The modern discothèque was invented in Paris in the early fifties, when Régine installed coloured lights and twin turntables in a place called Whisky a Go Go.
France’s contribution to dance music did not end there. Daft Punk are French. Voyage were among the classiest Eurodisco acts of the late seventies and they were French, though they recorded their oeuvre in Soho. I’m reasonably certain Amanda Lear is French too, though ‘I’m reasonably certain’ is not a phrase commonly associated with Ms Lear.
Without Ottowan, would we have ever known how to spell D.I.S.C.O?
I’m getting that out of the way now because the rest of this may not be as relentlessly positive as the lovely people at Maison de France would like.
I spent much of the summer on the Riviera researching the upcoming edition of the Rough Guide to Provence and the Côte d’Azur – a hardship posting, to be sure – and once again found myself pondering what it is that makes French nightclubs so very, very odd.
Go anywhere else in the western world and you know pretty much what to expect: a gaunt, slightly tatty vastness in a redundant cinema or factory, ear-splitting volume, iffy loos and a doorman with the physique (and capacity for self-deprecation) of an armoire.
There are individual national characteristics, of course. In San Francisco they loved my accent. In Sydney they regarded drug taking as a competitive sport, and were tireless in their efforts to snort harder, party longer and fly higher. In Germany they take a redundant factory, replace it with a bigger, newer, shinier, more profitable one, then fill the old place with an electronic approximation of men hammering on pipes. In Spain, it’s compulsory to have a skinny tranny dancing on a box. In platform boots.
And then there’s France.
French discos want to be restaurants when they grow up. Most – in the south of France at least – are already more than halfway there, with elegant dining sections in shades of white and more white that are light years from a sweaty German techno hangar. The French seem to believe the perfect preparation for a night of throwing shapes is to wash down three courses of foie gras, truffles and tournedos Rossini with a cheeky bottle of Cheval Blanc ’82.
Why this should be so is not entirely clear.
Dancing and eating are odd bedfellows. Strobe lighting does not flatter your food. And the food in the average discothèque – even the average French discothèque – does not enjoy the best of reputations. Even if Alain Ducasse peeled the potatoes, there’s an obvious mismatch between stuffing your face and strutting your stuff. Does it matter how refined the food is, if you crown your night of Riviera fun by hurling expensively over your shoes?
In part, the intention is surely to intimidate. If you’re worrying about a little thing like the APR on that Cheval Blanc you’re clearly too impecunious for clubbing in Cannes or St Tropez. Spirits are priced by the bottle. It keeps the cheapskates at bay, while promoting the emetic effect of dancing on a full stomach.
Of course, I’m being disingenuous. The ideal customer is not a dancer at all, but a spender. Which explains the roués’ gallery that is the photo section of the club’s Facebook page, full of the sort of men who have known business or creative success, the joys of golf club membership and the tribulations of white loafers without socks. They may not dance ’til dawn, but their credit rating will keep them in €140 bottles of vodka a good deal longer.
I can see the business case for all this; I just can’t see what might make it enjoyable. If I want to eat out, I’ll go to a restaurant. If I want to dance, I’ll skip the foofy gastronomicals. The last people I want to bump into at five in the morning are Bono, Berlusconi or anyone who looks remotely like them in the dim light of a Caves du Roy dawn. And if I want the heady sensation of money sucking out of my account so fast I can hear the sloosh, I will give my bank details to a polite Nigerian businessman who just wants to deposit a few million in my account for a while. Or seek out one of Islington’s excitingly expensive parking spaces.
So sorry, France. I’m sitting this one out.