Saturday Night Fever was the prism through which the world viewed disco. But its actual inspiration was a British mod called Chris…
Picture it: a writer pens a magazine article and its an instant sensation. Producers come calling, he sells the rights for tens of thousands, the tabloids give him a nickname, acquaintances greet him as a friend, cheques flood in, he attends the premiere of his film in Los Angeles with a famous disco singer on his arm. Its glitzy, its glam, its Hollywood, baby. But as he makes his way through the frenzy outside the theatre, through security, paparazzi and screaming teenage girls, he is filled with moral panic. Why?
Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977, and has since grossed $285m worldwide. The soundtrack became one of the bestselling film album of all time after staying at No 1 for 24 consecutive weeks, reinvigorating the Bee Gees career, and its star, John Travolta, became one of the youngest actors to be nominated for the best actor Oscar. Decades on, not many remember that the phenomenon was down to one man: British rock critic Nik Cohn and his report of 7 June, 1976 for New York magazine, Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Nights, which was published 40 years ago this month.
Cohn was the author of a number of books including the 1969 rock history Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. A protege of swinging London, he partied with rock stars, joined the Who on tour, and is said by some to have been instrumental in the genesis of Bowies Ziggy Stardust. He had his portrait shot by Iain Macmillan the photographer behind the Beatles Abbey Road cover and from the age of 18 was contributing briefings about mods and rockers to the Observer. After crossing the Atlantic and signing on with New York magazine in 1975, the writer, who came to feel disenchanted with the establishment music business, persuaded the mags founder and editor Clay Felker to let him document disco a new, largely ethnic, largely gay underground trend that had taken over parts of New York City.
The result was the profile of an ultimate Face. Vincent, a young Italian-American worked in a hardware store during the week and partied at a disco club called 2001 Odyssey on the weekend. Vincent was the very best dancer in Bay Ridge he owned 14 floral shirts, five suits, eight pairs of shoes, three overcoats, and had appeared on American Bandstand. He and his friends knew nothing of flower power, Bob Dylan or Ken Kesey. They were opulent but poor, proud but shy. The new generation takes few risks, Cohn wrote. It goes through high school, obedient; graduates, looks for a job, saves and plans. Endures. And once a week, on Saturday night, its one great moment of release, it explodes. The intro declared: Everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved. Only the names of the main characters have been changed.
The rest is cinema history: film rights were sold to producer Robert Stigwood, who had just signed a three-picture deal with a young TV actor called John Travolta. Screenwriter Norman Wexler transformed Vincent into Tony Manero. So unprecedented was the fanfare that when Stigwoods 23-year-old assistant Kevin McCormick traipsed through Los Angeles looking for a director, one agent, according to Vanity Fair, told him, Kid, my directors do movies. They dont do magazine articles. Director John Badham had no such qualms, and in December 1977 his movie took $11m in its first 11 days and Travolta became an overnight sensation.
Twenty years later came a bombshell. In December 1997 New York magazine published an article in which Cohn confessed that there never was a Vincent. There was no Lisa, Billy, John James, Lorraine or Donna either. While 2001 Odyssey existed, it wasnt the way the writer described it in 1976. The whole scene of disco-loving Italians, as mythologised in Saturday Night Fever, was exaggerated. The most bizarre detail was that his disco protagonists were in fact based on mods Cohn had known in London. The writer was painfully aware that everything Fever had brought him the fame, the fortune was the result of a lie.
The real story went like this: in 1976 Cohn met a disco dancer named Tu Sweet, who introduced him to the clubs of New York, including one in Bay Ridge called 2001 Odyssey. One night the two trawled through the underbelly of New York a land of auto shops, transmission specialists and alignment centres to find the place. A drunken brawl was in progress and as Cohn opened the cab door one of the guys reeled over the gutter and threw up over his trouser leg. So he just upped and returned to the safe comforts of Manhattan.
One image stayed with the writer, though, that of a figure in flared crimson pants and a black body shirt standing in the doorway of the club and calmly watching the action. There was a style about him, Cohn said, a sense of his own specialness that reminded the writer of a teen gang in his hometown of Derry and a mod named Chris hed met in London in 1965.
When Cohn went back to Odyssey he didnt see the young man in the doorway again. Plus, I made a lousy interviewer, he wrote. I knew nothing about this world, and it showed. Quite literally, I didnt speak the language. So I faked it. I conjured up the story of the figure in the doorway, and named him Vincent. Taking all I knew about the snake-charmer in Derry and, more especially, about Chris the mod in London, I translated them as best I could to Brooklyn. Then I went back to Bay Ridge in daylight and noted the major landmarks. I walked some streets, went into a couple of stores. Studied the clothes, the gestures, the walks. Imagined how it would feel to burn up, all caged energies, with no outlet but the dancefloor and the rituals of Saturday night. Finally, I wrote it all up. And presented it as fact.
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