- Historic Sites
It began in the Paris underground of World War II and evolved over thirty years into a phenomenon that so overturned cultural norms that it could not survive
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
Clubland adheres firmly to the laws of planned obsolescence, that essential of the American consumer ethos, and discotheque devotees, as well as nervous club managers, thrived or perished on their ability to distinguish—and define—what was in and what was out. In a world where the Boston Monkey was the dance one week and the Philly Dog the next, where that Paco Rabanne dress made entirely of yellow plastic disks blew minds in April but made you look lazy in June, discotheques couldn’t afford to rest on their laurels. Just as the elite discotheque formula pioneered by Le Club gave way to the populist variant devised by Sybil Burton, so at the very moment the discotheque for the masses came into vogue it ceased, at least technically, to be a discotheque. In 1966 a new face of disco was unveiled at the opening of New York’s Cheetah, at Broadway and Fifty-third Street. As so many people observed during the era, discotheques until then had been really nothing more than glorified juke joints where the deejay took the place of the jukebox. Cheetah’s co-owner Olivier Coquelin changed all that, renouncing the minimalism of his earlier discotheques in favor of an arena-style club with an eight-thousand-square-foot dance floor, sound provided by three alternating rock bands (as opposed to recorded music), a library (!), a TV room, and a movie theater, not to mention a boutique where discogoers could buy clothes for the evening (and put aside whatever they came in wearing). One reveler described it as “a beautiful, luxurious amusement park with dancing in it.” Indeed, Cheetah hoped to attract a much wider audience through just such a Barnum and Bailey approach to nightlife. By the mid-sixties, discotheque hyphenates became a nationwide phenomenon: The Chicago Whisky a Go Go, for instance, advertised itself as a “discotheque spa.” Whatever your “bag” was, as the lingo went, you could find it at the discotheque.
New discotheques like Cheetah implemented a fusion of technology and art that had begun early in 1966, when the filmmaker Jonas Mekas sponsored an innovation known as Expanded Cinema, which combined movies with slideshow projections and live music. This burgeoning “multimedia” concept made an immediate impression on that artist-turned-discotheque impresario Andy Warhol. Warhol put together a multimedia spectacle called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which premiered at downtown clubs like the Dom on St. Mark’s Place. The EPI, as Warhol aficionados called it, featured the mind-numbing sonic distortions of his “house band,” the Velvet Underground; projection of loops from Warhol underground films like Eat , Harlot , and Banana ; “whip dancers” dressed in sadomasochistic leather gear; and strobe lights. In his memoir POPism: The Warhol 60s , the artist also took credit for reintroducing that fixture of subsequent discotheque culture, the ceiling-suspended rotating mirrored ball of 1930s marathon dances. Warhol’s multimedia innovation was soon institutionalized at discotheques like Cheetah, which prided themselves on their capacity for sonic overload—which others considered a form of audio sadism: Cher Bono reportedly said of the Velvet Underground, “It will replace nothing, except maybe suicide.” Other disco technologies included the Translator, a fixture at Chicago’s private discotheque Le Bison—an automated abstract light-painting that changed patterns and colors in response to the pitch of the music. The multimedia techniques elaborated at sixties discotheques not only became standard features of nightclubs ever after but also furnished the driving concept and aesthetic behind music videos, an industry that would explode in the early eighties with the launching of MTV.
Multimedia wasn’t the only technological innovation to insinuate itself into the discotheque scene. In a May 1966 cover story on the clubs, Life magazine marveled that at places like Cheetah “liquor consumption is less than in conventional spots, mainly because the pandemonium takes the place of stimulants. … most customers go home pooped but somehow restored, as if they had undergone successful shock therapy.” Never adept at reading between the lines of unfamiliar cultural phenomena, Life failed to point out that the turn toward multimedia, sonic overload, and light shows had everything to do with the burgeoning drug culture, particularly the influence of LSD. Of course, it’s not as if clubgoers in the first half of the 1960s had limited themselves to alcohol. The Warhol coterie, for instance, had been shooting or ingesting speed (amphetamines) years before the term hippie was even coined. But as the axis of the Zeitgeist shifted from London in the period 1964-66 to San Francisco and the hippies in early 1967, the counterculture exerted a growing influence on discotheques. Entertainment based on multiple, simultaneous phenomena of sounds, images, and lights catered to hallucinogenic states, and indeed many people instrumental in elaborating multimedia in both New York and San Francisco were products of psychedelic drug culture.