7 Lessons to Learn From The BBC's Fantastic Disco Documentary

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7 Lessons to Learn From The BBC's Fantastic Disco Documentary

The documentary series "Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution" produced by BBC Studios and PBS, delves into the origins of disco, DJ culture, clubbing, and house music, set against a backdrop of intense social change. Over the course of three 60-minute episodes, the series examines how these genres took shape in the late 1960s, during the civil rights, anti-war, women's liberation, and gay rights movements. Despite increasing social consciousness, LGBTQ+ individuals in New York were still subjected to harsh persecution, with laws prohibiting sodomy, cross-dressing, and same-sex dancing. As a result, LGBTQ+ communities had very few places to gather and revel in music safely.

DJ and promoter Nicky Siano, an influential figure in the disco era, reminisces, “People were desperate to dance.”

On June 28, 1969, a critical moment unfolded as police stormed the Stonewall Inn, one of the few refuges for the LGBTQ+ community. "That night, when the authorities raided the bar, the patrons reached their breaking point" recounted Steve Ashkinazy, a prominent gay rights advocate. The subsequent revolt became a defining "big bang" event, igniting the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement and laying the groundwork for the emergence of disco, DJ culture, and dance music. Siano highlights, "The events at Stonewall that evening were driven by the desire to dance. The legacy of Stonewall and the entire dance-music-disco movement are inextricably linked."

The documentary traces the evolution of disco, from its roots in the underground scene to its global dominance, eventual downfall, and the birth of house music. This story is vital for comprehending contemporary dance music and DJ culture. By highlighting the crucial roles played by queer individuals and people of colour, the film ensures that these frequently marginalised pioneers are finally acknowledged and honoured for their contributions.

The Birth of Modern Clubbing at The Loft

On February 14th, 1970, David Mancuso began hosting exclusive parties at his Manhattan home, shaping the future of New York's disco scene. These gatherings, known for their diverse, feel-good music and unrestricted dancing under a mirror ball, significantly influenced every notable disco DJ, party, and club that followed. “The Loft was about fostering a community that acknowledged the civil rights movement, gay liberation, and women’s liberation, uniting people from different walks of life through dance,” explains Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, a longtime friend of Mancuso. The Loft set the standard for an inclusive dance floor where everyone could connect through music.

Mancuso also revolutionised sound systems, striving to provide the best auditory experience with the technology available. “The technology wasn’t there,” Mancuso, who passed away in 2016 at 72, noted in archival footage. “[But] necessity is the mother of invention.” Sound engineer Alex Rosner recalls how Mancuso’s request for a multi-directional tweeter system, initially deemed impractical, turned into a groundbreaking innovation. “Every club copied it, worldwide,” Rosner states.

Every time we dance, we chase the experience first crafted at The Loft. “David Mancuso is the father of clubbing, creating a mind-blowing atmosphere for dancing,” says Nicky Siano.

Earl Young and The Iconic Four-on-the-Floor Beat

Earl Young's drumming technique gave birth to the ubiquitous four-on-the-floor beat, characterised by a kick drum on every downbeat—a fundamental element of disco, house, and techno. In "Soundtrack of a Revolution" Young, a house drummer at Philadelphia International Records, breaks down his signature style. Known for his impeccable timing, Young deadened the snare with a wallet  and used the back of his stick to thicken the sound. His off-beat hi-hat technique created a distinct "shhhhh" sound. “The bass drum is just hitting ‘four on the floor; boom, boom, boom, boom, it’s a heartbeat,” explains musician and producer Dexter Wansel.

The earliest example of this beat can be heard in Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost,” considered the first disco track. The song’s arrangement builds for 45 seconds before dropping into the iconic groove, making it easy to dance to. Siano remarks that this rhythm became the “drum beat of everything,” shaping the foundation of disco.

One Track Can Transform The Music Scene

“The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes is one of several tracks that revolutionised disco in the 1970s. Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” released in 1972, is often cited as the first disco record with its hypnotic groove and chanted refrain, later famously sampled by Michael Jackson.

Popularised by David Mancuso at The Loft and WBLS radio, the track reached #35 on the Billboard chart. Disco chronicler Vince Aletti highlighted “Soul Makossa” as pivotal to the burgeoning “discotheque rock” movement.

Eddie Kendrick’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” another early hit, had a profound impact on dance floors. Tina Magennis, a regular at The Loft, recalls the excitement the song generated. Tracks like Barry White’s “Love’s Theme,” Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” (one of the first to use a drum machine) signalled disco’s transition from an underground scene to a mainstream phenomenon.

In the age of digital music and fragmented audiences, the impact of a single track has diminished, which feels like a nostalgic loss.

Francis Grasso and The Art of Beatmatching

Before disco, DJs typically let one track end before starting another. Francis Grasso, a DJ at The Sanctuary in New York, changed this by seamlessly transitioning between tracks with matching beats. Producer Tom Moulton describes Grasso’s early form of beatmatching as revolutionary, keeping the dance floor’s energy steady. Nicky Siano recounts how looping tracks, a technique inspired by Grasso, created new musical experiences for dancers.

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Disco's Empowerment of Black Female Artists

"Soundtrack of a Revolution"; highlights the transformation of black female artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s, exemplified by Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. Initially embodying a non-threatening image suited to the early ‘60s Motown era, the group evolved into Labelle, embracing a bold new persona with the disco hit “Lady Marmalade.” This shift allowed artists like Donna Summer, Thelma Houston, and Gloria Gaynor to achieve mainstream success. Vince Aletti notes that disco enabled black acts to become pop acts, with the black disco diva becoming a significant figure.

Larry Levan's Legacy as a DJ Producer

At the Paradise Garage, Larry Levan defined the role of the DJ as a producer and more. “Larry was way ahead of his time,” says David Morales, noting Levan’s pioneering status as a DJ remixer, producer, and artist. The Paradise Garage’s legendary reputation, coupled with Levan’s innovative remixes and productions, set the standard for future DJs. Levan’s influence is evident in his chart-topping remix of Inner Life’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and his transformative approach toDJing.

House Music: Disco's Resurgence

By the late ‘70s, disco’s over-commercialization led to a backlash, epitomised by the Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park. However, at Chicago’s Warehouse, Frankie Knuckles was developing house music, blending disco breaks with R&B and early drum machines. “Frankie Knuckles is considered the ""godfather of the house" says Honey Dijon. House music, described by Ron Trent as turning “scraps into high cuisine,” provided a new creative outlet for LGBTQ people of color. Francesca T. Royster views House as “disco’s revenge,” reclaiming the creativity and queerness of the original disco movement.

From house music emerged genres like techno and rave culture, underscoring disco’s lasting influence. David Morales concludes, “Every genre of electronic music owes everything to disco.”

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