Friday, 24 June 2011
b Store Magazine Essay - 90s London Clubland
January 1990 - a cold, dark month and Britain was a cold, dark place. Thatcher’s reign now spanned three decades and like millions of others, I was unemployed again. Heeding Norman Tebbit’s advice, I got on my bike, well the Tube, and headed to the West End, dog eared CV in hand, to offer my services to any menswear stores that might consider employing me. Having trudged around Oxford Street with no luck, wet and miserable, I decided to cut through a still sleazy Soho en route to hustle and bustle of Covent Garden. But down at the end of Wardour Street, in amongst the seedy clip joints, run-down peep shows and dilapidated pubs, there was a shop and it had a sign in the window, inscribed ‘staff needed’. As I stepped into the brightly lit interior from the damp gloom of the street, little did I know that things were never going to be quite the same again.
Until then I had been a typical London rave kid. Swept up in the suburbs by the backwash from the summer of love in 1988, I was propelled into 1989 on a wave of baggy sweat shirts, brightly coloured wallabies and bad haircuts. No hanging out with Boy George, Paul Rutherford and Martin Fry at Shoom for me - it was all Centre Force radio, raves in yardie clubs in Wood Green, and wild goose chases around the M25 in a beaten up Escort van. I thought I was the epitome of cool but Boys Own fanzine might have described me as the epitome of an ‘acid ted‘. But all that was about to change, because Soho was where the heart of London‘s nightlife beat.
Soon after I started another young man came to work in the shop too. Similar background as me, same sort musical taste, clothes and even hair. Other people I knew had been reluctant to travel ‘up west’ to go out but the new guy and I quickly became friends and now I had a willing partner in dancefloor crime.
Initially, we went to Rage on a Thursday. Held at Heaven, a cavernous club under Charing Cross station, it was a logical progression for us – essentially a weekly rave in one of the biggest clubs in London. A few years later, Rage went on to give birth to drum and bass and as the house orientated DJs like Colin Favor and Trevor Fung had been replaced by orbital scene stars Fabio and Grooverider, break beats had already become more prevalent. The vibe was edgy, the music quite moody, the crowd ethnically diverse but this made for an electric atmosphere.
Along with Heaven, we were going to places like the Crazy Club in the equally vast Astoria. Bigger seemed to mean better for raves but the cooler promotors were downsizing. Nicky Holloway was part of the vanguard, opened the Milk Bar on the road next to the Astoria. Tiny by comparison, holding around 150 people, with its white on white interior, it was a world away from the increasingly lurid coloured rave world as it started to go mainstream.
Not long after it opened, we headed along to a night called Pure Sexy, which in the summer of 1990 was as about as alien name for party as one could possibly imagine. Danny Rampling ran the night with his wife Jenni and they were now reacting against the rave culture that they had helped create with their seminal night Shoom, so it was held on a Wednesday to scare off ‘lilac clad camels’ from the suburbs.
We were blown away - cool people, white Levis, Michiko, Destroy, Sol with lime, and DJs whose names we’d only seen on flyers hanging out at the bar. It was like a social club for London nightlife faces and still the best party in London, sound tracked not by the faster, break beat driven sounds that were predominant at raves but by slower UK music, real house music from the USA, and the flavour of the year, Italian house.
We eagerly signed up for membership (a fiver) and happily returned a number of times that summer until things changed at the shop. My friend went to university and I was left without anyone to hit the town with. Then one morning, an envelope landed on the doormat and it contained a coverted Pure Sexy membership card. By this time people were queuing down the road and round the corner to get in. You had to be taken in by someone in the know or queue and get knocked back by Jenni until she started to recognise you.
The following Wednesday I made the journey back into Soho on my own. Strange as it sounds now, it seemed normal then. The same people were there every week many of whom arrived on their own too, because for regulars it felt like one big special gang. Walking around town you would see people from Pure Sexy and give each other a knowing look or a little nod, the girl in John Richmond, the lads on the Berwick Street stalls - and everyone in Soho’s numerous record shops were regulars, Breeze and Dominic Moir from Quaff often warmed up for Danny, Lewis from Bluebird, and Craig and Oscar from Trax could often be found propping up the bar.
Quickly, people you nodded hello to became people you stopped to chat to became people you regarded as mates became close friends you hung out with.
By this time a proliferation of small clubs had established themselves in the area – Flying, Yellow Book, Ophelia, and things had reached fever pitch at Pure Sexy. That Christmas the Ramplings took some time off to go to Miami and there were ridiculous scenes ahead of the last party before their break. I turned up at Sutton Row and could hardly get into the street as hundreds of people blocked the road outside the entrance trying to get one last fix. Eventually the police were called to clear a path for cars to get but before they arrived, I was squashed next to Jon Marsh from The Beloved, in the melee about 20 yards from the door. Jenni pointed in the direction of Jon and shouted "Him! He can come in". Two bouncers then waded out into the crowd, grabbed me by the shoulders and hauled me, beaming, through the throng to the door. "Glad you could make it" said Jenni as I headed down the stairs to the dancefloor.
Clubbing rather than raving was now what London's clued up kids wanted to do. This popularity meant promoters were looking for ways to capitalise through bigger clubs and larger scale one off parties.
Kinky Disco, housed in the large, fairly tatty Shaftsbury’s probably led the way, providing a haunt for every bloke from the home counties with a King Charles perm and pair of leather trousers. The parties were fun but without question, it was rival night Love Ranch that gained the most notoriety.
Promoted by Sean McLusky and Mark ‘Wigan‘, fresh from their exploits at The Brain on Wardour Street, it took place every Saturday in a chrome and mirrors abomination on Leicester Square called Maximus. It really shouldn’t have worked but somehow, with strikingly designed flyers and a ‘fuck you’ attitude, it captured the zeitgeist perfectly. Whilst long locks still flowed at Kinky Disco, the clippers had come out at Love Ranch and ID Magazine ran a whole article on ‘psychedelic skinheads’ ostensibly because three people in one club had cut their hair.
But the affected Love Ranch attitude was a bit much. They had a banner on the dancefloor that said ’This Is Where It’s Fucking At’ but if you were where it really was at, you didn’t need a banner to tell everyone.
London was now in the grip of progressive house, which has become a byword for boring, convoluted music for blokes but there was actually some very exciting records being made at the beginning. It was a really a reaction to the more slickly produced music from New York, Rome and Rimini. The early progressive house producers started to reclaim harder edged sounds we had grown used to the days of acid house, set them in a new context, forging a distinctive English sound. And in these earlier days, DJs mixed this up with European and American records. We went to one of the early Puscha parties and heard Andy Weatherall, Danny Rampling and Sasha dropping new progressive house, alongside Belgium techno, and Miami deep house. And for brief a moment in time, it really felt like the future.
Puscha really ruled the roost when it came to one off parties for about a year or two. There were others, Sign Of The Times was good, as were the Deluxe parties, and Love Ranch even got involved in few, but Puscha ruled because the parties were special. Each was themed ‘Spend, Spend, Spend‘ dedicated to 1960s pools winner Vivienne Nicholson, ‘Oh So Surreal‘ dedicated to Dali, and the more obviously styled ‘Elvisly Ours’. The décor was lavish for glorified warehouse raves. On entering ‘Oh So Surreal’ you passed giant Dali chairs, before entering the main room which had hundreds of picture frames hanging from the ceiling, some of which had ‘art’ projected onto them. At another, people without tickets were fighting to get in and inside, we heard Milk Bar podium dancer John of the Pleased Wimmin’ play records for the first time.
Whilst Pushca was consistent, the best one-off I ever went to was Extravaganza De Paris. It was meant to take place in the then disused Café De Paris but upon our arrival, we were greeting by a lone long haired chap standing in the doorway who informed us that it had been moved to Old Street. In 1991 being told to go to Old Street was like being told to go to the moon - it was miles away and there was absolutely nothing there. Undeterred though, we jumped into a taxi and headed East. Old Street was empty save for the odd crisp packet swirling around in the wind on City Road but we found the fitness centre and entered what was to prove to be the closest thing to a Roman orgy I have ever witnessed.
There were three rooms, the first a bar where the drinks were free as they had been included in the price of the ticket. I went into room two, which was the gym, with all the equipment stacked in the corner and Kid Batchelor and Phil Perry playing acid house. I was oblivious to room three until a wet girl walked past me in her underwear. I went to explore and found a swimming pool and Jacuzzi! No one had brought any swimwear and as things got messier, more and more people started to strip and dive in. Someone had smuggled some ecstasy back from Amsterdam but they weren’t like anything we’d seen before they were big, brown and looked like they should be administered to horses. The locker room had turned into a drug cubicle room and the whole place seemed to half naked, wet and off their heads, with little or no security to keep anyone in check. It was just brilliant.
Another direction changer for London was the Rampling’s venture into the one-off scene. They brought New York DJ legend Tony Humphries over for a then rare appearance on UK shores. Held in some North West London backwater, pretty much everybody who was anybody in London clubs turned up. I’m not sure how anyone else threw a party that night because every DJ in London was there, eyes fixed on The Hump and his mixing. As a party, it never went wild, but musically, Tony delivered a master class in both mixing and programming, demonstrating a level of sophistication we weren‘t used to in London.
London was now looking in the direction of America again and in this was fuelled in no small part by the Ministry of Sound, which had opened in late 1991 with huge financial backing. Apparently it was based on the Paradise Garage but the Paradise Garage was in Manhattan not the Elephant and Castle. Although ‘The Elephant’ may have been apt location because no matter how much money was thrown at the venue, it could never buy soul and it proved to be a bit of a white elephant for serious club goers. We went on it’s second weekend. Early in the night we were confined to the huge, cold, high ceilinged bar which at the time, only sold juice. That might work in New York clubs where the punch is full of acid but it proved to be less of a success in South East London. We weren’t allowed on the dancefloor to start with and when the time came to let us in, it was pure theatre. The entrance to the room was blocked off with closed, venetian style blinds. Security eventually turned up en masse to open the two door ways, and eager dancers waited with anticipation, the keenest of whom ran through the door and down the short corridor to the main room as soon as blinds were up. I followed and entered the room to find the over enthusiastic ravers running around waving their arms in the air in what looked to me like a big school gym. A proper alcohol license arrived soon enough but the club remained a soulless hall.
Manoeuvres after dark were not just confined to London though. Down the M4 corridor lots of clubs had sprung up - Shave Your Tongue, The Full Monty, Check Point Charley, and infamous Sunday session, Full Circle, that saw the likes of Danny Tenaglia playing in a suburban pub.
Further a field, like minded clubs across the country were be brigaded together as some sort of national Balearic network. Road trips followed to places like Most Excellent in Manchester, Venus in Nottingham, Zap in Brighton, and eventually, Back To Basics in Leeds.
However, clubs like the Ministry of Sound and Back To Basics, were ushering in the era of club brands. The innocence of the Balearic Network would soon be replaced mass marketing, coach tours to likes of Gatecrasher in Sheffield and Cream in Liverpool, package clubbing holidays to Ibiza, John of the Pleased Wimmin’ on Top Of The Pops, and magazines like Mixmag, DJ and Muzik screaming about the latest superstar DJ.
This was big business and London clubland was disappearing rapidly into a vortex of handbag house, feather boas, and shiny shirts. More and more money was made until the bubble finally burst on New Year’s Eve 1999, when greedy club promoters finally throttled the goose that had laid the golden egg.
For many people, overpriced clubs, rubbish music and crap clothes has been their experience of house music in London but for those who were lucky enough to be there to hear Seechi and Blunted Dummies played in small Soho basements, we really had been where it was fucking at.
The Sound Of Soho
1 - Blunted Dummies - House For All (US Devinitive)
2 - Seechi - I Say Yeah/Flute On (Ital Energy)
3 - Shay Jones - Are You Going To Be There? (US ID)
4 - Sheer Taft - Cascades (UK Creation)
5 - Inner City - Pennies From Heaven (US Virgin)
6 - C.J. Bolland - Horsepower (Belgium R&S)
7 - Photon Inc - Generate Power (US Strictly Rhythm)
8 - Soft House Company - What You Need (Ital Irma)
9 - Liberty City - Some Lovin’ (US Murk)
10 - Acorn Arts - Silence (UK X-Gate)
11 - D-Rail ‘Bring it On Down’ (Ital DDD)
12 - React 2 Rhythm - Intoxication (Guerrilla)
13 - The Traveller - Just Me (Belgium Wonka)
14 - Yo! Bots - I Got It (US RCA)
15 - Nightlife City Rama 'Running So Hard' (Ital Mighty Quinn)
16 - The Good Men - Give It Up (Dutch Fresh Fruit)
17 - Phoenix - Plaything (US Big Beat)
18 - Johnny Parker 'Love it Forever' (Ital C.B.R.)
19 - Leftfield - Not Forgotten (Outer Rhythm)
20 - A.S.H.A. ‘J.J. Tribute’ (Ital Beat Club)
With love and thanks to Jamie Fahey, Jason Hughes, and all at b Store Magazine - http://www.bstoremagazine.com/
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