I attended high school between 1977-81. It is a period when I was evolving my tastes in music. Prior to this time, I wasn’t really into music that much. In college, I was a voracious (and educated) consumer. But during those four years, I was figuring out what I liked.
This period is also the height of the mainstream popularity (and rapid decline) of disco music. My senior year of high school (1980-81) was a time when people proudly championed rock music (by which they meant Bruce Springsteen and REO Speedwagon) as real music, while disco was completely phony.
Of course, at the time, I had no historical perspective whatsoever. So, even though I bristled at the notion that disco as a broad genre – as opposed to specific bad disco songs or what disco had become by 1979 – was inferior to rock ‘n’ roll, I had no sense of what the evolution of popular music had been over the course of the Seventies.
Because I might have then known that African American musical expression – funk, soul, R&B – underwent a shift around 1972, and one of the things that came out of this was disco. I didn’t realize how the music industry inevitably took the Black experience and recoded it for White consumption, as exemplified by Paul Whiteman’s crowning as the “King of Jazz” or Pat Boone’s sanitization of R&B. I didn’t think about how disco was originally rooted in the African American, Latino and gay communities of New York City and how all that culture was stripped out as disco spread to the rest of the country.
I also didn’t think about how African American music tends to move forward through innovation, while admirers often look backward in appreciation. In the late Sixties, while a string of British bands (The Rolling Stones, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and Led Zeppelin) were paying tribute to their blues heroes, Jimi Hendrix was building on the blues in ways that looked to the future. (Other examples of such innovation might include Miles Davis and George Clinton.)
I wasn’t thinking in the Eighties how hip-hop and punk (both of which had started in the previous decade) were now poised to grow and take over by the early Nineties. And I certainly wasn’t aware that disco, snatched up and then tossed aside by White America, was still continuing to evolve, for example, 2200 miles away from Glendale High School in the Motor City.
Embedded below is a clip from the popular Detroit dance show called The Scene. As you’ll see, it was their local version of Soul Train. The video is from 1982 and features A Number of Names’ Techno record “Sharevari.” Similar developments were taking place in Chicago with House music.
I saw this video clip and it stopped me short. I imagined my 18-year-old self listening to the steady trashing of disco, but being able to see something like these Detroit kids and come to the realization that my peers were wrong. There was a better way than bands like Journey, Foreigner, Boston, Toto, Styx, and Loverboy. There was something better and stranger born from the ashes of the hated disco craze.
I wouldn’t have won any of those arguments, but it would have been interesting to have a sense of the broad sweep of history. Even as disco was being destroyed, it was also being reinvented. Dance music is as strong as ever and clearly rests on the foundation that disco established.
FOOTNOTE: Here’s what was terrible about disco: the crass commercialism. Nelson George’s book The Death of Rhythm and Blues (1989), which covers the development and eventual assimilation of black music from 1900-87, documents the corporatization of music in the Seventies (It happened to rock music as well). The soul was stripped out in the name of crossing over and blowing up. At the same time you had the Bee Gees and Barbra Streisand jumping on board, you had artists like Aretha Franklin forced to record disco albums.
Compare Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” and Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” to Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck,” Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.” We have to struggle with the scope of the disco phenomenon, reconciling a genre that includes Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around,” but also the Eagles’ “One of These Nights,” Electric Light Orchestra’s “Shine a Little Love” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (as well as Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting,” Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” and Meco’s “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band”).