Disco was born in New York in 1970 – according to folklore, anyway – when a disc jockey named David Manusco threw a Valentine’s Day party at his invite-only destination The Loft, which didn’t sell booze and could thus dodge NYC’s licensing laws. Manusco’s underground club soon birthed a genre that went on to eat the decade, and still offers a sanctuary for outsiders to party. Join us on the dancefloor for the 20 greatest disco tracks of all time.
Donna Summer – ‘I Feel Love’
Released in 1977, ‘I Feel Love’ was the pivotal disco record that bridged the Atlantic ocean-sized gap between compressed, synthy Eurodisco, and the spiralling orchestral heart of the US variety. Produced by Italodisco giant Giorgio Moroder, the track appeared as the closer of Donna Summer’s ‘I Remember Yesterday’ album, a release that journeyed through the history of dance music.
As a whole, the concept album touched on swing band bombast, the girl groups of ’60s, and Motown – but ‘I Feel Love’ looked towards the future, and influenced electronic music for decades to come, inspiring everyone from Blondie to The Human League.
As a producer, Moroder had been mucking about with Moog synthesisers – at that time, a cutting edge new tool. Borrowing “the second ever Moog” from a classical composer based in Munich, Moroder began to construct the brutally precise heartbeat of ‘I Feel Love’, laying down the propulsive rhythms and synth arpeggios piece by piece. “We managed to create a snare and a hi-hat, but we couldn’t find a punchy enough bass drum,” he tells Tim Lawrence in the seminal disco book Love Saves the Day. For that, Moroder called on the services of drummer Keith Forsey.
Similarly to Kraftwerk’s game-changing ‘Trans-Europe Express’, the influence of ‘I Feel Love’ was immediate. While recording in Berlin with David Bowie, Brian Eno happened upon the song, by German-speaker Summer, and ran into the studio waving a copy. “Eno came running in, and said ‘I have heard the sound of the future’” recalled Bowie. “He said: ‘this is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years. Which was more or less right.”
The Joubert Singers – ‘Stand on the Word’
Like all classics, ‘Stand on the Word’ comes with its own tall tale. The story goes like this: Phyliss McKoy Joubert and her celestial choir recorded the original vocal hook at First Baptist Church in Crown Heights, New York. As luck would have it, the grandmother of the legendary Larry Levan – resident DJ at NYC’s disco institution and infamous night club Paradise Garage – went to the very same church, and Levan happened to attend the recording session for the choir’s privately released album ‘Somebody Prayed For This’.
In reality, the track was discovered by a motley crew of other DJs – DJ Tony Humphries, George Rodriguez, and Eddie O’Loughlin of Next Plateau Records – and nobody’s really sure how they stumbled upon the recording of ‘Stand on the Word’ in the first place. The Larry Levan association came later on, when an untitled white label released in 2003 credited a ‘LARRY 02’.
Regardless, ‘Stand On The Word’ became a staple record for everyone from Humphries at the nightclub Zanzibar (“It’s like church, you know what I mean?” he told Red Bull, “Especially on Sunday mornings”) to influential New York producer Walter Gibbons and even Manchester’s Hacienda. Becoming a legend from humble beginnings, ‘Stand on the Word’ is a track that demonstrates the crate-digging mindset shared by NYC’s club legends. And though ‘Stand on the Word’ was most likely not ever remixed by Larry Levan, his name helped to cement the gospel track’s place in dance mythology.
Evelyn “Champagne” King – ‘Love Come Down’
Evelyn King was discovered cleaning the offices of Philadelphia International Records; a label set up by the soul pioneers Gamble and Huff. After producer Theodore T. Life heard the 16-year-old belting songs out in the toilets, she was signed on the spot. A couple of albums followed, but it was King’s third record, ‘I’m In Love’, which made her a disco superstar.
For her mammoth banger ‘Love Come Down’, King paired up with Kashif, who also produced the whole album. A production pioneer and early adopter of synths with a talent for bringing a sharp electronic edge to an elaborate soul band sound, the duo complimented each other perfectly. King later repaid the favour by singing on Kashif’s solo track ‘I Just Gotta Have You’ – incidentally another certified banger.
Merging classic Rn’B with smoothly synthesised funk, the snappily creeping basslines and handclaps of ‘Love Come Down’ paved the way for everything from the strutting moments of Madonna’s eponymous first album (‘Lucky Star ‘ in particular) to Kashif’s work with Whitney Houston the following year: ‘You Give Good Love’ and ‘Thinking About You’ were two of the stand-out moments from Houston’s hit packed debut.
Cheryl Lynn – ‘Got To Be Real’
Thanks to its lyrical emphasis on being the genuine product, Cheryl Lynn’s ‘Got To Be Real’ is best remembered as a staple anthem from New York City’s iconic ballroom scene. An underground institution where rival houses ‘walk’ against each other in various categories to win trophies and prizes, this track quickly became an emblem for “realness”.
The ballroom sub-culture served as a place of refuge for young LGBT+ people – many of them from black or Latino communities – to seek out a new family after being kicked out of their homes. Serving “realness” on the floor became a way to parody and imitate the straight, white world of New York’s money-slinging Wall Street. “If you can pass the untrained eye and not give away the fact that you’re gay, that’s when it’s realness,” is how the drag queen Dorian Corey puts it in the 1990 ballroom documentary Paris Is Burning.
‘Got To Be Real’ is an anthem that features prominently in that same documentary, and beyond the ballroom, Lynn’s debut single was an instant smash with a whopping great key-change to boot. The American singer penned the track alongside the father son duo Marty and David Paich (David is also a member of Toto) and it also features Ray Parker, Jr. – who wrote the Ghostbusters theme tune – on guitar.
Candi Staton – ‘Young Hearts Run Free’
Everyone knows the joyous parps that kick off ‘Young Hearts Run Free’: an easy pick for guess-that-intro. And despite Candi Staton’s track being an instant dancefloor filler, there’s darkness beneath the euphoric exterior.
‘I was with a pimp and a con man,” Staton told The Guardian, speaking about the personal circumstances which inspired the song. “This guy was telling me that if I ever left him he’d kill me. The hurt in my voice is real. I was singing my life’” Producer David Crawford wrote ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ after Staton told him about her life over lunch, and the vocals were recorded in one take. The song became a sort-of letter written by Candi Staton, giving advice to young listeners, and telling them to run from manipulators and abusers. “It‘s easier said than done” she acknowledges” but “You count up the years/And they will be filled with tears”.
“There was such a good vibe,” arranger and musical director Sylvester Rivers told The Guardian. “It felt like one big party, and you can hear that on the record. When we were making the backing track, the musicians didn’t know what the lyrics were, so the song became this unusual combination. We never set out to make a disco record. It was about doing what felt right musically, then Candi did one heck of a vocal. In those days, we’d record so many sessions that it often felt like another day at the office, but every now and then you’d hear something like ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. It would remind you why you got into music.”
NYC Peech Boys – ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’
After quitting school to become a dressmaker in the Harlem ballroom circle, a young Larry Levan was first introduced to New York’s club scene by David Mancuso; an eccentric and endlessly influential hippy who threw parties at his super-exclusive, booze-free gathering The Loft. Levan later became resident DJ at Paradise Garage – a club modelled closely on aspects of The Loft – and after staking his claim as one of the most sought-after DJs of the city, Levan started branching out into production.
Around this time Peech Boys – who later switched their name to NYC Peech Boys after The Beach Boys threatened them with a lawsuit – formed on 30th Street, and started frequenting Paradise Garage in the hope that the club’s best known DJ would play their music. Soon enough, Levan begun hanging out with Peech Boys, who signed to New York’s West End Records. ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ became their first single, and Levan produced their track
Built on a synthesised piano hook and sharp, snappy handclaps (keyboardist Michael de Benedictus claimed that his group was the first to use a drum machine for this purpose). NYC Peech Boys’ disco was cut from a different cloth to the saturated, orchestral arrangements coming from labels like Salsoul, and listening to the dub remixes pumping four on the floor kick drum, it’s impossible to overstate ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’s influence on modern house music.
Sylvester – ‘Over and Over’
Think of disco, and divas come to mind; with glam stage presences and powerhouse vocals to match. There’s Cheryl Lynn and Evelyn King, Loleatta Holloway and Diana Ross…. and then flamboyant drag queen Sylvester, who stands out as the ruling Queen of Disco.
Before becoming a solo sensation Sylvester was in several groups, with varying levels of success. Rock outfit the Hot Band boasted David Bowie as a fan, but achieved next to no commercial success; Sylvester also distanced himself from his drag troupe The Cockettes.
Originally penned by the Motown legends Ashford & Simpson – who also wrote ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and ‘I’m Every Woman’ – Sylvester’s cover of ‘Over and Over’ appeared on his eponymous second record, and became a nightclub hit thanks to its saturated big band instrumental, and euphoric party spirit; an elated crowd claps and whoops throughout. An early-morning staple at Paradise Garage, and a favourite of The Loft’s David Mancuso, the popularity of ‘Over and Over’ bagged Sylvester regular gigs at The Elephant Walk, in San Francisco’s gay district the Castro. It was there that the singer met producer Patrick Cowley – who later crafted a series of future disco classics with Sylvester – and befriended Harvey Milk (the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California).
Then came Sylvester’s second solo record ‘Step II’, which contains one of his greatest smash hits, ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’. It may not have happened without the joyous ‘Over and Over’.
Loose Joints – ‘Is It All Over My Face’
After clashing with his traditionalist professors at the Manhattan School of Music, and leaving the formal conservatory to pursue avant-garde music at New York’s performance space The Kitchen (where he also showed love for exploratory pop by putting on Talking Heads early in their career) Arthur Russell was an experimental king who paid little mind to genre. In 1976, Russell began going to New York’s The Gallery; a balloon-filled party destination opened by Nicky Siano.
It was at The Gallery that Arthur Russell met the influential DJ Steve D’Acquisto, who became convinced of his new friend’s genius when he heard the original recording of Russell’s song ‘Kiss Me Again’ (produced by Nicky Siano, and released under Russell’s Dinosaur L moniker). D’Acquisto immediately marched down to West End Records, and demanded funding to record with Arthur Russell. Together, they made ‘Is It All Over My Face’.
Russell and D’Acquisto – aka. Loose Joints – approached the project with spiritual focus. Holding their studio stints exclusively during full moons, and hoisting Mancuso’s flawless Klipschorn loudspeakers down from The Loft into their studio, the duo also invited Loft regulars along to party at the all-night recording sessions. According to Tim Lawrence – who wrote Love Saves The Day – Arthur Russell “attacked the strings of his cello with a coconut shell” during the strange, stream-of-consciousness recording sessions.
Though Larry Levan later nicked the track from West End Records’ offices in order to create his own equally iconic female vocal remix featuring Melvina Woods, there’s a certain left-field quality to Loose Joint’s male vocal original. You don’t exactly need a degree in Reading Between the Lines to spot the homoerotic undertones of the lyric “is it all over my face? You caught me love dancing” and there’s a weirdly meditative quality to those unshowy vocals set against cacophonous brass.
First Choice – ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’
Hailing from Philadelphia, and scoring a clutch of minor dance hits courtesy of their 1977 album ‘Delusions’, soul trio First Choice split up a whole three years before they scored their biggest smash. When the New York label Salsoul re-released their song ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’ in 1983 – subtly reworked by producer Tom Moulton – it soared straight to the upper-reaches of the Billboard charts.
‘Let No Man Put Asunder’ – quite simply a straight-up classic – continues to endure and resurface all over the place: remixed or sampled by everyone from Hot Chip and Todd Terry to Madonna collaborator Shep Pettibone, house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles and hip-hop group Jungle Brothers.
MFSB – ‘Love is the Message’
Another Philly act taken under the wing of NYC’s Salsoul, MFSB started out as studio hands at Gamble + Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, where they shaped Philly’s signature smooth sound, but got very little recognition. They would later decamp to New York, where they became The Salsoul Orchestra for the now-iconic label, but before relocating, MFSB released an album under their own name in 1973.
The shimmering pinnacle of that release was the title track, ‘Love is the Message’ aka. the classic to end all classics. Laying the groundwork for virtually everything disco that followed, MFSB’s immense musical skill and technical knowledge shows in the sprawling, rich arrangement; bridging the gap between late-60s big band epics, and the escapist clubs springing up around NYC (The Loft had opened just three years earlier). No surprise that ‘Love is the Message’ became the unofficial ‘National Anthem of New York’. In many ways, it’s also the anthem of Nicky Siano’s The Gallery, which opened the year the track was released.
Siano first bagged himself a copy of MFSB’s ‘TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)’ during a meeting with CBS records, but only noticed the other side of the record when a mate’s boyfriend asked to put on a song during one of Siano’s weekday nights DJing at Le Jardin. “Neil puts on ‘Love Is the Message,’” Siano recalled speaking to RBMA. ” I remember David Mancuso was there that night, and he came up, and asked what it was.” Shortly after hearing ‘Love is the Message’ Siano rewired his entire set-up at The Gallery, so that he could loop two copies of the song with a jet plane effect playing underneath. And when Siano cranked the bass up, “Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, both working for me at the time as decorators, started chanting, for the first time ever, “Turn this mother fucker out!” to the song,” Siano told Discogs, “a chant that started at The Gallery, on this song.”
Larry Levan soon adopted ‘Love is the Message’ as his own anthem too, and the track continued to spread far and wide. Shep Pettibone’s remix quickly became a staple of ballroom culture after it was bootlegged around New York’s various balls, and way further down the line in 1990, ‘Love is the Message’ would inspire his production on Madonna’s ballroom-to-the-mainstream pop release ‘Vogue’
The Love Unlimited Orchestra – ‘Love’s Theme’
Testament to the increasing taste-making powers of DJs in the 70s, the masterpiece of ‘Love’s Theme’ might’ve ended up in the bin if it wasn’t for Nicky Siano and David Rodriguez. When the pair went rummaging around in the basement of 20th Century, they rescued the record from otherwise certain doom. “Billy [Smith, the label’s promotion assistant] said these are dead albums waiting to be trashed,” Siano tells Tim Lawrence in Love Saves the Day. “David replied, ‘They’ve got black people on the cover – give them to us!’ David and I started playing ‘Love’s Theme’ and it took off from there. He distributed copies among New York DJs, and by Feb ‘74 it had been released as a single due to huge demand, and reached number one. The power we had was phenomenal!”
Barry White formed The Love Unlimited Orchestra- complete with forty-piece backing orchestra – and their seamless blending of cinematic string elegance with strutting funk helped to define the entire decade. Originally recorded as a piece of album filler – White’s label were more interested in turning him into a mainstream sensation – ‘Love’s Theme’ is now remembered as one of the greatest disco instrumentals of all time. It’s partly thanks to Rodriguez and Siano taking matters into their own hands.
Funkadelic – ‘One Nation Under a Groove’
Led by George Clinton, Funkadelic first formed as a backing band for his other band Parliament, but quickly became a heavier funk project sharing multiple band members. Soon, Clinton’s two acts blurred together into a musical portmanteau – which Clinton dubbed A Parliafunkadelicment Thang. Along with other closely associated groups like Bootsy [Collins’] Rubber Band and The Brides of Funkenstein, A Parliafunkadelicment Thang was shortened, and new scene was born. “We just took a combination of James Brown, Horn Players, Bootsy [Collins], Catfish, Sly Stone, took the funky psychedelic and rock ‘n’ roll elements together and called it P-Funk,” Clinton told Crack.
A huge admirer of the great concept albums of the 60s – namely The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – Funkadelic approached everything with healthy amounts of absurdity. Inventing ridiculous new personas and wearing wigs and/or nappies on stage was a common occurrence. For the recording of ‘One Nation Under A Groove’, they took a giant spaceship prop from tour with them into the studio; free-wheeling party backed with musicians free to jam and improvise.
Selling one million copies, ‘One Nation Under A Groove’ is easily Funkadelic’s biggest hit, and borrows its name from something that two young fans said to Clinton after a show in Washington DC. The two young women who came up with the expression – Darlene and Tanya – are credited on the cover of the record. “For me, the song was about bringing humanity together, because the real problems are gonna come when we’re dealing with other planets and we have to worry about aliens coming to eat us,” Clinton told The Guardian.
Patrice Rushen – ‘Forget-me-Nots’
Originally declared a “flop” by executives at Patrice Rushen’s record label this incredible track might not exist without the singer’s unwavering self-belief. “We believed in ‘Forget Me Nots’ so I took most of my life savings – which was not a lot – and [the track’s producer] Charles Mims took some of his and we hired an independent promoter to take it and run with it,” she told SoulMusic. “We had good reason to believe the record company might be wrong. I toured that year also and man, the record took off so fast, faster than ever before and faster than what we expected. ‘Forget Me Nots’ took off like wildfire.” Rushen was right to stand strong – the song eventually earned her a nod at the Grammys. Will Smith later sampled ‘Forget me Nots’ on his 1997 song ‘Men in Black’, Rushen’s infectious original helping him to bag a number one single in ten different countries. Take that, Patrice Rushen’s record label!
The Trammps – ‘Stop and Think’
Philly band The Trammps went under various other monikers in the late 60s – The Volcanoes and The Moods – before gospel singer Jimmy Ellis joined the line-up as lead singer at the start of the following decade. Around this time, MFSB – the then-unsung house band at Philadelphia International Records – began collaborating with the band, and The Trammps became one of the first ever disco groups.
Thanks to the runaway success of ‘Disco Inferno’ – which made it onto the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack – The Trammps sometimes get pinned as one-hit-wonders. It’s not even their best song. Released around the same time as Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ – sharing the same lush orchestration, and drenched in soul – ‘Stop and Think’ takes that particular prize. Recorded at Sigma Studios with Joe Tarsia, MFSB’s drummer Earl Young deployed the trick of placing open hi-hat hisses between each beat. In years to come, this proved very very handy for DJs trying to beat-match in noisy night clubs so thanks very much to The Trammps for that one.
Loleatta Holloway – ‘Love Sensation’
Born in Chicago, Loleatta Holloway was first introduced to disco label Salsoul by her husband, the producer and jazz guitarist Floyd Smith. She’d later perform for the first time at Nicky Siano’s Gallery, rocking up for the club’s Valentines Day Party Massacre party. “Of course my brothers dressed up like hoodlums with machine guns,” recounted Siano in Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day, looking back on what sounds like a properly weird fancy dress party to be honest. “I was too stoned to worry”. Luckily Holloway wasn’t phased, hopping on stage and improvising on the spot to Cerrone ‘Love in C Minor’. She ended up performing every single track off her album, for an adoring room.
And ‘Love Sensation’ – a number one hit on the US Hot Dance Club Play Chart – is Loleatta Holloway at her euphoric best. It’s been widely sampled since, too: by everyone from the Pet Shop Boys to, er, Flo Rida and Alexandra Burke.
Ten Percent – ‘Double Exposure (Walter Gibbons mix)’
Occupying a niche and slightly nerdy place in dance music history, Walter Gibbon’s remix of Ten Percent’s ‘Double Exposure’ was the first ever commercial 12” single. Those few inches of vinyl cleared room for extended club mixes, and higher sound quality; huge news for the dance world.
Impressed by Walter Gibbons’ ability to arrive on time, Salsoul tasked him with the ‘Ten Percent’ remix – and the influential DJ’s first production job remains one of his best known moments. Stretching out Double Exposure’s track into a sprawling epic, it was a moment that shook up the disco underground forever; turning skilful DJs into bona fide superstars. “It sounded so new, going backwards and forwards. It built and built like it would never stop. The dance floor just exploded,” one regular of Galaxy21 – where Walter Gibbons often DJ’d – remembers, quoted in Love Saves the Day.
Teddy Pendergrass – ‘You Can’t Hide From Yourself’
A favourite track of Nicky Siano’ ‘You Can’t Hide From Yourself’ showcases Teddy Pendergrass at his strutting best. Formerly the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes – the group responsible for ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “If You Don’t Know Me by Now’- the Philly musician left the band, launched a solo career, and became one of disco’s best-known hunks. With a raw and powerful voice – bursting with passion and soul – Teddy soon became a sex symbol. Dodging flung underwear at the women-only shows he hosted was a regular occurrence; fans would frequently pose as hotel maids in an attempt to get closer to the star.
In 1982, a serious car accident left Pendergrass paralysed from the chest down; just three years later he bravely returned to the stage and performed at Philadelphia’s Live Aid concert, and would go on to release a further five albums. A remarkable feat from a man who adored music, the 2019 documentary If You Don’t Know Me is vital viewing when it comes to learning more about the late icon’s life and work.
Kraftwerk – ‘Trans-Europe Express’
Named after a high-speed express train which strung together 130 cities across Europe ‘Trans-Europe Express’ came at a time when technological developments were helping to melt down limitations. Hopping between different countries suddenly became a high-speed breeze, precise robotic synthesisers were revolutionising electronic music, and German innovators Kraftwerk explored it all on their sixth record in 1977.
Kraftwerk built a custom Synthanorma Sequenzer for the occasion; a 32-step, 16-channel sequencer and all-round monster, which shaped a haunting beat that skitters like the rhythmic chatter of a train piston. The meeting with David Bowie and Iggy Pop referenced in the song actually happened, too. The artists were all mutual fans of one another: David Bowie even named his song ‘V-2 Schneider’ after one of Kraftwerk’s founding members Florian Schneider.
Grace Jones – ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’
A cacophony of beeping cars, twanging bass and limousine innuendos, Grace Jones’ ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’ is disco, condensed: perfectly capturing the pure joy and silliness of losing yourself in a club ‘til dawn. And Grace Jones would know; throughout the 70s the icon was a regular at New York’s Studio 54, tearing up the dance floor in elaborate costumes and shimmering capes. Appearing – appropriately enough – on her album ‘Nightclubbing’, it’s an instant floor-filler, sneering and strutting til the end. Drive safely!
Daft Punk – ‘Get Lucky’
Oh, so admittedly Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ arrived several decades too late for an airing at Studio 54 (fun fact: Nile Rodgers wrote Chic’s ‘Freak Out’ – originally called ‘Fuck Off’ – after he was refused entry there) the Daft Punk track, which features Rodgers and Pharrell Williams, still ranks as a disco smash hit. Every year there’s a running joke that ‘Get Lucky’ is once again the sound of the summer, but it really is true; it’s a slice of ubiquitous disco-revival pop gold which just cannot be escaped.