Yes, Derry in the 1970s was a dangerous place to be... disco was life-threatening!

Artist and author Joe Campbell has a tongue in cheek look at the cultural impact of global dance phenomenon in Derry

By The Newsroom
Friday, 3rd December 2021, 12:47 pm
A fairly typical riot scene in Derry’s William Street in the late 1970s.
A fairly typical riot scene in Derry’s William Street in the late 1970s.

When I think of it, never mind the Troubles, but those of us resident in the district who were young in the 1970s were all massively exposed to huge, life-threatening levels of disco.

At that time, we had, in no particular order of merit: riots, raids, mad sectarian people (and that was just the bars) bombs, bomb scares (a different category from actual bombs as were bomb hoaxes), civilian searchers, house searches, checkpoints - where you could get ‘started’ - army ‘P’ checks, ‘getting lifted’ or ‘getting hoisted’, violent clergy in schools, and you rarely ‘got off’ with a girl, especially just after September when the entire female population of Derry/ Londonderry went into voluntary hibernation until after Lent the following year.

To sort of paint a picture, there was an urban legend that told the story of someone who was ‘involved’ - you know, ‘in the movement’ - who slept in for his signing at Crown Buildings and, promptly, phoned in a bomb scare - allegedly. Stuff like that was the norm.

A scene from 'Saturday Night Fever', starring John Travolta.

But, on top of all that, along came disco. A word - if you looked it up in an encyclopedia - that may have been described as: “Disco (noun) - a form of musical purgatory”.

It started quietly, but was quickly ramped up to horrendously dangerous levels by films like ‘Saturday Night Fever’, starring John Travolta and which featured the music of the Bee Gees.

If you have come to a crossroads in your life and find yourself looking up ‘Saturday Night Fever’ on Wikipedia, here is a quote: “Saturday Night Fever was a huge commercial success and had a tremendous effect on popular culture of the late 1970s. The film helped significantly to popularize disco music around the world and made Travolta a household name. He was nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Actor for his performance. The film showcased aspects of the music, the dancing, and the subculture surrounding the disco era: symphony-orchestrated melodies; haute couture styles of clothing; pre-AIDS sexual promiscuity; and graceful choreography.”

Right, where do I start? “Haute couture” which translated here into white French flares and a Gilbert jumper. Yes, it had a tremendous effect on popular culture but, unfortunately, I think I missed that?

Perhaps it happened here, but, maybe, somebody phoned in a bomb scare because I think I missed that bit. But the dancing - ah, yes, the ‘dancing’. There arose a subculture of people who could ‘do it’

Some of the clubs held ‘learn how to do it’ classes and fervent converts would roam indiscriminately attempting to convert others to their newly discovered ‘one true faith’

“Aha!”, they would shout. “He can’t do it!”, instantly exposing you to social exclusion. “Unclean! He can’t do the wee dance”.

I once heard a story about a man who allegedly took part in a riot in a three-piece white suit. Apparently he had just come from a wedding and it was about 7pm.

Back then, the whole idea at weddings was to get rid of the bride and groom as soon as possible and ‘head’ somewhere else to continue the festivities.

Well, as this person was making his way across town to do just that, he happened across a riot in William Street and, being in a good mood and having taken a few beverages that previous afternoon, he thought it only manners to partake in a spot of casual street insurrection forgetting about the fact that he was dressed head to toe in white.

He immediately became the target of choice for half a British battalion, the safest place in the street being directly behind him!

I heard that, upon realising his dress faux pas, he beat a hasty retreat to a disco where, despite being the only properly dressed person there, he point blank refused to do the wee dance and was ‘eventually ‘oxtered’, tired and emotional, into a taxi in a dishevelled state, suit no longer white, exhausted from his long day’s activities.

You know, when I think of it, perhaps I’m being a bit hard on the whole disco thing.

Discos were great places for a late one.