We made it feel mighty real
The Embassy club was London's version of Studio 54 - a keyed-up, overheated, gay model of the original.
Tuesday 08 September 1998
But maybe, therein lies the answer. Disco may be naff, but it's fun. And in the knowing Nineties when everyone is so damn cool, the simple but positive lyrics have an endearing quality that all of Oasis's moody backdrops and drop dead scowls could never achieve.
At the same time that Liza Minnelli was "getting on down" with Truman Capote in Studio 54, in London there was an even wilder, more dysfunctional club. Smaller, more intimate and far more outrageous in its dress, the Embassy club on Old Bond Street took London by storm when it opened in April 1978. Weird- looking creatures would regularly spend their Saturday night lined up outside the stuffy antiques shops of this respectable area of London's West End, looking like a cast from a Fellini opera and determined to make it past the inscrutable doormen.
But what was it about Studio 54 and the Embassy that made them the magical places they were? Where celebrities were prepared to wait for 45 minutes in a British or New York winter, just to gyrate under the strobe lighting with a bunch of gay boys?
For a start, the Embassy had little to do with straight disco. Travolta may have immortalised the image of the disco in 1976, when he strutted his stuff as Tony Manero in the cult film Saturday Night Fever, but unlike Tony's world, where working-class boys went to the local disco for a bit of the action, and the disco-dancing competition was the height of their year, the Embassy was not about boy meets girl, but a place where sexual decadence reigned, underpinned by a homoerotic aesthetic that continued the rituals of the New York gay scene.
But then disco started as an underground gay phenomenon in about 1973 in New York, and Steven Hayter, the man behind the Embassy, had earned his disco stripes as a club promoter at the hip Le Jardin nightclub, part of the New York gay scene. If anyone knew how to ruin a straight/gay club, he was the man.
Like 54, the Embassy was blatantly bisexual. With its roots in gay culture, it bridged the gap between Tony Manero's local haunt and the gay scene. It was this fusion of flamboyant decadence with the celebrity element, that made the club so special. Instead of spending your Saturday night at a club where the people were a mundane extension of your everyday world with a bit of music thrown in, the Embassy was different. It catered to a cross-section, from transsexuals to European aristos, you were unlikely to see these people again, but once you were inside, everyone was your friend for the night and you were part of a big dysfunctional family.
I was a 16-year-old schoolgirl at the time, naive and on the eve of womanhood. To me the Embassy club became a fantasy world, where I could be who I wanted and do what I wanted.
Once inside the club, you felt you were part of a privileged elitist group of people. Drunk and high on the music, I would dance with girls dressed in the style of the Forties vamp, with witty veils and off-the- shoulder dresses, or swing around with a gorgeous Italian count. Cocaine spilled over the tables, young men in jock-straps and pillar-box hats danced on the bar, and drag queens simulated sex on the rostrum.
Hayter had established an exciting and addictive pleasure palace, which caught the mood of the times perfectly. The layout and decor of the club had been strategically designed for effortless people-watching. Posing took place upstairs in the dance area, where the waiters in their red -and-white satin shorts (a direct copy of 54) danced provocatively on the bar. There was a narrow balcony, dark and secluded enough for sexual favours to be meted out, yet perfectly placed to watch the gyrating bodies of the disco dancers below. The dance floor itself, with the ubiquitous silver bauble, dry ice and strobe lighting (which made you look as if you were moving in slow motion, heightened, of course, by copious amounts of amyl nitrate), was like a goldfish bowl. The cool people stood around and watched, as the freaks boogied on down. At the end of the night, when the last bars of Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real" played out, the lights would go on and faces, ashen grey from over-indulgence, looked back at you vacantly. The dream was over for another night, and you waited for your next fix.
A rostrum just above the dance floor kept exhibitionists on view, and they would enact simulated love scenes as the DJ shone the spotlight on them.
But while the show-offs got their posing fix, the real action was going on downstairs. The long bar in the basement of the club was where the night-club roues would invite pretty young things to drink champagne and snort a few lines.
Couples were known to slip off to the loos to give physical bent to their passion. The male and female lavatories were well known for the debauched scene that could meet an unsuspecting onlooker if they were not prepared.
As at Studio 54, the inner sanctum was a tatty back room, where young girls and VIPs could take their drugs in peace and receive any sexual favours that might be on offer. "Coming to the "back room?" meant you were either going to get stoned or take part in some depraved act.
My first and last kiss with a woman took place in the famous Embassy back room. Now I look back in amusement, but then it was all part of behaving badly for the fun of it. Even though sex permeated everything from the disco lyrics to the costumes, this was not a seedy pick-up joint. It was a far more heady experience, owing more to a Bacchanalian feast or Roman orgy than a few pints down the Pitcher and Piano with a fumbled, drunken shag at the end of the night.
But this was 1978, after all, and England was at the height of moral decadence. Sexual ambiguity and a sort of camp sensibility were an integral part of the Seventies feeling. Remember glam rock, and Bowie and Jagger with their camp dressing-up and homoerotic behaviour?
This was pre-Aids, and despite a depressing cultural climate with excessive inflation and government corruption, people were still riding on the late- Sixties wave of free sex, and the hippie, anything-goes mentality. In the Seventies, bisexuality was a lifestyle choice, and if you were "happening", indiscriminate sex and abandoned drug-taking were just par for the course.
It was just like going to a big party. The atmosphere was wild; everyone dressed up and made an effort. Anthony Price once said that going to the Embassy was like being in a Hollywood movie with everyone wanting to be the star. Friendly it may have been, but everyone wanted to be the king or queen of glam.
"Marilyn", an ex-Embassy waiter who dressed up as his icon, would sit on the stairs of the club (often used as a place for chatting people up or exchanging coke) with his friend Boy George and ask people who was the prettiest. Everyone joined in the game; it was all part of the illusion.
Every celebrity in town would make an appearance at the Embassy. David Bowie, Pete Townsend, Mick Jagger and Marie Helvin were just some of the London glitterati who could be found propping up the bar with their groupies. Even some of the Blitz kids, who looked down on disco music and thought they were so artistic, could be found whirling around with a bottle of amyl nitrate in one hand and a dubious partner in the other. Boy George, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan, although New Romantics at heart, were staunch regulars on the Embassy dance floor.
It may not have cut ice with the punk factions of the time, who with their nihilism and no-hope attitude wouldn't be seen dead dancing around to "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real", but like Studio 54 it was the place to be. It was cooler than its more glitzy neighbour Tramp, which seemed to have been inundated by Arabs, and held more kudos than the smaller and blacker Maunkberrys.
The door policy was strict but democratic; contemporary icons, freaks and beautiful people were invited in and those who did not fit into the scene were kept out. The mixed white, black, straight and gay crowd was a melange of glamorous drag queens, leather-clad gays and girls draped in gowns by Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci. Everyone took part in the disco tradition of dressing up to go dancing. It was a far cry from today's dressing down in trainers and combat trousers.
The Embassy represented a twilight era of sexual liberation, which soon came to a halt as Thatcher came to power and the business-driven Eighties took over. In a sense, it was a "going nowhere" club. It hit the spot for a short period of time and eclipsed every other club in London. Yet when disco was over and music moved towards a more technological approach, the Embassy lost its appeal. It carried on briefly in the Eighties, but instead of stories of naughty goings-on, all there was were a handful of Sloanes trying to get off with their best friend's sister. It was a bit like waking up and realising that the world is really in black and white, and no matter what happens, the party is well and truly over.
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