69 Dean Street is an inauspicious place to start a revolution. Today, it’s now a posh Soho hotel and dining room, but back in 1978 it was a dilapidated club that had long since seen better days. The Bowie night that began here was a laboratory for every peacock and fancy dan this side of Birmingham New Street, as well as providing half of all the pop stars of the 1980s – Marilyn, Visage, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Hayzi Fantayzee, Sade, Bananarama, the list is endless.
Like many clubs in our story here, it grew from dank beginnings of sticky carpets and past-its-best chrome to send shockwaves into the world of pop and culture. Mark Moore, the house pioneer who later found fame with S-Express, recalls being taken there by a friend, Bowie Teresa: “She said, ‘We’re going to go to this great club, which is full of weirdos, freaks, rent boys and prostitutes. It’s called Billy’s. It’s a Bowie night and they play Bowie, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk.’ I went there and it was Steve Strange’s first club with Rusty Egan DJing.”
It was unique because it was the birth of the single nightclub, the door picker and the promoter-led party. Egan and Strange took a dead Tuesday night and offered to fill it with the flyer’s promise of ‘fame, fame, fame’, all to a soundtrack of Euro-disco and, of course, David Bowie. It sparked a furious array of clubs in London and beyond: Club For Heroes, Camden Palace, The Wag and, most notably, The Blitz (the New Romantics were originally called Blitz Kids after the club). In Manchester, there was the prototype for the Haç, Pips, while in Leeds at the Warehouse, the cloakroom boy, Marc Almond, was inspired to start Digital Disco, before finding pop infamy with Soft Cell.
Until the arrival of acid house, most British DJs were obsessed with black America and it musical offspring: soul, funk, disco, electro, hip hop. Our version of it, bar a few notable exceptions were pallid imitations of the real thing. Outside of this tight-knit scene in London it was all about jazz-funk, which had grown from its origins in clubs like the Lacy Lady in Ilford, Blackpool Mecca and Berlin in Manchester to become the sound of the British underground.
By the early 1980s something else started happening that split the jazz-funk scene and provide a path towards the house music revolution. In some places it didn’t even have a name, but in Manchester they called it electro-funk and, eventually, simply electro. Greg Wilson in Manchester’s Legends led the charge. “I always date it back to D Train’s ‘You’re The One For Me’, claims Wilson. “Then there were Electra’s ‘Feels Good’ and Peech Boys’ ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’. The first one where we went: this is so different; it doesn’t sound like anything else was Peech Boys. But ‘Planet Rock’ was the one that split the scene. No self respecting jazz funk DJ was gonna play this.” Another influential DJ helped coax London from soul to electro was Tim Westwood whose sessions at an Oxford Street hovel called Spatz pointed towards a different future. “Tim was in it from dot, man,” asserts drum and bass don Fabio. “He changed the game.” In Bristol, came a crucial party crew The Wild Bunch, although cut from the same jib as Spatz and Legends, had a distinctly Bristolian take on it all, and produced both Nellee Hooper, who went on to work with Bjork, and Massive Attack.
The all-dayers were an import aspect of 1980s clubbing. These huge events where when the various tribes untied from different cities and staged large scale events for anywhere up to 3-4,000 dancers. There were regular events being staged in the Locarno in Birmingham, Nottingham Rock City as well as the National Soul Festival in Purley and the Caister Weekenders. They were also an important outlet for a new form of music arriving from the US: house. “We was played it alongside Mantronix or boogie,” explains early house pioneer Rhythm Doctor. “It didn’t seem to matter. It was obviously faster, but it wasn’t seen as something different.”
House music found pockets of adherents all over the country. Manchester was an early adopter via DJs like Mike Pickering and Hewan Clarke at the Haçienda and other spots around town. In Nottingham, an employee at local record store Selectadisc, Graeme Park, had started playing it alongside the electro and hip hop, while in Sheffield, DJ Parrot was featuring it in sets alongside a wide variety of music that included everything from Cabaret Voltaire to electro. “You’d be buying these Chip E records thinking, ‘What the fuck is this?’” remembers Parrot. “But it seemed to fit perfectly with the vibe of Cabs records. Then we started getting black kids coming down because, at the time, things were very segregated and the black and white crowds didn’t really mix.”
But London was ruled by rare groove. This was a movement that had grown through the popularity of pirate stations like KISS and warehouse parties run by sound systems like Soul II Soul. The music was often retro, rediscovering great old funk and disco tunes (Maceo & The Macks’ ‘Across The Tracks’ and ‘I Believe In Miracles’ by The Jackson Sisters were its dual anthems). At its helm were DJs like Judge Jules, Jazzie B and Norman Jay, whose Original Rare Groove Show was one of the finest Monday night parties.
House still had its supporters in the capital, among them Evil Eddie Richards at Camden Palace, The Watson brothers at Delirium and Mark Moore at Pyramid, who remembers it as a mission to convert: “Most people hated house music and it was all rare groove and hip hop. All my friends at the Mud Club were like, ’Why do you have to keep playing this house music?’ They didn’t get it and it took ecstasy for them to get it. I thought, ‘I’m not gonna give in’. I’d play ‘Strings Of Life’ at the Mud Club and clear the floor. I remember when S-Express took off, in my first interview they asked me why they thought house hadn’t taken off in London and I said it was because the drugs were all wrong.” Indeed they were.
Then four DJs went to Ibiza for a week and came back with the right drug: ecstasy. They were Johnny Walker, Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling. Just as important was the other DJ who had invited them over: Trevor Fung, the catalyst. Inspired by Alfredo’s eclectic sets at open-air Amnesia, they resolved to import the atmosphere and vibe of Ibiza back to the clammy streets of London in clubs like Shoom, Future, Spectrum and The Trip.
In Manchester, it spread like wildfire through the cities’ clubs. In The Haçienda, house music went from being a secret held by clued up black kids to mass hysteria. “Once it exploded, it was weird, you could watch from Friday to Friday and see the crowd change in colour,” recalls Haçienda resident Mike Pickering. “In those days, most of the black kids would smoke weed, but they weren’t into chemicals. But then when ecstasy came in it wiped it all out. It was so quick. It was over about four or five weeks.”
Acid house changed Britain. It democratised the dancefloor, killed the door policy and turned British clubs into places of inclusivity. Suddenly, it was fun to go dancing and everyone was invited. From those small clubs in the big cities came the giant raves that fanned out from industrial wastelands and into the M25 orbital belt: Biology, Sunrise and Genesis, while in places like the south coast Sterns in Worthing and the Zap in Brighton stood tall. In the north, the party spread from Manchester out to Blackburn, where abandoned warehouses and industrial units became party centres for one night only: Unit 7, Sett End, Bubble Factory. These were commercialised versions of the idealised original parties, but on a grander (and more profitable) scale.
By the end of 1991, two things were happening in electronic music. The first was noticeable splits in the music, between a definite harder edged sound and the more traditional Chicago/New York recordings. Secondly, there was an influx of money into club development, with the opening of the Ministry Of Sound and the launch of gay all-nighter Trade. It was the beginning of the superclub. The harder music would eventually morph into a separate techno scene and one of Britain’s first indigenous dance genres, drum and bass. Fabio recalls his and Grooverider’s early radical experiments in sound at their club Rage: “It was just the craziest mixture of extreme madness. The old school crowd at Rage just left, so it went from being this posey night with loads of girls and well-dressed people, to being ghetto. We ghettoed out the whole fucking place. You didn’t know whether you were gonna get killed down there or not. Great!”
On the techno side, clubs like Pure in Edinburgh, helmed by Twitch and Brainstorm, Morley in Yorkshire’s legendary Orbit, House Of God in Birmingham and London’s Lost, led by Steve Bicknell, carried the torch. But as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill pushed house music into clubs, the government response to thousands of young people dancing in fields so began the era of the superclub – and some in the most unlikely of places. There was Renaissance in Mansfield, Golden in Stoke and Cream in Liverpool, while Shindig in Newcastle and Leeds’ Back To Basics finely balanced between punk rock attitude and superclub success. On a similar tip but catering for a largely black crowd was the celebratory Twice As Nice, a Sunday shindig that brought back the dress-up vibe as well as helping propel UK garage into the charts. This house hegemony had a stranglehold on the UK clubbing scene for the rest of the 1990s, though the refuseniks that had promoted other sounds or refused to be bound by the four-to-floor tyranny, continued to resist.
One of its fiercest proponents, Pure’s JD Twitch demonstrated this disaffection with it all, when he began a Sunday evening club in Glasgow with friend JG Wilkes called Optimo, dedicated to playing, well, pretty much anything. In Manchester, Haçienda refugees the Unabombers founded the long-running night The Electric Chair, while in London there was Gilles Peterson’s That’s How It Is, Coldcut’s epic Stealth and DJ Harvey’s New Hard Left (both in the pioneering Hoxton club The Blue Note).
The excesses of the UK’s house scene came crashing down on New Year’s Eve 1999, when clubs attempting to cash-in on the millennium celebrations by overcharging (some tickets were as high as £150), saw in 2000 with half-empty dancefloors. One of the real successes of the new era, which eschewed the superstar DJs in favour of an avowedly underground approach, was Fabric in London’s Smithfield. Home, which launched at the same time, brought in Danny Tenaglia and Paul Oakenfold, failed and closed shortly after opening, Fabric is still open today, nearly 14 years later.
The fallout from the superclub era was personified by the success of Gatecrasher in Sheffield, which was best summed up by Alexis Petridis writing in the Guardian, who said, “you could either dress like a rapper or one of the Strokes and be in a with a chance with the opposite sex, or you could dress like an imbecile and go clubbing.” Clubbing was no longer cool. In fact, it had become decidedly naff. It needed to go underground again. And it did.
Perhaps the best example was FWD>>, the proto-dubstep club which began in 2001 at the Velvet Rooms, but soon became synonymous with Thursday at Plastic People amid an acrid fog of weed. It was not only the place that incubated the sounds of everyone from Wiley to Skream, but it retained its own intimate atmosphere. “There was a real community,” explains Emma Warren. “When Martyn played for the first time, he was so good that people started a petition to get him back again. There was a sense that people felt as if it was theirs.”
Large clubs have opened and closed, while deep in the boondocks, small basements flicker with surprise and strobe delights. The superclub may never return. The success of Shoreditch and its subsequent takeover by TOWIE aficionados, has led to London clubbing reaching farther into the most unlikely of settings (having waltzed through Dalston towards Stoke Newington, we’re currently ploughing through the formerly desolate Hackney Wick). Elsewhere, the small parties and the DJ collectives have stopped waiting to be discovered and are now doing it for themselves. It’s really how good clubs were created: with a lot of heart and a minimal bank balance.