How I Missed the Disco Era

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

In 2001 David Swatling met writer John-Manuel Andriote at a literary festival in New Orleans to talk about his book ‘Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco.’  They had very different experiences of the 1970s dance-music craze.

 

Listen to Part One: Do the Hustle!
 

Listen to Part Two: Fever to Inferno

 
My first memory of disco goes back to the summer of 1975. I was working as the drama counsellor in a summer camp for wealthy Jewish kids from the New York City area. A 16-year-old junior counsellor from Queens named Amy had a serious crush on me. Maybe because I was directing Broadway musicals, she thought I'd be the perfect partner for a new dance that was sweeping clubs in the city: The Hustle.

 
Try as I might, I couldn't master the simple box step Amy tried with increasing frustration to teach me. "What's wrong with you?" she cried. "It's not me," I shot back. "It's the steps - they don't go with the beat!" With a condescending glare teenagers reserve for obtuse adults, Amy sighed, "Maybe you're just too old to get it."  I thought she might be right. After all, I had just turned 23.

 

Breathy Orgasms
Back home after summer camp, my roommate bought Donna Summer's first recording of ‘Love to Love You Baby.’ I couldn't believe what I was hearing! A 17-minute track with 22 simulated orgasms! Certainly no one would play this on the radio, I thought. In fact, the BBC did ban it in Britain but in America, despite the stir it caused, it reached number 2 on the pop charts. The more I listened to it (my roommate played it over and over again) the more I began to get into its sultry rhythms and Donna Summers' breathy vocals.

 

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Fast-forward to a spring night in 1977. My roommate and his boyfriend had bought matching black velvet suits to attend the opening of some new club. I wasn't particularly interested until the next day when I was told about what one journalist called New York's "first disco theatre" - spectacular lighting effects, hunky waiters in silk trunks and tank tops, a virtual pharmacopoeia of drugs, a guest list that included celebrities like Brooke Shields and Cher. Yes - I had missed the opening of Studio 54!

 

European Roots
In his book ‘Hot Stuff’ John-Manuel Andriote explains the roots of disco music can be traced to the underground gay clubs in big American cities during the 1970’s, even if the word ‘disco’ had European roots. Donna Summer met producers Georgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte while touring in Europe. In fact, she signed a contract with them in the Netherlands where her first album was produced prior to recording ‘Love to Love You Baby.’
 

 
Andriote points out that disco provided the recording industry with some important technological advancement. When “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” by the brothers Tavares hit record stores in 1976 as the first 12-inch 45-rpm single available to the public, it was the industry’s first new commercial format in almost thirty years! Such innovations helped DJ’s reach almost demi-god status when record companies realized a song could make it to the top of the charts from club exposure alone - without ever being played on radio.

 

Return to Disco
In spring 2001, I found myself in New Orleans, visiting my old New York roommate. He took me to a popular gay bar for their weekly Trash Disco Night. When the song ‘Love Is In The Air’ started, bartenders grabbed boxes of cocktail napkins and raced around handing a fistful to each customer. As the instrumental bridge began to build everyone started waving their napkins like angel wings. When the chorus began, the men sang along, threw the napkins in the air and the bar seemed to disappear in clouds of giant confetti. Disco was back. This time, I was enjoying it like everyone else.

 

‘Do the Hustle!’ and ‘Fever to Inferno’ were produced and present by David Swatling. The programs were originally broadcast in May 2001 as part of our series Aural Tapestry.