Sunderland’s indomitable party spirit is to be found in its exuberant 1990s girl band, and its very own drug-addled rave subculture.
The atmosphere at the Blue Monkey club was almost physically tangible. The dancefloor filled with drug-fuelled revellers, lights and lasers roiling while ultra-high energy hardcore pumped out of the speakers, this old bingo hall on Sunderland’s Bedford Street had been lifted out of the humdrum and become a place of transcendent euphoria.
Sunderlanders, it seems, know how to have a good time. From the early 18th century, the port expanded rapidly as a coal shipping and shipbuilding powerhouse. At its height there were 76 shipbuilding yards on Wearside, building a third of all British ships, and the number of public houses to serve the sailors and dockworkers outstripped any other similarly-sized town in the country. As early as 1820 Low Street alone, which hugs the mouth of the River Wear, had 41 pubs. Here, the sea shanties which went viral earlier this year by virtue of Scot Nathan Evans’ version of Wellerman would have been sung lustily.
With the opening of the Blue Monkey at the end of the next century, old habits proved to die hard, and the club became the home of the hedonistic white working-class youth culture around Mákina, a bouncy, happy hardcore-like, hard trance-derived sound. Just like Grime in London, Mákina has a DIY ethos, with Mackem and Geordie-accented emceeing at breakneck speed circulated on bootleg tapes and, more recently, on YouTube, and it is similarly rooted in social deprivation, rife in the North East after the demise of its traditional industries.
But Mákina’s origins were not in the often gloomy North East but the rather sunnier climes of Spain. Valencian producers Chimo Bayo, with his Asi Me Gusta A Mi (1991), its play on words “X-Ta Sí [Ecstasy], X-Ta No” (“Yes to this, no to that”), making clear the links to the acid house rave culture, and Paco Pil, with his debut Viva la Fiesta (1993), were early innovators. Their music, played at Valencian clubs like Arsenal and El Templo, was termed bakalao, but as the 1990s rolled on hard house and hard trance elements were added and Mákina was born.
Mákina’s foothold in Sunderland came via Glaswegian DJ Scott Brown, who had founded Evolution Records in his home city in 1994 and was pivotal in pushing Mákina to prominence in the UK, eventually founding the Hangar 13 series of events in Sunderland itself. When the Blue Monkey opened, followed in 1992 by the Afterdark club on George Street North, on the other side of the River Wear, the golden age of Sunderland Mákina had arrived.
But the scene soon became dogged by controversy. The Blue Monkey was raided in 1992 and there was a fatal stabbing outside the premises that same year. Afterdark later moved to the Bedford Street venue which promptly burned down. There was a move to Stockton and name change to the Colosseum. It was no sticky-floored venue, the management not serving alcohol at all in a bid to get round licensing laws after the club’s drinks licence was revoked for posting the names of undercover drugs officers at the door.
The club was finally killed off after a 1996 police raid found a £10,000 worth of class A drugs on the premises. The Blue Monkey dynasty’s connections to the criminal underworld proved to be extensive; owner Gary Robb hotfooted it to Cyprus, only to be extradited and jailed for drug offences. He was later handed a £1 million back taxes bill, partly due to undeclared door receipts from the Colosseum.
But the legend of the Blue Monkey lived on and in 1999 it was resurrected as the former Plaza Bingo Hall in the riverside Pallion district reopened as the New Monkey. This was another dry club – locals and councillors alike had militated against giving the club an alcohol licence – but the drug problems remained. In 2003 an 18 year old collapsed and died after taking ecstasy at the club.
A massive police raid in March 2006 involving 100 officers signalled the final demise of the club, and MC Impulse’s Raid Rhyme would eulogise the event. But Mákina – often in fact referred to as ‘new monkey’, after the club – still has a large fanbase in the North East, with Monta Musica, the premiere name in Mákina in Newcastle, and Hangar 13 in Sunderland itself, still going strong. Sunderland’s Rewired Records, founded in 2010, has also given the genre a new lease of life.
Mákina overlapped with Sunderland getting its slice of the action amid the Britpop explosion. The Lauren Laverne-fronted teenage girl band Kenickie (a male drummer never counts) met as pupils at St. Anthony’s Girls’ Catholic School and were never shy about talking about their working-class Sunderland roots. They were also as invested in the idea of the transcendent nature of the debauched night out on the town as the acolytes of Mákina were, but had an intelligence, wit, glamour and feminist energy that it was notably devoid of.
After releasing their first EP, Catsuit City, on the Newcastle indie label Slampt, Kenickie signed with the subsidiary EMIDisc and debut album At the Club (1997) captured all the heady excitement of being young and out on the lash in neat, defiant pop-punk songs. Nightlife embraced the glamour and grime of pubbing and clubbing, as well as the stereotype of northeastern girls going out on winter’s nights insufficiently dressed for the elements: “I can’t work with heavy coats/ They’re not revealing/ Have to see each others’ clothes/ So we’re all freezing”. On Come Out 2Nite they declared “We dress cheap/ We dress tacky/ We dance for thrills/ Our night out is getting nasty”.
Success came at Kenickie fast. They had a madly devoted following and were lauded by the music press. A slot supporting the Ramones was followed by an appearance on Top of the Pops. Courtney Love endorsed them (“They’re a big bunch of sex”), and At the Club got to No. 9 in the album charts. But the following year’s Get In was when the hangover hit, filled with disillusionment at the music industry and general discontent. The band split up acrimoniously that same year, crashing and burning after a final gig at the London Astoria where Laverne signed off “We were Kenickie … a bunch of f**kwits”.
While Laverne has gone on to BBC Radio 6 Music and Desert Island Discs, Marie Nixon (Marie du Santiago) has formed The Cornshed Sisters – a folk harmony group – back in Tyne and Wear, and Emma Jackson (Emmy-Kate Montrose) has gone into academia. As well as having his own project, J Xaverre, drummer Pete Gofton has worked with other Sunderland bands, Field Music and Frankie & The Heartstrings, who have formed part of the city’s post-punk revival, along with The Futureheads, who had a Top 10 hit in 2005 when they dared to cover Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.
Nightlife in Sunderland, like the rest of the country, faces an uncertain future. But the Mackem party spirit is unlikely to be easily snuffed out.
Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart is Sunderland’s most successful musician. Born and educated in the city, he played Bob Dylan songs in the pubs on High Street West as a teenager. His first release was on ultra-short lived local label Multicord in 1971. In London, he formed The Tourists with Annie Lennox and the Sunderland-raised Peet Coombes. As Eurythmics, he and Lennox sold more than 70 million albums. He celebrated his 65th birthday in 2017 with his maiden gig at the Sunderland Empire and remains an avid Sunderland AFC fan.
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