Murder on the dance floor

As a new film immortalises the drug-fuelled rise and fall of Michael Alig, the driving force behind the wild New York club scene of the Nineties, Chris Mugan discovers that the art of partying has never been the same since
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The Independent Culture

What with smoking bans and restrictive licenses, sky-high prices and conservative playlists, it is hard to believe that New York once set standards for our own nightclubs in terms of music, sound and design. Due to premiere next week at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Party Monster reminds us of one the city's several heydays. As well as marking Macaulay Culkin's return to the screen, the movie takes us back to one of the most infamous periods of New York's nightlife.

Party Monster charts the rise and fall of Michael Alig, king of the clubs from the late Eighties until 1996, when he was charged and convicted of the manslaughter of a drug-dealing colleague. As well as Alig's life story, the biopic paints a picture of a scene based around reckless drug-use at parties, where being seen and wearing the right outfit were more important than the music. Inevitably, most of the protagonists burnt out or were caught by the authorities.

Sounds familiar? No doubt you are thinking of Studio 54, the infamous Seventies disco venue that, in 1998, inspired its own movie. Alig aimed to supplant that legend with the help of his own posse, the Club Kids. These disaffected youths were usually outsiders at school who came to New York to reinvent themselves by dressing up as Leigh Bowery. As promoter at the Limelight club, Alig provided a home for them, throwing parties such as Blood Feast, at which clubbers were encouraged to come dressed in slabs of raw meat, and Emergency Room, at which he handed out free drugs.

Party Monster suggests that Alig was indulged by the Limelight's owner, Pete Gatien, and that Gatien lived his life vicariously through Alig, as though he was his surrogate son. Gatien certainly failed to rein in Alig when he went too far, but between the mid-Eighties to early Nineties, he did build up a sizeable clubbing empire, in part thanks to Alig filling the 3,000-capacity former church.

Another thing that the film ignores is Gatien's connections with the Mob, a subject incisively analysed by the Village Voice journalist Frank Owen, in his book published earlier this year, Clubland Confidential. Owen writes: "Alig and Gatien were different characters, but both lacked any moral sensibilities. Alig was greedy for fame, and Gatien was greedy for money." Alig was the more charismatic figure - no matter how nasty he was to people, they remained under his spell.

As much as the personalities, it is the conspicuous consumption and debauchery that continue to fascinate us. The movie 54 (about the club Studio 54) was a hit in the UK, while it bombed in the US, and now the Club Kids are enjoying a second period in the sun, following the 1999 publication of Disco Bloodbath: a Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland, the memoirs of Alig's close friend and fellow-Club Kid, James St James. The book inspired Party Monster, and has been reissued with the same title.

But, more than anything, it is the homegrown music of this period in New York's nightlife that had the biggest impact and continues to provide a soundtrack for our nights out, whether hip hop or Frankie Knuckles' early house tunes. With these building blocks, New York DJs turned their craft into an art form. Scratching and mixing came from the city's block parties, though their influence goes much further. The veteran soul DJ, Dr Bob Jones, began his career in 1967. He makes the point that British disc jockeys were the first to play tunes back-to-back in clubs, but even he acknowledges the New York influence. "They were the first to pay attention to sound systems," he says. "Until then, we were amateurs, but people such as David Mancuso invested a lot in creating PAs that did justice to the tunes they played."

London's Ministry of Sound and the former Hacienda in Manchester were templates for future UK clubs, but they were designed by people in awe of New York venues and their sound systems, notably Paradise Garage, the venue that bequeathed the second half of its name to the strand of house music that remains funky and soulful.

Nowadays, no single venue encapsulates the best of New York like Paradise Garage did, and other legendary venues such as Danceteria and the Mud Club. The city's nightlife has been devastated by a backlash against the in-your-face displays of the Club Kids, though Frank Owen refuses to pin the blame on Alig and Gatien. Instead, he sees them as part of a wider problem.

"During the early Nineties, the city itself was in decline - the cops were too busy with all the murders and robberies going on to deal with the clubs. You could get away with anything. They stayed open for 24 hours at a stretch, open sex and drug-use were widespread, but obviously that couldn't last," he says.

After clearing out the strip clubs and homeless people, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hit the clubs hard. Gatien himself was convicted of tax evasion, though elsewhere the authorities rigorously enforced archaic cabaret licenses, first introduced during the Prohibition era.

Now, Giuliani's successor Michael Bloomberg is compounding the damage with his ban on smoking in public places. "It means people are spending more time outside the clubs than in them," says Owen, a Mancunian who left the UK for New York in the mid-Eighties to seek out its glamour for himself.

As the streets have become cleaner, real- estate values have rocketed. Nightclubs have been forced out and replaced by luxury shops and plush apartments, even in downtown areas, leaving but a handful of exclusive venues. James St James looks back wistfully to a time when you could bum around New York with little or no money. "You have to be rich to live there now. You really need a trust fund," he says.

What is left is a fractured nightlife, with swish venues uptown, and underground types crossing over to Williamsburg and Brooklyn. There is no central Andy Warhol figure to bring together the different strands or, as St James puts it, "draw the freaks uptown and pull society people downtown to the punk clubs".

Matters have got so bad that it is impossible to have one club playing different types of music, even in different rooms, says Bob Jones. "In the UK, you can have a main room playing house and a chill-out room playing hip hop, but you can't do that in New York. That music would attract two completely different crowds. There would be gang warfare."

How different it was when New Order were entranced by the New York scene, ditching studios in Stockport for the skills of Arthur Baker in the Big Apple, the producer of that seminal electro track, Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock". Now based in London, Baker's occasional Return To New York nights pay homage to the city's club-culture high-water mark, when, after the demise of disco in the late Seventies, dance music went underground. "There just weren't enough records being put out, so people such as Larry Levan had to play the Clash and the Rolling Stones along with Chic and the Sugar Hill Gang," he says.

Baker, though, has not given up on today's scene. His club nights still feature the best underground stars. In fact, one such band, the hip punk-funkers called !!! (pronounced "chk-chk-chk") have released a protest record against New York's local government. Inspired by the taut funk and raw production of early-Eighties bands such as ESG and Liquid Liquid, the EP Me & Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard (A True Story) refuses to be a retro record as it sticks two fingers up at today's oppressive regime.

New York may not be the city of invention and reinvention that it once was, but check your local listings and chances are there will be a New York band or DJ playing out. The American city is still far enough away to remain glamorous - and close enough for us to feel that we understand it.

'Party Monster' is at the Edinburgh Film Festival on 22 August, 10pm; and 23 August, 11.15pm, at the UGC Fountainbridge (0131-623 8030). On general release from 26 September