Studio 54 and the golden age of glitterballs

How Bill Bernstein photographed disco at its sexiest.

A blonde in the bathroom at The Mudd Club
Come here often? A typical night out in New York in 1979. Image Pictures by Bill Bernstein

As Donna Summer once put it: “Disco is an indoor playground. Whatever worries you’ve got – lose them. Whatever energy you have – use it.”

The world of disco was a wonderfully hedonistic place. And Bill Bernstein’s photography of the nightlife in late ’70s New York showcases some of its greatest discotheques. Originally commissioned by The Village Voice to cover the emerging scene, Bernstein chronicled all that was hot and happening in the clubs of Manhattan.

The big daddy in the New York club scene was Studio 54 on West 54th Street. Originally the Gallo Opera House, from 1977 to 1981 managers Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager ran Studio 54 as a nightclub as notorious as its clientele.

The moon and spoon at Studio 54
When the party's over... The end of the night at Studio 54. Subtle cocaine spoon logo included.

You’d be subjected to being handpicked from the crowd outside, rather than any old fashioned queueing. Once inside, anything went. Cocaine, thongs, bumming, bumping into Liza Minelli, Grace Jones, Elizabeth Taylor, Truman Capote or even Bianca Jagger on a horse – you could do all that and more in the hedonist’s paradise.

Chic’s Nile Rodgers claimed he’d set up shop in the ladies’ washrooms most evenings (the perv), except for the New Year’s Eve when the doorman didn’t believe who he and Chic bandmate Bernard Edwards were. The Chic pair went home narked and jammed on a song called Fuck Off, which would eventually become Le Freak.

It may well have been the same New Year’s Eve where event planner Robert Isabell dumped FOUR TONS of glitter onto the dancefloor, which was still being found in crevices and crooks for the next year.

Having a fondle at Le Clique 1979
Le Clique est chic Dancing cheek to cheek.

Rubell and Shrager once gave keen regular Andy Warhol a dustbin filled with cash (which the artist claimed was the best present ever). The staff uniform usually consisted of hotpants and little else, regardless of gender. Meanwhile the performing turns in the first couple of years included Stevie Wonder, Divine, Donna Summer and The Village People.

The party came crashing down when Shrager and Rubell were arrested and pleaded guilty to tax evasion, which is one of the downsides of bragging about making more money than the Mafia in its first year. Studio 54’s final party saw Shrager and Rubell serenaded by Diana Ross, in front of a crowd including Ryan O’Neal, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone and Richard Gere.

But there were more clubs than just Studio 54, and Bernstein catalogued them all, as captured by a new book and photo exhibition. There were legendary parties at The Paradise Garage – a magical space where the foundations of house music began to form – The Mudd Club and Barnum Room.

Places such as Better Days, which attracted a gay black/Latino crowd and the pop-up Le Clique #1 which changed location weekly, pre-empting such Shoreditch-like antics by three decades. Bernstein filmed punters at Studio 54’s main rival Xenon, as well as at 2001 Odyssey – the club whose dancefloor was used in the key scenes in Saturday Night Fever. 

dropping fresh beats at Sybils in 1979
Sybil disobedience In the DJ booth at Sybils in 1979.

It wasn’t all just disco. Bernstein took photos of Hurrah Club, a punkier New Wave joint that favoured the narrow-mindedness of the “Disco Sucks” movement. Bernstein was hip to the changing moods leading up to the Disco Demolition, a now-notorious event where some cloth-eared idiots took over a football stadium and destroyed disco records.

Such intelligent behaviour basically destroyed the careers of the likes of Chic in the States overnight.

Disco offers a glimpse into a wonderful decadent world unlikely to ever be witnessed again. A glamorous world that had no idea of the oncoming storm of the 1980s, when Aids and hard drugs would blight the scene. 

Such hedonism is to be mourned in the music world’s current age of beige.

Disco - The Bill Bernstein photographs
Disco under the covers The cover of Bill Bernstein’s book Disco.

Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs is published by Reel Art Press and is out now. The accompanying exhibition runs until January 24 at London’s Serena Morton Gallery.

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Loaded freelance reporter Ian Wade writes about music and TV for newspapers and websites. He is also a music publicist. Follow him on Twitter at @WadeyWade

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