A Land Before Clubs: a time-travelling extract from The Secret DJ’s new book
The anonymous rave veteran is one of the scene’s sharpest storytellers. In this chapter from the follow-up to his best-selling memoir, he recalls the primitive landscape of UK club culture on the eve of the acid house explosion.
Now I’m not saying clubs didn’t exist until Acid House. Oh Lordy no. All over the UK there were venues that went on as late as TWO O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING and as such, were considered thoroughly debauched hellholes. One of the things that may help clarify the great impact of Acid House was that the entire United Kingdom shut down completely at 11pm, weekends included, and midweek the streets were pretty much empty from 7pm onwards. The TV stopped at midnight. Because who on earth is awake after then? Murderers? Plotters? The criminally insane? As a member of several bands, I’d drive all over the island to perform gigs that often started at 7.30pm. Getting home from distant ones you might be on the road after midnight and literally never see another vehicle for hundreds of miles. There were attempts at ‘nightclubs’ but, as usual, Britain did what it always does and slavishly copied America in as beige and weak a fashion as was humanly possible. Could there be anything less glamorous than mock glamour? It is so very English. ‘Sophistication’ as simply a khaki-coloured word, instead of an assembly of almost unreachably excellent attitudes. Protest music made by Gay, Black and Latinx Americans played to endlessly white, untroubled little Englanders was never going to work for youngsters barred at the gate. Anyway, we weren’t demanding entrance, we were giving them a five-minute bomb warning to get out. The DJ did exist, but flapped and blathered non-stop over commercial music, once more proving that inserting a giant throbbing ego into the middle of a unity ritual was bordering on the obscene.
Of course, as kids, we found these old discos massively hilarious. We’d go dressed like ‘Normals’ and then start spitting and pogoing like punks to the slow dances. Do the new ‘breakdancing’ to inappropriate tunes and frequently, as was the fashion back then, get into fistfights. Because back then there wasn’t much in the way of subcultural ‘tribes’. They existed. But outside of a very large city, there were merely Normals who were 99% of the population, and 1% of ‘Freaks’. Freaks might consist of all sorts. I knew ageing Punks, Reggae Boys, Goths-that-did-not-know-the-word-‘Goth’-yet. I knew Jazz Funkateers and Soul Boys and Soul Girls. Skinheads that didn’t know they were supposed to be racist. Yardies and fey, mop-topped New Wavers. ’Mods’ that suddenly appeared back from the 1960s, and that until I saw Quadrophenia years later, seemed oddly incongruous but familiar at the same time, refugees from the ballrooms with chalked floors. Every single one of them could be of several sexual or racial orientations. One thing we all had in common was quite simply that we weren’t Normals. Normals were everywhere. And by this, I mean people our own age as well as adults. They liked football, had money and jobs and liked to get smashed on 12 pints and fight anything slow enough to catch or, at a pinch, each other. Once the pubs finally kicked them out, if a Freak was unlucky enough to be anywhere in the vicinity, they paid for their very existence in blood.
All insanely hostile and violent pubs aside, even after the Second Summer of Love, many venues around the UK held onto that dangerous vibe. Things rarely change overnight in the real world. If you are watching a dramatisation of the 1980s and everyone is driving around in pristine 1980s cars and wearing the most current 1980s fashions you know immediately you are dealing with those who have no idea what it was really like. More than half of what you saw in the 80s came from the 70s, and even 60s and earlier. No one immediately ditched their old car and bought a new one. No one burned their bell bottoms on Dec 31st 1979 in preparation for the new dawn. Things take time. Borders are blurred. It took a while for the spiky hardness to be blunted from clubbing. Acid House was a revelation for some of us, far more people initially ignored it at best, ridiculed it at worst.
It was a lottery if you could find somewhere safe to party in the 80s and even well into the 90s, so something had to give. For example, if you went to the very legendary Orbit in Morley, you were in a highly legit proper Techno zone. Raving with genuine pioneers. However, if you went to the host venue ‘After Dark’ on any another night of the week it could be touch and go if you walked out unaided. It is quite easy to enjoy liberal cosmopolitan ideas and relaxed jovial atmospheres of the capital cities of the world, where civilised zones have been agreed upon by money. It takes a good while to permeate the rest of the planet.
‘PSV’ in Manchester’s Hulme was sometimes really loved-up and friendly and other times teeming with proper whizzed-up maniacs glaring at you like you were lunch, and absolutely everyone in there was very much a long-term stranger to breakfast. ‘The Kitchen’, not far from PSV was another very interesting hellhole. As rough as a sandpaper suppository, but every visit was a properly legit adventure for us curious bumpkins with less brain cells than balls. There was a regular rave in Bradford Mills that only ever seemed to play music that was always just a bit too fast, no girls at all, and regularly had a moshpit. Scary scenes. Club UK in Wandsworth, some years later; again, you could easily have a legit good night in there or get killed outside with a machete. It was peak UK machete time around when Club UK got closed prematurely. Or maturely, depending upon how much you love big swords.
The Thomas A Becket on Old Kent Road was an original. A pub that turns into a club at 11pm. Original proper gangster boxing gym upstairs and dense singularity for maniacs. It is still going, is the Thomas A Becket. You can literally stand outside it at 6am on a Sunday and not hear a peep. Looks shut. Just knock and a wave of steam comes out and deafening Garage vibes. It was ‘a late drink’ but also a place you might never leave if you weren’t very careful back in the day. If you are especially lucky, and not dead yet, you might get accepted enough to be shown the basement. Which is not a euphemism. It’s their version of the VIP area. A rambling underground treasure-trove of old odds and ends, sofas and boxing memorabilia and the scene of much shady doings.
There was a place I used to work in Swansea. Rough town. I may be wrong but I am pretty sure the police used to cordon-off the high street and just patrol the border. Like Escape from New York or something. In fact, coincidentally, the club may have been The Escape, but don’t quote me, was ages ago. Had one of those portholes at eye height on the front door. I rocked up there once and the big doors were shut and when I knocked the wee window open and the security explained they had to wait for the fight outside to finish. Grappling intently behind me were a topless chubby kid wearing dress trousers, cummerbund and polished shoes, and his opponent wearing jacket, ruffled shirt and bowtie but nothing else. Presumably a fight to the death over the only tuxedo in Wales.