In 1976, Nik Cohn wrote a piece for New York Magazine called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.
The story became the basis for the film Saturday Night Fever. Shame it was mostly a crock. Sure, disco was becoming a thing, seeping out of darkened basements in cities like Philadelphia and from Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage in Manhattan. But the Bee Gees’ high-pitched soundtrack, John Badham’s taut direction and John Travolta’s iconic dance routines made the gasoline that started a disco inferno.
Twenty years on from the film’s release, Cohn ’fessed up. He had just landed in New York and his only experience of disco was a visit to Brooklyn’s 2001 Odyssey, where someone threw up on his shoes. After talking the magazine’s editor into letting him pen a piece on the scene, Cohn proceeded to make the rest of it up.
‘As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush [in London] mod whom I’d known in the ’60s,’ Cohn admitted.
Travolta’s rampantly heterosexual version of Vincent, ‘Tony’, actually sprang from New York gay clubs of the early ’70s – places like Loft and 12 West, with the earliest records by divas like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor captured on white labels and passed around those in the know. Others contend that the scene started even earlier, in 1960s New York, with discos like Regine’s, Le Club, Cheetah, Ondine and Arthur, which was opened by Sybil Burton after Richard Burton left her for Elizabeth Taylor. DJ Terry Noel spun the decks at Arthur, and may have been the first person to play two records at the same time, giving birth to the mix.
It might be tempting to view the 1977 opening of Manhattan’s Studio 54 as a cynical cash-in on Saturday Night Fever’s success, but Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell had spotted the trend, quit practising law and opened Enchanted Garden in Queens in 1975. In Studio 54’s celebrated hedonism, captured in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (a much better film than the Travolta tosh), disco simultaneously reached its apex and nadir.
Hong Kong, too, has etched its name in disco’s annals. For a few years in the late ’80s, Canton Disco was quite possibly the coolest place on the planet. DJ Andrew Bull, who made his name at Gordon Huthart’s infamous Disco Disco and still spins around the region as DJ El Toro, conceived a marketing masterstroke, launching the club with a media blackout save for a single ad in the (now-defunct) London culture mag The Face. ‘More than 11,000 people turned up, far exceeding the club’s capacity. To this day I’m not sure how there wasn’t a riot,’ he recalled recently.
Disco has splintered and fractured into a thousand genres under the banner of electronica: but some clubs, exhausted by the dead end of so-called EDM, are looking back to the movement’s heyday. Fingers, long stuffed in pockets, are once more reaching skyward in supplication to the disco gods. Here are five places to ride the new wave of disco.
A Stalinist-style powerplant-turned-debauched-vision-from-Hieronymus Bosch, the music might be more ear-bleeding techno but the deeds within make Studio 54 look like a church social.
A temple to the fine art of house music that has seen fads come and go, the rise and fall of the superstar DJ and the advent of the aforementioned scourge of EDM. The place to dance away until the wee hours in Singapore’s Clarke Quay nightlife hub.
XS, Las Vegas
The name might give you a clue to the aesthetic – gold-drenched interiors, over the top accents, romanesque pillars and a massive pool inspired by the ‘sexy curves of the human body’, into which revellers giddily jump to
Maharaja Gion, Kyoto
Reputed to be the best disco in the East during Japan’s boomtime in the 1980s, Maharaja packed away its glitter ball in 1996 during the country’s economic slump. But since last year, the famed club is back in business in its original premises in Kyoto’s Gion district, complete with a stage for dancers, costumed maiko (apprentice geisha) and coloured spotlights.
B1F Gion Hall, 323 Giommachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama-ku
Petticoat Lane, Hong Kong
Okay, it’s more hole-in-the-wall than cavernous disco palace, but the original was an icon and Petticoat Lane is packing them in again with a heaving dancefloor, fabulous DJs, regular drag shows and an outdoor area.