Disco. Everyone knows disco. And bar that weird ‘Disco sucks’ campaign in the late 1970s, everyone likes it.
Despite the ubiquity of disco and its signifiers, though, as an umbrella disco covers a relatively broad spectrum of music. Italo disco, Euro disco, space disco and HI-NRG being some of its more well-known variants. And a lot of different musics went into its signature sound – pop and salsa; funk, obviously. But the genre that really provided the primordial sludge for disco to sashay out of was Philly soul.
Philly soul was a smoother, more sweeping, more feminine antidote to funk. Well, OK, so it’s initial performers were almost exclusive male – its early adopters were The Delfonics, The Intruders, The O’Jays and Jerry Butler – so it’s debatable whether ‘feminine’ is the most appropriate word here, but certainly Philly soul took some the rhythmic quirks of funk while dialling down its aggression to nil.
Where in funk there were angry one-note blasts of horn, Philly soul was all about lush, breezy string sections. Where funk was radical, Philly soul was romantic. But not romantic in the slightly tortured, obsessive teenage way of Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown hits – this was painless music.
Based around the Philadelphia International label and songwriters Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell, Philly soul was danceable but graceful – it had a sweet but kind of elegant sound that disco would recontextualise to illustrate new levels of fabulousness.
A variety of records, from The Supremes’ 1964 pop hit You Keep Me Hanging On to The Temptations’ psychedelic soul classic Ball of Confusion contain letters that would later turn up in disco’s genome.
For our money though, the first disco song might be Jerry Butler’s 1972 single, One Night Affair.
In the late 50s and early 60s, Butler was a member of R&B group The Impressions, alongside Curtis Mayfield. He never reached the icon status of his former bandmate, but he had a string of top 10 solo hits in the late 60s and would later become part of the Philly International family
One Night Affair is a relatively lusty and masculine beginnings for a genre that would later become synonymous with gay empowerment, but it has that insistent, world-beating euphoria that disco patented. The idea that no matter how terrible life may be outside of these two and a half minutes, within the parentheses of the record’s intro and fade out we have a whole world of possibilities.
Further evidence of disco’s biological link to Philly soul is Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ two-part epic The Love I Lost.
The Blue Notes were a shining example of Philly soul archetypes, but The Love I Lost nevertheless might be the first disco classic. Those strings, slicing like regret. That bassline – like hands tugging at your hips. The drums kicking your heels all the way to the dancefloor.
The Love I Lost is a sad song, and it was written originally as a ballad, but in the gentle relentlessness of its Philly disco incarnation it taps into a new kind of energy, one that sad songs shouldn’t normally have. Disco would do this stuff well – make lost love sound energising; something to pirouette over rather than mope about.
Swelling Philly soul’s string sections to gargantuan proportions, the Love Unlimited Orchestra was a full 40-piece concert orchestra swirling like the sea around the walrus of love, Barry White. Their Love’s Theme/Sweet Moments 1973 single, was written and produced by Barry but didn’t feature his knicker-eroding baritone.
Released during the period when no one knew what disco was or where it could go, the majestic Love’s Theme forms a sort of disco symphony. The flip, Sweet Moments, sounds like a comedown to the a-side’s lovey, ecstatic buzz. Jazzy, minor key and bluntly repetitive, it staggers rather than swirls, feeling like some lurching walk of shame the morning after the disco rapture.
Later in the decade, Tom Moulton, Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, Shep Pettibone, David Mancuso and even Frankie Knuckles would shift the emphasis from songwriter as creator to DJ as disco auteur. This period of experimentation gave the world the remix and DJs developed the tools that allowed them to break down and reassemble the components of records into new forms, re-engineering them to better suit the delirium of the dancefloor.
Producers might understand recording, singers might understand heartbreak, but DJs understand dancing. For the early disco DJs, the dancefloor was a living organism – a fresh and undocumented area of study – and they were scientists.
But in this early disco period of 1973, disco was just a handful of ideas about dance music and a sound that could go anywhere.
I mean, ultimately where it did go was dance contests and these goons, but eh.