"...the real animosity between rock and disco lay in the position of the straight white male. In the rock world, he was the undisputed top, while in disco, he was subject to a radical decentering. Only by killing disco could rock affirm its threatened masculinity."
-Peter Braunstein, "Village Voice," 1998.
"Certainly disco killed itself. And there was a terrible backlash. Too many products, too many people, too many records companies jumping on this kind of music. A lot of bad records came out. I guess it was overkill. Everybody started to come out with disco and it became...what's the word? A cussword." -Georgio Moroder
XVIII. DISCO SUCKS!!!
At the height of the disco era, 1979, it seemed as though everyone in the music business had released a disco record. Performers from all ends of the musical spectrum like Cher, Dolly Parton, Andy Williams, Barry Manilow, B.B. King, Shirley Bassey, the Rolling Stones -- even the legendary Cab Calloway -- were grabbin' for the disco gold. Commercial disco was very big business, and it seemed as though all of America was dancing.
All major and most small to mid-size cities across the country had local disco clubs both straight and gay. Albert Goldman described them as "psychedelic country clubs." In my home town of Pittsburgh, PA, for example, the happening disco for straight folks was 2001. For gays it was Tilden's.
New York was the capital of disco nation with Los Angeles coming in a close second. San Francisco had at least a dozen new dance venues with the biggest being the legendary gay club Trocadero Transfer. I personally preferred a much smaller club on Market Street called Alfie's when I visited the City. The other big San Francisco disco was called the City, mostly straight in orientation. Buffalo had Club 747 in an old airliner. Chicago had Nimbus. It was the Parade in New Orleans and the Mad Hatter in Tampa. In Washington D.C. I am told that The Buck Stops Here disco was subsidized by Federal funds since it was a federal employee cafeteria by day. Then there were roller discos where one would dance on roller skates, a skill I confess I envied but never was able to master. After a few humiliating disco roller accidents I gave it up. But it was perceived as disco fun for the whole family even in the Midwest, and Pittsburgh's sister city in Ohio, Cincinnati, rolled out a fabulously upgraded rink called the Colerain Skate Land just for roller disco. And if one lived in some remote corner of the country where neither disco or roller disco was available, one could buy home disco kits by mail with flashing lights, disco balls, recordings and lessons all in the box.
God knows, by the late seventies I believed most of the commercial disco in release sucked. This belief was reinforced by my travels around the country for my publishing house. High on my personal agenda during these trips were visits to local dance clubs to experience the vibe, and that I did from the big coastal discos to the postage-stamp size dance floors in small towns in places like West Virginia and Wyoming. There were certainly some excellent underground discos like the Warehouse in Chicago were the music was innovative and the dancing frenzy was comparable to the Garage in NYC. But for the most part, and this is the seventies New Yorker's evaluation, the national scene was a sorry, worse than mediocre imitation of the creative scene I had grown up with in NYC.
Looking back on all this with hindsight, however, I've asked myself the question: "So what's wrong with lots of Americans dancing all night to mediocre music?" The answer: "Nothing." It was a godsend that America was back on the dance floor, even though it was now a capitalist version of my sacred tribal underground dance floor.
I don't believe, therefore, that it was commercial greed that killed disco dancing in the late seventies. Rock and Pop have had their corporate influences and, although purists have become disillusioned with much of the commercial garbage produced, the genres continue to hobble on after half a century. Disco music was, and still is under the label of EDM, evolving and the tastes of that young, new generation of dancers in the seventies could have evolved with the genre. Talent like Larry Levan were moving in new directions with more eclectic influences on EDM, and even while my punk brothers and sisters were painting "Disco Sucks" on the walls all over NYC (and I was certainly sympathetic) , Larry introduced the Clash's "Magnificent 7" to the dance floor.
Why then did mainstream American turn against disco dancing so abruptly in the 1979 and 1980?
I remember a commentary by a journalist at that time in a "Death to Disco" story, and I don't remember who, that I thought had valuable insight into the death of dancing. This journalist believed that Middle American rose up against disco because it had taken over the culture. That the average American, Puritan at heart, couldn't deal with the sight of sixty-year old dancers in collars and chains bumpin' and grinding on the dance floor. I guess the thought that these same happy "seniors" could also be taking recreational drugs and having sex on the same dance floor would have driven Middle America bonkers.
A. SOME SAY IT WAS THE DRUGS
The association of the disco culture with recreational drug use was underlined in bright red headlines for Middle America when Rubell and his Studio 54 were busted by the IRS and other agencies on a number of charges including income tax evasion and sales of illicit drugs.
Although Studio 54 had been under investigation for some time for various violations, including ignoring liquor laws, everything came to a head when Dan Dorfman of the "New York" magazine published an article called "The Eccentric Whiz Behind Studio 54" in the money column. Dorfman quoted Rubell as saying: "Profits are astronomical. Only the Mafia does better." And: "It's a cash business and you have to worry about the IRS. I don't want them to know everything." Was Rubell on drugs when he said this to a reporter?
Then there were allegations by a former employee that drugs, including coke and pot, were responsible for much of the cash generated at Studio.
So eventually Rubell and partner Ian Schrager pleaded guilty to cooking the books and got a three and a half year prison sentence each. But there were also allegations of drug dealing and racketeering.
In a November 1979 article in the same magazine the headline "Studio 54: The Party's Over" appeared. In this article charges were made that Rubell was connected to a well-know racketeer named Sam Jacobson and that famous people were given gifts by Steve, which he apparently accounted for, of drugs like cocaine and poppers.
The whole affair was just the sort of thing the news media loves, and this sordid affair was all over the nation along with descriptions of hedonistic activities at the Studio including sex on the premises.
So disco dancers were accused of using recreational drugs and having promiscuous sex. The same charges had been leveled at the rock subculture from the very beginning and that didn't shut the rockers down.
B. THE FEAR THAT AMERICA WOULD BE "HOMOSEXUALIZED" BY DISCO CULTURE
This is a bit closer to the truth, I believe. The press had finally picked up on the gay, underground origins of disco. Not only that, but the fact that disco culture had originated in a black and Hispanic subset of that subculture. And now American was dancing to music, wearing fashions, and partying all night long just like these...well, marginal folks.
Worse yet, men were for the first time being eroticized in advertising. They were wearing tight clothing like these gay guys with, ahem, bulges prominently displayed. It's no coincidence, I think, that male fashion moved slowly in the eighties and nineties to very lose fitting trousers and boxer shorts.
Lurid, very detailed accounts appeared in local and national press describing the gay sexual lifestyle. I recall one article in my hometown paper in which a reporter went undercover to a gay bathhouse were, as he put it, he was offered "hand relief" by several of the patrons. With that piece there was a map with specific directions to all the gay sexual venues both public and private. In NYC there were descriptions of nightly events at gay sexual venues like the "Toilet" and the "Mineshaft." Very detailed descriptions. This was picked up by national media.
The press went on to show how this lifestyle of sexual abandon was being imitated by even straight folks in places like Plato's Retreat in NYC and the Sutro Baths (1015 Folsom) in San Francisco.
Disco, hedonistic sex -- perhaps this dancing thing was really undermining American society. Threatening the masculinity of white males. Creating converts to the gay lifestyle, like Anita Bryant alleged.
To my mind this underlying homophobia in some elements of the "Disco Sucks" revolt were symbolized by Steve Dahl and his anti-disco campaign in Chicago. Dahl was a radio DJ who had been pushing the anti-disco sentiment for months on his daily morning show. He was selling "Disco Sucks" t-shirts and bumper stickers all over this capital of heartland America. On July 12th in Chicago's Comiskey Park, between a double-header, he went out onto the ballpark field and set fire to a huge pile of disco records with thousands of fans shouting "Disco Sucks." This demonstration turned into a riot and the second ballgame was cancelled. The next day an all-disco station in Chicago switched to rock, and others followed in Chicago -- and eventually all over the country.
Middle American had spoken, very eloquently. And there were undeniable homophobic overtones to their message. They finally understood the lyrics to "YMCA" and they didn't like what they heard. Dancing was for sissies. Real men play ball, so to speak.
C. SO WHAT'S THE TRUTH?
I personally believe the disco sucks movement of 1979 was really the end of that fifteen year social and cultural experiment known as "The Sixties."
Those fifteen years had been a time of dramatic, rapid change in morals and beliefs. Americans had been dealing with losing a war, a criminal president, racial riots and freedom movements, student protest that included a massacre of kids by US troops, free love, drug experimentation, women's liberation, gay liberation -- the list goes on. And now it looked like everyone in the country would forsake Puritan ideals for a hedonistic gay-created lifestyle that included sex, drugs and dancing all night long. The Sixties had gone on far too long for Puritanical Americans.
It seems to me that there can be no balance in Puritan American. We have these periodic orgies of self-discovery, hedonism, creation of new paradigms, and, basically, fun. And then we pull the walls up and move in the opposite direction: repression, order, structure and suspicion of anything that gives pleasure. It doesn't seem to occur to Puritans that one can have pleasure and productively work at the same time. Here it's feast (the twenties and the sixties) or famine (the eighties and nineties.)
NEXT: THE DANCING GOES ON