Disco Rocks: The influence of Disco on Classic Rock

Genre rivalries, there are a lot of them. They can be between different subgenres of rock or between different genres. You’re told to pick one side or the other, you can’t like both. Or can you? A silly question, of course you can like more than one thing. Don’t let the elitist fans tell you what you can and cannot like. I can rant all day about elitist fans, but I’ll leave that for another time. In this post we’ll be covering the crossovers between disco and rock with an emphasis on rock musicians trying their hands at disco. Disco played an important role in popular music and inspired the dance genres of the 80s and beyond.

Let’s get into a time machine and take you to the mid 70s. Some think that the mid 70s were not great years for rock and roll. Come 1976 and 1977, punk takes over, but you see another kind of music coming to the mainstream and it’s everywhere! Disco. You won’t be seeing as much hard rock topping the charts anytime soon. The 80s were a time of new wave and pop music and synths. Rock music still had a following, but it wasn’t anything like the peak: the late 60s and early 70s. Some fans thought that rock music was dying and were very upset about it. The most notable example of this expression of anger was in Chicago during the summer of 1979, the famous Disco Demolition Night. In short, it was a riot where people set disco records on fire at a baseball game.

It is debatable if these upset rock fans were racist against Black and Hispanic Americans or prejudiced against gay and bisexual people. If you ask me (a mixed bisexual 22 year old woman – sadly I didn’t get to live in the 70s), I would say I can’t tar all the anti-disco rock fans with the same brush. People are individuals after all and I don’t want to assume. You’d have to ask each person. I’m not a mind reader. Some people were probably just upset that the music scene was changing and wanted to hear more rock music and it didn’t have anything to do with ethnicity or sexuality. It is possible to not like a genre of music and not be prejudiced against a group of people. Others were no doubt prejudiced. Society then was even more prejudiced against LGBT people than it is today. No state had marriage equality. It would take decades for Massachusetts to have marriage equality. There were no anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBT people. Many LGBT people were in the closet. Discrimination would get even worse in the 80s with the AIDS epidemic. As for race, interracial relationships were frowned upon in the 70s. Employment discrimination and housing discrimination were common.

I am a classic rock fan who loves disco. It’s not even a guilty pleasure. I simply don’t feel guilty listening to disco. Good music is good music. What can I say? I’m a sucker for catchy, energetic, positive music and I love the sound of bass guitars. I’m ready for the flack I’ll get for expressing this opinion, but let me defend myself with facts. Classic rock musicians think different from their fans. Many of them like to experiment and try new things, at least the ones that we recognise as legends. Doing the same thing over and over again gets old and you can’t keep recycling the same song and expect to get hits every time and stay relevant. Music has to be fresh, pushing the envelope, getting out of your comfort zone. Some classic rock fans, no doubt felt alienated when musicians they liked tried their hands at disco. They may have labelled the musicians as traitors. They missed the point of being an artist, though. Artists, both big and small, support each other and there is usually a lot of positivity and a bit of fun competition of course, because there’s nothing like saying you had a #1 and kept a popular musician out of the top slot.

More classic rockers than you think did disco songs. Even before that, there was funk rock, which was a precursor to disco. Maybe they liked the genre. You’d think if they made a disco song, they’d like it to an extent. Here’s a timeline of the classic rock/disco crossovers:

Context: Late 60s to Mid 70s Funk Rock: Disco came from funk and a few other genres. Funk rock started in the late 60s and it’s a pretty self explanatory genre, the marriage of two great genres. Important musicians in this genre are James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Average White Band, P-Funk, Betty Davis, Shuggie Otis, Black Merda, and Eric Burdon & War. James Gang released two funk influenced songs “Funk #48” and “Funk #49”. Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady” and “Little Miss Lover” have funk elements. His live album Band of Gypsys is where you would hear his funkiest songs. Here are a few important classic rock funk songs of the subgenre:

So where did disco come from? This isn’t a post about disco so I’ll keep this bit about the beginnings of disco history short. The beginnings of disco were in the early 70s and the genre originated in multiple scenes in America such as the Philly Soul scene, The Loft in New York, and the debut of Soul Train in Chicago (which later on moved to LA). The genre was first popular among Black and Hispanic Americans and the LGBT community and later on gained popularity among White Americans. The first song that could be classified as disco to chart was “Love Train” by The O’Jays in 1972. Following that, “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango charted in early 1973. Other notable songs from the early years of disco (1973-1974) are “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, “Rock The Boat” by The Hues Corporation, “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, and “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae. From there, disco took off and not just in America. It was worldwide.

1974:

Evie (I’m Losing You): Evie was an 11 minute long epic three parter performed by former Easybeat Stevie Wright and written by powerhouse songwriting team Harry Vanda and George Young (also former Easybeats). George Young’s little brother, Malcolm Young played guitar on this song. The song features the main themes of love songs: I want you (a hard rocker), I’m so happy to be with you (a slow piano sound), and I’m losing you (a more disco sound). It’s a bit strange to hear that upbeat disco sound with the narrator being heartbroken that Evie’s dying in childbirth.

1975: 

Main Course: This is the beginning of the era the Bee Gees were best known for. They went from being a pop band made up of five members to the lineup being cut down to just the three Gibb brothers. They were commercially successful in the beginning with top 10 singles like “Massachusetts” and “Words”. In the early 70s they released a lot of singles, but they weren’t as commercially successful. 1975 was the comeback year for the Bee Gees. What a comeback it was, it was such a comeback that people forgot their earlier material. Now, don’t write off their disco era as shallow, like before The Bee Gees wrote all their own songs. Throughout the rest of the 70s, they had a string of hits. “Jive Talkin'” was just the beginning. Main Course was the album that marked the beginning of their disco years. Other great disco songs from that album worth listening to are “Nights On Broadway” and “Wind of Change”. Not all songs on the album are disco sounding, so you’re in luck if you prefer the style of the earlier Bee Gees discography.

Philadelphia Freedom: Elton John performed this song on Soul Train. The horns and strings are very similar to what you would hear on a disco song from the mid 70s. The song was about Billie Jean King, the tennis player who played on the Philadelphia Freedoms team. It wasn’t about the Philadelphia Soul scene, but Philly Soul group MFSB covered it later on in 1975 and even named on of their albums Philadelphia Freedom. The song was a hit and reached #1 in Canada and the US and #2 in New Zealand.

1976:

Knights in White Satin: Giorgio Moroder started off as a bubblegum pop singer, but in 1975 he started doing experimental electronic music and later on Italo Disco. He is known as one of the most important musicians in the Italo Disco genre. In 1976 he released Knights In White Satin, which sounds more like most people’s idea of disco. Side A of the album is an almost 15 minute long cover of The Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin”. The first part and the last part consists of a cover of “Nights in White Satin” and the part in the middle is an original composition by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte cleverly titled “In The Middle of the Knight.

Russian Roulette: The Hollies dabbled in disco in 1976 with the release of their album Russian Roulette. The album was not released in the US, so it is hard to find the entire album. A few tracks on the album are disco and funk influenced like “Daddy Don’t Mind”, “Wiggle That Wotsit”, and “Draggin’ My Heels”. “Daddy Don’t Mind” reached the top 40 in Germany and The Netherlands and “Wiggle That Wotsit” was in the top 20 in The Netherlands, New Zealand, and Sweden. “Wiggle That Wotsit” reminds me a bit of KC and The Sunshine Band.

Station to Station: David Bowie always changed up his look and his music and no two albums are alike. He was a real innovator and wasn’t afraid to try new things. He is one person that I think of when I think of diversity of influences. He always showed a love of American culture, which is where his stage name came from – the historic figure James Bowie – an American from Kentucky who was a big part of the Texas Revolution. In 1975 he released the Young Americans album, which was a blue eyed soul album. Disco came after soul and R&B and it wouldn’t exist without those genres, which is why I included the Young Americans story for context. Listen to the songs “Fascination”, “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” (in my opinion, the most disco sounding of the album), and “Fame” to get an idea of how he got to disco with the songs “Golden Years” and “Stay” from the Station to Station album. It’s an interesting album because it not only sounded disco, but also was the beginning of him showing his love of Krautrock through his music (which you’ll hear the influence more on the album, Low). The album starts off with the title track, which later on turns disco about 5 minutes and 20 seconds in.

You Should Be Dancing: With the success of “Jive Talkin'” and “Nights On Broadway”, the Bee Gees followed up with more disco compositions with the release of Children of the World. The album has a mix of faster songs like “You Should Be Dancing” and slower songs like “Lovers”. Overall this album is much more disco than Main Course. Some deep cuts I liked were “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” and “Love Me”.

1977:

Kongas: Very little is known about this group, but before Marc Cerrone got famous as a disco producer. The group are from France and key member Marc Cerrone was born to Italian parents in Vitry-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. He was inspired by R&B musician Otis Redding and rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Santana. The group did a cover of Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'”. I found the album Africanism is worth listening to.

I Robot: “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” is a funky disco pop sounding track on the I Robot album. The vocals on the track are by disco singer Lenny Zakatek. On the same album, you can’t miss “The Voice,” which has a disco sounding bit starting at around the 2:30 mark. Love the guitar effects and the string loops.

Saturday Night Fever: 1977 was a big year for disco and a big reason why a movie about disco was released. We all know this movie and the poster and music are so iconic. It’s none other than Saturday Night Fever. It was one of the best selling soundtracks and about half of the songs on the album were written by or performed by The Bee Gees. Many of the best known disco songs are on this album such as “A Fifth of Beethoven”, “Boogie Shoes”, and “Disco Inferno”. The entire first side of the first disco of the album is written by The Bee Gees. You’ll know songs like “Night Fever”, “Stayin’ Alive” (from the iconic opening scene of the film), “How Deep Is Your Love”, and “More Than A Woman”.

1978:

Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?: One of the most famous examples of classic rock goes disco and one of Rod Stewart’s best known songs of his solo career. It went #1 in the US, Canada, Australia, Portugal, and Spain. The single stands out in his discography because he mostly performed blues rock and the sound wasn’t as commercialised. He was known as Rod The Mod, after all.

Disco Rock Machine: After Trevor Rabin left Rabbitt and before he left South Africa for England, he collaborated with singer René Veldsman and drummer Kevin Kruger on a project called Disco Rock Machine. Trevor Rabin produced the album and played guitar and keyboards. The group only released two albums, Time to Love in 1978 and Disco Rock Machine 2 in 1979. Both albums are rather short, the first having 4 songs and the second having songs. Trevor Rabin wrote two original compositions on the first album, “Time To Love” and “Loving Styles”, showing that he could write more than just rock songs. As far as classic rock songs, the band have covered The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'”. Sadly, I cannot find the latter since the album is rare. They even did a couple of Motown covers like “Living For The City” by Stevie Wonder and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by The Supremes. Below, I’ll embed their cover of “You Really Got Me”. It has a very interesting sound to it. Coincidentally, a few years after this song was released, Ray Davies co-produced Trevor Rabin’s album Wolf.

For You: Prince was more than just a disco musician and it isn’t fair to describe him this way. He didn’t want to be labelled, all he wanted to do was do his own thing and go against the grain, make music the way he wanted to. He was an icon and musical genius, so versatile. His first album was released in 1978, when he was about to turn 20. A couple of songs on the album have a bit of a disco sound, “Soft and Wet” and “Just As Long As We’re Together”. Fun fact: Prince played all the instruments, wrote all the songs (except for one which was cowritten with Chris Moon), and produced the album. The album overall is funky and a fun listen.

Grease: one of the most popular songs from the film of the same name, it was performed by Frankie Valli as a solo musician and written by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. It was an interesting choice to open the movie because it didn’t conform to the 50s aesthetic of the film. It reached the top 10 in Australia, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, The US, and many other countries.

Miss You: The Rolling Stones did more than just blues rock. Their first attempt at disco went #1 in the US and Canada and #3 in the UK and Ireland. Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood have their side of the story; it was not originally meant to be a disco song, but Keith Richards said to the contrary. It was their last #1 in the US. In my opinion, the best version is the extended dance version with great Wurlitzer Piano by former Small Faces member Ian McLagan.

Shakedown Street: This song on the album of the same name is quite different from the rest of the album because of its disco sound. This was the first Grateful Dead song I heard and I love it! It’s quite different from their earlier material, which are more jazz influenced and acid rock sounding. Definitely a nice surprise and a change from their other songs.

1979:

Another Brick In The Wall Part 2: It’s the song that everyone knows, even if they don’t listen to Pink Floyd because every classic rock station plays this song. Not everyone gets the title right though even though it went #1 in many different countries. including The UK, US, and Canada. It’s catchy and has a disco beat to it, giving it that crossover appeal, which is why it charted so high worldwide.

(Ghost) Riders In The Sky: The Shadows peak may have been in the early 60s, but they came back with this cover of a 40s Stan Jones country song that took influences from Irish trad music (actually a lot of country music has a bit of Irish trad music in it, which is why you’ll find country music radio shows in Ireland). This song has been covered many times, but I think this cover is cool because it has trendy disco sound of the late 70s and early 80s and retains the country sound of the original, all without abandoning Hank Marvin’s guitar style – one of the reasons I love The Shadows. Their version reached #12 in the UK charts.

Goodbye Stranger: Supertramp were well known for their art/prog rock albums, their most popular being Crime of the Century, Even in the Quietest Moments, and of course 1979’s Breakfast in America (my favourite album of theirs). 1979 was a good year for disco and this is a good example of rock meets disco. The Wurlitzer piano intro and bassline stand out to me as disco influenced. The guitar keeps the song in the rock genre. This was one of Supertramp’s biggest hits in America, peaking at #15 on the Billboard charts. The song did even better in Canada, where it broke the top 10, peaking at #6.

Goodnight Tonight: This song was an instrumental at first, but Paul McCartney wrote lyrics for it later on, turning it into this disco rock classic. The rhythm section and vocals make the song have a nice disco vibe. Like a lot of disco songs, there is a longer 12″ single version of this. This single ensured that the 70s were a great decade for Paul McCartney, being his biggest hit that year, charting at #5 in the US and UK.

Heart of Glass: 1979 was a big year for disco and Blondie didn’t miss out on the hottest genre of the time, so they released “Heart of Glass” early in 1979. It was written as a slightly disco inspired song in the mid 70s and it took many tries to find the right sound for the song, but in the end the disco sound stuck. Debbie Harry is a fan of disco and later on Giorgio Moroder produced the hit “Call Me”.

I Was Made For Lovin’ You: Many people already know this, but Kiss made their own disco song in 1979. Very different from their usual hard rock.On the same album you can find more slightly pop influenced songs like “Sure Know Something” and “Dirty Livin'”

John I’m Only Dancing (Again): This song was released as a disco influenced sequel to “John I’m Only Dancing”. It reached #12 on the UK charts.

Sexy Dancer: Prince released his sophomore self titled album in 1979, which sounded a bit different from his last album. You will find mostly slower ballads on this album. If you’re into dance songs, there are three of them, but one stands out as disco, “Sexy Dancer”. Prince was more of a success than the debut, selling more copies and getting more favourable reviews.

Shine A Little Love and Last Train To London: Electric Light Orchestra were best known for combining classical music with rock music, making them one of the best known symphonic rock bands. Disco has a few symphonic elements to it so it doesn’t seem to o out of place that ELO would have made a disco song. “Shine A Little Love” was one of the hit singles from the album Discovery and it was a great opener for the album. It wasn’t the only disco song on the album though. “Last Train to London” also has that disco sound. Both songs made the top 10 in the UK, but “Shine A Little Love” charted better worldwide.

Spirits Having Flown: The last album the Bee Gees released in the 70s sounded less disco overall than their last few albums,but there are a few moments that sound disco like the songs “Tragedy” and “Search, Find”.

Under Fire: Clout had multiple hit singles in Europe and this was one of them. A lot of their other songs were covers of other bands’ songs like April Wine’s “Oowatanite,” Rainbow’s “Since You’ve Been Gone”, and The Righteous Brothers “Substitute”. “Under Fire” was written by BA Robertson, a Scottish songwriter. Little is known about this song because Clout were famous for a short amount of time outside of their home country of South Africa.

(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman: The Kinks had a minor hit with this song off the album Low Budget. “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” went to #41 in the US. This song is a bit disco and does not conform to the hard rock and country inspired sound of the rest of the album.

1980:

And I Moved: A dreamy disco like song from Pete Townshend’s solo album, Empty Glass. This song was originally written for Bette Midler. Some interpret the lyrics like “As he laid me back just like an empty dress” as kind of a coming out for Pete, but that didn’t have anything to do with his bisexuality, “Rough Boys” was more about that.

Another One Bites The Dust: Queen combined hard rock and disco on this classic. It was a top 10 hit in many countries around the world and is very different from other tracks on the album, The Game. It was also one of John Deacon’s best known songs he wrote for Queen.

Dirty Mind: Prince released this popular album in October of 1980. Like his previous albums, so many genres are mixed here to create something unique. New wave, disco, ballads, and R&B sounds can all be found in the songs. If you’re looking for more danceable tracks, try the songs “Dirty Mind”, “Do It All Night” (a real combination of new wave and disco), “Partyup”, and “Uptown”.

Emotional Rescue: The Rolling Stones were back at it again with disco inspired songs when they released their album Emotional Rescue in 1980. It was a success and had a couple of hit singles. One of them being the song title of the same name. Of course, this song didn’t come without a mix of opinions from fans. Overall, it proved to be a success, breaking the top 10 in the UK and the US. If you want to hear more disco inspired Rolling Stones, look no further than the opening track of the album, “Dance (pt 1)”. Overall the album is very eclectic and I heard a reggae inspired song, “Send It To Me” and some country inspired songs.

Games People Play: Progressive rockers Alan Parsons Project made another disco song, collaborating with Lenny Zakatek of disco group Gonzalez. This song was a top 20 in the US.

Strange Euphoria: Hard rock band Heart even caught the disco bug and made this the B-side to the single “Tell It Like It Is,” an Aaron Neville R&B cover. This is one of many collaborations between the Wilson Sisters and Sue Ennis, a close friend and songwriting partner. The guitar is what really makes this song disco. “Strange Euphoria” was a hard to find song until it was released on the compilation album of the same name. Not sure why this wasn’t made more prominent because it really is a gem. Unique, catchy, and goofy in a good way.

Solo In Soho: Phil Lynott is associated with hard rock and the beginnings of metal. The last thing you’d expect him to make is a disco song. He released his first solo album in 1980, Solo In Soho. Phil Lynott liked to try different things in his music and this album is no exception. “Solo In Soho” is reggae influenced. A few songs are disco and synthpop influenced: “Tattoo (Giving It All Up For Love)”, “Girls”, and “Yellow Pearl”. “Yellow Pearl”, the biggest hit of the three disco inspired tracks, was released as a single and made it to #25 in Phil Lynott’s native Ireland. It was written by Phil Lynott and Midge Ure and the lyrics were inspired by the increasing popularity of Japanese technology like Sony’s Walkman and the Japanese electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra. “Tattoo” was written by Phil Lynott and “Girls” was written by Phil Lynott, Jimmy Bain, and Brian Robertson.

1981:

Too Much Time On My Hands: A bit new wave, a bit disco. The beat is very disco and synthpop and Styx show that they can do more than just prog rock. The song is a combination of lots of things and I could definitely see this song being played at a disco. It was a top 10 hit in the US too. The track after “Too Much Time On My Hands”, “Nothing Ever Goes As Planned” also has a few disco influences in it along with some ska and new wave influences. It didn’t chart as high, but don’t let that discourage you. It’s just as good of a song as “Too Much Time On My Hands”, maybe even a better song. Listen to the two together in that order for the best experience because it is a concept album.

1982:

Hot Space: Not a well-loved album among many Queen fans because it was totally different from their guitar heavy sound and sounded more disco and funk influenced, but I think it has a couple gems. Not just “Under Pressure”. Brian May and Roger Taylor don’t like this album because they felt this album had too much of Freddie’s assistant and ex-boyfriend, Paul Prenter’s influence – sound, and otherwise. Prenter was very controlling and no one likes him. Michael Jackson liked this album though and said it influenced Thriller. My favourite songs on the album are “Staying Power”, “Back Chat”, “Put Out The Fire” (a very relevant message today), and “Cool Cat”. Fun fact about “Cool Cat” – Brian and Roger hated that song so much they refused to play on it so John Deacon played all the instruments, except for piano, which Freddie did.

Precious: The Jam broke up in 1982 and released their final album, The Gift that year. You’ll find a mix of sounds on the album from their more familiar punk sound like “Happy Together” and “Trans Global Express” (this song really is a mix of sounds and isn’t just punk though – has a bit of ska and soul in it) to more poppy crossover tracks like “A Town Called Malice,” which topped the charts in the UK in February 1982. Two track that stand out as disco influenced are “Precious” and the instrumental “Circus”. “Precious” sounds a lot more like the songs Paul Weller did with The Style Council, later on in the mid to late 80s. Paul Weller is a fan of soul and R&B music, so that explains why he wrote that song and others that were influenced by it. Quite a change from All Mod Cons and In The City. The drums on “Circus” give the song that disco sound and the guitars and bass on “Precious” are very disco. There’s even a 12 inch version of “Precious”.

The Man’s A Fool and Together: Phil Lynott released his second and last solo album in 1982, The Philip Lynott Album. As a whole the album is more poppy than his previous album with songs like “Old Town” and “Growing Up”. Two songs on the album sound a bit disco, “The Man’s A Fool” and “Together”. “The Man’s a Fool” is disco and soul influenced. I love both genres so the song wins with me. “Together” is pop mixed with a bit of disco.

1983:

Blue Monday: Disco already died out by this time and synthpop and Hi-NRG took over, but this song is an example of a transition between the two genres. New Order were made up of members of post punk band Joy Division. Just before Joy Division were to tour America, frontman Ian Curtis committed suicide. The remaining band members took the approach of not continuing to record under the Joy Division name if one of the members were to die or leave the band, so New Order was born. Their sound is totally different from Joy Division. “Blue Monday” was their first big worldwide hit, making the top 10 in many different countries including The UK, Switzerland, Germany, and New Zealand and it’s the best selling 12″ single of all time.

Burning Down The House: The Talking Heads began with a post punk sound, but mixed a lot of different sounds from around the world to create their signature sound. The members of the band liked to try new things. David Byrne founded a world music record label; Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz made a few songs inspired by rap music. Parliament-Funkadelic were the inspiration behind this song. As a whole, the Speaking in Tongues album, was heavily inspired by funk music. “Burning Down The House” did well on the charts in Canada and New Zealand.

Did I miss a song? Have any comments or stories about the songs or bands? Have an opinion? Share your thoughts in the comments section below! I appreciate any feedback.

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