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Disco is one of those love-it-or-hate-it types of music. A main criticism of disco from its detractors is that it's mechanical, overproduced, and lyrically shallow. To that, its fans say: well, sure – this music was made to dance to, not to dissect in a poetry class.
And dance they did. Disco reached the height of its popularity in the late 1970s, when people were enjoying its energizing beats in dance clubs all over the country. Despite disco's bad rap with detractors, it's also actually rooted in some entirely respectable forms of music, such as funk and salsa; like rock and roll, it owes a large debt to the innovations of African American musicians. People haven't quite agreed on when disco first appeared, but Manu Dibango's 1972 "Soul Makossa" and George McCrae's 1974 "Rock Your Baby" are frequently named as among the first disco songs. By 1975, disco was a powerful force in contemporary music. K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Barry White, Gloria Gaynor, Geoff Love, and El Coco were all cranking out hits, along with a whole lot of other artists. By the end of 1977, disco was even bigger. Its temple had been consecrated at Studio 54, a club in Manhattan; it had adopted an official dance, the Hustle; and it had crowned its queen, Donna Summer. Then the Bee Gees took it to the next level.
The band was made up of brothers Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb. They were born on the Isle of Man, which is located in the British Isles between Britain and Ireland. In 1958, when the brothers were aged 9 to 12, their family moved to Australia, and remained there until 1967. Barry, Maurice, and Robin took to making music together during their time Down Under, taking their inspiration from British pop groups. The Brothers Gibb named their band the B.G.'s (get it?), built up a following in the Queensland resort area, and even had a minor hit.
When the Gibbs got back to England, the Bee Gees were immediately successful, with some people likening their sound to the Beatles. Between 1967 and 1968, the Bee Gees released seven songs that reached the American top 20: "New York Mining Disaster 1941," "To Love Somebody," "Holiday," "Massachusetts," "Words," "I've Got a Message to You," and "I Started a Joke." Their first albums also performed well on the U.S. charts, with Bee Gees 1st peaking at #7.
During the early 1970s, the Bee Gees' hits didn't come as frequently, but, when they did, they were just as big. The band's 1971 single, "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," was their first American #1 hit. After 1972, though, their success began to wane. Their silky harmonies and soft rock sound no longer struck a popular chord. It was time to reconsider. It was time to go disco.
The Bee Gees returned to the top of the charts in 1975 with "Jive Talkin'," and followed it up with several more disco singles. And then their defining moment came: they were invited to produce the soundtrack for a film called Saturday Night Fever, which would star John Travolta. The soundtrack eventually sold more than 40 million copies, and took disco into the living rooms of people who didn't know the difference between the Hustle and the Electric Slide. The popularity of the soundtrack turned an urban sub-culture into a national phenomenon.
The first song from the soundtrack to chart as a single was "Stayin' Alive." Released in December 1977, it reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 by the first week of February 1978, and stayed there until March. It drew upon a polished Bee Gees formula, so polished that the band claimed to have written it in only two hours: it mixed a standardized disco drum track and Barry Gibbs's falsetto voice, which he had discovered when the band re-invented itself. The song also drew a lot of its power from Saturday Night Fever, which filled fans' head with visions of butterfly collars and gold chains every time they heard the song's "ah, ah, ah, ahs." "Stayin' Alive" was the music that played when John Travolta's character, Tony Manero, strutted his stuff walking down the streets of Brooklyn.
"Stayin' Alive" initiated a six-month Gibb monopoly over the Billboard Hot 100. "Night Fever," another track from the movie, spent eight weeks at #1, and kid brother Andy Gibb reached the top spot with singles of his own. By August, the Gibb brothers had held the number one spot for all but eight weeks since January.
It was an incredible run. The Brothers Gibb were the hottest commodity in music in 1978, and their music carried disco into every nook and cranny of American life. Disco dance clinics were offered everywhere from the YMCA to the Senior Center. Rolling Stone even printed an illustrated how-to guide for both the New York and LA Hustles.
Now we know how the Bee Gees became famous, but who was actually listening to their music, and the music of other disco artists?
Good question, because it wasn't people who had traditionally had a lot of sway over the charts. According to some disco scholars (yes, there really are disco scholars), the genre was an implicitly political reaction to the white male culture of rock and roll. Disco was embraced by a wide range of people, including African Americans, Latinos, women, and gays. Some people extend this argument even further, suggesting that disco was more democratic than other contemporary genres. The disco-dancing public told DJs what to spin, so power over music was transferred from record companies and distributors to the consumers. And, disco-defenders continue, disco was more color-blind than other popular music of the time. The Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor, Frankie Valli, and the Ohio Players aired side by side in the dance hall. On at least one occasion, moreover, disco dancers fought for their rights. In 1978, 700 people risked arrest when they turned out for the opening of the Crystal Images Disco despite Henryetta, Oklahoma's ordinance against public dances.
But when we say that a lot of people also hated disco, we really mean it. By mid-1979, the ranks of the anti-disco movement had swelled, and the Chicago White Sox decided to cash in on some of the anti-disco sentiment floating around by hosting a Disco Demolition Night. They lured fans to attend a July 12 double-header by promising cheap admission for anyone who came equipped with a disco record that could be burned in a spectacular bonfire between the games. Unfortunately, just a few too people thought that sounded like a great idea. A staggering 90,000 people showed up to attend a game in a 50,000-seat park, and not all of them could be admitted. After the ceremonial burning of disco records, the fans who had been denied admission stormed the gates and the fans already inside stormed the field. Unburned records were flung through the air like Frisbees, turf was torn up, and bases were stolen (literally). The second game of the double-header was cancelled, and fans were herded out of the stadium by riot police. Needless to say, it wasn't great publicity for the White Sox, or for disco.
Of course, by that point, disco did not really need to be beaten down – it was already on its way out. The Bee Gees and Donna Summer dominated the charts until late 1979, but in 1980, a very different cast of musicians reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100: Pink Floyd, Queen, Blondie, Wings, and Billy Joel combined to hold the top spot for almost half of the year.
A lot has been written about the demise of disco. Racism, homophobia, and misogyny have all been cited as contributing factors, but the cause of death may have been a lot simpler. The music was, well, not very good, at least not in terms of making it for the long haul. It seems that only so many songs with the same drum track can top the charts before even fans want to change things up. The fashion accessories to the genre (polyester and platforms, spandex, gold lame, etc.) didn't stand the test of time, either. But although disco has disappeared from the charts (well, mostly), it remains a pretty big part of America musical consciousness, and that doesn't seem like it will change any time soon.