Studs, Synths, and Liberation: A Brief History of SF Disco

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It’s not surprising that San Francisco’s disco heyday has become a source of fascination for subsequent generations. Like New York’s undergrounds clubs of the ‘70s and ‘80s, San Francisco’s scene offered LGBTQ people, straight women, bohemians, racial minorities, and other folks facing discrimination a community that provided a safe space and a chunk of freedom.

The music reflected the audience’s diversity, and you can hear that on For Discos Only, a compilation that features a cross-section of New York and SF disco from that era. But the SF dance scene didn’t suddenly materialize the night its most famous star and international LGBTQ icon Sylvester first walked on stage in a fabulous thrift-store gown, and it wasn’t principally about platform shoes, poppers, or any other superficial signifiers that would ultimately characterize it. The scene grew out of a culmination of sociological, musical, political, and economic factors rooted in related liberation movements of the ‘60s. San Francisco represented a mecca that welcomed all the beautiful freaks Middle America tried to flush out, and the city’s disco scene was first and foremost about sexual, communal, and spiritual love.

If there was a single San Francisco birthplace for that kind of amorphous, amorous experience, it has to be the Stud, which still exists today. Originally situated on Folsom Street, this funky 1966-originated dance bar was one of several South of Market clubs that followed the Tool Box, an even earlier leather bar, to court a new kind of gay man who flouted stereotypes. Stud patrons were largely hippies who lived in communes, took drugs, preached revolution, and created what we now consider cultural institutions like the bygone Cockettes and the ongoing Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – radical drag troupes that celebrate gay liberation, community service, and pan-gender outrage as elements of the same countercultural movement. Even Janis Joplin hung out at the Stud.

This was when SOMA, the Tenderloin, and Polk Gulch neighborhoods showcased much of SF’s queer nightlife. The Castro had just started absorbing a gay crowd during 1967’s Summer of Love when thousands of kids from all over the US descended on the Haight. In the early ‘70s, a wave of Castro bars and clubs opened. Among these was the Pendulum, which welcomed a black clientele, and Toad Hall, which signified the earliest transition from dance bars to disco by becoming one of the first spaces to shun jukeboxes in favor of pre-recorded tapes featuring segued, continuous music.

Opening downtown in 1972, The City offered another evolutionary step with a sizable dancefloor and cabaret where Sylvester performed. Three other SF disco pioneers worked there – DJs John Hedges and Marty Blecman, as well as its lighting man Patrick Cowley, who’d studied electronic music, composed gay porn soundtracks, and recorded hypnotic mixes of disco hits augmented by his own synthesizer parts. Boosted immeasurably by Cowley’s electronic contributions to his records and live band, Sylvester made the leap into the pop Top 40 with “Dance (Disco Heat),” here included on For Discos Only  in its churchy 12-inch mix.

Sylvester’s success meant that Fantasy – a Berkeley-based label previously known for jazz and Creedence Clearwater Revival – embraced disco in a big way, with several releases featuring Cowley, Sylvester, or his backing vocalists Two Tons o’ Fun in subtle and sometimes overt ways. Listen closely and you can hear Two Tons’ Izora Rhodes growling through the climax of Paradise Express’s “Dance,” or Cowley’s synth arpeggios percolating through Fever’s heated “Beat of the Night.” Around this time, SF’s club scene exploded with hugely popular dance venues like the End Up, the I-Beam, and arguably the most beloved in the city’s history, the Trocadero Transfer, where DJ Bobby Viteritti’s frenzied, Pan-like mixing style inspired a devotion exceeded only by New York’s Paradise Garage and its legendary DJ Larry Levan, who championed many of the Vanguard grooves also found on For Discos Only.

When disco was declared dead in the early ‘80s mainstream, Cowley started his own gay-targeted, SF-based label Megatone, which began releasing Sylvester’s subsequent, defiantly queer output. Shortly thereafter, Cowley died in 1982 of a mysterious disease then not even known as AIDS. Consequently run by Hedges and Blecman, Megatone along with other local indies like Moby Dick carried the torch with hi-NRG club tracks until Sylvester, Blecman, countless other DJs, and much of SF’s original disco revelers also perished in the plague.

The next dancers embraced house music and other harder sounds that reflected their experience. But as AIDS subsided when treatment and prevention methods improved, yet another generation came of age, one curious about the city’s illustrious nightlife past. Homegrown DJ collectives like Go Bang! and Honey Sound System have, in recent years, helped revive vintage SF disco; the latter’s Dark Entries label even issued Cowley’s porn soundtracks and other previously unreleased experimental work. The technology that currently defines San Francisco may have changed the cultural landscape of the city, but the sounds and spirits of love and liberation captured in For Discos Only remain a gateway not to paradise lost, but to hard-won ecstasies of the past, preserved for the present and future alike.

This post is part of our Disco 101 program, an in-depth series that looks at the far-reaching, decades-long impact of disco. Curious about disco and want to learn more? Go here to sign up. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or just sending your friends this link. They’ll thank you. We thank you.