Such is the journey of the underground, that something honest and cool will at some point be forced to travel above surface, attract the masses and ultimately lose touch with what made it good in the first place. It happened to westerns, to gonzo journalism, to stand up comedy, to rock and roll and it happened hard to disco.If there is one glorious artifact that best evokes the idea of uncool disco, it's the World Disco Dancing Championships.
If I had to sum up The World Disco Dancing Championships in under ten words, I'd pick: "capitalizing on the success of Saturday Night Fever." That is so enormously, unbelievably obvious what is going on, to the point where you can practically hear the board meetings during which the show was planned. There's a low-rent faux-art-deco office, there's the clink of ice rolling around in cheaper-than-it-looks whiskey, hairy armed producers in thick rimmed glasses sat slightly too close to their very female secretaries. It smells like cigar smoke and polish, and sounds like coke and chit chat. "This film's all the rage," "Travolta's everywhere," "it's Saturday Night…every night baby!"Following these meetings the conclusion was made that television needed to respond to the "fever" that was gripping the nation. The television producers, gripping sheets of scribbled upon paper between their hairy signet-ringed sausage fingers, cooked up a plan. A concept that would beam the steam of Studio 54 to the television sets of North Yorkshire. They came up with this:What started out as the sound of sweat-drenched nighttimes—an avenue of provocation and expression for the subjugated and ignored—became something glitzy, chintzy, cheesy and altogether more, well, "ITV." The gift of hindsight means it's all too easy to rewrite the history we weren't around for, turning disco into a clean straight line between Giorgio Moroder, Studio 54 and ultimately Frankie Knuckles but, of course it wasn't that crystallized. Disco had it's moments of glory, but there were also the times where TV producers and cynical label execs tried to flat-pack it down for the tea-time slot.
Some things just don't age. They stand as timeless totems of quality while the rush of existence moves past them, and even when context has eroded away entirely, they remain. This is not the case with the World Disco Dancing Championships. The World Disco Dancing Championships have aged worse than an retired ex-pat wrinkling away on the Costa Del Sol.Most of the championships are on Youtube, from the first heats of 1978 to the classic tournament in 1979, and they all capture the same strange world. Disco, ripped out of New York and plonked into the living rooms of bored pensioners eating steak and ale pies. It's disco as something sexless, something light and frilly, something for a village fete.If you need any solid evidence of just how uncool the World Disco Dance Championships were then look no further than this opening sequence. The host, Peter Gordeno, a man whose grinning voice slides somewhere between Alan Partridge and Brian Butterfield, introduces the contestants by their home countries. The whole thing, already, is tapping into that weird 1970s idea of the international, that treats the world a bit like an all you can eat buffet. We start to see the contestants. To say they look a little less than suave, fall a little short of sexy, would be relatively generous. If you associate disco with the Paradise Garage then prepare to meet the Paradise car-boot sale…
AUSTRALIA AKA SESSION MUSICIAN FOR TOM JONES
MALTA AKA THE UNCLE WE DON'T VISIT ANYMORE
ISRAEL AKA HAIR LIKE '54 ELVIS BREATH LIKE FAT BASTARD ELVIS IN '77
MALAYSIA AKA GUY WHO ALWAYS PITCHES SPIN THE BOTTLE AT PARTIES
PORTUGAL AKA MATHS TEACHERS ABROAD
BELGIUM AKA HEAVY PETTING, PETTY CRIME
NEW ZEALAND AKA YOUR MUM'S LAST BOYFRIEND BEFORE SHE MET YOUR DAD
That said, there's something charming about the entire thing. Despite the dancers looking like a support group for alcoholic supply teachers, there's a pleasant gawkiness in how whole-heartedly they are enjoying the entire thing. It's the same pleasure as watching your parents trying to sing along to a chart song they've heard on the radio that they like, or a hearing your teacher reference a rapper in a lesson in an attempt to sound with it. The World Disco Dancing Championships are what happen when the grown ups decide to get involved.The championships themselves were relatively short-lived, and as disco's star waned so did the interest in the show. The climax of their four year run can be seen below, as the prizes are awarded after the 1981 tournament.It's there, under the studio lights, that Peter Gordeno introduces the senior executive manager of Honda UK Ltd Mr Gerald Davidson, and an old entertainer called Lord Belfont, to introduce the winners their prize. There's a slightly odd atmosphere in the room—at one point, when the UK don't get the number one spot people start booing—but overall it's totally inoffensive. From these videos, you begin to get a feel for how the genre became less of a subculture and more of an eye-sore. It's disco that's about as edgy as the Royal Variety show, and about as cool as your uncle at a wedding reception. Yet, all that said, it remains a telling artifact of a mainstream swing and a charming miss.Follow Angus on Twitter