Grace Jones

Discover: Disco

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 05.19.11 in User's Guide Hubs

Disco is the one music more omnivorous then the hip-hop it inspired, or the rock 'n' roll it was perceived as threatening. At the dawn of the '70s, there were only its largely underground roots; by the decade's end, it drew from everything and was heard everywhere. Declared dead at the dawning of the '80s, it nevertheless merged with funk, electronics and New Wave to be instantly reborn as its even broader and more omnipresent guise, "dance music." Through acts as diverse as Madonna and Duran Duran, this fusion thrived despite an over-popularized yet covertly racist, misogynist, and homophobic "disco sucks" backlash.

Having survived undercover, disco has returned victorious and just as out 'n' proud as before, as the word's reappearance to classify everything from cult-y Scandinavian techno to Lady Gaga attests. Both the countercultural soundtrack for folks on society's fringes as well as mainstream music for the widest demographic imaginable, disco is pop's ultimate Rorschach test: Both elemental and exotic, worshipped and loathed, it's the rare music that can mean all things to all people. Nothing but religion and politics simultaneously polarizes and brings people together more than disco.

The disco under discussion here is the club music of the '70s and early '80s — its influences, and what it, in turn, influenced. It's the sound of large ensembles, studio musicians, outsized orchestrations, bravura singers, analogue synthesizers and virtuoso percussionists coming together to enrapture and energize a melting-pot public. This is the story of disco as told through its key records, one that includes both pop milestones and underground club classics, along with disco's many stylistic variations. Although some acts, like Donna Summer, defined themselves as album artists by releasing concept LPs and sidelong suites, disco remains largely a singles medium; accordingly, this guide favors compilations of singles played in clubs over album tracks generally played at home. It's music meant for communal physical expression, but with the proper perspective, it'll turn your private spaces into the nightclub of your dreams. Happy dancing!

The Roots

Funk Power 1970: A Brand New Thang

James Brown

In the beginning, there was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul did not invent disco: No sole act did. Rather, it was constructed, recreated, and refined nightly by pioneering New York DJs of the late '60s and early '70s out of an ever-changing combination of funk, soul, jazz and rock. Brown's 1970 recordings with his new band, the J.B.'s, provided a cornerstone of the nascent experience that was not yet called disco. The melodic content of every element — even Brown's extraordinary voice — is narrowed to the point where it's all reduced to interlocking and incessant rhythm. Bassist Bootsy Collins and his guitarist brother Phelps "Catfish" Collins add that telepathic communication that blood relations sometimes provide: They played as one, and unity was one of Brown's many messages at this crucial point.

"Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" delivered another. Just putting the word "sex" in a single's title was defiant in 1970: Sly and the Family Stone dared to name an album track "Sex Machine" the year before. Although Brown is essentially singing about dancing, he nevertheless exudes sex, and his equation of the two was a big deal, particularly for gays. In New York and throughout much of America at the beginning of the disco decade, two men simply dancing together was illegal. When the cops raided NYC's Stonewall Inn the previous summer for that very thing, patrons and passersby rioted, kicking off the gay liberation movement. Although enforcement of the law was lessened in Stonewall's wake, there was still tangible danger and defiance in dancing. The criminal underworld so dominated early-'70s nightlife that clubs of all kinds were regularly raided, shut down and reopened as implicitly politicized zones. "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" Brown screamed, and the blacks, hippies and gays in thrall on the floor understood.

Greatest Hits

Sly & The Family Stone

Sly Stone took popular music even closer to disco through integration. James Brown exuded an aggressively male, righteously African-American energy. Stone did too, but surrounded himself with a band comprised of black, female and white members. And while many of their rhythms were nearly as funky as Brown's, Stone's melodies pulled from pop as well as soul, and the band's neon hippie vibe and distorted guitars drew on rock. It was a music that made a point to speak to everybody, and it fought preconceptions of race and gender.

While most late-'60s/early-'70s rock sat down and got stoned, Stone aimed to elevate, and the results sound like a civil rights meeting that was designed to liberate the entire human race. It's dance music as both personal and public revolution, and nearly everything disco stood for in its purest, pre-Saturday Night Fever/Studio 54 phase is contained in its lyrics. Everybody is a star! Stand! I am everyday people! From the beat of the drum to the honk of the horns this is music of exhilaration made with exclamation points. More than the other San Francisco bands that were its neighbors, Sly and the Family Stone were explicitly about communal love, and their messages were played out on the earliest disco dancefloors. You can't underestimate its influence.

Psychedelic Soul

The Temptations

When Dennis Edwards replaced David Ruffin in the Temptations in 1968, producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield gave a brand new bag to Motown's most popular male group. Introduced to the psychedelic sounds of Sly and the Family Stone via Temp's member Otis Williams, Whitfield took Stone's fusion grooves and made them cinematic. Starting with "Cloud Nine," Whitfield de-emphasized Ruffin's departure by distributing the vocal line across the Temptations' widely differing voices á la Sly and Family, while white session guitarist Dennis Coffey brought the wah-wah of Jimi Hendrix. "Cloud Nine" won Motown its first Grammy, and it established the label's new sophisticated, yet streetwise style soon embraced by all of its stars. For its 1969 sequel "Runaway Child, Running Wild," Whitfield expanded the track's length to nearly 10 minutes, and the prototype for disco's extended mixes was born.

What distinguished Whitfield's sprawling productions from lengthy acid-rock tracks was that they weren't mere jams. Based on verses and choruses just like the group's early hits, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and the others are paced as miniature symphonies with multiple peaks and valleys. The same strings that gave Motown its density during the mid '60 were now isolated over the beat. Instead of a constant blare, instrumentation came and went, swelled and subsided. The constant fluctuations made the listening experience more like a journey — a key disco metaphor. Rather than encouraging dancers to sprint, Whitfield paced his records to suspend them in rapture.

Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?

Isaac Hayes

Taking the cinematic qualities of Norman Whitfield's productions for the Temptations one step further, Isaac Hayes the film composer already had two previous incarnations when he topped the charts with his Oscar-winning 1971 smash "Theme from Shaft" — the southern soul songwriter and the trippy easy listening sensualist. This Tennessee multi-instrumentalist had already co-written several R&B classics (including "Soul Man" and "Hold on I'm Comin'" for Sam & Dave) when granted complete control on 1969's Hot Buttered Soul; the result was a star-making album with four languid but expertly-engineered tracks equally suited for pot trips or bedroom rendezvous. Hayes psychedelicized pop standards while emphasizing his African-American identity in such a boldly disarming way that whites dug him as well. With his shaved head and gold chain vests that slyly alluded to slavery, Hayes became the Black Moses.

His crucial contribution to disco aesthetics was the creation of a sound so simultaneously funky and schlocky that it glows like florescent X-rated zodiac signs on black velour. Mixing epic LP tracks and radio edits, this collection draws exclusively from his Stax output. Aside from his proto-disco blaxploitation themes, much of it focuses on his surreal, often-sampled balladry. But the dancefloor blueprint is still there: Emphasize the beat, speed it up, and it's disco. That's essentially what happens on The Best of the Polydor Years. With his deliciously salacious "Moonlight Lovin' (Menage A Trois)," Hayes becomes Chef decades before South Park.

The Best Of Kool & The Gang (1969-1976)

Kool And The Gang

Kool & the Gang's second phase with singer James "J.T." Taylor proved so inescapably successful from 1979-87 that slick R&B hits like "Celebration" and "Cherish" are largely how this New Jersey band is remembered. But in its first incarnation as a primarily instrumental rhythm machine, Kool & the Gang helped pioneer an uncompromising, yet crowd-pleasing, uptempo funk. Leader Robert "Kool" Bell's walking basslines carried the melody while jazzy horn lines not unlike those of Chicago blasted the beat uptown. Taking a tip from Manu Dibango's pioneering, club-originated Afrobeat smash "Soul Makossa," crossover hits like "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging" embraced syncopated elemental rhythms from the Motherland.

When the Bee Gees and Donna Summer eventually defined disco in the mainstream's mind, funk became something thought entirely antithetical to what disco had become. But Kool & the Gang kept its good foot in the door of both camps: "Open Sesame" — the last of its pre-J.T. hits —even landed on the phenomenally popular Saturday Night Fever soundtrack a year after its late-'76 release, and did it without diluting the formula of its previous hits: The lyrics were still largely limited to the title, a few "get down"s, and some Wolfman Jack impersonations, and the sound was only slightly slicker than when the band first filled dancefloors and funkafied black radio back in '69. Enjoy the original incarnation of Kool and his boys as a gateway drug to similarly uncut disco-funk acts that ruled clubs in the first half of the '70s — WAR, Mandrill, B.T. Express, Fatback Band, even Average White Band.

Chicago Transit Authority



Curtis Mayfield

The World Is A Ghetto


Deodato 2


Philly Soul Connections

The Very Best Of


In 1972, the Spinners became the first veteran group to strike proto-disco gold when hooked up with the right producers. And the early '70s, those soul Svengalis were mostly based in the City of Brotherly Love. Although they were a Detroit-based act, one with a sole major single (1970's "It's a Shame"), this five-member harmony group finally attained major stardom with the help of songwriter-producer Thom Bell and the Philadelphia soul sound he helped innovate with the Delfonics and Stylistics. Newly bolstered by the addition of co-lead singer Philippé Wynne, the Spinners' hit streak began when DJs abandoned the ballad side of their initial Atlantic Records single in favor of its smooth but danceable flip, "I'll Be Around."

That hit and subsequent smashes like "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," "One of a Kind," Love Affair," "Mighty Love," and "Then Came You" with Dionne Warwick all exemplified Bell's particular strand of Philly soul — elegant, exceedingly clear and well-proportioned. It maintained the melodic complications of Burt Bacharach while accentuating the rhythms of his orchestral arrangements. The Spinners scored a final smash, "The Rubberband Man," then Wynne departed and Bell's Philly formula lost its freshness. Producer Michael Zager — who'd recently scored club hits with his Michael Zager Band ("Let's All Chant") and Cissy Houston — gave the veteran group its final hits via disco updates on pop and soul oldies, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' "Working My Way Back to You" and Sam Cooke's "Cupid," but the mark of a Spinners song remains its grace.

Deep Grooves


In 1971, Philadelphia songwriter-producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created what soon became one of the most successful black-owned business of the '70s, Philadelphia International. Like Motown had in the Funk Brothers, this phenomenally hot label had its own house band, MFSB. Based in the city's sonically superior Sigma Sound Studios, MFSB featured a largely black rhythm section and predominantly white string and horn sections. The musicians played together so often on the Philadelphia International hits of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O'Jays, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls and dozens of others beyond the P.I. stable that they developed an astonishingly uplifting cohesion. MFSB quite literally defined the sound of Brotherly Love.

But unlike the Funk Brothers, MFSB scored monster hits under its own name. The theme song to the hugely popular dance TV show Soul Train, "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" topped the pop, R&B and adult contemporary charts in 1974 — an early confirmation of disco's broad appeal. Repeatedly remixed and reedited, "Love Is the Message" formed the template of countless disco classics with its dramatic shifts in tone and tangible spirit of togetherness, while MFSB's fiery 1975 remake of the Nite-Liters' "K-Jee" sound-tracked the competition dance performance in Saturday Night Fever that the John Travolta character recognizes as superior to his own. Bypassing the orchestra's lighter moments, this compilation focuses on MFSB's heaviest dancefloor rhythms, and closes on Tom Moulton's mesmerizing 1977 remix of "Love Is the Message," which features an additional electric piano solo by Huff that still ranks as one of disco's most spine-tingling performances.

The Ultimate Blue Notes

Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass

Disco is the one music more omnivorous then the hip-hop it inspired, or the rock 'n' roll it was perceived as threatening. At the dawn of the '70s, there were only its largely underground roots; by the decade's end, it drew from everything and was heard everywhere. Declared dead at the dawning of the '80s, it nevertheless merged with funk, electronics and New Wave to be instantly reborn as its even broader and more omnipresent guise, "dance music." Through acts as diverse as Madonna and Duran Duran, this fusion thrived despite an over-popularized yet covertly racist, misogynist, and homophobic "disco sucks" backlash.

Having survived undercover, disco has returned victorious and just as out 'n' proud as before, as the word's reappearance to classify everything from cult-y Scandinavian techno to Lady Gaga attests. Both the countercultural soundtrack for folks on society's fringes as well as mainstream music for the widest demographic imaginable, disco is pop's ultimate Rorschach test: Both elemental and exotic, worshipped and loathed, it's the rare music that can mean all things to all people. Nothing but religion and politics simultaneously polarizes and brings people together more than disco.

The disco under discussion here is the club music of the '70s and early '80s — its influences, and what it, in turn, influenced. It's the sound of large ensembles, studio musicians, outsized orchestrations, bravura singers, analogue synthesizers and virtuoso percussionists coming together to enrapture and energize a melting-pot public. This is the story of disco as told through its key records, one that includes both pop milestones and underground club classics, along with disco's many stylistic variations. Although some acts, like Donna Summer, defined themselves as album artists by releasing concept LPs and sidelong suites, disco remains largely a singles medium; accordingly, this guide favors compilations of singles played in clubs over album tracks generally played at home. It's music meant for communal physical expression, but with the proper perspective, it'll turn your private spaces into the nightclub of your dreams. Happy dancing!

The Best Of First Choice

First Choice

Played by the same musicians who comprised MFSB, First Choice's sole pop hit, "Armed and Extremely Dangerous" was more compact than most of Philadelphia International's output, but soon proved archetypal in another way: This early-1973 classic brought to the discos one of soul's standby themes: Good Girls Who Love Bad Men. It was the topic of all the early singles by this Philly female trio: Lead singer Rochelle Fleming sings in "Armed" of a guy "wanted by the FBI." In "Smarty Pants," her paramour leaves her pregnant, and the playboy celebrated in "The Player" is a "cold-hearted son of a gun" who'll "shoot you down, right down to the ground." Candi Staton soon proved she knew this fella in "Young Hearts Run Free" and "Victim," and the Three Degrees dismissed him in "Dirty Ol' Man," while Gloria Gaynor showed him the door in "I Will Survive."

Fleming may have made some poor relationship choices, but she possessed formidable pipes, and together with Joyce Jones and several others in the third position, this Philly trio became one of disco's most durable groups. The Best of First Choice may be nothing more than the threesome's first two albums scrambled together with the non-LP single "Love Freeze," but it's still packed with all the aforementioned club hits along with a simmering rendition of "Love and Happiness" that nearly eclipses Al Green's original. First Choice later recorded such disco classics as "Doctor Love," "Hold Your Horses," and "Let No Man Put Asunder," but here's where they started.

Where The Happy People Go


Disco began as a singles medium, and pioneering disco remixer Tom Moulton's 1975 invention of the 12-inch single meant that it would largely remain that way. But the Trammps' 1976 album was one of the first and few full LPs to win thorough DJ approval. Mixed by Moulton as if nearly each track were a 12-inch, That's Where the Happy People Go is traditional soul engineered from an insider's perspective to meet dancefloor demands. Its nonstop dance-minded gospel transformed clubs into houses of secular worship.

The Trammps were Philly soul's most successful self-contained unit. Their production/songwriting/instrumental core — guitarist Norman Harris, bassist Ronnie Baker and drummer/bass vocalist Earl Young — also played in MFSB and on many of Philadelphia International's biggest hits by the O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Three Degrees, and others, as well as countless non-P.I. tracks recorded at Philly's Sigma Sound Studio. They'd been scoring R&B hits as early as 1972 with their cover of the Judy Garland standard "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," yet for years remained to DJs and dancers the kind of band Yo La Tengo is for indie rock fans — vaguely known in the marketplace, yet wildly beloved by the cognoscenti. Happy People, Disco Inferno and Trammps III consolidated this cult following, but could not score big on Top 40. Thanks to its inclusion in Saturday Night Fever, "Disco Inferno" was rereleased, and became a mainstream anthem in 1978. By then, the Trammps' creativity and popularity with its core constituents had passed its peak.

Philly Re-Grooved - The Tom Moulton Philly Groove Remixes

Various Artists

Blue Magic

Blue Magic

The Ultimate O'Jays

The O'Jays

Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia


The Kings and Queens of Clubs

Number 1's

Barry White

He was several shades darker than most crossover stars and more than a few pounds heavier. But Barry White became the most unlikely sex symbol of the 1970s because his records were devoutly sensual in an otherworldly way: They moaned and swelled as if beamed down from a heart-shaped waterbed on Venus. Isaac Hayes's low-voiced love raps and jazz-inspired synthesis of sweet melody and tangy rhythm undoubtedly paved the way, yet White took the symphonic trip of Hayes and MFSB to another level of sublime excess on progressively more disco-conscious hits. If Philadelphia International's records featured some 30-odd musicians playing at once, White seemed to boast two or three times that. Appropriately generous titles like "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby," "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up," "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe" and "You're the First, the Last, My Everything" are soul's amorous answer to prog rock. Instead of topographical oceans and brain salad surgery, this Texas-born Angeleno celebrated love and little else.

Not only a solo superstar, White also oversaw his girl group Love Unlimited, which fronted his first hit with its 1972 single "Walking in the Rain with the One I Love," as well as the Love Unlimited Orchestra, which topped the pop chart in early 1974 with "Love's Theme," a previously overlooked LP track that club DJs discovered and claimed as their own. Number Ones gathers White's chart-topping successes in all three incarnations. The inclusion of a double-sided Orchestra 12-inch, "My Sweet Summer Suite," and "Brazilian Love Song," extends the compilation's reach beyond White's R&B standards. Consider this an hors d'oeuvre from an exceptionally rich banquet.

On The Radio: Greatest Hits Vol.1 & 2

Donna Summer

While the Bee Gees may have defined disco for Top 40 fans and filmgoers, Donna Summer unquestionably ruled the clubs. Where the average disco act was defined by 12-inch singles, this Boston-born singer was so popular, and her LPs so strong, she is one of the genre's consummate album artists. Although her uninterrupted hit streak on the radio was brief but momentous, her club profile loomed larger and longer.

Summer offered the complete package. Clubland's most versatile singer, she sighed and moaned in disco's first track to fill an entire LP side, "Love to Love You Baby" and its even more elaborate sequel, "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It." Her belting on "MacArthur Park" gave new emotional resonance to Jimmy Webb's psychedelic, elegiac lyrics, while "I Feel Love" and "Hot Stuff" proved that she could make love to a synthesizer or rock out as she saw fit. With her extraordinary European producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she co-wrote most of her material, and even solely authored a few of her own, like her soulful, sexy "Dim All the Lights." Several of her disco-era albums featured concepts akin to rock opera: Four Seasons of Love captured the seasons. I Remember Yesterday traced the evolution of American popular music. Once Upon a Time told a Cinderella-like love story across its four LP sides. Her vocal charisma and commanding appearance made her a superstar and Moroder, Bellotte, and Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart understood how to surround her with dancefloor drama.

A chart-topping smash in early 1980 even as disco was dying in the mainstream, On the Radio combines her biggest Top 40 successes with a sampling of her club hits. Many appear in edited and slightly remixed forms unique to this collection, and most are sequenced together to suggest club play, sometimes with new synth parts: The segue from "Hot Stuff" to "Bad Girls" — different from the original one on Bad Girls — is particularly striking. Conceived like her previous LPs as a statement onto itself (look at the artwork — she's literally on the radio!), this hits package offers more than Cliff's Notes for your feet.

Dance, Dance, Dance: The Best Of Chic


Session musicians Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards couldn't drum up any record company interest in their rock band. Inspired by their glam heroes in Roxy Music, they redirected their interest in elegance to disco — a genre far more open to unknown black musicians — and Chic was born. Like other disco acts, Chic employed strings (played in-concert exclusively by women), but Rodgers and Edwards arranged them like horns; punchy, staccato and percussive, just like their own playing. And like the glam bands, Chic was high-concept stuff: The three-man, two-woman act boasted dressy designer duds, lyrics that celebrated the good life, and music that swelled and subsided to offset "the break" — that moment when lyrics, strings, woodwinds, horns, and keys fall away to accentuate guitars, bass, and percussion that make dancers scream and lose their minds.

Chic's success came instantly: The first single, "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" was a Top 10 pop/R&B/disco chart hit, and the third, "Le Freak," not only topped all three charts but became, in early 1979, the best-ever-selling single from Atlantic Records — a label that boasted such titans as Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. That summer, Chic released "Good Times," another huge smash, one with a bassline that would soon inspire the Sugarhill Gang, Queen, Blondie, and hip-hop itself.

By then, disco was already pronounced dead, a proclamation that took down many of the genre's greatest stars. Like the Bee Gees, Chic's early-'80s record sales faltered, but where the Brothers Gibb maintained a respectable post-disco presence on the charts by writing and overseeing records for other acts, Rodgers and Edwards exploded. The pair wrote, produced, and often played on (typically with Chic drummer Tony Thompson) hits by Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Debbie Harry, David Bowie, INXS, Madonna, Duran Duran, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, the Thompson Twins, the B-52's, and many, many more. But even with a résumé as star-studded as that, Rodgers and Edwards's greatest musical achievement was with their own band. Nothing was and may never be as simultaneously funky and cosmopolitan as Chic.

The Original Hits


Back when disco ruled the world, or at least the part that wanted to move, Sylvester held it down as king/queen of the clubs. You can bask in that unfettered passion on his biggest, most enduring smash, "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real." A joyously pulsating anthem, brimming with squiggly space age synths and sky-high testifying, the track, like much of Sylvester's sadly limited catalogue (he died in 1988) preaches a sermon of compassion and community.

Even if you can't dance, it's hard to deny Sylvester's emotionality. Witness the lesser-known "Sell My Soul." Anchored by a funked-up bass line and infused with a blend of gospel and jazz, "Sell My Soul" ratchets down the BPMs but is no less of an adrenaline rush. Perhaps because Sylvester was dismissed by some as "just" a disco singer, these slower songs are a revelation. He throws his all into covers of "Oooh Baby Baby" and "Cry Me a River," the latter rocking out with barrelhouse piano, stinging guitars and full-throated growling vocals.

Openly gay at a time when that was unheard of, Sylvester let fly with a galvanizing, this-close-to-feminine falsetto that was the battle cry of liberation and release — both on and off the dance floor.

Private Life: The Compass Point Years

Grace Jones

With only a few notes at her disposal, Grace Jones will never be considered one of disco's virtuoso vocalists. But with impeccable fashion sense, extraordinary beauty, exquisite phrasing and the courage to colonize stylistic territory no other black singer dared, Jones is unquestionably among its most distinctive. She's disco's avant-diva, the essence of a downtown Manhattan sensibility that draws from New Wave and post-punk, timeless soul, extreme Jamaican dub, French chanson, gay outsider aesthetics, and the inclusiveness of '80s club sounds pioneered and popularized by superstar DJ Larry Levan at the scene's nexus, the legendary Paradise Garage.

Jones started out with disco in its purest form: With star mixer Tom Moulton in the producer's chair, she recorded three string-laden, ultra-dramatic disco LPs of varying quality. The 1980 game-changer Warm Leatherette paired the Jamaica-born singer with the island's hottest rhythm section ,a href="">Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare for a reggae-rock treatment of tracks originally by the Normal, the Pretenders and others that were so radically rearranged they nearly became new songs. Nightclubbing followed suit in '81, and carried her biggest hit, "Pull Up to the Bumper," which celebrated sex with a frankness soon to be tempered by the arrival of AIDS. Living My Life maintained the same sonic template, but abandoned covers in favor of bold Jones originals like "My Jamaican Guy." Private Life collects the best tracks from this trilogy — many of them in superior 12-inch versions — and adds B-sides, outtakes, and her unrelated but equally fabulous Trevor Horn-produced 1985 single "Slave to the Rhythm" to paint a compelling portrait of a club queen who abandoned disco to reinvent it.

Young Hearts Run Free: The Best Of Candi Staton

Candi Staton

Greatest Hits

Linda Clifford

The Best Of Cheryl Lynn: Got To Be Real

Cheryl Lynn

Platinum & Gold Collection

Evelyn "Champagne" King

The Pop Crossovers

Best Of KC & The Sunshine Band

KC & The Sunshine Band

Disco is the one music more omnivorous then the hip-hop it inspired, or the rock 'n' roll it was perceived as threatening. At the dawn of the '70s, there were only its largely underground roots; by the decade's end, it drew from everything and was heard everywhere. Declared dead at the dawning of the '80s, it nevertheless merged with funk, electronics and New Wave to be instantly reborn as its even broader and more omnipresent guise, "dance music." Through acts as diverse as Madonna and Duran Duran, this fusion thrived despite an over-popularized yet covertly racist, misogynist, and homophobic "disco sucks" backlash.

Having survived undercover, disco has returned victorious and just as out 'n' proud as before, as the word's reappearance to classify everything from cult-y Scandinavian techno to Lady Gaga attests. Both the countercultural soundtrack for folks on society's fringes as well as mainstream music for the widest demographic imaginable, disco is pop's ultimate Rorschach test: Both elemental and exotic, worshipped and loathed, it's the rare music that can mean all things to all people. Nothing but religion and politics simultaneously polarizes and brings people together more than disco.

The disco under discussion here is the club music of the '70s and early '80s — its influences, and what it, in turn, influenced. It's the sound of large ensembles, studio musicians, outsized orchestrations, bravura singers, analogue synthesizers and virtuoso percussionists coming together to enrapture and energize a melting-pot public. This is the story of disco as told through its key records, one that includes both pop milestones and underground club classics, along with disco's many stylistic variations. Although some acts, like Donna Summer, defined themselves as album artists by releasing concept LPs and sidelong suites, disco remains largely a singles medium; accordingly, this guide favors compilations of singles played in clubs over album tracks generally played at home. It's music meant for communal physical expression, but with the proper perspective, it'll turn your private spaces into the nightclub of your dreams. Happy dancing!

I Will Survive: The Anthology

Gloria Gaynor

Before Donna Summer came along to steal her crown, Gloria Gaynor reigned as the first Queen of Disco. With her early 1975 debut Never Can Say Goodbye, the Newark-born singer became the first disco act with a nonstop album side mixed and segued for dancing, one that allowed DJs to answer nature's call and still maintain the music. Pioneering disco mixer Tom Moulton's elongation and joining of tracks also allowed dancers to enjoy the continuous disco music experience in their homes, and the breakthrough proved so popular that the first sides of her next two LPs maintained the medley format. Without these megamixes or producer Meco Monardo (who'd soon score hits on his own via "Star Wars" and other discofied movie themes), Gaynor's popularity faltered until DJs flipped her 1978 single "Substitute" in favor of a far more dramatic B-side that lives on as one of disco's greatest testimonies of resilience, "I Will Survive."

All three of those medleys — "Honey Bee"/"Never Can Say Goodbye"/"Reach Out I'll Be There," late '75's "Casanova Brown"/"(If You Want It) Do It Yourself"/"How High the Moon," and '76's "Let's Make a Deal"/"I've Got You Under My Skin"/"Be Mine" — are included on a collection that pairs Gaynor's biggest club hits with her less memorable self-composed ballads. As a singer, her talents are formidable: Some critics still insist that disco all sounds the same, but Gaynor convincingly conveys the nuances of everything from the sly wit of Cole Porter to forthright declarations of sexual heat. With its extended double entendres and extreme fuzz guitar supplied by Philly's Norman Harris, "Honey Bee" is one long, delirious come-on. Great disco singers are more than soulful — they're Broadway, opera, and gospel. Gaynor and "I Will Survive" are all three.

The Ultimate Bee Gees

Bee Gees

There's a reason why this 40-track collection spanning five decades of hits begins with disco. Having scored 13 U.S. Top 40 singles before they ever released a single dance cut, the U.K.-born trio of Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb were the first superstar pop-rock group to try club music, and they remain to this day the most triumphant. Dozens of acts may have been more popular in the hardcore clubs. But to middle America, the Bee Gees are disco like Coke is cola. Few musical acts of any sort have sold more than their estimated 200 million records.

It's likely that the Bee Gees' persona and popularity would never have become so intertwined with disco had it not been for Saturday Night Fever and its sweeping cultural impact. Yet their initial disco hits, "Jive Talkin'" and "You Should Be Dancing," were already pop chart-toppers in '75 and '76 before they reappeared on the Fever soundtrack. Disco changed not only the band's rhythms, but also who sang and how. Robin was, for many years, the focal vocal point; his distinctive quavering cry defined the psychedelic folk ballads that established the Brothers Gibb in the late '60s. When the trio reinvented itself with R&B hit-maker Arif Mardin on '75's Main Course, Barry brought the falsetto that dominated its disco-era smashes. The threesome became not only more soulful, but also more androgynous, more emphatic and far less melancholic. There's plenty of existential pain in the lyrics of "Stayin' Alive" and "Tragedy," but the music surges with forward motion.

Some disco songs are primarily rhythmic and textural: Strip away their percussive and orchestral flourishes and there's nothing much left. Do the same to the Bee Gees' hits and give or take a "Boogie Child" you're still left with something suitable for the campfire: At the core of even their most sugary disco confections is a sing-along tune accompanied by Barry strumming acoustic guitar. That's not to slight their studio smarts: When drummer Dennis Byron left the Fever sessions to attend his father's funeral, co-producers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson looped two bars of his drums from "Night Fever" to create the rhythmic foundation for "Stayin' Alive" and "More Than a Woman." Unlike most disco acts that drew extensively from session players, the Bee Gees and their live band recorded much of their records; that brotherly synchronicity is their heartbeat.

The Best Of Sister Sledge

Sister Sledge

More than any other act, Sister Sledge illustrates how disco made and broke careers in the late '70s and early '80s. This Philly sibling quartet were initially in the mold of the Jackson 5: Baby sister Kathy even sounds like preadolescent Michael on their first Atlantic single, 1973's "Mama Never Told Me." That and next year's far bolder "Love Don't You Go Through No Changes on Me" were cult hits in the earliest discos, but subsequent releases faltered until the quartet hooked up with Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.

The pair wrote, produced and played on what was essentially a Chic album with the sisters singing lead, '79's We Are Family. Elegant, yet anthemic as can be, both "He's the Greatest Dancer" and the title track topped the R&B chart and hit pop's Top 10, while the album itself went platinum. In 1980, the same team created Love Somebody Today, but while the lead single "Got to Love Somebody," was a worthy R&B hit, it couldn't get past No. 64 on the pop chart. The follow-ups faired far worse. The difference was that in the first half of 1979, disco was ultra-hot in the mainstream; a mere year later it was most certainly not.

Like many other R&B acts caught in the anti-disco backlash, Sister Sledge didn't stop releasing great dance records. Their Narada Michael Walden-masterminded single "All American Girls" — another deserved R&B smash and unjust pop flop — is Chic-er than what Chic itself released 1981. With pipes both fiery and youthful, Kathy Sledge would've remained a star in any other era. Instead, she and her sisters drifted from the American limelight. In England, they scored hits with reissues and remixes of their We Are Family material until their Rodgers-produced 1985 single "Frankie" spent four weeks at No. 1. Naturally, it tanked back home.

Off The Wall

Michael Jackson

When rock DJ Steve Dahl staged an anti-disco rally in Chicago's Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979, and the Knack's "My Sharona" closed out that same summer by topping the charts for six weeks, it was as if the disco machine that had gone into overproduction in the wake of Saturday Night Fever's had suddenly ground to a halt. Major labels cut back on pressing and promoting dance records; many of the same white acts that had been trying to go disco instead started making quasi-New Wave, and most of the all-disco radio stations that had sprung up over the last year switched to pop and country. A stranger thing happened to African-American artists. Most of the singers who disco turned into stars — the Evelyn "Champagne" Kings and Teddy Pendergrasses — dropped off the pop chart, but reigned on black radio, while the vets whose careers predated disco — the Kool & the Gangs and Diana Rosses — kept on scoring crossover hits with what was still essentially disco, but was now called R&B, funk, or "dance music." No one was more successful at this than Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. A jazz musician whose career as a pop producer stretches back to the early '60s with Andy Williams and Lesley Gore, Jones's late-'70s/early-'80s productions for the Brothers Johnson, Jackson, Rufus, George Benson, and himself created the next template for black pop. Jones maintained the strings, percussion, and harmonic complexity of disco, but muted the kick drum, and replaced the steady European drive of Donna Summer's '70s output with heightened syncopation. It was disco that didn't announce itself as such, and dozens of acts from Shalamar to Stephanie Mills ran with it. It certainly didn't hurt that Off the Wall contained some of the strongest, most jubilant music of Jackson's life. Rod Temperton of the London-based disco band Heatwave penned three of its uptempo highlights — "Rock With You," the title track and "Burn This Disco Out" — as well as other crucial Jones-produced hits, such as the Brothers Johnson's "Stomp!" and Jackson's subsequent "Thriller." Jackson asserted his own songwriting skill on the other dance cuts — "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough," "Workin' Day and Night" and "Get on the Floor" — by celebrating what he knew best. He worked hard, lived life like a fantasy, and danced as if his salvation depended on it. No amount of anti-disco sentiment could impede his ascent.

Rose Royce Greatest Hits

Rose Royce


Diana Ross

Keep The Fire Burnin'

Dan Hartman

The Cult Classics

Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band

Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band

August Darnell may have become more mythologized for his '80s-cusp work with New York's Ze Records, including his production and remixes of artists like Cristina, James White & the Blacks, and his own outfit, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, but he never made a better record than the self-titled 1976 debut of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. Led by Darnell (born Thomas Browder) on bass and his brother Stony Browder Jr. on guitar and piano, Dr. Buzzard drew clear and groundbreaking parallels between swing-era New York nightlife and the disco period that the band helped to epitomize. The siblings were Haitian immigrants, and throughout, Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band trades on supply applied Latin and Caribbean touches: the talking drum of the much-sampled "Sunshower" is the most obvious example, but there's plenty of mambo in the tom-tom and saxophones that drive the classic "Cherchez Le Femme/Se Si Bon" as well, and vocalist Cory Daye didn't shout like an R&B singer but purred, growled, and scatted like a salsera. Hear her trill her R's and move the melody around like a ping-pong ball on "I'll Play the Fool," and join countless others in wondering why the hell Daye didn't become a star. This album's supple razzmatazz inspired variations on its theme by everyone from Donna Summer ("I Remember Yesterday") to, um, Barry Manilow ("Copacabana"), but Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band remains one of the great '70s albums, a definitive New York record, and disco's first full-length masterpiece.

The Master Of the Masterpiece - The Very Best Of Patrick Adams

Patrick Adams

Although many had heard his music for decades, Patrick Adams was known by name primarily among disco insiders. A Harlem-born musician whose resume stretches from the '70s R&B hits of Black Ivory to hip-hop icons like Eric B. & Rakim, Adams straddles the divide between mainstream soul and underground dance. Having produced and written for such big names as Eddie Kendricks, Herbie Mann, and Rick James, Adams can be polished on demand, but his signature sound is an idiosyncratic mix of tough hooks and effusive arrangements. A favorite of Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan, Adams masterminded so many disco and club tracks by fleeting acts that it would take a dance music genealogist to fully document his catalog.

Able to access the most esoteric records imaginable via blogs and eBay, a new breed of Internet-enabled disco fan spread knowledge of Adams's discography, filled in the gaps of his disco family tree, and expanded his cult exponentially. By the late '90s, listeners who weren't even born when most of his records were recorded could know more about them than the generation of dancers that was their initial audience. Combining obscurities with classics, The Master of the Masterpiece samples Adams's '70s and '80s output in chronological order. Musique's frantic and frankly sexual '78 smash "In the Bush" is the sole pop hit here, but many others, such as Phreek's Garage anthem "Weekend" and Donna McGhee's sinuous salute to unworthy lovers "It Ain't No Big Thing" justifiably live on as cult dancefloor evergreens. Be sure to check out albums by Phreek and Universal Robot Band for further frisky disco-funk featuring the master's signature analogue synths. And for even less refined examples of the Adams aesthetic, investigate Disco Juice and Disco Juice: Volume 2.

Hits, Remixes and Rarities: The Warner Brothers Years

Ashford & Simpson

Simply for their songwriting and production work for Motown's Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love" and others), Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson deserve a place in the R&B history books. But their recordings in the '70s and early '80s for Warner Bros. (and, later, for Capitol) were just as formidable, and brought a similar mix of emotional universality and soulful urbanity. Like Barry White who they undoubtedly inspired, Ashford & Simpson were philosophers of love who delivered their soul-searching on the dance floor. The difference was that the pair was also a married couple whose bond was reflected in their music. If they were feeling as solid as a rock, they'd spell it out in song. If they struggled, they'd share that too in tracks like "Love Don't Make It Right."

The quirk in their Warner Bros. output is that most of their hits were never sold to the public in their fullest versions. You either had to be a DJ or a dancer to hear their promo-only extended mixes, which were often far superior: Boasting jaw-dropping percussion breaks, the 12-inch of "One More Try" is twice as long as its 1976 LP version, and sells for a small fortune on eBay. Hits, Remixes and Rarities collects most of their R&B radio successes, but includes those special promo mixes, and then reprises some of the same songs in updated but respectful new versions by dance music nobility such as Tom Moulton, Dimitri From Paris, and Joey Negro. Many disco producers took a cut-and-paste approach to building up their arrangements via overdubs and edits, but Ashford & Simpson's studio pros seem to ebb and flow in real time on "Over and Over" (also well-covered by Sylvester) and their Rose Royce-ish "Don't Cost You Nothin.'" The pair never got too uptown to let their musicians get down.

Hot Butterfly

Bionic Boogie

Having previously played in glam-rocker Jobriath's backing band, songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Gregg Diamond spoke the language of disco's freest spirits. Whereas traditional pop and soul lyricists wrote of romance and long-term relationships, Diamond celebrated multiple orgasms with porn actress Andrea True in "More More More," a 1975 disco smash so huge that Diamond was soon producing albums for George McCrae and Gloria Gaynor, as well as releasing more adventurous material with his studio group Bionic Boogie.

Like Chic, Bionic Boogie featured some of disco's greatest session singers. On its 1978 second album, they include Whitney Houston's mom Cissy Houston, David Lasley and a pre-stardom Luther Vandross who sings prominent backing vocals throughout and lead on "Hot Butterfly," a dreamy mid-tempo confection later popularized by Chaka Khan. The extended promo 12-inch version included as a bonus cut remains a perennial favorite of all-night DJs playing early morning "sleaze" sets designed to ease dancers down from their peak-hour highs. Sleazy in the traditional sense is "Cream (Always Rises to the Top)," which describes alfresco sex in terms too forthright for even the Village People. "Chains" features one of disco's most aggressive bass lines ever — and dig that distorted guitar riff, as heavy as "Paradise" is breezy and bright. Donna Summer, Blondie, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, and other acts made the disco-rock connection explicit through their crossover hits, but Diamond fit his rock background so seamlessly into his punchy, multi-flavored productions that it's nearly impossible to isolate it. Instead, it's deep in his disco DNA.


Gino Soccio

In the first half of 1979, disco was peaking so pervasively that even major labels realized they could profit by targeting dancers who wouldn't dare get down to their grandmother's boogie. Connoisseur disco had existed for years, but Gino Soccio's Outline — the first release by Warner Bros.' RFC Records, a label staffed by respected disco promotions guru Ray Caviano and esteemed Record World disco columnist Vince Aletti — was advertised as such. Even the unabashedly arty cover to this Canadian multi-instrumentalist's debut announced that this was serious stuff.

Soccio applied Chic's leanness to Eurodisco's orchestrations. The opening track and biggest hit "Dancer" foregrounds a monumental bottom that repeats and repeats as other trance-inducing instruments join in to echo and elaborate until a fluttery bridge provides sweet temporary relief. Then the bass returns, even nastier and more nagging than before. "Try to take it higher," sing the girlie girls in a psychedelic haze before some of the most reverb-laden handclaps ever recorded slap us out of our reverie.

Like so many disco albums circa 1979, Outline is only five cuts long, and one, "So Lonely," is more interlude than song. But all are complementary parts of a well-balanced, fastidiously engineered whole that sounds just like its LP sleeve looks — sleek and abstract. "The Visitors" builds on Giorgio Moroder's space disco to evoke a future where aliens sojourn on Earth; its sequenced synths and tempo would dominate gay clubs with was soon known as hi-NRG. "Dance to Dance" picks up where the feel-good bridge of "Dancer" leaves off; light yet soulful, it soars on interlocking riffs all played as percussion. "Music takes me high," go the girlies, once again alluding to Soccio's uplifting, hallucinogenic intent. "There's a Woman" closes with even more hypnotic electronics. Soccio's vocals are soft rock; percussion comes and goes, and the girlies venture into wordless wailing Dark Side of the Moon territory as the bass drum pulse holds down the fort. Everything else is flying.

Eurodisco Delirium

Audacious American DJs had been playing European dance records before Germany's answer to Gamble & Huff and Barry White's string-wrapped soul luxury first appeared in early 1975. Most of those acts — England's Gary Glitter, Spain's Barrabas, Norway's Titanic — were rock groups with a glam of sense of stomp, and/or shades of Latin funk cribbed from Santana. Munich's Silver Convention mined slick soul, film scores and Muzak. By minimizing vocals, reducing lyrics to simple phrases easily understood by non-native English speakers and accentuating extremes of the instrumental sonic spectrum via booming bass and airy violins, producers Silvester Levay (Hungarian-born composer, keyboardist) and Michael Kunze (lyricist, eventual German theatre librettist) created the prototype for what would eventually be known as Eurodisco.

In those first few years when disco was inseparable from soul, this German approximation penetrated the R&B world in a big way: Silver Convention's second single, "Fly Robin Fly," won the 1976 Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance much like MFSB won the year before with a record that clearly set its mold, "The Sound of Philadelphia." But whereas Philly disco proffered love as its message, this sleeker, more efficient German model suggested sex. With its primal, seesawing bassline and girlie-girl choir, "Fly Robin Fly" pinpointed the '70s porn-soundtrack ideal even as it topped the American pop chart for three weeks (and the R&B chart for one) in late 1975. This breakthrough was a little shocking, because if you listened closely enough, it felt as though a large number of racially indeterminate people were having musical intercourse on your transistor radio.

Silver Convention's Eurosex groove wasn't without precedent. In 1972, the long-standing Belgian studio group The Chakachas scored a gold single with "Jungle Fever," a proto-disco pseudo-Latin funk track featuring over-the-top orgasmic moans, and before that Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's international heavy breathing smash "Je t' non plus" reached No. 69 in 1969. Silver Convention softened the lens, blurred the X-rated image those records created in your mind's eye, and made it metaphoric, less explicit, and therefore more acceptable for American consumption before Donna Summer ramped it back up again a few months later with "Love to Love You Baby." This was the liberated sound of music on The Pill.

The Casablanca Records Story

Various Artists

A former exec at Buddah Records during bubblegum's late-'60s/early-'70s height who reigned over deliberately disposable bands like the Ohio Express and 1910 Fruitgum Company, Neil Bogart knew a thing or two about prefab pop, and applied its marketing and radio promotion lessons to his own label, Casablanca Records. Although early signings Kiss and Parliament would both go on to sell huge numbers, Casablanca's initial successes was small until Bogart seized upon a German production of an American singer-actress, Donna Summer's pseudo-orgasmic "Love to Love You." Having played the single repeatedly at his own party, he suggested that producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte create a much longer version. The song's title was lengthened to "Love to Love You Baby" in the style of Barry White, and Casablanca had its first platinum smash, one that sealed the company's future identity as America's most successful importer and translator of Eurodisco aesthetics.

Not every record here was as European as "My Baby's Baby" by Liquid Gold (a U.K. disco band), "Romeo and Juliet" by Alec R. Costandinos (an Egypt-born producer based in France who recorded in London), or "I Found Love" and "Thank God It's Friday" by Love & Kisses (one of Costandinos's several pseudonyms): The Village People were Americans produced by Jacques Morali, a Frenchman who recorded in the U.S. Patrick Juvet, another Morali-produced act, was Swiss. "After Dark" — the biggest club hit by Kansas-born Patti Brooks — was produced in America by Simon Soussan, a French-Moroccan figure previously notorious on England's Northern Soul scene. But these acts and many others on Casablanca's roster all spun variations on the Summer/Moroder principle of combining American and European sounds for a truly international result, one that seriously challenged rock's Anglo-USA model.

How did Casablanca turn Eurodisco — a medium that favored producers and complex arrangements over singers and simple pop songs — into a worldwide phenomenon? As its name suggested, the Los Angeles label took its cues from Hollywood, and created an old-fashioned studio system that manufactured identities for Summer and the Village People, and surrounded Kiss and Parliament in hype. The others were only as hot as their records in the clubs, which for awhile were on fire: The overlapping pop, black and gay audience for disco in the wake of Saturday Night Fever was so huge that it consumed Casablanca product in the late '70s like '60s soul fans supported Motown. For a brief, euphoric moment, it was the sound of Eurodisco, and not simply the stars, that mattered, and Casablanca perfected it.

Cerrone culture


After Silver Convention's "Fly Robin Fly" and Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," Cerrone's "Love in C Minor" was Eurodisco's next revolutionary record. Like Summer's first smash, its LP version exceeded 16 minutes. The spoken intro removed from the original American edition but reinstated here features Cerrone's background singers negotiating the terms of an orgy with a man of their choosing. Sizing up her prey, one remarks, presumably in reference to Cerrone's own physique, "That ain't no banana." The instrumentation begins with what remains one of popular music's loudest and most assaultive four-to-the-floor bass drum pulses, and the orchestration follows with an ever-shifting montage of guitars, percussion, strings, horns, woodwinds, and keyboards of unprecedented definition, clarity, and scope. And when the inevitable sex sounds surface in the mix, they clearly belong to not just a single, Summer-like entity, but to one guy and several women — the ultimate disco producer's conceit.

Such a fantasy was possible because France's Marc Cerrone was both drummer and focal point: That monumental thump was his, and everything else was designed to support and heighten it. Collaborator and co-songwriter Alec R. Costandinos promptly departed to record his own extravaganzas, and Cerrone continued with arranger Don Ray on similarly extravagant follow-ups like "Cerrone's Paradise" and "Supernature," a synth-heavy ecological horror story in which animals altered by civilization's chemical byproducts take their revenge on mankind. (Lene Lovich, please take your bow for these genius lyrics.) Although few of his subsequent records were pressed in America, Cerrone lived on via imported cult cuts like "You Are the One" with underground disco diva Jocelyn Brown, and "Trippin' on the Moon," a hi-NRG anthem at New York's Saint disco, as well as countless remixes of his '70s milestones. In France, Cerrone remains a legend via a self-created mythology that positions him as disco's own Serge Gainsbourg; a dancefloor Casanova who dared to dream very, very big.

A five-week chunk of March/ April 1978 pinpoints the exact moment when Eurodisco peaked in America. First up: Alec R. Costandinos and the Syncophonic Orchestra's Romeo & Juliet, which told the famous Shakespeare tale via two continuous suites of the most lovably garish disco orchestrations imaginable. Last was the debut album by Voyage, a French studio act that took dancers on a disco travelogue, the dancefloor equivalent of Martin Denny's exotica kitsch. In the middle was Come into My Heart by USA-European Connection, the first of several hit pseudonyms from Boris Midney, a Russian-American composer/producer who, like Costandinos and Voyage, created continuous LP sides exploring ornate themes in lurid detail. His distinguishing characteristic was that he played the mixing board like a musical instrument, and specialized in radical shifts in dynamics that — much like dub reggae — threw an aural spotlight on various instruments then hid them from view. The difference was that Midney was doing it with violins on a far more hi-fi level, and for an audience that hadn't yet heard of Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Much like hip-hop today, disco conveyed everyday subject matter through radical methods. On the surface, Midney simply worships strings, and pairs them with romance novel sentiments. Listen closely, though, and you'll hear waves of percussion that ebb and flow like the tide, arrangements that bounce his florid melodies from instrument to instrument, and studio techniques as fastidious as that of Steely Dan. Even today, his records sound crisper and cleaner on the dancefloor than almost everything else: There's so much presence in his engineering and mixing that his records seem to leap out of the speakers.

The Greatest Hits combines Midney's best from USA-European Connection and Beautiful Bend with Masquerade (a Pinocchio-themed medley in Costandinos style) and other obscurities. The marketing sticker on the shrink wrap of Festival's Evita, his disco rendering of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, identified the LP as "Art Disco," and the tag holds true for everything here. It's the sonic equivalent of films by Luchino Visconti and other European, art-for-art's sake auteurs: This is disco for disco's sake.

The Glow Of Love


Jacques Fred Petrus and Mauro Malavasi generated hardcore disco hits out of their Bologna studio for a few years before they inadvertently created a star-making vehicle for the '80s' definitive R&B crooner, Luther Vandross. Whereas their previous studio groups Macho, Revanche and Peter Jacques Band exuded more aggression than the Eurodisco norm, their next, definitive project Change simmered with soul. Change not only took its stylistic cues from Chic, but also two voices from its background choir, Diva Gray, and, most crucially, Vandross. Along with Musique/Inner Life singer Jocelyn Brown, these New Yorkers gave African-American vocal identities to Italian instrumental tracks — one of the disco era's last great masterstrokes.

Whereas Chic's albums (and Change's own subsequent LPs) combine knockout hits with midtempo and ballad cuts of varying quality, 1980's The Glow of Love upholds the Eurodisco ideal of being thoroughly dancefloor-friendly. In the jointly sung style of Chic, the first hit "A Lover's Holiday" blends Brown and Gray with ad-libs from Bionic Boogie vocalist Zach Sanders. The mood is hopeful, expectant: This is disco as getaway music, a likely blueprint for Madonna's early "Holiday." Brown leads "It's a Girls Affair," celebrating feminism, a lesbian discotheque, or some inspired combination of the two. On "Angel in My Pocket," she brings the gospel-trained power that would soon ignite her own dance/R&B classic, "Somebody Else's Guy."

Uptempo yet buttery smooth, "The Glow of Love" and "Searching" float like slow jams, but with graceful uptempo grooves that buoy Vandross's gravity-free vocals. "It's a pleasure when you treasure all that's new and true and gay," he sighs with a boldness that would be soon rerouted into bittersweetness for his solo career. "The End" concludes the album with an instrumental shot of space disco that suggests sci-fi soundtrack themes. While gradually lessening their Change input, Petrus and Malavasi oversaw similar hits for the B. B. & Q. Band, High Fashion, the Ritchie Family, and others until Petrus was murdered in 1987, a few short years before Italo-house act Black Box once again united Italian musicians with black American singers — Martha Wash of Sylvester's backing vocal group Two Tons o' Fun (aka the Weather Girls), and Philly disco screamer Loleatta Holloway.

Queen Of Chinatown

Amanda Lear

African Queens

The Ritchie Family



12 Inches & More

Madleen Kane

Disco Resurrection

Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story

Larry Levan

The popular mythology is that everyone was dancing madly to the Bee Gees one moment and then suddenly froze in place at the end of summer 1979 for the Knack. In disco's North American strongholds — New York, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco and Montreal — the transition was far more gradual, and Larry Levan was one of the reasons why. DJ at downtown Manhattan's Paradise Garage, Levan had the ear of Frankie Crocker, the programming director and star DJ of the city's (and therefore America's) most popular station, WBLS. If Levan championed a certain record, it would end up on WBLS's adventurous playlist, and then spread to similarly adventurous stations and clubs.

Whereas Manhattan's other influential clubs preferred either New Wave (Danceteria) or hi-NRG (the Saint), the Garage's defining sound was soul with avant-garde quirks, many of them pioneered and popularized via Levan's remixes and productions. Spanning from 1978-86 to reflect the Garage's own '77-87 timeline, Journey Into Paradise includes both records Levan reshaped and created as well as other Garage classics that represent key motifs in his aesthetic. It features artists known for R&B (Chaka Khan, Patrice Rushen, Womack & Womack), funk (Positive Force), jazz (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Donald Byrd), New Wave (Yaz, Talking Heads), disco (Change, Sister Sledge), and '80s club grooves (Taana Gardner, Gwen Guthrie), but everywhere there's stylistic diversity and overlap that reflected the club's clientele — predominantly black bohemian and gay, but also straight, Latin and white.

Levan's eclecticism influenced New York's club scene, yet was inspired by a larger shift from late-'70s disco that reflected the homogenization of its overexposed center to diverse '80s club sounds that favored disco's margins. Instead of seamless segues of similar records featuring Eurodisco's steady pulse, Levan favored a far more impulsive approach that mirrored post-punk and dub while drawing from funk's polyrhythmic syncopations. He often tinkered for months with his own productions like the Peech Boys' 1982 proto-house anthem "Don't Make Me Wait" to get a sound both startling and sonically polished: Within a year, everyone from New Order to Run-D.M.C. was echoing Its handclaps that ping-pong from speaker to speaker.

What Larry Levan was to New York and the Paradise Garage, Frankie Knuckles was to Chicago and the Warehouse — a visionary DJ who didn't stop spinning disco just because Steve Dahl staged a disco demolition on the other side of town to destroy it. Just as Levan favored certain underground disco records that became known to his club's clientele as Garage music, Knuckles popularized records soon known as House music — including many of the same discs Levan liked.

Knuckles left the Warehouse in 1982, but the house tag was also applied to the music played at his next club, the Power Plant, as well as similar grooves spun by competing DJs like the Music Box's Ron Hardy. Knuckles and other Chicago DJs freshened their most-played records by reediting and augmenting them with simple drum machine tracks that added intensity and aggression. Soon they applied these beats to their own crude productions on local labels like Trax and DJ International, and within a few years house gained a worldwide following.

Although many early house records offer little beyond simplified disco drums and basslines, Knuckles work with Jamie Principle suggests Prince, the Human League and Italo disco: Both "Baby Wants to Ride" and its similarly popular flip "Your Love" exude an outsider/gay/post-punk sensuality that had taken on an additional sense of danger with AIDS. The other milestone here is Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body," a soul stomper featuring a ham-fisted piano riff eventually duplicated for nearly every Italo-house record. Knuckles would go on to more polished, far prettier hits, such as 1991's "The Whistle Song," but these are the embryonic tracks that grew into a movement.

World Clique


During the early '90s, dance music once again took over the world. Raw house and rave tracks that would've ordinarily stayed underground routinely packed the U.K. pop charts. Nearly every European country and many in Asia, South America and beyond had its own club scenes. Even American radio — which reluctantly played '80s dance pop but avoided anything that might provoke another disco backlash — began opening its doors to house acts like Technotronic, C+C Music Factory, Black Box and Snap! Even the Milli Vanilli scandal couldn't stop the biggest dance boom since John Travolta.

Like most disco, all of the aforementioned acts were producer-driven — C+C's only permanent members were the producers themselves. Deee-Lite differed from its peers in that the people who wrote, sang, performed, and produced the music also provided its visuals. Singer Lady Miss Kier herself designed the trio's dandified costumes that helped her, Ukraine-born Super DJ Dmitri, and Tokyo-born Towa Tei look like early-'70s Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Accordingly, Deee-Lite's music projected a larger/brighter/happier-than-life bohemia that countered rock's cynicism. "What is it that can make a lost soul found? Love!" Kier exclaimed in "Power of Love," a message that — like the band itself — went right back to the roots of disco.

Deee-Lite drew from house's basslines and beats, but was by no means limited to them: World Clique's biggest hit, "Groove Is in the Heart," features samples of disco, jazz, soul and Green Acres, as well as a spoken appearance by Bootsy Collins, rapping and ad-libs by Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, and horns by James Brown vets Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. The all-inclusive result sounded like no other 1990 single, but still reached No. 4 while the album went gold. A year later, grunge exploded and Deee-Lite's rainbow colors were soon washed away by a sea of flannel. You couldn't turn on the TV or watch a movie without hearing electronica, dance music's serious cousin, but grunge gave radio an excuse to back away from most anything with a drum machine that wasn't hip-hop, R&B, or Madonna. Not until 2009 and Lady Gaga could a song with "dance" in the title top the American pop chart.


LCD Soundsystem

As cofounder of DFA Records, early producer of the Rapture, and leader of LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy is the crucial bridge between yesterday's punk and today's disco. A veteran of several rock bands, the New Jersey-born, New York-based rebel nevertheless knows underground dance music, as his Special Disco Version club nights behind the turntables have proven. Whereas his conventional albums bring together post-punk, art-rock and various club beats, 2006's 45:33 offers an electronic update on the mutant disco sounds of Ze Records and New York's kindred early-'80s acts like Konk and Dinosaur L. Commissioned by Nike and initially sold as music specially designed to compliment jogging, Murphy later admitted that this was just a ruse for him to create a nonstop work in the spirit of Ash Ra Tempel guitarist Manuel Göttsching's pioneering 1984 trance epic, E2-E4, a Paradise Garage classic.

Indeed, 45:33 feels as though it was modeled after disco pioneer David Mancuso's strategy of sequencing music at his club, The Loft, as a reflection of nature's energy flow over the course of a day: It starts with a gentle warm-up, followed by a steady surge of movement, a burst of sustained activity, and then a restful cool-down. That arc — also the structure of most narrative fiction — became the ideal for many disco DJs playing lengthy sets for serious dancers, and here Murphy condenses it into a continuous 46-minute piece. He'd later recycle the third section for "Someone Great" on his 2007 disc Sound of Silver, but here it's a squiggly synth-led instrumental not unlike Patrick Adams's space disco jams with Cloud One. The section before it features Murphy at his most soulful; his impression of an '80s club crooner is almost as good as his imitation David Bowie, and the blaring, Arthur Russell-esque horns shortly after the 25-minute mark help make 45:33 LCD Soundsystem at its most ecstatic — and therefore, most disco.