The History of Nightclubs

By David Alfredo ; Updated September 15, 2017

Despite complaining about not getting in or having to pay ridiculous prices for even the most lowly of drinks, people will wait in line for hours and subject themselves to belittling treatment by tyrannical bouncers drunk on their own power just to get into a nightclub. All to dance the night away along with hundreds of strangers they are unlikely to ever interact with beyond the various pleasures of that singular night.

For many men, it is an opportunity to test their looks, wits and masculinity by finding a willing partner for a meaningless one-night stand. Ironically, for most women, the ego boost lies in vying for the attention of those very same men, only to turn them down with an uninterested or even hostile retort to their failed attempts at seduction. For those who have ever contemplated the irony of a facility in which the purported objective is to "have fun" and "meet people," yet rarely provides either without a very high dosage of alcohol, the question might arise as to how the whole thing originated in the first place.

Timeless Symbol

The modern setting consisting of a DJ, music that is too loud to allow thought or talk, and a dark ambiance interspersed with lasers and colored lights is a relatively new cultural reality, but the idea behind a nightclub can be traced back to antiquity. It is essentially the notion of gathering at night for the sake of celebration or ritual, often related to mating and dancing as it is today. We see this behavior in the most remote tribes still living a premodern existence. While the contemporary nightclub usually does not include feasting as part of the festivities, it does provide similar social functions, although in a much more informal and impersonal manner.

Origins

Establishments providing drinks and entertainment have existed in many forms throughout history and across cultures. The beginnings of the nightclub as we know it emerged in the 19th century with saloons and bars of Western industrial nations. Interestingly, it is at this time that the word "bouncer" comes into existence through the following, published in 1883 by the London Daily News: "'The Bouncer' is merely the English 'chucker out.' When liberty verges on license and gaiety on wanton delirium, the Bouncer selects the gayest of the gay, and — bounces him!"

The Jazz Revolution

By the early 20th century, nightclubs were becoming increasingly popular and began incorporating larger acts such as burlesque dance routines, magic shows, musical performances and other forms of live entertainment. In the United States.
This came to a halt to a certain extent with the era of Prohibition. From 1919 to 1933, the sale of alcohol was banned by a constitutional amendment, forcing the nightclub scene to go underground as the "speakeasy," named for the practice of ordering drinks quietly and not attracting attention.

It was during the Prohibition era that jazz developed as a popular musical form. It had been accepted in mainstream culture by the time Prohibition ended in the 1930s, and the swing/big band era began. This period lasted until the early 1950s, when rock and roll began to take center stage.

Music and the Nightclub

In the post-World War II social environment, Americans were increasingly able to partake in more leisurely activities, especially teen youths, who really came into their own as a cultural force in the 1950s. The music was an expansion of the jazz and swing eras, adding more energetic movements and less-subtle sexuality. The nightclubs of this time began offering music as the primary form of entertainment, focusing on emerging acts in rhythm and blues, blues, and rock and roll. This was the transition between nightclubs as venues for a variety of entertainment to today's clubs, which cater more exclusively to music, dancing, drinking and mating.

The Modern Nightclub

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, live musical performances had given way to the disc jockey, who mixed the latest recorded pop hits in an environment marked by polyester suits and cheesy lighting. The discotheque (or disco) was the beginning of the modern paradigm for the nightclub, where the emphasis is no longer to entertain, but to provide what can essentially be described as a large commercial party. The best discos of the time, such as the infamous Studio 54 in New York, competed with each other as havens for the most elaborate celebrations of uninhibited exuberance. Drugs and easy sex became a big part of this due to the effects of the counterculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s. It is here that the ritualistic behavior noted in the introduction becomes more prevalent.

By the 1980s, the big discos were beginning to lose their appeal, and nightclubs began experimenting again with live acts, especially in relation to the burgeoning punk and metal movements. Still, given that electronic music such as Depeche Mode became popular in the 1980s, the DJ kept hold of the reins of the nightclub, and it was never really successfully taken back by the live performer.

Cutting to the 1990s and present times, the nightclub became the premier arena for electronic music such as techno, house and trance, which became extremely popular in Europe. Of course, it is impossible to mention the current developments in nightclubs without addressing hip-hop, which also has come to dominate the nightlife scene worldwide.

About the Author

David Alfredo has been a freelance writer since 2008, working mostly for small business producing website content, ad copy and articles for use in trade magazines. He holds a bachelor's degree in international relations and a master's degree in political science.