In 2019, D23–the official Disney fan club–hosted Mickey Mouse’s Roller Disco Party at the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale, California. Guests were invited to put on their boogie shoes (or roller skates in this case) and celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the album Mickey Mouse Disco.
Mickey and Minnie were there wearing their grooviest threads, posing for photographs, and showing off their best moves alongside the “Outta Sight Skaters”.
A similar event, called Mickey’s Disco Night, was held a month later at San Diego Comic-Con. The party took place at the House of Blues and lasted from 8 p.m. to Midnight. The official description proclaimed, “No platform shoes are too high and no jumpsuit is too sparkly for this night of funky fun!”
It was a brilliant night, and one that I’ll forever be disappointed to have missed, but Disney and Disco fans alike might be wondering: How exactly did we get here?
You Should Be Dancing
Pinning down the exact origins of disco is a tricky endeavor. The genre, popularly associated with the 1970s, traces back to the 60s. In “Boogie Nights: An Oral History of Disco”, Lisa Robinson writes, “Some say the dance-club scene started in the 1960s in New York City, with discotheques…Some say the 1960s Parisian club scene…But most agree that none of this really mattered until the early 1970s, when gay underground dance clubs in New York…spawned a disco culture…”
Philly Soul, born of Philadelphia International Records, is often referred to as a sort of bridge between the world of Motown and disco, highlighting the genre’s strong ties to Black music and history. The Latin musicians of New York City also played a role in its development. A 1979 article in the New York Times noted, “During the late 1960s and early 70s, numbers of young Latinos in New York began doing Latin‐style ballroom dance steps to black soul music. During the next few years, they transformed what had been the cha‐cha into the Latin hustle, and as they mixed more freely with young blacks on dance floors, Latin and black dance music began borrowing more intensively from each other.”
David Mancuso played a huge role in the growing disco culture with his “by invitation only parties” which he held at The Loft (quite literally his loft in Manhattan). The evenings started as a simple means to make ends meet. As noted in an NPR article, Mancuso needed money to pay the rent and so he hosted, “A rent party, in the tradition of Great Migration-era Harlem sessions that involved music, dancing, and a donation to help the host make that month’s ends meet…”
Subsequent parties followed with Manusco serving as the “musical host” (apparently he was not fond of the term DJ). Other clubs, like 10th Floor, opened as the disco craze grew. Eventually, such legendary venues as Studio 54 and Paradise Garage were established.
Tom Moulton was another key figure in the development of disco, a record producer who introduced the 12” inch single (a happy accident when his pressing plant ran out of smaller acetates). Because there was only one track per side, the 12” allowed the grooves on the record to be larger. Add that to the fact that they were spun at the same speed as 45s, and you had a recipe for louder records, ideal for a club environment. They also facilitated the low end (bass, kick drum, etc.) to be more prominent, making them perfect for dancing.
The 12” single was not the only major contribution he made to the disco scene. A former model, he discovered Fire Island in New York (known for its all-night dance parties) in 1971. According to an article in The Guardian he, “hatched a plan to eliminate the awkward gap (and dancefloor exodus) between songs. Using a tape machine, he spent two weeks threading up-tempo soul and R&B into the first continuous mix.”
He gave the world the disco break, a technique where portions of a song would drop out completely for a time. According to Moulton, these segments, “hang you off a cliff with a bungee cable. You almost hit the bottom and then you bounce back up.”
Artists like Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Chic, KC and the Sunshine Band, Earth, Wind, and Fire, the Village People, Kool and the Gang, Candi Staton, and Grace Jones were a just few of the shining stars of the scene, alongside people like composer and producer Giorgio Moroder. The genre also elevated the DJ to the role of superstar.
By 1976, there were reportedly 10,000 discos in the United States alone. That number would double by 1979. In 1977, the movie Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta, brought the movement to the silver screen. Its soundtrack, primarily featuring music by the Bee Gees (with songs like “You Should Be Dancing”, “Stayin’ Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “More Than a Woman”, and others) would sell over 40,000,000 copies.
In 1978, a disco song occupied the number one spot in America for 37 weeks. The music dominated the charts through the beginning of the following year as well. The wave of disco popularity was at its peak. Unfortunately, it was about to come crashing back to earth.
In many ways, Disney’s decision to cash in on the disco movement came too late. The year 1979 saw the birth of the “Disco Sucks” movement, spearheaded by DJ Steve Dahl. He printed out “Kill Disco” membership cards, and held “anti-disco” rallies. On the radio, he would drag the needle over disco records and then play sound bytes of explosions.
Anti-disco sentiment was spreading across the country. Small-scale events took place in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, with one featuring a DJ destroying a stack of disco records with a chain saw.
The climax of the movement took place July 12, when Dahl hosted a “Disco Demolition” night at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Fans who brought a disco album were admitted to a doubleheader for a mere $.98. Some 50,000 people attended (30,000more than anticipated). Between games, Dahl went on the field, where records were piled up, and declared, “This is now officially the world’s largest anti-disco rally! Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeeeal goooood.” He then proceeded to destroy them by detonating dynamite, which also blew a hole in the outfield.
Far from being the climax, the explosion precipitated a full-on riot, with fans storming the field. They climbed foul poles, set fires, and ripped up the turf. Batting cages were destroyed and people danced around the burning records. Riot police eventually arrived, bringing an end to the chaos.
The field was so damaged that the second game was initially postponed, and later forfeited by the White Sox.
Both historians and musicians have attempted to analyze the impetus behind the movement, with many concluding that it was a backlash fueled by racism and homophobia.
Discussing it in a 2010 Vanity Fair article, Fran Lebowitz stated, “ ‘Disco Sucks’ was a kind of panic on the part of straight white guys. Disco was basically black music, rock ‘n’ roll was basically white: those guys felt displaced.”
Discussing the rise of the 12” single and its impact on hip-hop and disco, legendary musician and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne noted that, while some of the anger may have stemmed from traditional musicians being supplanted in the new genre, there was also an undercurrent of culture war involved, writing, “The reasons largely have to do with race and homophobia–many of the most popular dance clubs were black, gay, or both.”
For his part, Dahl denied any kind of bigotry was involved in the protest, stating, “The worst thing is people calling Disco Demolition homophobic or racist. It just wasn’t … We weren’t thinking like that…We were just disenfranchised, 24-year-old males.” In another instance, he said, “I’m worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe. The event was not anti-racist, not anti-gay … we were just kids pissing on a musical genre.”
Mark W. Anderson, a political journalist who attended the Disco Demolition at age 15, disagreed. He wrote, “Rock music, and the lifestyle and values that went with it, was under attack from an alien music and culture popular with black folks and, occasionally, gays…The chance to yell “disco sucks” meant more than simply a musical style choice…it was a chance for a whole lot of people to say they didn’t like the way the world was changing around them, or who they saw as the potential victors in a cultural and demographic war.”
Gloria Gaynor, whose “I Will Survive” was one of disco’s biggest hits, suggested that economics factored into the hysteria when she said, “This had to be a movement started by somebody who got a mob mentality going and whose livelihood was being affected by the popularity of disco music.”
For his part, Harry Wayne Casey (frontman of KC and the Sunshine Band) has a much simpler explanation for Dahl’s behavior, stating, “I just figured the guy was an idiot.”
Whatever the underlying cause, many see it as the end of the disco era. Curiously, the very same month that the Disco Demolition took place, Disney released Mickey Mouse Disco.
“A Macho Guy with Clark Gable Ears”
That’s how Mickey Mouse is described in the album’s opening song and its title track. The lyrics go on to proclaim:
When his body’s set in motion
The ladies cry a thousand tears.
Let the dancin’ fever move him
And he’ll always bring down the house–
Disco Mickey Mouse.
There were nine tracks total on the album:
- Mickey Mouse Disco
- Welcome to Rio
- The Greatest Band
- Macho Duck
- Watch Out for Goofy!
- It’s a Small World
- Chim Chim Cher-Ee
The album was produced by Jymn Magon and recorded at Audio Media Recording Studios in Nashville. Arrangements on the album were, with the exception of “It’s a Small World”, made by Dennis Burnside, a musician and composer who had worked with the U.S. Army Band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Levon Helm, and Garth Brooks, among others.
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the music on the album, but it’s consistently fun from beginning to end. Tracks like “Mickey Mouse Disco” and “Macho Duck” (a clever parody of the Village People’s Macho Man) are the standouts, but every track is danceable. Beyond the mere novelty of the concept, the music is solid. It’s silly, but that’s part of what makes it work. Camp has always been part of disco. After all, it’s the genre that gave us the Village People.
Given the timing of the release, the album seems as though it should have been destined for failure. The disco craze was over. Even Studio 54 closed, with owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, heading to prison for tax evasion. Satin shirts, polyester, and platform shoes would soon be replaced by shoulder pads, spandex, and ripped jeans.
Despite this fact, Mickey Mouse Disco went on to become a smashing success. Just how popular did it become? The album reached #35 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart and was certified double platinum, meaning it sold over 2,000,000 copies, the first children’s album to ever reach such lofty sales.
On its initial release, sales were modest. That’s when Disney executives had an idea: take the music to television. An ad was created for the record. In it, classic Mickey Mouse shorts were “remixed” with the music from the album. A toll-free number appeared on screen, so viewers could call and order a copy. It ran over and over, and the money started flowing in.
By 1980, Mickey Mouse Disco was certified gold (selling 500,000 copies). Within four years, it had sold four times that number. The record was so popular that tie-in merchandise, such as lunchboxes and posters, was created. The book “Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records” notes that enormous billboards were made to continue promoting Mickey Mouse Disco, and placed in locations like Sunset Boulevard. The album became so popular that Disney, “no longer had to depend solely on Disney films for their material, and the money generated…gave them the clout to pursue further original album concepts.”
While this brilliant marketing is clearly responsible for much of the album’s success, I suspect that the fun inherent in disco music played a role as well. As Gloria Gaynor says, “Disco music is alive and well and living in the hearts of music-lovers around the world. It simply changed its name to protect the innocent: Dance music. There’s no better music for a party—it helps you get rid of the stresses of the day.”
Album: Saturday Night Fever
Release Date: 1977
Notes: A relative latecomer to the scene, the album still remains one of the definitive symbols of the movement. Along with a whole host of classics by the Bee Gees, it featured songs like “Open Sesame” by Kool & the Gang, “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band, and “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps.
Album: Soul Makossa (12” single)
Artist: Manu Dibango
Release Date: 1972
Notes: Originally released as the B-side to Cameroon saxophonist Manu Dibango’s “Hymne de la 8e Coupe d’Afrique des Nations”, the song was discovered by David Mancuso, who began playing it at The Loft. Its popularity quickly spread, eventually leading it to reach #35 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
Album: Bad Girls
Artist: Donna Summer
Release Date: 1979
Notes: While the album came near the end of the era, Summer had already firmly established herself as the “Queen of Disco” with albums like “Love to Love You Baby”. Produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, “Bad Girls” was a massive success, and is responsible for mega-hits “Bad Girls”, “Dim All the Lights”, and “Hot Stuff”. Other singles from the album were “Sunset People”, “Our Love”, and “Walk Away”.
Album: From Here To Eternity
Artist: Giorgio Moroder
Release Date: 1977
Notes: Moroder is often referred to as “The Father of Disco”. He won Academy Awards for Best Original Score for the movie Midnight Express, “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, and “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara. He has worked with artists like Blondie, David Bowie, Janet Jackson, and Kylie Minogue. His album “From Here To Eternity” is a dance and electronic music classic, which Pitchfork magazine listed as one of the 100 Best Albums of the 1970s.