Knight Fever, Knight Fever

The Boogie Knights in white polyester lit the fuse on a retro-disco craze that exploded in college towns across America. Tempe was ground zero.

The number and nature of postshow groupies in the Gibson's dressing room make it look like some mad scientist ran amok with a Jennifer Aniston DNA kit. Just outside the door, two blondes are fighting--evidently one spoke to current BK lead singer Jeff Soto when the other was about to. A catfight in Funkytown--rrrrreearrrrwwww!

The thrift-shop duds the Boogie Knights sported through three sets of disco redux this Sunday eve are a little worse for the wear. The wigs are especially ghastly under the harsh fluorescent lighting. Drummer Robbie Schweitzer (dba Vinnie Guisseppi Tortelli)'s Travolta locks look like a cafeteria lunch lady's tightly pulled hairnet.

Even with fake hair in hand, the guys drift back and forth in between their true selves and their disco personas so often that asking a Boogie Knight his name is like taking a multiple-choice quiz.

Roxanne guitarist turned Boogie Knights chord jester John Butler ("J.J." Vernon Woods) doffs his Afro wig and fluffs out his hair while a female plops in and out of his lap. Butler remembers starting the Boogie Knights because "we wanted to annoy as many people as possible."

"All [Perfect World] bands are trying to be individuals, but they base it on us," Butler explains. "We created our own characters over a period of weeks. We needed a Travolta/Italian Stallion character, a jive-ass Afro-American, a Leif Garrett/Andy Gibb white boy--what are we missing?"

"A Puerto Rican," Soto answers back.
"Yeah, that's right. And now everybody rips off J.J. I wish I'd patented him," says Butler, who might have a hard time patenting a character he describes as "25 percent Gene Simmons, 25 percent Michael Jordan when he sinks a basket and 50 percent my woman."

Disco was probably the least star-driven pop genre ever. A club show in the '70s by a disco artist like Vickie Sue Robinson, for example, would see Vickie Sue safely get her one hit out of the way, then turn into cellophane. The Boogie Knights have reversed that equation with intricate choreography, flashy costumes and lighting effects. The Boogie Knights at work is a spectacle of KISS Alive proportions.

If the Boogie Knights are the KISS of disco, however, then Ron Benewetch of Ron Benewetch Presents, based in Phoenix, is the Phantom of the Park. A local talent hustler, Benewetch has already fashioned his own line of bogus Boogie Knights--the Polyester Platforms, the Disco Pimps, the Disco Divas (an all-female ensemble, natch) and Disco Fever--not to be confused with the Deney Terrio show Dance Fever. (By the way, Benewetch claims he's lined up the former Merv Griffin protege, plus a cluster of disco stars like Donna Summer, for a "Legends of Disco" tour this summer.)

Watching his Disco Pimps kung fu kick their way through Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby" on a recent Tuesday night at the upscale Scottsdale nightspot Jetz, Benewetch seems to preface every sentence with, "Let me stress that I have the utmost respect for the Boogie Knights; they are a great, successful band." Even when he admits, "I told my guys to copy the Boogie Knights 100 percent," he quickly adds, "because they are a great, successful band."

Following the James cover, the Disco Pimps work through a litany of disco standards that are de rigueur for any Perfect World or Benewetch Presents band: "YMCA"--check. "Celebration"--check. The ultimate disco victim song "I Will Survive"--a groaning check.

Benewetch scans the Jetz set, which looks like a Carnival Cruise ship crowd, as opposed to the frat-house beer blasters at Gibson's two nights before. "These people wouldn't go see the Boogie Knights," he says. "They're Scottsdale. I hate to say the word 'yuppies,' but they're Scottsdale young professionals. When we play colleges, though, the crowd's just like the Boogie Knights'."

As with a bad high school dance, everyone at Jetz seems to be waiting for a dozen other bodies to brave the dance floor before they'll deign to shake their groove thang. Disco Pimps lead singer Eric Storch, a.k.a. Alonzo Starr, tries his best Wolfman Jack imitation to break the ice. "I'm getting ready for Thanksgiving--gonna get some turkey in my belly. I love the day."

"The Boogie Knights are a lot funnier," Benewetch admits, "but we're just as good musically." Like one of those mothers whose daughter gets passed over for head cheerleader, Benewetch can't help but compare his enterprise with the front-runner.

"They have name recognition and we don't. They could have a whole line of Boogie Knights clothing, but Jamie [Brown] does nothing. If I had that band, I would merchandise. I created a disco mirror ball that Tommy wears around his neck. See that?"

Whenever Jamie Brown's name comes up, the smile leaves Benewetch's face. "I went to Jamie and said 'let's work together and combine our stable' and he turned me down flat. He was way against it. He said my bands suck."

Benewetch shakes his head. "We paid homage to the Boogie Knights at every show for the first year. When our idols don't respect us, we finally had to put a stop to that.

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