This piece by Lauren Laverne was great. But seeing clubland’s virtue in terms of economic growth is misguided.
I have millennial friends, five to ten years younger than me, and they all seem to live like monks. They work very hard, drink little and don’t touch illegal drugs. They find the prospect of going to a club abhorrent. Our twentysomething experiences are radically different for a relatively small age gap.
My ex, a 90s clubland stalwart who saw the emergence of the scene out of the M25 raves, always maintained that alcohol was the great enemy of clubs. When Ministry of Sound got a licensed bar, the whole vibe shifted overnight, he said, from something communal and transcendent into a business. Ecstasy posed a huge threat to pub culture and alcohol revenue, and the brewers responded to the wave of new clubs by providing drinks aimed squarely at the club crowds: lurid sugary alcopops and watery import beers.
The impact of this on the atmosphere inside was insidious – they turned back into the meat market discos he had always sought to avoid in the 80s, and women began to stay away. The absence of women in a queue, he said, was a red flag for a bad club. On balance, I think he was right.
I only started clubbing in the late 90s and didn’t take any drugs for the first few years but, without knowing it, for we’d leaf through Time Out and try to intuit which club would be most fun and, critically, finish late so we could jump on the first train out of Charing Cross to Kent in time for Saturday morning school, we seemed to alight on the ones where people didn’t drink and took E instead.
As seventeen-year-old girls this made it possible to go out and be safe in the crowd. Men who drank were leery, sleazy, sexualising the space. Clubs where people took E were light, bright and about the music. You didn’t get hit on, and the only time we got approached was when people mistook our youthful exuberance for chemicals they hoped to acquire. Once the lights came up and it was time to leave, we’d wander through Soho at dawn hoping to avoid the drunks, who on one occasion stalked us all the way to Leicester Square, where we barricaded ourselves in the phone box until a couple of kindly gay men on their way to Heaven offered to walk us to the station.
My ex thought the brewers were slowly winning the battle, bemoaning his twentysomething employees’ proclivity for pubs over clubs. The Psychoactive Substances Act and our bizarre belief that the alcohol industry will magically choose to self-regulate seems to back that notion up. It certainly seems to be the case in London, where my sense of FOMO from the Welsh marches has gradually withered away.
It is hard to have spontaneous, experimental scenes of any sort when physical space to put them in is in short supply – Berlin developed its nightlife by virtue of being underpopulated for many years. Going back after a ten-year hiatus recently, I was struck by how money, a disproportionate tourist population and booze was moving in on Berlin’s clubland. Parasitic entities can last a while before full strangulation occurs, but the soul of it was already fading fast.
That said, I think there might be hope elsewhere in Britain. My best nights out in this country have been in the basement of a Paisley curry house and at Salford’s exceptional Islington Mill. In Paisley I chatted to the German DJs, who expressed surprise that they never seemed to play in London. ‘It’s odd,’ one of them said, ‘it’s a huge city but it’s as though it doesn’t have much of an identifiable techno scene.’
That was a while back, just before the boom in EU migration to London filled its clubs with young people who had grown up in continental cities where they do do techno, but it still seems to be the case that London clubland is driven by the need to run a profit to cover the cost of the space, and the profits come from bars and the music that works for a drinking audience has a different, less upbeat quality.
In Berlin twelve years ago, it was always quite fun watching the middle-class students from posh western German cities like Düsseldorf or Hamburg or Munich in the queue for clubs. They dressed up for the occasion, a massive door policy error, and couldn’t understand that the aura of money worked against them there.
Clubland has always thrived, paradoxically, in the absence of money, and certainly in the absence of big money. When the money moves in, turning land into property, forcing the expansion of bars that can turn a profit on wet margins, it slowly sucks the fun out of the whole affair. Money and its agent, booze, is what’s killing it – and so much emergent culture – in London. It’s time, at least in Britain, that we looked to the North instead.