Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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35 years after 'Saturday Night Fever,' disco's beats live on in modern dance music

There have been significant poses struck throughout history: Rodin's Thinker, Nixon's peace-out, Burt Reynolds' bearskin-rug reveal in Cosmo. But 35 years ago this week, the ultimate pop-culture pose was unleashed like a lightning bolt, the most emulated — and satirized — dance-floor maneuver of all time.

In his spanking-white polyester suit, John Travolta uncorked the move — one finger high, one fist low, face smoldery — in Saturday Night Fever, a tribute to the style-over-substance aesthetic of disco, the predominant pop sound of the mid to late '70s. It wasn't just a dance; it was a sexually liberating movement, a boogie-oogie-oogie response to a post-Vietnam national gloom.

The film's soundtrack, dominated by the Bee Gees and hits Stayin' Alive, More Than a Woman and Night Fever, sold 15 million copies, a No. 1 album for 24 weeks. Disco hits — heavy orchestration, lush vocals, four-on-the-floor beats — piled up: Alicia Bridges' I Love the Nightlife, the Village People's Y.M.C.A, Aimee Stewart's Knock on Wood plus a slew of sexiness from Queen of Disco Donna Summer.

The Muppets went disco.

The Rolling Stones went disco.

Even Kiss went disco.

Then reality crashed the party, and disco became the most ridiculed genre of all time. The Chicago White Sox held Disco Demolition Night, destroying thousands of albums. "Disco Sucks" shirts flew angrily off the shelves. Disco died a mean death.

Or not.

Thirty-five years later, there is war, there is recession. The nation is divided by politics — and pop radio is awash with modernized disco hits, chart-toppers based on sexual themes, cheesy synths and rapid booty beats: Rihanna's We Found Love, Chris Brown's Don't Wake Me Up, Maroon 5's Moves Like Jagger, which doesn't pretend to be anything but a disco burner.

"Disco music is alive and well," Gloria Gaynor, singer of the anthemic I Will Survive, assures me. "They just changed the name to protect the innocent."

That's the way we liked it

History, and disco, repeats.

"The new strands of up-tempo, dance-driven music scream disco, mainly because of the melody and the soul of the vocal lines," says Orlando Davis, personality and program director at WLLD-FM 94.1, Tampa Bay's leading hip-hop station. "Anyone reminiscing to old Bee Gees, Donna Summer and Michael Jackson records can hear a direct influence on today."

But why now? Why again? Why are dance clubs popping up everywhere, driven in large part by the popularity of EDM (electronic dance music) DJs and turntablists who need modern discotheques to perform?

Mark Mothersbaugh, of postpunk band Devo, a nerd crew that thrived in the self-aware '80s, once described disco as "a beautiful woman with a great body and no brains." Sexist, yes, but it explains the renaissance in a way. Disco doesn't need to be smart; it needs to be sexy, accepting, youthful, an escape, whether it's from Vietnam or the Obama-Romney debates.

Most musical movements are a response to a cultural shift. In the '90s, Kurt Cobain and the gloomy grunge rebellion were a response to the vainglorious '80s and Motley Crue-style glam-metal. Who came along to boot out the Nirvana buzzkills? The Spice Girls in 1996.

Disco originated in 1974, the end of Nixon's tainted presidency and a time of great political divide in America. Folk singers still ruled; John Denver had Sunshine on My Shoulders and Jim Croce captured Time in a Bottle. Then along came Rock the Boat, by the Hues Corporation ("Rock the boat / Don't rock the boat baby / Rock the boat / Don't tip the boat over"). It was an R&B cut awash in lush harmonizing, gaudy strings, a hip-swivel beat and suggestive lyrics. It was silly and sublime. It was disco.

Try dancing to this, hippies!

"They needed a vehicle to help get rid of the stresses of the day," says Gaynor about the start of the disco movement. "Up-tempo, upbeat positive music does that. . . . I found it to be a lot of fun back then. I enjoyed the disco era."

In Miami, a man named Harry Wayne Casey was listening to Rock the Boat on the radio. And suddenly, it all made sense:

Do a little dance.

Make a little love.

Get down tonight.

"Music was so dark at the time, and I wanted to make records that were uplifting," says Casey, a.k.a. "KC," the 61-year-old lead singer of KC and the Sunshine Band. "I felt like I was bringing R&B to the populace, to the forefront. When they started calling it disco, I thought it was a slight."

Semantics aside, KC was instrumental in making disco a way of life, churning out such progenitive hits as 1975's That's the Way (I Like It) and Get Down Tonight, and 1976's (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty. He also contributed Boogie Shoes to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. What he started, John Travolta and the Bee Gees hustled up to the next level.

'Well you can tell by the way I use my walk . . .'

In 1977, at the height of the disco craze, tough-as-nails movie critic Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker: "Saturday Night Fever gets at something deeply romantic: the need to move, to dance, and the need to be who you'd like to be. Nirvana is the dance; when the music stops, you return to being ordinary." Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel was such a fan, he bought Travolta's famous white suit in a late 1970s charity auction.

Disco wasn't just a pursuit of the bourgeoisie — heck, even the snob from the New Yorker liked it! A good reason for that is the music, the holy disco grail of which is the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Boogie Shoes is goofy fun; Yvonne Elliman's If I Can't Have You swoons.

But the six Bee Gees tracks are nothing short of artistic marvels. Night Fever shifts like a race car. Stayin' Alive is one of the most ferociously confident songs ever; that main groove from the Brothers Gibb would influence scores of musicians, including Michael Jackson for Billie Jean's strut and Wyclef Jean for his 1997 rap classic We Trying to Stay Alive.

Saturday Night Fever helped launch all those discotheques, too — the new hip hangouts. Disco started in the cities, gussied-up funk and Motown, but Travolta & Co. helped it glide its way into the suburbs, too.

"Dance music is about community, about being uplifted," says John Santoro, the promoter behind the ongoing Sunset Music Festival, a giant electronic dance-a-thon that brought more than 10,000 EDM fans to Raymond James Stadium last year. "When you watch Saturday Night Fever, you see that. That's why kids are so captured by it again. They're raging out, escaping, having dance-offs. People need that release. That's what it was like back then."

Disco was inescapable; everyone wanted in. The Hooked on Classics series even took such classical composers as Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Gershwin and set them to a dance beat. That's also when things went awry. Sooner or later, a party ends and the sun comes up.

"As most formats do, with massive saturation, and greedy label heads' pursuance, it gets mundane and cheesy," says WLLD's Davis. "The first in is always pure, while the last offerings are loosely related to the core. We saw it more recently with hip-hop and R&B artists. The first mixture was so new and fresh, then as the formula was identified, duplicated, refried, the audience realizes, 'Time to move on.' "

On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox hosted Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, during which a crate of vinyl was detonated on the field. It was the idea of Windy City DJ Steve Dahl, who had been fired from a rock station when it changed to disco.

A riot ensued — so did an unstoppable backlash.

"They tried to condemn disco, said disco was dead, said disco sucks," says KC. "They had me convinced, had Donna Summer convinced, too. For a long time, I've felt like the Rodney Dangerfield of music."

It will survive

Grunge, death metal, novelty songs, swing — none of those genres lasted or came back.

Disco did.

"It's called dance music now," says Gaynor, who will perform with the Village People at Naples' Philharmonic Center for the Arts on Jan. 9. "Because every generation wants to think that they're listening to better music than their parents."

Today, we are at war. We are politically divided.

Hard hip-hop used to rule the radio with a furrowed brow.

Now what?

Now we dance!

Hit TV show Glee just celebrated disco's return with an episode called "Saturday Night Glee-ver." A current AT&T commercial features kids busting out the Travolta pose. DJs such as Skrillex and Deadmau5 are becoming mainstream stars for luring people into neo-discotheques.

"A mentor of mine used to say music is like a dance club," says Davis. "People will always love to dance. They'll get tired. But they'll eventually make their way back to the floor."

All the disco hallmarks drive current radio hits: the orchestral melodies (the Bee Gees' Night Fever lives in Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe), the wocka-wocka guitar play (Chic's Le Freak influenced Maroon 5's Moves Likes Jagger) and an insistent synthesized dance beat (Vicki Sue Robinson's Turn the Beat Around soars like Rihanna's We Found Love).

"I finally feel a bit vindicated," says KC. "Disco has influenced every major rock star, country star. I mean look at line dancing! That's disco! You can't get more disco than Madonna. And all the new artists: Usher, Ne-Yo, even the new Justin Bieber record. Everyone is embracing the music that was supposed to be gone."

Sunset Music Fest's Santoro, 43, has opened the Amphitheatre dance club in Ybor City, a mecca of modern-day Travoltas. "Everyone laughed at me, but I knew the music was coming back," he says. "We're open Fridays and Saturdays and it's slammed. They dance all night and at the end they want to hook up. That's what disco did."

And when this new disco wave inevitably gives way to more serious endeavours, KC says he'll be more patient this time around. "The old saying was that if there were a nuclear holocaust, the only things to survive would be Cher and cockroaches. Well, disco will survive, too."

Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

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