What Is Disco? Essay published on ABBAMAIL June 2005

Scott asked me (twice) what is disco? I think disco is like pornography. You can't define it, but you know it when you see it.

Disco started in late 1974, some say the first disco song was Labelle's "Lady Marmalade." Some say it was George McRae's "Rock Your Baby." Also, around that time, KC and the Sunshine Band were making their own kind of "Miami" music, with "Get Down Tonight". "The Hustle" was a huge disco hit in 1975, and Gloria Gaynor had her big hit, "Never Can Say Goodbye." That was almost disco. The Bee Gees had a big hit with "Nights on Broadway," but that wasn't disco yet either.

1976 was the year that disco broke mainstream. Look what's in the Top 100: "Disco Duck" (Rick Dees), "A Fifth of Beethoven" (Walter Murphy), "Love Hangover" (Diana Ross), "You Should Be Dancing" (Bee Gees), "Get Up and Boogie" (Silver Convention), "Love to Love You Baby" (Donna Summer), "Shake Your Booty" (KC & the Sunshine Band), "More More More" (Andrea True Connection) and so on. All these are disco songs.

In 1977, though, disco became a cultural phenomenon. With the soundtrack to the movie "Saturday Night Fever", the Bee Gees ruled the charts, white polyester suits became the fashion, and Studio 54 opened in New York. Even straight white men took disco dance classes with their wives (several with their eyes on the other husbands). Some of the top hits from 1977 (aside from several Bee Gees and related tracks) were: "Don't Leave me this Way" (Thelma Houston), "Car Wash" (Rose Royce), "Boogie Nights" (Heatwave), "I'm Your Boogie Man" (KC & the Sunshine Band), "Star Wars/Cantina Band" (Meco), and "I Feel Love" (Donna Summer). All of these are disco songs.

ABBA's "Dancing Queen" was the number 27 hit on the year end charts for 1977 (Billboard USA). Many people list "Dancing Queen" as a disco song. But just because it was played in discos, and you can dance to it, doesn't make it a disco song.

Disco songs by definition are very repetitive. Think "I Feel Love" or "More More More." There's not much to them. Which is the point. Disco was about the culture, about the beat, the rhythm (and the drugs). Disco was a lifestyle. "Dancing Queen" was a huge, rhythmic hit at the same time as disco, but it is not technically a disco song. "Dancing Queen" is a great pop song with a great beat. But it is too slow to be a real disco song.

ABBA did have several disco songs that were hits. "Voulez Vous" (and almost anything from that album) is a disco song. "As Good as New" is most definitely a disco song. "Lay All Your Love on Me" is most definitely a disco song. "Summer Night City" is a disco song. "Gimme Gimme Gimme" is a disco song. Listen for the "gratuitous disco violins" as I always say. There's a huge clue. Pounding beat. Between 120 and 125 beats per minute (generally - anything over 128-130 bpm is classified as "high energy" or "hiNRG"). "The Visitors" is *almost* a disco song, the Hot Tracks remix is even closer. But "The Visitors" has too much plot to be a true disco song.

"Super Trouper" and "The Winner Takes it All" are faded disco songs. By that time, disco was experiencing a horrible cultural backlash, and music had to morph away from the pure disco formula. Donna Summer released her classic "Bad Girls" album in 1979, and was the first major disco star to stretch the boundaries of the genre. That album is really a rock album with a disco bed. And it was a huge hit. Once Donna Summer abandoned the disco, they all left in droves.

Of course, as long as there are gay people, (and others who like to dance), there will always be some form of disco music. In the early 80's it was called "dance music" and then "high energy," and in the late 80's it became "house" and then "techno." But it is all grounded in "disco" music of the mid-70's.

Here's some standards from the era, by which you can judge:

Disco Songs:
"I Love the Nightlife" Alicia Bridges
"Turn the Beat Around" Vicki Sue Robinson
"Night Fever" Bee Gees
"Shake Your Groove Thing" Peaches and Herb
"Got to be Real" Cheryl Lynn
"Le Freak" Chic
"Last Dance" Donna Summer
"Born to be Alive" Patrick Hernandez
"Heart of Glass" Blondie
"Funkytown" Lipps Inc
"Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" Rod Stewart
"I Was Made for Loving You" KISS
"We Are Family" Sister Sledge
"Boogie Oogie Oogie" Taste of Honey
"Fly Robin Fly" Silver Convention
"Disco Inferno" The Trammps
"Shame" Evelyn Champagne King
"Knock on Wood" Amii Stewart
"Miss You" Rolling Stones
"Strong Enough" Cher

Not Disco Songs:
"Rhiannon" (Fleetwood Mac)
"Baby I Love Your Way" (Peter Frampton)
"Close to You" (the Carpenters)
"Devil Woman" (Cliff Richard)
"Evil Woman" (ELO)
"Rich Girl" (Hall & Oates)

"Beth" (KISS)
"Lonely Night (Angel Face) (Captain & Tennille)
"If you leave me now" (Chicago)
"More than a feeling" (Boston)
"I Write the Songs" (Barry Manilow)
"You and me against the world" (Helen Reddy)
"Sweet Home Alabama" (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
"You Light up my Life" (Debby Boone)
"Somebody to Love" (Queen)
"Still the Same" (Bob Seger)
"I Got You Babe" (Sonny & Cher)

Hope that helps.

PS I made this all up.

Rod Reynolds
Los Angeles, CA USA

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