Disco, DJs, and the impact of the 12-inch single.
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In the early 1970s, a musical sensation took over New York City. It was called Disco. Before Disco became synonymous with Saturday Night Fever, Rod Stewart, and celebrity-fueled parties, it was an underground movement powered by the innovations of young DJs challenging themselves and each other to throw the city’s most adventurous dance parties.
By 1973, their influence as musical taste makers became apparent, and a handful of unconventional dance tracks became pop crossover hits. With barely any radio airplay, songs like "Love Theme" and "Girl You Need a Change of Mind" became defining tracks of the disco era.
These songs were repetitive, hypnotic, and funky, and they were also pretty long compared to other pop hits. That presented a problem for DJs using 7-inch 45rpm singles, which fit only 3:30 minutes of quality audio on them, during their night-long sets. They needed a vinyl record that could make their most popular tracks sound powerful on a dance floor and last the whole night.
In 1976, an accidental studio discovery by Disco pioneer Tom Moulton provided the solution: A 12-inch single. By stretching one song across 12 inches of vinyl, a format typically reserved for full-length albums, those extended dance tracks had room to breath.
By the 1980s, the 12-inch single dominated pop music. It not only changed the sound of records, it allowed for music producers to experiment with length and structure.
While I dug through hundreds of pages of billboard charts and oral histories of the disco era to research and write this piece a few select sources proved incredibly helpful and they are linked below. I highly recommend checking them out if you want to learn more about this story.
Last Night a DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster
Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979
by Tim Lawrence
Mix Mag’s collection of stories on Disco and I Feel Love
Red Bull Music Academy’s Disco story archive:
Note: The headline for this video has been updated since publishing.
Previous headline: The disco invention that changed pop music
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Some songs don't just stick in your head, they change the music world forever. Join Estelle Caswell on a musical journey to discover the stories behind your favorite songs.
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