Your disco needs you

The National Archives was in the grip of the 1970s when I first joined in 2007. I don’t mean to suggest that things are somehow backward at Kew but the thirty(ish) year rule meant that, although it was 2007, 1977 was also high on the agenda. Shortly we can expect to relive 1985 and 1986. There are lots of things we can say about the late Seventies. It was a golden age of industrial discontent and George Lucas movies. It also gave rise to new cultural movements which couldn’t be found in any of our earlier records. I am, of course, referring to disco and by disco I don’t mean either a kind of coal or the island between Greenland and Canada. I mean this:

The British state’s relationship with twentieth century popular culture, ranges from the vaguely embarassing (Cool Britannia) to the downright hostile (Rockers) and indeed Mods. Disco and discos are no exception. They leave just a few traces but they are revealing hints of a society in transition, responding slowly to increasingly strident demands for ‘women’s lib’, racial equality and gay liberation, campaigns which in this period saw setbacks as well as successes.

Clubbing at Tiffany’s

Tiffany’s ‘Disco’ on the Brighton Road in Purley is now a gym called Dynamics. But it was once part of  a chain of clubs owned by the entertainment behemoth Mecca. There was a Tiffany’s in Bath, Birmingham and Blackpool, in Derby, Dunstable and Dundee, in Glasgow, Gloucester and Grimsby – you get the idea. Purley might seem an unpromising location but by the end of the 1970s it was home to the National Soul Festival and the Soul Mafia. But the club owes its appearance in files here at The National Archives (CK 2/468) to complaints about its door policy made by black teenagers in the summer of 1975. Four teenagers (two 15, two 17 – this was perfectly acceptable), dressed up to the nines (‘I was dressed in a pin striped brown suit and a yellow shirt and tie’) were refused entry. The bouncer told them, ‘Not tonight fellas, give it a rest for three weeks’ and when pressed claimed that there had been ‘a lot of punch ups’ and that one patron had been stabbed and he couldn’t admit the group ‘for their own welfare’. The boys responded by asking him ‘when they were going to have a night when whites were refused entry’ and left. All four decided to make a complaint to the Racial Equality Board.

Mecca, led by Miss World founder Eric Morley vigorously resisted suggestions of wrongdoing and refused to compensate the teenagers so the Race Relations Board began court proceedings. Mecca delivered a sort of non-apology. It continued to deny any discrimination but it did apologise that its staff had, wrongly, believed the boys were ‘associated with or resembled persons who had caused trouble in the premises previously’. There are files on a number of other cases against various Mecca clubs from this period (Locarno Ballroom, Samanthas, the Palais). It is clear the company had something of a problem. The most significant case appears to have been tried in Nottingham in November 1975 where the judge issued an injunction against Mecca (‘the first of its kind against a major company’, reported the Guardian) partly because ‘he felt it possible there would be further breaches of the Race Relations Act by Mecca’. The case turned on the use of the word ‘resemble’ by Mecca; that punters who resembled known trouble makers should not be admitted. The judge decided that the company had a tendency to interpret ‘resemble’ to mean ‘share an ethnic origin’ with, and accordingly found in favour of the Race Relations Board and its client. Mecca settled in the Tiffany’s case paying the Board’s costs and £30 (about £250 in today’s money) to each of the four boys it had refused entry.

Fangs to British Rail

Fangs is not a great name for a nightclub. The National Archives holds two files on Fangs (AN 109/575 and AN 109/574) which was in the basement of the Great Western Royal Hotel (now the Hilton) in Paddington. Apparently in the early 1980s it was renamed Reflections which sounds marginally worse. Nevertheless, Fangs does have a claim to fame and that is that it hosted one of the first large scale gay club nights in London. We should always be careful about these firsts. Matt Houlbrook’s excellent Queer London makes it pretty clear that it was much easier to find a gay club in, say, the 1920s than it was in the 1950s. Nevertheless, we’re talking about disco and DJ Tricky Dicky’s nights at Fangs occupy a small but crucial place in the history of 70s gay clubbing. Luke Howard has described how Tricky Dicky’s residency demonstrated that huge demand existed for such nights. The National Archives’ files helpfully illustrates what a week in a London club c.1975 was like: celeb DJs (Noel Edmonds and Tony Blackburn among them) on Thursday nights. Wednesdays live acts, including Screaming Lord Sutch. DJ Tricky Dicky occupied six Monday nights, following which the contract was not renewed. The licence holders for the venue were Bass Charrington, then based at the Anchor Brewery on Mile End Road. The nights were popular but Luke Howard asserts they were ended after “interference from
 the venue’s owners, who
 were none too happy about
 homos taking over their 
space’. Unfortunately, the file supports this view. The hotel was part of British Rail’s portfolio of British Transport Hotels and it was they who objected to the club nights:

 ‘We have very carefully considered the situation regarding the Tricky Dicky operation and regret to inform you that we must ask you not to renew their agreement when the six week’s [sic] Contract is lapsed. There are many factors affecting our decision and I think you will understand that there are certain risks which we do not feel justified in taking. This therefore presents us all with a challenge to find an equally lucrative replacement.’

British Rail might have eschewed the pink pound but other venues were happy to welcome the market that they had inadvertently revealed.

Last Disco to Glasgow

British Rail’s next foray into disco was, as you might expect, rather tamer. At some point in early summer 1984, British Rail seems to have approached Ringo or Robin (ROR), a design company owned by Ringo Starr and Robin Cruikshank, about the possibility of the firm designing a disco coach for long distance intercity trains (AN 160/274). British Rail were certainly aware of the ‘promotional publicity’ that working with ‘Ringo Starr, ex Beatle’ might bring but would also have been aware of the company’s design work for Liberty’s, Harvey Nichols and the government of Abu Dhabi – and and perhaps of their abortive plan to design a disco for one of Cunard’s hotels.

After meeting in July with British Rail’s director of Industrial Design, Cruikshank confirmed that ROR ‘would be very interested in the design and decoration of a discotheque incorporated into an appropriate standard railway carriage’. In August British Rail sent Robin and Ringo the plans for the Intercity carriages they were considering converting, saying they were ‘really looking for someone to design, construct and operate a disco as a package deal. It would be attached to the back of the Nightrider – the cheap overnight service to Glasgow – other possibilities are not excluded’. (This Nightrider should not be confused with this one.)

ROR wanted £10,000 for a design which would ‘cater for both the unique experience of a moving disco environment’ (hadn’t they ever seen a revolving dance floor?) ‘and also take full account of the constriction that this imposes in terms of safety’. But British Rail never seems to have got back to them. It’s unclear if the whole concept of a club on wheels between London and Glasgow was generally regarded as a bad idea or if Ringo or Robin’s quote was just a bit on the steep side.

I’ve probably demonstrated in this post in a dozen different ways that this isn’t really my era. But it was an extraordinary time to be clubbing. These files relate to the contested spaces created by the nightlife of this period. Some of the files show setbacks, some show progress. I’m a little bit envious if you remember those nights. All I got was:

We’re all the beneficiaries of these men and women who fought for – well, all kinds of things – but among them the right to party and above all just to be ourselves.

3 comments

  1. David Matthew says:

    British Rail actually had a disco carriage which they hired out in 1973 to Burnley Football Club and used on the ‘League Liner’ in an effort to stop football hooliganism (see newspaper reports).

    The 30-year Rule generally was adhered to until recently but there were some exceptions, certainly more than the 20-year Rule has been and whilst we might hope for files of 1985 and 1986 to be transferred soon they are usually only for Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office rather than all of the main Government departments like Treasury, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence which used to release at the same time but no longer do, but one can hope.

  2. Sandra Shakespeare says:

    There’s an outreach project in there somewhere! A refreshing post and great to see how a theme like Disco, can be creatively explored through the use of archival records. If Donna Summer had you tapping your feet (or gyrating your hips in disco fashion of course) you may wish to listen further for inspirational sounds on this link:
    http://www.mixcloud.com/OriginalMastercuts/

  3. Peter says:

    Hiding behind Blackpool’s glowing kitsch exterior lays a throng of guitar strumming sea-siders desperate for a shot at the big time. There’s a multitude of locally formed bands doing the circuit, hitting the limited venues and performance halls Blackpool has to offer on a weekly basis.

    From the mainstream rock sounds of Switchboard Spectacular to the wailing guitar solos of the Electric Ladyboys, there’s definitely no shortage of determination or creativity in this holiday town. And yet with so many bands aiming for the stars, you would think that there would be a relatively high percentage that would have broken through and gained some critical attention.
    More here: http://blackpool.hotels-fairy.com/abba-mania-hits-blackpool/

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