Rock Goes Disco… Experimentation or Sellout?
When I was but a wee lad in the late 1970s, a great musical war was being waged between two opposing camps over the genres of Rock and Disco. Disco was the upstart newcomer, and Rock was the incumbent ruler defending its hallowed title.
As a kid just discovering music, I was drawn to both styles and was unaware of the dividing lines between the two factions. But had I been just a bit older, I likely would have felt the need to choose sides like nearly everyone else seemed to be doing.
I remember some Rock fans wore shirts that read “Death Before Disco” while others bore a much simpler message… “Disco Sucks”.
Yet as strong as the Anti-Disco movement seemed to be amongst their fans, many of the Rock bands themselves were apparently willing to cross the sacred “line in the sand” drawn there by their loyal followers.
One way or another, there is no denying that some of the biggest names in Rock dabbled in the Disco beat. Some more than others, and some so blatantly that they were likely blasted from the speakers of the holiest of Disco temples – Studio 54 itself. Were they selling out, or were they just experimenting in another popular musical genre? I doubt very many people really care anymore, so many decades later. But one can only wonder if in 1979, it seemed as if Rock n Roll Heaven was shimmering in sequins.
Regardless… today, with those battles long subsided, I think it’s safe to say that some truly great tunes came of the inter-faith marriage of Disco and Rock n Roll.
Below is my list, along with accompanying playlist. The songs are listed in order of their release date, which I found somewhat fascinating in itself.
“Miss You” by The Rolling Stones (released May 1978)
Yes, the great and mighty Rolling Stones – there’s likely no more iconic Rock band – were one of the first to take the dastardly Disco plunge. “Miss You” was written by Mick Jagger with the help of Billy Preston in 1977. While, both Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood insist it was not conceived as a Disco song, the ever-frank Keith Richards says it was calculated to be just that. Whatever the case, “Miss You” marked a huge comeback for The Rolling Stones, and their eighth song to go to the top of the U.S. Billboard charts. Shortly afterward, it was even released as a 12″ dance remix – another first for The Stones.
Note: Two years later, The Stones released the album “Emotional Rescue” with a title track that was equally – if not even more – Disco than “Miss You”.
“Shakedown Street” by The Grateful Dead (released November 1978)
Sorry Dead Heads, but there’s really no questioning this one. The title track from the tenth studio album by The Grateful Dead is nothing if it isn’t Disco. The album was heavily criticized for being choppy and poorly-produced overall. Then again, much of that criticism came from Rolling Stone Magazine – a questionable source. Other reviews did note that the song itself “struggles with the unexpected use of Disco”, but I disagree… I think The Grateful Dead do a fine job with Disco, and that “Shakedown Street” is one of their best – and funkiest – studio recordings.
“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart (released December 1978)
Rod Stewart was panned by Rock critics for his betrayal of his Blues-oriented Rock roots. “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” was not just a Disco song, it was also a song about being at a Discotheque. It peaked at #1 on the U.S. Billboard charts going platinum (over two million sold). Rod’s response to the criticism… “The Rolling Stones did it first”. To his credit, Rod gave all royalties earned from “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” to the UNICEF charity. Good job, Mr. Stewart.
“Goodnight Tonight” by Paul McCartney (released March 1979)
It seems the Disco bandwagon was irresistible, even to a Beatle. “Goodnight Tonight” was recorded by the full Wings band, and makes no claim to be anything other than a song with a Disco-inflected beat and a flamenco guitar break. The original recording was a little over seven minutes, and had to be edited down for release as a single. With a 12″ dance mix released later, there’s no disguising it’s Disco-ness. The tune reached #5 on the charts in both the U.S. and U.K. Paul’s former bandmate, John Lennon, claimed he hated the tune but loved the bass line.
“I Was Made For Lovin’ You” by Kiss (released May 1979)
Kiss bassist Gene Simmons claims he never liked the song, while guitarist Paul Stanley – who co-wrote the song – says he wanted to show how easy it was to write a hit Disco song. So there you have it folks… right from the songwriter. Stanley went on to say that Disco didn’t have any elements of Rock, and that’s what he wanted to achieve. The direct quote I found most interesting was “We [Kiss] created the first Rock/Disco song”. Sorry Paul… this is the fifth song on our chronological list, so at least four others beat you to it. Whether or not the members of Kiss liked it, or respected it, “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” was the band’s second gold single (over 1 million sold)… Go Disco!!
“Street Player” by Chicago (released August 1979)
Chicago’s thirteenth studio album (aptly named Chicago 13) was reviled by critics, and bewildering to their already-shrinking fan base. Interestingly, “Street Player” was a cover of the song, which was originally released by Rufus and Chaka Khan one year earlier. Although “Street Player” never charted and was otherwise fairly unremarkable, the Chicago version was heavily sampled by Pitbull on the 2009 hit “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” and was almost ripped entirely for The Bucketheads 1995 hit “The Bomb!”.
“Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)” by Pink Floyd (released November 1979)
Bob Ezrin – co-producer of The Wall – recalls that upon hearing “Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)” put to a Disco drumbeat, he knew it would be a hit. While the track was in production, Ezrin had sent Floyd guitarist David Gilmour out to the clubs with the assignment to listen to the Disco sounds and bring back something useable for the track… Gilmour reluctantly complied. In interviews, Roger Waters and David Gilmour have both agreed (a rare thing these days) that “It doesn’t not sound like Pink Floyd”. So no harm, no foul. And for what it’s worth… “Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)” is Pink Floyd’s highest charting song (#1)… Ever.
“Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen (released August 1980)
The iconic bass line to Queen’s best-selling single ever (over seven million copies) was inspired by the Disco classic “Good Times” by Chic. And although the song has a distinctly synthesized sound, all effects were created using real guitars, pianos and drums… and lots of post-production. Unlike many of the other songs on this list, “Another One Bites The Dust” was put into heavy rotation on black (urban/R&B) radio stations.
And now, some of the questionable runner-ups that didn’t make this list…
Anything by E.L.O. (Electric Light Orchestra)
“Golden Years” or “Fame” by David Bowie
“Carouselambra” by Led Zeppelin
“You Make Loving Fun” by Fleetwood Mac
“Straight On” by Heart
“Peg” by Steely Dan
“The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash (although arguably more hip hop)
One last point of pontification and personal pondering… Now that the war is long over, and the casualties counted and forgotten in a time and era I can only imagine, I think it’s safe to share my personal opinion on the subject. I personally like the tunes on this list… and the runner-ups as well. Music shouldn’t be about choosing sides, but about experimentation and collaboration instead. Music is an expressive art, and I believe that these artists brought as much to Disco as Disco brought to Rock. Disco, and it’s Latin infused electro-rhythms were both hugely popular, and infectiously danceable – something that the Rock genre seemed to have left behind in the early 1960s when it became simply “Rock” and less “Rock n Roll”.
As any musical genre evolves (or at least those of the 20th Century) – be it Jazz, Rock, or Hip-Hop – they seem to forget that their roots are steeped in dance… as music very well should be. Just as Jazz went from dance halls to smokey lounges, so did Rock n Roll go from jitterbugging to standing dazed with lighters held high watching a performance instead of being participatory. If anything, perhaps Disco served as a wake-up call to Rock, reminding them of the audiences longing to move their feet.
So were they sellouts?
I think not.
Just musicians doing what musicians do… making music.
What? no comments on this most controversial of all R&R topics?
Allow me to be the first.
I enjoyed the list. The only song I hadn’t heard was Street Player by Chicago. So I searched and listened to it but it kinda bored me.
My only real gripe is that Superman by the Kinks should have at least made the honorable mentions. Give it a try.
Thanks for the comment Bradford. Just checked out “Superman” by The Kinks, and yeah, wow, Holy Disco Batman (or Superman).
Total Disco, and from 1979 to boot!
@Craig – nice article. The rock-disco hybrid works well. Let’s not forget that a great deal of the anti-disco sentiment was really anti-gay and anti-black.
With regards to ELO, their entire catalog is not disco. However, they certainly evolved in that direction and did so brilliantly. “Xanadu” may be a horrible movie, but the music is great (including the Olivia Newton-John title track).
Okay Jon, maybe not their ENTIRE catalog, but I’d say 80% was borderline IMHO.
Anti-gay or anti-black… Hmmm. Interesting perspective and perhaps worth considering. Call me naive I suppose, but I’d like to believe that wasn’t a factor.
Another one that should have made your list: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jiVWKugypg
I remember being at a club called, “The Penalty Box” in South Jersey in the early 80s. The band, which sucked (I’m biased toward Disco but yep they sucked) played J. Geils Disco infused, “Come Back.” At the end of the song the bandleader proudly proclaimed, “That’s as close to Disco as we get man!” The crowd roared while I cursed under my breath.