Decadence, Drugs, And Dancing: 44 Pictures Of The Disco Era
Disco began as an active shift away from the political folk music of the 1960s. People were eager to dance, and found sexual liberation and acceptance in disco's celebratory flamboyance.
There were 15,000 discotheques across the country by 1979, and disco was generating $4 billion every single year. But by the time the 80s rolled around, it quickly faded into memory.
The AIDS epidemic began ravaging American cities, unpaid bills forced Studio 54 to shut down, and the culture was simply ready for something new.
Nonetheless, disco was a behemoth of a movement while it lasted. Artists from previous generations were re-recording their hits from yesterday to give them a disco flair. Fashion changed drastically.
It was such a force that thousands of rock fans burned 10,000 disco records at Chicago's Comiskey Park in protest. "'Disco Sucks' was a kind of panic on the part of straight white guys," writer Fran Lebowitz told Vanity Fair. "Disco was basically black music, rock 'n' roll was basically white: those guys felt displaced."
Waring Abbott/Getty ImagesDisco didn't discriminate: If you went to a discotheque to have fun and made a good first impression — through fashion, dance, or personality — you were welcomed with open arms.
While musical trends come and go, disco made an indelible mark still reverberating today. Let's travel back to the era of wanton nudity, line dances, cocaine, and extravagantly popped collars.
The Birth Of Disco
"Disco has not gotten true credit," said Robert Santelli, director and chief executive of the Experience Music Project and author of multiple books on rock and the blues. "There's a great value in understanding the history of disco because it teaches us what America was about in the 70s."
Footage of Studio 54 in its heyday, courtesy of Full Motion Pictures.
Indeed, the birth — and death — of disco reveals a whole roster of social and political issues of the time. Both the women's rights and the civil rights movements were in full swing during the 1960s and 70s. It started with New York City's underground gay clubs and fanned out to become a mainstream, global craze.
Discotheques offered anyone willing to dance the night away a chance to connect with others. Black, white, straight, gay — people left these distinctions at the velvet ropes. Disco was about expressing one's true identity and reclaiming it from the world outside.
"Disco music is funk with a bow tie." — Fred Wesley, James Brown's trombonist.
Drugs, Drinks, And Disco
Disco shot up in popularity just after mankind made it to the moon and contraceptives became widely available, and part of the music's appeal was its seeming nod to modernity and futurism — from disco clubs' designs to the music's sophisticated orchestral infusions, to the metallic fashion that came with the genre.
An ABC News segment on disco's global success and the surrounding shift in culture.
Most disco-lovers belonged to one of two groups. The first was young baby boomers who stood on the sidelines of 1960s counter-culture. As Bruce Pollack, author of The Disco Handbook explained:
"We had been reminded once too often that we were just not with it. Where they had long hair and Woodstock, we had nothing to clearly call our own. We needed a kind of shared activity, scorned by our elders, which would bring us together as a group."
The other group was made up of working, blue-collar people eager to dress up and have fun.
But regardless of which group you belonged to, everyone shared a common affinity: sex, drugs, and dancing.
"People want to dance because people want to have sex. Dancing is sex. That's why when people say, 'I'm a great dancer,' that's not actually what they mean." — Fran Lebowitz, author and disco era aficionado
Frequently boasting celebrity guests — from Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger to Grace Jones and Richard Gere — Studio 54 was arguably the most exciting discotheque of all. Model and socialite Barbara Allen de Kwiatkowski later recalled rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous faces within those walls.
"O.J. Simpson made a pass at me at Studio 54. A really big play. I used to go to dance, but then all these men would chase after you because you were dancing. So I'd go home in Halston's limousine. I'd duck down so they couldn't see me, but they'd run after the car anyway! Oh, God, we had such good times. Remember the fountain that was a block away, in front of one of those big new office buildings on Seventh Avenue? We used to go swimming there after 54 — we'd just flip off our shoes and dive in."
But the club's fun ended with an IRS raid on Dec. 14, 1978. The feds seized bags full of cash and five ounces of cocaine. Owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were arrested for skimming money off the top and were sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison alongside $20,000 fines.
During its prime, however, Studio 54 was an oasis of dance, sexual promiscuity, and liberal drug use. Grace Jones recalled in her memoir:
"Up above the balcony, there was the rubber room, with thick rubber walls that could be easily wiped down after all the powdery activity that went on. There was even something above the rubber room, beyond secretive, up where the gods of the club could engage in their chosen vice high up above the relentless dancers. It was a place of secrets and secretions, the in-crowd and inhalations, sucking and snorting."
I Will Survive: Disco In The Modern Era
The most successful disco performers were women, African Americans, and gay men — as their social status lent their music a foundation of resilience and conquering hardship. From Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer to Grace Jones, the crowd gravitated toward the social roots of their art.
Getty Images/Images PressSylvester Stallone and Sheryl Slocum in Studio 54. 1977.
In the end, disco hasn't really gone anywhere, it merely infused itself into countless other genres. From the outdoor dance parties in New York City to countless music festivals across the country, disco is still heard in modern House and Dance music.
"Disco music is alive and well and living in the hearts of music-lovers around the world. It simply changed its name to protect the innocent: Dance music. There's no better music for a party — it helps you get rid of the stresses of the day." — Gloria Gaynor.
As such, the drugs might've changed, and the fashion is certainly different — but the spirit of the 1970s disco era is far from dead. You just have to know where to look.
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.