. Saved My Life”  (1982)
  • Miquel Brown -“Too Many Men, Too Little Time (1983)[mainstream derivative]
  • Evelyn Thomas — “High energy” (1984) [“mainstream sound” derivative]
  • Somebody Else’s Guy — Jocelyn Brown (1984)

Semi disco songs (with post-disco style harmonies):

  • Kool and the Gang — “Ladies Night” and “Celebrate” (1979)
  • Tom Browne — “Funkin’ For Jamaica” (1980)
  • The Whispers — “And the Beat Goes On” (1980), “It’s A Love Thing” (1981)
  • Shalamar — “Second Time Around” (1980)
  • Booker T — “Don’t Stop Your Love” (1981)
  • Alicia Myers — “I Wanna Thank You” (1981)
  • Evelyn “Champagne” King — “Love Come Down” (1981)
  • Denroy Morgan — “I’ll Do Anything For You” (1981)
  • France Joli — “Gonna Get Over You” (1981)
  • Cheryl Lynn — “Shake it up Tonight” (1981)
  • Dynasty — “Here I am” (1981)
  • Shalamar — “Night To Remember” (1982)

Post-disco dance records (that are often considered disco) include:

  • Patrice Rushen — “Haven’t You Heard” (1978), “Forget Me Nots” (1982)
  • Narada Michael Walden — “I Should Have Loved Ya” (1979)
  • The Brothers Johnson — “Stomp” (1980) —funk
  • Roberta Flack — “You, You & I, Back Together Again” (1980) —funk
  • Imagination — “Illusion” (1981) —electronic pop
  • Kool and the Gang — “Get Down On It” (1981)
  • Earth, Wind & Fire — “Let’s Groove”
  • Billy Ocean — “One of those Nights (Feel Like Gettin’ Down)” (1981)
  • BBQ — “On the Beat” (1981)
  • Tony Lee — “Reach Up” (1981)
  • Central Line — “Walking Into Sunshine” (1981-2)
  • Junior Giscombe — “Mama Used to Say” (1981-2)
  • Evelyn “Champagne” King — “I’m In Love” (1982)
  • Howard Johnson – “So Fine” (1982)
  • D. Train — “You’re the One” (1981) “Keep On” (1981-2) “Walk On By” (1982) “Music” (1983)
  • Sharon Redd — “Beat the Street” (1982)
  • Angela Bofill — “Too Tough”
  • Raw Silk — “Do It To the Music” (1982)
  • Kashif — “I Just Gotta Have You (Lover Turn Me On)”, “Help Yourself to My Love”, “Stone Love”, “Baby Don’t Break Your Baby’s Heart”

Disco “spinoffs” rap and “House” music

Finally, disco was largely succeeded in the younger black music community by rap, which had started, by rapping over disco tracks. The first commercially popular rap hit was Rapper’s Delight, which borrowed the bass line from Chic’s “Good Times”. The two styles existed side by side for a few years, with rap sometimes creeping into disco songs such as In Deep’s “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life”. The two styles together also sparked off “House Music” or “techno” when Afrika Bambataa released the 1982 rap Planet Rock, which drew several elements from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and the previous year’s “Numbers”. While other raps were also adding electronic sounds, this soon wore off in that genre in favor of a more “raw” hip-hop sound. However, the “Planet Rock” sound also spawned a non-“hip-hop” electronic dance trend, with such follow-ups as Planet Patrol’s “Play At Your own Risk”, the same year, followed by “One More Shot” by C-Bank; and the following year, its popularity skyrocketed with Shannon’s “Let The Music Play” Freeze’s “AEIOU”, and Midnight Star‘s “Freakazoid”. Electronic Dance music or ouse Music (later called “techno”) had now emerged as its own genre, and this sort of became the new “disco”, even though it was not recognized as such, due to the nearly 100% electronic composition.

Did it really “die”?

All of this is why it is often said that by the year 1985, disco was pretty much “dead”. It did not really have a distinctive “death”, but simply blended back into other popular styles, while spawning some new styles. It was the synthesizer, and resulting change in the sounds, that basically ended disco as it was known in the pre-electronic 70’s, moreso than any reaction from the competing rock genre. The danceable rhythms would live on in pop-rock, rap, Techno/House Music and regular R & B; and the dance club continued to thrive with these styles.

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4 Comments
  1. Is this some sort of poetic justice? (From the leader of the main band that was the favorite of all those pronouncing disco as “dead” 35 years ago!)

    GENE SIMMONS: ‘ROCK IS FINALLY DEAD’
    http://loudwire.com/gene-simmons-rock-finally-dead/
    http://www.esquire.com/blogs/culture/gene-simmons-future-of-rock

    Thankfully, rhythm lives on, which is what disco was really about!

    Should also be mentioned, that KISS itself had even “given in” and dabbled in disco! I remembered the song “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and it was like the band was mellowing down and putting out something actually listenable for a change! I did not think of it as “disco”, but more recently saw that on Wikipedia it is considered disco (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Was_Made_for_Lovin%27_You) and that the writer in fact had wanted to write a disco song. Thinking about the beat, it makes sense, and I guess could fit.

    I wish I had thought of it this way, and I could have thrown back at the white kids putting down disco how their top band actually “defected” to our side. Though I guess it was really supposed to be a kind of slap in the face to disco, as the wiki article says the writer “has stated that it was a conscious effort on his part to prove how easy it was to write and record a hit disco song.”
    It never did cross over to our airwaves, though (not even mainstream “white” disco, which was the one actually “dying” at the time); it remained something I heard on their radios or on TV or whatever.

    You would think there would have been a major uproar from fans, but I still saw their logo all over school into the 80’s, though there did seem to be a bit less enthusiasm about them, while some of the more harder “death metal” bands are what they seemed to like more and more.

  2. Here’s another “poetic justice”! Saw someone complaining about this on Facebook: http://www.vh1.com/news/224530/artists-who-should-be-in-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-but-never-will-be

    I never knew all these hard rockers were left out! And ironic, that they’re the ones who wished death on disco, but disco, and other acts, including even rap (someone mentioned Public Enemy) are in! I say served them right! (“Boiiiieee!”)

    Some of these styles are actually more what “Rock n Roll” was originally about. It was a black form of art, that was co-opted, and by the 70’s, and 80’s, these acid/death rockers with their blaring melody-less “metal” had taken the label for themselves in their high school grafitti and stadium war against “disco” (and even other forms of rock) to the point that that’s what we would think of when we think of “rock music”. But the people of the Hall of Fame apparently recognize rock’s original concept!

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