Dancing queens: the return of night fever

With its sequins, spandex and strutting, disco Until now. DYLAN JONES sings its praises (Times, 1998/08/02)

Steve Rubell used to be the most hated man in New York. "I had the most important job in the city, and people wanted to kill me for it," he once told me. "I couldn't walk the streets because guys would roll down their car windows and shout abuse at me for not letting them in. Either that or they'd try to bribe me - with money, drugs, sometimes even their girlfriends. But I never buckled. How could I? My reputation depended on it."

Rubell was the co-owner and self-anointed "maitre d'street" of the holy grail of nightclubs, Studio 54, the cathedral of dance where Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Calvin Klein and Mick and Bianca Jagger regularly rubbed satin shoulders with wannabes from Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens as hundreds of unsuccessful nobodies jammed the pavements outside. In Studio 54 during the late 1970s, every night was New Year's Eve. "Towards midnight, people would get embarrassingly desperate if I wouldn't let them in," says Rubell. "I think I caused more than one nervous breakdown and more than a few broken romances." (Rubell used deliberately to split couples up, only allowing one of them in.)

A decade after his death, Rubell has just been immortalised on screen by the Wayne's World comedian Mike Myers - of all people - in Mark Christopher's convincingly authentic biopic 54, released later this year. This is just one of the salvos in a disco- nostalgia offensive that includes Whit (Metropolitan) Stillman's affectionate comedy The Last Days of Disco, starring Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale; The Last Party, a personal history of Studio 54 by the New Yorker journalist and former party animal Anthony Haden-Guest (allegedly the basis for the wassailing British hack in Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities); and a forthcoming exhaustive Channel 4 documentary about the disco era. Even the Queen has thrown her crown into the ring by allowing the Bee Gees to be featured on a set of Isle of Man stamps next year (the Gibb brothers being Manx-born).

Disco has been resuscitated many times since the 1970s - sometimes with conviction but usually with tongue-in-cheek nostalgia - although its current resurrection looks to be the most comprehensive as well as being its last hurrah. In a manic soliloquy in The Last Days of Disco, a neophyte prosecutor in the New York DA's office makes an impassioned plea on its behalf: "Disco will never be over. It will always live in our hearts and minds. Oh, for a few years, maybe for many years, it will be considered pass'e and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at. People will laugh about John Travolta, white polyester suits and platform shoes . . . Those who didn't understand will never understand. Disco was much more and much better than all that."

Wasn't it just. Looking back some 20 years, it is difficult to imagine just how important a phenomenon disco actually was. When we think of 1977 we usually conjure up images of Sid Vicious, Jimmy Pursey and punks throwing up in the King's Road. But disco was not only contemporaneous to punk, it outlived it, having a vibrancy and a feelgood quality that was emulated somewhat by the acid-house craze that came in its wake 10 years later. And, like acid- house, disco - for all its shiny egalitarianism - was an internal fantasy revolving around little but self-approbation. In the words of Albert Goldman, whose book Disco remains a classic text: "Outside the entrance to every discotheque should be erected a statue to the presiding deity: Narcissus."

It should be no surprise that disco was an American fad that, like so many others, grew out of the gay scene, spreading across the country in the mid-1970s until at its peak, in 1979, there were 1,000 disco-driven nightclubs in the New York borough alone. Places such as Studio 54 might have encouraged a bit of natural selection, but disco's biggest appeal was the indubitable fact that it was a great leveller, a world that swung its gates open to anyone, regardless of sex, colour, class or status. As for the music, the relentless fusion of phallically probing bass lines and euphoric vocal gymnastics encouraged an entire generation to turn off their minds and immerse themselves in a subliminal symphony of mechanical auto-suggestion. Or, more prosaically: Dance, dance, dance!

Disco reached critical mass with Saturday Night Fever, the disco movie for people who didn't go to discos, starring John Travolta as a hedonistic, dance-obsessed paint salesman. Previously only known to tube-glued Americans as Vinnie Barbarino, the dim-witted himbo on the unremarkable little sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, as Tony Manero Travolta underwent some sort of seismic, testosterone-fuelled transformation - from a blue- collared, Italianate Everyman into a blue-collared, Italianate Everyman in a three-piece white suit, black shirt and crimson-heeled shoes. As he became a bona fide celebrity, so the basis of the film's nightclub - the real-life Odyssey 2001 in the New York suburb of Bay Ridge, with its underlit, chequerboard dancefloor - became the East Coast's unlikeliest tourist destination.

Like most cultural phenomena of the post-war period, disco has been so fetishised it has now been elevated beyond its importance and enshrined in the pantheon of the ironically cool. But however seriously it might be taken by pop- cultural pundits and social anthropologists, disco will never lose its ever-so-slightly vulgar sheen, something the set designer of Mark Christopher's film knows only too well. "With 54, when in doubt," says Kevin Thompson, "I just sprayed it gold and silver." No doubt Steve Rubell - who when last heard of was lobbying St Peter to introduce a door policy - would have been proud.

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