Disco Fever Sweeps the World
IN BROOKLYN, New York, last December an international gathering of students was discussing social activities in the 20 countries from which they had come. “Are there discos (discotheques) in your country?” they were asked. “Are they very popular?”
Hands flew up around the room. “Discotheques are very popular in my country,” a student from Portugal answered. Similar responses were made by persons from Mexico, the Philippines, Jamaica—country after country. This popularity has come with spectacular suddenness.
It was in the mid-1970’s that disco exploded on the entertainment scene. Then, as though carried by a mighty tidal wave, it swept world wide.
Its Tremendous Impact
In some areas, practically every kind of place imaginable is being turned into a disco, and many have rushed to cash in on the profits.
In a recent year, total disco revenues are put at about $5,000,000,000 in the United States alone, ranking it second only to organized sports in the entertainment field. In the U.S., in the past year, the number of discos reportedly increased from 10,000 to 18,000, which means that over 20, on an average, have been opening every day. Some 40 to 45 million Americans have gone to a disco at least once; 17 to 19 million do so regularly.
Even if you don’t go to discos, your life may be touched in many ways. Do you like to skate? Well, roller rinks are now rapidly converting to disco. By the end of 1978, estimated Discothekin magazine last summer, 1,000 of the 6,000 rinks in the United States would be Roller Discos. The magazine said that this would expose “an additional 3 million people each week to disco music.”
Do you watch television? The heavy disco beat can be heard in the background music of commercials and dramas. It throbs over the airwaves of radio stations. It is played during the half time of football games, and is piped into stores. While shopping, you may find whole sections of department stores with racks of clothes designed especially for disco dancing.
Even totally unrelated businesses are attempting to cash in on discomania. According to Discoworld magazine: “There exists a pharmacy actually called Disco Drugs! Seems to be a chain of drugstores throughout southern California, having nothing whatsoever to do with the disco concept, except that the popularity of the term attracts unknowing customers.” The same magazine tells about boxes of Disco Chips appearing on the bread shelves in New York city.
What Is Disco?
Discotheque—disco for short—was until recently an unfamiliar word. The World Book Dictionary defines “discothèque” as, “a night club where phonograph records are played for dancing.”
But disco involves more. Discoworld, one of the magazines born in 1976 in the heat of disco fever, explains: “In one way, Disco was a seventies version of returning to the juke box. Only this time around, the juke boxes were louder and larger and more grandiose than ever before.”
So the term “disco” does not identify only a place for dancing, such as a night club, but also refers to a distinctive type of music that is designed for dancing.
But what makes a modern discotheque different from former places for dancing? And how does disco music differ from other music?
Distinctive Music and Places
What gives disco music its distinctive sound is the very heavy bass beat, which throbs repetitively at 4/4 time and about 120 beats per minute. The music also has a lyrical “hook”—often as simple as something like “I love you”—which is repeated over and over again. The bass speakers are usually down near the floor so that dancers literally feel the driving, insistent beat through their entire bodies. Thus totally deaf people can dance to the music because, even though they can’t hear it, they feel the beat.
Generally, at modern discotheques disco music is played. But this new type of music is not the only thing that distinguishes discotheques from former places for dancing. They also characteristically have frenetic, flashing, colored lights, electric images reflecting from mirrored walls, and sparkling ceilings. All of this is designed to create a psychedelic experience.
Yet the heart of today’s disco is its sophisticated, high-powered sound system, which may cost tens of thousands of dollars. The phonograph records, too, are the product of modern technology. These records are the electronic mix of different instrument groups that have recorded their parts separately and at different times. This procedure is called multitrack overdubbing. The fancy overdubs and crisp edits are what make disco records attractive to many. As Discoworld noted: “Live disco performances just don’t measure up to their technologically souped-up studio versions.”
Also, the role of the disc jockey figures in the success of a discotheque. There is an art in moving from one song to another without a break in the beat, and in knowing exactly what piece to play when. Spinner magazine notes regarding a top disc jockey: “By using the right record psychology and lighting, he can create an acceleration that brings people to a pinnacle of frenzy and decelerate to the lull of a lullaby without losing their interest.”
Beginnings of the Fever
The disco sound was born in recent times in New York, being derived from a combination of black and Latin music. It first became popular in the summer of 1974. About the same time, a new disciplined dance performed with a partner was also developing—The Hustle. This is the dance that gave life to disco. It is somewhat similar to the lindy or jitterbug of an earlier generation. Then, in 1975, songwriter Van McCoy wrote the catchy musical hit The Hustle, and disco fever started to rise.
What really sent disco fever skyrocketing, however, was the movie Saturday Night Fever, first released late in 1977. By last year it had grossed $130 million (U.S.), making it one of the biggest box-office hits in the history of motion pictures. The sound-track album has sold an unprecedented 15 million copies, surpassing The Sound of Music as the highest grossing album in recording history. And disco fever seems to keep on rising.
Why Do People Go?
More persons are dancing than at any other time in recent memory. Why? What draws them to discos?
Writing in Harper’s magazine, Salley Helgesen perhaps summed it up well. “Listen to me,” she said, “discos are going to be the next IBM. It has to happen, people need to make up for the satisfaction they lack in life, and there’s nothing else out there.”
It’s true that many people derive little satisfaction from their work, from school or from any other facet of their lives. They desire to find escape, to shed inhibitions, and discos provide the opportunity. As one disco operator said: “For a couple of hours a week, they can let it all hang out and just move and let the music fill their heads and push out everything else. For a little while, they can get away from their lives.”
Understandably, we all need some relaxation, a change of pace from regular activities. But are discos a wholesome place for enjoying relaxing entertainment? The students from 20 countries, mentioned at the outset, expressed concern. The men were branch representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses, attending a five-week refresher course in Brooklyn. Did they have reason for concern about Christians going to discos?