They can close our clubs but they'll never stop us dancing, says Tom Armstrong
PUBLISHED: 15:24 12 October 2016 | UPDATED: 16:20 30 November 2016
Don't believe the doom mongers. London clubland is in rude health, but we have to keep fighting for it
British clubbing is world famous. For decades thousands have flocked from around Europe to visit London, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and beyond to experience our nation’s unrivalled penchant for hedonism.
Make no mistake, it’s thanks to the music, styles and subcultures nurtured in our nightclubs that the rest of the world still looks to us for inspiration.
If you believe the headlines however, high-profile closures coupled with changing social habits paint a bleak picture.
The number of clubs in the UK has almost halved in the last ten years, with London in particular seeing a sharp and much-publicised decline in music venues, Fabric being the most recent victim.
Over the last few years, numerous London institutions including Cable, Plastic People, The End, Dance Tunnel, Mode and Turnmills have all closed their doors for numerous reasons, representing the challenges faced by club owners today.
As urban regeneration crosses the line into gentrification, nightlife is forced to deal with councils hiking up rents, complaints from new tenants in the area, and developers keen to turn anything into a block luxury apartments. Add to that the Crossrail project, knifing a fresh wound into London’s flesh, razing all in its path, and you soon realise that the struggle is very real.
But while clubland has been dealt a bloody nose, it’s not on the canvas. In fact it’s not even on the ropes.
That unique passion for dance music which keeps our city’s heart pumping won’t be silenced by a few pencil pushers trying to smother it with a Victorian moral code, nor will it be intimidated by the developer’s machinery. It may be being pushed further under the radar, but if you know where to look London’s party spirit is still very much intact.
First off, it’s important to remember the dozens of clubs still operating under difficult circumstances to maintain London’s reputation for nightlife. XOYO, Corsica Studios, The Nest, Dalston Superstore, Phonox, Bussey Building (only just, after a petition saved it from the developers earlier this year), Canavans (currently embroiled in a row with the council to keep its licence), Village Underground and Visions.
They range from the uber professional XOYO, behind Old St roundabout, offering the kind of big money line-ups dreams are made of on a weekly basis, to the lo-fi Canavans in Peckham, complete with wooden floor and pool tables.
Despite the challenges faced, and despite the mainstream media declaring clubbing “no longer relevant” to young people, each of those venues host huge crowds each weekend, listening to the world’s best DJs. To think that once the sun goes down the capital becomes a barren wasteland full of dressed up crowds with nowhere to go is way off the mark.
The hundreds who would’ve passed through the doors of Fabric or Dance Tunnel this weekend will not stay in and go to bed after Strictly just because those clubs have gone. The party will carry on regardless, and a lack of licensed venues just means people will create their own alternatives.
Modern club culture’s greatest moments, from disco to acid house, were born without the need for establishment approval or even a solid infrastructure, and that spirit is still very much alive in London. Every weekend, from Peckham to Manor House to Harlesden, promoters are finding spaces for a cash bar, a few crates of Red Stripe and a soundsystem. While the swarm of social dating apps and rising drink prices may be eating away at the dancefloors of provincial clubs, London continues to attract people for who underground music is a way of life. And there are more than enough places willing to let them dance.
In recent years Andy Blake has gained a reputation for putting on some of the best-loved DIY parties in London, World Unknown being one. He describes his choice of venues as “a tour of multicultural Working Class London of the last couple of hundred years”.
This includes a railway arch in Brixton, a boxing club, a sail factory in Limehouse and a BDSM pub in Camberwell.
He said: “Ripping out asbestos panels in the 30ft roof of a warehouse a couple of hours before the doors opened, and then having the full moon as our disco ball through the hole while 800 people dance and smile below like their life depended on it quite concisely sums up the lows and the highs of this life, I reckon.
“The under-25s who make up a large part of our crew are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.
“Where the hipster generation seemed hell bent on some daft notion of ‘making it’ and did their best to sell out independent culture, this lot know the value of keeping secrets, working with your mates and keeping the corporations and sell-out numpties as far away as possible, which is incredibly easy now everyone assumes everything is on the internet.
“Keep it real world and you can be virtually invisible. Hiding in plain sight right under their noses. Same as it ever was.”
Billie, a 20-year-old student living in South London, agrees that DIY is where the club scene is headed: “Most of the best nights I go to, licensed or not, are created by students or other ‘amateurs’, and I love that vibe much more than the slick professionalism of somewhere like Ministry of Sound.
“DIY clubbing is about equality. It’s saying f**k you, I can do exactly what the big clubs are doing, and if you shut me down, someone will do it in my place. I love the resilience and the defiance of it all.”
Having said all this, let’s not make the mistake of trivialising the challenges faced by the night time industry, worth around £70bn annually to the economy. Aside from those thousands of people who get their emotional release from clubbing, there are also those who rely on it for employment. To see these relentless and illogical attacks on their livelihoods from councils, developers and authorities, those circling vultures who seek to destroy something they don’t understand, be it for profit or some warped moral crusade, creates an unnerving environment in which to work.
The danger is that if you keep telling the public that “clubbing is dead”, eventually they’ll start to believe it.
If there’s one positive to come out of this mistreatment and oppression it’s the air of defiance which now permeates around the capital’s clubbing industry.
The Night Time Industries Association is a group of business owners and influencers which formed earlier this year with the aim of “promoting the unique contribution of The Night Time Industry in the UK”.
Chairman Alan Miller said: “We feel very strongly that the future can be a bright and successful one for all. However, that is dependent on all of us working together in good faith and in partnership.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan came under much scrutiny from young voters after the closure of Fabric, with accusations of failing to deliver on key promises made in the election campaign.
Despite this, London has taken some positive steps in the last few months, as Miller explains: “The Night Czar will be a good addition. The night tube is fantastic. But we must be conscious of the enormous benefits of nightlife when shaping urban policy for our future 24-hour cities.”
Andy Blake is less diplomatic when it comes to the capital’s decision makers: “The clueless cultural vandals who are trying to tear London’s heart out have no idea of the dark forces they are raising.”
How can you have your voice heard? Firstly, signing up as a supporter of the NTIA shows the authorities that people do care and there’s an online petition at www.savenightlife.com
Tom Armstrong is editor at Sabotage Times; follow him at @tomdisco