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By Kate Hutchinson
don’t have a dancefloor epiphany that stands out when I think about the great adventure of London nightlife. They are all blurry snapshots, a giant mess of memories that blend into an eternal hug.
The first burst of Room 1 at Fabric, with the sound that trembles in your bones. A secret warehouse location. Marathon DJ sets, then Marathon Kebabs on Chalk Farm Road. Acid house. Electro-house. Vogue house. Weatherall sipping brandy, playing rockabilly at a stripclub. DJ Derek playing reggae off a MiniDisc. Ball pits, hot tubs, banquets draped with naked people. Rowdy night buses, the Southbank lit up like a lava lamp, nodding off before your stop and ending up at the depot. Again. Losing your friends, finding your friends. Knowing you’re all part of something.
Often I would write that London is “the clubbing capital of the world” from my desk in the Time Out offices, where, in my twenties, it was my job to be as hungover as possible and stay out until 4am every night. I still believe that to be true. Berlin may have Berghain and Ibiza, super clubs, but in London you can get high on variety. The thrill of the capital’s club culture lies in its refusal to be monolithic, the sounds and scenes that intertwine in the constant pursuit of pleasure.
“London club culture is strikingly resilient. It reacts and adapts, it shapeshifts”
In the mid-2000s, when I had the ludicrous title of ‘clubbing editor’, there was an important party, if not three, on every night of the week across town. Mondays meant Trash, Erol Alkan’s seminal indie disco at The End in Holborn. Wednesday was the post-electroclash party Nag Nag Nag at the Ghetto in Soho. Thursdays was Yo-Yo at Notting Hill Arts Club, with whichever superstar rapper was rolling through that evening. And you could hear the evolution of bass music at FWD>> or count the trilbies at Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues. Sundays, T Bar, if you could get past the infamously wretched ‘list bitch’. Or down in Vauxhall, Horse Meat Disco.
If you planned it right, it was possible to go out for a whole week non-stop and still afford a black cab home. This was the pre-Uber era, after all.
It was also before smartphones, and hedonism looked a little different then. Life was not yet one eternal broadcast, unless you counted Myspace. In those proto-selfie days, you could only hope to have your picture taken by one of the randy club photographers, who’d shove their flash in your face, whack a weird filter on it, and upload it the next day for all to see. These one-man-Instagrams tended to frequent the fashionable queer nights, where drag queens and DIY outfits collided with performance art, larger-than- life characters were everywhere, and DJs would play anything brash, low-bitrate and ripped off a blog: Boombox, Girlcore, Circus, Caligula, Nuke Them All, Trailer Trash, All You Can Eat, Smash & Grab, Club Motherfucker. I loved them and wore terrible outfits to them all.
When I think about the particular brilliance of nightlife in this city, it’s that going out is an artform. Nightlife beyond, say, Ministry of Sound is a playground where anyone can have a go: a DJ can be king or queen for the night and the criss-cross of music, fashions and people by the booth can shape culture. Clubs mean community, which can turn into a movement, and a sound or scene that filters all the way to the mainstream. You may have heard about The Roxy (’70s, punk), Shoom (’80s, acieed) or Dingwalls (acid jazz). Or perhaps, in the ’90s, Rage at Heaven (jungle) or Metalheadz (drum ’n’ bass) and Anokha (the ‘Asian Underground’) at the Blue Note, all of which shaped the future of dance music.
But it still has the power to push forward. More recently, I think of R&B revival party Work It, at Visions Video Bar in Dalston, which was responsible, in my mind, for kicking off the ’90s throwback trend in the 2010s and a renewed appreciation for slow jams that absolutely filtered its way down to pop. Or Hattie Collins and Chantelle Fiddy’s Straight Outta Bethnal at 333, one of the few live settings for grime MCs, which helped to knot a scene together before the Met Police’s Form 696 policy almost stamped it out, and Butterz, who carried the torch for grime with their instrumental nights long after, laying the groundwork for its recent renaissance.
Bradley Zero’s Rhythm Section, meanwhile, a party and label that started in a pool hall in Peckham, uplifts where jazz intersects house – a sound that has undeniably defined young London for the past few years.
Size is absolutely not everything when it comes to assessing nightlife’s cultural value: consider the vast number of stars who have emerged from Plastic People, a former pitch-black boom-room in Shoreditch, including so many of the DJs you hear on NTS Radio or see play on Boiler Room. Many of those clubs have now closed but we have The Cause, Oval Space, Corsica Studios, Dalston Superstore, Mick’s Garage, Bussey Building, many more – in any one of these, the sound, or look, of the 2020s could be waiting to pop.
The funny thing was (not funny, not funny at all) that I hadn’t been out for ages when the pandemic hit. The reliability of weekly parties has morphed into the odd monthly blow-out. Maybe there were drinks beyond tinnies. Perhaps there was air-con (thank you, The Pickle Factory), or chairs (I miss Giant Steps).
I’d be lying if I said that the landscape didn’t feel a little different; frivolity has become more frugal. Sunrise raves seem to be what other people do in other places, with more space and less Prets. They happen in woodland clearings. Aircraft hangers in the middle of nowhere. Festivals. Or in Printworks, before the last Tube home. Perhaps that’s all an excuse. Perhaps I took it for granted.
Now I dream of lost cloakroom tickets and too-tight wristbands. I long to be at a Sofrito party, attempting to sweatily salsa dance with a grown man in a Hawaiian shirt. I want to be queuing outside Dalston Superstore in the ball-twisting cold, worried I might not get in.
I long for the bright future that clubs have always promised: the best ones aren’t soulless pleasure palaces, clubs are the ultimate utopias, politically-charged or not, where we can enact the diversity, inclusivity and tolerance that we wish we saw everywhere during our daily lives.
As with everything in 2021, the future is uncertain. We might not know how nightlife will play out from 21 June, including which venues can afford to reopen, but what I can tell you is that London club culture is strikingly resilient. It reacts and adapts, it shapeshifts; its forever addiction to nocturnal abandon is unparalleled. I’m idealistic, I know, there is serious underfunding and continued ignorance about London nightlife’s cultural value. Many important clubs have closed in the past 10 years. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat on a panel about London nightlife’s supposed death – because of gentrification, Crossrail, or the smoking ban. And like a phoenix, it always rises, somehow, no matter what wrecking balls are in its way.
The proof is in the past. There’s a documentary about The Blitz Club on Sky Arts this week, the ’80s night that spawned Boy George, Spandau Ballet, Sade and the New Romantics generation. It came out of the late-’70s when the streets of London were piled high with rubbish, the left and right were divided, and protests would be violently broken up by the police. Sound familiar? But two Bowie obsessives with a bunch of art school friends convinced a gangster to let them have his club for free and created a place where people of all races, genders and sexualities throbbed together under a disco ball and could be the full expression of themselves for the evening.
That’s the spirit of London nightlife that remains unbroken. As one of the ‘Blitz Kids’ says in the documentary: “Who’s going to take charge of the next decade? It’s us.”
London club culture has always had to evolve – and it can do it again post-pandemic.
By Kate Hutchinson