We – Synthforbreakfast eaters- all know that Disco music was greatly empowered by the use of synthesizers. And most of you probably will probably protest against disco music as a serious genre for synthesizer music. But we have to admit: some of the greater musicians and synth players have created disco music. So why not give it some attention? Ok only a short encounter – promised.
This article appeared on Reverb, written by Adam Douglas. Please note that all (c) are with Reverb and its authors. The original article can be found here.
Disco exploded onto the scene in the late 1970s and introduced the world to the joys of losing yourself on the dance floor. With its exuberant rhythms and infectious hooks, it took funk and soul, combined and streamlined it, and transformed the two into a juggernaut pop sensation. However, within a few years disco was gone—the victim of a backlash that culminated in the infamous Disco Demolition Night riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago in July 1979. Nowadays, when people think of disco (if they do at all), it’s overblown strings, silly Star Wars covers, and John Travolta’s white suit that come to mind.
For many, this is the story of disco. And yet, this is just the tip of an iceberg that encompassed so much more—a saga that continued long after disco disappeared from the US radio waves. A chief piece of the puzzle missing from the genre’s popular narrative is synthesizers. As the newest piece of music technology at the time, they were there practically from the genre’s beginning (witness Lionel Richie shredding on an ARP 2600 on “Machine Gun” in 1974 as a case in point) and long after through all its various mutations—be it post-disco, Italo disco or house.
Let’s celebrate the legacy of synthesizers in disco as well as the music and its writers and producers—never has a maligned genre of music been more influential.
Cloud One — Atmosphere Strut (1976)
In 1974, MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” introduced the world to a new kind of sleek and sophisticated soul music. Within a few years, the steady rhythmic pulse had replaced the shuffle beat as the dance rhythm of choice, and the heavily-arranged Philly string section sound became a staple of the genre now called disco. Meanwhile, producer and songwriter Patrick Adams was busy cranking out underground disco tunes and laying the groundwork for future dance music.
One of his best tracks—1976’s “Atmosphere Strut”—appeared under the name Cloud One and is characterized by its hypnotic synthesizer line, played live through almost the entire duration of the 10-minute song, snaking around the rhythm like a charmer’s cobra. This was played on an ARP 2600 and its unique pitch bending comes from the momentary portamento switch on the 3620 keyboard. Adams would hit the switch while playing, introducing quick bursts of portamento that still sound unique today. ARP’s semi-modular classic monosynth can be heard all over the full length Cloud One album, a masterpiece of dance music.
Cerrone — Supernature (1977)
While American disco was characterized by its associations with R&B and soul, European producers were quicker to embrace synthesizers, especially after Giorgio Moroder blew the roof off the pop world with “I Feel Love” in 1977. Another European who successfully melded disco and synths was French producer and drummer Cerrone. After the success of his single “Love In C Minor,” the synth manufacturer ARP sent Cerrone an Odyssey in the hopes that he might use it—and indeed he did on “Supernature,” his biggest hit.
As he explained in an interview with Fact Magazine, Cerrone came up with the idea for the pulsating bassline after experimenting with the monosynth. However, since he didn’t own a sequencer, he recorded a quick kick track by tapping on a microphone and then slowed down the tape to half speed to play the bassline live. This gave the track a sequenced feel while also allowing for some looseness to complement his live drumming. He also used a Moog Polymoog on the track—a popular synth to reach for when chords were required and before polysynths became ubiquitous.
Space — Magic Fly (1977)
Something must have been in the water in Europe: while American producers were having hits with disco versions of Motown and Stax songs—“Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Knock On Wood,” respectively—continental producers were grabbing whatever synths they could get their hands on and changing the musical landscape in the process.
One such band was Space—formed by Didier Marouani in 1977, the band had a massive hit with “Magic Fly” that same year. Performing in space suits and with a heavy sci-fi influence, they helped spearhead the short-lived but influential genre of space disco.
For their first album, also titled Magic Fly, the group made use of whatever synths they could get their hands on—this included a miniKorg 700 preset monosynth, ARP Axxe and Odyssey, as well as what Marouani has called a Korg String Ensemble and Korg Horns Ensemble—likely a PE-1000 and PE-2000, Korg’s first polyphonic instruments. Once they had their hit, they later upgraded their studio to include Korg PS-3300, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and 10, Oberheim OB-Xa, Sequential Pro One, and PPG Wave II.
Sylvester — You Make Me Feel [Mighty Real] (1978)
One American producer who was paying attention to what was happening in European music was Patrick Cowley. The New York transplant had joined Sylvester’s San Francisco-based band by the late 1970s, adding synthesizers to the diva’s songs, including the worldwide hit, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” in 1978. Cowley’s weapon of choice was a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and you can hear it all over “You Make Me Feel” as well as other Sylvester songs like “Dance (Disco Heat).”
Cowley had a solo career as well, pioneering the hi-NRG genre of post-disco with underground cuts like “Menergy” (also featuring Sylvester), “Megatron Man,” and “Mind Warp,” and going on to influence bands like Pet Shop Boys and New Order, who included Cowley’s epic remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” on their entry for the Back To Mine series of mix albums.
Giorgio Moroder — Baby Blue (1979)
Speaking of “I Feel Love,” we probably wouldn’t be talking about synths and disco if it weren’t for Giorgio Moroder. The Italian composer and producer changed the world when he married Donna Summer’s vocals to a hypnotic Moog Modular bassline—he was attempting to make futuristic pop music and it’s safe to say that he succeeded.
Moroder was more than just a producer though. His own From Here to Eternity album from 1977 is a watershed in electronic dance music, complete with songs that run together like a disco mix. In 1979, he returned to the electronic well for E=MC2, another synth-heavy affair that yielded “Baby Blue,” a jaunty number that’s classic Moroder. In this video, we see Moroder working on the track “in his favorite place, a cluttered studio.” This time, rather than a Moog Modular, he’s using a Roland System 700 sequenced by a Roland MC-8 to create the backing track. The vocoder on the chorus was a Moog 16 Channel Vocoder played via a Moog Polymoog. His assistant on the session? None other than Harold Faltermeyer, who would go on to have his own synthesizer-based hits with “Axel F” and “Fletch Theme.”
Ken Laszlo — Hey Hey Guy (1984)
After the events at Comiskey Park in 1979, disco was effectively dead in the US (at least under that genre name). However, it was just getting started in Europe—especially in Italy, where a new generation of producers took the beat and combined it with synth pop to create Italo disco. Klein & MBO’s “Dirty Talk” opened the floodgates and a few years later came Ken Laszlo’s relentless “Hey Hey Guy,” a prime example of Italo disco.
Released in 1984 on Memory Records, home to a number of Italo artists like Hipnosis, Koto, and Cyber People, the cut is defined by the digital edge of the PPG Wave. Wolfgang Palm’s ground-breaking digital instrument made a massive impact on electronic music, from Tangerine Dream to Depeche Mode—and of course Italo disco. Memory Records had one in their studio where they cut their records in the mid-‘80s along with a Moog Minimoog and other outboard gear.
Koto — Jabdah (1989)
The arguable peak of Italo disco came in 1986 with “Jabdah”, a monster of an instrumental track that inspired critics to coin the term spacesynth, a synth-heavy amalgamation of Italo and space disco. Released by Koto—who named themselves after a common preset sound on Japanese synthesizers—the band was actually Memory Records co-founder Stefano Cundari along with musician Anfrando Maiola.
“Jabdah” has a lot going on—a testament to the skills of co-producers Cundari and Allesandro Zanni—but among the Roland TR-808 and probably LinnDrum are a number of synth sounds. According to The World of Italo Disco Interviews and, Dragon’s Lair Fans Maiola used an Oberheim OB-X for basslines as well as a Korg Lambda, syncing everything with a Roland MC-500. There’s likely more going on—it’s a pretty dense mix—but there’s precious little information available out there, at least in English.
Italo disco (along with the original strain of disco) would go on to have a huge influence on house music—which was just emerging in Chicago—as well as Detroit techno. It takes more than a riot to silence a worldwide genre of music.