November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
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
From the juke joint to the dance hall, American clubs in the post-war era have been the center of a cultural struggle pitting the forces of hedonism, revelry, and sexual liberation against those of socio-sexual stability and control. The furor generated in the 1950s by Elvis’s gyrating pelvis and that era’s television censorship of certain “sexually provocative” dances like the Alligator illustrated white, adult, middle-class fears of what could be called the spillover effect of dance music, the possibility that the sexualized frenzy of the dance floor might seep out onto the streets and into the suburbs of America. At an extreme the broad brushstrokes of Cold War logic painted a frightening picture of provocative dances exposing white youths to black music and culture, weakening their moral fiber, promoting juvenile delinquency, and wearing down their resistance to the perils of both miscegenation and communism. It was this chain of reasoning that led a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to conclude in 1958 that “the gangster of tomorrow is the Elvis Presley type of today.”
No wonder that the discotheque, that salient feature of American nightlife from the 1960s to the 1980s, became an enactment zone for the cultural revolutions of the era. In the sixties discotheques served as the laboratories for new multimedia entertainment meant to complement the high provided by LSD, marijuana, and other drugs; in the seventies disco spawned a lifestyle that confronted white, heterosexual America with a composite bogeyman—a lifestyle devoted to rampant promiscuity and avid, recreational drug use, peopled by newly liberated gay men dancing to up-tempo black rhythm and blues. Disco, in short, brazenly confirmed all the old fears that under the right conditions the passions aroused in clubs might overflow their bounds and foster a broader ferment. For a short while the essential cultural tension between restraint and desire seemed to be overthrown.
From its very origins the history of disco is a story of strange bedfellows, of odd couplings and midnight encounters that take place only in clubs. Associations banished from broad daylight— between debutantes and bikers, between working-class delivery boys and high-profile fashion designers, between mobsters and newly liberated gay men—freely blossomed in the fantasy-scape of the discotheque. But for all its ephemeral onenight stands, disco itself is the product of two more lasting across-the-track love affairs: the first between Europe and America and the second between the social elite and the cultural underworld.
Given its subsequent history, it is fitting that the discotheque originated as a den of resistance in Nazi-occupied France. During World War II the Germans took full advantage of the legendary Parisian nightlife of cabarets and bistros, but they banned “swing” dancing and jazz clubs because of their American and black and Jewish cultural pedigree. Consequently, jazz became an emblem of dissent in the French resistance, and illicit clubs adopted the low-key approach of playing records over crude public-address systems, since live performances, for so many reasons, were impractical. Out of necessity, secrecy, and austerity emerged a uniquely European nightclub format, pioneered at bars like La Discothèque in the Latin Quarter’s Rue Huchette, where patrons could order drinks along with their favorite jazz records.
At war’s end the French discotheque acquired its quintessential form, borrowing freely from its illicit past and from the postwar French infatuation with American jazz culture. In 1947 Paul Pacini opened the Whisky à Go-Go in Paris as a celebration of American tastes in music and drink, “Go-Go” evoking an image of the go-getting, speed-driven American lifestyle. This first “Whisky,” a club name (and concept) that would later appear in America, highlighted the American affinity for cocktails and hard liquor over French wine. The walls of the club were covered with lids from cases for such whiskeys as Dewar’s and Haig & Haig, and the sound system piped in le jazz hot for French “hepcats.” At the same time other postwar French discotheques, such as Chez Régine, demonstrated the degree to which the elite club culture already took its identity from the profane and the proscribed. One marker of Chez Régine’s exclusive status was its speakeasy-style anonymity. The in-crowd of discotheque initiates, which included Louis Malle and Françoise Sagan, learned of the club through word of mouth. The discotheque itself was located in a cellar, where a midget dance floor conferred on the revelers an almost conspiratorial intimacy.
This French template for the high-level nightclub—based on an underground sensibility expressed through hidden locales and exclusionary, almost xenophobic admission policies—arrived, virtually intact, in New York City in the early 1960s. The man most responsible for bringing it to America was Olivier Coquelin, a French expatriate whose heroism during the Korean War had earned him American citizenship. Coquelin sized up the languishing early 1960s New York nightclub scene and decided that the era’s wealthy jet-set clubgoers needed an alternative to the staid environment of the Stork Club and El Morocco. Thus was conceived Le Club, the first American discotheque, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1960. As its name suggests, Le Club simply took the French discotheque and transplanted it to New York’s upscale Sutton Place. Built in a converted garage on East Fifty-fifth Street, Le Club was not meant to be discovered during an evening walk. Its entrance was, in typically furtive style, barely discernible from the outside. Its admission policies, which included a two-hundred-dollar “initiation fee” plus “dues” of sixty-five dollars a year, suggested an overly bureaucratized, arcane tax system more suited to medieval France than 1960s New York. This Continental orientation was fortified by Le Club’s interior design, described by Time magazine as suggesting “the living room of an impoverished baron in the family castle—glowering big game, crossed swords, a fireplace, and a half-acre tapestry.” As one commentator put it, Le Club “was a French playboy’s dream of the ultimate seduction pad.” But while the discotheque may have seemed a refreshing novelty relative to older, adult-oriented New York clubs, what with its tiny, crowded dance floor and music programmed by an all-powerful “platter spinner,” Le Club remained an elite sanctuary, its appeal restricted to the likes of Henry Ford II and the Duke of Bedford.
Le Club provided the model for subsequent discotheques in New York City, which by late 1963 included L’Interdit, Il Mio (an Italian discoteca ), and Shepheard’s, a discotheque in the Drake Hotel decorated with Cleopatra -inspired sphinxes, pharaohs, and desert tents. But all these clubs subscribed to Coquelin’s code of exclusivity—Il Mio boasted hundred-dollar-a-year membership dues—and were therefore dubious remedies for the ailing nightlife of mid-1960s New York. As reported in a March 1964 New York Times article, the city’s cabaret business had “dropped off to the lowest point in years,” a downturn variously attributed to the JFK assassination, the new IRS rules on expense-account spending, and speculation that older people had stopped going to clubs. The discotheque, as the newest club concept to hit New York, might become the shot in the arm that revived New York nightlife, but discotheques like Le Club were intentionally antidemocratic, their impact limited to a small, tony clientele. As late as winter 1964 the future of the phenomenon hung in the balance. Nonetheless there were creeping indications that it was here to stay: Lyndon Johnson, as part of his 1964 presidential bid, converted the club El Morocco into a “Discotheque for L.BJ.” Dubbed “the first political nightclub” by its sponsors, the fund-raising disco provided a venue where club-hoppers could mingle with celebrities campaigning for the President, and even the occasional Goldwater supporter showed up to dance.
Then, just as the British Invasion music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones ushered American rock ’n’ roll into the post-“doo-wop” age, the impact of the Mod-era discotheque reinvigorated American nightlife. It inaugurated a second wave of disco development that was more populist, democratic, and in tune with American popular culture. The flagship club of the new era was conceived by a jilted woman as a stylish act of revenge. Richard Burton had left his first wife, Sybil, for Elizabeth Taylor. Had this occurred in a time and milieu other than the mid-1960s’ “Swinging London,” Sybil Burton might have contented herself with alimony checks and ski weekends at Zermatt. Instead, inspired by a trendy London discotheque named the Ad Lib, she opted in 1965 to open her own club, Arthur, near Le Club in New York’s Sutton Place. Overnight Sybil stole the headlines from Dick and Liz to become the queen of the international discotheque scene.
Arthur was the American beachhead for a British Mod sensibility that had exerted a potent cultural influence on American nightlife beginning in 1964, when the Beatles arrived in the United States. In fact, the very name of the club was drawn by the movie director Mike Nichols from a bit of Beatles trivia. In the film A Hard Day’s Night , a reporter asks George Harrison, “What do you call your haircut?” To which George responds, “Arthur.” The Anglophilia didn’t stop there. Arthur, which was built on the site of the now-defunct El Morocco, was divided into a club and a pub. Sybil Burton conceived the place as an antithesis to Coquelin’s highbrow discotheque concept. The daughter of a Welsh miner, she wanted to open the doors to working-class girls looking for a night out as well as to high-profile celebrities like Rudolf Nureyev and Lee Remick. Arthur’s parameters for its clientele anticipated Studio 54’s: The yardstick for acceptability was style, sensibility, and spirit, not simply money.
Discotheque dancing followed the 1960s pattern in which teenagers invented pop-culture trends and discarded them soon afterward, at which point they were taken up by adults. The progenitor of this formula was the Twist, which began with teenagers in the late fifties and was then adopted during the Kennedy years by grown-ups, socialites, and senior citizens. By the time Arthur opened, in May 1965, the Twist had long since been supplanted by the Jerk and the Watusi, which had in turn given way to myriad other short-lived dance crazes. A visit to any discotheque in the mid-sixties might involve the spectacle of teenagers, along with adults in their thirties and forties, doing the Woodpecker (flapping their hands like wings and bobbing their faces), the Hitchhiker (making a thumbing gesture), or the Bug (twitching and scratching their bodies as if infested and then passing the “bug” on to the next person). The writer Tom Wolfe observed that the infantilism of the charade-dances was counterbalanced by the utter seriousness of the dancers, most of whom were “absolutely maniacal about form. … practically religious about it,” to the point where “none of them ever smiled.” Each dance conveyed a different attitude, a new and ephemeral sensibility. As one deejay described a popular dance called the Boogaloo, “[It’s] a casual motion, a pose. It’s aloof. It says. ‘Don’t bother me.’”
The genesis of dances could be occasionally cruel, as with the Scrub Woman. Indeed, any seemingly bizarre or embarrassing incident could engender a dance. La Bostela, the rage of discotheques in early 1965, began when a clumsy Paris-Match staffer named Honoré Bostel tripped and fell at a Paris discotheque. Enthralled witnesses began mimicking his accident. A new dance was born. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’s Whisky a Go Go (a homage to its French disco predecessor) spawned the “ventro-ventral” dance known as the Go-Go, a variation on the Watusi. Go-Go dancers, in fact, were originally introduced as “dance demonstrators” in discotheques, frugging in fringe dresses within glass cages suspended from the ceiling.
Arthur also upped the ante in the evolving art of the disc jockey, or, as he was still frequently called, the discaire . Before Arthur, deejays were supposed to be heard, not seen. Usually anonymous technicians, they spun 45s from a concealed booth while viewing the dancers through pillbox slits. At places like Le Club discaires made little attempt to mix the music, and what spilled out onto the dance floor was often a random succession of songs ranging from European ballads to American soul. Terry Noel changed all that. The discaire at Arthur, he broadened the job description to comprise another French club role, that of animateur , the person responsible for directing the mood of the crowd. He crafted a mix of tunes to build a momentum that ultimately climaxed in a song chosen to drive the dancers wild and pack the floor. Obviously, the art of sensing and guiding the mood of the crowd involved a degree of interaction not required of previous discaires , so Noel could no longer remain sequestered. The era of the charismatic deejay had begun.
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.
The first unabashedly hippie discotheque in New York was the Electric Circus, which opened on St. Mark’s Place in 1967. At that point New York’s East Village was a counterculture mecca second in size only to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, and the Electric Circus hoped to capitalize on the hippies’ affinity for colorful clothing and reputation for childlike, eccentric behavior. Advertising itself as “The Ultimate Legal Entertainment Experience,” claiming to be “Air Conditioned in more ways than one,” the Electric Circus distributed fliers inviting discoeoers to “Come. (Stoned).” Inside, it took Cheetah’s accent on the carnivalesque to its natural conclusion. The emphasis was on infantilism, charade, and masquerade. “Clothes, Furbelows, Feathers and Astonishments” could be purchased in the club, and the dancing took place amidst surrealistic cireus acts conducted on pedestals. As the disco chronicler Albert Goldman described it, “Yard-high hairdos, thrift-shop collages, Tussaud time-trips, and tattooed-lady body paint were the order of the day. When these human effigies got out on the dance floor, they resembled the figures on a mechanical clock designed by Salvador Dali.”
The Electric Circus was both the apotheosis and the death knell of 1960s discotheque culture. The vitality of nightlife pivots on the ratio of participants to observers: Too many drunk people dancing on tables results in anarchy; too many people there to watch makes for a dull evening. The counterculture initially broadened participation. Dancing was certainly still an option, but so was staring at one’s hand while stoned, or painting one’s face in Day-Glo colors, or playing with somebody’s hair.
Ultimately, the onset of movie projections, light shows, and live performances augured a creeping passivity, a tilt toward the observer end of the nightlife spectrum, which would soon imperil the discotheque. A case in point was Cerebrum, which opened in New York’s Soho in late 1968. Billed as “an electronic studio of participation,” Cerebrum was just the opposite. Patrons entering the venue took off their clothes and donned translucent togas, at which point they were seated communally on the floor around carpeted “islands” and fed music through stereo headphones. No one talked, because the idea was to “experience.” Ever so often “planned happenings,” like the release of balloons, intruded on the meditational mood. Time magazine called Cerebrum “a downy mattress for the mind,” adding that it offered “the sensation of being turned on to the point of being turned off.”
“Before disco, this country was a dancing wasteland,” says a twenty-something female character in the director Whit Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days of Disco . “You know the Woodstock generation of the 1960s that were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance.” By the late 1960s the hippie ethic of “Do Your Own Thing” had effectively displaced the structured dances of mid-decade in favor of free-form body swaying à la Woodstock. At the same time, discotheques degenerated into seedier venues known as “juice joints” or “go-go bars”—shifty, often Mob-run last-martini stops for business commuters or aging drag queens. Yet by the early seventies the concept of the discotheque was being reanimated by urban contingents that had been suppressed in the sixties pop counterculture: newly liberated gay men of all ages and blacks and Hispanics. Together these groups redesigned and broadened the phenomenon, rebaptized it disco , and relaunched it as the most visible symbol of the hedonism of the 1970s.
In the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, gay men and women won the right to dance and otherwise intermingle in their own bars and clubs without having to worry about police raids and harassment or maintaining a heterosexual facade. Since Stonewall was largely about gays’ right to their own nightlife, it’s not surprising that the discotheque became the main site of gay liberation. Returning to its roots established some twenty-five years earlier in wartime France, disco entered a new underground phase characterized by cloaked, celebratory club life open only to initiates. Typical of the era was Aux Puces, in New York City, one of the first gay discos, where admittance was strictly speakeasy style: Only persons known to the maître d’ were let in. The most famous—and first unabashedly gay—disco of the early 1970s was the Sanctuary, located in a former German Baptist church on West Forty-third Street in New York. It had been started as a gathering spot for straight, moneyed celebrity types but then, under new management, inaugurated the seventies trend of mixing gays and straights together on one dance floor. Soon gay men predominated, so much so that when Jane Fonda entered the disco to film the nightclub scenes for Klute , she felt compelled to demand that women—at a bare minimum, gay women—be allowed into the club too.
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.
For the first half of the 1970s, disco was an extended conversation between black musicians and gay dancers. These were halcyon days for those in on the disco craze while it was still a glorious secret from journalists and most of the white, heterosexual world, before it became, as Andrew Holleran put it, “another possession of the middle class.” But the mainstreaming of disco after 1975 was probably inevitable in a recession-plagued America. As cultural commentators ceaselessly observed at the time, paying a deejay fifty dollars a night to spin records was a lot cheaper than hiring live entertainers, and a nominal cover charge was easier on the wallet than buying a ticket to a rock concert. All told, disco promised euphoria, glamour, and decadence at a reasonable price. As the Hustle craze of 1975 elevated disco to a national phenomenon and enticed straight white people to boogie, a clash of cultures occurred. A mere half-decade after Stonewall, heterosexuals were being forced to navigate in an inverted cultural landscape whose terms were set by gay men. Dancing Madness , published in 1976 to capitalize on the disco craze, set down some guidelines: “The first test for the hetero male who wishes to be in tune with the basics of bisexual chic is to not feel threatened when addressed as ‘baby’ rather than ‘sir.’” A reporter from Harper’s , dispatched to the disco front in 1977, noted the nuanced stratagems necessary for straight entry into the world: “Now middle-class young men cruise the banquettes each weekend, but the tone of the place is sufficiently gay that a woman can protect herself by adopting a fierce gaze to indicate dykishness, or by staring fixedly at herself in a mirror, for self-absorption is respected here.” The author concluded that heteros “might say they were there only as watchers, only as voyeurs, [but] they were also becoming participants, regulars in a scene which could never be theirs, outlaws in what had always been an outlaw world.”
Indeed, disco firmly situated itself within the cultural politics of the 1970s, which ran a bizarre gamut from radical-chic terrorist groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army to orthodox feminism, from gay liberation to the environmental movement. Whereas groups like the S.L.A., representing the tail end of New Left radicalism, endowed every action—eating, sleeping, bank robbery— with political significance, disco was just the opposite. Its lifestyle contained a politics, but it was one that often remained implicit and unarticulated. What was the politics of disco? It can be found, ironically, in a statement made by a motivational-research euru named Ernest Dieter in the 1950s, who told executives: “One of the basic problems of prosperity is to demonstrate that the hedonistic approach to life is a moral and not an immoral one.” Disco, as music and as way of life, was the standard-bearer for the hedonistic fringe of liberalism that held that nothing was wrong if it felt right, that personal exploration through dance, sex, or drug use was indeed a quasi-religious quest, with a morality as valid and legitimate as the counter-morality condemning it. Disco’s countercultural politics lay particularly in its elevation of the human body as an instrument of pleasure. It strove to rupture the tie between pleasure seeking and shame.
In fact, disco’s defiance of shame was designed specifically by and for gay men, who had always found themselves on the losing end of straight society’s equation of sexuality, and particularly homosexuality, with shame. Instead, disco’s philosophy, fused in the rapturous gay underworld and then adopted by straight men and women, is best conveyed by the lyrics of one popular disco song: “Shame on you, if you can’t dance too.” The only “shame” in disco lay in the inability to get in touch with one’s body through dance, drugs, and sexual exploration. However powerful it was, though, this antishame politics remained only occasionally acknowledged by its practitioners as a countermorality, and this made it highly vulnerable to attack.
The opening of Studio 54, in April 1977, expanded gay disco culture to encompass a pansexuality that united gays, straights, and the sexually undecided under the banner of disco hedonism. As Steven Gaines observed in his biography Simply Halston , “Studio 54 was the embodiment of the most decadent social period of any city in modern history. By 1978, Dionysus had hired a press agent and New York was headlong into an era of staggering permissiveness.” Founded by gay Steve Rubell and straight Ian Schrager, Studio’s immediate success also solidified, in the public mind, the connection between disco and an aristocratic sensibility. The club was further proof that in the city-state of the discotheque, the preferred government was a circumscribed democracy. Rubell was famous for the arbitrary brutality of his door policies: allowing a woman in but not her date, demanding that people strip naked before entering, telling would-be guests they would never be let in under any circumstances because they were gauche, or not well shaven, or tackily dressed. This ruthless discrimination was justified as an artistic process Rubell called “painting the picture”: By preventing redundancy in the reveling crowd (too many investment bankers in suits, too many drag queens, etc.) and banning outright certain categories of people like “bagel nosh Jews” (those who looked like Rubell and came from his social background) and “Quiana from the Americana” (rich South American tourists from the nearby hotel), it ensured, according to the club owner Jim Fouratt, “that if you got in, you were in a world that was completely safe for you to do whatever you wanted”—that you were, in short, among the elect.
Disco’s rising fortunes were further buoyed in December 1977 by the astounding success of the film Saturday Night Fever . The double-album soundtrack eventually became the biggest-selling record of all time until Michael Jackson’s Thriller , and the film irrevocably established most of the stereotypes associated with the disco era to this day: the white three-piece suit, gold chains, precision blow-dried hair, patented dance-floor moves. Saturday Night Fever propelled disco fever to epidemic proportions: By 1978, 40 percent of all the music on Billboard’s Hot 100 was disco. Meanwhile the discofication of America proceeded: There were disco lunch boxes, disco “Snoopy” bed sheets and pillows, disco belt buckles, disco records by old-timers like Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman, an estimated two hundred all-disco radio stations, disco dance courses, disco proms, books about the proper makeup to wear to discos—and an estimated twenty thousand discotheques nationwide.
The rise of Studio 54 and the phenomenal success of Saturday Night Fever made disco a ubiquitous feature of the pop-culture landscape as well as a living paradox. The media focus on celebrities like Margaret Trudeau, Andy Warhol, and Halston at Studio 54 projected an image of disco as a snob medium, an elitist music-based lifestyle adopted by name-dropping poseurs. This conceptualization surfaced, however, at the very moment when disco was gaining suburban grassroots appeal, as Americans across the nation grew accustomed to hearing the disco Star Wars theme piped into their malls and supermarkets. Mainstream disco was, at the same time, a de-gayed version of the original. It is no coincidence that the Bee Gees, the chief apostles of the mainstreaming, had nothing to do with the original disco constituency and didn’t come from a dance-Tnusic background at all. Their songs, in fact, diverged from the hedonistic, highly sexualized genre of most early disco in favor of macho posturing (“Staying Alive”) and ersatz romanticism (“How Deep Is Your Love?”)—in other words, traditional pop-music themes. Kevin Kaufman, a deejay at the time at a club called Disco 2000, in Reno, Nevada, later observed, “I don’t know any gay bar worth its salt in ’77 or ’78 where you would ever, ever have heard them play ‘Staying Alive.’”
During this heyday of mainstreaming, Interview magazine, which shared with Studio 54 a parasitic relationship to celebrity culture, decided to profile Olivier Coquelin, the man who had brought the discotheque to America some fifteen years earlier. Since his concept had ultimately triumphed, one might have expected an exultant Coquelin, but instead his tone was apocalyptic, sensing as he did that the entire social basis for the discotheque was slipping away. “I think the world as we know it has a few years to go,” he said. “By ‘as we know it,’ I mean as we enjoy it—with servants, with Camembert, with fine wines. This will soon be finished… . What we know now—taking ‘The Queen Mary’ to Europe for six days and all those P. G. Wodehouse kinds of things—is gone, and it’s gone forever. We have 10 years, maybe 15 or 20 years at most, to enjoy whatever is left.” But even the prescient Coquelin couldn’t know that, that makes for bumpy nostalgia today for disco, the end was still closer at hand.
No one was more alarmed by the growth of disco than were fans of rock music. They saw it as a direct and intentional challenge to rock’s position at the top of pop music’s ziggurat. Rock fans framed their struggle against disco as a Manichaean conflict of ideological opposites, in which disco represented all that was synthetic, aristocratic, and fake, while populist rock stood for all that was earthy and real. Rhetorical polarities notwithstanding, history told a somewhat different tale. Rock had originally lost ground to disco precisely because it demanded a relationship between performer and fans in which the latter were reduced to passive, idolatrous spectators. This dynamic was reversed by the democratic principle within disco that relegated many performers to a state of near-anonymity and made the dancers the stars. Moreover, disco stood for a new sexual order that, in the words of the writer Alice Echols, “seemed to arouse something like castration anxiety in rockers.” Rock had been an ongoing celebration of uncontested straight male sexual dominance; disco bypassed hetero men in favor of black women divas, gay male dancers, and virtually any other alternative. To reaffirm their sexual primacy, rockers needed to destroy disco and the altered sexual hierarchy it stood for.
In fact, disco rejuvenated rock by serving as the kind of enemy the latter had been lacking since the generation-gap wars of the 1960s. Instrumental in the growing antidisco movement was Steve Dahl, a Chicago disc jockey and fervent disco hater most famous for officiating at the Disco Demolition rally in Chicago’s Comiskey Park Stadium in July 1979. The idea was to detonate disco records during the intermission of a baseball doubleheader, but charged-up White Sox fans—chanting, “Disco sucks” and “Death to disco”—lost control and began tearing up the stadium. Just as the bloody Altamont concert a decade earlier had become an epitaph for the sixties counterculture, so the Comiskey riot became visual shorthand for the end of the disco era.
The year 1980 proved a fateful one for disco. In the eighteen months after Comiskey Park, the market for disco music crashed, a popular backlash against sexual license became part of a conservative wave that elected Ronald Reagan President, and a new, mysterious “gay cancer” appeared that would soon be known as AIDS. Together these developments undermined the hedonistic lifestyle that disco had sustained. This naturally came as a great relief to the rock majority, many of whom would have continued the counterrevolution until the last disco dancer had been consumed. But what emerged was a more subtle cultural tradeoff. Disco-derived music had found a lasting place in the hearts of Americans and so continued to thrive into the 1980s and beyond, taking the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna to the very pinnacle of long-lasting celebrity and popularity. Madonna would build her persona on a watered-down version of disco-era hedonism. At the same time, the word disco was effectively banished from the language for the next decade—even as a term for describing a nightclub—and the lifestyle associated with it became an object of scorn, ridicule, and embarrassment.
As early as 1978 the novelist Andrew Holleran had looked back on the dawn of disco and sighed, “Any memory of those days is just a string of songs.” The same may be said today, but for different reasons. Certainly the nostalgia-soaked 1990s have rehabilitated disco music and associated kitsch, but much of the original context has been erased, including the unfettered pleasure seeking that it once symbolized. Films like 54 and The Last Days of Disco , along with disco marathons and Studio 54 documentaries churned out by VH1, present the contours of the original disco boom while eliminating the gay content at its core. On the basis of current representations, one might conclude that disco died a natural death when the market for disco music collapsed, circa 1980, not that disco stood for an unleashed sexuality that flew in the face of mainstream mores even during the “anything goes” seventies. The ensuing AIDS crisis further called into question many of the equations set up by gay liberation and heralded by disco: that the sexual was sacred, that sexual liberation was personal liberation, that shame was the only enemy.
For this reason disco makes for bumpy nostalgia even in gay circles, as everyone tries to imagine (or recall) what a consequence-free world could have looked like. And this legacy has imbued disco with a mellow aura of decadence turned innocence. It occupies an extreme place in history, a brief, dizzying, exhilarating moment when the guiding cultural principle was Mae West’s axiom: “Too much of a good thing may be a great thing.”