That unrelenting rhythm that keeps us alive–that reminds us...We Are Alive! It races when we are excited to meet someone new. Its pounding pulse is primal. It is the backbone behind all forms of dance music, and the primary ingredient that defines disco. But disco didn't magically materialize out of thin air, on a feverish Saturday Night at New York City's Studio 54. There were dancers gracing dance floors well before John Travolta shook his booty in his famous white suit. To better understand how we got there and beyond that, we must go back in time to the beginning of the Beat.
As far back as Ancient Rome, galley rowing relied on a steady meter to roam the seas. Fast forward to the mid-17th century where captured Africans stolen from their homes and sold into slavery to colonial America–soon to become the United States–started to incorporate work songs in their routines. These slave songs or "sorrow songs" served several purposes: to establish a rhythmic workflow in the cotton plantation fields of the south to increase production, as well as provide some glimmer of hope to quell the deep despair within them–this by means of communicating subversive messages, dealing with the daily trials and tribulations, and reconnect spiritually with their African homeland.
This could manifest itself via a call and response pattern. Going back many centuries, call and response was already widespread in African culture encompassing many customs and practices before taking root in segregated fields of southern states. It is part of the fabric of future branches of African American music genres emerging between the 17th and 19th century–such as spirituals, gospel, and blues, along with their many derivatives. This traditional means of expression, be it in the form of field hollers between slaves, or preacher and choir between pulpit and pews; carried on through to the end of the civil rights movement with classic tracks such as "Respect" and "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud".
It found favor also in the chain gang prisoner work songs, and exists to this day in U.S. military training songs. While 17th to 19th century European classical music championed string ensembles, complex orchestral development, dynamic expressions, and vast tempo variations; African American music instead prioritized percussive, rhythmic, and groove-based aspects. At times, improvisation would appear, eventually finding its way at the heart of jazz in the early-1900s.
Although Edison had invented his phonograph back in 1877, permitting primitive acoustic recordings–first on tinfoil and later on wax cylinders–for the very first time, it wasn't until a decade later that Berliner perfected his flat-disc gramophone, eventually allowing easier duplication and mass production of shellac records near the turn of the century. He moved to Saint-Henry in Montreal, Québec registring the company name as the Berliner Gramophone Co. in 1909. The most popular format was the 10-inch 78 rpm.
Because of its high-speed rotation and relatively 'large-track' groove space, most recordings averaged around the 3 minute mark, with 12-inch 78s providing about 4 to 5 minutes tops–both formats limiting performances to a single song. In that sense, the latter can be considered as the ancestor of the dj maxi-single introduced in the 1970s. Now you may be wondering why is this historical event so important to disco's origins, as the medium, in and of itself, saw all genres of music benefitting from its invention. The answer lies in the fact that often times, classical, blues, and jazz for example, are superior or more enjoyable seen playing live in concert than on record, and would have surely survived just the same, whereas with disco, it is the exact opposite. Because of its studio-driven construction, it is best served on record on a good audio system rather than live, and would never have seen the light of day without it. Think about it: You never hear anybody boast that they have tickets to an El Coco concert! But on record well...welcome to 'paradise'.
By the mid-1920s, as electrical recordings replaced acoustic recordings for better bandwidth and improved fidelity, the first selectable coin-operated jukeboxes were filling juke joints as African Americans jitterbugged to their favorite songs, independent of a live band, and at the time of their choosing–the audio equivalent to our modern "Netflix-like" streaming service.
In the early-1940s as the big band era was in full swing, the Third Reich worried the West was winning hearts and minds of their youth via American jazz records and the Western way of life. Swingjugend or Swing Kids in Germany as well as Zazous in Nazi-occupied France, formed a counter-culture, clandestinely reuniting in bistros and basements–sometimes aligned with members of La Résistance. Soon swing clubs and places like La Discothèque–supposedly situated on rue de la Huchette in the Quartier latin–equipped with a jukebox or a simple turntable plus some swing records, served as a makeshift club where patrons partied away; a temporary refuge from reality, and a rudimentary rave literally underground, undertaken five decades earlier. As the Allied forces ended the European theatre of World War II in 1945, Major Jack Mullin of the U.S. Army Signal Corps on assignment in Frankfurt, Germany, brought back to America two Magnetophon reel-to-reel tape recorders, and with financial help and the backing from singer Bing Crosby, convinced Ampex to manufacture the first American mono magnetic tape recorder 'Model 200' in 1947.
Later improvements in the early-1950s followed with multitrack recording directly-inspired by inventor and guitarist Les Paul experimenting with "sound on sound" techniques. This added flexibility was essential in the development of disco as the latter, as previously mentioned, is multilayer-crafted from the bottom-up as opposed to classical, blues, and most jazz records, where musicians play together in 'live in studio' or 'live in concert' session takes.
A parallel determinant development in 1948 was the introduction of the 10-inch and 12-inch microgroove LP (long-playing) record by Columbia, allowing a much longer time limit vs the older 78s–approximately 23 minutes per side depending on cutting level and bass content. This also afforded disco–and of course all musical genres–much greater creative canvas control over the competing 3 minute single.
In the next chapter, we pursue our journey examining the closer relatives to disco. So Get Ready, so Get Ready!