To paraphrase Charlie Murphy, disco is a hell of a drug. Disco, that sparkly spin on (or bastardization of, depending on how attached you are to the Black Flag patch on your chained-out bomber jacket) rhythm and blues, pretty much had the whole world dancing in the 1970s. The mirror balls flew high, the bass-lines bumped, and the floors lit up1. Everyone from your dad to Liza Minelli was boogie-oogie-oogie-ing until they just couldn’t boogie no more. The epicenter of this movement, if you could get in, was Studio 54. The drug of choice was, of course, cocaine.
Studio 54, located in Manhattan, changed many hands before (and after) it became the hotbed of A-list fashion, drugs, and dancing of legend. The nightclub functioned for 15 years as a theater and 30 years as a game show studio before CBS sold it to Steve Rubell, Ian Schreger, and company -- former operators of the Enchanted Garden nightclub in Queens -- who turned it into the most infamous nightclub in history. From its opening in 1977 to its closing in 1986, Studio 54 was absolutely the “in” place to be. To get past that velvet rope (not an easy feat – Sinatra couldn’t even get in on opening night) was to bump elbows with folks like Andy Warhol (one of the club’s most frequent guests), Truman Capote and a whole lot of other beautiful people. If you name any one who was alive, famous, and hip in the 1970s or 80s, there’s a good chance they were regulars in this den of elitist hedonism.
Today, we’ve been trained to groan at the word “disco.” It evokes images of leisure suits, greasy John Travoltas, and the suspiciously sweet sounds of the Bee Gees. But in the mid-to-late seventies, and especially at Studio 54, disco was the order of the day. Well, in Studio 54’s case, disco was probably the order of the early morning. But what are we so afraid of? Is it any coincidence that a musical movement with a huge stake in both gay and black culture is probably one of the most reviled in history? Far be it from me to drop the word “rockism,” but disco was just the latest in a long line of new genres that, for whatever reason, suffered a massive backlash (and was eventually reevaluated). But even the punks put their spin on the style when Blondie released “Heart of Glass.”
One thing is for sure: disco went with cocaine like peanut butter still goes with jelly. To say the least, they complemented each other. The repetitive, loud music, the bright lights, and the late nights all contributed to coke being the discotheque drug of choice. It amplified and sustained all of the above. Both were status symbols – cocaine was expensive, and Studio 54 was exclusive.
The nightclub did little to dispel the rumors of rampant sex and drug use on the premises. In fact, despite Rubell’s claim here that everyone had the less fun during their parties than during regular nights (you know, regular nights just broing out with Michael Jackson, maybe touching his gigantic afro), it was clear to most who entered what was on the agenda. The waiters ran around shirtless in short shorts and the décor of the club (including a moon man with a blatant coke spoon) reflected the druggy scene2. “It was the only club where you could have sex,” according to Prince Egon von Furstenberg 3. Even the Chief of Staff at the time, Hamilton Jordan, was accused of snorting blow in the club. Despite Nixon’s 1972 declaration of a “War on Drugs,” the rate of cocaine (and other drug) use were as high (no pun intended) as ever. Based on its reputation, there’s a good bet that pretty much all cocaine consumed in the 70s was snorted in a Studio 54 bathroom (or off of a Studio 54 railing, bar, buttcrack, etc.)
By 1980, the dream was over. That year, club owners Rubell and Schrager were imprisoned for tax evasion and sold Studio 54. The new owners gave it their all and kept the club open for 5 years. But it wasn’t the same. The tides were changing. AIDS was taking hold. Rubell himself would fall victim to it in 1985. As disco gave up the charts to pop, new wave, and hip-hop, the proclamation that “Disco is dead!” graced all kinds of t-shirts and bumper stickers. Cocaine? Well, you can’t exactly flaunt it with a moon man sign anymore. But it didn’t go anywhere. It continued on, with Bret Easton Ellis’s help, as the rich snot’s drug of choice (a distinction it still enjoys today4) and on the streets, where, in crack form, it became a serious epidemic.
Disco is dead! Back when people were shouting that with reckless abandon it may have been true. But I have been to the top of the mountain and I am here to write what some of you already know: Disco has been alive and well for a long time. Popular music is cyclical, and what was lame yesterday will be fashionable tomorrow (shout out to the yacht rock revival). What is today’s popular music if it’s not disco? Sure, you can split hairs and drop some taxonomic knowledge – obviously Donna Summer and the Black Eyed Peas do not occupy the exact same genre. But there is a direct line you can draw there. When is the last time that such club-friendly and (arguably) vapid music has ruled the charts? Not to mention the influence of disco on punk, new wave, and soul artists, and their subsequent influence on today’s indie and R&B artists. Many have celebrated its downfall, others have been hailing its return, but don’t call it a comeback. Maybe disco never died. Coke certainly didn’t.
1 Regardless of your stance on disco, I think we can all agree on light-up floors. Right?