Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Disco Inferno!

Saturday Night Fever Album Cover
Saturday Night Fever Album Cover

On January 21, 1978 – 41 years ago today – the soundtrack album for the movie Saturday Night Fever, which featured the Bee Gees (the Brothers Gibbs), went to #1 on the Billboard Album Chart.  It proceeded to stay at number one for an astonishing 24 weeks – nearly 6 months – and by doing so, it is tied for the fourth most weeks at number one.

Be still our hearts!

The epic success of this album is indicative of the extraordinary popularity of disco in the 1970s.

The Bee Gees in Gold Lamé
The Bee Gees in Gold Lamé and, perhaps, fake chest hair as well

An upfront confession: I have owned this album – first as a record and now as a CD – for upwards of 30 years.  I originally acquired it in order to have Walter Murphy’s wonderfully ludicrous disco version of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a number appropriately entitled A Fifth of Beethoven, which does for Beethoven’s Fifth what Florence Foster Jenkins did for the Queen of the Night’s aria “Hell’s revenge cooks in my heart!” by Mozart.  But I have kept my Saturday Night Fever album because of the classic Bee Gees songs on it: “Stayin’ Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “Night Fever”, “More Than A Woman”, “Jive Talkin’”, etc.  

HEY, YO: this is good stuff, iconic of its time.

Robert Greenberg's Disco Shirt
My disco shirt, purchased in 1975 (yes, I’ve kept it!)

I will also confess that in 1975 and 1976 I played in a disco band.  Look, I had to eat.  I wore a powder blue leisure suit with a patterned silk shirt (I kept it for old times sake, although now I couldn’t even fit a thigh into it); white belt and white shoes.  Looking back, we (the band) collectively looked like Pennywise the Clown.  Anyway, I would observe that most disco music was not as good as the Bee Gees stuff, and as I realized that too many repetitions of songs like “Kung Foo Fightin’” and “Philadelphia Freedom” were liable to cause sterility, I jumped musical ship and hung up my leisure suit for good.  

Historical Context

Disco is about the United States in the 1970s.  Generally but accurately speaking, it was a crappy decade, dominated by dashed hopes, disillusionment and outright cynicism. 

CIA agent helps evacuees onto an Air America on April 29, 1975
A CIA agent helps evacuees onto an Air America on April 29, 1975, a day before Saigon fell

The student movement and anti-Vietnam War movement that had so galvanized the young in the late 1960s had, by the early 1970s, seem to have failed.  Nixon was still vigorously pursuing the war: the United States was bombing Cambodia and the body counts were still pouring in.  The horrific waste that was the Viet Nam debacle reached its denouement with the sham “Paris Peace Accords” – a treaty officially titled the “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” – that was signed on January 27, 1973.  With the United States finally out of the way North Vietnam invaded the South and took Saigon on April 30, 1975.  At the same time, the Watergate Scandal – which broke on June 17, 1972 and ended on August 9, 1974 with Nixon’s resignation – convulsed the nation and proved that Richard Nixon was indeed a crook.  Across the span of the decade inflation reached double digits, unemployment rose to the highest level since the Great Depression, inner cities decayed (“the Bronx is burning”) and crime rates soared.  (Playing on the fear of urban crime, the actor Charles Bronson began his Death Wish movie franchise in 1974; that first movie was described this way:

“A New York City architect becomes a one-man vigilante squad after his wife is murdered by street punks in which he randomly goes out and kills would-be muggers on the mean streets after dark.”

Nice.)

Gas lines in Brooklyn New York, January 1974
Gas lines in Brooklyn New York, January 1974

Due to American support of Israel, the OPEC nations periodically embargoed oil across the 1970s, leading to blocks-long lines at the pump. (I clearly recall sitting in those lines and thinking what an awful waste of time it was.)

On July 4, 1979, President Jimmy Carter brought the decade to a fitting conclusion when he addressed the national mood in his so-called “malaise” speech (by the way, he never actually used the word “malaise” in the speech), during which he said:

Jimmy Carter delivering the “Malaise” speech, July 4, 1979
Jimmy Carter delivering the “Malaise” speech, July 4, 1979

“The threat [to the United States] is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

This, then, was the social, political, and emotional environment in which disco emerged.  

Disco

Disco was born in the late 1960s and early 1970s club scene in New York City.  Its “birth” is described by Peter Shapiro in his book Turn the Beat Around (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) as being:

“essentially a shotgun marriage between a newly out and proud gay sexuality and the first generation of post-civil rights African Americans, all to the serenade of the recently developed synthesizer.”

The word disco comes from the French word discothèque.  Discothèque” means a “library of phonograph records”.  The word came to be used to identify those dance clubs in Paris where “disc jockeys” played records.

Musically, disco is an amalgam of Latin music and salsa; of soul, funk, and Motown.  But what truly distinguishes disco is its beat, which is typified by something called “four-on-the-floor”.  This means that disco music is characterized by four beats per metric unit (four beats per measure) and that each of those beats is articulated by the drummer’s bass drum:

Thump-thump-thump-thump.

Far more often than not, those on-the-beat THUMPS alternate with off-the-beat cymbal strokes:

Thump-tsh-thump-tsh-thump-tsh-thump-tsh

creating the characteristic rhythmic “sound” of disco.

But disco was much more than just music; it became an entire lifestyle: a subculture in which personal appearance and style of dress were as important as the music itself.

Dancing the “Hustle”
Dancing the “Hustle”

Disco dancing is both group dancing and “couples” dancing, a style of dancing that hearkened back to swing. Dances like the “Bump” and the “Hustle” featured coordinated, ritualized movements among its participants, as contrasted with the independent, free-for-all nature of rock ‘n’ roll dancing.  Indeed, one of the primary things that made Disco so very popular was its rituals and tribalism, which created for its participants a sense of community: an escape and a safe haven in an otherwise seemingly hostile world.  

In the book Beautiful Things in Popular Culture (Alan McKee; John Wiley & Sons, 2008)the English sociomusicologist Simon Firth describes the tribal, communal element of disco this way: 

“The driving force of the New York underground dance scene in which disco was forged was not simply that city’s complex ethnic and sexual culture but also a 1960s notion of community, pleasure and generosity that can only be described as hippie. The best disco music contained within it a remarkably powerful sense of collective euphoria.”

The movie Saturday Night Fever was released in December of 1977.  The story is a rehash of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky but with dance shoes instead of boxing gloves: a young, going-nowhere Italian-American  (from the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn) named Tony Manero (played by John Travolta) uses his skill as a disco dancer to escape his dead-end life in Brooklyn.

The film and its soundtrack were smash hits from the first.  Roger Ebert opined that the over-the-top exuberance of its disco music and dancing provided:

“an escape from the general depression and drabness of the political atmosphere of the late seventies.”

Pauline Kael wrote that the movie evoked:

“something deeply romantic, the need to move, to dance, and the need to be who you’d like to be. Nirvana is the dance; when the music stops, you return to being ordinary.”

The journalist and critic Andrew Kopkind advanced an idea that turned out to be quite prescient when he wrote that Saturday Night Fever:

“made disco safe for white, straight, male, young, and middle-class America.”

Tony P (Eddie Izzard) and
Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) in Mystery Men

Disco was truly a 1970s phenomenon, and by 1980 the phrase “disco SUCKS” had become part of the popular lexicon.  The whole scene – with its extravagant clothing, rituals, and drug subculture – was rejected by Generation X, those youngsters born starting in the early to mid-1960s, who saw disco as hopelessly awful.  It has been correctly observed that disco was the last popular music style created and driven by the baby boomers, and we imagine there are some of us who still rue its demise.

One fictional character who does rue its demise is Tony P, the leader of a gang of dastardly no-gooders called the “Disco Boys” in the 1999 movie Mystery Men. As Eddie Izzard passionately exclaims in his role as Tony P:

“Disco is NOT dead, disco is LIFE!”

Postscript

Early on in this post, I mentioned that the Saturday Night Fever album is tied for fourth place on the all time number-one list.  For those who must know (like myself!), here are the other albums:

  • 54 weeks at #1: West Side Story movie sound track (1962-1963)
  • 37 weeks at #1: Michael Jackson, Thriller (1983-1984)
  • 31 weeks at #1, a three-way tie between: Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977-1978); South Pacific movie soundtrack (1958-1959); Calypso, Harry Belafonte (1956-1957)
  • 24 weeks at #1, a three-way tie between: Purple Rain, Prince (1984-1985); 21, Adele (2011-2012); Saturday Night Fever movie soundtrack (1978)

Hey, if you haven’t already, join me on the subscription platform Patreon, where I blog, review, and bloviate on a weekly basis at Patreon.com/RobertGreenbergMusic.

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