Disco, decadence and democracy on the dance floor
Bill Berstein’s eye-opening new book documents the New York discos of the 1970s
Poor old disco! So derided, so misunderstood. But things are looking up, with a return to unashamedly feel-good dance music and a rose-tinted look back to the hedonistic sound of the 70s. Nile Rodgers arguably helped kick off the latest disco revival, first with his 2011 autobiography and next with a new generation of artists wanting his production skills on their music (hello Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams). Then came the festivals, with thousands of youngsters blissing out on old Chic tunes.
Meanwhile, 2016 sees fashion co-opting the scene, not just with Olivier Rousteing’s disco-fication of Balmain, but with Kim Jones’ Louis Vuitton SS16 catwalk glitz (Nile Rodgers did the music) and Tom Ford’s epic SS16 video featuring a Lady Gaga rendition of Chic’s I Want Your Love (watch it, it’s great…). Not to mention Sacai, whose SS16 menswear collection pays tribute to Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage club – logo included.
The sybaritic, forget-the-outside-world spirit of disco suddenly seems just the tonic for today’s uncertain political and economic landscape. And five weeks ago, a timely tome arrived called Disco, a photo book by New York photographer Bill Bernstein. Celebrating the escapist world of 1970s New York nightclubs, the making of the book is itself an interesting story.
In 1977, Bernstein, a freelance photographer for the Village Voice, was commissioned to photograph an award presentation at Studio 54, honouring then-President Jimmy Carter’s mother Lillian for her humanitarian work. As the dinner ended and the regular clubbers started to arrive, Bernstein’s sixth sense urged him to stay a little longer. He bought ten rolls of film from a departing photographer and spent the next few hours capturing a ‘night world’ previously unknown to him, in which Wall Street suits cavorted with gay tourists and celebrities boogied with transgender revellers. “Had I been suddenly transported back to a pre-war Berlin cabaret?” a dazed Bernstein wondered. “Who were these people of the night and what was their other, real life like?”
The resulting photos were a revelation and inspired him to keep going, discovering other discos and clubs and their eclectic patrons. 1970s New York was going through a political and social change. While activists campaigned for women’s liberation, gay liberation and racial equality, these clubs were a place for marginalised New Yorkers to find acceptance and respite from everyday conflicts. The disco was a democratic hangout, whoever you happened to be.
Time passed and a publisher proposed a book commission. Bernstein and a writer would document New York’s nightlife in words and pictures, a permanent record of these underground 70s scenes, from the fabulosity of the Empire Roller Disco to the gay abandon of the Paradise Garage. Except things didn’t quite pan out as hoped…
It was the end of the 70s, disco music had become mainstream and there was a rock backlash, culminating in an anti-disco demo that turned into a full-blown riot. Aids had started to claim lives and the frenetic freedom of the scene was giving way to a culture of fear. There were changes at the publishing house, the original editor departed and others were less invested in the project. The book was somewhat neglected. Instead of the richly-produced publication that Bernstein had envisaged, the result was Night Dancin’, a low-production, soft back affair (which nevertheless, over time acquired its own charm, becoming something of a collectors’ item in music circles).
Fast forward to 2002 and a British music producer, David Hill had an idea. He owned a copy of the out-of-print Night Dancin’ and not knowing the back story, decided to track down the photographer to propose an updated version of the book. Thirteen years later, the resulting Disco, is a beautiful, large format tribute to the democracy of the dance floor, in which the focus is squarely on the everyday punters, not the rich and famous of Studio 54.
As Bernstein points out in his introduction, “the disco was a haven of acceptance and inclusion. It was much more than celebrities, drugs and music – the disco was a state of mind. For a brief period of time, discos offered a place where everyone – white, black, Hispanic, straight, LGBT, young, old, famous, or not so famous – could meet up and party without judgment or prejudice.” My favourite shots are of the young rollerskaters of the Empire Roller Disco and the glamorous barefoot groovers of Xenon (top). I’ve turned these pages a hundred times and always notice something new. While individually, the pictures are wonderful vignettes of stories within stories, as a whole, Disco serves as an uplifting symbol of unity, in which class, colour, sexuality and the rest are of little concern. For those few hours, in those long gone clubs, all that matters is the music, the dancing and the freedom. Long live the disco…
Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs (£40, Reel Art Press) is available HERE and HERE. The exhibition, Bill Berstein – Disco, is at Serena Morton II, 343-345 Ladbroke Grove, W10 until 23rd January 2016 (currently closed, reopening 11th January). Serenamorton.com
WORDS: Navaz Batliwalla/Disneyrollergirl
IMAGES: Bill Bernstein