Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
The ’30s and ’40s: Swing, Swing, Swing
Curly-coiffed chicks with movie-star makeup and vintage rayon dresses jitter and flitter with their dapper dates in zoot suits and wing tips, while those too timid to trample the dance floor look on nonchalantly and sip their martinis: It’s another night at The Derby, and it’s goin’ off! Though several years have come and gone since the swing revival made couple-dancing cool again, the scene here in L.A. thrives, thanks to this Los Feliz spot’s swank interior and intimate stage, offering the best jumpin’-and-jivin’ live acts in town.
The authentic ambiance of The Coconut Club, inside Merv Griffin’s Beverly Hilton Hotel, makes you feel like you’ve stepped back into a world of old Hollywood glamour, and you have — this room was once frequented by Tinseltown’s brightest. Remodeled to match the opulence of its heyday, the club features live swing orchestras and a mixed crowd of young and old, moving and grooving like it was 1948. The smoking ban in clubs and bars has become somewhat of an inconvenience — it’s hard to pose like a ’40s starlet without a ciggy to suck on seductively.
The ’50s: Greasy Kid Stuff
It’s easy to tell when a rockabilly event takes over an L.A. venue — the parking lot boasts a fleet of cherry’d-out T-Birds, Falcons, Impalas, etc. It looks like the outside of Arnold’s in Happy Days, and if you happen to be one of the daring few to park a new Japanese import in this sea of gleaming classics, you’d best have some fuzzy dice or a winking-cat sticker on it to show you’re down with the ’50s!
With two popular rockabilly nights and occasional special events at spots like Bar Deluxe and Hollywood Billiards, High Octane events guarantee hipsters a trip back to a time when girls wore pedal-pushers (okay, we’re wearing ’em again) and boys put enough grease in their hair to start an oil shortage, and lately they’re incorporating surf, swing and punk into the mix. High Octane’s Wednesday-night events offer the best local rockabilly groups, but it’s their Bowl-a-Rama Night at Eagle Rock’s All-Star Lanes that’ll really take you back. Maybe it’s the geeky shoes and spiffy shirts worn by bowling enthusiasts of the past (and present), or maybe it’s the cheesy decor in most bowling alleys; either way, the pin-pounding sport embodies the innocent, carefree outlook of the nuclear-family era. While Betty Page look-alikes sip Budweisers alongside cuffed-Levi’s-wearing, tattooed dudes at the cavernous adjoining bar, bands like 13 Cats, Big Sandy and the Paladins rock the house with ç country-tinged sounds that pay homage to our American rock & roll forebears.
The ’60s: Mod Elevators
Thursday nights, a colorful row of Vespa scooters leads you to the door at Cafe Bleu, where young girls in go-go boots and micro-minis and guys in dark suits and pageboy haircuts wait their turn to jump into the fray. Local bands of the Oasis/Suede Britpop variety play early, but it’s the DJ-spun “6-T’s” sounds that pack this place, upbeat tunes compelling C.B.’s patrons to jump on stage and show off the moves they’ve copied from old editions of Ready, Steady, Go!
It’s the same scenario at Shout (second Sunday of the month at El Rey Theater), only on a much grander scale. With projected visuals of Twiggy, Brian Jones–era Stones and other modish psychedelic images — and go-go gals wearing blue eyeshadow, white lipstick and dresses that once belonged to their mothers — this danceteria brings to mind those giddy sequences Goldie Hawn used to do on Laugh-In. Sounds range from soulful Supremes hits, to poppy ’60s anthems like Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots,” to modern Britpop, to tunes from the ’80s mod movement by the likes of the Jam, Madness and the Untouchables.
Speaking of the Untouchables, the monthly shindig Solid (first Saturday of the month at Fais Do-Do) is hosted by a former member of that mod-ska group, and this groovy hangout is teeming with well-dressed “rude boys” in ties and pork-pie hats, and dainty gals with fake eyelashes and falls in their hair. Most of the stylish crowd are too young to remember the ’70s, much less the ’60s, and they betray no interest in the acid-fried hippie lifestyle that most of us associate with the decade — they’re all about streamlined looks and soulful sounds. And all that time spent getting ready ain’t for nothing — this dance party awards best-dressed and best-dancer prizes, too. Yeah, baby!
The ’70s: Glittering Generalities
Ever since Studio 54 made its mark as the palace of wanton hedonism, it’s been a ç standard to which most nightspots aspire. But few clubs have been able to duplicate the magic of the ’70s New York dance emporium. With the not-so-long-ago popularity of grunge and the baseball-hat/baggy-pants look of the hip-hop scene, clubsters just weren’t into dressing up to go out anymore, and this “keeping it real” lack of flamboyance made creating a wild, extravagant atmosphere near-impossible.
While disco, old school and ’70s funk are staples in the record crates of DJs all over town, it wasn’t until the recent glam resurgence that going out really felt like a jaunt to those days of tube tops and bell bottoms. It started with Flash, now called Rodney’s English Disco (Saturdays at 7323 Santa Monica Blvd.), an intimate hangout modeled after Rodney
Bingenheimer’s old Sunset Strip glam haven. Slide projections of the previous locale warp the space back in time (Elton John, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and Shaun Cassidy can be spotted in the pics), and Rodney himself shares DJ duties, as nubile chicks in boas and platforms strut, and femme dudes apply lipgloss while prancing and dancing.
If R.E.D. reminds us of all the decadence ’70s nightlife used to offer, Makeup (first Saturday of the month at El Rey) sticks it in our faces like a big, dazzling diamond — ultra-sparkly and unapologetically excessive. This monthly gathering of drag queens, glitter gals, rockers and other hot-frocked freaks is probably the only club in town where you can’t wear something too outrageous. It’s so Club 54: Those dressed to the hilt get a VIP’s welcome, and, as the club’s name suggests, a fantastically done-up face (on males or females) is a must. Recognizing that Ziggy Stardust, for all intents and purposes, was a drag queen, the glitzy midnight gala features he-to-she performers doing classic rock and glam favorites. If you never got to see Bolan, Iggy or Liberace live, this is probably the closest you’ll ever come.
The ’80s: New Wave Wasteland
It’s only been the past couple of years that we’ve had the courage to embrace the decade of big hair and leg-warmers, and, strangely enough, for many teens and mid-20ers it’s about time. These children of the Reagan era get all sentimental at the dulcet tones of Duran Duran and Thompson Twins, which take them back to the days when they first got “Pac-Man Fever,” when Molly Ringwald reigned supreme.
While often seeped in the ’70s, Superstarr (third Friday of the month at Martini Lounge), which transforms itself with a different theme each time it happens, has also had some truly inspired ’80s nights. Its first “New Wave Night” featured a contest for best outfit and best new-wave makeup application, attracting chicks in full early-Madonna regalia and guys in elaborate Flock of Seagulls hairdos; another theme event invited us to get in touch with our inner Valley girl at “Shopping Mall Night.” But it was Superstarr’s recent “1984 Prom Night” that re-created the sounds and fancy dress of an ’80s shindig better than The Wedding Singer and 200 Cigarettes combined. A photo booth captured all the Cyndi Lauper–inspired looks, complete with tacky backdrops.
It’s not uncommon to hear squeals of delight from the post-adolescent crowd at Clockwork Orange (Fridays at The Ruby, formerly the World) when their favorite tunes, like Killing Joke’s “Eighties,” pump out of the DJ booth. With three rooms of music and ambiance, C.O. allocates its biggest space, called the “Xanadu Room,” to ’80s sounds ranging from “dark” new wave faves like the Smiths, Soft Cell and the Cure, to popsters like Bananarama and Culture Club, to the funkier artists of the decade, such as Prince and Michael Jackson.
M.J. also gets a nod at the latest evening devoted to the “Just Say No” decade, named after one of his biggest hits: Beat It (fourth Saturday of the month at El Rey). Frequented by a crowd that obviously knows how to comb through a thrift shop (where else could they find all that cheap plastic jewlery and those Flashdance aerobics outfits?), this campy night of ç the best (Dead or Alive, Bow Wow Wow) and worst (Ratt, Rick Springfield) ’80s music frighteningly hints at a coming resurgence of Dynasty-era pop culture. Can a Gap khaki commercial with dancers headbanging to Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil,” or guys in eyeliner moving robotically to Gary Numan’s “Cars,” be far off? Gag me with a spoon!
The ’90s and Beyond: Tomorrowland Never Knows
If DJs are the musicians of the future, then electronic clubs are leading the way as venues that recognize their significance. Turntable maestros from all around the world get the respect they deserve at Atmosphere (Tuesdays at the Viper Room), where they take the stage usually occupied by local bands and big-name rockers. And at Science (Sundays at Deville’s, 696 Robertson Blvd. in West Los Angeles), the skills of wax manipulators are not only spotlighted, they’re given a forum where they can grow and evolve. Focusing on jungle and drum ’n’ bass beats, this party has a fresh vibe, with a crowd that’s part old-school, part new-electro-school, and 100 percent ready for anything.
When the aggressive sounds of acid house first began to flourish at giant underground warehouse parties, there was an unstoppable energy and a forbidden feel that made those lucky enough to find them feel like they were in on a special secret. Well, the secret’s out, and the wonderful world of rave lives on at Magic 2000 (Wednesdays at The Ruby) as lollipop-sucking glo-stick heads gyrate to the hypnotic rhythms of techno, drum ’n’ bass and jungle. A spacy aura is enhanced by lasers, lights and otherworldy video loops, providing just the kind of kaleidoscopic environment these krazy kids crave. With DJs as commanders of this cosmic journey, ravers can boogie all night without taking a break. Here, movement isn’t just an outlet; it’s the ultimate expression.
A sophisticated group gathers to gyrate and catch a glimpse of Europe’s hottest house innovators at High Society (Saturdays at Club ID, 6507 Sunset Blvd.) and Deluxe (Sundays at the West End, 1301 Fifth St.). Both import topnotch spinmasters from England, Germany and Australia, as well as talents from New York and San Francisco, and both attract a mix of well-dressed Euro-flash and mid-20s trendites.
Santa Monica’s The Pink has three nights of new music, from “speed garage” (a mix of psychedelic rock, R&B and jungle) at Bump! (Wednesdays) to the trip-hoppin’ world beats of Bossa Nova (Thursdays) to the wildass grooves of drum ’n’ bass at Basslab (Sundays). Westsiders and Eastsiders alike pack these rhythmic nights, all of which feature special guests dropping in each week to help work the turntables (and those on the dance floor) into a frenzy. It gets mighty sweaty in there!
There’s a real feeling of unity within the electronic scene, partly due to the fact that danceterias all around the world are making the effort to link with each other in the quest to discover new sounds. Two other happening spots present, along with their own resident DJs, an international roster known for everything from ambient, breakbeat and dub, to techno, trance and soul: Monday’s Social (Mondays at Louis XIV, 606 N. La Brea Ave.) and Datum (Thursdays at the Mint). Not only do these nights introduce us to what’s going on in other clubs around the world, they also provide a relaxed gathering where like-minded music lovers can connect.
As we approach the millennium, the various forms of electronic music promise to be as influential in the grand scheme of things as swing, mod, glam or new wave ever were. While ’60s soul or ’80s new wave may not seem to have much in common with the computer- and turntable-derived sounds igniting L.A.’s new clubs, one listen to Fatboy Slim or the Chemical Brothers (both of whom incorporate the old with the new) and the connection is clear. And as electronic music blazes a trail into uncharted territories, it’s nice to know we can go home again — if only for a night.