YES, THE GUYS IN THE BAND are all wearing the same cherry-red nylon jumpsuits with more zippers than seams. And yes, coming here on a Saturday night seemed not so much a night on the town as a night on the Beltway. And yes, sometimes when you look around all you see are people looking around -- mostly to see who's looking around.
Because yes, you're in a top-40 lounge.
And, hey. Nice shoes.
Nice crowd, too; they're here every Friday and Saturday, you know. In fact, as long as people like to go out dancing -- or just to see a band, or have a drink or meet people of the opposite sex who haven't yet had to resort to personal ads -- there will always be crowds in places like this on a weekend night. Or even after work on a Wednesday.
They are not for everyone, of course.
Certainly not for every night. (In fact, if you come to one of these places more than once or twice a week, research shows that you have already resorted to personal ads.)
We are not talking about discos, by the way. Particularly not the '80s version of a disco -- which offers not only a prerecorded beat you can feel in your chest but also TV screens you could be staring into at home, where the drinks are not $3.
In a top-40 lounge, the band may not be terribly original but it is at least alive -- and we customers, some of us being alive ourselves, can thus relate. You can dance to disco videos, sure -- but you can dance to the pot-scrubber cycle of your dishwasher, too. Live dance music is still so much more infectious, spontaneous -- and, in a surprising number of cases around this secretly booming music center called Washington, impressively and passionately done.
Some top-40 bands are much better than others at providing their most appreciated service: namely, being a viable, enjoyable alternative to the show put on by us folks out on the floor (dancing or not, willing or not). Around this area, such bands -- variety veterans such as the Admirals, Second Coming, Third Generation, Sinbad, the Hubcaps, Our Pleasure -- have been together for as many as 20 years, and can make a true dive come alive. Or a night in a well-run club truly memorable.
In any case you will notice, within the following list, that most of the top-40 dance clubs around here are actually around out there -- closer to the likes of Woodbridge, Beltsville and Rockville than to 19th and M or Georgetown. And lately they seem to be sprouting up faster than Pulte can say split-level.
This has something to do with the suburban office- construction boom, particularly around Interstates 66 and 270, which has brought with it a glut of suburban hotels -- and hotels, throughout the free world and in certain sections of Yugoslavia, account for 90 percent of a top-40 band's income.
It also has to do with the ever-growing number of "Washingtonians" dwelling -- and working -- ever farther from Washington. And with the coincidental crush of stepped- up drunk-driving enforcement -- which not only helps make going out close to home more attractive, but also gives clubs incentive to offer patrons something to do besides drink.
Like dance, for instance. Before long, some marketing genius is going to realize how many calories are burned on the dance floor -- and suggest that nightclubs start "positioning" themselves with TV commercials that say something like, "Today's Top-40. Not only good -- but good for you."
You'd better hurry. Before you become demographically desirable -- in other words, while you can still just have a good time -- consider visiting a few of these: MARYLAND
BRASS LANTERN -- 5859 Allentown Way, Camp Springs. 449-7500. Not far from the most accident-prone intersection in Maryland (Branch Avenue and Allentown Road), this big, largely accident-free lounge has been sticking lately to bands that are likewise: the Admirals, Our Pleasure, the New Sensations, Phoenix -- maybe you heard of them. The restaurant upstairs, also part of what was once Joe Theismann's, attracts older folks and people with youngsters; the lounge attracts what you might call older youngsters. Nice layout. Bands every night but Monday, $3 cover Friday-Saturday.
DIAMOND CLUB -- U.S. 301, Waldorf. 843-5330. The Diamond Club is changing its image; it is no longer a real good place to park your Ford, drain a few Buds, hear some country music and go look for a fight somewhere. The music is now top- 40, the clientele dresses better (which is true of Historic Southern Maryland in general), and dancing turns out to be a much better form of exercise than getting beat up. You know what I mean, Verne? Tuesday-Saturday. No cover.
JASON'S -- 10108 Greenbelt Road, Lanham. 794-6313. Seems like this place is always crowded, and usually for a good reason. Most nights that reason is the dance band on stage (at the apex of this weird L-shaped room). The other night that band was the Hubcaps, who are known for putting on a humdinger of an oldies show. "They're great, huh?" a beaming, 25- ish woman said to her companion as they collapsed back at their table after a set of wild dancing. "Aren't you glad I called you?" He sure was. Later, however, they had a fight and he left. But this allowed her to have a long conversation with the guitar player, who is pretty cute. Things work out in Lanham somehow. Bands Tuesday-Saturday, special acts (like the Hubcaps, the Ravyns, Junior Cline) Mondays. Cover sometimes, usually $2 Friday-Saturday.
J.W. GAITHER'S -- 488 N. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg. 948-7747. The recent renovations here -- conceptually and otherwise -- break down this way: Owner Barry Rick has scaled back the live dance music to Friday-Saturday (and Sunday for such specialty fare as oldies by the D.C. Motors, or big- band swing from Time Was orchestra, country-rock from Pylot, etc.). Rick says the music was interfering with a good dinner trade; his dinner regulars, many of whom wear ties and don't get onto I-270 till late, told him so. So the dance floor and stage -- and the Tuesday-Thursday deejay -- were moved from the middle to the far end of this small but tasteful (considering the shopping-center surroundings) room, a dress code was instituted and regulars now own VIP cards which get them in free to shows like last week's by the Drifters. (Upcoming shows include the Marvelettes, the Dovells and the Clovers. The last, incidentally, are clients of Barry Rick Associates, Rick's music- management company.) No cover Friday-Saturday, $3 some Sundays.
MANNY'S -- At the Colonial Manor Motel, 11410 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 881-7868. If you've never been to a top-40 lounge in your life, Manny's is your best possible starting point. Step One: Do not expose yourself as an outlander by asking if they serve Tsing Tao beer. Nobody serves Tsing Tao beer. Instead, sit back, close your mouth and ponder for a moment how long it must've taken the girl in the pink sweater to get into those jeans. You will soon realize that Manny's is a large, largely local hangout, and the crowds are young (or think so), friendly and mostly unfettered. There's no cover, and the drink prices have not been raised that high to compensate. Bands Tuesday-Saturday, and a big guy at the door to make sure you aren't that high, either. Or that young.
CROSSROADS -- Peace Cross, Bladensburg. 927-3636. Not a top-40 club, but people come from such a long way for the live country -- and evermore oldies -- at this landmark club -- and generally have such a good time -- that the Crossroads qualifies. Bands every night but Monday. No cover usually, $5 for big shows like this weekend's by former Drifter Johnny Thunder.
HIBROW LOUNGE -- At the Ramada, 1251 W. Montgomery Ave., Rockville. A smallish place with a very strange name, but also with decent top-40 bands Monday-Saturday. And no cover.
MAINBRACE LOUNGE -- At the Ramada, 5910 Princess Garden Pkwy., Lanham. Nautical decor, no cover, sandwiches till midnight, free popcorn, a top- 40 band that plays all requests and a sign in the lobby that says "Welcome Knights of Columbus Bowlers," which explains some of the requests.
RICK'S -- At the Sheraton Potomac, 5 Research Ct., Rockville. 840-0200. "Never a cover, always out of control," to quote a guy behind the bar of this relatively new (or at least newly popular) high-tech venue -- apparently laid out specifically to allow the largest number of dressed-to-maim customers to have the best possible view of the largest number of other dressed-to-maim customers. The other night, two women with stripes painted on their faces walked by. It was at this point that we radioed Scotty to ask if he had fixed the transporter yet. Earth-moving top-40 bands Thursday-Saturday, deejay otherwise.
SILO INN -- 16800 Georgia Ave., Olney. 924-4242. Top-40 bands Wednesday- Saturday, $1 cover if you don't have dinner.
VISIONS -- 5652 Annapolis Road., Bladensburg. 779-7200. Formerly David's Supper Club, Visions now fills its large dance floor via top-40 and oldies bands Tuesday-Saturday, and an eclectic mix of country deejays, male dancers, W-Lite listener parties and dance lessons (that is eclectic, is it not?) on the off nights. The crowd is slightly older, quieter but otherwise harder to describe than the one at the nearby Crossroads. Cover Friday-Saturday is $2-$3.
WIDOW BROWN'S -- Routes 301 & 3, Crofton. 261-3221. A local nightlife landmark, with top-40 bands on stage Tuesday-Sunday. No cover. VIRGINIA
CHARLIE BROWN'S -- Lake Ridge Shopping Center, Woodbridge. 690-2444. Lest you think you're in deepest redneck land, look closely at what's in the parking lot: Yes, they're pickup trucks, but they're the cute little ones; on the back they say stuff like "Isuzu" or "Toyota." Not "Ford" or "I'm the NRA." This sophisticated-looking place doubled its size and remodeled recently -- a lot like Prince William County itself -- and quite a few single civilians who work at Fort Belvoir but live out here are saving a lot of gas on their social lives. The women especially have caught on; they generally get dressed up and arrive in groups, if not heels. The men are still men at Charlie Brown's, however -- meaning, they're still spending more money on their Isuzus than their wardrobes. Top-40 bands Tuesday-Saturday, jazz some Sundays, some oldies. A $3 cover only when the act is a show band (wherein the last set is usually a full-blown floor show, a la next week's Second Coming, or the Hubcaps June 3).
GALAXY -- At the Sheraton National, Columbia Pike at Washington Boulevard, Arlington. 521-1900. A sophisticated split- level restaurant-lounge with a first-rate, 16th-floor view of the capital city to the north (that would be Washington). Soon to be remodeled but meanwhile a nice place for either a drink (the bar is up in a loft beside the dance floor, where the bartenders are actually competent and friendly) or a dance (the entertainment budget is large, and usually well-spent). Top-40 bands play Monday through Saturday; there's a $3 cover on weekends, when there are fewer French businessmen around drinking brandy and generally lowering the boogie quotient.
NICKY'S -- 642 S. Pickett St., Alexandria. 751-8900. Once you get past the warehouse-heavy neighborhood outside, through the double doors between the rug dealer and the ballroom dancing studio, you'll find yourself in a surprisingly large, crowded restaurant-lounge where a lot of I-395 condo-canyon- dwellers seek refuge from such things as slow elevators, numbered parking spots and The Dreaded HOV-3 -- and dance, five nights a week, to live top-40 bands. If they feel like it. If they don't, there's always dinner in the raised dining deck surrounding the dance floor, or a soundless Orioles game on TV over in the bar, where a lot of people seem to know each other (or are working on it). Bands Tuesday-Saturday. No cover.
TEDDY'S ROUGHRIDER LOUNGE -- At the Ramada Inn, Route 7 at I-495, Tysons Corner. 893-1340. Tommy Jay, lead singer of the Our Pleasure band, has already made a few standard between-set announcements (be kind to your waitress and bartender, etc.), and is ready to choose the evening's winner of a free dinner and a surprise treat at Teddy's -- a particularly well-run, if nondescript, hotel lounge out here in Traffic-Light Country. The winner is a swarthy guy from Falls Church, and the surprise: a belly-dancing performance just for him -- right now. Jay makes the guy sit on a stool on the dance floor and the belly dancer appears. She has red hair; this does not seem to affect her stomach muscles. The crowd -- a decent size for a rainy Wednesday -- definitely enjoys this more than the fellow on the stool. Soon enough, Our Pleasure is back on stage for its fourth of five sets, and the crew from a computer firm in Reston -- one of them was promoted this week -- dominates the dance floor. Which is a good thing because earlier they dominated the fried mozzarella sticks, which are particularly good. So are the live top-40 bands here Monday-Saturday. No cover.
WEST INDIES TRADING COMPANY -- At the Hilton, 6550 Loisdale Road, Springfield. The Springfield Hilton, largely through the consistently earnest fare offered in this sprawling, multi-level lounge, didn't take long to became a kind of upscale community gathering spot after it opened here seven years ago, directly between Springfield Mall and Shirley Highway. There is always live music amid the nautical decor of the West Indies -- usually top-40 or show bands Monday through Saturday, and the consistently big-drawing Buck Creek Jazz Band every other Sunday or so. Most times the crowd is full of people who know each other, wear business suits (there's a politely but firmly enforced ban on jeans after 8 p.m.), tip well and have been here before. When Elvis impersonator Michael Hoover was here earlier this month, for instance, someone asked a cheerful, 40-ish woman at the bar whether Hoover was good. She said: "He's improved." Bands nightly, $3 cover Friday- Saturday.
BOOMERANGS -- 3575 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax. 352-0675. Northern Virginia's only circular, five-foot-high dance floor is usually pretty busy after about 10 on an average Friday or Saturday. Or Wednesday. Before that, Boomerangs is a half-restaurant, half after-work watering hole filled with staff analysts, staff attorneys and assorted well-dressed free agents. Live top-40 bands Monday-Saturday, $2 cover after 10 Friday-Saturday.
FIESTA FRIDAY'S -- In the El Palacio, 146 Maple Ave., Vienna. 938-5506. A new room, small but sound, and current home of veteran local variety band Sugar Bear, the longtime house band at the nearby Marengo Lounge. Bands Tuesday-Saturday, $2 cover Friday-Saturday.
GEORGETOWNE ANNEX -- 9612 Grant Ave., Manassas. 631-9595. Another strong sign of nightlife in northern Prince William County (four years ago, this was a Three Chefs restaurant), the Georgetown Annex has lately been giving high-quality dance and show bands a good reason to stay on I-66 a little longer than usual. Live music Thursday-Saturday and some Sundays. Cover varies.
MARENGO LOUNGE -- At the Marco Polo, 245 Maple Ave., Vienna. A veteran dinner-and-show complex, much like Camp Springs' Brass Lantern -- except the restaurant is downstairs, the lounge upstairs. Also upstairs is the wedding photographer's studio. Live top-40 bands Tuesday-Saturday, $1 cover weekends.
NEW GATE INN -- 14112 Lee Hwy., Centreville. 631-0052. On the map, not all that far from the newer Georgetowne Annex, but distant in other ways: This is a neighborhood pit stop, where the top-40, oldies and country-rock entertainment is chancier, louder -- and more at ease with the crowd. Another good entry point into the dance-club zone. Bands Tuesday-Sunday, $3 cover Friday-Saturday unless you have dinner.
PUFF'S -- 2916 Chain Bridge Road, Oakton. 938-8977. A consistently hopping, oldie-lover's paradise run by two straight-talking women, for whom it was facetiously named. (And who are, like, responsible for what people think of their restaurant. Like, hard to believe.) In any case, a couple of Tuesday nights ago, Puff's was the only one of four nearby clubs with more than six customers in it -- there were more like 40, and 30 of them were on the dance floor. Oldies, top-40, rock, country-rock bands Monday-Saturday. No cover.
RENE'S SUPPER CLUB -- 3251 Old Lee Hwy., Fairfax. Like Puff's, Rene's has endured these last eight years on word of mouth -- most of it about owner- musician Rene Ibanez and his house band (he's just put together a new one), which plays country music every Tuesday and an eclectic mix of oldies, show tunes, standards, Elvis medleys and current hits Wednesday through Sunday. Cover $4 weekends, $1 otherwise.