Interesting interview from TCT with the Speedqueen girls.
Stragne inaccuracy saying that noone would give Anne Savage a break, by 1996 when Speed Queen started Anne was a fixture at Ark, had played Angels, was involved in the Birmingham hard house scene, and all over the country.
Source: TCT4 – Interview: SpeedQueen
Suzy and Kas, the founders of Speedqueen
The nineties were a defining time in Leeds’ cultural history. Boundaries were broken, institutions formed, and music, fashion and art were intertwined on the independent scene.
On one side of town there was Dave Beer and co, already moving the scene past the acid house era by going ‘Back to Basics’ and making the changes they needed to make in our city; then in another part of town Nicholas Deakins was just starting out, fuelled by Basics’ ‘no trainer’ policy, designing and making shoes for the Leeds lads to wear out; while Everton was pushing forward with his independent boutique The Hip Store, which opened in 87. It was an exciting time in Leeds, the city was bubbling, movements were happening, and aggression and prejudice was being pushed away by happy clubbers and Leeds trailblazers. Two of the most influential players were Suzy Mason and Kas Shaw, who met in the early nineties and started one of the most diverse and open nights in Leeds clubbing history.
The story starts with Suzy, who along with artist Paul Fryer, co-founded The Kit Kat Club, which then evolved into Vague, the first ‘mixed’ night in Leeds, and possibly the UK. It was an antidote to the cold and at times unpleasant atmosphere of the ‘normal’ clubs in Leeds.
Suzy told me: “I started going to loads of raves and really loved it, but one day I went into the girls toilets and I thought it was the boys toilet as there was no fashion, really kind of grunge, dress down, and I was there in my rollered hair and high heels and I thought, ‘I don’t quite fit in here.’ So I started this little art club that was based on 1950s movies and it just went from there.”
It wasn’t long before Suzy got pulled into the politics of the club when she witnessed a doorman’s knee jerk homophobic reaction when he punch a gay clubber in the face. Understandably Suzy had a word with the owner of the club, but he didn’t see anything wrong with what had happened. It was a defining moment for Suzy.
“I just thought, actually there is some really important work to do here.”
Not only was there work to be done to change the way homosexuality was received, but also work to show men that women could be big players on the Leeds club scene too.
“The club scene was aggressive and girls were very competitive with each other – the whole going out experience had become stressful.”
Suzy, who now works of Leeds College of Art, met Kas at one of her nights and these two very different people, found they shared the same ideals, and clicked.
Kas: “I moved to Leeds, and me and my best friend used to go to a lot of gay clubs, but we were fed up of going down into basements. Then the scene started kicking off in Leeds, with Basics and Vague, so we started to go there. And that’s how I met Suzy at Vague at The Warehouse.”
Suzy: “Kas actually came to the club as a customer, and we became friends and decided we wanted to set up our own club. It was never about being gay or straight. Really it was a club that was run by women, where we could give more opportunities to women.”
Kas and Suzy were not digging the superstar DJ vibe in Leeds. DJs were very expensive and they were thinly spread, so they were often unreliable and disconnected from the crowd. Kas and Suzy looked around them at a club full of talent and people just waiting for an opportunity to DJ so they decided that instead of spending all their money on one superstar DJ, they could share the pot and give some young talent a chance.
Suzy said: “We had girls coming up wanting to be DJs, and no one would give them a break. Like Anne Savage, no one would give her a break.”
Suzy and Kas’s shared desire to continue supporting local talent building a community of people who felt comfortable with each other brought them closer, so Suzy left Vague to concentrate on making a new club night with Kas.
They started up the Friday night gig I-Spy at Club NATO, and opened a Boutique on King Charles Street called SpeedQueen, with the same ethos of nurturing young talent.
Suzy: “We did in Leeds then what no one had done before. We mixed vintage with young designers, with make up, with stuff for cross dressers and drag queens, for boys, girls, teenagers, we threw everything in together; we merchandised it all together. We had it as an office and a drop in centre where all the girls that didn’t have anywhere to live used to drop their dirty washing in. We had our own little label, loads of make up and wigs, glitter, dress up. It was really mad.”
Kas: “It was a bit of a mad place.”
A year later the duo started a club night with the same name, which opened in The Warehouse in 1996 and ran every single Saturday until 2006, playing every type of music from uplifting house to fifties music in the upstairs disco room.
Suzy: “We started as a platform for breaking new talent, and that was really important to us.”
Kas: “We got a little community together where everybody had a little job to do. So you have 20-25 people involved in the night, and that big chunk of money would just have gone to a DJ at another club. But that big chunk of money at SpeedQueen gets split between everyone, and everyone gets a piece of the cake they have created.”
The club had a strict membership policy but once you were in, you were part of the club and your voice was important. There was no disrespect, no racism, no sexism, no VIPS. Everyone was equal.
Suzy: “We had this scheme where people wanted to be on the guest list, because that’s the whole thing: it’s not that they didn’t want to pay, they just wanted to walk in. We were very democratic. We didn’t have a VIP area or VIPs – everyone in there was a VIP. But people that didn’t pay had to either have contributed to the club or to helping out – and single mums were also allowed.”
“Everyone on the guest list paid two pounds – we kept all that money in a charity account, and someone could nominate a local charity, and then once we raised 500 pounds or 1000 pounds we would give that money to a local charity. The guest list had to happen – it’s part of being in nightclub – but we didn’t want all that, ‘I’m just going to walk in for free.’ What we didn’t know we were doing, because it didn’t have a title, was we were being a social enterprise.”
“A lot of things we were doing back then, we didn’t have structures for, have an understanding of or examples of. People now can say, ‘I would like my business to be a social enterprise,’ and people will understand what that means, whereas people would say to us, ‘what are you giving all your money away for?’”
In so many ways Suzy and Kas were pioneers. They were part of a cultural movement in the city.
Suzy: “There was this huge underground movement. Back to Basics, Up Your Ronson, Hard Times, and we fuelled fashion businesses and loads of bars. There was a lot of money coming into Leeds and it was all underground. At that time we were still selling mix tapes, and they weren’t even playing the music on Radio One.”
“Today those kinds of movements could not happen in such an independent way, it couldn’t have stayed underground for as long as it did.”
Suzy and Kas created the exact environ- ment they wanted in a club. They focused on the visual side of things, putting up art on walls, making the events as colourful and interesting as possible, while making sure everyone felt safe and had a place they could come to relax and be themselves. This was a big focus at SpeedQueen.
Suzy: “We had a kitchen, we had a sweet shop, we used to sell sweets, Tampax, bobbles etc. – Kas had special glue for the girls whose heels had broken, they would be like, ‘Where’s Kas? I need to fix my shoes…’
“It was a place where people could explore parts of their personality. If you talk about it being mixed, that is actually very important. Because if you are gay, or you maybe feel that you might be and you want to explore that part of your personality, to go into a gay club can be very intimidating. So for us there were lots of young people, like boys or girls, they could come with their brothers and sisters, they could come with their friends.
“They didn’t have to go, ‘Oh well, that’s my sexuality so I have to go there, but all my family and friends aren’t so they have to go there.’ Because that’s not right. Why would you have more in common with someone because of your sexuality?! That kind of segregating people just seemed wrong.
“We both made a lot of deep friendships in the club that are still standing now. But we also met a lot of people that were displaced. People came to us and said they had been rejected by their parents because they were gay, they gravitated to us. It was like a family. We were like the parents. And I think that continuity of knowing that the same people will be there every week, and you know what their background is, that’s really special in the club. They weren’t anonymous.
“The drag queens we employed, we didn’t employ them to dance and to look fabulous we employed them specifically to mix with the customers so the customers could talk to them. Normally you wouldn’t get to speak to drag queens; drag queens are there to be looked at. That’s how they are presented in clubs.
“We employed very specific ones to almost educate people to explain why they were like they were. They used to talk to the girls about their make up and their beauty regimes, and you’ve got to have a conversation with someone to not be prejudiced.”
A change was clearly happening and the days of gay people hav- ing to hide in basement clubs and parties were passing. SpeedQueen had become a place where everyone could go.
Suzy: “We had something really massive to do when we started out, something to prove. Leeds wasn’t actually a great place to go out, even though it was a great city.”
Kas: “At the end of the day I think a lot of the gay people were just so glad to be able to mix in different clubs because obviously it had been really kept separate.”
A big thing for Suzy and Kas was that they were also changing people’s perceptions of homosexuality, which was an amazing thing to do back in the nineties.
Suzy: “One thing I do remember, this bloke came in and said, ‘I have left all my mates to come here because they won’t come here. He said, ‘But I need to tell you that before I came here I used to be really homophobic, I hated gay people, I used to beat them up – but I don’t know what’s happened to me, I’ve just changed and I feel so bad.’ He said, ‘I had to confess that to you,’ and he became a member. And I just thought, ‘One day when you have children you aren’t going to pass that prejudice on.’”
In 2002 Suzy, Kas and the rest of the SpeedQu
een team were given the opportunity to go to Bosnia, after being contacted by army captain and radio pioneer David Bailey MBE. The idea was to bring kids in war torn countries together, because David believed that art and creativity unite people of different backgrounds. It was a life changing experience for Suzy and Kas, who still become emotional when talking about their time over there. Their life consisted of visiting schools in the war torn area, hosting SpeedQueen school discos, and during the day they did workshops and taught children how to be creative. They slept in army barracks with only the basics, a very different lifestyle to here.
Suzy: “To be out there in Bosnia with this ex British army officer, such different worlds apart, and to have this connection – we valued what we were doing so much.”
They met people who had lost families due to war; they experienced things we could only begin to imagine were happening over there. But it was something the team needed to do.
Bosnia showed Suzy and Kas that their job was done here in Leeds – they had broken the ceiling and allowed lots of other things to happen in Leeds, and worked hard to make Leeds a more open and friendly place to be. But they realised they were tired, and in 2006, after ten years of weekly club nights, they decided to call it a day.
Suzy: “We were ranting politically all the time, but now you don’t need to say it, it’s irrelevant. We’ve done our job.”
Kas: “We dared to do it. A lot of people wouldn’t have dared to do the things we did. Like booking girls and putting stuff up on the walls that didn’t make any sense.”
Suzy: “We have always been marginalised by the boys in the club scene and the press. We’ve always been a bit dismissed as a handbag house and not taken seriously. The job was done but you can’t be complacent because there will always be prejudice – it’s human nature.”
But that was not the end of SpeedQueen. Due to popular demand the parties came back, although not as frequently.
Suzy: “I think we kind of retired, and we’ve been quite overwhelmed with people asking for Speed Queen to come back and to exist.”
Suzy and Kas definitely think there is a future for SpeedQueen – they just aren’t sure what that is yet.
Suzy: “The parties have come back because the members have requested it, and begged and begged and begged, so we kind of think there is a future in SpeedQueen. We haven’t decided what or where.
“There’s something fantastic happening between the generations because you’ve got this generation, people of our age – late 40s, 50s even – and you’ve got younger generations coming up and that idea of them mixing together, that’s not happened be- fore, actually respecting each other.
“Is there any way the generations could work together more, instead of being so segregated? Because young people keep you young, and older people have all this knowledge and wisdom and history.
“SpeedQueen is a social enterprise and a community, so maybe we should sit down with all the members and ask them?!”
Suzy and Kas are happy with all they have achieved in Leeds, and excited about the current state of the city and what the new generations will achieve.
Suzy: “I think things go in cycles, things kind of peak and trough naturally. We went through this huge peak of Leeds being THE city in the country, it was one of the best and that has to die for new things to be reborn. Things have to go down, it’s the nature of the universe. It feels like now it’s coming up again, the energy of the city is changing again. We were part of the last wave, this new wave is for the next generation.”