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The Colours, Fancies and Ghosts of Disco

When was the last time you felt butterflies in your stomach? Was it an unbelievably unexpected romantic date, a journey during which you witnessed the first lights of the day atop a mountain, or the day you got the offer from that job, with the six-figure salary of your dreams? Others may be reminded of a night on which they walked through a door, into a muffled but ear-throbbing rhythm, at a club they’d been trying to get in, along with an excited and assorted crowd of people waiting in long queues out front. The last one is especially true for avid music fans who are captured, at the first moment, by the drums and the appealing rhythm of hi-hat, occasionally rising (and taking us higher with it) on dynamic female vocals, painted in both sorrow and joy and who feel embraced by a lover, trying to lead you by the hand for a dance. Sometimes a venue, a couple of notes, or all at the same time - it’s all a lifestyle but, eventually, it’s a celebration of life, coming together in one word: Disco!

Jakob Owens

Our story begins in the early ‘70s (but it could just as well begin in the first half of the 1900s on a Caribbean island, or at a gospel in the ‘50s). While the Harlem neighbourhood, which had shapeshifted into New York’s “gutter,” was being demolished for the sake of urban transformation, Joe Bataan (who used to lead a Puerto Ricon street gang back in his youth) reinterprets the jazz-inspired song The Bottle by Gil Scott-Heron, a Black poet and musician from Bronx, as La Botella. A little past New York, around summer resort venues, a young music producer named Tom Mooulton is busy cutting and pasting cassette tape bands, creating the first mixtapes and remixes. DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash are experimenting, for the first time, with recording by using two turntables in backstreet parties. Around the same years, the riot that began with the police raid on Stonewall Inn, a gay music club in New York becomes a milestone for gay rights and, involuntarily, causes a boom in underground disco and parties.

New York's legendary gay club, Stonewall Inn

Arguably, the most popular one among New York’s iconic parties is David Mancuso’s “The Loft” parties, hosted at his residence. During these parties, held back when disco music didn’t exist as we know it, the music ranged from records inspired by African tribal music to British psychedelic rock bands and young funk/jazz musicians such as Fred Wesley. Crowned as the party messiah, Mancuso continues, a long time, to host his “Love Saves the Day” parties, whose initials are rumoured to evoke a certain drug. It’s a vast synergy generated by the gay community, the Black community, and Hispanic-American young groups which could be regarded as the “outcast children” of the period in the early ‘70s. To this formula, add the disco edits that make grooving easier and new sound technologies such as mixers, subwoofers, and tweeters, and you have laid the foundations of the disco culture. These people who could not find themselves a room in the mainstream have brought their own colours and taste to this utopic place, unknowingly trailblazing a new sense of fashion.

A crowd of hopefuls waits outside the doors of Studio 54

The album Disco Inferno by The Trammps, one of the earlier stars of the disco generation, was released in 1976. The following two years became the turning point for the disco craze. The first is the opening of Studio 54, the utterance of which still stirs hearts. Despite its short lifespan of four years, Studio 54 still has an immense influence on nightlife and the music scene. The venue’s reputation stems first from the colourful personalities of disco regulars and then from the celebrities who follow them in. Frequented by all from Woody Allen to Grace Jone, Salvador Dali to Mikhail Baryshnikov, this club became the greatest temple of dance at that time, with a capacity to host nearly a thousand guests at the same time.


Another significant event for the disco culture came in 1977, with the release of the film Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta as a young Italian who works at a paint shop in New York. Mesmerising millions with its electric dance scenes, the film sparks the swift popularisation of disco not only in the U.S. but all across the world. This popularisation, naturally, started turning disco music into a toy of the culture industry. On one hand, the number of global pop-disco bands - like the Bee Gees and ABBA - increased day by day; on the other, project bands like the Village People, born in the hands of producers with strong commercial instincts, had started dominating the genre, becoming a thing for the masses at full speed. Disco had become a new object of consumption. At first, nobody was bothered by it because, to quote from the band CHIC, founded by Nile Rodgers, the king of groove, “everybody danced,” and it seemed like the good times would never end. However, the beginning of the end manifested itself as early as the ‘80s. In the July of 1979, a year during which the “Disco Sucks” movement pinnacled, especially among right-wing conservative Americans, nearly ten thousand disco records were burned at a baseball pitch! The following year, Studio ‘54 lost its permit and was closed down. The AIDS epidemic that started in the early ‘80s made nightlife the stuff of nightmares for the gay community, one of its essential actors, in the U.S. The disco movement, which came out of nowhere and caught a spark, died just as quickly, slowly fading into oblivion. Or people believe this to be true.

A dance scene from 'Saturday Night Fever'

Whereas, this genre which may have easily given birth to dance music, permeates all dance movements that follow it and starts holding on like a ghost. In the ‘80s, it’s shaped into “Italo-Disco” in the hands of Italians, the friendliest people in Europe, blended with synthesisers. On the other hand it starts to infiltrate pop music: “Gettin’ Jiggy With It,”one of the greatest hits of the ‘90s, is sampled from “He Is The Greatest Dancer” by Sister Sledge. Most of the house tracks that quickly gained popularity around clubs in the ‘90s are sprinkled with samples of all sizes, taken from the disco records of the ‘70s. Daft Punk’s legendary album from 2000, Discovery, is brimming with cut-and-pastes from the disco tracks of the ‘70s and ‘80s. During the following years, three Norwegian producers - Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas, and Rodd Terje - combined the past and the future in a genre called “Space Disco.” Today, this tradition is carried on by names such as Purple Disco Machine and Nu Genea. In short, the ghosts of disco still roam among us – according to the lyrics of Büyük Ev Ablukada, “gliding by silently, touching each one of us, walking through us.” So, let’s keep celebrating it.


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