Top 5 Lost London Nightclubs of the 90s
Lets face it, we all knwo that London clubbing was never as good as northern clubbing. However there were some good clubs in London. The pace of progress eh?
Former DJ Magazine Deputy Editor Tom Kihl investigates what happened to the clubs that once dominated London’s nightlife.
This week, Boris Johnson has been considering a decision that will affect the future of London’s most famous nightclub. If the Mayor grants planning permission for a huge development of flats opposite Ministry of Sound, club bosses know their days at the Elephant & Castle bus depot cum internationally renowned temple of DJ culture will be numbered. A single noise complaint from posh new residents would threaten their licence and spell the end of one of the last remaining superclubs from the 1990s dance music explosion.
Luckily they are putting up a great fight, so Ministry won’t find itself demolished just yet. But many of the places that clubbers flocked to every weekend in their thousands in the post-Criminal Justice Act heyday are being erased from today’s landscape.
A ‘perfect storm’ of London property economics, redevelopment zones and major transport improvements (rather than any lack of interest from music fans) has seen off an unprecedented number of key venues in the last few years.
When I was at DJ Magazine, Paul Oakenfold once said to me that important former nightclubs should, at very least, have a blue plaque on the wall. He’s right. These might have often been dank, crumbling, smelly old places, but they are where countless people enjoyed some of the most intense and vital moments of their lives. They are where modern electronic music was crafted, where couples met then got married, where career paths changed and a whole generation learned about the highs and the lows of unbridled hedonism.
Because of the sleazy, druggy, mischievous late night vibe (exactly what makes such haunts so exciting), we tend to reduce their cultural significance. And while there’s nothing worse than the club bore going on about how the music and the parties were so much better ‘back in the day,’ we should give these classic institutions more reverence. Even if we can’t – and possibly shouldn’t – prevent their almost inevitably fleeting existence.
We’ve picked our Top 5 such venues, all of which were in stumble-home-from distance for Kentishtowners (that’s why there’s no Club UK for example, if you’re wondering).
The pictures are quite shocking, but their club history often deliciously more so. Over the next few pages, we show you what’s become of these former nightlife hotspots, and pay tribute to the glorious madness they once hosted…
#5 Where could you find warehouse raving complete with funfair rides right in the heart of the capital?
Bagley’s / Canvas
Brief history? This vast warehouse space was always living on borrowed time as a nightclub. As part of the crumbling goods yard behind Kings Cross station, redevelopment was always on the horizon, but until that day the place was going to party hard. And so it did, hosting huge weekly club nights and loads of special one-offs, including the time Prince performed live, or when Madonna shot a video here. In 2003, after some dodgy incidents including a dancefloor shooting, management of the venue was handed to Billy Reilly, who had made such a success of neighbouring club The Cross. He renamed Bagley’s Canvas, and opened a smaller venue in a side door, The Key, complete with a flashing dancefloor. The various clubs on offer created a nightlife epicentre…until the inevitable day came.
Long-running Bagley’s night Freedom
Famous For? Holding the biggest capacity nights in London. Phillip Salon’s Mud Club dominated Saturdays bringing flamboyant clientele and ironic production of a vast scale, including such oddities as washing lines full of clothes above the dancefloor with housewife characters vacuuming up on podiums. Its replacement, Freedom, lasted even longer, complete with epic 10-hour sets from DJ Ariel. Classic hardcore events ruled Fridays, with rave nights like Double Dipped or pirate radio sponsored jungle soundclashes the norm. Midweek the site operated as a huge Roller Disco, while on Sunday afternoons, Antipodean drinking and wet t-shirt fest The Church resided for a decade, before a move up the road to wreak havoc at Kentish Town Forum.
What was it like?
With up to six sizeable rooms all operating at once, it was the closest thing to a festival from which you could catch a night bus home. In fact the TDK Cross Central Festival added tents and outdoor stages once a year to just that effect. Wandering through room upon room packed with bouncing clubbers, its size was mind boggling. And the view of sunrise across the huge rusting gas holders and BT tower never failed to excite feelings of being at the biggest party, in the best city, in the whole world.
Why did it close? For being slap in the middle of Europe’s largest urban regeneration project. Luckily the preservation of the industrial buildings and the amazing public spaces being created here are so fantastic they almost make up for the sacrifice of such a major club.
What’s happening there today? The warehouse is still in the early stages of its transformation into part of The Coal Drops, a ‘unique shopping destination’ right next door to the stunning new Granary Square and Central St Martins College. The marketing pitch promises music venues among the many new businesses, so parties may yet return to the Victorian buildings, even if they won’t touch the scale of those in the 90s.
Forthcoming site of The Coal Drops, ex-Bagley’s to the left
#4 Which club regularly hosted global stadium superstars in a tiny subterranean space?
4. Velvet Rooms
Brief history? In 1993 Nicky Holloway, one of the original Ibiza summer of love DJ/promoters, opened new venture Velvet Underground when the lease ran out on his infamous Milk Bar round the corner. The idea was always to replicate the intimate basement vibe, and to fill it with global DJ line-ups. The club was a key central London option throughout the rest of the 90s, changing its name to Velvet Rooms along the way and winning over legions of fans at its weekly rotation of specialist nights.
Famous For? Fabio’s seminal proto-drum & bass night Swerve on Wednesdays, big US house music visitors on Saturdays and Carl Cox’s long-running techno Thursday night Ultimate B.A.S.E, all of which were ‘one-in-one-out’ by 11pm in an era when presale tickets were unheard of, you just had to get there early. In the case of Carl Cox’s parties, that often meant departing early from the techno warm-up run by the Eukatech and Tag record shops, across Soho in the basement of the Sun & 13 Cantons pub. Big midweek nights, ruined Fridays.
What was it like? The velvet theme and cosy dancefloor provided a welcome change from the vast spaces elsewhere in London. You wouldn’t call it luxurious (especially the toilets), but it felt swanky anyway, providing a rare mix of proper West End clubbing with guaranteed credible music, any night of the week. FWD>>, the night credited as the birthplace of Dubstep, started out here in 2001. Can’t really argue with that.
Why did it close? As with so many central London sites, developers eventually got their hands on the whole building, of which the club was in one basement. The whole block was completely flattened and rebuilt, with a generic Superdrug now occupying the street-level space.
What’s happening there today? Not only have the Velvet Rooms been replaced with a bland chemist, but many more of the area’s music venues have been flattened by the recent Crossrail development. From the slightly dodgy space over the road that changed name many times before ultimately becoming a table dancing joint, to the Astoria (and LA2 sister venue), which although more famous for rock gigs, were also the scene of some important events in rave history, including Nicky Holloway’s infamous Trip and Sin nights, which saw bug-eyed clubbers stopping traffic by dancing in the road and fountains outside Centrepoint.
Bulldozed site of the Astoria, Charing Cross Road, as it makes way for Crossrail
#3 Where did abandoned Victorian railway arches host the UK’s most glamorous nightlife?
3. The Cross
Brief history? Lore has it that Billy Reilly, owner of a haulage firm operating from a garage in the deserted Goods Way wastelands, had an idea when Bagley’s warehouse opposite started being used regularly for parties. He’d open a wine bar to serve pre-club drinks. But Camden council granted him a full dance licence and suddenly his arches were offering full-on club events of their very own. The club developed a well-dressed following and soon expanded into other arches plus opened a much-loved garden terrace, where on a summer’s night, if you squinted your eyes enough, it was possible to feel like you’d been transported to Ibiza. Honest.
Famous For? A string of long running promoter residencies, from the glammed up Glitterati and Italian fave Vertigo, to mega-Prog-House brand Renaissance and welcoming gay night Fiction.
What was it like? Simply a great night out. With an easy switch from sweaty main floor to comfortable sofa, all your nightlife needs were catered to without many of the usual hassles. The famously beautiful crowd was an easy-on-the-eye bonus and the slightly exclusive feel made each event feel special. The Cross produced a gorgeous coffee-table book to celebrate their 10th anniversary, crammed with images and quotes that demonstrate quite what wild times were had, tucked beneath these small arches.
Why did it close? As with Bagley’s, the whole area was always slated to be transformed. And on January 1st 2008, the workmen moved in as the New Year’s Eve feather boas and furry boots departed for the last time.
What’s happening there today? The arches have been completely cleared and currently stand empty, ahead of development into boutiques. You can spot them from the new Granary Square. Although it’s hard to believe what once took place there now, the site remains much loved by those that know. When I snapped a pic of the empty arches for the Kentishtowner last year, the post was one of our biggest hits of the year.
#2 Which was the country’s first ever legal 24-hour venue, home to the original all night bender?
Brief history? Former policeman John Newman opened a wine bar in Clerkenwell in 1985. His business grew steadily to encompass salsa classes and parties downstairs, during the time as house music was taking hold as the last great youth subculture. John scored the UK’s first 24-hour licence in 1990 and was able to offer the kind of all-night-long dance experience that the illegal outdoor raves had previously provided. First to take advantage of this was gay scene promoter Lawrence Malice, who brought his already infamous after-hours gathering Trade to the club, with a 4am Sunday start. This set the tone for close to two decades of glorious debauchery.
Famous For? Trade was the venue’s most influential club, changing the lives of many who attended via its futuristic pounding electronica and the shear insanity of what was going on all round. Many hardened club goers found it a challenge to descend the winding staircase into wall of pumping male flesh known as ‘Muscle Alley’ and past people having full sex on the dancefloor, but once settled inside, the vibe was that of family. Albeit it seriously dysfunctional one. DJ Tony De Vit rose to global fame from here, before his untimely HIV related death in 1998. On other nights, the Chemical Brothers were residents, Tiesto played in the days before he went stadium-sized, there were US House nights, trance at long running Friday The Gallery and Sunday into Monday events FF and Melt that were often even more full-on than Trade.
What was it like? With bizarre sci-fi metalwork turning the bars into alien apparitions and colourful Gaudi-inspired tiles, this was a visual assault. The tunnel-like main room featured an industrial-strength laser that was installed with scant regard for health and safety, but boy did it provide killer lightshow. The venue was a warren of underground rooms – with a recording studio and even health club to be found deep inside. With orderly queues known to form in front of the best drug dealers, this place was affectionately known by those in the know as ‘Gurnmills’ for good reason. Legendary door host Tom has diaries documenting some of the truly incredible antics that took place, often involving celebrities, but he says ever making them public would be far too libellous. Which is a shame!
Why did it close? The building’s lease came up for renewal and as suspected, the owner wanted to push for a lucrative office redevelopment. The global economy derailed the process for a number of years and the place sat heartbreakingly empty, while London promoters found it difficult to find good mid-sized venues. Meanwhile The Gallery and the promotions team around it went on to huge success in their new home at Ministry of Sound, still dominating Friday nights in London after nearly 20 non-stop years, and also now run successful one-off DJ events plus festivals like SW4.
What’s happening there today? Despite original plans for the redevelopment saving the historic Victorian building, (which was original stables and later a gin distillery before becoming a dance mecca), later planning permission was granted for total destruction via wrecking ball. When taking the photos for this feature, I witnessed sections of the frontage being bulldozed in what can only be seen as brutal vandalism of the area’s history, from the industrial to the rave. No blue plaque is likely here. Tragic.
#1 Where did the DJ play in the middle of the crowd, deep inside the vaults of an ex-postal sorting office?
The End & AKA
Brief history?A DJ named Layo was throwing parties around town in his student days and, with input from his architect dad, set about transforming an old post office sorting depot into a permanent venue. With creative advice from the irrepressible Mr C of The Shamen, they launched The End in 1995 and it quickly became the most cutting edge nightclub in the country. Spiritual home of the nascent tech house scene via Mr C’s own night Subterrain, it was also a big champion drum & bass, techno and all forms of innovative new music. Later they opened the large self-contained AKA bar at street level, which could also be incorporated into the club for bigger events. Defined by queues round the block, both venues were roadblocked right through until the final party. And despite financial troubles in the early years, the club ultimately proved it was possible to run a successful business without ever succumbing to artistic compromise.
Famous For? With line-ups like these, where do you begin? How about Laurent Garnier’s residency, where he always played all night long, veering from thundering techno to country & western effortlessly. Or Erol Alkan’s scene-defining Trash on Mondays. Friday was all about Drum & Bass heroes like Andy C or DJ Markey laying waste to the main floor in a whirlwind of reloads. We enjoyed the guilty pleasure of Riot on Sunday afternoons just as much as a cool night of Underground Resistance or the throbbing sound of DTPM, before it defected to the then newcomer Fabric. AKA was famous for nights in its own right, including Thursday’s industry mash-up Misdemeanours, run by Caroline Prothero who is now behind the global phenomenon that is David Guetta.
What was it like? Trailblazing. From dramatic ideas such as placing the DJ booth in the middle of the dancefloor at crowd level, to little touches such as the famous drinking fountain, every element of The End was meticulously thought out by people who understood what needed improving about the bog-standard clubbing experience. A monster soundsystem and the intense atmosphere created by the arches meant that when the place erupted to a big track, it was a beautiful kind of extra-sensory mayhem indeed.
Why did it close? The team, many of whom had been with the club since day one, decided that they’d like to move on to fresh challenges, and leave on a high rather than let things get stale. The club was such a personal project that they didn’t want it to continue under different management, plus a property developer placed an offer on the table that made the decision difficult to refuse.
What’s happening there today? The arse fell out of the global economy shortly after the sale of the building, so redevelopment plans were swiftly put on hold. It reopened as a nightlife space under new management, (exactly what The End team didn’t want), cheekily retitled The Den and Centro. But despite aping the name, the new clubs inevitably failed to emulate what had gone before. The venue was soon forced to rely on some fairly grim commercial parties and was eventually closed down for quite serious breaches of licence. Last month the place was repossessed by bailiffs and currently lies boarded up.