Dancing your worries away?

Brendan O'Neill dug out his old school tie to swing his pants with 3000 clubbers at London's School Disco.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

When you hear the words ‘school disco’ what image comes to mind? Awkward teenagers dancing awkwardly to rubbish pop? Kids drinking cider in car parks? Or, if you enjoyed my peculiar experience, fat sadistic nuns patrolling dancefloors on the lookout for lust? Think again. School discos are now the hottest ticket in town – among adult clubbers, that is, not spotty teens.

The School Disco club night in London has come a long way since September 1999, when it was kickstarted in a dingy backstreet restaurant by dodgy blokes with a suspicious interest in school uniforms and canes. It is now London’s most popular night out, running every Friday night at the 3000-capacity Hammersmith Palais in west London.

The rules are simple: lads wear black trousers, white shirt, blazer and tie, and girls wear short skirt, blouse, tie and preferably high heels or boots. You swing your pants to hits from the 1980s and 90s, the dj is ‘headmaster’, there’s a tuck shop where you can buy refreshments, and you’re encouraged to ‘smoke in the bogs’ rather than on the dancefloor.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s a School Disco website that gets one million hits a day and counting; a School Disco album riding high in the charts; and two already-sold-out New Year’s Eve specials at the London Arena and Dublin’s Point Theatre. ‘Some people say that school days are the best days of your life’, says the School Disco website, ‘and that is exactly what School Disco is about…. This is just like the real thing, so we encourage plenty of breakdancing and snogging to slow songs!’ (1).

Is School Disco really like ‘the real thing’? Not quite. Maybe it’s because I went to an uptight Catholic school run by even uptighter nuns, but no school disco I ever attended had girls in fishnet stockings and high heels, with enough cleavage on display to get the average teenage boy into a sticky situation. And maybe it’s because I ran with the wrong crowd, but I don’t remember lads getting so wasted on Woodpecker that they couldn’t even push pineapples from a tree.

Where was the embarrassing geography teacher getting down to the Birdie Song? Where was the sixtysomething, toupee-wearing dj saying ‘here’s Jennifer Rush for all you young lovebirds out there’? And why was the dancefloor full of people dancing when at real school discos the dancefloor is a no-man’s land between grunting, gangly boys on one side and lumpy, greasy girls on the other?

But that’s the point – for all its claims to be the ‘real thing’, School Disco is an imagined, idealised version of the average adult’s school days. As regular School Disco queen Shauna puts its, ‘Most school discos were a nightmare, we were all too shy and spotty to cop off with anybody. But here you can put that to right and have a fun time for a change’. According to a School Disco organiser, School Disco attracts ‘professional types – doctors, media workers, teachers’, who ‘can make their school days the best days of their lives, even if they weren’t, by reliving them’. ‘It’s fun and therapeutic’, said one journalist who attended. ‘You get to recapture your youth.’

Even psychologist Oliver James has got in on the act, arguing that ‘the majority of people leave school feeling like a failure.… These people may desire to return to the past, but this time they want it to be a different experience, a more positive one. To be given the opportunity to do that is obviously very attractive’ (2). But isn’t it also a bit sad? I’m all for clubbing as a way of forgetting the worries of the working week, and if you want to dress up like a 14-year-old schoolboy or girl, that’s your business. But reinventing, reliving, recapturing school days as a Freudian way of avenging your past? As we used to say to saddos at my school, ‘Get a job’.

Even sadder, we’re not talking forty- or fiftysomethings here, the mid-life crisis brigade for whom school really is a distant black-and-white memory of Latin lessons, 10 lashings and The Beatles topping the charts. We’re talking twentysomethings, people who left school less than 10 years ago, for whom school memories are Thatcher snatching milk, dossing in personal and social development classes, and U2 topping the charts. Hardly the stuff of history.

School Disco’s clientele are mostly aged 21 to 30, whose favourite songs are from that ‘techno period’ of the late 1980s and early 1990s. School uniform shops in central London report an upsurge in ‘young adult interest in uniforms’, with nearly as many twentysomethings buying shorts and shirts as parents (not surprising, considering the School Disco website advertises school uniform shops to its clubbers).

Then there’s the Friends Reunited website, where you find out what old school buddies and enemies are up to now and where most of the entries are from people in their twenties and thirties: for my old school, there are 69 entries for people who graduated in the 1960s, 186 for the 1970s, 325 for the 1980s, and 373 for the 1990s. Add to all that the nostalgia TV programmes I Love the 1980s and I Love the 1990s and you have a society suffering from a severe case of extreme short-term nostalgia.

But this isn’t the nostalgia of the old and infirm, who want society to be more like it was in the past. It’s the nostalgia of the young and fearful, who can’t quite let go of their childhoods.

‘It all started when I got fired from a top London club for playing Shakin’ Stevens’, says School Disco founder Bobby Sanchez. ‘That night I drove to my old school in south London…. Could I go back and not have to deal with mortgages, girlfriend problems, 9 to 5?’

Going back to school for a one-off reunion is one thing. Going back to school every Saturday night to escape the ups and downs of being an adult…now that deserves 10 lashings.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Acquaintances rediscovered, by Neil Davenport

Why I don’t Love the 1980s, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) See the School Disco website

(2) Honestly, you haven’t changed a bit, Observer, 2 December 2001

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Topics Politics


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