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Life After Dark: A History Of British Nightclubs
The Quietus , September 13th, 2015 13:45

In an extract from his new book, After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues, Dave Haslam considers the importance of these spaces not just personally and communally, but also in shaping music history

Wonderwalls, gold dust, discos become Tescos

In most cities there’s a club or venue, maybe two or three; places that cast a spell on a particular community, and spaces where a generation or two enjoyed unforgettable gigs, regulars experienced life-shaping moments, or found a lover, or danced until dawn. For so many people, nightclubs and music venues are the source of a lifetime’s music taste, best friends and vivid memories. Someone in their late teens in Portsmouth in 1966 might suggest the Birdcage as an example, and then pour out a hundred mod memories. Someone fourteen or fifteen years older might suggest Cy Laurie’s jazz club in Ham Yard in Soho in the early 1950s, where basement raves went through until dawn. We can trace many examples of the way venues have nurtured communities away from the mainstream, most potently in the history of gay clubbing. For music lovers in South Yorkshire in the 1980s, the Limit and the Leadmill in Sheffield hosted memorable live gigs and club nights but – in common with other significant clubs and venues – in doing so they were providing somewhere that like- minded people gathered, socialised, collaborated even, good times unfolding, ideas sparking into life.

As well as being sites of personal and communal importance, clubs and venues have had a significant role to play in shaping music history; the likes of Eric’s in Liverpool, the Dug Out in Bristol, the Twisted Wheel and the Haçienda in Manchester, the ‘Soul II Soul’ sessions at the Africa Centre, the Maritime Hotel in Belfast. Witness too clubs like ‘UFO’ in London, and venues including Mothers in Birmingham and the Magic Village in Manchester, which nurtured the psychedelic scene; and almost all major acts and DJs fashioned the foundations for their careers performing at grassroots venues. Britain’s small venues have always been crucial in the development of the country’s international reputation for innovative music and fashions.

Poignantly and disconcertingly, there’s no trace left of many of the significant music venues we’ll visit in this book. The Dug Out has become a restaurant, the Magic Village has been demolished, clubs have become car parks, discos have become Tescos. The new Ham Yard Hotel in London, close to Piccadilly Circus, buried a building with an amazing history, including a basement where Cy Laurie held his jazz raves, the same basement which, just a few years later, was the site of a club called the Scene, a pioneering, amphetamine-filled mod hangout which will feature at length in our story. We’ll also hear of other great clubs that have been located in Ham Yard, including the Hambone, founded in 1922 as a bohemian cabaret club and one of the most notorious nightspots of its time. When one regular, Trevor Allen, wrote the Hambone into his novel We Loved In Bohemia, a reviewer described the club as a ‘shrine of anti-convention and the home of talented rebels’.

Big clubs, corporate superstar DJs, the commercial mainstream and dance halls all feature in the chapters that follow but, to be honest, most of the time I’m prejudiced in favour of the dives. Or if not the dives as such, then the pioneers; the clubs and venues that have innovated not imitated, who have shaken things up. That’s when cultural activity is at its most exciting and effervescent, creating new scenes and future possibilities, with inspired and maverick pioneers ignoring or pushing against the mainstream – even if, as with the New Romantics, for example, they become the new mainstream. But that’s fascinating, too; how misfit kids and talented rebels gathered under a mirrorball between four walls of a venue can knock culture into a new phase. These venues are at the heart of our story. Clubs and venues like Bolton Palais, Nottingham’s Rock City and the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow have played a central role in towns and cities for years and become embedded in the cultural and social life of a community in the same way that, traditionally, a university, cathedral or a factory might have done. Liam Gallagher recently explained the attraction of the Haçienda: ‘For people who went there it was their church.’ The depth of these connections explains why news of the closure of venues can be greeted like a dagger in the heart of the city, with shock and mourning.

It’s hard to imagine what Liverpool would be like if the Cavern or ‘Cream’ had never existed, or a career for the Animals without the plethora of jazz and r&b clubs in Newcastle. And what would the 1930s have been like without Mecca dance halls? Through the following chapters, we’ll celebrate some of the more remarkable, unforgettable, distinctive and pioneering clubs and venues around the country. We’ll also discover the identity of the man dubbed ‘King of the Ravers’, find out the club Muhammad Ali visited, the venue where blow jobs were all the rage and the music hall where a performer killed a heckler.

Over the following pages we’ll go nationwide, from Newcastle upon Tyne to Newport in South Wales. Arguably the most significant Newport venue of recent decades is TJ’s, a live music venue run by the late John Sicolo, which created and nurtured an alternative scene in the 1980s, a compelling example of the value of venues that kick against musical and cultural homogeneity. When John Sicolo died in 2010, one contributor to a BBC radio show in his honour said TJ’s was invaluable to teenagers in the Welsh valleys who weren’t at home in either the ‘strait-jacket masculinity’ of rugby clubs or the high street discotheques. It’s also said that TJ’s was where Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love. We’ll travel the country, but travel back in time too. It’s not only the different experiences of each generation that are intriguing but the similarities too. When you’re eighteen you hit the town and tend to think you and your friends are the first to dis- cover cool venues, staying up late, losing your friends, losing your way, but this is Friedrich Engels writing about Manchester in the early 1840s: ‘On Saturday evenings, especially, when wages are paid and work stops somewhat earlier than usual, when the whole working class pours from its own poor quarters into the main thoroughfares, intemperance may be seen in all its brutality.’ Despite the reputation of the British for being reserved, there are long traditions of hedonism in this country, citizens living for the weekend. When Engels was writing, for the urban poor after a week of being ground down by factory bosses and mill owners, intoxication and music wasn’t just escapism; it was like sticking two fingers up at the bosses. It was as much an exercise in reclaiming life as enjoying it.
Life after dark can be chaotic and perilous, something of a secret time, a lost time, when in our actions what’s normal doesn’t apply, a chance for some casual flirting or sexual encounters, to seek pleasures, to look different, to be different, to be lost in music, to indulge in some daft craziness that in the morning we may regret but the following week may repeat. Some months ago a friend of mine went to a Bank Holiday event at a club in Leeds. It was crowded and underlit. There was a group of lads in there he described as ‘shady’. They were dealing, intimidating, occupying the dark corners. Occasionally they took off, barging across the room and, when a girl stood up to them, she fell to the floor and they started kicking her. The doormen seemed some- how in league with or in awe of the gang and it wasn’t until much later that they were cleared off the premises. Some venues might feel like home to you, but there are also always nightclubs and venues you may not want to revisit the next week, let alone three decades later.

As we’ll see over the coming chapters, life after dark is under- documented and often hidden, and occasionally it’s on the edge of the law or in defiance of it: a tale of dark corners, gangland protection rackets, errant doormen, moral panics, ecstasy deaths. Actresses doing cocaine, cross-dressers, bare-necked girls getting off with sailors in Liverpool music saloons, we’ll meet them all.

The approach in this history isn’t encyclopedic, in the sense of attempting to include every nightclub or venue that’s made a contribution to life in British towns and cities, and to the progress of every band or genre; there are thousands of places that could make such claims. What follows includes a broad outline, from Victorian music halls, through the jazz age to the present day, via beat clubs, mods, psychedelic happenings, funk, soul and rave. But also, at points through the story, a number of key clubs are docu- mented at length, and there’s some detailed focus on specific and significant bands, DJs, scenes and promoters. My own time pro- moting live shows and DJing at clubs like Haçienda has fed my passion for nightclubs and music venues. But the larger picture inspires me too; the sense that people for centuries have made or found their special nightlife spaces, in the same cities as us, maybe the same streets. I love having that sense of kinship with life after dark in the past. I love the idea propounded by the writer Aldo Rossi that there’s a collective memory attached to buildings. Maybe we can also tease out some of these memories?

Just a short walk from Ham Yard, deeper into Soho, another building with a rich nightlife history still stands: it’s 69 Dean Street, on the corner of Meard Street. In the autumn of 1978 a club night called ‘Billy’s’ opened in the basement; the venue, at the time, was called Gossips. Billy’s was hosted and promoted by Steve Harrington, who, emboldened by punk (and having seen the Sex Pistols in Caerphilly), moved from South Wales and took to calling himself Steve Strange. At Billy’s, Strange worked alongside his flatmate Rusty Egan (from the band the Rich Kids), who became the club’s DJ. The ‘promoter’ in the world of clubs and venues is the person who originates an event. Some venues have an in-house pro- moter; many promoters work independently though, as Steve Strange did at Gossips. The independent promoter has to find the talent, secure a venue – perhaps by hiring a hall or club, perhaps taking a midweek night because it’s cheaper – sort out the ticketing and publicity and accept the financial risk. Done right, and built on good foundations, promoting can be a lucrative activity. During one recent financial year, live music promoter Simon Moran, founder of SJM Concerts, was said to be the highest-paid director of any business in the northwest of England, receiving a salary of £6.9m.

A first visit to the Haçienda might have inspired you to change your music collection or your wardrobe, or you might have met people you’d fallen in love with. But in addition, important clubs and venues were and are also a catalyst for activity outside of their wonderwalls: bands, DJs, a legacy, a mythology. The story doesn’t end when the last customer leaves.

The people who organised and frequented Billy’s (along with graduates of similar clubs of the era – including the Rum Runner in Birmingham, and Blitz, Strange and Egan’s next ven- ture) went on to define and disseminate a sound and a flamboyant look that became known as ‘New Romantic’. The scene had its genesis in two or three small, left-field clubs. This is where it starts: clubs and venues. And it was the same with the mods, with the Beatles, with the Sex Pistols, with acid house. It’s within the four walls of the club that the first stirrings of a new wave are to be found.

The Dean Street Townhouse hotel and restaurant now inhabits the building at 69 Dean Street. It’s in an area that was semi-derelict and ill-lit in the crumbling Soho of the 1970s, but now has a monied, satisfied atmosphere. In the restaurant the wallpaper features muted shades of green in a design reminiscent of the early 1950s, the Festival of Britain era. When I visited recently I met some of the staff, young and helpful, and willing to show me around. Cecilia, Jacob, Josh and I wandered upstairs and down, but found no sign of the building’s contribution to the story of London’s nightlife – a contribution that’s much more than housing Billy’s. I told them some of the people who’d danced and partied at 69 Dean Street – Henri Matisse, Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Astaire and Noël Coward – but I’m not sure which names they recognised from the depths of the past, nor those from more recent history like Boy George, Steve Strange, and Robert Smith of the Cure. Robert Smith visited when a club called the ‘Batcave’ opened on the top floor of the building in July 1982. Marc Almond, too; they knew Marc’s name, and told me he sometimes visits the Townhouse’s restaurant and has a bite to eat. I dropped more names, and then explained the story.

Nos. 69 and 70 Dean Street were two separate homes, built in the 1730s by John Meard for aristocratic families at a time when Soho was a self-contained district, with a reputation for housing a cosmopolitan community of traders, architects and artists. In 1834, composer Vincent Novello and his son Joseph took over No. 69, from where they ran a music publishing business; as it developed, they erected two upper floors to accommodate a printing press before purchasing No. 70 in 1875, creating the first link between the two buildings. In 1901, both Nos. 69 and 70 were turned into industrial premises and then in the mid-1920s the Gargoyle Club was opened on the upper floors by aristocrat David Tennant, which was reached via a lift. The grandest spaces for dining and dancing in London in the 1920s included the Café de Paris. But the Gargoyle was different, more intimate, less staid, and open all hours. And because you had to find the entrance door and then take a lift to the top floors, it had an air of secrecy. The subscription was four guineas per annum.

By day the Gargoyle tended to be the haunt of artists and writers looking for a drink and a chance to escape work. At night-time it became a favourite with the so-called Bright Young Things, a group of aristocratic types with a conspicuously dis- solute lifestyle given over to spectacular parties. Many of the leading Bright Young Things were regulars at the Gargoyle, including Brenda and Napper Dean Paul, and Stephen Tennant. Stephen was owner David’s homosexual brother and a man, by all accounts, of much style and theatricality, with a ‘prancing’ gait and an ultra-flamboyant dress sense. At the end of the 1920s he represented fashion at its most extreme, and had taken to wearing lipstick and gilding his fair hair with gold dust. If he’d time-travelled forward fifty years, there’s no doubt Stephen Tennant would have been ushered straight in by the door staff at Billy’s.

The 1920s witnessed a boom in public dancing; new dance halls were opening and other venues were installing new, improved dancefloors. The ballroom on one floor of the Gargoyle, with a jazz orchestra in attendance, was a major feature but there was also a coffee room and drawing room, and a rooftop terrace and bar. Among the regular visitors to the Gargoyle, one name stands out: Henri Matisse. Matisse was a personal friend of David Tennant and regularly visited the Gargoyle in the early years of the club; Tennant ended up with two Matisse paintings gifted to him by the artist. He displayed one of these (The Red Studio) in the bar at the Gargoyle and the other (The Studio, Quai St Michel) on the club’s stairs.

In the post-war period, the Gargoyle became a little passé, and never regained its pre-war status as the original in-crowd moved on. Its membership list remained impressive in the 1950s, though – it included Lee Miller (the gorgeous, talented photographer and muse of Man Ray) and the spy Guy Burgess. In the 1950s, while the Gargoyle remained open on the upper floors, another private club, the Mandrake, opened in the basement. Although its official address was 4 Meard Street, owing to various linked basements, it shared the same building. The proprietor of the Mandrake was Boris Watson, who acquired the leases of adjoining basements and knocked through walls until he was able to put a music room in the cellar, the same cellar space that would be used by Billy’s in the 1970s, directly underneath where the restaurant now is.

As well as his passion for demolishing partition walls, Boris Watson loved chess – he invested in a dozen chess boards and made them available to all patrons – but it was mainly a private drinking club, one of many in Soho. The strategy was to create a constitution, a committee and a membership list. English licensing laws in the 50s stipulated that pubs stopped serving at two-thirty in the afternoon, shut at three and did not reopen until seven at night, but the law could be swerved by means of private-club licences, which allowed for drinking in the afternoon and after-hours.

I explained to the staff at the Dean Street Townhouse that if they’d been here one evening in the late 1950s, the chances are there would be two jazz bands playing on the premises; up the lift in the Gargoyle there would be Alec Alexander’s band, and down the twisting stairs in the Mandrake an in-house combo, including pianist Joe Burns, Percy Borthwick on bass and Robin Jones on drums, which welcomed impromptu jazz sessions with visiting musicians.

After looking around the basement of the Townhouse, where many of the rooms are now store cupboards, Jacob took me to the top floors, where there are beautiful bedrooms and the same rich, hushed ambience as the restaurant. I didn’t tell him that after Gargoyle’s had shut, the top floor had become a strip club; if I had, I’d have felt the need to whisper it.

On an assignment for The Face late in 1982, Derek Ridgers took some photographs of people involved with Gossips, and looking at these, I realised with Cecilia that the club entrance was down the side of the building; not on Dean Street but round the corner, on Meard Street. There are two fire exits there now. It seems to be the case that the door on the left was where the lift would have been to take Stephen Tennant and friends up to his brother’s Gargoyle club, and Marc Almond up to the Batcave. And the door on the right would take you to the ground floor and down into the basement, where artists like Edward Burra might spend an afternoon dining at the Mandrake, and late in 1978 Steve Strange, peering at the outfits in the queue, would grant entry to the lucky few, down an unmarked stairwell, to a couple of dark rooms and a mirrorball.

On Meard Street we recreate the scene as best we can. Cecilia stands outside the fire exit, strikes a pose and we laugh. Jacob joins us and takes a look at the photographs. He says he’d heard from his dad it was a bit rum around these parts in the old days.

Life After Dark is out now, published by Simon & Schuster