Icons / December 2016

Light Years: The Golden Age of the Night Club

When you think of the seventies, what do you see? How about Bianca Jagger on a white horse at Studio 54, or Grace Jones on a pink Harley-Davidson at le…

As social historians begin to look back on the 20th century, the seventies are increasingly characterised as the era’s problem child. Recession, oil crises, the rise of mass consumerism, pollution, the self-help book, and progressive rock: it’s as if we’ve collectively bundled it all together and hidden it in a box in the attic marked Where It All Went Wrong. One area in which the seventies went very right, however, was in the nightclub.

We’re not talking here about the drinking dens of thirties Soho, or about the Ministry of Sound or Haçienda in the nineties, but about the kind of place that would, quite happily, call itself a nightclub. This is somewhere where music would be played and where dancing would take place — where that might ostensibly be the main purpose of the place, though really where everyone has come to see and be seen (and possibly to do things they’d rather weren’t seen).

There are a few reasons why the seventies was the perfect time for such places to thrive. One of the most important was the move away from live performance to playing vinyl records. Once attention was no longer focused, at least theoretically, on the stage, it moved naturally to the clientele. And once that happened, the clientele very quickly began to make itself more interesting. Another reason was that, before camera-phones and social media, these characters could regulate their exposure to a paparazzi shot of entering or leaving; the rest of the night was their own business. This, allied with the third reason, of timing (the seventies came after the Pill, before A.I.D.S., and during cocaine, when the concept of vice briefly ceased to exist), made for a pretty good deal.

So who came up with this brilliant idea? Well, there’s a reason the full version of the word disco (‘le discothèque’) is French: it began in Paris. And, although we now know that nothing, from the wheel to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, was ever invented by a single person, we’re going to hand this to Régine Zylberberg. A Belgian refugee born in 1929, she worked her way up from hat-check girl at the Whisky a Go Go to found the first discothèque, Chez Régine, in 1958, where she came up with the idea of using two record players in order to keep the music running without interruption. Known as the Queen of the Night (and not exclusively by herself), she hosted playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, the actors Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot, and the singer Serge Gainsbourg. She also taught the Duke of Windsor how to dance The Twist, freshly imported from New York’s Peppermint Lounge.

For Karl Lagerfeld, “she quite simply invented nightclubbing”. Her only rival was Jean Castel, whose Chez Castel was adjudged by the Paris Snob guide of 1967 to be the most “sympathique” (friendly) of all the city’s nightclubs — although, it added, door selection was “sévère”. But while Castel remained in Paris, Régine expanded to Monaco, Monte Carlo and New York, rolling out her formula of intimacy, exclusivity and glamour. In New York, where the club was situated on the ground floor of the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue, Jack Nicholson, Diane von Furstenberg and Andy Warhol were regulars.

We’re not talking here about the drinking dens of thirties Soho, or about the Ministry of Sound or Haçienda in the nineties, but about the kind of place that would, quite happily, call itself a nightclub.

The only place where Régine failed was London — twice, in fact — which she blamed on the British “lack of style”. And this despite stories that she mounted a complicated campaign of what would decades later be described as ‘hype’, forcing potential customers to queue around the block while staff pretended an empty club was full to bursting. (Supposedly, Princess Margaret requested admission and they were forced to set fire to the building to avoid letting her in.) Régine may have had a point about the Brits, but more likely it’s that she hadn’t factored in the essential element of class. Hence the success of London’s, and possibly the world’s, longest-running nightclub, Annabel’s. Named after the then wife of founder Mark Birley, this pinnacle of London nightlife is, on paper, so unpromising that it might be a very British joke: literally a converted coal cellar, it was decorated hugger-mugger in the style of an aristocrat’s bunk room, underlit and equipped with a dancefloor so small it would barely register as a stamp at the Post Office.

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James Medd