Alice Cooper lost his snake there. Sean Cassidy played his first show there, opening up for Iggy Pop (who proceeded to slash himself to bloody ribbons onstage). David Bowie pranced and posed on an empty dance floor to the sounds of Elvis Presley there. (The King himself came to check out the hot spot a couple of times, too.) Chuckie Starr had his picture taken there, wearing the world's tallest platforms (14 inches), thereby launching the '70s big-shoe craze. When Led Zeppelin came to L.A., they'd drive there straight from the airport. It was the Sunset Strip's palace of wanton escapism, glittery facades and never-before-heard glam sounds. The club was Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco.
Best known today as the husky-voiced radio personality who helped break everyone from the Sex Pistols to the Go-Go's on local station KROQ 106.7 FM in the late '70s, Rodney is an enduring enigma in a city that devours its quirkier figures with unflinching frequency. Despite the fact that he pretty much single-handedly brought the glam (and punk) scene to the forefront in Los Angeles, he's almost as well known for other aspects of his persona: his obsessive-compulsive eating habits (he's frequented certain restaurants every night and at the same time for decades), his appreciation of the (often young) female sex, and the curious fact that, even though he's befriended just about every major musical figure of the past 30 years, he's actually quite reserved and even a bit shy. But he does love to share his star-dusted memories.
“When I came to L.A. from Northern California, I got a job at Capitol and Mercury Records, and I'd take David Bowie around to the local radio stations,” says Bingenheimer, who, preceding that (in the '60s, a time “I don't want to talk about”), worked as Sonny and Cher's gofer and Davy Jones' stand-in on The Monkees. “That was before Ziggy, when Bowie had long hair and wore a dress.” A few years later, in '71, Bingenheimer found himself in London and looked up the androgynous singer. The pair frequented Britain's wildest nightlife establishments, and got into a sparkly new form of rock & roll called glam.
“We'd go to this cool club in a subway station called the Cellar, and David said, 'You should do this in L.A.,'” recalls Bingenheimer. “It was also the first place I actually saw two turntables providing all the music for a club.”
Bingenheimer stayed in London for a full year, in which time he lost his girlfriend to Bowie's manager, hung out during the recording of Hunky Dory and befriended Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, which led him to his one-time-only stint filling in on bass for the Faces on Top of the Pops. He then came back to L.A. and started his version of British nightlife, first called The E Club (“E” stood for England, but “nobody got it”) and finally Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco. “We played Sweet, T. Rex and Suzi Quatro. It was fresh, bizarre and different.”
The nightly club, which started at the space that is now Bar Marmont, became so popular that it had to relocate farther up Sunset (now a karate school). Reigning supreme from '72 to '74, the English Disco attracted the likes of Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, the New York Dolls and hordes of young hot-pants-clad Rodney groupies known as “Rodnettes,” garnering attention in Rolling Stone, People, Interview and Time all in the same week.
With the increasing popularity of Donna Summer–style disco music threatening to take over the shimmering, guitar-driven glam scene, Bingenheimer said goodbye to dance floors and hello to the airwaves in '76. “KROQ had been on and off the air throughout the '70s, and when they got their license reinstated for good, the owner asked me to do my own show,” says Bingenheimer, who used the airtime to expose Angelenos to a new sound he called “dirty glitter” (later to be referred to as punk rock). “My first guests were the Ramones, and on that same show I had a phone interview with the Runaways,” who were managed by his taller perennial companion Kim Fowley.
The rest is rock & roll history. More than 20 years later, the diminutive man with the golden ear is still doing his famed Rodney on the ROQ show, albeit in a much later time slot. (He started at 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday, and can currently be heard for three hours at midnight Sunday.) “At one time, my ratings were so high they gave me Saturday and Sunday, 8 to midnight,” he says. “But now the highest-rated show is Love Line.”
At his hottest, Bingenheimer interviewed everyone from the Sex Pistols to Blondie and popularized then-unknown groups like the Damned, the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Bangles and Hole. Now let's haul out the obligatory Rodney/girls question: Why is he so fascinated by bands of the fairer sex?
“I grew up loving girl groups like the Ronettes and singers like Annette Funicello and Connie Francis,” says Bingenheimer, who doesn't understand why people think of him as a connoisseur of young chicks. “I like girl bands because, listening to them, you kind of imagine that happy '50s-'60s sound.”
Perhaps Bingenheimer got his reputation as a result of his admiration (and assistance) of female rockers over the years, or maybe it's the fact that he used to hang out with Brooke Shields in the '80s, but however the rumors got started, he insists he just doesn't get it. “Where are they?” he asks. “I can't figure it out. I usually go out alone.
“That's why I'm doing this movie,” he says, referring to the documentary about his life currently in production and booked for premiere at Sundance in the year 2000. “People will be shocked to hear about how quiet and innocent I really am. I never did drugs, I never drank, never smoked.”
But Bingenheimer did see it all, and was always around to help out his inebriated pals. “I was the one driving people home,” he says. “But I'm not a tattletale – that's why I've been turned down so many times to write a book.”
Even so, the film, to be titled Mayor of the Sunset Strip (Bingenheimer's nickname during his glam heyday), should be a fascinating slice of pop history. The brainchild of Chris Carter (Dramarama bassist and Y-107 DJ), it was directed by George Hickenlooper (Some Folks Call It a Slingblade, Hearts of Darkness – The Making of Apocalypse Now) and features a Who's Who of Rodney friends and fans: Bowie, Shields, Cher, Alice Cooper, Brian Wilson, X, Gwen Stefani, Shirley Manson and Kato Kaelin, to name just a few.
And while Mayor will show Rodney's English Disco for the decadent, groundbreaking Studio 54 precursor it was, another new movie, Velvet Goldmine, has everyone talking about the resurgence of the music that ignited his '70s club. “I tried to contact the producers of that film to see if I could assist them, but they never called back,” he says.
Bingenheimer thinks the renewed interest is long overdue. “I like this glam revival better than the '80s metal-glam scene. Back then, you'd go into Denny's and instead of smelling eggs, you'd smell hair spray.”
Which brings us to Mr. Bingenheimer's daily and nightly ritual of eating the same thing at the same restaurants every day. “I'm a restaurant whore,” he declares. “I've been doing this for years, and I'll keep on doing it – unless I find the right girl to stay home and make me dinner.”
Rodney Bingenheimer guest-deejays at Flash, a new glam-rock club at Tempest, 7323 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hollywood, Tuesday, November 10. Info: (323) 769-5500.