Disco is arguably the most erotic musical genre ever created. Who can possibly listen to the roar of Barry White, the ‘Walrus of Love’, and not experience something stirring deep inside? But in its early years, the disco scene was more about love than lust – the kind of love that transcends divisions of race, religion and sexuality. Beginning with a legendary New York party, here’s how disco beat hate with heart.
Sly & The Family Stone
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
It’s Valentine’s Day 1970. Sly Stone’s funky, proto-disco single, with a message that dancing sets you free, is top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In New York City, music collector David Mancuso holds a party in his loft apartment on Broadway, playing his favourite funk, soul and R&B records. He calls the night, ‘Love Saves the Day’.
Eighty miles away, in Philadelphia, the musicians of Sigma Sound Studios were perfecting the Philly Sound – a richly orchestrated fusion of pop and rhythmic soul that set the disco template. Love Train, by The O’Jays (backed by the studio’s house band, MFSB), was one of Sigma’s first hits.
MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother)
Love is the Message
MFSB was a group of more than 30 musicians who worked at Sigma Sound. This typically lush instrumental track was a favourite of David Mancuso. The song sums up the vibe of his weekly discos at what had come to be known as the Loft – good-time music for all people, gay or straight, white or black.
You’re the First, the Last, My Everything
By the mid-70s, disco had risen above its underground New York roots and begun to enter the charts via hits by the Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band and the prince of pillow talk himself, Barry White. This remains one of the most anthemic, romantic songs ever pressed to disc, and the soundtrack to any decent fireside seduction.
Diana Ross’s sultry masterpiece marks the moment that disco became a runaway force. The song starts out as a dreamy ballad before suddenly increasing in tempo and emerging as an irresistible classic. Ross thought it too fast at first listen, but soon embraced the up-tempo sound.
I Feel Love
By 1977, disco needed some tough love, and it arrived in the soaring vocals of Donna Summer and her producer Giorgio Moroder, who brought the electronic edge of Italo disco to American pop. This revolutionary track was played heavily at the first ‘high-energy’ discos – forerunners of the house and techno clubs of the ’80s and ’90s.
Kiss Me Again
Arthur Russell was a shy cellist from the American Midwest and never an obvious disco icon. Yet he loved The Loft and poured his classical understanding into some beautiful, string-laden disco productions, including Kiss Me Again. Russell was stony broke when he died in 1992, but his musical legacy is uniquely rich.
McFadden & Whitehead
Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now
Disco’s upbeat inclusivity was abhorrent to some, especially Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl, who organised a ‘disco demolition night’ at the city’s Comiskey Park stadium in 1979. ‘Disco sucks’ was the message, but it didn’t carry far. At the same time as Dahl was blowing up records, hundreds of thousands around the world were spinning Gene McFadden & John Whitehead’s manifesto for global progress and togetherness. As the ’70s came to a close, David Mancuso was proved right: love had, indeed, saved the day.