It’s been a while since I went to a club-club. Life is in a different phase for me right now, which is fine, though sometimes (usually when the bass kicks in on a particularly good record) I yearn for it, like a sled dog hearing a call to the wild. Maybe one day.
The story of the septuagenarian Polish couple who, visiting their daughter in London, bought tickets to Fabric and stayed out until 5am being comped free drinks by venue staff made my heart sing, and made me rethink potential retirement plans for me and Mr Laverne (a former resident DJ at Ibiza’s Space). And last week gave me pause to consider my life in nightclubs, as I hosted a Q&A at London’s V&A with DJ Annie Nightingale, discussing her 50 year career. The Eel Pie Club in Twickenham was Annie’s first haunt in the early 60s. She fell in love with the pop and rhythm and blues played there and caught the bug - she’s been looking for new floor fillers ever since.
Talking to Annie was funny and fascinating, but also poignant. Many of the venues where the music scenes she championed were born are struggling, or gone altogether. According to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, almost half of the UK’s clubs have closed their doors over the course of the past decade. The problem is most acute in London, which has also lost a third of its small music venues since 2007. Rents are rising, developers are circling - many are being sold off and turned into flats. Meanwhile, those that survive are being put under pressure by councils over noise as the areas surrounding them gentrify. It isn’t just the capital, however. The West Midlands lost 49 venues between 2005 and 2015. In the same decade the number in Brighton dropped from 194 to 118. Meanwhile, in Glasgow, legendary venue The Arches closed its doors last year, despite a passionate campaign to save it.
The need to get together and experience music runs deep within us - right down into the roots of human culture, influencing the development of everything from religion to speech. There is a theory in anthropology that human beings learned to talk so that we could sing together, to help communities bond - information exchange was just an extra that turned out to be quite handy.
This is elemental stuff - no wonder being part of a club scene has such a huge effect on a person, even if it happened decades ago. After my chat with Annie I opened a Facebook thread, asking friends which venues they had frequented in their formative years and what those places meant to them. A joyous, three-day discussion ensued, showing how powerful the feeling of belonging created by a good club is, and that though music scenes change, the clubbing experience is somehow a universal one.
So my Auntie Sharon’s memory of taking to the floor of The Chelsea Cat in South Shields in a silver-trimmed jumpsuit, disco dancing to Liquid Gold was just as compelling and fabulous as bonafide pop hero Gary Kemp nominating London’s legendary Blitz Club and my brother’s better half remembering the summer of UK Garage at Croydon’s Blue Orchid. The Hacienda in Manchester, Liverpool’s Planet X, Sheffield Leadmill and Limit, Leeds Orbit and Pleasure Rooms, Optimo and the Art School in Glasgow, Flavour and Clwb for Bach in Cardiff, Prism and The Zodiac in Oxford, Birmingham’s Edwards No 8 and Hummingbird Bristol Dugout and Wolverhampton’s “Dorch” were just a few of the clubs and club nights that came up, as well as London’s Heavenly Social, Wag Club, Love Ranch, Subterranea, Dome, Trash, Heaven, Eve’s, LA2, Turnmills, Fabric…it was an intoxicating list. Unfortunately a large proportion of the places mentioned now exist only in the imaginations of former clubbers, and on estate agents’ listings.
My Auntie Sharon’s memory of taking to the floor of The Chelsea Cat in South Shields in a silver-trimmed jumpsuit, dancing to Liquid Gold is just as fabulous as bonafide pop hero Gary Kemp's of London’s legendary Blitz Club
The problem is not the music. British music is still as exciting and innovative as it ever was - perhaps even more in the digital landscape, where (although it is almost impossible to make a living as a musician) it is cheaper and easier to make and release music than in the past. Every indicator except clubland speaks to the vibrancy of the music scene: the proliferation of festivals, an increase in warehouse parties, an uptick in vinyl sales, increasing support for record shops, the fact that I have to empty my Inbox at BBC6 Music every five days to stop it exploding… There is a huge appetite for club culture online, too. Just look at Boiler Room - the platform has only been going six years and has become a global phenomenon, streaming live sets from over 100 cites worldwide to an audience of millions, becoming a crucial platform for DJs and artists. People are hungry for these experiences, but they can’t sate their appetites in city centres.
Why does this matter? To be completely frank, the economic case for a thriving club scene is not what moves me. I want our cities to remain culturally vibrant and diverse. I want young people now to experience the culture and community that I did. Being part of an alternative culture makes you see the world in a different way. It broadens your mind. The children of wealthy people have easy access to that kind of thing - travel, books, art, theatre trips… For kids growing up where I did, Saturday night was sacred because it was their equivalent. Like a sacrament, going out was surrounded by rituals - from planning your outfit to procuring the booze. It was a chance to escape the world, transcend your own particular circumstances - to live differently, in your imagination.
In my case sneaking into the Newcastle Riverside (now - guess what? - luxury flats) underage changed my life. I formed a band, moved to London and ended up with a career in broadcasting. I’m not the only one. The people I knew then went on to their own adventures that began in the pursuit of a good time. As musicians, writers, artists and academics or just human beings with a wider perspective. I had no expectation that going to clubs would change my life. I just wanted to have fun. Speaking of which, fun isn’t a very fashionable concept to champion but whatever happened to having a good time? There should be places to have fun in our cities. I don’t want the recreational life of the country to be confined to the outskirts of towns, or just to pop up at the weekend in the countryside.
A city isn’t just a place, it’s a collection of ideas and hoped-for experiences. When gentrification gets out of control it results in monoculture - narrow, sanitised, straight, white, corporate. It flushes out all the ideas because it gets rid of the people who have them and replaces them with money. It limits the range of experiences on offer. Eventually, in every sense but geographically, places cease to exist. I lived in Camden as a teenager in the 90s. It would have been as impossible to imagine the neighbourhood without The Black Cap as it would to imagine Soho without Madame Jojo's. Now both are gone.
Just as nobody looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep, nobody longs for cities that have plenty of shops and coffee chains, but fall silent when the sun goes down
There are different kinds of rich, of course, but even if you’re more about the economy than diversity, supporting clubs makes sense. Firstly there’s direct employment and revenue - according to the Night Time Industries Association 8% of the UK workforce is employed in the sector they represent, which contributes £66 billion to the UK economy per year. Then you have the knock-on economic benefits. One of the ways we sell Britain - to the world is by using our “soft power”. The cultural capital which makes us an interesting place. But while politicians and business leaders are happy to help themselves to a pinch of pop culture stardust when they need it - showing off their collection of contemporary art, paying tribute to Bowie, positioning their business as forward-thinking and creative by moving its HQ to East London or Kings Cross - they’re often squeamish about the place that culture comes from.
But perhaps there is hope. The Night Time Industries Association have launched a grassroots campaign to champion the nocturnal economy nationwide (follow @wearethentia for updates) and London’s new mayor Sadiq Kahn has picked up on his predecessor’s plan to appoint a “Night Mayor” by promising to make protecting London’s nocturnal culture a “top four” priority. Kahn intends to engage a “night czar” to represent nightlife businesses at City Hall. He also plans to make the city adopt the “Agent of Change” principle, which means that if a new club opens they are responsible for soundproofing, but if developers build near an existing venue the cost falls on them. The 24 hour tube service which kicks in this summer should also help boost the night-time economy (and reduce noise for residents as people can disperse more quickly). The mayor told Dazed and Confused “I don’t want young and creative Londoners abandoning our city to head to Amsterdam, to Berlin, to Prague where clubs are supported and allowed to flourish”.
The only constant in culture is change. I hope things change for the better and that our music scenes move back to our city centres. Nobody looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep, the saying goes. Very true. In much the same way nobody longs for cities that have plenty of shops and coffee chains, but fall silent when the sun goes down.