7 lessons from the BBC’s fantastic disco documentary

Disco: Soundtrack Of A Revolution shows how most of modern DJing and club culture can be traced back to the creativity and struggle of marginalized communities in 1970s New York.

Across three 60-minute episodes, Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution, a new film series from BBC Studios and PBS, shows that disco, club DJing, clubbing and house music all stem from a time of intense struggle and upheaval. In the late ‘60s, the civil rights, anti-war, women’s liberation and gay rights movements were gaining momentum.. But despite a rise in social awareness, LGBTQ+ people in New York were persecuted outliers in society. Sodomy, cross-dressing and same-sex dancing were all illegal, and there was almost nowhere for people from LGBTQ+ communities to safely meet and escape through music. “People were rabid, wanting to dance,” said the DJ and promoter Nicky Siano, whose story is central to the disco movement and to the film. 

On 28th June 1969, the situation reached boiling point when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, one of the few places where the gay community danced at the time. “When the police came to raid the bar that night, people decided not to take it anymore,” said Steve Ashkinazy, a gay rights activist. The ensuing uprising was a “big bang” moment that could be considered the beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement and, in turn, disco, DJ and dance music culture. “Everything that happened at Stonewall that night happened because people were dancing,” said Siano. “Stonewall and the whole dance-music-disco movement are entwined forever.”    

The ensuing story of disco told in the film—from its evolution at underground parties, to its explosion as a global trend, its eventual, inevitable demise, and the rise of house music in its wake—is so fundamental to modern dance music and DJing that we wanted to highlight its key facts and ideas. With the fundamental role of queer people and people of color often overlooked in the dance music and DJ world, it’s about giving credit and paying respect.

Clubbing as we know it started at The Loft

Beginning on February 14th, 1970, David Mancusco threw legendary invite-only parties at his Manhattan home that would influence pretty much every significant disco DJ, party and club in New York that came after him. These gatherings brought people together to dance under a mirror ball without restriction, enjoying all kinds of feel-good music. “The Loft was about building a community that recognised the civil rights movement, gay liberation, women’s liberation, and bringing all of these people together from different walks of life to dance together” says Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, a long-time friend and collaborator of Mancusco. The Platonic ideal of a dance floor was formed at The Loft, one where everyone, no matter their story, was united through a shared experience of music and dancing.  

Mancusco would also set the standard for soundsystems, working to create the best possible sonic experience through the limited means available to him. “The technology wasn’t there,” says Mancusco, who died in 2016 aged 72, in archival footage. “[But] necessity is the mother of invention.” The sound engineer Alex Rosner explains how Mancusso tasked him with building a multi-directional tweeter system, which Rosner thought was a bad idea at the time, but it actually turned out to be a huge innovation. “In every club they copied it, all over the world,” he says. 

Whether we know it or not, each time we step onto a dance floor we are, in a sense, hoping for a type of experience that was first created at The Loft.  “I would consider David Mancusso the father of clubbing, because he created an atmosphere within an environment that would blow your mind while dancing,” says Siano.  

Earl Young gave us the four-on-the-floor beat

This is crazy to consider. All of the four-on-the-floor music you’ve ever heard—with the kick drum on every down beat, the fundamental drum pattern of disco, house and techno—stems from the technique of the drummer Earl Young. In a remarkable section of Soundtrack Of A Revolution, Young, who was a house drummer at the pioneering Philadelphia International Records, breaks down his signature style. 

There’s the kick on the downbeat, kept steady by Young’s famously impeccable timing. He deadened the snare drum by taping his wallet to it, and used the back of his stick to fatten the sound. Then came the off-beat hi-hat, which Young started open but then immediately slammed closed with his foot to give it that lovely shhhhh sound. “The bass drum is just hitting ‘four on the floor,’ boom, boom, boom, boom, it’s a heartbeat,” says the musician and producer Dexter Wansel, who also recorded with Philadelphia International. “And your body wants to move to the heartbeat.”

The earliest example of this can be found on “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, arguably the first disco track. It’s striking that the arrangement builds for 45 seconds and then essentially “drops” into the slamming four-on-the-floor groove. Crucial to its popularity: it was easy to dance to. And as Nicky Siano explains, this rhythm became the “drum beat of everything. That becomes the drum beat of disco.”   

One song can change the game

“The Love I Lost” is just one of a handful of tracks that completely changed the game as disco evolved across the 1970s. 

“Soul Makossa,” released in 1972 by the Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, also has a strong claim to be considered the first disco record. Its hypnotic groove and chanted refrain (which was later used without permission by Michael Jackson on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”) were popularized by David Mancusso at The Loft and Frankie Crocker on WBLS radio. The track went on to reach #35 on the Billboard chart. Writing in Rolling Stone in 1973, Vince Aletti, one of disco’s key chroniclers, cited “Soul Makossa” as the key track in an underground dance movement he called “discotheque rock.” 

“Danceable R&B” is the proto-disco term Siano uses in the film. He’s talking about the impact of Eddie Kendrick’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” from ‘72, one of the original “big tunes” of the era. This was an incredible Motown jam with a dynamic arrangement and a steady thump of a groove. “You would hear the first few notes and the room would just go crazy,” said Tina Magennis, a regular at The Loft. 

We also hear about a wave of music that broke into the mainstream, signaling the transition of disco from an underground scene to a major new force in the music business. “Love’s Theme” by Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, “Rock The Boat” by Hues Corporation, and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby,” famously one of the first tracks to use a drum machine, all spectacularly showed that there was new beat in town. 

In the age of the internet, with a fragmented listening public consuming all of recorded music on demand, can a single piece of music have the same game-changing impact? It’s unlikely, and while this might be nostalgia talking, that feels like a loss. 

Francis Grasso and the beginnings of beatmatching  

Picture your favorite DJ playing at your favorite club. And now imagine that DJ letting one track finish, before briefly pausing and playing the next one. As jarring as that may sound to us now (although, inspired by The Loft, DJs at some modern parties still do this), before the disco era it was the norm. Then came DJs like Francis Grasso, who played at The Sanctuary, one of New York’s leading clubs. “Francis Grasso was the first guy to really ‘disco DJ,’” said the producer Tom Moulton. “When he played he went from one [track] to the other, it was so smooth, so that when one record was fading out, this other one would come up but it would have the exact same beat.”  

Moulton is describing an early form of beatmatching. Back then, it was less about the extended transitions of 30-plus seconds we know today, and more about tidily moving from one track to the next while keeping the dance floor moving at a steady speed. “It would make them scream,” said Siano, referring to what was then a completely new musical experience for dancers. 

Siano goes on to describe how he looped tracks in those days. He played a section of the main groove from MFSB’s “Love Is The Message,” his signature song, layered a jet-plane sound effect over the top, and then repeated the section again and again. “They loved it!” he said. Both Grasso and Siano show that what we now know as fundamentals of DJ technique were created through inventive usage of simple technology.

Disco liberated Black female artists

No one in Soundtrack Of A Revolution more clearly embodies the evolution of Black women artists across the ‘60s and ‘70s than Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. “[Black women] were expected to carry ourselves a certain way in public,” says Nona Hendryx of the group. “You know, well dressed, well behaved, that’s how it was.” 

“Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles were fulfilling a vision of Black womanhood that was on the tailend of the early ‘60s Motown era,” says the art historian Dr Lisa Farrington. “They embodied that non-threatening persona that America wanted to place Black women in.”   

Near the start of the ‘70s, the group changed its name to Labelle and recorded a disco single. “Lady Marmalade” was, by contrast, completely wild—a funk-fuelled song about sex work that showed the group stepping out with an audacious new look. The stage was set for a new type of artist. 

“Disco freed me,” says Candi Staton, whose track “Young Hearts Run Free” was one of the biggest and best from the era. “It saved me.” The likes of Donna Summer, Thelma Houston, Sister Sledge, Betty Wright, Diana Ross, Gloria Gaynor, Cheryl Lynn and Anita Ward became some of the leading voices not just in disco, but in pop music generally. “Disco made it possible for Black acts to become pop acts,” says Vince Aletti. 

“Black women became stars, with huge LGBTQ followings,” says Lisa Farrington. “The Black disco diva was a breakthrough personna. And this means everything to Black women because the minute you see yourself in a raised position… it opens possibilities.”

Larry Levan created a template for modern DJs

The idea of the “DJ producer” is so ingrained now that it’s easy to forget that there was a time when the two weren’t inextricably linked. But at the Paradise Garage, the highly influential Greenwich Village club that opened in 1977, Larry Levan popularized the image of the DJ as a music maker and much more besides. 

“Larry was way ahead of his time,” said David Morales. “The first DJ remixer. The first DJ producer. The first DJ artist.” 

Although there had been importnat figures—like Walter Gibbons, the disco DJ who pioneered remixing and released the first-ever 12-inch single—Levan’s almost messianic status meant that everything he did would set the standard for a generation of DJs. “Paradise Garage for a lot of people was church,” Honey Dijon said.

Levan was a prolific remixer and producer, both solo and with his group Peech Boys. He was among the first to fold the vibes and ideas of dub into dance music, and he even achieved some chart success, most famously with his remix of Inner Life’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” But it was the sheer power of the Garage’s reputation that did the most to cement Levan’s legendary status. “No other club had a DJ like Larry,” said Bill Bernstein, “who played the kind of music Larry played, who made the decisions he made, who was as much in charge of the night as Larry.” 

Nowadays it’s difficult to imagine a DJ stopping the music to polish a disco ball on a packed dance floor, but Levan showed that a DJ could be loved enough to even consider such an audacious move.

As Honey Dijon put it: “He is the modern template of what a DJ is now.”

House music rose from the rubble of disco

By the end of the ‘70s, disco was eating itself. The once-underground sound had reached global popularity, aand with it came rampant commercialisation. The infamous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago, where disco records were blown up and a riot ensued, came to crystallize the growing “disco sucks” backlash, especially among rock fans. Even disco’s pioneer’s had grown tired of what it had become. “It’s pretty much dead,” Siano remembers saying in ‘79. 

But not far from Comiskey Park, at a club called The Warehouse, Frankie Knuckles was working on the next evolution of disco. “Frankie Knuckles is considered the godfather of house,” said Honey Dijon. “And so if you know anything about early house music, it was basically disco breaks and R&B songs, and Frankie Knuckles used to play a lot of things on reel-to-reel and he had early drum machines, so he was using drum machines and these disco break loops and he was creating this new genre of music without anyone really knowing it.” 

“What happened in Chicago is what African Americans do,” said Ron Trent. “We take scraps off the table and turn them into something high cuisine. And that’s exactly what house music is.” 

Like disco before it, house provided a safe haven for LGBTQ people of color. “House music was disco’s revenge,” said the writer and academic Francesca T. Royster. “The very parts of disco that were lost, the parts of black and brown creativity, its queerness, its ways that disco was part of a soundtrack of exploration before its whitewashing. House music picked that up and ran off with it.”  

Soundtrack Of A Revolution also makes clear that this was sound created through limited means. “It might have been a drum machine and one keyboard or one turntable,” said Ron Trent. “Whatever you could get your hands on. We’re talking about teenagers, we’re talking about people who don’t have money, trying to figure out how to express themselves with this equipment.” 

From house music came techno, deep house and acid house, before the sound hopped across the Atlantic to Europe and birthed rave culture and the countless sub-genres we’re familiar with today. But in essence, it all comes back to one thing. “If you take all the music today,” said David Morales, “every genre of electronic music owes everything to disco.”

Words: Ryan Keeling