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Disco: From Billions to Backlash

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Disco: From Billions to Backlash


Donna Summer was the top selling female artist in the U.S. in 1979. Bad Girls shot to number one while both the title track and “Hot Stuff” (which would furnish a second Grammy for Summer) held the top spot on the singles chart and “Dim All the Lights” followed close behind at number two. Later in the year, Summer’s duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” became her fourth number one single in 12 months while On the Radio: Greatest Hits Vols. I & II earned her a third consecutive, number one, double album.


Elsewhere, Casablanca was doing good business with Village People, Cher, KISS, Parliament, Cameo, a Robin Williams comedy album (Reality…What a Concept), and recent signings like the Sylvers, Tony Orlando, and Captain & Tennille. “Things were popping then”, Chris Bennett says. “People were buying records in those days! It was really the golden age of the record business”.


Indeed, the music industry reached its zenith between 1977-1979 and disco accounted for many industry milestones: the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever (1977) on RSO sold nearly 30 million units worldwide in 1978 and became the top-selling soundtrack ever, “Y.M.C.A” by Village People became the biggest-selling single in the history of PolyGram when it moved 12 million units around the world, “Le Freak” by Chic achieved a similar feat for Atlantic Records when it sold four million units in the U.S., while singles by Rod Stewart (“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”) and the Rolling Stones (“Miss You”) generated even more untold millions for the WEA company.


In short, disco constituted an eight billion dollar a year industry. From records to sound equipment to fashion to club memberships, it was a cultural phenomenon. While the labels that helped usher disco into the clubs years earlier – Casablanca, T.K., Salsoul, West End – continued to churn out stacks of singles, major labels jumped on the bandwagon, creating disco subsidiaries and signing more dance-oriented acts.


However, by the middle of 1979, the word “disco” became a liability. A surplus of disco music yielded too much lackluster product and a massive backlash engineered by the media and advertising agencies ultimately forced disco back to its underground roots. Remarkably, Casablanca would score a number one pop hit with a disco song even after the supposed death of disco.


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Byrd: The land of disco was very exotic. It was like you were going into another magical world fueled by drugs, outlandish costumes, and people using fans. It was just nutty. You had to take your disco nap to get ready. You would look young and desirable as you were fan-dancing your way to oblivion.


Wheeler: There’s a slightly older generation in the disco world from New York. There was an entirely different scene on the west coast. San Francisco was very popular. It was probably the number two market for dance music. Chicago was big in dance music. Miami, of course. Boston was huge. Coming from the west coast and being young and experiencing dance music from there for the first time was a slightly different adventure than the New York people had. It wasn’t because the music didn’t get there. The hub of dance music, the original dance form of what ended up being called disco, did come out of New York. Salsoul was one of the first disco labels. It was just a forerunner in the whole scene.


Smith: Salsoul’s music was exactly that—salsa soul. It had a Latin groove to it and it was heavily orchestrated. It was different from things that came off of the west coast. When we would talk to DJs in NYC, their lists would always be so different from everybody else’s in the country


Hart-Winer: New York always saw themselves as a little more innovative and creative than the west coast DJs. If you wanted to get down and grungy and funky it wouldn’t be to a lot of our stuff. We were more pop.


Wheeler: Casablanca created their own sound much like what Salsoul did. The only difference is that Salsoul maybe was a little bit earlier and Salsoul product didn’t necessarily always cross pop whereas the machine of Casablanca was created to take it mainstream. They did it very well. When Donna Summer hit, no one could compete with Casablanca. We didn’t really work on KISS because of the fact that they didn’t really have danceable music but we worked basically anything that was danceable, remixed, R&B-soulful, anything like that. Pre-house, DJ’s played everything.


Rodriguez: We had such a brand that the consumer would buy a record just based on the fact that it was on Casablanca. Even if they hadn’t heard about the artist, they knew that it was on Casablanca and that if it was on Casablanca, it had to be good. That was special. We built one hell of a brand for creativity and for innovative music, unique, but at the same time, quality. Our artists were not just disco artists, they were artists.


Gold: I remember a conference call where Neil said that, “Disco is not just music to dance to. It is a culture. It’s a way of life—fashion, products and more. It will go beyond media as we know it today”.


Disc Jockey Steve Dahl in 1979

Disc Jockey Steve Dahl in 1979


Leroy Gomez(Santa Esmeralda): Everybody just got caught up in the disco movement. If you wanted to work you had to ride the wave. What was so great about disco was that it had that rhythm and blues roots. So many people could just jump on it because it wasn’t really foreign. It brought us out of the hippie era of the ‘60s. Really things hadn’t changed because we still had that notion of togetherness, love, peace, and all of that. When I got involved with disco, it was almost like you got caught in a whirlwind. No matter what type of music you liked, you always ended up evolving towards the disco sound.


Sudano: Disco was very musical. It got dissed by the rock world because of the four on the floor but musically, the playing was excellent and the string arrangements were excellent. There was a musicality to it beyond three-chord rock and roll that was going on there that people choose to ignore.


Cowan: The hard-core press that we would have liked to have had on our side at Casablanca – The New York Times and all the rest of it – they already hated everything disco. They didn’t pay any attention to what I called them about or stuff that we put out.  I didn’t understand how it could engender such venom and hatred from the music critics. It wasn’t that bad. For what it was, it was very well done. All you had to do was just let yourself get into it and it did take you over. You didn’t really have to be on drugs to enjoy it.


D’Ariano: I wasn’t in the “Disco Sucks” crowd at all. I love the excitement of pop music/rock music. If it was 1964, I was too young but, I would have loved to be working with The Beatles or the Rolling Stones in the capacity of what I do, promotion or marketing or whatever. It was very much a thrill ten years later, after The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, to be working with Elton John because he was The Beatles, phenomenon-wise. I was with the most exciting top guy. Now it’s ‘77-‘79, the biggest, most exciting, wildest phenomenon in the music industry is disco. I was thrilled to be involved. I loved the razzle dazzle and the excitement of it all. Taking nothing away from them but the Bee Gees kind of hijacked it and it became something else. Anything that’s anything starts out with the underground and then it grows. By the time everybody in the country’s into it, there’s nothing to do with the way it was three years earlier.


Brooks: All the labels were trying to jump on the bandwagon. At first it was like, “Oh no”. Then, when they saw what was happening, then they were scuffling to try to find who was going to be their disco department.


Moulton: Let’s face it, when you’re successful, everybody jumps on it. They want a piece of the pie.


Castle: At that point in time, it was determined that what Casablanca promoted best was disco so I was asked to do a disco album (laughs). Russ Regan and I had some discussion about it and Russ won the battle. I went in and cut sort of a pseudo-disco pop thing. I don’t think he liked it very much (laughs). I actually had written two more albums worth of music and cut one of those but I think out of shear desperation and commitment to making the charts, Russ wanted to do what he thought was the best thing to do at the time.


D.C. LaRue: I can remember Marc Simon was just told get as much stuff out there as you can. I can remember Kenny Friedman in New York City – because I was back and forth – he was the head of Disco Promotion. I went into his office one time and he had so many 12” records to work, he just started throwing them across the fucking office against the wall. He said, “D.C. What do they want from me? Look at this. Ten 12” records in five days! They’re garbage!” He’s screaming and throwing them across the room, like Frisbees. 


Wheeler: The whole disco era dying, or the press campaign that moved out of Chicago with the burning of dance records, these were all things because of an oversaturation of music, when everybody jumped on the bandwagon. Originally, in the early days of Casablanca, it was such a pure form of music. There was only a handful of labels that were actually putting out dance music and then, once it just started getting jumped on by advertising agencies, it became the absolute mass marketing purge of club music until it was hard to swallow. The death of disco was really a press move. It had nothing to do with anything more than advertisers needed to move into another direction with music and their campaigns because there was some backlash happening. It was a giant press move.


Rodriguez: Even when people in the industry were talking about disco is dead, here we come at Casablanca Records all over again with “Funkytown” and it shoots all the way to number one while everybody was saying that disco was dead!


Santa Esmeralda featuring Leroy Gomez - “Don’ Let Me Be Misunderstood” (1978)

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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