- Historic Sites
It began in the Paris underground of World War II and evolved over thirty years into a phenomenon that so overturned cultural norms that it could not survive
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
Then, just as the British Invasion music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones ushered American rock ’n’ roll into the post-“doo-wop” age, the impact of the Mod-era discotheque reinvigorated American nightlife. It inaugurated a second wave of disco development that was more populist, democratic, and in tune with American popular culture. The flagship club of the new era was conceived by a jilted woman as a stylish act of revenge. Richard Burton had left his first wife, Sybil, for Elizabeth Taylor. Had this occurred in a time and milieu other than the mid-1960s’ “Swinging London,” Sybil Burton might have contented herself with alimony checks and ski weekends at Zermatt. Instead, inspired by a trendy London discotheque named the Ad Lib, she opted in 1965 to open her own club, Arthur, near Le Club in New York’s Sutton Place. Overnight Sybil stole the headlines from Dick and Liz to become the queen of the international discotheque scene.
Arthur was the American beachhead for a British Mod sensibility that had exerted a potent cultural influence on American nightlife beginning in 1964, when the Beatles arrived in the United States. In fact, the very name of the club was drawn by the movie director Mike Nichols from a bit of Beatles trivia. In the film A Hard Day’s Night , a reporter asks George Harrison, “What do you call your haircut?” To which George responds, “Arthur.” The Anglophilia didn’t stop there. Arthur, which was built on the site of the now-defunct El Morocco, was divided into a club and a pub. Sybil Burton conceived the place as an antithesis to Coquelin’s highbrow discotheque concept. The daughter of a Welsh miner, she wanted to open the doors to working-class girls looking for a night out as well as to high-profile celebrities like Rudolf Nureyev and Lee Remick. Arthur’s parameters for its clientele anticipated Studio 54’s: The yardstick for acceptability was style, sensibility, and spirit, not simply money.
Discotheque dancing followed the 1960s pattern in which teenagers invented pop-culture trends and discarded them soon afterward, at which point they were taken up by adults. The progenitor of this formula was the Twist, which began with teenagers in the late fifties and was then adopted during the Kennedy years by grown-ups, socialites, and senior citizens. By the time Arthur opened, in May 1965, the Twist had long since been supplanted by the Jerk and the Watusi, which had in turn given way to myriad other short-lived dance crazes. A visit to any discotheque in the mid-sixties might involve the spectacle of teenagers, along with adults in their thirties and forties, doing the Woodpecker (flapping their hands like wings and bobbing their faces), the Hitchhiker (making a thumbing gesture), or the Bug (twitching and scratching their bodies as if infested and then passing the “bug” on to the next person). The writer Tom Wolfe observed that the infantilism of the charade-dances was counterbalanced by the utter seriousness of the dancers, most of whom were “absolutely maniacal about form. … practically religious about it,” to the point where “none of them ever smiled.” Each dance conveyed a different attitude, a new and ephemeral sensibility. As one deejay described a popular dance called the Boogaloo, “[It’s] a casual motion, a pose. It’s aloof. It says. ‘Don’t bother me.’”
The genesis of dances could be occasionally cruel, as with the Scrub Woman. Indeed, any seemingly bizarre or embarrassing incident could engender a dance. La Bostela, the rage of discotheques in early 1965, began when a clumsy Paris-Match staffer named Honoré Bostel tripped and fell at a Paris discotheque. Enthralled witnesses began mimicking his accident. A new dance was born. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’s Whisky a Go Go (a homage to its French disco predecessor) spawned the “ventro-ventral” dance known as the Go-Go, a variation on the Watusi. Go-Go dancers, in fact, were originally introduced as “dance demonstrators” in discotheques, frugging in fringe dresses within glass cages suspended from the ceiling.
Arthur also upped the ante in the evolving art of the disc jockey, or, as he was still frequently called, the discaire . Before Arthur, deejays were supposed to be heard, not seen. Usually anonymous technicians, they spun 45s from a concealed booth while viewing the dancers through pillbox slits. At places like Le Club discaires made little attempt to mix the music, and what spilled out onto the dance floor was often a random succession of songs ranging from European ballads to American soul. Terry Noel changed all that. The discaire at Arthur, he broadened the job description to comprise another French club role, that of animateur , the person responsible for directing the mood of the crowd. He crafted a mix of tunes to build a momentum that ultimately climaxed in a song chosen to drive the dancers wild and pack the floor. Obviously, the art of sensing and guiding the mood of the crowd involved a degree of interaction not required of previous discaires , so Noel could no longer remain sequestered. The era of the charismatic deejay had begun.