The 1970s was a decade of change. A global recession, oil crisis and finally, the first outbreak of pandemic influenza in almost 200 years. The disco soon became a symbol of excess, but music lovers simply could not get enough of it for the next couple of years. With over 100 million people dancing at disco clubs around the world every week, disco fever spread like wildfire from New York to Hollywood and from Paris to Melbourne. Disco music peaked in popularity in 1979 with the release of more than 100 singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s why disco became so huge in the 70s.
A Brief History of Disco
Disco has a long and complex history, dating back to the late 1940s. The word disco itself is short for discothèque, a type of nightclub where people would dance to music played on vinyl records. The first discothèque was founded in New York City in 1940, but the term didn't catch on until the 1960s, when DJs in the UK started playing records by the turntable instead of by live bands. The first "disco" record appeared in 1951, when musician Billy Merman recorded "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White," which was inspired by a visit to the Sunset Strip. The lyrics mention "dancing under the diamond lights" of a club. In the early 70s, DJs like Tom Moulton, Francis Grasso, and Herbie Flowers played soul music, jazz, Latin, and Caribbean records in New York clubs, and the term "disco" was used to describe the type of music these DJs played.
The Roots of Disco Music
The roots of disco lay in the rhythms and beats of African-American music, specifically funk and jazz. It also drew on Latin music and Caribbean rhythms like reggae and calypso. Jamaican musicians and DJs, in particular, played a vital role in the development of disco. At the same time, disco was shaped by the use of synthesizers, electronic instruments that could be programmed to play a wide array of sounds. Many musicians who later became associated with disco also made music in other styles, including jazz, rock, and pop. Many of these musicians have been criticized for selling out to the commercial side of disco during the 1970s, when it grew into a huge mainstream phenomenon. Others, though, have been credited with helping to create a new and vibrant musical form.
How Electronic Instruments Shaped Disco Music
During the 1970s, electronic instruments were increasingly used in popular music, particularly in disco. The most important trend in disco technology was the rise of the synthesizer, which used electrical circuits to generate sounds. These new instruments allowed musicians to create a wide variety of sounds that could not be made with acoustic instruments. The first commercial synthesizers were developed in the mid-1960s, but they did not become widely used until the late 1970s. The synthesizer's ability to produce a wide range of sounds was a major reason that the disco sound became so diverse. In the hands of a talented musician, a synthesizer could produce a wide range of effects, from the pulsing sound of an electric guitar to the squealing sound of a violin.
70s Disc Jockeys Made The Sounds Even Bigger
In the 1970s, disc jockeys (DJs) mixed different pieces of music together to create new compositions. This was an old musical practice called "musique concrète," and had been used by modernist composers since the 1950s. The DJs would splice together short loops of music to form longer tracks, and the mixing equipment became easier to use and more affordable. DJs would loop the instrumental breaks (sections of the music that were not sung by the vocalist) of songs, and write new lyrics, then lay these sounds over the top of the other tracks. The DJs, along with the changing use of synthesizers and the availability of more affordable equipment, helped to make the disco sound even bigger and bolder than it had been in the past.
Ultra-Bright Scoring and Outrageous Lighting Turned Dance Floors Into Coachella
By the mid-1970s, many songs were written with a very simple, almost childlike melody and a steady rhythm. Many of these songs were produced by the Philadelphia Sound, a style of soul music that relied heavily on synthesizers and strong rhythms. The ultra-bright scoring of dance sequences, often in full color and accompanied by over-the-top lighting effects, created a surreal and psychedelic visual experience that was almost like a drug trip. The music was as creative and outlandish as the visuals, with pulsing rhythms and multi-layered arrangements.
The Disco Bands
The disco bands, which played in discothèques in the 1970s, were different from the bands that had played in such venues during the 1950s and 1960s. The music of the disco bands was often based on soul, jazz, Latin, or reggae rhythms, although some disco musicians drew on rock or pop as well. Many of the musicians who played in the disco bands in the 1970s had also made music in other styles. Many bands that played disco have been criticized for selling out to the commercial side of disco during the 1970s, when it grew into a huge mainstream phenomenon. Others have been credited with helping to create a new and vibrant musical form.