Search or Navigate

Top of Page

Early Gay Liberation Movement at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, 1971-1978
Lambda Line

Disco Music Was Gay Music

Gay Bar Music and Its Evolution Into Disco

I first went to a gay bar during the summer of 1972. I began frequenting them regularly in the winter of 1973; generally I would travel with a group of friends from Ames to what we knew as "the bars" (or more often "the bar") in Des Moines. There were two gay bars in Des Moines at that time, the P.S. and the Blue Goose. The P.S. was the bar we usually visited, as it had a younger crowd, a pool table, and a dance floor. There was a jukebox that people fed money into to dance to its 45 rpm records. Most of the music featured sounds we didn't hear on Iowa AM/FM radio of the day, soul music, not mostly the kind that crossed over to white audiences. It all had a regular good dance beat, which was of course why people liked it.

Many weekend evenings (Friday and Saturday, for bars in Iowa were closed on Sunday) right before the drinking establishments across the state of Iowa closed at 2 AM, the staff at the P.S. would announce an "after hours" party, giving the patrons an address and suggesting they bring beer or whatever to the soirée; lots of people who had been at the bar then flocked to those parties where dancing and socializing continued into the wee hours of the morning, essentially extending the bar into a private setting.

The very first song I ever attempted to dance to anywhere was at the P.S. and was "Love Train" by the O'Jays; I had never gone to dances in high school and was an absolute disaster on the dance floor. However, being a fairly quick learner I got better and adapted quickly. At first when I went to gay bars I had found the music a bit irritating, but as I heard it more and more and began dancing, it soon became the only music I cared to listen to even during my non dancing hours, for I had really begun to love it. We generally called the music we heard at the P.S. "bar music." It was often hard to find albums or records of this style of music at first, and even throughout the 70s trips to Minneapolis or Chicago might nab a record before it was popular or at least available in Iowa.

Gloria Gaynor's album, "Never Can Say Goodbye"

Never Can Say Goodbye, Gloria Gaynor, 1974
This album had a nonstop mix of three songs; the whole mix became quite popular. The songs were "Honey Bee," "Never Can Say Goodbye," and "I'll Be There."

One night probably late in 1974 or very early in 1975, the jukebox was turned off for a time at "the bar" and music began to play into the sound system from what we assumed were records elsewhere in the bar. The song was "Honey Bee" by Gloria Gaynor, a favorite, a song we knew from the juke box; but as it ended her version of "Never Can Say Goodbye" blended into it and after that "I'll Be There." This was accomplished seamlessly and I remember a discussion several of us had in the Trophy Room in the Memorial Union a few days later about this musical mix. David Windom was wondering how they had constructed the instrumental middle parts of the songs and blended them so well (for we assumed this was just something the P.S. had constructed); I said they just must have used tape recorders and spliced the music together.

Tom Moulton

Tom Moulton
Tom Moulton was a fashion model on hiatus from the music business when he visited Fire Island's Hotel during a photo shoot. "I got a charge out of it, all these white people dancing to black music." Painstakingly, he spent 80 hours making a 90-minute dance tape using sound-on-sound and vari-speed to create a nonstop build. The Hotel's owner rejected the tape, but the competing Sandpiper offered to listen, and Moulton left the reel. At 2:30 on a Saturday morning, Moulton was awakened by a call from the Sandpiper that was unintelligible except for the screaming of dancers. To a tape!

It wasn't spliced though; it was straight off an MGM album by Ms. Gaynor, and the whole side of the LP was mixed by a man named Tom Moulton. He mixed many many many of the dance and disco albums of the 1970s, and essentially defined worldwide dance music from this period on. Across the country disc jockeys, D.J.'s, people placed off away from a dance bar having a turntable or two, now were beginning to play records, music off albums, and they were learning to mix songs together and create song sets that created an air of excitement on the dance floor for the patrons of dance bars.

Dancing was getting to be more fun all the time. Within a year there was a new title for "bar music" - Disco. Instead of calling them dance bars, the concept was evolving into the name "disco" (in the 1960s there were discothèques; it's a derivative of that word). By late 1975 or 1976 discos were standard fixtures of much of gay life.

In the Des Moines scene a small neighborhood bar, the Menagerie, opened on the north edge of town, and by about 1975 a new downtown dance bar/disco, the M2 (Menagerie 2), had opened complete with improved sound system, larger dance floor, and an increasingly larger number of patrons.

The music was getting better all the time, and somehow, imperceptibly, the music we heard in gay bars seemed to be becoming "our music." Black people played it in their clubs as well, for it sprang forth from both of our communities. Perhaps in urban areas it was also a straight white phenomenon - there are those who nowadays maintain this - but in the Midwest, near as I could tell, it was not the music of straight white people.

Disco Records Burned in Chicago Riot

The bottom photo is of Steve Dahl, organizer of the "demolition" and Garry Meier.

By 1976 disco music was hot on the charts, and at first even without much air play. It signified a shift in what music people were buying; previously radio stations controlled what people heard and this controlled what music they bought, but now, suddenly, disco songs were selling more and more records of the music people heard when they went out dancing.

Disco music was never meant to be listened to while staying at home stoned alone (or with friends) pondering the deeper meanings of the life; it never pretended to have insight into the meaning of life. It was unadulterated fun. Fleetwood Mac and other 70s straight groups and their own formulaic genres of the day provided ample albums of music for people to ponder carefully if they wished. Disco music was for dancing, disco was for having a good time, and gay people, who had been prevented from dancing together in virtually all the bars across the United States until the very late years of the 1960s (or in some cases in the 1970s), embraced it and were liberated by it.

There were, of course, many gay people who did not go dancing, who did probably not even care for the music. I think they missed out on a fine experience during those liberating times.

In Ames there were a smattering of dance bars, but without exception they played straight rock and roll, mostly terrible dance music. Unexpectedly, circa winter of 1975 or so, a fairly small bar opened out on the west edge of town with a small dance floor and a sound system playing a lot of disco music. One of the owners (or at least employees, although I believe she was part owner) of the establishment was a woman from Puerto Rico, and I believe the other male owner was as well.

Since it was more conveniently located, not such a long trip as the 30 miles to Des Moines, groups of gay people from Ames went there several different nights to "liberate" the joint and dance. The first night we were warmly welcomed when we began dancing to the music (it was our second nature by then). The bar played mostly disco hits that had made radio play by this time, the top 40 hits of KC & the Sunshine Band, Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," etc., not the full range of music available in gay bars, but it was still infinitely better than the other dance joints in town and so very easy a place to get to.

After a few more evenings, including once, I think, on a weekend when there were actually a number of straight people in the bar dancing as well (it was a little scary, actually, but no outright hostility happened), we were suddenly rebuked. One evening we went to the bar and were told we were not particularly welcome. We tried to pay no attention to this, but the music shifted to some easy listening rock and roll and it was totally undanceable; they had control of the entertainment after all.

The woman working at the bar came over to us and said she "was from San Juan and it was a city and they had gay people and she knew gay people and it was fine for her, and for the owner too, but Ames wasn't so liberal," or some similar hogwash. Apparently a few of the other straight patrons who were there had been unhappy with a "gay crowd" being visible anywhere in Ames. We just quit going back and soon the place closed. Good riddance for bad karma.

By 1976 disco music was grand. Many of the artists singing it were gay, black, and women (and assorted combos of these classifications), at times these artists represented perhaps 80% of the songs that were popular; rock and roll proper had never allowed much or any music from these parties into its mainstream. Of course some black singers and groups (James Brown; Earth, Wind, and Fire, etc.) had been deemed OK and given the blessing of the mainstream with white audiences, but women artists were really a real rarity even into the 1970s, and at this point there were no gay mainstream singers who were out. In fact gay disco groups or artists remained essentially closeted until the days of Sylvester. Even the Village People, whom we first called "our own," who sang about the dangers of sex in the bushes of Fire Island (NY), leather boys on Folsom Street in San Francisco, staying at notorious YMCAs, and on and on, throughout the 70s tried to deny or avoid answering any questions about their pretty obvious sexual orientation, a course of action which royally pissed off a lot of gay people whom they'd quite nicely exploited for support in their earliest days.

Smelling the lure of large profits, the recording industry began to devise ways of bringing disco music to the masses. This was inevitable as the sound had become more and more popular. What the recording industry didn't care about was the fact that a lot of the masses weren't necessarily really all that interested in dancing, and many of the white straight males, in particular, did not like the sound of black people's music, women singers, and music rumored to have gay overtones.

This didn't stop the entertainment industry. In 1977 the movie "Saturday Night Fever" was released. It was about a group of straight, homophobic, racist, Italian-American twenty-somethings in New York who went dancing nightly wearing odd looking clothes and probably too much after shave lotion (they looked nothing much like people I saw or knew in gay discos). The movie was a success, and because of the endless music of the Bee Gees now heard whenever you turned on the radio a backlash began against disco music began.

This backlash happened and disco retreated to the closets, but it certainly did not spell the end of disco music, as many people would have you believe. Disco never did end - it morphed.

The backlash reached its pinnacle in Chicago in 1979 on July 12 when the "White" Sox and radio station 98FM, WLUP, "The Loop" had a "Disco Demolition Night." The "White" Sox were playing a double header against the Detroit Tigers and anyone bringing a disco record to the game for burning (very Fahrenheit 451) was allowed in Comiskey Park for 98 cents.

The second game of the double header didn't ever happen. A melee ensued between the games with pent up hatred spewing forth and mostly young white males rioting on the field. Did they just hate the music, or did they hate what else it represented? People debate this still, but no other rock music has ever created quite such a reaction in a group of people. There were probably a lot of underlying closets running throughout the crowd putting on this spectacle.

Bill Gleason on the anti-disco-riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago
Intersecting Symbols Line