Disco For Beginners - Part 1: 1976 and Before


To brighten up the dull days between Christmas and New Year, Jimmy Hunter hustles us onto the pulsating dance floors of the past to give us a short history of disco. Part one sees him going back to the start with 1976 and Before...

Where do we start? How do we search our way through the mists of time to find the roots of a genre that become to be known as Disco? When the lovely people at AlbieMedia asked if I would want write about the story of Disco a million ideas came into my head and I got terribly excited. I was being given a chance to rattle on and on about … well, dozens of things.

As I calmed down, I began to try and order my thoughts. The best approach, based on the SotD79 reviews would be to select a few years and highlight the music from those years and this is where I started. Music and cultural identity can be one and the same so I also wanted to highlight key cultural aspects of the genre: if you think of Mods and Rockers; Prog Rock; Heavy Metal; Kraut Rock; Punk you picture a very strong “look”, an identity with each of those genres.

So, what about disco? Was it just a cheap, flighty and poorly dressed version of glam rock only with more kitschy music? No, dear reader, it wasn’t. Like a great river it has many tributaries and many potential sources of an absolute start. Generally regarded as fact, the movement started in the north east of the US in the very early 1970s.

A couple of key pieces of music were Love Is The Message by MFSB and TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) which also had The Three Degrees as backing singers. The brains behind this outfit were Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. The band was part of the Philadelphia record label so although Gamble & Huff became famous for particular compositions and productions, this record is essentially the one that began to shine a spotlight on a new music movement.

What does MFSB stand for? Unofficially, Mother Fuckin’ Son Of A Bitch. This expression was actually used in admiration of someone’s musical talent. The official meaning is Mother Father Sister Brother because all the artists associated with the Philly Sound and the Philadelphia record label regarded themselves as a family.

These initial songs were not complex – they were basic 4/4 beat records (or more commonly known as four-on-the-floor) albeit more soulful, having heavy R&B and funk influences. However, they were still mainly 3-4-minute songs and very much divided into two categories – songs that never charted, were never commercially successful but remained incredibly popular in the underground clubs of the north east and New York.

Songs such as:

D.C. LaRue - Cathedrals
Roberta Kelly - Love Power
Donna Summer - Try Me, I Know We Can Make It (album version)
Cerrone - Love in C Minor
Silvetti - Spring Rain
Hamilton Bohannon – Disco Stomp

Together with those songs that proved to be very popular:

Van McCoy - The Hustle
Labelle - Lady Marmalade
5000 Volts - I'm On Fire (Tina Charles on vocals)
The Spinners - Rubberband Man
Maxine Nightingale - Right Back Where We Started From
Shirley and Company - Shame Shame Shame
Melba Moore - This Is It
Donna Summer - Love To Love You Baby (17 min version)

I could go on and on with this but, suffice to say, most of the songs listed were in my collection at the time and I’ve accumulated the rest.

There were some fairly mega-hits, for the time. Gloria Gaynor released the first album to have one side of tracks flow into each other to make one long continuous dance track comprising several songs. She also had a massive hit with the title track – Never Can Say Goodbye. Donna Summer achieved success in the coming years with this technique thanks to the talents of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

Even back then there was the, er, humorous element – Rick Dees & His Cast of Idiots with Disco Duck. Not to be outdone, porn star Andrea True Connection got in on the act with More More More! Even with today’s relaxed standards it’s hard to imagine watching a porn star heavy breathing to a disco song on a TV music programme.

It’s actually good to put these records into perspective because with the passage of time, they’re history and sometimes their meaning have become slightly blurred. Not all of these artists were aiming themselves squarely at the top 40 as they had creative achievements well beyond mere commercial success. This would include the likes of Patrick Cowley who would find success later in the decade with Sylvester. But in the mid ‘70s he was experimenting with electronics in the same way as Giorgio Moroder and Vangelis. This track, Memory Fails Me, is from the concept, pre-punk, pre-new wave 1976 album Catholic made in conjunction with Jorge Socarras.

There were already many strands of Disco-type music being made and making their way onto newly (re)defined dance floors. The records were being played by a band of people, mostly men, called disc jockeys and there was clearly a need for extended versions of popular records. So, the DJs started doing their own mixes. Record labels cottoned onto this very quickly so started to produce longer versions of tracks but the DJs kept producing their own versions where they though some improvements could be made to make the dance floor experience better.

And what of the audience? The buying (or not) public? Well people were beginning to go to more easily accessible venues to hear their favourite records and those records and venues were just about to explode …

[To get the party started, we've created a YouTube Playlist below of ALL 20 songs (yes even the 17 minute one) that Jimmy has mentioned in the article. So put on your dancing trousers and get down... - Ed]