People went out to nightclubs to dance and party before disco. They’d do it after disco, too. Nevertheless, there was a point in the 1970s when disco dominated popular culture like no musical craze has done ever since. It was a phenomenon that impacted nearly everything about people’s lives, from the movies they watched, to the clothes they wore, to the ways they interacted with each other. It was a social and sexual revolution set to a four-on-the-floor rhythm and sweetened with the sound of strings and the sultriest of divas.
Disco was so liberating, so exhilarating, that a lot of people inevitably felt embarrassed about what happened at the party once somebody turned the lights on. To many, disco was a discomfiting reminder of an era of foolish, even dangerous hedonism that was cruelly superseded by the rise of Reagan-era conservatism and—most tragically for the LBGTQ community that had fostered it—the devastation wrought by AIDS. For later generations, disco just became a joke whose punchline was the orange Afro wig you wore at a Halloween party. But that’s a huge disservice to a body of music that’s astonishingly varied and complex, one that not only absorbed innovations from across the era’s musical spectrum, but foregrounded the artistry of musicians and DJs far outside America’s cis white mainstream.
Like organisms in some primordial jungle, disco needed steamy environments to evolve. Some could be found in the queer vacation zone of Fire Island, where DJs in the early ‘70s developed the process of taking revelers up from a simmer to a boil and back again. They’d export these tactics to bathhouses and clubs back in Manhattan, as well as DIY spaces like David Mancuso’s Loft. Meanwhile, the era’s most vanguard African-American soul, funk, and R&B acts were creating a boogie wonderland. The lush Philly soul of Gamble and Huff, the cinematic sensibility of Blaxploitation soundtracks, and the symphonic seductions of Barry White would all become key elements of disco, as would more rhythm-forward dance-floor sensations like Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” Across the Atlantic, the Europeans were refashioning American-style R&B and soul with a sleek, machine-made throb in revolutionary productions like Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.”
The fact that this Giorgio Moroder-assisted orgasmic masterstroke arrived in 1975 illustrates the difficulty in precisely pinpointing a beginning point for the sound. But as our proto-disco playlist illustrates, the foreplay was just as pleasurable as everything that ensued.