Disco’s 1970s Heyday Opened Doors For Black, Hispanic And Gay People—The Influence Lives On
[quote float="left"]The following is an article written by Adam Mattera for the Guardian UK[/quote] “How Disco Changed Music For Ever”
If you weren’t able to make it to the swanky One Night Only reopening of New York’s legendary uptown disco mecca Studio 54 last October, don’t fret about it. Not that Naomi Campbell, Cameron Diaz and Donald “Disco” Trump wouldn’t have enjoyed your company, I’m sure, but there are far less elitist, and far more accessible, ways of partying like it’s 1979 virtually on your doorstep.
This summer NYC Downlow – the world’s largest and the most outrageous, mobile homo-disco – will take up temporary home in an east London park as part of this year’s annual Lovebox festival before packing up its glitterballs, wigs and turntables and making its way to spread joy and abandon to another unsuspecting part of the country. Reconstructing a dilapidated New York tenement block, replete with leather daddies, disco freaks and acid-tongued trannies at the door – and all soundtracked by the most delicious disco cherries picked by the Horse Meat Disco boys – it’s probably the easiest way to sense what it was actually like to attend one of the Lower East Side’s hedonist hangouts of the nascent disco era.
It’s also the perfect antidote to the kind of Woolworths disco that’s sadly been embedded into much of our nation’s consciousness. You know what I mean – all John Travolta flares, hen parties off to Mamma Mia! and grown men dressing as schoolboys for wacky school disco nights. Now that is not what I call disco. In its proud and glorious mid-70s Manhattan heyday, disco was far more than that. It was a four-on-the-four bassline, euphoric strings, fierce cowbells and a soaring vocal straight out of the church and on to the dancefloor. More importantly it created a place – or rather it soundtracked a space – outside the mainstream. A place where black, Hispanic, gay and any combination thereof could come together and dance, love and just be without fear.
Early clubs such as David Mancuso’s Loft and Nicky Siano’s Gallery, now whispered about in reverential tones by true discophiles, were always so much more than the sum of their parts. Springing up in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots (you could argue that the birth of disco pivoted around the repeal of the New York bylaw criminalizing two or more men dancing together), although these clubs’ raison d’être was getting high, getting funky and getting loose, it’s clear in retrospect they played as crucial a part as any gay lib rally or protest group. Proto-disco anthems such as MFSB’s “Love is the Message” said it all. Detractors might have viewed its simplistic lyrics about love and togetherness as trite, but in truth they were acutely to the point – feel the love and let the music set you free. This wasn’t a place where difference was just tolerated, it was actively celebrated. And for the first time.
Of course with music this warmly embracing and downright irresistible it’s no surprise it didn’t take long for the mainstream to want in. Once disco’s doors were blown wide open, it soon became the broadest of all possible churches. Everyone wanted to join the party. German synth-meister Giorgio Moroder’s seminal recordings with Donna Summer rode on the back of the increasing sexual permissiveness of the decade. Their breakthrough hit “Love to Love You Baby” – 16 minutes-plus of a-moaning and groaning to a lushly pulsating backbeat that for the first time in pop history made sex sound, well, sexy – foregrounded disco’s facility to put female sexual desire square centre of its open-house policy.
Disco’s globe-conquering presence by the late 70s even meant the world’s first openly, make that brazenly and fabulously, gay pop star –the late great Sylvester – could graduate out of San Francisco’s drag ghettos and chart a private jet to the most exclusive stages of the world. Mighty real, indeed. The message of love had spread out of New York’s underground clubs and everyone from Abigail in Romford with a glass of Blue Nun in one hand and a Donna Summer 12-inch in the other to a little gay boy growing up in Devon dancing to Diana Ross was bathing in the refracted glitterball glow. Even as the songs sold in their millions, the original core message was always there: disco’s pansexual spiritual call to arms of unity (“We Are Family”), empowerment (“I Will Survive”) and sheer sexual liberation (“I Feel Love”).
Inevitably as disco went to the masses, it felt it had to behave a little more respectably – or record moguls felt it did. Take the Village People. When they sang about going in the bushes on their 1977 hit “Fire Island”, they weren’t suggesting a spot of late-night gardening. Just over a year later, grannies and children around the world were merrily contorting their limbs to “YMCA” while a heavily mustachioed biker man, a cop, half-naked Native American and cowboy, among others, were singing about hanging out with all the boys and no one batted an eyelid. In retrospect there was a delicious Trojan horse element to it all, and even if the masses weren’t completely clued-up – remember this was a time when people reckoned Freddie Mercury was heterosexual – it was pretty clear something a little queer was going on.
On one hand the Village People’s cartoonish image sat seamlessly alongside other late disco mass-market mutations such as Disco Duck and Dolly Parton’s “Baby I’m Burnin'”. (Not that I’m dissing disco Dolly – and it’s worth adding at this point that Larry Levan’s 12″ Disco mix of “C Is for Cookie” by the Cookie Monster from 1978’s Sesame Street Feveris a bona fide work of genius.) On the other, all this prancing about to throbbing beats, black people on the radio and women demanding sexual satisfaction was getting as much up some people’s noses as cocaine on the Studio 54 dance floor. Namely America’s white male rock faithful who sat fuming on the sidelines as Led Zep and Black Sabbath were elbowed off the radio by the likes of Chic and the Bee Gees. The Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago in the summer of 1979 clearly had more to it than a gnawing distaste for KC & The Sunshine Band. The mass detonation of piles of vinyl on a baseball pitch may have been couched in anti-disco sentiment, but its infamous “Disco Sucks!” slogan betrayed its not so subtle homophobic subtext. They called it the night that disco died but it wasn’t. What it clearly did do was underline just how subversive disco’s call for racial and sexual liberation truly was. What it didn’t do was kill disco.
As anyone who’s cocked half an ear to club music over the past three decades will tell you, disco didn’t die – it simply changed its haircut, made a few new friends, occasionally popped the odd funny pill. House, techno, hip-hop – take your pick – all the colourful strains of our ever-evolving club culture have direct precedents in disco’s swirling evocation to the dancefloor. Be it cool-for-school hipsters such as Azari & III and Hercules & Love Affair or stadium-filling juggernauts such as David Guetta and Lady Gaga riding on her disco-stick, the beat is still alive. Gay culture’s influence on the mainstream is no longer a whispered little secret known only to the select few, and if you hadn’t noticed, the US president is black. Ain’t no stopping us now.
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