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Your guide to disco – where nightlife truly began

A blow-by-blow of everything you need to know about disco, from sexual politics on the dancefloor to New York City nightlife

There’s a specific euphoria that comes from sweating on a dancefloor to disco music. That repetitive disco beat, as comforting as the boo-boom of a maternal heartbeat, overlaid with soul-stirring violins and tales of heartbreak, survival, and coming out gets you right there.

Not only is disco riotously joyful and unapologetically sexy, it’s a genre that represents a fascinating and culturally rich moment in history. Disco was the birth of club culture as we know it. Disco is about a love of music and dancing and togetherness, and in a way it’s the soundtrack to a thousand coming out stories – of a new public gay consciousness in the 1970s, and of being whoever you wanted to be when the weekend came around. Of tolerance, unity and – on a basic level – just having a really great time high on life (and amphetamines).

With a focus on New York City-flavoured disco, this A-Z surveys a nightlife culture that was so much more than just a sound.


It took one Madison Avenue jingle writer to turn Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in C Minor into an unexpectedly perfect disco anthem. A bit silly, yes, but somehow right nonetheless. The remix was Walter Murphy’s only chart hit (he’s had a respectable post-disco career doing soundtrack work), and soundtracked John Travolta’s cocky entrance into the club in Saturday Night Fever, in which he full-mouth kisses women in the crowd and huh huh huhs his way across the floor his red leather jacket.


Andy Warhol hobnobbing at Studio 54. Young black kids at a Roller Disco. Dancers glistening with sweat. So many familiar photographs that chronicle the disco era were shot by Bill Bernstein, a photojournalist for New York’s Village Voice. “There was something important going on.” Bernstein said. “There was a very strong sense of inclusion and acceptable of all people, straight, gay, transgender, lesbian, black, white, old, young, famous and not famous. They all had a home at the disco.”


“I was always very concerned about the coat situation,” says writer Fran Lebowitz. Coat stress in the club might seem a vain anxiety, but the struggle was real even in the carefree disco heyday. “You were afraid that the coat-check girl would steal it, and you couldn’t afford to lose a winter coat. There would always be at least one person screaming at the coat-check girl: “Yes, it was a black leather jacket!” At The Loft, people would folds their coats and put them on the floor so they could kind of keep an eye on them. Then other people would sit on them and have sex on them.”


Billboard launched its Disco Action dance music chart in 1974, sending the sound of New York discotheques into the mainstream. As Studio 54 resident DJ Nicky Siano put it, they made “billions off an industry that we created” and labelled it ‘disco’. The chart compiled the Top 10 most popular songs played in New York discos – Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” was the first #1 – and regional charts soon popped up with distinct Philadelphia, Chicago, and LA sounds. Disco Action amplified the popularity of black artists championed by indie labels and disc jockeys onto Hot 100 success.


With disco records dominating the charts, it meant that so too did black women. With 16 minutes of orgasmic moans over Giorgio Moroder’s iconic beat, Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” filled clubs with the sound of brazen female sexual desire. And then there was Diana Ross, Cheryl Lynn, First Choice, Rose Royce, Candi Staton, Gloria Gaynor, and Chaka Khan – their manifestos of survival, independence and being ‘real’ brought a new sound of empowerment to the charts at a time when second-wave feminism was publicly dominated by white activists and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment was consistently thwarted.


Sandwiched between the politically turbulent Sixties and the AIDS epidemic and Republican grip of the Eighties, dancefloors in the Seventies symbolised a certain sacred freedom. A freedom from the Vietnam-era apathy spreading across America, of identity politics or the foreboding times ahead. Inside the club, dancers could forget about Nixon or unemployment or the Iran Hostage Crisis and get lost in music.


Gay bathhouse Continental Baths wasn’t like other New York saunas. It was clean, grand, and Grecian in style. Alongside the glittering blue pool and saunas, it housed a cabaret (with acts as diverse as Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, and a young Frankie Knuckles), an STD clinic, hamburger stand, and importantly, a disco dancefloor. “The Continental Baths changed things more than Stonewall did,” said gay rights activist Larry Kramer. At a time when gay life and ‘public life’ were largely separate, The Baths was a place to have gather, dance, and have sex with other guys. The dancefloor, according to Manager Jorge La Torre in Tim Lawrence’s disco bible Love Saves The Day, “embellished the experience of gay sex and gay community.”


When Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards wrote Sister Sledge’s “He’s The Greatest Dancer”, they dressed a fictional Adonis in the Halston, Gucci, and Fiorucci, the brands favoured by wealthy, style-conscious crowds in the late 70s. “He looks like a still, that man is dressed to kill,” Sledge sang. Italian label Fiorucci was loved for acid-yellow overalls, glitter-fringed cowboy shirts and the good vibes at his store, which was managed by New York drag royalty Joey Arias. Shoppers were offered free espressos to caffeinate before a long night of dancing.


“…looking for action, feeling alright,” Kevin Kline croons creepily on Cristina’s “Disco Clone”. Even after dozens of listens, it’s hard to tell whether this strange pastiche of disco hedonism and basic bitches is awfully wonderful or wonderfully awful. Either way, it’s deliciously addictive, and one of the key singles to come out of anarchic mutant disco label ZE Records. “I don’t know the name of the girl I brought home,” Kline cackles. “But the face was familiar. She’s a disco clone.”


Before disco, a night out meant listening to a rock ‘n’ roll jukebox or a live concert band. Nice, but… kind of vanilla. Early DJs like Terry Noel (supposedly the first person to mix two songs together, though many others have made this claim) still played 60s failsafes like The Beatles, Elvis, Sinatra, and the Mamas and Papas. But when DJ Francis Grasso took over his set at The Sanctuary, a converted church that literally put the DJ at the alter, things changed. The relationship between DJ and audience became crucial. A good jockey constantly read the mood of the room, crafting a set to keep people on the floor. Grasso played a mix of funk and soul alongside West African percussion and rock ‘n’ roll, introducing clubbers to new music they couldn’t stop dancing to.


Noticing the almost religious power of disco over its devotees, gospel artists started releasing evangelical disco records to send The Lord’s message into clubs. On the sublime “Stand On The Word”, Phyllis Joubert and the Celestial Choir deliciously chant “That’s how the good Lord works / We must not question the good Lord” over a smooth beat and piano. “If you think of Jesus as some really sexy Mexican guy, the ideas and emotions are the same,” Horse Meat Disco’s James Hillard put it. “It’s about love and giving yourself over to someone completely.”


“Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts!” Josh Neff shouts with passion in Whit Stillman's stylish cult classic The Last Days of Disco. Based on the last days of Studio 54, the slow decline is marked, like any dying music scene, by businessmen on the dancefloor. But it was also a space for twenty-somethings to figure out who they were. To seduce, forget and learn how to be. Sometimes a place to feel awkward as hell. The moral of the story? It can’t be so bad when Ryan Paris’ “Dolce Vita” is on the turntable.


“This is not a photograph of the heavens, the Milky Way or a new constellation!” announced Illustrated Magazine in 1921 under a sketch of a 27-inch ‘Myriad Reflector’ – or mirrorball, as it came to be known. Used in jazz clubs in the 1920s, the mirrorball really took off when those reflected shooting stars could mesmerise a floor full of high, blissed-out disco dancers. Authentic mirrorballs came from the Omega Factory in Louisville, Kentucky, which also made Liberace’s mirror-encrusted piano.


By 1978, disco had gone well and truly mainstream. It was everywhere – across the charts, the radio waves, and bad wedding parties. Saturday Night Fever’s release the previous year meant that even the uncoolest of family members were now au fait with disco, and prepared to show their Travolta impressions to anyone. “Disco’s so straight!” deejay Dennis Erectus complained. “It’s something Nixon would approve of!” Even Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, and the gang had released Sesame Street Fever, a piss-take cover album.


One hit wonders get a bad rap. But some of the disco’s best songs came from artists who peaked at greatness at just the right time, and in a way that’s sort of beautiful. Just like you can’t always replicate the conditions that make a 2am rush of euphoria so specific, their later releases couldn’t match up. Recommended One Hit listens: Andrea True Connection (“More, More, More”), Odyssey (“Native New Yorker”), Fern Kinney (“Groove Me”), Van McCoy (“The Hustle”) and Carl Douglas (“Kung Fu Fighting”.


Even amidst disco’s peaking popularity within the mainstream, Paradise Garage maintained the underground energy of the early clubs like The Loft and The Sanctuary. A mostly queer, black, and Latin-Caribbean crowd would come for eclectic sets from Larry Levan, who’d play a seamless mix of disco, R&B, and funk. Levan championed West End Records releases like Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face” and “Work That Body” by Taana Gardner, a gorgeously repetitive ambient track that knowingly nods to the impending disco/Chicago house crossover.  


The drug originally favoured by anxious housewives (which makes sense when you learn that ‘Quaalude’ is a portmanteau of the lovely sounding ‘quiet interlude’) was the disco club snack du jour. Like ecstasy or amphetamines, taking a Quaalude meant entry into a euphoric realm in which you were the best version of yourself. Because so many people fuelled their nights with a few ‘ludes and bumps of cocaine, nightclubs could forgo a license for booze and dance parties like The Loft laid on juice bars for the high crowds.


In 1979 the charts were alive with Chic, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Gloria Gaynor, Ashford and Simpson, and Sister Sledge. But a backlash had started, stoked by those scared by disco’s ‘flaunting’ of fluid sexualities, gender identities, and marginalised people. Fran Lebowitz – once happy to dance around her coat at The Loft – pronounced disco “over”, and a front of rock radio deejays led a homophobic anti-disco campaign culminating in the burning of disco records at Comiskey Park on Disco Demolition Night, united by the ‘Disco Sucks!’ slogan. “The epitome of all that’s wrong with Western civilisation is disco,” a Punk magazine journalist wrote. “Kill yourself… Drive nails into your head. Become a robot and join the staff at Disneyland. OD. Anything. Just don’t listen to disco shit.” Within a year, major labels were shutting down their disco divisions.


One of West End Records’ greatest releases is “Sesso Matto”, the culled theme from 1973 Italian film How Funny Can Sex Be? (which is perhaps a good life philosophy). A funkier Italian version of I Feel Love (more sexy moaning!) but with more brass, it’s one of the first tracks to include scratching in the disco mix.


David Mancuso is the charismatic, ethereal beardy dude whose underground dance parties at The Loft (his actual home on Broadway) shaped the identity of the modern dancefloor as a place of tolerance, ecstasy, and shared passion for music and dancing. The vibe was zen: decorated with hundreds of balloons, a yoga shrine, a buffet of juice, nuts and fruit, and two iconic pairs of Klipschorn speakers, the dancefloor reflected the counterculture energy of a 1960s protest march with a funkier soundtrack. From its 1970 beginnings, the focus at The Loft was always dancing; copping off was secondary. The mish-mash of races, sexualities, and class set the tone for ‘anything goes’ dancefloor openness.


Few New York City clubs allowed entry to openly gay people in the 1950s and 60s, and ridiculous ratio policies – meaning there often had to be one woman for every three men on a dancefloor – continued into the early 70s. “The lesbians who lived on the island made up the numbers!” Michael Fesco, owner of The Ice Palace, says in Love Saves The Day. Clubs with gay patrons had more chance of operating by paying bribes to mafia and corrupt police forces, but those in the club still faced arrest if they were caught same-sex dancing. In 71, Mayor Lindsay’s administration slightly relaxed homosexuality laws in public night spaces, announcing “they have a right to a drink.”


Vogue ballroom culture ran parallel to the early disco years. And like early parties at The Loft, the Vogue scene offered a space for queers and black transvestites to party, throw shade, and battle with rival Houses at clubs like Footsteps. “They looked like Las Vegas showgirls,” Frankie Knuckles says in Love Saves The Day. Knuckles and best friend Larry Levan’s introduction to New York City clubs came during their teen years on the drag scene. “They wore these beaded gowns from head to toe and headdresses that went all the way up to the ceiling. They worked on these outfits.”


One of disco’s most iconic moments happened on May 2, 1977, when Bianca Jagger rode into Studio 54 on a white horse. Like Lady Godiva of Manhattan in a postbox red dress. Only that didn’t happen. Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell invited the steed to the club as birthday surprise for Jagger, who loves horses. “I find the insinuation that I would ride a horse into a nightclub offensive,” she said years later. “I made the foolish decision to get on it for a few minutes… I hope that you can understand the difference between ‘coming in’ on a horse and getting on one.” Quite.  


Frustrated by a DJ’s inability to maintain energy on a dancefloor in gay club haven Fire Island, producer Tom Moulton came up with a plan. He recorded a series of “failsafe” DIY tapes with a dream back-to-back playlist to keep people dancing with no breaks in music. Though totally impersonal compared to a DJ, the tapes led to the concept of the extended mix, allowing for longer tracks and more time for dancers to get lost in a mood. The extended 12-inch single was born.


When Sylvester’s second album Step II was released, it opened with “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, an unapologetic, synth-heavy statement of gay affirmation that swept across NYC dancefloors. It’s still a core disco anthem that pulls you onto the floor, and at the time such an open declaration of sexuality felt fresh. Known on the San Francisco scene for his falsetto voice, Sylvester was also an HIV/AIDS activist and friend of Harvey Milk. When Sylvester died of pneumonia resulting from AIDS, he was buried in a red kimono and all of his future royalties were donated to San Fran HIV and AIDS charities.


“Disco is more than just a form of music,” academic Richard Dyer wrote in the 1979 issue of journal Gay Left. His essay, In Defense of Disco, represents an important moment, of disco being taken seriously as a cultural phenomenon and expression of new gay consciousness. His meditations on the aural romance of disco are particularly lovely. On Diana Ross: “she both reflects what that (gay male) culture takes to be an inevitable reality (that relationships don't last) and at the same time celebrates it, validates it.”