[Words by Megan Farrimond (she/her)]
From the gay underground clubs of New York, to the 80s ‘euro trash’ disco, the way we see disco has evolved, liberating marginalised groups as it moved from the US across the world. The ‘anything goes’ attitude of this new wave was met with sexual liberation. A post-Vietnam, news-dominated era, meant that a new space was opened where LGBTQ+, POC and women could jump straight to the middle of the dancefloor. This disco movement was all about the music, it created a wider change that was far from its centre point.
Liberation is innate in everything to do with disco, right down to the word. Coming from the French word ‘discothèque’, these original jazz and swing clubs in Paris were created during Nazi occupation. When dance clubs were banned, it drove fans into underground areas, one of which was named ‘La Discothèque’. The disco scene itself was born in the gay clubs of New York such as Loft and Sanctuary (sadly very different to Glasgow’s very own Sanctuary). It made its way down the East Coast from New York to Philadelphia, stopping at Studio 54 to create an image associated with disco that we still have today (albeit usually at themed Christmas parties).
Studio 54 was the birthplace of the fashion of the disco era. The bouncers on the door were comparable to those at Berghain; it didn’t matter who you were, if you fit the look you were in. On the door was club owner Steve Rubell who scoured the crowds to see who would fit his image, regardless of their name. Of course, the ‘it girls’ and the big names of the day were always expected to be inside, but all this depended on the night. In Andy Warhol’s book ‘Andy Warhol’s Exposures’ he lists his rules for a better chance of entry:
Rule #1: Always go with Halston or in Halston.
Rule #2: Get there very early or very late.
Rule #3: Arrive in a limo or a helicopter. One night, Victor Hugo arrived in an ambulance and got right in. He jumped up off his stretcher and started dancing.
Rule #4: Don’t wear anything polyester, not even your underwear.
Rule #5: Don’t mention my name.
Inside, the ‘anything goes’ attitude was shown in the most explicit way possible. A period of liberation was dawning, especially for marginalised groups; it was a time of cultural fragmentation. For the first time women were able to roam the streets unchaperoned after their curfews, and after being newly liberated by the contraceptive pill, young girls quickly flocked to the nearest dancefloor. This detachment from the sexual conservatism of the 50s, displayed through the rise of the mini skirt, was reflected in the flamboyant way many people were dressing regardless of gender. This idea of dressing to impress, often came with a competitive attitude, as people were photographed for simply being inside the club – the beginning of this tabloid-trend.
Albert Goldman said of this “Outside the entrance to every discothèque should be erected a statue to the presiding deity – Narcissus”. This was a post-Vietnam War America where the Watergate scandal was just leaving the headlines, and people were ready for change. This form of self-expression was met with a battle to be a name on the New York club scene, it was an exciting time to be part of something so new. This is why the escapist nature of disco music was embraced by the communities who felt like they’d been left behind in the very white era of rock’n’roll of the previous decade; people didn’t feel spoken to. This was a complete contrast to disco legends like Grace Jones, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor. They spoke to the voiceless, as the crowd found new ways to express themselves to lyrics about emotional resilience and freedom.
The dancefloor wasn’t just a place for women to mingle like never before; it was also important for the acceleration of gay rights in a post-Stonewall New York. It was illegal for two men to dance together up until 1971, so the move to dancing in crowds rather than the previous trend of dancing in couples, gave space to a more expressive freedom on the dancefloor. As well as that, the energy that was created in gay nightclubs such as Sanctuary, changed music history forever, due to the birth of the DJ. The ability for people to escape from reality and lose themselves in the music, meant that disc jockeys created a constant mix of tracks – in the past they would announce track titles between each song. Songwriter Bruce Roberts commented on this escapism: “Disco was for everybody, it was an extension of society. It was a time where people could forget about their 9-5 troubles”.
Every so often, I read through the Twitter account ‘@DiscoComments’ and whilst many of them are YouTube comments of men who miss their prime in the 70s, I’m reminded of how disco connects so many of us. People are always finding their way back to the sound as we move through ‘euro trash’ and Italo Disco to a more house influenced disco sound of the 90s (such as Daft Punk and Bob Sinclar). Straight through to today, many DJs are still drawn to the expressive and liberated sounds of the 70s, the decade which made it what it is now.