- 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
The fact that the most legendary gay disco of the early seventies was located in a former church, its deejay booth at the altar, serves as a perfect metaphor for the quasi-religious fervor of gay disco culture. In his 1978 paean to it, Dancer From the Dance , Andrew Holleran remembers “the thrill of newness, and the thrill of exclusivity” in those early days, as well as the hard-core disco habitués who “lived only in the ceaseless flow of this tiny society’s movements… . They passed one another without a word … hell-bent on their next look from a handsome stranger. Their next rush from a popper. The next song that turned their bones to jelly and left them all on the dance floor with heads back, eyes nearly closed, in the ecstasy of saints receiving the stigmata.” The bacchanalian spirit of the Sanctuary revolved around a triumvirate of pleasures — music, sex, and drugs—that made sensual climax, in one form or another, the organizing principle of the disco era. The drugs of the psychedelic sixties, particularly LSD, were now supplanted by the “body-high” drugs of the 1970s. Pre-dominant in the gay disco scene were poppers, amyl nitrite vials, used originally by angina sufferers, which when broken open and inhaled caused a precipitous drop in blood pressure and near-loss of consciousness. Poppers coexisted with that other quintessential 1970s club drug Quaalude, which suspended motor coordination and turned one’s arms and legs to Jell-O. These two drugs were, in turn, counterbalanced by the principal upper of the era, cocaine. One journalist sardonically recalled the “Circle of Life” in disco drug culture: “The poppers gave you a 30-second rush of oblivion on the dance floor. Since you were already ‘luded to the gills, this meant you stumbled around more, generally crashing into somebody who was just putting a coke spoon to his nose, making him spill the coke, causing a mass plunge to the floor by everyone in the vicinity. While you were down there, you’d usually find some old poppers, and the whole cycle would start over again.”
Massive quantities of drugs ingested in discotheques by newly liberated gay men produced the next cultural phenomenon of the disco era: rampant promiscuity and public sex. While the dance floor was the central arena of seduction, actual sex usually took place in the nether regions of the disco: bathroom stalls, exit stairwells, and so on. In other cases the disco became a kind of “main course” in a hedonist’s menu for a night out. Discos like 12 West were located in the marginal meat-packing district, on the extreme West Side of Manhattan, and the nearby decaying Hudson River piers became a famous after-hours “trysting spot.” In the 1970s discos became the focal points of just such an eroticization of urban space, as pleasure seekers spilled out of them to colonize adjoining streets, alleys, and piers.
The last innovation in 1970s disco culture involved the music itself. While there had been discotheques in the sixties, there had been no such thing as disco music. Clubs had simply played live or recorded rock music, which wasn’t ideal for dancing. Given that most rock singles of the era lasted a mere three minutes, by the time dancers “found their groove” the song was over. By the early seventies dee jays and dancers were taking another approach in their search for continuous, danceable rhythms. They returned to the black R&B roots of pop music. Philadelphia had historically been a nexus for dance crazes, particularly the Twist. A decade later two producer-songwriters, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, reclaimed the dance-music mantle with their hit factory Philadelphia International Records, putting out what was called the “Philly Sound.” Their stable of groups included the O’Jays (“Love Train”), Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (“If You Don’t Know Me by Now”), and the Three Degrees (“When Will I See You Again?”). As the music journalist Carol Cooper observed, the Philly Sound “virtually cornered the market on emotionally subtle, rhythmically kinetic pop music that was equally accessible to blacks and whites of all ages.” The revival of dance music began in mid-1973, when the African singer Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa”—generally considered the first disco song of the 1970s—hit the pop charts. A crescendo of No. 1 dance singles followed, including Barry White’s “Love’s Theme” and George McRae’s “Rock Your Baby.” Disco became a verifiable, nationally recognized phenomenon in 1975, when Van McCoy and “The Hustle” went to the top of the pop charts, set off a nationwide craze for “touch dancing,” and eventually sold ten million copies. With “The Hustle,” disco’s underground incubation period had come to an end. The disco was now a fully actualized concept, the term comprehending both the physical venue and the new music created for it.