Utopia after dark: why nightlife matters

Newton Dunbar, pioneering founder of the legendary Four Aces club on Dalston Lane. Pic: Mattha Busby

In the second day of our series, Who Blighted the Night? We put the case forward for why London’s nightlife matters.

There’s more to London nightlife than musical movements and sounds. The clubs and dances we go to in the early hours are the places where almost all of our key life moments are forged, or forgotten; where friendships are made and loves lost. And it has a wider impact too: clubs are where communities are formed; where the cultural life of our capital is reinvented by its young people; and where the economy of the city is given a huge boost.

Some clubs stand out. Hacienda DJ and writer Dave Haslam notes in his book, Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs: “In most cities there’s a club or venue, maybe two or three; that cast a spell on a particular community.”

Crucially, clubs play a role in allowing marginalised groups to find their own spaces, to push through new agendas and create traditions. The Four Aces, since its creation in 1966, first located in Highbury Grove and then Dalston Lane, is one such club, and one of the first in the nation that catered to a black audience, in a borough largely left to its own devices by city council.

Click here to see the six clubs that changed Hackney.

The club first hosted Desmond Dekker – three weeks before his first UK hit ‘Israelites’ in April 1969 – then Jimmy Cliff, Count Shelly and Ben E King. Notable attendees included Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Mick Jagger. The Four Aces was hugely important in providing release and cultural expression for Hackney’s nascent black population in the coming years.

Newton Dunbar, The Four Aces owner, told ELL nightlife matters: “As a form of entertainment for a population that works very hard, it’s part of the human psyche. You require some kind of night-time entertainment and recreation.”

The Four Aces Club in 1984. Pic: Alan Denney/ Flickr

The Four Aces became the iconic Labrynth in 1988, which was in itself an important club in London’s nightlife history. Rave culture was fostered and embraced there under the stewardship of Joe Wieczorek. Acid House, Hardcore, Happy Hardcore, Jungle and Drum and Bass was the proverbial order of the night. White and black, gay and straight, thugs and dreadheads all danced together, shoulder-to-shoulder.

“Everyone’s always looking for someone to come along who’s inspirational,” Wieczorek says. “[Who] can change the path of music. It was Bill Haley and The Comets once, then it was The Beatles, then it was The Beatles again when they went flower power, and you have these situations where these things change the course of music.

“As much as I can’t see and I can’t tell you what it is, come on, something’s round the corner, it always is.”

For Wieczorek, nightlife matters because of the promise and unpredictability of new sounds and innovation: “There has to be another movement, another change of direction, and that’s why to me it is important. There’ll be music playing soon that none of us know about now. Whether they put a different slant on it or they use samples, God knows, but when it catches … I think we all know when something fresh comes along and it catches. Bang! It’s overnight.”

The story of Four Aces/ Labrynth says it all: one club, two distinct sounds, catering to true movements of their time, both with meaning beyond its bricks and mortar.

Joe Wieczorek (centre). Pic: Joe Wieczorek

Shoreditch’s Plastic People, like The Four Aces, is the definition of a small club that achieved significance beyond its walls by nurturing new sounds and DJs.

Beginning in the 1990s, first on Oxford Street then Curtain Road in Shoreditch, Plastic People is notable for doing many things well. It was small, very dark, and had one of the best sound systems in Europe at any one time thanks to a devoted audiophile-minded owner in Ade Forsyth. Most important was its role as a proving-ground for different sorts of nights and crowds, and the fact that all these disparate types felt welcome.

There is no better example of underground musical instrumentation morphing into mainstream sonic tastes than Plastic People’s championing of Dubstep with the club night FWD>>.

“All club ventures hold an element of risk,” says Jon Rust, in FACT magazine’s oral history of Plastic People, “But the risks at Plastic were mitigated by the club’s sense of purpose. Nights like FWD>> were not always packed: for a long time around 04/05 it was the opposite.

“I remember Bernard who ran the club with Ade (club owner) saying how bizarre the FWD>> crowd seemed to them – gaunt studio zombies stood nodding, facing the DJ through thick ganja fog. But Ade trusted FWD>> and ran with it, and they went on to affect another twist in the evolution of dance music.”

Sgt Pokes, Mala and Loefah at crucial Dubstep night FWD>> at Plastic People, 2005. Pic: Georgina Cook

This is arguably the essence of why nightlife matters. It’s the smaller, more idealistic and less commercially centred endeavours that carve out cultural expressions that count. As Rust says: ”I don’t feel big venue promoters who book acts years in advance can come close to that kind of contribution.”

Detroit Techno extraordinaire Theo Parrish called the club home during his residency, while Four Tet and Floating Points both honed their skills during their monthly nights.

Speaking to The Guardian and reflecting on Plastic People, Sam Shepherd, or Floating Points, told Ben Beaumont-Thomas: “Although Shoreditch has now become apocalyptic after 1am, Plastic People never changed. We all maintained that it’s a safe haven away from it all.

“The people coming down to the nights were so nice, and became regulars; suddenly it became a room full of 200 friends,” said Shepherd. “You knew their dance moves, you knew the guy who screams when you played a certain track. It didn’t feel like randoms off the street.”

Nightclubs are places where individuals can come together as communities. They afford groups, such as the LGBTQ community, the opportunity to create secure, experimental spaces in which to dance away the night. In east London, a succession of gay clubs and nights in the 2000s gave revellers a spiritual home after sundown away from the rising housing and living prices of west and central London, and an increasingly corporate, less murky Soho.

Dalston Superstore. Pic: Skirmantas Petraitis/ Flickr

Golf Sale, Family and Boombox, three club nights hosted by Richard Mortimer in Hoxton Bar and Grill, blazed a trail for queer parties in the east. Later, in 2009 came Dalston Superstore, Dan Beaumont’s first venue.

At a recent panel discussion on the future of London’s nightlife at Goldsmiths, University of London, Beaumont shed light on what it was about nightlife that hooked him on the industry: “My experience in the night-time industry probably began as a raver, going to something called Elevation Reincarnation at Crystal Palace sports centre in 1996, I think Dougal and Vibes were playing back to back, which was pretty strong.

“Since then, I’ve always been obsessed with night culture, with clubs, with the sort of magic that happens on the dance-floor when you throw a bunch of different people from different walks of life together, and you create a temporary utopia after dark.”

Beaumont opened the seminal now-closed Dalston techno-house den, Dance Tunnel, and has since ran it’s spiritual reincarnation, the club night Chapter 10, in Hackney Wick’s Bloc.

Click here to see 50 years: an interactive history of London club culture.

Amy Redmond of Sink the Pink, an LGBTQ-friendly party, attested at the discussion to Hackney’s pull for non-hetero clubbing: “I just don’t think we had found our place in queer London. I don’t think we found our heart and soul in Soho, so we started running parties in East London.”

She argued queer parties can subvert tightly held norms of gender and sexuality. Sink the Pink are taking their events to traditional strip clubs like Metropolis near Cambridge Heath Station, in order to “re-empower spaces,” by bringing “a very queer thing into a very hetero space.”

It’s this protest element of nightlife and clubbing which ensures it is so important. The protest part comes just by the party happening at all, and, although there is a message, the carousers just have a good time.

Nightclubs aren’t just incubators for new music or home to conformity-bending nights. Clubs and fashion have always been closely intertwined, with emerging trends in fashion riding on the coattails of fresh nights. There’s always an element of performance at any club, but nights like Boombox showcased a reawakening in the city’s creativity, whilst high-street glamour has typified the Soho and Shoreditch haunts in recent years. The aesthetic championed in the rave-era of the late 1980s and 1990s continues on today.

Nightlife matters in Britain for less esoteric reasons too. The night-time industry contributes massively to the nation’s economy, with revenues of £66 Billion per annum (6% of the UK total), and 8 per cent of the UK’s employment, according to the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA).

Clubs themselves are great places to learn business, as Beaumont said at a Resident Advisor panel discussion on the way forward for the UK’s nightlife: “Nightclubs are basically a business school for people. You can walk into a nightclub as a promoter, as a bartender — you can learn the very fundamentals of entrepreneurship, it’s all there.”

Whether clubs provide sanctuary for a group of people, or help develop whole genres and subcultures, they provide a real service for a population tired of monotony. Not all clubs are created equal, but the best ones help you escape reality for a few hours, and ought to be cherished while they’re still there.



This article is part of day two of a series on London’s nightlife called Who Blighted the Night?  Tomorrow we will look towards the future with reasons for hope, including our interactive ELL clubbing guide and four ways you can help save London’s nightlife. 

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