Disco Is Love: I Love Disco, A Personal History

OK here’s the scene: I can’t stop listening to “Searching For Love” by Crown Heights Affair. I started writing this post three weeks ago but instead of words, my head started to fill with goo as I came down with a gnarly head cold turned sinus infection. Before the goo, all I could listen to was “Searching For Love,” side 1 track 1 on Do It Your Way (1976). It made the Q ride over the Manhattan Bridge at night light up in a new way, the sagging curbs of SoHo sparkle with runoff. When you stop caring about what people on the subway think of you when you dance only with your ankles, you know you’ve made it in New York.

I found this record, and Crown Heights Affair’s Dance Lady Dance (1979) both for $3 at Brooklyn Record Exchange over a decade ago. I’ve never seen other Crown Heights Affair LPs in my search before or since and they are prized Funk and Disco possessions.

I had forgotten about the song until I was making a playlist for work that turned out to be a playlist just for me because I quit my job and I needed something upbeat. Then I started doing that thing I hate (because it makes me listen to the same song over and over for too long) and go back to the same song over and over again: “Searching For Love.” It is infectious and throbbing. I am sucked into a close listening of it every time: the bass, the massive sound of the horn section (including a flugelhorn!), the snap of the hi-hat, the complexity of keeping such a developed, detailed beat perfectly for five minutes and fifty-five-fucking-seconds!! A live band did this!! An eight piece! Every time I hear it, I think about how hard this work is. Halfway through “Searching For Love” there’s a trumpet that screams, a blushing solo that I feel in my teeth every time.

Disco but also Funk & Soul & R&B but for me it’s the live aspect. Live! A big band, my favorite kind be it Funk or Jazz, playing together and of course they have STYLE!

Disco has always been a part of my life, ebbing and flowing with my sonic tides of music discovery. It started with Saturday Night Fever and the OST (1977) on vinyl. It was Dad’s and it’s been mine. I watched the movie with my folks (they saw it in theaters on their first date) sometime in high school or home-from-college-summer to learn the movie is …extremely dark (and long. It’s a Music Movie!). Then while gulping down New Journalism history, I discovered ‘Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night,’ a New York Magazine piece by Nik Cohn from June of 1976. Cohn went looking to cover the new dance club scene of working-class outer borough neighborhoods (read: Brooklyn) only no one would talk to him so he faked it. Written “as a short story in my mind” it later became the cultural smash of Saturday Night Fever: John Travolta, the white suit, the sexual violence, the cut on his face, “Yo! Would you watch the hair!” And two slices of pizza stacked as one: brilliant.

When I worked at SXM I won a company-wide employee raffle to attend the launch of the Studio 54 channel in New York City at the original Studio 54 theater. They had acquired all the original vinyl from the Studio 54 DJs and digitized it. The channel was another beginning of my understanding of Disco and where it came from. Having just read Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever (2011) I learned that what I know as Disco came from upper Manhattan and The Bronx where Salsa music was the culture, where Black & Brown people were living life in their own cultures of sound & dance and it traveled south. A big part of the dance and queer scene of nightclubs, it trickled down, or I guess up, to the mainstream because of its ability to, you guessed it, make money. So white people and record executives jumped on this. Now’s the time to tell you that in my alternate life I have a PhD in American Studies with a thesis on Disco.

On line with my +1, my shy freshman rando roommate who transferred away from Ithaca to NYU and since made a life here (and thus, a place to stay over), we were younger by decades in the crowd around us. It was a theater that looked so normal, and easy to pass by. But inside there was a dance floor, a balcony, and a spoon & moon hanging from the ceiling. Muscle-clad hunks in nothing but tube socks and short shorts served champagne and vodka (the event’s sponsors). We posed with the drag queens parading the dance floor, but didn’t linger long because the music simply doesn’t stop for anything or anyone. I immediately understood why people did (and do?) cocaine. (I have never been tempted. I’m outgoing & chatty enough. My husband says I’d “be insufferable” and you know what: he’s right.) This music was The Good Shit. A never ending movement, a thrashing of bass, horns, keyboards, and songs that are all choruses with brilliant bridges.

Then I read Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City (2005). (It’s mostly baseball writing, which you can get through because the writing is great, but it’s also about The Blackout of ’77, the garbage strike, and Son Of Sam.). Inside was a story my radio brain knew of from high school re-runs of Vh1’s ‘I Love the 70s’ (a formative viewing experience): Disco Demolition Night in 1979: where Disco records were eventually burned on the field after a White Sox game at Comiskey Park. The event was promoted BY THE MLB (!!!) and hosted by shock jock Steve Dahl, who despised Disco because he hated it but also because he was fired when the rock station where he worked changed genres to meet America’s love of Disco. It was, after all, the most popular genre in America at the time; see: Saturday Night Fever, which is one of the highest selling records of all time (a FABULOUS and personal favorite Wikipedia article). I had been introduced to the idea that “Disco Sucks!!” is homophobic before, but I can’t remember where. It wasn’t until the 2020 EXCELLENT HBO documentary ‘The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,’ where the story is retold correctly as a violent riot and public display of homophobia. After the game, Dahl started burning records on the field. Spectators joined in and they destroyed it to the point where the Sox had to forfeit the next night’s game.

I cannot begin to tell you just how amazing the HBO Bee Gees documentary is. I love learning about music, even if I don’t listen to it (I love a heavy metal documentary: watch ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’ from 2008). I had no idea The Bee Gees were a British-invasion-inspired band before they became the Bee Gees of Disco lore, before they became songwriters for the likes of Barbara Streisand. Robin, Maurice, and Andy have passed away so their interviews are dated but the end with Barry Gibb and the camera…it is so moving and delicate. He just wants his brothers back. No one wants to lose three (3!!!!) brothers in one lifetime let alone one. The story of their music and life is so fascinating. The Australian trio played, and continues to play, such a huge role in American culture and music. We have two copies of Saturday Night Fever in our vinyl collection: my dad’s and my husband’s mom’s. Everyone has it and if you don’t have it, let me know and I’ll send you a copy.

Barry Gibb talks about how he wanted to write something new and “More Than A Woman” and “Night Fever” and “If I Can’t Have You” tumbled out of him. “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” was covered by Al Green in 1972 on his album Let’s Stay Together, which now that I think about it, that’s definitely the first version of the song I heard. With Green, it’s a love song. Barry Gibb wrote it as a different sort of love song: when The Bee Gees got back together after taking a break from each other in 1971. The songs on Saturday Night Fever were played on the radio to hype up the release of the movie: the soundtrack was released a month before the movie. Barry tells the camera that he never thought of it as Disco, they just wanted to make something new as a band. The backlash against Disco and, specifically The Bee Gees, confused the Gibb brothers and made everything weird for them. Luckily people moved on from this. I don’t know why I’m relaying this whole documentary to you? Probably because it was the best documentary of the year.

The best part of ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’ is watching engineers unspool the tape of the “Jive Talkin.'” They took the drum beat they wanted and cut it up to create a room-long loop of so it would stay perfect, thus the same, for the whole track: the first ever recorded loop beat. They literally stand across the room with delicate sonic history flapping in the breeze.

Disco became a bigger part of my life when I met my husband, who LOVES Disco and while in the Getting To Know You Phase he played me Hooked On Classics (1982) an album recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of…all your favorite Classical hits only as….Disco. (Don’t worry: he also turned me on to Nina Simone and Joanna Newsom: the man contains multitudes.) Another piece of our Saturday Night Fever collection, and further proof of just how embedded it was (and is) in American Culture is the 1978 release of Sesame Street Fever which includes a Robin Gibb original composition and performance of “Trash.” “Trash!/I love it!”

Then when I made, for the first time in my life, a friend at work who has remained a friend in real life, Patrick. He upped my ABBA consumption 1000000% in the time we spent behind the counter together. And while I was telling him about my new love of New Wave, he told me he wasn’t surprised because a lot of New Wave is rooted in Disco: the club scene, electronic music, dance music, the gay club scene. When he said that a record scratched in my brain and it fell into place. I love music so much. There’s always more!

I’ve found myself defending Disco to people who write it off as easy as Pop music and who don’t realize that “Disco Sucks!!” is a lesser-known homophobic slur. Just because you don’t like music doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value: historically, sonically, culturally, and!! to other people! It took me a long time to learn that. Being a music snob is exhausting and for people in their 20s. Anyone still hanging on to music snobbery (at least publicly) past a certain age doesn’t have friends willing to tell them to shut up. And literally, having just seen Tár: just shut your mouth, it’s the biggest favor you can do yourself.

Do yourself another favorite and listen to “Searching For Love.” And then listen to the whole album. And then get over yourself and succumb to the power of Disco!