Figures released this week by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) show that the number of nightclubs open in the UK have halved in a decade: in 2005 there were 3,144 nightclubs in Britain but now this is down to 1,733. As a teenager, the local nightclub was a kind of Valhalla, a glamorous place which automatically conferred adulthood upon anyone who crosses its threshold. Has that glamour faded?
When I was fourteen, my own private Valhalla was to be found down a lane surrounded by salt marshes in north-east Brittany. Each night I would putter down the rutted track on my mobylette then kick down the stand and sit there in the dark waiting for the groups of French locals to arrive at ‘Le Nightclub’ as they called it then. I loved watching them but I dreamed more of being allowed in, preferably on the arm of Fabrice Michel, the lad from the nearby town I had a crush on and who taught me to windsurf in a seaweed-choked corner of France.
This bastion of glamour was a converted old cattle barn, in the back of the Breton beyond and lit up by strings of fairground bulbs that flickered with a low voltage hum. Their colours matched the blue and orange-striped awnings and the lights looped over rows of tiny windows. These permitted only the weakest of breeze to pass through, barely stirring the fug of cigarette smoke, body odour and perfume. Sitting by the door, I would catch snatches of music as it opened and shut- Spirits Having Flown by the Bee Gees, Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger, Kim Larssen’s Donnez Moi du Feu and Bambou (it wasn’t a time for great music in France) – and there was laughter and arguments (because even Le Nightclub did not escape the French passion for philosophical debate it would seem).
The women wore little sequinned shrugs, pencil skirts, heeled mules and languidly held cigarettes until they spoke whereupon the lighted end would gesticulate wildly in the dark, becoming a tiny, furious firefly. The men were immaculate, wearing the same sweaters around their shoulders they sported in the little harbour town of Paimpol during the day in primrose yellows, blues and greens or they wore Breton-striped matelots, pressed jeans with perfectly aligned creases and oxblood leather loafers with little tassels. In England those same loafers were worn by Rude Girls but in France they lacked that anti-establishment air. The men held doors open, offered cigarettes and as they dipped down to catch a light, their curls shone like onyx from hair gel and genetics.
Couples would drive up in cars strewn with children who would be left to run around in the nearby fields and the stone-chipping car park until the kids returned to their cars and fell asleep in a tangle of legs and arms. Their parents would come out occasionally, clutching a sandwich for them or a bottle of Orangina, which was my personal favourite because of its dimpled glass and cool logo and the parents would fire off a stream of rapid French which acted as lion tamer to these unruly children who were accustomed to occupying themselves.
Le Nightclub turned the surrounding lanes and roads into death traps as its patrons lurched home at 2 am in a convoy of Citroen 2CVs and those sky blue DS’s which rose up like a breaching whale on their hydropneumatic suspensions. Pissed on pastis, campari and soda and a lethal honey based liqueur, they’d drive home two-abreast conducting conversations through rolled-down windows. On one memorable occasion, the passenger of one car and the driver of another managing to keep their lips passionately locked together as they half hung out of their respective car windows and trundled side by side down the track which led to the Paimpol road. What the other driver and passenger thought of this seemingly illicit menage, I could not tell as I pootled along behind them.
I longed to put on a little dress with a skirt that might clung to my thighs and ride up slightly as I sat down, slightly breathless between dances to accept a cigarette and a light from the most handsome man in the room. I wanted to be casually unaware of myself, to be that woman with her head thrown back in laughter to reveal a long line of white throat and neck, slightly sweaty from dancing and talking and life. I wanted to be someone other than a strawberry blonde English girl in her blue and white striped seersucker pants, rolled up at the ankle, a moth-eaten navy blue fishermen jersey loaned by my host family’s father and espadrilles smeared with oil from my mobylette. I sat there for many nights, hoping that, by chance, Fabrice might turn up and I had my casual speech rehearsed, I knew what I would say when I saw him, how I would pretend that my bike had broken down, that “non, ce qui est ce….place? when he asked me if I knew where I was and was I thirsty and would I like him to buy me a drink?
I never found out what lay beyond those doors and I never tried to go in and find out although I crept closer and closer. This little French club was where locals went to shrug off the day, to meet people or to remember what attracted them to their partners and see them afresh. Their evening glamour made them slight strangers to people they saw every day, made them giddy and slightly, dizzily off kilter with the breathless possibilities of new relationships or relationships renewed.
Fast forward to London from the late eighties-onwards, the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park (later to briefly become the Powerhaus) was my local haunt and as wonderfully scuzzy as it is possible to get with its saxe-blue painted exterior and high, arched windows on a corner plot opposite the Rainbow Theatre. The Robey was a typically North London, rangy kind of pub with a tardis-like interior and nobody knew how many rooms it had: it was a constant guessing game for patrons. One of the DJs carried the moniker Vik Valium although his musical acumen was much sharper than the name might suggest and another went by the name of Boney Slackburn and his name was regularly plastered across tatty flyers. I saw Hawkwind play a live set in the late 80s and I capered about to them with a giant unicorn horn strapped to my head. Blur and No Doubt all played in their earliest of days as did John Cooper Clarke, Desmond Dekker, Carter USM and Bad Manners. Buckwheat Zydeco and Wilko Johnson also came to the Robey in 1986 (although don’t quote me on that as it might have been 87, my memory is understandably fuzzy).
The floor was sticky with pernod and black and the slops from pints of snakebite, the atmosphere sometimes snarled from the all-day punk and ska gigs and the chemical help needed to get through them. On really busy nights punters overflowed onto the Seven Sisters Road and had to be assisted back inside by the Met who waged a constant battle against the place and especially the Club Dog all-nighters, which mated a free party vibe with squatting. The ability to squat was made easier by a lack of legislation in those days- indeed the Ministry of Transport had granted licences to squat to many East London properties that were located on the site of the soon to be built M11 extension that would run from Wanstead through to Hackney Wick. One of those squatters was my then boyfriend who went on to become the father of my son. The squatters saw Club Dog as their High-Church as they danced to the musical crossover between rave, punk, psychedelia and celebrated its high priests, The Cramps.
I watched as a newbie tried to convince regulars that they weren’t the Old Bill (they were wearing loafers, socks, looked very very tidy but had made an effort to blend in by adding in a clip on nose ring) and ended up tipped out into the street by an irate Ragga girl with rainbow dreads, a purple string vest, combat pants and sky-high strappy heels. The Robey was a rumour mill and we wove skeins of stories about infiltration, busts, celebs in disguise, laundered money and police special ops which travelled fast in the airless fug above the dance floor and by the bar. Later on, I did hear that Nick Hornby based the Harry Lauder music venue on the Robey in his book, High Fidelity. I don’t know if this is true but we were all gutted when the venue closed down in 2004 after being gutted by a fire. It had been taken over by the Mean Fiddler Group in the mid-1990s and renamed the Powerhaus which I also went to- it was hard to let the Robey go.
The Powerhaus attracted a slightly more clean cut, studenty crowd, starry-eyed and newly arrived in the city. They danced to REM, U2, Stero MCs and Arrested Development after the live bands cleared the stage around midnight (on one memorable night, Rammstein played a set). I remember dancing away to REM and, feeling a tap on my shoulder, turned round to see a young guy with a fresh and hopeful look on his face which dropped dramatically as his eyes ranged down to my six months pregnant belly. I still laugh today, over twenty one years later thinking of his disappointed face. I was surrounded by a crowd of friends from Suffolk who would come up to the city and stay with us and, by Sunday, pregnant me would be worn out by and craving a sedate bath, TV and bed far away from clubs and pounding bass. I was starting to grow tired of avoiding pavement pizzas and fighty, grabby groups of men and women at 3 am on Brick Lane as we awaited the delivery of freshly baked bagels through the hatch. Brick Lane was not hipster then at all and neither was Hackney although they were cool and the little flat we stayed in, with its wooden shutters and doors left unlocked to save having to continually repair them after break-ins, was pretty and airy with high ceilings substituting for the space I had left behind in Suffolk.
We don’t lack opportunity when it comes to escape these days. We no longer have to go clubbing to get a late-night drink: late-night licensing has put paid to that. Sadly, we have put such a high price on urban space that clubs struggle to generate enough revenue to keep themselves going in the face of developers waving an open chequebook and nearby residents waving the Readers Digest Guide to Complaining About Urban Noise. Gentrification has taken its toll and the ability to get a TEN license to host a music event in, say, a warehouse or other private space, has become very difficult. As clubs close down, this further reduces our ability to find locations for live dance music and hire charges skyrocket as a response. DJing might be more democratic now because anyone can download the software required to turn a laptop into a DJ system and music production systems too but there needs to be the places available to practise the art and the costs associated with event management need to be less prohibitive.
We don’t seem to develop close emotional ties with venues either. We called ourselves Blitz Kids or Kinky Gerlinkers and identified with the lifestyle, politics and attitude of clubs such as Trade, Ministry of Sound, Madame JoJo’s, Heaven or Club Dog and felt defined to a certain extent by them. The Robey was a bed of reds and you checked your political apathy at the door. As John O’Farrell writes in Things Can Only Get Better’… “sometimes it was Billy Bragg supporting Hank Wangford and other times it was Hank Wangford supporting Billy Bragg” and for me, fresh from university in Cardiff having watched the police waving their overtime checks at striking miners, it was the sin-qua-non of spiritual homes. I didn’t just dance: I listened (yes, we made ourselves heard above the strobe and bass) argued, learned and the kernel of socialism within me grew and hardened. And also growing up in the streets surrounding the Robey were the Finsbury Park Fleadh and the Red Rose Club which housed a stand up night where the likes of David Baddiel and Jerry Sadowitz cut their teeth. A good club raises the neighbourhood game, you see.
But now, as I walk through town and city centres late at night, I don’t see this anymore- in fact the arrival of a club is seen as a death knell for modern civilisation, the noughties version of Fightnight or the Christians V the lions. There’s no glamour, not even the slightly faded and slightly louche Roxy Music kind. I see queues of people who are looking for any venue to continue their drink-fuelled night and an infrastructure of police and security designed to corral them as they blunder drunkenly in and out of each others space. The dancing is more vertical expression of the need to shag, in the manner of a basket of chaotic puppies rubbing up against each other or it is a cock strut, designed to show off the suburban male in all his t-shirted glory. The creative competition has been subsumed to the sexual meat market- there is no erotic currency, no desire in the fullest sense, no possibility of actualisation through sound, shape or potential. The lights have been turned up and we stare, bleary eyed at our surroundings and wonder how the fuck we got there and who the fuck we are with.
The old club rule of keeping the lights low on has been broken and we cannot go back. Nobody needs to see the scratches on the wall, the ceilings turned ochre from years of filter tips, the burns in the velvet flock and the make-up-smeared, sweaty faces of the people who, until recently, were part of the churning and thrilled masses on the dancefloors of England.