Nile Rodgers, of disco legends Chic, tells a great story of the time he tried to get into New York’s Studio 54 on New Year’s in 1977 and was told unceremoniously by the bouncer to “fuck off”. He and his partner Bernard Edwards went home, got high and vented their frustration musically – over a signature clipped guitar riff they shouted: “Aaaaaw, fuck off!” And so “Le Freak” was born.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine – a respected music writer from the US – was turned away from one of Berlin’s very well-known nightclubs, one she has visited many times before and written about. When she argued the toss – all 5’ 4” of her – one of the doorstaff told her “we don’t like you” and pushed her so hard that she fell over. This kind of experience is so antithetical to the inclusive or loving ideal which it is claimed underwrites house music and yet we meekly and masochistically accept it. We remember the rite of passage of our first nervous wheedling attempts to get into clubs as teenagers. A test of character, of worthiness. The pain or annoyance of being knocked back makes the desire to get in all the greater. Door policies are arguably important – the world is full of assholes and your club is almost certainly going to be better without them inside. They discourage those who might not care for the music or mix happily with the clientele; they create safer spaces for those inside to express themselves as they wish.
But all too quickly these benign functions are overtaken by elitism or caprice. The exercise of power without any need to explain or justify it often brings out the worst in people – as anyone who’s felt like a criminal at immigration or been punched by a policeman at a demonstration knows. If the gatekeepers to utopia lord it over those who want access, pick on or assault those they don’t consider worthy then we’ve gained nothing. The greatest test of character is how you treat someone at your mercy. If you’re unable to show care, politeness or consideration then you’ve failed. And the rest of us in the queue shouldn’t just stand there quietly looking at the floor, hoping it doesn’t happen to us. Our response should be the same as Nile Rodgers’ was thirty years ago.
Ewan Pearson is a record producer, DJ and enthusiast. All of his previous Groove columns are archived on his website.