Disco music in the 80s | Features | MN2S

After charting its rise in the 1970s, we look at the journey of disco music in the 1980s.

In our last feature on disco music, we saw the birth of the genre. Born in the clubs of Philadelphia, where DJs extended the most danceable sections of local R&B tracks, disco soon grew into a sizeable phenomenon.

12-inch remixes, developed by Tom Moulton and others, were now part and parcel of the club experience. Artists like Kool & the Gang, Sister Sledge, the Village People and Gloria Gaynor had huge hits for the genre, many of which became dearly held anthems for the LGBT and black communities.

Keeping up momentum

The biggest disco artists of the late 1970s showed no sign of slowing down at the beginning of the 1980s. Kool & the Gang in particular saw their career soar to new heights. Released in the first year of the 1980s, ‘Celebration’ was one of disco’s biggest pop hits to date. The track reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and it also topped the R&B and dance charts.

Still popular at celebrations of all kinds, from weddings to sporting victories, ‘Celebration’ has reached nearly 70,000,000 views on YouTube and counting. That in itself is something worth celebrating.

New kids on the block

As well as the huge mainstream success of its veteran artists, the early 1980s gave many disco-inspired artists their first taste of success. Evelyn “Champagne” King had a huge hit with ‘Love Come Down’ in 1982. UK group Imagination had four Gold albums. Shalamar released the legendary ‘A Night to Remember’. David Bowie was on a disco kick at the time, putting out the mega-selling Let’s Dance album, co-produced with disco originator Nile Rodgers of Chic.

Disco moves on

The early 1980s also saw the first solo success of Rufus singer Chaka Khan. As the frontwoman of Rufus, Chaka Khan recorded a stellar string of funk/soul/R&B albums which themselves bordered on disco. At the turn of the decade, Khan broke out on her own, releasing her self-titled debut album which included the disco classic ‘I’m Every Woman’.

Towards the middle of the 1980s Chaka had her biggest hit with ‘I Feel For You’, a cover of a track originally written and recorded by Prince in 1979. Prince, an artist who defied genre at almost every turn, kept his version of ‘I Feel For You’ uncharacteristically within established disco norms. Chaka Khan on the other hand added hip-hop flourishes from Grandmaster Flash cohort Melle Mel, and other lavish production twists.

These changes took the track away from traditional disco music, and started to chart the move into what is sometimes classed as ‘post-disco’, characterised by more synthesisers and drum machines with less of a focus on strings and live instruments.

‘Post-disco’ could also be counted as simply a development within disco itself. Every genre shifts and evolves after all. But the further the genre moved down this path, the more indistinguishable it became from what we would simply call mainstream R&B or pop, popularised by the biggest artist of the 1980s, and indeed of all time, Michael Jackson.

Jackson is another artist who dabbled in disco at the end of the 1980s. His 1979 album Off the Wall was one of disco music’s greatest achievements. Its follow-up was Thriller: the biggest-selling album of all time to this date. While Thriller had disco-style basslines and rhythms, it too could be called ‘post-disco’.

The astronomical success of the album may well be what moved nearly all mainstream music in its direction. Disco had influenced Thriller, and Thriller had influenced all pop music. So if the charts were full of disco’s descendents, what was filling dancefloors in the clubs?

The answer is simple: house music. With strong parallels to disco’s birth in Philadelphia, house music was developed in Chicago as anarchic dance music, often aimed at an LGBT and black audience.

The strongest connection between the two genres comes from Donna Summer’s immortal ‘I Feel Love’. Released originally as a disco track in the late 1970s, a 15-minute Patrick Cowley remix slowly took on legendary status, and became a hit in itself when it was commercially released in 1982. By that time, disco, or ‘post-disco’ was on its way to dominating the mainstream. House’s time in the spotlight would come later.

Book Kool & the Gang, Chaka Khan, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Imagination or Shalamar now to bring these 80s disco legends to your venue.

Header image by Sarah from Brizzzzzle, UK – Disco ball in blue Uploaded by TheCuriousGnome, CC BY 2.0

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