I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“Everybody’s doing it, now why ain’t you?” – Go-Go Dancing in the USA

by Anthony Galli
March 16, 2015

Iggy Pop’s 1977 tour de force Lust for Life begins with a striptease backbeat that dares you not to get up and shake it. The rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales bombard the dance floor with earthquakes of sound, while guitars, keyboards, and other percussive textures slowly infiltrate the mix. Finally, Iggy arrives and brings it all back home to William S. Burroughs: “Here comes Johnny Yen, again/with his liquor and drugs/and a flesh machine…” Lust for Life extracted the polite Motown beat from The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” and reimagined it as the sound of speed freaks set on fire in an abandoned warehouse in West Berlin and everything turned up to 11.

If you can’t get your Swim, your Pony, or your Watusi on to Lust for Life…dude, something is wrong.

Iggy’s striptease comes from a different time than 1977, though. At the height of Punk Rock, where Iggy was seen as a sort of elder statesman due to his late 60’s early 70’s punk prototype freak-out band The Stooges, Iggy brought it all back to the trash and glamour of early 20th century burlesque theater. As an inexpensive form of entertainment, where one could enjoy an adult beverage or two, American burlesque made it okay to ogle female dancers on stage in various states of dress, teasing, seducing, and tantalizing audiences.

As burlesque began to fade with the popularity of cinema and the arrival of television in American homes, nothing really took its place until Manhattan’s Peppermint Lounge struck gold by popularizing Chubby Checker’s 1960 dance craze hit “The Twist.” With this song blasting out of radios everywhere and regularly featured on American Bandstand, the swinging 60’s had begun. Following “The Twist,” numerous athletic, arm swinging dances made it into the clubs with funny names and even funnier steps; The Frug, The Monkey, The Mashed Potato, The Jerk.

It seemed that in no time, teenagers across the nation were madly Fruggin’ and Hitchhikin’ to the jukebox in malt shops like they just didn’t care. It was all such innocent fun, since nobody even had to touch. All of this furious heaving about involved the torso, the hips, and the arms; you didn’t even need to be that close to your partner! But it wasn’t until 1964 when the genius of Elmer Valentine took all this Jerkin’ and Doggin’ and Hully Gully Time and turned it into popular entertainment for discerning nightclubbers.

Legend has it that Valentine, on a short vacation in Paris, visited a popular discothèque where the young, hip clientele were twisting the night away a DJ spinning records. The club also had the catchy name, Whiskey Au Go Go, which was something too good for an enterprising entrepreneur to pass up. Valentine transported the discothèque idea to Los Angeles, California, and, voila, on January 11, 1964, The World Famous Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip shimmied its way into life.

The club featured live entertainment, notably beginning with Johnny Rivers, who would go on to publicize the brand name with his hit albums At the Whisky à Go Go, and Here We à Go Go Again! Between sets, Valentine would have a female disc jockey play dance tracks for the club patrons to groove to. Since there was no room for a disc jockey booth on the dance floor, the DJ was suspended above the floor in a cage. As she would enthusiastically dance along to the music, a light went on in Valentine’s head:

“What this club needs is more girls in mini-skirts dancing in cages.” Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before? Brilliant!

And so, it was to be. Or, so legend has it.

Before long, everything was about the “A Go-Go.” TV shows, like Hollywood A Go Go, Shindig, and Hullabaloo brought The Duck, The Dog, and the Hanky Panky into the living rooms of middle America. Go Go dancing was the craze, man, as The Swirl, The Backstroke, The Camel, and other variations on The Twist competed for space in the wild, wild world of popular culture. Reords were topping the charts, like Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ Going to a Go Go and Away We A Go-Go, The Supremes a Go Go, and Johnny Rivers’ return to the scene of the crime Meanwhile Back at the Whisky à Go Go. Awesome exploitation cinema like Monster a-Go Go, Go Go Mania, and Psycho a Go-Go were produced. And don’t forget Road Runner a Go-Go and Chipmunks à Go-Go, too.

Even Wednesday Addams had her own little Watusi thing going on.

But it couldn’t last…it was just too good for this world. All that pent up sexual frustration seemed to dance itself away, and by the time The Doors took the stage at The Whisky a Go Go in the summer of 1966, the times had certainly changed. People started actually listening to the bands instead of dancing; adult beverages gave way to various other psychotropic enjoyment; and miniskirts and go go boots gave way to psychedelic frocks and fringy jackets.

The scene became a little more anti-establishment.

We can now look back on that land of 1,000 dances from the past and not mistake its optimism for any other time.

The second side of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life opens with a groovy little celebration of joy called “Success.” “Here comes success,” Iggy sings, “Baby, let’s blast off!” So happy, so innocent, so full of space age hope. When Iggy leaves us with, “I’m gonna do The Twist/I’m gonna hop like a frog,” you believe him, and you wish him the best of luck.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.