This is an exceptional historical analysis that introduces, in chronological order, the key events and personalities in the 1970s American disco dancing scene, including the major remixers, DJs, nightclubs, musicians, singers, record producers, and magazine journalists. The playlists provided throughout the book are very good snapshots of each period of 1970s R&B and disco, and many of the photos are well selected.
Lawrence first explores the roots of dance-oriented nightclubs, then known as discotheques, where attendees danced to recorded rather than live music. Discotheques had already existed in the U.S. by the mid-1960s but then declined for a number of years until revitalized in the early 1970s. Besides the concept of a "discotheque", Lawrence also mentions (page 26) that the mirror ball was a fixture of a typical disco and also in the Loft parties run by David Mancuso. The atmospheric aspects of a disco -- lighting, dancefloor, etc. -- were also important to dancers, though one big negative was the high volume of sound emanating from the speakers in many discos, such as Paradise Garage (pages 347-348). The most necessary element was a large supply of good danceable music. Disco DJs gained influence when they caused many records to become big sellers and formed record pools. Lawrence notes (page 307) that in some downtown discos the dancers danced freestyle whereas in suburban discos the tendency was towards regimented dance steps like the latin hustle and line-dancing.
The story of disco as a separate musical genre begins with the merging of funk and Philly soul elements with a constant four-on-the-floor beat, thanks to Earl Young's innovations in drumming (page 120). The interest in this music among Americans escalated quickly, as witnessed by early pop chart hits like "T.S.O.P." and "The Love I Lost". The continued development of disco music led to improvements in sound quality and increased available song lengths and record formats (like the 12-inch single).
On pages 167 and 174-177 Lawrence chronicles the beginnings of Eurodisco, a sub-genre developed by European producers like Michael Kunze and Giorgio Moroder characterized by ultra-lush violins, "minimalist vocals", and a more monotonous stomping dance beat. Lawrence notes that Eurodisco produced many "anonymous" singers who garnered far less attention than their producers and had very few concerts, if any. He revisits Eurodisco's growth on page 257 when he quotes Tom Moulton's opinion that Eurodisco, in contrast to the kind of disco that came out of Philadelphia, "lacked soul" and was too mechanical, and to a certain extent this is true. However, one can point to the success and brilliance of several producer-created disco groups like Shalamar and Musique to counter the argument that all "artificial" groups were untalented.
While disco as a new sound in 1974 and 1975 was seen as the answer to increasing record sales, pages 222-224 contain era statements about how the excess of new disco releases, many of them poor in quality, were already saturating the music market by 1976, and how sales were suffering even then. On pages 321-322 Michael Gomes prophetically warned that unless disco continued to innovate and vary it would die. The same troubles were noted in the summer of 1979 when a recession hurt sales of all records, but especially disco, and simultaneously everyone seemed to be releasing some "disco version" of an old standard or some contrived bland song that most people couldn't get excited about, and many in the record industry and media again complained about an alleged lack of creativity. The record labels were clearly not selective enough (page 386). On pages 366-369 we learn that disco didn't stem the fall in sales but actually contributed to it. The consequences of the sales decline and rampant criticism were devastating; in the second half of 1979 new disco songs were not given as much of a chance on the radio and the style fell out of fashion among many. However, one positive result (noted on page 391) was that dance music once again became more R&B-oriented and creative. One could argue that the best days for disco creatively were in 1980-1982, even though mainstream popularity was steadily disappearing then. Disco was far from dead at the end of 1979, as disco radio hits like "Celebration" and "Never Knew Love Like This Before" were still yet to come, and roller-discos and new disco products still proliferated in 1980 and early 1981. However, this culture was in decline, and Lawrence gives interesting discussions of Billboard Magazine's exaggerated claim of February 23, 1980 that disco was "alive, healthy and thriving" (page 390). Ironically Radcliffe Joe's "This Business of Disco", an industry guide, was published by Billboard Books in 1980. By that time "dance music" was the new preferred term for the music (page 386) due to the stigma of "disco". The author also mentions how disco spawned and influenced new forms of music, including garage, house, techno, rap, and 1980s pop. By 1994, the original disco style was re-emerging as both a nostalgic recollection and a current genre in production.
Now is the perfect time to remember how dance music got started. With this book Tim Lawrence provides a thorough, readable treatise full of interesting anecdotes and quotes and ample bibliographic references. It covers everything from "The Hustle" and "Saturday Night Fever" to the sociological/cultural aspects of the story and will interest a broad range of readers.