Kelly Anne Byrne, DJ from The Face Radio, stopped by to give Claire Byrne the skinny on all things Disco. Sister Sledge kicked the segment off with a taste of Lost in Music just to remind you of the essential disco four-on-the-floor beats, and as the song goes, 'there's no turning back’ from there. Claire opined that it was undoubtedly one of the most iconic decades of the last century but was it all glitter, flares and big hair or was there more to it? Kelly Anne gave us Disco’s origin story:
"It really began in gay clubs in New York in the early ‘70s... gay people went to these clubs, black people and Latino people and they felt safe. It was a safe place for them. How that had come about was the Stone Wall Riots in 1969 – that changed a lot for gay people – just after that men were able to dance with men in clubs. So it really all happened in gay clubs, it was the voice of gay people."
The first such club started out as David Mancuso’s ‘Love Saves The Day’ party at his home which later became known as ‘The Loft’. Here, Kelly Anne told Claire, the ethos was to welcome what he termed the outcasts in society at the time:
"Gay people, black people, Latino people. They could come to this place and they were safe".
And Mancuso’s parties went on to inspire many other clubs of the time including The Gallery, Studio 54 and Paradise Garage. But back to the music – Kelly Anne reminds us that there is a depth to disco music which is often overlooked and that if you remove the funky beats, the lyrics of some songs would leave you in tears.
"So if you think of the soul records of the ‘60s, they were written by men from the point of view of men and women had to sing things like, ‘baby don’t leave me’, […] 'you can walk all over me and I’ll never walk out that door’... which must have been tough, so when disco came about, the narrative changed and they sang things from their perspective. They sang about their desire, particularly their sexual desire".
Regaling Claire with a rather salacious story Kelly Anne talked about the making of Love to Love You by Donna Summer:
"She lay on the studio floor and she imagined Marylin Monroe in sexual extasy. They dimmed the lights and she groaned and she sang and moaned and the result was 16 minutes of her portraying having an orgasm."
Despite the BBC’s refusal to play it initially, the song still reached a respectable number 4 in the UK charts and peaked at number 1 in the US. This was likely due to the fact that for a period of time the charts were controlled by club DJs and people.
"The role of the DJ was huge […] DJs could break records in clubs. That had never happened before. You had to have your hit on the radio".
Soon the record companies figured this out and would ask DJs to play new tracks in the clubs for feedback before they were released officially. A DJ’s opinion could seal the fate of a piece of music.
Disco only lasted a decade and seemed to wrap up abruptly. Claire wondered why it had such a short life span. Kelly Anne feels that apart from the music disimproving towards the end of the decade, Disco Demolition Night in 1979 did not help the cause. Led by Steve Dahl (a rock DJ who lost his job when the station decided to become more disco), a group built a mound of disco records and blew them up on a baseball pitch in Comiskey Park Chicago Illinois.
"I believe it was driven by homophobia and racism, you know, it was the first time that African American and gay people were all in the charts [...] and a lot of people couldn’t take that."
Within 2 years of this incident, Kelly Anne says, disco was a dirty word. But despite its seeming demise, she maintains that disco "never went away, it went underground," and with the sense of escapism disco offers, it’s likely we’ll all be ready to boogie on down the next time we hear the four-on-the-floor! Whether you’re in the ‘Rock n Roll Forever’ or ‘Disco Sucks’ camp, when the Bee Gees or Chic hit the airwaves, it’s about as easy to not tap a foot as it is to suck/not chew a fruit pastille. Listen back to Claire's full chat with Kelly Anne Byrne here.