Originally published May 2007
My American wife loves watching 1980s teen movies like Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles (she was at high school herself during that era and I think she wanted to be Molly Ringwald) and what always strikes me watching these films is what a completely different universe an American school is compared to English ones. U.S. schools seem to be more like social clubs ruled by the good-looking and the athletic that revolve around dating, sports, being popular (the most important thing) and events like Prom and Homecoming dances which have a life and death significance in kid’s lives.
We don’t have Proms or Homecoming in England, what we had – if we were lucky – was the occasional School Disco. They weren’t the elaborate affairs that Proms are, with kids arriving in limos all decked out in tuxedos and ballgowns to be entertained by live bands and professional DJs. At my school the couple of discos we had were held in one of the classrooms with the music provided by some kid in the corner with a record player and a pile of 45s. There may have been some orange squash in paper cups for refreshments too but I’m not sure we even had that extravagance. In many ways this perfectly encapsulates the differences between the two countries (at least back then): you have the rich, glamourous Americans with their confidence and perfect teeth, while us Brits were a bit shabby and pathetic, making our entertainment out of old Cornflakes boxes and sticky-back plastic.
I went to an all-boys school which meant we were also missing one vital ingredient for a good disco: girls. They had to be invited over from the local girls school and they arrived as these exotic, alien creatures that we’d heard a lot about but had no idea how to communicate with. So the picture above shows exactly how the evening always ended up, the girls dancing together on one side of the room while the boys just stared at them from afar, too scared to cross the terrifying No Man’s Land of the room and talk to them. Occasionally there was a boy with the front to actually go and chat one of them up and you always hated/envied those confident, jammy bastards.
If I’d had the bottle to actually ask a girl to dance I might have a “special” school disco record to remind me of that moment, but I didn’t so there isn’t one. Reggae was always very popular though, you’d have to be a total spazz not to be able to singalong and dance to something like “Uptown Top Ranking” by Althea & Donna. This got to No. 1 in 1977 and was a massive favourite with everyone apart from the some of the West Indian kids at school who were into heavy dub and pooh-poohed this sort of light, pop-reggae (they even called Bob Marley “white man’s music”.)
This kind of dusty, skanking beat always reminds me of those days, and in my head it’s playing on a tinny record player in the corner of some dingy classroom and I’m standing there all alone with a paper cup of warm orange squash in my hand, too scared to go and ask Jackie Bolton to dance.
Download: Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna (mp3)
Update: Since I wrote this it seems that a lot English schools do now have Proms which I find a bit depressing.