Peter Braunstein

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Peter Braunstein


Peter Braunstein is a Ph.D. candidate in history at New York University and a freelance writer. (1997)

Gay Disco

[...]Some say the first gay disco was the Ice Palace on Fire Island; others insist it was the Manhattan restaurant-discotheque Aux Puces, or a place that towers over all others in sheer notoriety: the Sanctuary.


But the real animosity between rock and disco lay in the position of the straight white male. In the rock world, he was the undisputed top, while in disco, he was subject to a radical decentering. Disco was an extended conversation between black women female divas and gay men. Straight men were welcome to join the party, but only if they learned the lingo. Some did, but for many, this new demand aroused a kind of "castration anxiety," as Alice Echols put it in a 1994 essay. Disco symbolized a world where straight men were not only expected to engender the female orgasm, but to incorporate it.

Only by killing disco could rock affirm its threatened masculinity and restore the holy dyad of cold brew and undemanding sex partners. Disco bashing became a major preoccupation in 1977. At the moment when Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 achieved zeitgeist status, rock rediscovered a rage it had been lacking since the '60s, but this time the enemy was a culture with "plastic" and "mindless" (read effeminate) musical tastes. Examined in light of the ensuing political backlash, it's clear that the slogan of this movement--""Disco Sucks!"--was the first cry of the angry white male.

The rock/disco wars might seem silly in retrospect if it weren't for the deadly seriousness with which they were waged at the time. In a 1979 end-of-year summation, Rolling Stone,the index of cultural regression, surveyed the field of battle like military strategists: "You can say that the first six months [of 1979] belonged to disco... and that the last six months belonged to the brave young rockers." The turning point was the July "Disco Demolition" rally in Chicago's Comiskey Park. The event's original gimmick involved blowing up disco records between games of a doubleheader, but the charged-up crowd lost control and began tearing up the stadium. Comiskey turned into a giant coded gay bashing, a frightening harbinger of an enraged, homophobic America, given sanction in the mock-patriotic venue of a baseball stadium.

By 1980, disco had become a dirty word. The term was banished from the language as an added security measure, but the music was exported to England, where it was de-gayed and re-exported to the States under a new name: "new wave dance music." The rock majority was satisfied by the replacement of explicitly gay Sylvester with flamboyantly closeted Boy George. As the playlist segued from "I'm Coming Out" into "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me," the pulverization of the liberal imagination became a political fact. Ronald Reagan was elected president, and the following June, a mysterious new "gay cancer" appeared. --Peter Braunstein, [June 1998]

Good Times

"Good Times" has been cited by critics as one of the most important singles of all time. Bernard Edwards' bass line has been copied and sampled by bands like Queen and rappers Grandmaster Flash. -- Marco Werman

Peter Braunstein interviewed by Marco Werman

Whether you consider this day in recording history one to celebrate or mourn depends, as they say, on where you're coming from. On August 25th, 1979, the quintessential disco band Chic released an album that came to signify the end of the disco era...while containing a song that epitomized the best of the much-maligned style. As The World's Marco Werman tells us, the "good times" that were about to end started long before the "disco decade."

MW: Nile Rodgers and the late bassist Bernard Edwards were a power song writing team with many hits to their name. The biggest one owed its success to an unforgettable bass line and chopping guitar refrain.

This seemingly happy song marked the last days of disco. "Good Times" was a nostalgic look back at the disco decade in which Jimmy Carter ushered in better days after Nixon and Vietnam, when the hedonism of the seventies gave carte blanche to revel in - as the song says - clams on the half shell and roller skates.

According to writer and cultural historian Peter Braunstein "Good Times" was also the cue for darker days ahead.

PB: The music itself has a downbeat, almost poignant quality to it that foreshadows what would happen a couple of years later where that hedonistic ethic would soon be completely annihilated by the sort of neo conservative turn that the nation took starting in 80. And also the AIDS epidemic which just destroyed club life and the disco hedonistic ethic.

MW: "Good Times" has been cited by critics as one of the most important singles of all time. Bernard Edwards' bass line has been copied and sampled by bands like Queen and rappers Grandmaster Flash. Even in the same year "Good Times" was released, the Sugarhill Gang would lift the riff and trigger the birth of the hip-hop nation.

"Good Times" and just about all other disco has been called fluffy, trivial, lacking musical integrity. But it was popular art that served as the banner of the counterculture. It brought together gays, blacks, Latinos, showbiz celebrities and street people. But that revolution and challenge to authority in the 1970's was rooted three decades earlier.

PB: The very origin of disco was during the French resistance during World War Two. Basically an illicit form, it was a music - jazz - that the Nazis in wartime Paris had banned because it related to several things that they didn't want to deal with like Americans, Jewishness, blacks, so they banned it. So it became the official resistance music in clubs. Discotheques started out in this completely illicit environment, they weren't tolerated by the state, and they never lost that underground appeal.

MW: After the war, Paris clubs like the Whiskey A Go Go continued the festivity of the private record library, literally the translation of the French word, "discotheque". The spirit of the underground disco was marked by the size of the clubs (they were tiny with even smaller dance floors); the subversion (parties were announced via word of mouth); and even the privacy of the clubs was conveyed through the manner in which drinks were consumed, says Peter Braunstein.

PB: People didn't order drinks the way we do, like OK, I'll have a whiskey, OK, I'll have another whiskey. They'd buy an actual bottle of whiskey, it would have their name emblazoned on it, and then they would keep the whiskey in a locker at the bottom room with the midget dance floor. So you would then go back week after week and you'd still be working off this one whiskey bottle.

MW: By the early sixties, New York City had created its own versions of the Paris discotheques. They slowly grew bigger in size and by the end of the decade, the novelty had worn off, but the hedonism hadn't. As Peter Braunstein explains, the inherent hedonism of sixties disco culture was co-opted by a more creative group of revelers.

PB: This was the era of gay disco culture, underground discos. The most notorious one was right behind the Port Authority Bus Terminal, it was called the Sanctuary. Basically it was scandalous because it was a former church, a Lutheran church that was converted into a gay nightclub. As if that wasn't crazy enough for most people, you had the deejay who actually started to mix. And this club was notorious. You would have people outside at 4 am, piling out into the street.

MW: The glamour of late nights that the gay scene started then got mainstreamed by New York clubs like Studio 54. But some Americans hated it, and a few even went so far as to riot against disco.

PB: "Good Times" came out within a year of the infamous Kaminsky Park riots, the "disco sucks" demolition in which Chicago White Sox fans during an impromptu disco demolition rally between games went nuts and began tearing up the stadium, and they had to cancel the game and it caused a lot of damage. There was sort of a backlash against a lot of the demographics that disco represented, its core audience being gay men, a lot of blacks listened to disco, in fact it represented every other demographic except the traditional white male rock fans, and they were so afraid every time that disco would take up a couple more notches on the charts, they would see it as a personal attack as if their identity was being violated.

MW: Compare the sounds on the dance floor of 1979 with those at disco's roots during the French resistance, and there appears to be little in common. What they did share was a rhythm that moved the counterculture and would-be revolutionaries to while the hours away until they could emerge into the daylight, and act like everybody else.

- Marco Werman

original article offline, copyright Marco Werman


  1. Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960's and 70's - Peter Braunstein [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    This deep and detailed work examines the many elements of the American counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Its underlying theme is the rejection by mainly young but also older people of prevailing political, social, and cultural norms through experimentation with drugs, sex, music, and identity to construct alternative ways of life. The 14 essays, written by academics and journalists, are arranged into sections covering cultural politics, racial and sexual identity, the media and popular culture, the deconditioning of the human mind through drugs and feminist consciousness-raising, and alternative visions of society based on technology and communal living. Each section opens with a brief essay covering the major themes appearing in its chapters. Editors Braunstein and Doyle, who are both journalists, open the work with an excellent essay critical of both romantic and conservative views of the 1960s and stressing the need for strict historical analysis for a better understanding of the period. Particularly good essays include David Farber's study of drug use and David E. James's chapter on film. This is not an easy read, but it marks a major reexamination of the period.

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