Punk and Disco seem to be fundamentally opposed. The former is a DIY-form of rambunctious expression: loud, aggressive, political, and jarring. Traditionally associated with the backstreets of British towns, it is the voice of an abandoned population, be it geographically, or generationally. Punk is minimalism, discarding the excess of 1960s Garage rock, and almost always anti-establishment. Punk is often disparaging of love and sex and it aggressively attacks social norms in a form of anomie. If pushed to recommend one artist to listen to and read about to understand the stereotypical ethics of Punk, and the pursuit of independence and freedom, I would recommend Crass.
Disco, moreover, relies on synthetic beats; it is associated with glitz, glamour, drug use and homosexuality. It is seen as the embodiment of American consumerism: excess and freedom and deeply unpolitical. The soaring vocals of Gloria Gaynor, the four-on-the-floor sound of The Village People or the extravagant string sections of Rick James are opposed to the snarling Jonny Rotten or Steve Ignorant. Disco is built on eroticism and worship of the body submitting to those deep throbbing beats. Even the production of this music required a team, and was costly and complicated. In short, Disco was a sexual, expensive and devouring lover who numbed the mind and took away any reason to think. Punk was to shout one’s thoughts, Disco was to muffle them under bass-lines, drugs and sex. Despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary, I would venture however that the essence of disco is a far more strident political rallying call than Punk.
The most obvious of these reasons is simply the discrimination faced in the creation of the music. Joe Strummer the Clash’s lead singer went to a private boarding school, before going to art school. This laid the basis for his songwriting ability and capacity to write, create and communicate with the public. Yet despite the gritty imagery in his music, he was a straight white man from an affluent family, able to freely create with the safety net of his family behind him. His political activism and rallying were made by want to change the world rather than necessity. If his pursuits in music had not worked out, almost any career option was open to him.
Disco is music originating from societal outcasts, people who had to make it in music or disappear. The ‘Queen of Disco’ Sylvester demonstrates this. He was from a family of 10 children, the vast majority with different and absent fathers, his effeminacy and homosexuality led to him being rejected by his local community and homeless by the age of 15. Crossdressing was illegal in California at the time and the civil rights act had not yet been completed. Sylvester’s existence was considered an affront and his expression of self a crime. He refused to conform and used the Watts riots to stock up on lipstick and hair accessories. Huge gay parties were thrown in traditional communities and these “defiant sissies” were proud enough of themselves to take on an entire racist and homophobic system. His mere lifestyle was a microaggression towards the United States. Pretty punk.
1970s New York was the place that allowed Disco to flourish. The violent end of the 60s, with the assassinations of political figures, Watergate and Vietnam, meant a distraction to the unease in the United States was required. Disco was blissful nothingness, the chance to dance your troubles away, the possibility of losing oneself in an excess of hedonism for the night and where orientation and race were of less importance than one’s dancing ability. The music was food for the soul and nirvana could be found in the beat.
This might seem incredibly unpolitical and even a kind of musical morphine, deadening the senses of a nation. If this is the case then Punk was the diametrical opposite; it forced what you wanted to hide into your face, it confronted you with your shortcomings and fears. Punk was there to shock the hidden side of society into the open. The darkest parts of history were committed by people, not so different in many regards to the musicians and listeners. An erasure of pride and patriotism ended up with the human positioned as the creator of atrocities.
‘What’s the freedom of us all against the suffering of the few
That’s the kind of self-deception that killed ten million Jews
Just the same false logic that all power-mongers use’Crass, Bloody Revolutions
Disco was Punk merely by existing. The act of forgetting the discriminations one was subject to for a night was a massive fuck-you to the outside world. Stonewall was a riot. This revolt was one that broke down all stereotypes around the LGBT+ community. Disco was about unity, Disco was about the people coming together to dance, to love, to celebrate their humanity. Nightclubs become safe spaces and havens. Punk may have been met with opposition, but that was the point. To offend deliberately, as the Sex Pistols did with songs such as ‘Belsen was a Gas’, is not as hard as it is to enrage an entire nation’s racist and homophobic outlook by wearing flares and dancing.
July 12th 1979 was the boiling point of this pot. Outsiders to the movement saw it as a meaningless expression of contrarian values. Sexual liberation, Black and Latino and Gay pride were all tied into the music that defined a subculture. It was successful in the charts too — admittedly often with white artists — but the smash hit that was ‘Saturday Night Fever’ demonstrates the obsession the country had with this uncomfortable cultural permeation; albeit by the end of the 70s America had burnt out, and was creeping back into conservatism. The election of Ronald Reagan would confirm this and the ‘macho’ stereotypes on which Americans believed their nation had been built were forced back into the mainstream consciousness. The anti-disco movement was built to oppose the social liberation of the gay and black communities; it was a puritanical statement attempting to enforce ideals on a group who never would conform.
‘You never knew the power of your body’Chaka Kahn, I’m Every Woman
This message of sexual and spiritual liberation was so alien to the heteronormative standards Americans accepted that they revolted. On the aforementioned date the infamous Disco Demolition Night took place. America’s last bastion of masculinity was its sports pitches. In the break between two baseball games, Steve Dahl, a DJ, had organised a detonation of Disco records. This was heavily publicised as a war on the music genre and the fear that it would supplant Rock in the hearts of America. Over 50, 000 people turned up, over twice what had been expected. When the fateful hour came, the crowd hurled their vinyl on to the pitch. A large collection had been gathered beforehand and placed in a box. Dahl announced to the crowd:
‘This is now officially the world’s largest anti-disco rally! Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeal good’.
They did, a pitch invasion ensued, and the stadium itself was heavily damaged. The rioters built a bonfire on vinyl and revelled in the destruction of this subculture. It is often said when books are burnt then men will be next. This is not dissimilar. The violence and hate shown towards this music can certainly be understood as an aggressive statement towards the gay and black culture of disco. They had to abandon the second leg of the baseball. One of the players is noted as having said:
‘This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night.’
Nile Rodgers compared it to the Nazis and their book burning. It has been seen as an ethnically-motivated elimination, attempting to put minorities back where they belonged. An attendee, Mark Anderson said:
‘The chance to yell “disco sucks” meant more than simply a musical style choice. It was a chance to push back on a whole set of social dynamics that lay just beneath the surface of a minor battle between a DJ and a radio station that decided to change formats. More importantly, it was a chance for a whole lot of people to say they didn’t like the way the world was changing around them, or who they saw as the potential victors in a cultural and demographic war’.
In short, Disco was so revolutionary that Conservative America lashed back at it in a way that has never been replicated so explicitly.
Punk is punk. It is the opportunity for anger to be channelled through music. It is a violent form of the Freudian cure, it points out the flaws, it attacks weakness and insecurities. Punk is angry music made for the nonconformist, for the independent man. This rejection of authority often toed the line with fascism, what would shock the generation whose parents fought in WWII than the adoption of Nazism? Nothing, which is why they adopted right-wing symbols and habits.
Punk is made to captivate and appeal. Punk is a statement of the individual, thrown into the vacuum of the other. Disco is the soft persuasive throbbing of what makes us human, the idea of what could be and what we all have in common. If Punk shouts to the void, Disco whispers to them, persuades them to put on a bodysuit and to enjoy themselves in a coming together within which all differences are erased.
Disco changed the world through dancing — now, that is Punk.
By Asa Williams
Image: by frankieleon via Flickr