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Smackdown: Disco

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Born in underground music clubs and raised on dancefloors, disco hit the mainstream in 1977 with the film Saturday Night Fever. Soon, it seemed that anything could be "disco": clothes, furniture, or even a Rolling Stones hit. But two years later, a cultural backlash booted disco from the pop charts and replaced it with the likes of The Knack's "My Sharona." Today: a debate on the legacy of disco with guests Eric Deggans, media and TV critic for the St. Petersburg Times, and Dave Thompson, author of I Hate New Music: A Classic Rock Manifesto.

Weigh in: Did disco really suck? What is its legacy?


Eric Deggans and Dave Thompson

Comments [21]

Todd Eads

I think that disco has a lasting legacy and that happens to be rap music. The first rap hit "Rappers Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang used a disco hit, in this case, "Good Times" by the disco band Chic. As for rock music, by the late '70s, it was very folkish sounding, and was dull and boring and people like Simon and Garfunkel and Elton John were being passed off as rock and roll, while disco was energetic. Also, during the 1980's, rock and roll became everything that rock fans critisized disco for. It was synthesized, repetetive, corporate and forgettable. Even hard rock acts such as Van Halen and, to a lesser extent, Guns N Roses featured synthesizers in their music.

But just listen to today's Top 40 contemporary hits radio stations and the influence of disco can be heard there.

Sep. 14 2009 03:37 PM
mozo from nyc

Did disco suck?

Yes, yes, it did suck.

Jul. 15 2009 03:06 PM
Fernando from Orlando, FL

Dude, get your disco facts straight. “Cherchez La Femme” was by Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, not Starlight Vocal Band, which recorded the horrible hit, "Afternoon Delight." Not sure Fania All-Stars did a cover of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” You might be thinking of the Casablanca Records' act, Santa Esmeralda, which had a huge Top 40 hit with their disco version.

Jul. 14 2009 08:19 PM
Ted in Atlanta from Design dept.

And, some will never get beyond the most easily accessible soundscape for their community; my friends at relatives' rural places never had exposure to anything but country, nor friends or culture that were exploring outside of the default, so they had no reason or opportunity to even get to Disco, much less anything else, so "anything but Country sux" to them; probably still does.

I feel very lucky to have been exposed to many of the great genres of music in the world thanks to being in the right place at the right time. It's funny how so many things can be divisive isn't it? Even (especially?) music. I feel the opposite, having world music available to me at a formative age, and the poetry of so many experiences filtering into my life was so educational - I owe a lot to the politics and attitudes of the music I listened to for hours as a student or working on visual projects, I bet many of us feel similarly. Just heard you play Knock on Wood, that was in fact one of my first 3 singles, along with Le Freak and something by Chicago.... loved the cool electronic tom, first time I had heard it! And I required Grooveline and Boogie Nights to be played at my wedding; so counter to my natural reaction, happily Disco still has a place in my heart.

Jul. 14 2009 03:26 PM
Ted in Atlanta from Design dept.

We used to have a saying at WEGL:
"People don't know what they like, but they like what they know."

My knee-jerk reaction was, sure Disco Sux! Growing up in outer exurbia, I first had AM (mainly Country here in the South) radio, and I liked some songs that were in heavy rotation. Then I had Pop radio, mainly Disco, and again I liked lots of the hit songs. Then eventually I migrated into the Rock stations which were mainly proto-hair bands, liked some, then some of my artsy smartsy friends introduced me to WRAS the fantastically diverse powerhouse of Atlanta college radio which barely eked through if I twiddled with the receiver on a good night... and the world was never the same thanks to blues and reggae and art rock and punk. At each step on the way up the music food chain I became dismissive of the prior genre which had just been so legitimate and important to me. Why is that? Like a phase of rejecting your parents to become more adult?

The point is of course Disco doesn't suck for a party. And Dylan (Glad we agree on that) doesn't suck for a repeated contemplation. The right tool for the right job, after all.

Jul. 14 2009 03:26 PM
Brenden Findlay from Brooklyn

As a gay white man back in the 70's I thought disco and arena rock and radio ALL SUCKED.
Until PUNK ROCK came along the airwayves and life styles we where being fed was nothing more than marketed commercialism designed for naive masses.
Punk rock started as a non commercial,non conformist
DIY attitude that spread like wild fire via a grass roots movement across the world.
To this day I am thankful to disco as it made me listen to music that was the exact opposite.

Jul. 14 2009 02:56 PM
Sandra from Astoria, Queens

I love rock but I'm not a rockist, and I think I HATE Dave Thompson--he seems so smug and elitist. And intellectually dishonest for dismissing Eric Deggans' point about disco's "lack" of authenticity and seriousness--those are rock standards, so of course judging a non-rock artform by those standards will fail. Kinda like judging a cubist painting by the standards of renaissance art.

Again, I gotta refer to Kalefa Sanneh's pretty great article about rockism:

Jul. 14 2009 02:53 PM
Dark Symbolist from NYC

Oh come on-

They guy who is against Dsco seems to miss the point-entirely

First of all...his insistence that it was "all about money"...yeah it was, but let's be honest so was mainstream rock of the time...let's not forget that Punk, particularly British Punk was initially a reaction against the ROCK mainstream because it was all about making money...

Second...the question is the influence of Disco. It may not have been a movement like Punk in so far as setting forth to effect a change in music...but CLEARLY Disco has cast a very very long shadow, for good or for bad...anyone who doesn't see that...must be deaf

Third...he seems to be confusing whether Disco was revolutionary/influential with his PERSONAL feelings for the music

Jul. 14 2009 02:35 PM
richard Kahn from Wash hgts

I came in late to the conversation but how about to seeing disco as a return the association that early rock music had to partner dancing. As a late comer to couple dancing, I've come to see this important aspect of popular music that places technical, genred demands on performance.The association persists in country and zydeco. Also, disco came along as art rock became dominant and dancing, coordinated couple dancing anyway, had passed from the rock scene.

Jul. 14 2009 02:35 PM
Eric from Jersey City

I'll never forgive your uptight Brit guest for calling "MacArthur Park" "evil." It's a beautiful, moving song, especially in the Summer version, even if the lyrics are gibberish.

A lot of those disco classics hold up pretty well all these years later.

Jul. 14 2009 02:34 PM
Rachelle Arkin from United States

Disco was fun, dance music and that is it. The sounds that you are playing are making my foot tap. Is it important music? No, but is it fun? YES, YES, YES. What is the harm?

Jul. 14 2009 02:32 PM
carey from from Jersey

What about people that had no problem with race or sexual preference, and just flat out hated disco?

Jul. 14 2009 02:32 PM
Frank Grimaldi from East Village.

Meaningful Lyrics - There But for the Grace of God, Che Che La Famme.

Some arrangements of standards were cool - That Old Black Magic disco version was brilliant!!

Jul. 14 2009 02:31 PM
mike from chatham, nj

RE: Disco -- Can we kill it again?

Jul. 14 2009 02:27 PM
s from manhattan

i love all those songs you played good times and my sharona and rapper's delight.

i am latin and grew up in bk in the 70s and
off the wall taught me english and my sharona had a beat and i could dance to it.

don't see the need to burn or censor any of it. i do think there was racial subtext for the hate of disco, perhaps not for that one guy but maybe in some way, his job jeopardized by something not his culture. i'm sure there was subtext for some people in the crowd in komiskey, dealing with the idea that they don't dominate anymore.

Jul. 14 2009 02:27 PM
Ben Perowsky from Brooklyn, N.Y.

lived through the disco craze in nyc, did "the hustle' , "the busstop" then lived through the disco sux era too which was basically rockers saying "enough already". looking back on it all, it's just music. theres good and bad in all genres. pitting genres against one another is absurd. kicked the beats for the disco hit by "hercules and love affair" last summer, playing a tribute to sly stone with a nine piece jazz ensemble thurs. music is music. enjoy it!

Jul. 14 2009 02:26 PM
Frank Grimaldi from East Village.

If disco was purely white - you better not tell the thousands of African-American men who attended the Garage on King Street.

Jul. 14 2009 02:23 PM
s from manhattan

i love all those songs you just played, good times and my sharona and rapper's delight

i am latin and grew up in bk in the 70s and off the wall taught me english and my sharona had a beat and i could dance to it and i wouldn't discard any of that.

don't see the need to burn and censor ever and i do think there was plenty racial subtext to the hate of disco, perhaps not for that one guy but maybe somewhere and certainly for someone in that crowd.

Jul. 14 2009 02:22 PM
Frank Grimaldi from East Village.

I was rock kid until my late teens. Disco was great when it was more underground. Saturday night was the peak of disco but not the beginning. The first time I heard of disco is associated in 1975 with Eddie Kendrick and the Tramps.

As I recall 70's - disco hatred manifested as gay phobia and racisim (I say this as a gay man). However, what I think rock bands were pissed becuase clubs were turning to DJs instead of bands.

Jul. 14 2009 02:12 PM
darrin from staten island

lest we forget the first crossover rap record 1979s "Rappers Delight", used Chics "Good times" as its we must ask ourselves the following, where would rap music be, if it werent for disco?

Jul. 14 2009 01:11 PM
darrin from staten island

music idioms never die they morph into something else, the word "disco" died, and became "dance" at or around 1982, the music morphed into, house, freestyle, techno, etc.. artists like madonna, Mike Jackson, Janet Jackson, Petshop boys, and many others probably wouldnt exist if it werent for disco...the music had a bigger impact than what its given credit for

Jul. 14 2009 12:48 PM

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