Disco (derived from discotheque) is a genre of dance music that was immensely popular in the mid- to late 1970s. It is also a dance club featuring pre-recorded music on vinyl discs that is mixed (each song matched in beat to the song before) for a continuous pulse. Although disco was not exclusively produced by Gay people, African American Gay male club goers were disco music’s first appreciative audience. They brought it to Gay venues, which then influenced its production and sound.
The close association between disco and Gay men would mark it as “gay” no matter who listened to it, and eventually there was a backlash with strong homophobic overtones against it in 1979. Disco morphed into house music (named after the Warehouse in Chicago, resident club for Gay DJ Frankie Knuckles) and hi-NRG during the 1980s.
Disco music came out of the psychedelic (from Greek: psyche or “soul,” and delos or “clear”) and soul music (African American funk, rhythm and blues) scenes. Both genres emphasized external expression of the internal self through dance. Psychedelic music was closely associated with the anti-war counter-culture (with its call for sexual freedom) and illegal drugs. Disco had none of the anti-war connotations, but retained a connection with drug use and hedonism.
In the mid-1970s, dance music became streamlined to include a strong, prominent downbeat with a 4/4 pulse on the first beat of 4, 8, and 16 iterations, and a pulse between 120-135 beats per minute (bpm). Complementing a deep punctuated bass drum downbeat was a high tsssh of a hi-hat cymbal on the upbeat. Lush orchestration and African/African Latin percussion were added when the Philly sound, music coming out of the clubs in Philadelphia, became popular. Two songs, “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes (1971) and “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango (1972) are cited as disco prototypes. Neither Hayes nor Dibango were Gay artists. Nevertheless, “Soul Makossa” became popular after underground Gay venues such as David Mancuso’s Loft called attention to it.
As with “Shaft” and “Soul Makossa,” the disco format came out of R&B dance music. African American musicians such as Gloria Gaynor (“Never Can Say Goodbye”), MFSB (“TSOP” and “Love Is the Message”), Barry White (“Your Sweetness Is My Weakness”), Linda Clifford (“Runaway Love”), Earth, Wind & Fire (“Boogie Wonderland”), and Jackie Moore (“This Time Baby”) released disco songs. A more military-march style of disco then emerged from Western Europe, often incorporating African American musicians and sensibilities with artists such as Donna Summer (“Love to Love You Baby”), Cerrone (“Supernature”), and Heatwave (“Boogey Nights”). In the USA, jazz intersected with disco to produce dance tracks that coursed through the African American community by musicians such as Herbie Hancock (“I Thought It Was You”), Bobbi Humphrey (“Say the Word”), Roy Ayers (“Running Away”), Hamilton Bohannon (“Let’s Start the Dance”), Patrice Rushen (“Hang It Up”), the Crusaders (“Street Life”), and George Benson (“Give Me the Night”). Eventually, the format was blended with many genres, including novelty (“Disco Duck”), orchestral (“Thus Spake Zarathustra,” “Theme from Star Wars”), and rock (Kiss: “I Was Made for Loving You,” Rolling Stones: “Emotional Rescue,” Bee Gees: “Staying Alive,” and Rod Stewart: “Do You Think I’m Sexy”). One disco song, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, became the unofficial anthem for Pride celebrations worldwide.
Although disco was not a distinctly Gay genre of music in terms of format, musicians, dance (which included individual freestyle dancing, couple dancing such as the hustle, and line dances such as the bus stop), and audience, it was nevertheless situated within a Gay male social frame and thus may be considered a genre of Gay people’s music. The most famous disco club was Studio 54 in Manhattan, which was inspired by Gay male clubs such as the Flamingo. Disco’s close association with sex, dance floor sensuality, drugs, and even clothing was heavily influenced by styles and preferences in the Gay male community.
It was Gay men’s festive folklife that shaped disco and the material culture of vinyl records. DJs in Gay male clubs began slip-cuing (a technique by which one song would blend into the next). Disco music production was spurred by the need for standardized songs with a strong and steady pulse. In order to help DJs “mix” one song into the next, extended-play disco singles (also called 12″ singles, vinyl records that had long introductions and endings featuring percussion without melody) were manufactured and sold nationwide.
Disco’s most iconic group, the Village People, parodied Gay male sensual archetypes of masculinity, including the overtly-Gay Leatherman. Lyrics to Village People songs were loaded with double-entendres and coded references to Gay male folklife. Disco also had its own drag superstar, Sylvester with the hit, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. Nevertheless, Gay implications of disco were for the most part covert. The popular film on disco, Saturday Night Fever, gives a nod to African American and Latin participation in disco, but has nothing at all about the Gay community.
“I Was Born This Way”
“I Was Born This Way” is a disco song from the 1970s. Co-written by Bunny Jones and Chris Spierer, and originally recorded in 1975 by a Gay Black singer named Valentino, it was released on Jones’ Gaiee Records. “I Was Born This Way” was controversial because of its explicitly Gay-affirming lyrics and gospel style:
I’m walking through life in nature’s disguise
You laugh at me and you criticize
‘Cause I’m happy, carefree and gay
I was born this way
This frank expression of Gay pride was radically different from the Village People’s tongue in cheek humor. The sense of the unease caused by “I Was Born This Way” can be seen in Billboard, February 22, 1975 column, “Disco Action” by record producer Tom Moulton, who got his start at the Sandpiper, a Gay club on Fire Island:
Most controversial record this week is “I Was Born This Way” by Valentino on Gaiee Records, on which a young man sings about his homosexuality, how happy he is and how others put him down because they don’t understand. Feelings on the disc are mixed, as some think it offensive, others think it is a great cut.
Jones sold 15,000 copies of the Valentino version from the trunk of her car before Motown Records expressed interest in re-releasing the song with a new singer, Carl Bean. The Motown rendition would be remixed and released through West End Records as a long-playing disco single.
Thinly-veiled homophobic backlash contributed to the “death” of disco in the late 1970s, accompanied by slogans such as “Disco Sucks” and “Kill Disco.” Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl called for a “disco destruction army” to verbally assault DJs that played disco music. In one publicity stunt, Dahl gave away 100 tickets to a Village People concert so that disco-haters could harass the performers. “Disco music is a disease,” said Dahl, and he called for its extinction.
On July 12, 1979, Dahl supervised the Disco Demolition rally at Chicago’s Comiskey Park during a baseball double-header between the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox. After the first game, Dahl appeared in paramilitary gear, went on the field, and burned several thousand disco albums that the predominantly White male fans had brought in exchange for reduced admission. The album-burning excited the spectators into a frenzy. Thousands of them poured onto the field, ripped up the turf, set more fires, and attempted to storm the locker rooms of the baseball players while chanting, “Disco Sucks!”
Mel Cheren, “Godfather of Disco” and founder of West End Records, described the backlash In his book, Keep on Dancin’:
The music market is largely a zero-sum game, so as disco rose, everything else had to fall. This infuriated those who had dominated music for years — rock critics, DJs, and [sic] producers, and lots of disenfranchised fans. Rock had defined two generations of white, middle-class Straight baby-boomers, particularly guys… it was in danger of being relegated to a niche market itself by a new style dominated by black musicians and gay promoters, producers, and tastemakers… Beneath the bitter complaints that disco was mindless, hedonistic, repetitive, pounding — exactly what critics had said about rock itself in its early years — there was this deeper complaint: disco was black and Hispanic. Disco was mindless and Gay. Disco sucked.
Irrational hatred of disco was not limited to Chicago — it became political and international in scope. Conservative Americans considered it immoral, as did their counterparts in communist countries. According to Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton in Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, scientists at the University of Ankara in Turkey claimed that disco made pigs deaf and turned mice into homosexuals. The result of the backlash was the end of disco as a potent force in the music industry.
From Disco to House
Disco did not actually die, however. Post-Demolition Gay clubs continued to play songs such as “Hold On to My Love” by Jimmy Ruffin, “Love Sensation” by Loleatta Holloway (written by Dan Hartman), Tantra (“The Hills of Kathmandu”), and “If You Could Read My Mind” by Viola Wills (written by Gordon Lightfoot).
Within the Gay male dance music scene, DJs were generating songs that were even more tailored to the dancer than previously, setting into place a fairly strict 32-beat pulse characteristic of house music that encouraged sonic driving, the production of altered states by means of heavily syncopated rhythms. Gay-owned West End Records produced many songs during and after the disco craze that had little exposure outside the Gay club scene. Two Gay African American DJs, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, remixed and extended songs, and The two friends explored the use of sound systems to create a sonic environment that would foster communal bonding through dance. Levan, resident DJ at the Paradise Garage in Manhattan, called his artistry as a DJ “disco evangelism,” and his style became a sub-genre of house music called garage music. Knuckles, whose residency was Chicago’s Warehouse nightclub (house music takes its name from the Warehouse) referred to house music as “disco’s revenge.”
In addition to underground disco and garage music was hi-NRG (high energy), a movement of European disco into electronic, drum-machine-based songs that began with Cerrone, Donna Summer, and other Euro-disco stars. As with early disco, hi-NRG got its start in Gay clubs with DJs such as Gay music icon Patrick Cowley, who spun at San Francisco’s EndUp (Cowley also composed and performed disco and hi-NRG songs). Disco-influenced songs were produced by artists such as Michael Jackson (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”), Evelyn “Champagne” King (“Love Come Down”), Grace Jones (“Pull Up to the Bumper”), Patrice Rushen (“Forget Me Nots”), Chaka Khan (“I’m Every Woman”), Imagination (“Just an Illusion”), Shannon (“Let the Music Play”), Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls”), New Order (“Blue Monday,” “Bizarre Love Triangle”), Inner City (“Good Life”), and Black Box (who sampled Holloway/Hartman’s “Love Sensation” for their first hit, “Ride on Time”).
House music split into myriad genres, including deep house, which traces its roots directly back to disco/fusion jazz, disco house, and nu-disco with artists such as Jamiroquai, Aeroplane, Glass Candy (under the label, Italians Do It Better), and Hercules & Love Affair (created by openly-Gay DJ and musician Andy Butler).
In addition, disco parties such as Horse Meat Disco in London and Honey Sound System in San Francisco have a select group of DJs that play rare disco songs during their respective events. The Freemasons, a DJ/remixer duo (James Wiltshire and Russell Small) from Brighton, England, are widely considered disco-oriented, although their sound incorporates a range of dance music genres. In an interview with Mickey Weems, Wiltshire stated that the Freemasons music comes from “the collision between hi-NRG and disco,” and further that “House music’s natural habitat is in Gay clubs,” recognizing the genesis of electronic dance music began in Gay male dance culture.
Andy Reynolds on Disco
DJ Andy Reynolds, an authority in the dance music industry who works to preserve and promote disco music, describes the disco era and its artists:
I love disco. Unfortunately, for every disco hit mainstream America remembers, there were thousands, which were forgotten. Once you get beyond the Top 40 Disco Hits, there is a stunning array of dance records released between 1977 and 1983. What I love about the majority is the joy, optimism and hedonism in these masterpieces. Whether its more known records like “Got To Have Loving” by John Davis & The Monster Orchestra, “Let’s Start The Dance II” by Bohannon or “Walking On Music” by The Peter Jacques Band, or more obscure works like “Wishbone” by Tantra, “Palace Palace” by Who’s Who, or “Black Sun” by Black Sun — not forgetting my favorite, “Fear” by Easy Going – you have to appreciate the enthusiasm and energy that went into these incredibly elaborate productions, often presented in equally elaborate album covers. Works by producers like (in no particular order) Giorgio Moroder, Claudio Simonetti, Gino Soccio, Jacques Fred Petrus, Patrick Adams, Kurt Hauenstein, Celso Vali, Mauro Mallavasi, John Davis, Cerrone, certainly establish this music as far more than the bad joke that many musical illiterates feel disco to be. Finally, what I love about this music, particularly as I get older, is that it was music made by and for adults, not sixteen-year-olds.
“About ‘I Was Born This Way’.” Carl Bean I Was Born This Way. www.popularpublicity.com/i-was-born-this-way.html, accessed July 2010.
Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of t he Disc Jockey. New York: Grove, 2000.
Cheren, Mel. Keep On Dancin’: My Life and the Paradise Garage. New York: 24 Hours For Life, 2000.
Moulton, Tom. “Disco Action” column in Billboard, February 22, 1975.