Guide to Disco

If there’s one outstanding trend that came out from the 1970s, it’s definitely disco. The term “disco” goes beyond the style of music that dominated all the dance floors during the decade. As the genre exploded to mainstream popularity, it launched an extravagant fashion trend and a momentary escapist fare from either a routine lifestyle or the current political turmoil pervading at the time.

But like many other “flash-in-the-pan” music genres, disco was criticized, disparaged, and derided. It soon faded into oblivion as newer genres caught the attention and imagination of oft-finicky music fans. But like many other music genres, disco has been experiencing revivals left and right. Disco has left a considerable legacy, having launched a popular fashion trend, ignited the nightclub scene, and become a key influence to subsequent music genres that are still played today.

Definition and etymology

Disco is a beat-driven style of popular music that emerged in the 1970s. The term also refers to a popular subculture and fashion trend that sprang from this musical genre. 

“Disco” is a shortened form of the word discothèque, a nightclub or party where people dance to live or recorded music. It is a French word that means a “library of phonograph records” and is derived from the word bibliothèque (a library).

A little history about disco – the club itself

It’s not surprising that the first discothèques first sprang in Paris. But what’s unexpected is that the Nazis actually had a hand in the early development of the disco club. 

The term “discothèque” was first used to refer to Parisian nightclubs and dance halls that played recorded music during the early 1940s when France was under Nazi occupation. Since the Nazis banned live music, records were played instead.

Some clubs used the term “discothèque” as a proper name. Several English-language magazines eventually began using the term to describe any nightclub in Paris.

A short history of disco music

Disco – as a music style and genre – received its initial exposure in disc jockey (deejay or DJ)-based underground clubs that catered to black, gay, Hispanic, Italian-American, and Latino dancers. Philadelphia and New York City served as fertile grounds for this emerging dance music genre during the late 1960s to early 1970s.

Some new music genres were created to counter the dominance and popularity of other music genres, usually as a form of criticism. In this case, disco emerged probably as a reaction to the dominant rock music and the stigmatization of dance music at the time.

Deejays were the major creative force behind the development of disco, helping to establish hit songs and focusing on “singles” – that is, 12-inch, 45-rpm extended play singles, or EPs. A new subindustry of EPs evolved to meet the specific needs of nightclub deejays at the time. 

The first bona fide disco hit was “Never Can Say Goodbye,” a single by Gloria Gaynor released in 1974. It was also one of the first records mixed specifically for club DJ play.

While the majority of disco’s performers were African-American, the genre’s eventual popularity transcended race and ethnicity. Many disco acts composed of interracial members (such as KC and the Sunshine Band and Average White Band) while others consisted of genre-blending ensembles (such as the Salsoul Orchestra).

Disco derived several influences to blend its own unique sound. As the genre evolved, its range of influence included Motown, funk, Philadelphia R&B, and even as exotic as Latin American salsa. The beat-oriented music and lyrics promoted party culture. 

Disco typically has a lush production, brimming with syncopated beats, horns and string sections, electric piano and synths, various percussions, and electric guitars. 

The disco scene reached its peak in the US by the mid-to-late 1970s, creating a thriving disco club scene. The famous celebrities would hang out and “do the hustle” at the legendary Studio 54. From there, the disco subculture began to flourish. There was the groove-oriented music, choreographed dancing, young and beautiful nightclub-goers, the bold and extravagant disco fashion, big hair, rampant drug use, and sexual liberation.

The day the disco died

It seems that every music genre has experienced some kind of a counter-reaction or backlash. While some genres slowly faded away and died a natural death, others were dealt with a deadly blow. And disco experienced the latter.

It began with disgruntled rock musicians and fans who started to censure disco as mindless, consumerist, decadent, overexposed, and escapist. Anti-disco sentiment reached its violent climax with the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” on July 12, 1979. The incident is widely credited (or blamed, depending on your perception) with dealing disco its death.

The anti-disco demonstration was staged in a baseball double-header at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. As the second game was about to start, the rowdy mob stormed onto the baseball field and proceeded by tearing out seats, pulling out pieces of turf, and setting fires. 

The violent incident led to at least nine injuries, 39 arrests, extensive damage to property, and the cancellation of a Major League baseball game.

Rock disc jockey Steve Dahl, one of those who were behind the anti-disco riots, recalled in a 2004 interview that disco was probably on the way out at the time. But he also thought that the Disco Demolition Night “hastened its demise.”

Euro disco

An offshoot of disco, Euro disco, came into being when the dance-floor craze evolved into a more upscale trend. Melding funk, soul, pop, and rock elements, Euro disco enjoyed a rising popularity in the late 1970s. Even as disco was declining (and coming under fire) in America from the late 1970s, it remained popular in Europe throughout the 1980s. In fact, it became a foundation for subsequent genres like electronic dance music (EDM), house music, dance-punk, post-disco, Europop, Eurodance, and even new wave.

Resurgence of interest and popularity

Like many other music genres, disco has enjoyed quite a resurgence of popularity in recent years. It has even reclaimed some of its mainstream popularity in the 21st century. From the looks of it, disco may not match its legendary status in the 1970s. But it will definitely be here to stay as long as there are disco fans who passionately follow this genre and the fashion, lifestyle, and culture emanating from it.

For a more detailed history of disco, from its evolution to its decline as well as its revival and legacy, check out the History of Disco.

woman wearing gray glitter long sleeve dress beside a mirror ball

What does “disco fashion” consist of?

Disco fashion is notable because it is really meant for the dance floor. At the time, there were bell bottoms, platform shoes, polyester, hot pants, jumpsuits, halter dresses, suits with loud and colorful patterns, glitter, sequins, and gold lamé. Disco fashion is extravagant, flamboyant, gaudy, and sexy, and at times glamorous, striking, with simple and clean lines, flowing, and comfortable enough to bust a move.

Fashion in the 1970s reached new levels of emotional and creative expression and, sometimes, ostentation, among men and women. When disco became the rage, discotheques and nightclubs became places where people could be as glamorous and outrageous as they wanted – the sky was the limit. Professional dancers, egged on by promoters, would wear bold and flashy costumes on the stage.

But for most nightclub attendees, disco attire was more about embracing the glamour and individuality. They didn’t have to show up in outrageous outfits. Instead, they would often dress in an attire that was comfortable to dance in and striking enough to attract a potential dance partner.

Top disco artists

Discover the profiles of some of the most iconic disco artists (and non-disco artists who had popular disco hits):

Disco one-hit wonders

Believe it or not, a majority of the bona fide disco hits come from (undeservedly) forgettable one-hit wonders. Despite such reputation, some artists enjoyed a disco hit or two – usually, the first big hit single followed by a few minor chart placers. However, most of them immediately fell under the radar after enjoying one big chart smash. Indeed, the songs eclipsed the original artists who performed them.

Music genres that influenced disco

  • Funk 
  • Latin American music genres, such as salsa 
  • Motown
  • Soul (specifically, Philadelphia soul and psychedelic soul)

Music genres derived from disco

Best disco songs of all time

1) Bee Gees – “Stayin’ Alive” (1977) [Listen]

Written and performed by the Bee Gees, it was the second single from the Saturday Night Fever Motion movie soundtrack. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978 and became one of the trio’s most recognizable songs. However, it somewhat pigeonholed the Bee Gees as a disco act, although they were first recognized as a pop act during the 1960s and had led a long and varied career.

2) Donna Summer – “Last Dance” (1978) [Listen]

Released as a single from Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack album, it went to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Billboard dance club in 1978. It is one of the late disco diva’s most iconic songs.

3) Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive” (1978) [Listen]

A single from Gloria Gaynor’s sixth album Love Tracks, “I Will Survive” only reached number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 but its popularity endured beyond its original chart performance. It has been covered several times, notably by the alternative rock band Cake and even by Donna Summer herself. It has been long regarded as a feminist and gay anthem.

4) ABBA – “Dancing Queen” (1976) [Listen]

A single from ABBA’s fourth studio album Arrival, “Dancing Queen” topped the charts in many countries, including the US (Billboard Hot 100), Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, the USSR, Norway, and their home country, Sweden. It is one of the greatest disco and pop songs ever.

5) Earth, Wind & Fire – “Boogie Wonderland” (1979) [Listen]

“Boogie Wonderland” is a single by Earth, Wind & Fire with the R&B/soul vocal group The Emotions. Released as a single from Earth, Wind & Fire’s ninth album I Am, it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard pop chart, No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Soul singles chart, and No. 14 on the Billboard dance chart. One of the songs that you should definitely include to your party playlist!

6) Van McCoy & the Soul City Symphony – “The Hustle” (1975) [Listen]

This single from Van McCoy & the Soul City Symphony topped the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard Hot Soul Singles charts in 1975. “The Hustle” was one of the earliest known disco singles that hit mainstream success.

7) Donna Summer – “Hot Stuff” (1979) [Listen]

A single from Donna Summer’s seventh studio album Bad Girls. This rock-flavored disco single (with guitar solos courtesy of ex-Steely Dan and Dobbie Brothers guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter) went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and dance club songs charts in 1979.

8) The Trammps – “Disco Inferno” (1978) [Listen]

“Disco Inferno” is a single from the Trammps’ fourth studio album of the same name. Initially, it attained little mainstream success when it was first released in 1977. But after it was included in the Saturday Night Fever movie soundtrack, it peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard pop chart.

9) Donna Summer — “I Feel Love” (1977) [Listen]

Another entry from the Queen of Disco, “I Feel Love” was a single from Summer’s fifth studio album I Remember Yesterday. It became a worldwide hit, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the singles charts in Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the UK.

10) Chic – “Le Freak” (1978) [Listen]

“Le Freak” was a single from Chic’s second studio album C’est Chic. It topped the Billboard Hot 100, Billboard Dance Club, and Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts in 1978, and has sold over seven million copies.