When Rock Went Disco

'70s disco smashes that were made by rockers

Disco rock songs sound like an anomaly to some folks -- after all, "Disco Sucks" was the rallying cry of rock and roll fans in the late Seventies, fans who thought that guitar bands were dead in the water, at least on AM radio, during disco's heady 18-month rule of all things American. Turns out they needn't have worried; in the meantime, however, certain rock artists who badly needed to stay afloat on top of the charts -- including many who loved the new sound -- risked alienating their core audience by flirting with disco. Here are the most popular of those experiments.

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"Miss You," The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" 12 inch
The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" 12 inch.

Possibly the biggest and most enduring hit on this list, this was also the disco move that caused the most controversy -- although the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band (tm) had flirted with funk on the previous year's flop single "Hot Stuff," there was no mistaking the propulsive walking-bassline groove of this smash, although the band themselves went to great pains to assure their longtime fans that this was merely an R&B number. Fortunately, this is a much more enigmatic song than "Stuff"; one of the peaks of their mid-70s period, really, with Jagger utilizing the falsetto he'd originated on the previous year's "Fool To Cry."

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"Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Rod Stewart

Critics are still weeping over Rod the Mod's transformation from rag-and-bone soul traveler to slick superstar, and this big hit completed the process begun a few years before with his switch to Atlantic Records. And with good reason: written by Stewart and drummer Carmine Appice, and for some reason featuring the high operatic vocals of the earlier ballad "Trade Winds," this song was cheesy, goofy, clunky, and intentionally sleazy. (Even if the singles-bar lovers in the lyrics never get past coffee and the "early movie.") But it was shiny, and for this era of radio, shiny was everything.

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"Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2," Pink Floyd

So integral is this track to the overall concept of leader Roger Waters' self-absorbed rock opera The Wall, serving to reinforce the main musical and lyrical theme while providing the dramatic climax of the first act, that many Floyd fans to this day don't think of it as disco. But even though it was released rather late in the game (early 1980), it's disco nonetheless: that glitter-ball beat is the missing link between "Fly Robin Fly" and "Billie Jean." So why did it pass with no backlash? Was it drowned out by the controversy surrounding the anti-authoritarian lyrics? Or was it the ending blues solo, which takes up half the track?

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"Grease," Frankie Valli

So big had disco and the oldies revival both become by the late Seventies that this was deemed necessary: a doo-wop icon singing a disco song about Fifties music, featuring Peter Frampton on guitar. A great song, however, penned by the Bee Gees' lead hitmaker, Barry Gibb -- and if you're a Valli fan, you know he sounds good on anything. No one's explained exactly why Grease is the word, and not just something you used to slick your hair back in a bygone age. Maybe Bowser knows.

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"One Of These Nights," The Eagles

Country-rock godfathers or not, the Eagles (particularly Don Henley) were always on the lookout for changing trends they could latch onto. And while they were ironically one of a handful of bands who sat out the disco era entirely, they were present at the very beginning with this 1975 single, at a time when disco was still something people only did in New York and San Francisco and Philly. Falsetto vocals, backup girls, and all, this smooth little funk number fits right into Henley's back catalogue of musically slick and lyrically biting assaults. And as far as any country-disco genre goes, its only real competitor is Exile's "Kiss You All Over."

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"Heart Of Glass," Blondie

Blondie came at the disco phenomenon from the other side of America's fences; they were New York through and through, the Big Apple was throbbing to the disco beat, therefore, they decided to pay tribute. New Wave fans weren't necessarily geared up to hate the genre like classic rock fans were, but this was still viewed as something of a breakthrough, largely due to the bands' usual MVPs: Debbie Harry's sultry persona, some undeniable hooks, and especially drummer Clem Burke, one of rock's great unsung geniuses, who took the opportunity to deliver a crash course in incorporating rock fills into a disco beat.

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"Goodnight Tonight," Paul McCartney and Wings

Paul was always up for a new trend, at least at the height of his solo powers, and disco already had an in for him, in that it began to gravitate towards classic ballroom dancing the minute Middle America got a hold of it. All the Cute One had to do was write the song, and this was naturally one of his most romantic, a good way to get the swoon of McCartney's most gorgeous melodies without being stuck in a foxtrot. The tasty rock-guitar duel in the middle was just frosting.

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"The Main Event," Barbra Streisand

Babs was born with a huge gay following, or so it seems, which made it absolutely necessary for her to start cutting disco records once she'd worked her way free of the debacle that was A Star Is Born. Although she arrived rather late to the game, she performed admirably, milking disco's diva tendencies for all they were worth and adding a sense of drama you can only get when you make your bones on show tunes. Next, she would have a summit meeting with fellow diva Donna Summer with "Enough Is Enough," a #1 -- disco's last, unless you count "Funkytown" -- that was a class way to go out.

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"I Was Made For Lovin' You," KISS

It took KISS five solid years to dig themselves out of the mess they got into in the late Seventies, when, out of sheer desperation, they went kiddie and went disco in short succession. And they were never quite as popular again, either. However, damage to their rep notwithstanding, this was a monster hit, largely due to the gargantuan vocal-chant hooks provided by songwriter Desmond Child. If his work is unfamiliar to you, try singing Bon Jovi's "You Give Love A Bad Name" and Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself For Loving You" over this song, and you'll see why he unfortunately ruled the Reagan years.

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"Shine A Little Love," Electric Light Orchestra

ELO's prog fans from way back still haven't forgiven them for going disco, first with this hit, then with the soundtrack of the legendary flop musical "Xanadu." But it actually made perfect sense. Creative head Jeff Lynne already had a thing for string sections, torch songs, pop hooks, and the big fat beats provided by drum master Bev Bevan; all he had to do was assemble the parts in the right order. This song, while relying on a simple disco beat, still manages to convey all the pomp and majesty of the spaceship in full flight.