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Rising Disco Fever : Boogie Knights is one group cashing in on an upsurge of campy nostalgia in the Valley.

August 05, 1994|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

Robbie Schwyzer was a junior high school kid in the 1970s, a little rocker in a "Disco Sucks" T-shirt. But Vinnie Guiseppi Tortelli is a singing- dancing drummer with perfect hair and tight polyester pants. He's a crusader in a band called the Boogie Knights, trapped in a rhythm and a decade once considered unmentionable.

Young Vinnie is just a disguise, of course, a role for Schwyzer to play from behind the drum kit, pounding out the simple beats to such timeless titles as "Disco Inferno" and "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" He's here at FM Station this night with his pals in the Boogie Knights, waiting for the moment he can step out to center stage under his John Travolta wig for a few glorious, feverish dance steps for the crowd.

"The minute we get in the wigs and somewhat in disguise, we don't care about embarrassment or anything," Schwyzer, 26, says of the band and their horrifying retro outfits. "It's kind of strange. You can let go and not care."

This weekly Wednesday night gig at the North Hollywood rock club is only one stop on a never-ending tour of campy nostalgia and driving beats. On Thursdays they're back at Pelican's Retreat in Calabasas. At the Metro Bay Club in Ventura on Saturdays. And then there's that free airplane ride every Sunday to play for some particularly rabid fans at Arizona State University in Phoenix.

Nothing new about the '70s revival, the bell-bottoms, the pounding beats, the Afros, the long, goofy hair. In Hollywood, the club 1970 was spinning old funk-pop records barely a decade after the original era was declared dead and buried. But now it's spread to the San Fernando Valley, the suburbs.

"I don't think disco has ever really died," Schwyzer insists. After all, '80s acts like Wham! and Berlin often incorporated prominent beats to massive success on dance floors and pop radio. But more important, the actual funk tracks recorded by the likes of Parliament, the Sugar Hill Gang, The Stylistics etc. are being sampled prominently in new chart-topping albums by Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, among others.

"They're bringing it back," Dave Hewitt, Pelican's talent director, says of the new hip-hop artists. "And they're opening up the eyes of a lot of people."

At the moment, the weekly disco-themed night--with DJ John Lorre spinning old records between the Boogie Knights sets--is the busiest night of the week for the 500-capacity club, with a long line waiting to get inside. "If you don't get out there by 11 you might as well take a seat outside," Hewitt says. "You're not going to get in."

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John Butler, alias Boogie Knights guitarist J. J. Vernon Woods, says: "For a while it was cool to hate disco. The generation now either hates it fondly, or they just like it. Even if they hated it back then, they enjoy looking back and hating it now."

"For a younger crowd it's just danceable music," says Schwyzer.

Feeding this interest, late-night and cable television is flooded with commercials hawking album compilations of "all the hits" from the era writer Tom Wolfe dubbed The Me Decade. Meanwhile, at the Insomnia Cafe in Sherman Oaks, owner and former club DJ John Dunn has launched Boob Tube '70s TV Night every Monday. There, customers can sip their coffee, juice, tea and other nonalcoholic beverage to the soothing video images of "The Brady Bunch," "The Partridge Family," "Mannix," "Mission Impossible" and other appropriate television series on three 17-inch monitors.

Dunn says that he's "absolutely" had no problem mixing campy '70s culture with the Insomnia's inherent bohemian groove. "We play the 'Saturday Night Fever' soundtrack a lot," Dunn says. "The flavor is unique, and it's tongue in cheek."

He enjoyed a particularly close view of the disco era beginning in 1977, when he was still a North Hollywood High School student, starting a career working as a club DJ.

"It was so easy to put up a mirror ball, put on some searchlights, some police lights and have an incredible dance," Dunn, now 35, says of those days. "The whole feeling of that sort of free love, alcohol, pot smoking culture of the '70s made for the greatest parties. Even into the '80s nobody was really thinking about tomorrow, or what their responsibilities were. That's really changed.

"Kids today have their rap parties and their raves. But it isn't like it was then. There were no fights, no problems. They were just into dancing."

The sound of the '70s amounted to much more than the singles Donna Summer and other dance music artists were releasing then.

And new bands like the Black Crowes and such longtime survivors as Aerosmith offer a harder-edged version of the era.

But there's little of that corner of the '70s in the Boogie Knights repertoire. The quartet, which also includes singer Adam Shore, 26 (alias Calvin Lywn), and bassist Doug McRoy, 30 (alias Corderious Washington), sticks close to the Studio 54 songbook.

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