Issues of LIFE magazine from the mid- to late ‘60s can be a real trip, because they didn’t flinch from the changes happening in Western society during that time. True to its mandate, LIFE forthrightly addressed the rise of the drug culture, shocking new fashions, and the war in Vietnam, among many other topics that would have given the average reader in small-town America occasion for wonderment and concern.
The November 26, 1965, issue is commonly cited as a turning point—LIFE put on its cover a shocking photograph of a blindfolded Viet Cong prisoner being held by Marines, under the headline “The Blunt Reality of War in Vietnam.”
Just a few months later, in the May 27, 1966, issue, LIFE took a look at the groovalicious occurrences to be found in the discotheques across the country. The cover headline ran “New Madness at the Discothèque” but inside the story boasted the even more delightful headline “Wild New Flashy Bedlam of the Discothèque.”
I’m not 100% sure of this, but I suspect that the use of the French word discothèque would have been quite a bit weirder to U.S. audiences of that moment, than it is now—in other words its deployment represented a subtle bid to shock and discomfort the magazine’s staider readers.
The article in question was really a photo essay and therefore no writer was credited, even though the pictures are accompanied by generous captions. Since the story covered dance clubs in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, LIFE relied on a team of photographers that consisted of Steve Schapiro, T. Tanuma, Yale Joel, Declan Haun, and John Zimmerman.
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable play the Trip, May 1966
The first photo in the spread, on the top of p. 72, actually shows an unnamed Lou Reed and Co. playing a club called the Trip in Los Angeles, mentioned in the caption as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable under the aegis of Andy Warhol. The Velvet Underground actually were slated to play the Trip from May 3-18 but the sheriff’s dept. closed the joint down after the May 5 show. The article mentions none of that, interestingly.
Here’s a poster advertising that run at the Trip. Jim Morrison was apparently there on opening night. VU’s openers were the Mothers of Invention, but there was some evident friction between the two bands, and a local act called the Doors was apparently considered as a replacement for the Mothers’ slot, but it never happened.
The biggest club in the new scene, according to the piece, was called Arthur in New York, which was named after a quip from A Hard Day’s Night and was located at 154 East 54th Street. It was founded by Richard Burton’s first wife.
Other clubs mentioned in the piece were Bob Goldstein’s Lightworks lab (at the time he was going by “Bobb Goldsteinn”), which was based out of the Village; Cheetah at Broadway & 53rd, which Howie Pyro looked at for DM two years ago; the pulsating Le Bison in Chicago; and an enormous venue called The World, which was converted from an airplane hangar located in Garden City, New York.
In his book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night Anthony Haden-Guest provides an interesting account of Le Bison’s signature attraction, “the Translator,” which
coded music into electrical pulses that activated a flashing light system. You could say that Ferri was fulfilling a project of the Decadents of the nineteenth century, who had dreamed of sense swapping. In one of Rimbaud’s poems each vowel was a color, and the Marquis d’ Esseintes, the hero of a novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, would inhale scents as though they were a symphony. The “Translator” made ear-to-eye transactions, turning thumping sound into fractious light for the new decadence.
You can read LIFE’s entire discothèque item in Google Books, or look at the pages here: