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A Big Night Out... at a Bootleg Studio 54!

I grew a moustache, threw on an old brown shirt and got ready to dance the night away.

by Simon Doherty; photos by Josh Eustace
10 September 2019, 11:29am

The author, having a blast.

Studio 54 was essentially the Berghain of 1970s New York. The same merciless door policy, the same hot, hot looks and the same out-of-reach mystique to the bridge-and-tunnel brigade who never made it inside. The only real differences: one had disco, the other has techno; one had cocaine, the other has every serotonin-sucker available to those with cash in their pocket.

As Berghain has discovered, myths and legends are good at generating interest – and, in tandem, revenue – which is likely why the booking agency MN2S recently acquired the rights to the Studio 54 brand, so they could take it on tour and try to recreate some of the glamour enjoyed by Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger and David Bowie 40 years ago.

The project kicked off a couple of weeks ago with a club night in the foyer of Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's Southbank Centre; in preparation, I grew a moustache and bought a shirt I can imagine my dad wearing to his driving test.

man in 70s clothing on tube

Running late, I sprinted the last leg of the journey with the photographer, Josh, and my neighbour, Erin.

Tumbling through the doors of the artist's entrance to pick up our press passes – red-faced, sweaty, ready to replicate the dance moves I remember from the 1970s period film Austin Powers in Goldmember – we were met by a depressing sight: a lot of very sober-looking press people patiently sitting on chairs, displaying the same energy as a dentist's waiting room.

We were soon joined by a woman, working in PR for the Southbank Centre, who found it difficult to conceal her disdain for us. "What do you want to do here?" she fizzed. "I haven't got the passes right now."

That was fine; we were happy to wait there for whatever we were waiting for, especially when a gaggle of glittering performers – dancers, drag queens, skaters and trapeze artists – quite literally rolled in and made our group, who were dressed like Deep Throat extras, a little less conspicuous.

nile rodgers 1970s

Before long we were ushered up to the roof to take part in a brief media call. The performers pranced around, posed for the camera and danced to no music, then Nile Rodgers strolled in with the confidence I assume you automatically inherit after winning 100,000 Grammys, and did a little dance.

Eventually we were met by another PR woman, working for MN2S, who was much more amicable. She sorted out our passes. "Have you been here before?" she asked. "I have no idea where we are going."

dancer stretching

We then went on a tour of the labyrinthine corridors that make up the backend of the Queen Elizabeth Hall; so many corridors, which all seem to lead to what looks like the staff kitchen in a call centre. After this trek we finally made it to a dressing room, a small space with wooden walls and an orange carpet, which looked like a meeting room in a university library.

nicky siano

Sitting there was Nicky Siano, an original resident DJ at Studio 54 and owner of New York nightspot The Gallery. Next to him was a huge chunk of Swiss cheese, wrapped in cling film and placed in a white plastic cup, next to a stack of clean towels and a can of Diet Coke.

swiss cheese and coke

Before we started the interview he wanted to show us a video on VICE's YouTube channel. Unfortunately we couldn't work out the Wifi, so instead got to talking about the social conditions of the 1970s that led to Studio 54 and the disco movement.

nicky siano 2019

Nicky explained that a law that banned people of the same sex from dancing together in a licensed liquor establishment was repealed after the Stonewall riots in 1969, "which gave a lot of people the ability to open [new kinds of] clubs". In those clubs, DJs began playing soul music "that had a message about spreading love, getting together, fighting together – it was all about rights, civil rights and stopping the Vietnam War" (you can listen to the whole interview here).

man swinging inside

The party itself – the afterparty for a Chic concert – was in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, its brutalist, 1960s aesthetic contrasted with elaborate decoration: glittering moons, disco balls, aerial hoops, lighting columns and swings. It looked like the Saturday Night Fever set designer had been booted out of Big Yellow Self Storage and had to find somewhere to dump all their props.

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With the large tiles on the floor and the vast open-plan feel, it had the slight air of a school disco, until you spotted the large art installation mimicking Studio 54's infamous "man in the moon with a cocaine spoon". Around 80 percent of the crowd – of, I'd say, about 850 people – were over the age of 45, with remaining younger attendees proving that the music, despite the zeal of the "disco sucks" campaign of 1979, did transcend generations in the end.

man dancing 1970s

The night could have easily felt a little tragic – a promoter trying and failing to recapture the magic of a long-lost moment in time – but it actually turned out to be a fairly decent disco night. Obviously it didn't quite match the hedonism of 1970s New York, but it was still quite an agreeable sight to behold when the ecstasy started to kick in.

studio 54 queen elizabeth hall

Silk hand fans, adorned with floral prints, wafted around like butterflies dancing to edits of Donna Summer, Lipps Inc. and Michael Jackson. The performers undulated, twirled and darted through the room. A woman named Julie was getting a massage from her husband on the dance floor. Having been to Studio 54 in its heyday, she was there for a sharp hit of nostalgia. "I didn't know what to expect, but it's amazing, isn't it?" she said. "It brings back lots of memories. Just like the old days."

Lars, a Londoner with wild hair and a white suit, told me why he was there: "I read about Studio 54 when I was 18 years old," he said. "I never went to university. I never had children. I have no regrets in life – apart from never going to Studio 54. This is a dream come true."

people dancing london

Later, I got chatting to a guy in the smoking area, wearing the tropical Pucci shirt he got married in, who turned out to be Labour backbencher Ben Bradshaw. "It's fantastic," he said. "We grew up with disco. I always wanted to go to Studio 54 but it never quite happened. Now, I'm kind of here, in a reproduction – but it's great."

By around 2AM, people were getting loose – gyrating all over each other and swinging off installations in time to The Rolling Stones – and by 3.30AM the crowd started to thin out; most people under 40 had wandered off into the night.

At £50 a pop – pricing out many potential guests – the event did seem a little like a corporate attempt to cash in on nostalgia. Which is because that's exactly what it was. After all, you can never recreate the atmosphere of an iconic club, even if you rebuilt it brick-for-brick, in the exact same place with the exact same décor, fashion and tunes.

That said, you can give an iconic era a decent nod – which is also exactly what happened here – in a way that allows you to get on it until 4AM in the Queen Elizabeth Hall; a rare treat, no matter the occasion.

@oldspeak1 / josheustace.com