HOT STUFF: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, by Alice Echols
Disco snuck up on America like a covert operation. This wasn't how it had been in the '60s, when shifts in popular music - the arrival of the mop-headed British Invasion bands, Bob Dylan's galvanizing electric turn, the emergence of psychedelic rock - were unmissable cultural events immediately accorded the status of milestones. The rock "revolution" of the '60s, like the Vietnam War and the protests it provoked, was the object of intense media coverage. Newsweek, Life, Time and all the rest pounced on the story with prairie-fire speed. In a blink, whole new publications, including that soon-to-be arbiter of countercultural taste, Rolling Stone, emerged to chronicle the music, personalities and culture of rock. The major labels may have been bewildered by the scruffiness, long hair and druggy vibe of groups such as Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead, but they barely paused before racing to sign them up, even when they were little known outside of San Francisco's hippie enclave, Haight-Ashbury.
Six years later, when another musical revolution was taking shape, record companies opened neither their arms nor their coffers, with the result that disco developed slowly and at first largely off the official map. By the time Vince Aletti wrote about what he called "party music" and "discotheque rock," in a fall 1973 issue of Rolling Stone, gay men had been dancing in discos for three years. It would take another year before Billboard magazine began keeping track of "hot dance club" cuts, and two more before the major labels began to take the music seriously. One reason that disco lingered below the radar was that the clubs in which it incubated were predominantly gay and, with the exception of the glitziest, initially relatively unknown to the larger population.
Discos were not nearly so invisible to music business insiders, who began hearing about crowded clubs where danceable R&B or soul records played continuously rather than in between musicians' sets. When Motown's Frank Wilson learned that Eddie Kendricks' "Girl You Need a Change of Mind," a 1973 track he produced, was popular in New York's discos, he was "shocked. That was not what we were going for," he recalls. "We were after radio." Disco's multiracial, largely gay clientele was not one that the music industry seemed eager to court.
To industry executives, the dance crowd represented a mere sliver of the demographic they craved, and, one imagines, a rather unwelcome one at that, given the prejudices of the time. While the invisibility of the scene kept disco culture underground, the music operated in a more complicated fashion. Indeed, another reason disco registered so feebly during its formative years was that much of the music that club deejays played was anything but underground. Early discos weren't like Bill Graham's Fillmore, which at first featured groups playing freak rock that had yet to find a home on the radio. Although disco deejays sought out and sometimes made clubland hits of less well-known records such as "Soul Makossa" by the Cameroonian-born saxophonist Manu Dibango or "Woman" by the Spanish group Barrabás, many of the tracks they played were staples of R&B radio. Millions of Americans were listening to the same records by the O'Jays, Temptations, and ex-Tempts that were heating up disco dance floors. In a curious twist, disco's reliance on popular soul hits provided the emerging scene with a kind of camouflage.
Excerpted from "Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture" by Alice Echols. Copyright 2010 by Alice Echols. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. "Hot Stuff" can be purchased online at amazon.com and other retail sites.