It’s easy to forget in this age of all night parties, after-hours clubs and late licensing that there was once a time when all venues were shut by 2am. The early Eighties were a grim time for going out to party. Most discos were overpriced watering holes where entrance meant being scrutinized by door staff checking that you looked respectable. For some reason white shoes were de rigueur. The first album I owned in the late Seventies, which I had listened to religiously on cassette tape, was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It introduced me to the concept of a glamorous nightlife where DJs mixed the beat and beautiful people danced the night away; this was something strictly lacking in the nightclubs of South East London at that time. There, music was strictly soul boy jazz funk and “sophisticated” meant getting down onto the floor to do the rowing boat dance. Going out dancing in Woolwich on a Saturday night was more a case of surviving the beer boys and avoiding handbags strewn on the dance floor.
By the time the Eighties rolled in I was buying loads of early electronic pop records and had started buying my first twelve inch singles. These were records by artists like The Human League and Soft Cell that had extended mixes aimed at the floor. Soft Cell’s first album, “Non Stop Erotic Cabaret,” was dedicated to the sleaze and darkness of after-hours night life and it opened my eyes to a world of subterranean disco hedonism and madness that I was eager to participate in. You could walk around Soho at this time and hear it echoing out onto the street from dozens of strip bars and peep shows. Its sound was also heavily influenced by the early ecstasy experiments of its protagonists. Cindy Ecstasy, who cooed backing vocals on a number of the tracks, was New York’s main clubland connection for the drug. It was only by finding these facts out much later in the Nineties that the effect that these early electronic dance tunes had made on me then started to make more sense.
Desperate to start exploring this exciting new world I started to go out to clubs I read about in the gossip pages of Smash Hits magazine. Places where pop stars of the day were hanging out and being decadent. At sixteen I would go out to midweek clubs like the Embassy Club in New Bond Street and return home on a night bus, fall asleep and end up at 5am stuck in the wasteland of Thamesmead. Most of my friends would not go out with me, as they were content to stay local. But I wanted to escape the drudgery of South London and explore the good life. I had made my first steps out into the night and was lapping it up.
1984 started with my first ever DJ gig. It was January and I was resident at a weekly Thursday club called the House of Dolls in Farringdon. I spun the records I loved back then, a weird mixture of punk, new wave, electronic, northern soul and some of the first electro tunes I had started buying at Groove Records in Soho. One time a young Alan McGhee of Creation Records came up to me behind the decks and out of a plastic bag shoved into my hand several copies of the first singles by Primal Scream and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The club lasted about three months and I had a blast and was hooked. Clubs I started to go out to at this time were at the tail end of the new romantic scene as it mixed into gothic punk. One of these was the Kit Kat club in Westbourne Grove in West London. It was held on a Saturday night and went on until the unearthly hour of 6am. There was no licensed bar; it was bring your own drinks, there was plenty of dry ice, sucked-in cheekbones, and staggering out into the early morning daylight. It was raided at one point, which made all the tabloids and of course added to the charm. There was also the Bat Cave at Gossips in Dean Street, Soho on a Wednesday night. This was run by members of a band called Specimen and was crammed with an assortment of freaks and weirdos dressed in black. The clubs that took place during the week were always cooler. The dedicated party people were out; none of the lightweight West End tourists who flocked in at the weekend were in attendance. You proved your credentials by returning home in the early hours midweek. Stagger to get a taxi or down to Trafalgar Square where Night Buses filtered people back out to the suburbs.
1985 and I was seeing a girl from Bolton. I used to go up and visit her and we’d go out to clubs in nearby Manchester. Twice we went to the Hacienda, once to see Cabaret Voltaire and another time to see the Swans. In the entrance there was a giant picture of Tony Wilson, looking very Alan Partridge, and you had to fight your way through these giant strips of plastic hanging from the ceiling. Inside it was a cavernous warehouse, industrial sparse chic but very cold as there was hardly anyone in the place. My girlfriend had some gay friends and we used to go out to gay clubs with them. These were always much cooler than straight clubs. They would be in weird out-of-the-way places, go on all night and be a temple of hedonism. It was in one of these in Blackpool that I remember being intrigued by the non-stop electronic dance records that kept playing without a break. I wondered how the DJ kept it going as it seemed to be an endless pulse. These were places where people danced to the hypnotic beat like their lives depended on it.
Back in London I started going out to a club called Pyramid, which was on a Wednesday night and held at Heaven, a mainly gay club underneath Charing Cross station. Wednesday night was mixed night which basically meant they let women and straight guys in, so long as you didn’t look too much like a thug. The club itself was massive with various rooms, and looked like a proper New York nightclub. Upstairs was punk/alternative tunes whilst downstairs on the main floor was this endless mix of throbbing electronic music. The sound system in the main room was loud and heavy with bass drums thumping through your chest. I found myself drifting downstairs more and more as the music was much more interesting. The DJs downstairs were Colin Faver and Mark Moore. Apparently Pyramid was the first club in England to start playing these sparse electronic records coming out of Chicago in 1985. This was my first exposure to House music and I loved it. I would be out all night dancing to this music and often with no sleep I’d be at work the next day trying to keep awake and stay in employment.
The big club at the weekend for all the freaks was the Mud Club, held in a venue called Busbys on Charing Cross Road. It was hosted by Phillip Salon, a legendary clubland figure who had been part of the original Bromley contingent that followed the Sex Pistols. He was known for his outrageous costumes and cutting wit. Phillip would scrutinise everyone entering. If you didn’t meet the grade you wouldn’t be let in and would be told why in no uncertain terms. The music policy was anything goes. It was dressed up decadence and trashy disco all the way.
I then started to go out to the Wag Club in Wardour Street, Soho. The music policy here was strictly black rhythms. Old funk records with James Brown being the catalyst. Pirate radio stations like LWR and Kiss FM had just started broadcasting and were playing all the black music that you couldn’t hear anywhere else. I began listening to Tim Westwood’s hip hop show on LWR as he used to play all the latest electro. He would also play some amazing DJ master mixes from New York’s Kiss FM by people like Chuck Chill Out and Red Alert. Through this show he started a Saturday lunchtime hip hop session at a club called Spats in a basement on Oxford Street. I would go up to Groove Records in Soho to buy one or two of the latest electro imports before heading down to Spats. Some of the records they got into Groove were seriously limited and you had to be quick to get them or they never turned up again. My friends and I would fight over the last copy of a tune.
On the grapevine I had heard about this club called Dirtbox. It had been held in a disused warehouse in Rotherhithe and was the first ever warehouse party that I am aware of taking place in London. My friend and I turned up the next week trying to find it but wandering round the desolate empty streets of the old docks it was nowhere to be found. I vowed to find out more.
The Saturday night ritual was to head to the Spice of Life pub on the Charing Cross Road. This is where all the various clubbers would congregate before heading out to different parties. Here you would hear about these illegal warehouse parties that had started taking place in the run-down old docklands areas near the Thames and around London, Blackfriars and Southwark Bridges. This area was pre-regeneration and was full of empty old warehouses with nobody living nearby. You would get the address and head down after midnight and try and find the party. It would be Five pounds to get in and you could buy Red Stripe beer for a pound – which was sold out of dustbins crammed full of ice. Some of these parties were massive and you would get a real cross section of people crammed into a dirty warehouse and dancing all night. The music was usually rare groove, which was basically obscure funk 7 inches that DJs had started digging up. There was no door policy like at some of the trendier nightclubs so you’d get people dressed up in designer clothes next to punters in jeans and T-shirts dancing all night. Family Function, put on by Norman Jay’s crew, was one of the regular parties I used to go to as well as some do’s by a crew who ran a clothing and record shop in Camden called Soul II Soul. One of the first legitimate parties playing this music was a club called Delirium held at the Astoria. They are meant to be the first legit club to start playing hip hop as part of their music policy. I remember going to a Delirium party where they installed a complete fun fair into the club with a giant Helter Skelter in the middle of the venue. Clubbers would come flying out of the bottom of this straight onto the dance floor. I was knocked over one time by a fully dressed up Leigh Bowery, one of the main scenesters and somebody once seen, never forgotten.
Late 1987 and I’m tuned into pirate radio station JFM listening to a show by Jazzy M. What the fuck are these weird minimal records with pulsing bleeps and mad vocals? Apparently it’s called Acid House. Hmm, interesting…