By Albert Goldman
Was Son of Sam the ultimate rock critic? When he loaded his machine gun to strafe that discotheque in Long Island, was he preparing to make a statement? To drown out with the rat-tat-tat of his deadly weapon the brazen new Beat for the Feet? We’ll never know—unless the New York D.A. subpoenas that 6,000-year-old dog that was giving Sam his orders. What we do know is that disco, as Charlie Parker said about bebop, “ain’t no love-child.”
Much of the resistance to the new style comes from people who want to stay tuned for the rest of their lives to rock. And whatever you say about disco, it is not a rehash of something you’ve heard a thousand times before or a pathetic attempt to turn the clock back to the Beatles at the Star Club.
Disco is to the doldrummed late Seventies very much what rock was to the late Sixties. It is a sudden stab of lightning through an atmosphere dense with piled-up tensions, frustrations and deadly boredom. Like rock it comes right up from the guts of our culture, from the ghettos and from the pits of technology: the factories, assembly lines and winky-blinky computer control panels. Disco right now is in that exciting takeoff stage where every day you discover some kooky new sound or some crazy concoction of art and technology that blows your mind. Though disco is too new, too immature, to have produced anything as good as the Beatles as yet, its creative potential is enormous. Already it has livened up our dull days with a whole new ambience that is not only exciting in itself, but powerfully suggestive of where this ever-changing society is heading next.
I started my exploration of the disco boom reluctantly. One night, I dragged myself down to Studio 54 on the West Side of Manhattan and worked my way through a gaggle of stylishly dressed boys and girls who were hassling with some serious looking bouncers. I wasn’t especially impressed by the towering mirrored, burgundy red lobby, decorated with fig trees so tall they could be used for monkey racing. Nor did I get off on the futuristic-looking decor of the inside of the club, with its black-banded silver cushions that look like oxygen tanks or its quadrangular streamlined juice bar that reminded me of the days when it wasn’t hip to drink alcohol. It wasn’t until I had approached the cavernous dance floor and taken my first look at the stunning extravaganza of lights, sounds, sets and perpetual motion both of man and machine that I got a tremendous flash. Suddenly I was filled with that marvelous sense of exultation that floods your mind when you catch a glimpse of the future.
The new sound puts robots in touch with their roots. I have seen the future and it’s Regine’s.
Let me give you an idea of how it feels when you step out there under the guns of those enormous black speakers, when you’re razored and lasered by those incredible lights, when you’re practically picked up and hurled about the enormous kinetic energy generated by the new disco sound mixes.
rrrrrumph! FEE-FIIIE! FOEFHUMB! YO LOO-KIN DOWN DA BAR-REL O DA DE-BIL’S GUN! Brrrrrumph! NO-WHAAAARE TO RUN! YOU GOT-TA MAKE A STAN AGAINST THE DE-BIL’S GUN! Roaring like King Kong in rut, the bass-barreltone boogie voice booms in the darkness. Broken by flashes of lightning and tympanic claps of thunder, the night is filled with terror. You feel like you’ve crashed in the Congo. Between the elements and the animals, you don’t stand a chance.
Then, miraculously, the scene shifts. Instead of the Heart of Darkness, you’re standing in Times Square. Winking-blinking, racing-chasing lights bedazzle your eyes. As these Broadway fireworks ignite the night, you take another fix on the scene. This time you pin it. Cape Canaveral at ground zero. Right? Look at that squadron of towering pencil-shaped rockets standing out there on the hangar floor. Fashioned of chrome-plated wire and studded with winking red and yellow lights, they look like Space-Age totem poles. Wait, though! Hold it! What’s happening? The fuckers are lifting off! In unison! A dozen of them sliding through the dark overhead. Each one kissing off the earth with a volley of blinding flashes from its rotary taillight.
Behind they leave the ground crew. Clad in spectral white, these boys and girls are thrashing about in the semidarkness when suddenly all hell breaks loose. Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! A score of blinding strobes is raking the floor. Fluid motion is arrested, stopped, freeze-dried into black-and-white snapshots. Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! Your brain is starting to reel! You’re flying while standing still! Then the back wall of the hangar—or is it Dr. Frankenstein’s lab?—lights up. And you crack up!
You’re looking at a fascinatingly funny apparition. It’s Old Man Moon! That emaciated crescent-profiled old fool! With his toothless senescent jaw jutting up to practically touch his pendant coxcomb. In the midst of this concave punim hangs his tired old hose nose. Detumescent, like a spent shlong. But, wait! Help is coming! Rejuvenation! A surrealistically distended coke spoon is stuck under his limp shnozz. Cocaine as white bright bubbles goes flying up the Moon’s proboscis, as high as his evil little red eye. The dancers scream! The beat booms louder! The floor fibrillates! Then the whole crazy scene comes to climax!
Down from the dark heavens comes a thick soft fall of snow. Thousands of feathery white flakes fluttering down upon the milling white figures below. Pennies from heaven. Bennies from heaven. Now Christmas in July.
Yes, I am struggling to capture and communicate the flux of hallucinatory impressions that come flooding through your sensorium in just a few minutes inside one of New York’s revolutionary new discotheques. The particular dream theater I’m describing was once the San Carlo Opera House, later a CBS studio for “What’s My Line?,” now a cavernous shrine to the gods, muses and oracles of industrial chic and intergalactic funk.
Studio 54 is the wildest trip you can take these days in Big Town. Even more important, this Palace of Pleasure, this Hegira to High Times, is an eloquent symbol of the whole new international disco revolution. The beat for the feet is violently upending and turning over all our fixed ideas about pop music, pop dance, pop culture and, by extension, our whole awareness of the contemporary world. Disco is revolutionary in the most literal sense of the word. It represents the inevitable and irresistible reaction to everything that has been dominating and dragging down our culture since the decline and fall of the Sixties.
The first and most important thing about disco is simply the fact that it is happening right this minute. Disco is at the very instant I write these lines changing, shifting and coming ever more vigorously into being. If you have any doubt about the truth of what I am saying, hie yourself off to one of these futuristic dance halls at about 1 A.M. First take a gander at the scene, as I have done. Then, step out on the floor. When you get off those streamlined cushions of the laidback lounge, when you cross the spongy black Astroturf past the bar (many of these joints pursue a strict drugs-only policy!), when you unpeel your eyes from the juvenile lovelies strutting about in harem pants—or the spring-legged boys wearing nothing but running shorts, bopping about the room picking up empty glasses—when, like a swimmer breasting a powerful but enticing surf, you wade out on the vast dance floor and expose yourself to the direct fire of those huge black speakers (2,000-watt woofers that can put out 145 decibels—enough to smash your inner ear to oyster jelly), when you feel yourself zapped by those cutting lights, picked up and hurled about by the incredible kinetic energy of the latest disco mixes, believe me, Bruce, you’ll know that you’re standing at the focal point of modern living.
The simplest way to dig disco is to start with the sound and move out to the bigger meanings. Disco is the flip side of rock. Predominantly black instead of white, instrumental rather than vocal, contrived for dancing instead of listening, produced by anonymous professionals instead of charismatic kids, disco is ultimately a symbolic effort to put people on the moon instead of casting them back into some preindustrial Eden that never existed.
Disco is basically a powerful, unrelenting, male-dominance music that articulates perfectly and glorifies beyond anything save the tango the new butch consciousness that has developed in this period of pickup-truck-driving, jock-jerking, male-chauvinist reaction to the age of sexual androgynes and feminine sensibilities through which we have just passed. The two great themes of disco are either the male = phallus = machine equation or the female-passion-victim syndrome. It was a classic expression of the latter complex that triggered off the disco revolution back in the summer of ’75. I’m referring to Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby, which stands in relation to disco in about the same way as does Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to rock ‘n’ roll.
The Donna Summer album was one of those rare records that possess resonance. Here was this unknown black Amen Girl living in Europe and recording in Munich, of all places!, doing an old-fashioned jungle show with pounding tom-toms, erotic moans and caressing hot-book vocal inflections perfect for the sound track for some porno-flick designed to play on 42nd Street at 3 A.M. for an audience of newspaper strokers.
Yet, after listening to the album a couple of times, it began to haunt me. Gradually I realized that it was a later, less labored effort to do what Jim Morrison and the Doors had done with their first, long trippy track, “The End”: take a pop music cliché and push it so far that finally you pop it out of orbit and convert it into a vehicle that carries the listener far into the eternal black void that both beckons and terrifies the contemporary mind. The album made use of lurid themes like sex, drugs, race, masochism, to trip the listener out. Ultimately, it gave you an enlarged awareness of bigger things than pop usually surveys, yet just those things that only pop can survey, because pop is the only art that is still totally in touch with contemporary civilization.
Does God like disco? He’d better, if He knows what’s good for Him.
Disco is not like rock, a pantheon of cult figures. Disco is not even a culture of people, in the traditional sense. Disco is the machine, human or otherwise. The ideal disco dancer would be a robot. A powerful, inexhaustible, endlessly inventive robot whose sensors would keep him in perfect harmony with not only the beat of the music, but with its constantly fluctuating spiritual content. The musicians who record disco music are, in fact, the closest things in the history of Western Civilization to robots. They are New York studio musicians: colorless, anonymous, featureless men, who sit day and night in futuristic-looking sound studios in mid-Manhattan with earphones on their heads and sometimes strange looking instruments in their hands—like a set of electric drums played with rubber-insulated keys—overdubbing on 24-track tape installations one percussion part on top of another or one violin staff on top of another until you’d swear you were listening to the New York Philharmonic, when, in fact, you’re listening to about 12 middle-aged men who happen to be the most versatile and accomplished shlock virtuosos in the world.
On top of the beat, entering one by one comes the Fender bass, the electric guitar, the Moog synthesizer, the Afro-Cuban rhythm section and a full complement of symphonic strings. If this sounds like cultural mish-mash, you got the message. Disco carries to its final extreme the freewheeling eclecticism that is now the standard esthetic for all the pop arts.
Eclecticism is the name of the game in disco. The acoustic worlds of disco range from Sci-Fi auras and cosmic winds to frowning classics like Beethoven and Stravinsky, from tar-pit funk to lily-white St. Tropez pop, from the exotic styles of Brazil and the Middle East to robot-voiced Moogs chanting railroad signs: “Trans-Europe Express.” The only rule in “composing” this stuff is that the beat never stop, lest the dancer lose his high. The principle effect aimed for is climaxing every sense of the word.
You’ve got this beat that makes the feet fly, but the rest is up to you, Sergei. The freedom is intoxicating—and terrifying. Watching disco mix evolve is like watching an old cat crouch out on a limb after a nest of little newly hatched birds. There are millions of dollars to be made in the game. A whole new ballgame to be played and won. Studio 54 cost nearly a half million dollars to throw together in six insane weeks (again, the incredible demands that can only be made on New York professionals). When the owners advertised for memberships at $125 a card (plus a modest charge of five dollars at the doorway every time you walk in the joint), they were overwhelmed with 18,000 applications. Cannily, they culled about 1,800. Greedily, they dipped back into the pot for another 3,000. Finally, they opened their doors, ushered in Mick Jagger, Elton John, Baryshnikov—all the beautiful people. And Lo and Behold! In seven weeks they had recouped their investment.
What applies to the discos applies to the discs. At first the record companies were shy of releasing the specially manufactured 12-inch, 45 RPM “Promo Only” D.J.-oriented disco mixes. After all, in 60 years of pop music recording, there had never been a standard pop record format that broke the four-minute barrier. It was good enough for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917; it was good enough for Al Jolson in the Twenties; it was good enough for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman in the Thirties; it got us through the Brooklyn mambo and the Bronx cha-cha-cha days—it sure worked fine for Elvis and the Beatles and the Stones and all them other assholes, so whathahell! Why should the industry suddenly get weird just because some little skinny faggot who spends his nights in what used to be the hat-check girl’s closet “spinning,” as he calls it, and is terrified about “losing his floor,” insists that suddenly after a mere 60 years of commercial success, pop records alluvasudden have to stretch to five, seven, nine or twenty minutes! Twenty minutes of the same dumb shit! Wow! You gotta be kidding, Ronnie!
Now you walk into any record store in New York, and you find this new “product.” It’s not in a “jacket.” It’s in a “sleeve.” It’s got a big hole in the center where the label sticks out, and a socko design all around the hole: kissy, pouty, parted Puerto-Rican-pink lips (I get the bends looking at them!); or a black chick and a white chick, facing off at each other in Thirties air-brush style; or, thick fluid-filled glass tubular neon letters; or, starshaped light bulbs studded marquee style; or—well, I guess you’ve seen them. Funny thing is, though, they have a kind of bootleg feel about them: they’re in the back of the store in hand-lettered bins, the clerks never get the price straight—is it $1.69 or $1.96?
The only serious problem disco has encountered to date is with the activity that is supposedly the raison d’etre for this whole trend—social dancing. The fact is that when you go to a spectacular discotheque, the least interesting thing about the show is the dancers. Most of the time, they could be straw on the floor for all the excitement they provide. When you go to a disco whose designer took literally the idea that the “whole show is in the people,” you feel like you’re looking at a cultural disaster. What you actually see in these extravaganzalike settings are people who look like the relatives at your cousin’s wedding: unattractive, overdressed, klutzy types who can’t dance worth a damn.
There are discos, of course, especially in New York, where you can see lots of semipro and professional dancers. These discos specialize in the Latin hustle and stage dance contests that feature couples who have worked up elaborate dance routines, costumes, make-up—the works. These folks are fun to watch, but turning disco into “Soul Train” is not the answer either. What’s more, the Latin hustle has a hopelessly obsolete character, like something you learned at Arthur Murray’s. It takes skill and grace, but it is hopelessly out of touch with the power, the urgency and psychodrama implicit in the best new disco music. Consequently, there is a big yawning hole in the disco culture of the present day that clamors to be filled by some suitable new dances or by some form of movement that will go beyond dance to bring people the physical sensations that are suggested by the sounds of the music.
After 30 or 40 years of cultural lag, of resisting the future and hankering back towards the preindustrial past, young people now seem prepared to take the great leap forward into the Space Age. The popularity of science fiction, the immense success of Star Wars, the revival of the graphics of the last age of futuristic optimism, the Thirties, the appetite for industrial shapes, sounds and textures in our most intimate life circumstances—as in the classic New York loft apartment—makes it appear that we have made our peace with the machine and are now ready to continue the trip that was aborted when the 1939 World’s Fair was shut down by World War II. After all, why should we fight the future? Let us echo the sentiments of our great leader. When Andy Warhol was asked once if he didn’t hate machines, he answered: “Why should I hate machines? Gee, I’d like to be a machine!”
Read the full issue here.