Culture Magazine Music

Let the Music Use You

Marco Watt remembers the heady pomp of London’s clubbing scene.

Baby Wants to Ride. Music is the Key. Move Your Body. Pump Up the Volume. Energy Flash. Red Alert. I Feel Love. For What You Dream Of. Higher State of Consciousness.

The seminal songs from my life as a clubber tell a story of febrile expectancy, self-expression, euphoria, community and transcendence. A story of bouncing from work to pub to club, and of venues worth queuing to get into. Of late nights and after-parties and gigantic greasy brunches intended to slow down my brain and the corybantic jiggling of my Sunday morning feet.

But opportunities to feel the love have been dwindling for 15 years, especially in London. Crime did for some venues, Crossrail for others. Property developers and greedy councils have ensured that no large space can become anything except luxury flats. Austerity, high rents and wage stagnation have cut into clubbers’ budgets, and dating apps have chipped away at the desire for spontaneous mingling.

Meanwhile ravers born any time before 1990 have been seduced by other causes, above all the lurid new pornography of food. A few, it’s true, have embraced the techno-paganism of Burning Man, but most prefer to get their kicks by botching Ottolenghi recipes. I’m no exception, spending too many of my weekends with a loose confederacy of Centrist Dads who used to love getting lit up like Christmas trees yet now want to lounge in their gardens eating Tunworth and honking pinot noir.

The trouble is, cheese tastes good, and we live in a postlapsarian world where a credible dance music mag can declare that the world’s best DJ is David Guetta. Go to any club that doesn’t cater for a tiny musical niche and you risk a painful encounter with stadium-size slabs of boilerplate EDM. A‘sexy in heels’. And for what? The chance to share a table crammed with semi-professional footballers – glugging champagne at a minimum of £300 a bottle, with occasional interruptions from drama grads dressed as goblins.

The current club landscape’s maxed-out bombast is an insult to dance music’s potent and politically significant past. At the unlicensed parties of the 1980s, the mood was one of idealism and irreverence. They were an alternative to the barrenness of the period’s ubiquitous synthpop and an attempt to recreate on a grand scale the escapist wonderland of Ibiza. But they were also reactions to Thatcherism, an antidote to her hatchet-faced authoritarianism.

In the 90s, after the underground rave scene collapsed, a new licensed club culture emerged and prospered. It wasn’t long before the major players became too glitzy and commercial. But it was still easy to find smaller venues with an eclectic music policy and an inclusive vibe – unpretentious spots where you could chew basslines from sundown till breakfast.

Now it’s a challenge to nose out a place that stays open past 4 am. If you do, it’s in some crepuscular neighbourhood barely served by public transport. This is especially true in London, where clubs once played a crucial role in revitalising clapped-out neighbourhoods such as Hoxton and Dalston, but are now the victims of the very regeneration they launched. What we’re left with is ill-boding WhatsApps: ‘Get off the tube at Canning Town and it’s a twenty-minute walk’

One of my favourite London clubs used to be The End, which boasted a legendarily crisp but weighty sound system and was five minutes’ walk from Tottenham Court Road. Today such accessibility is unthinkable. The End’s closure in 2009 was like a punch in the throat, following the demise of other Zone One staples: The Cross, Bagley’s, Turnmills and The Velvet Rooms. When I tell my kids that I used to be able to mosey from the office to a dozen good clubs, they look at me like I’m delusional: ‘Dad, were you living in Berlin?’

The pandemic has asphyxiated an already whimpering scene. Social distancing, masks and curfews thwart any hope of an authentic club experience. And the government has done little to help the sector, which it regards as a nuisance rather than a cultural asset. Most politicians, especially fusty Tories, associate clubs with illegal drugs and consequently see them as hotbeds of sedition, though publicly they’re more likely to stereotype them as causes of noise, pollution and assault.

In lockdown it’s been no bother to score chemsex, if that’s your private Idaho, and not so very much harder to locate the odd squalid house party or monsters’ balls in gunky basements. But other options? Okay, DJs play sets on Twitch, yet they’re vulnerable to being zapped over copyright issues, and despite the nice sound quality a Twitch session is a far cry from the no-nonsense sizzle of a packed main room.

When clubs reopen, as they will do any day now, the appetite for sizzle will be fierce. But the reality will surely have to be tame. Forget floor-fillers – think temperature checks and bouncers intruding to ensure dancers are sufficiently spread out. In any case, while venues such as Fabric and Tottenham’s The Cause will be up and running, others have gone for ever: though the most famous casualty is the none too lovable Café de Paris, there are plenty more whose disappearance will be lamented.

The shrinkage of clubland is a catastrophe. For in what other secular space can you collide happily with so many irradiated souls? There’s a lot of empurpled wank about clubbing as a religious event – the DJ is a priest, a big tune is an epiphany, an E is a communion wafer, your whole week leads up to the holy rituals of the Sabbath. Yet there’s also, undeniably, a sense that raving, like religion, affords access to something both precious and secret. It’s just that the magic of dance music is Rapture without Doctrine.

Most people go clubbing for the first time as they’re emerging from adolescence and seeking unfamiliar, grown-up pleasures. They soon learn that some clubs are pisspots or dives, but that the best are at once sanctuaries and places of liberation.

Here friendships form. Cares are forgotten. A thousand minor exorcisms are performed. Instead of seeing and listening, you feel. You can lose yourself in the dark, experiencing sublime isolation in the midst of a crowd. Or descend further into sedated detachment, where everything seems to be tilted at an odd angle. (Ah, Special K, grainy white agent of floatiness and freakouts.) But you can also connect with the crowd, becoming part of a mysterious organism. Or simply have smiley fun with people you’ll never see again and with people you might never see elsewhere. That’s a vibe strongly associated with MDMA, though eminently possible without it.

While I now shudder to recall my teenage gaucherie and ignorance, it was through clubbing that I made my first gay and trans friends. At the same time I grew aware of the limits of such labels – and formed bonds with people who saw no need to pigeon-hole me. Unlike university, which was ostensibly a palace of varieties yet in fact a ziggurat of cuntiness, this was an education in not being the most buttoned-up, version of myself.

I miss those feelings. I miss spaces that are free from class and sectarianism. But, more than that, I’m conscious of what the next generation of club-goers may never get to taste – at least legally. Though the renaissance of the DIY rave, lubricated by social media, is a chance to snuff some of those flavours (and chug industrial quantities of nitrous oxide), it’s a dangerous scene, not least because the police are under pressure to stop illegal parties by whatever means they can.

When club culture thrives, it is largely run by the young. Yet right now young people’s prospects of immersing themselves in dance music – their prospects of discovering that it’s something they might want to propagate – are in jeopardy. In its most truthful and visceral forms, the music remains a gorgeous form of resistance: to the tyranny of tomorrow and all the identities it wants to thrust upon you. But you can’t embrace its power if you’ve never even had an opportunity to enjoy its touch.

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