Joe Wieczorek is feeling a bit rough. The man behind Labyrinth, one of rave era East London’s most respected clubs, is recovering from a mate’s 60th.
Wieczorek is an odd name for someone with such a south London lilt. He tells me it’s Polish: “I was adopted. My [adoptive] father was demobbed at Edinburgh in 1945,” having served in the Polish Free Army. “[He] came down to London, met my mum, she had a bad accident, they couldn’t have kids, I was adopted. There you go. That was it, 1957.”
He tells me his birth mother left him at a convent in Ealing before she “dived off back to Ireland,” but adds he really hasn’t chased it up and can’t expand much further.
It’s hard not to crack up at the confusion he faces when people delve into his heritage, as if his cockney speech patterns were an elaborate put-on. “Yeah, yeah Polish mate. I’m the most unlikely Pole you’ll ever come across. You know what I mean? One or two people… when they find out my name, they see my persona and stuff like that, wow, you know what I mean? I’m not really Polish mate.”
But when he was 11, Wieczorek tells me, his parents took him to Auschwitz in a rather dark attempt to connect him to his roots. He wasn’t allowed on the tour, as he was under 15, so he was sat down with steak and chips at the Auschwitz hotel and told to wait instead. Trouble is, the food was wolfed down, and an 11-year-old Wieczorek “bunked into Auschwitz” alone.
He followed the route the tour party took into the camp, walking the majority of the way round on his own, before catching up with his parents. They had just found his grandfather’s photo on the wall, among the pictures of all the Poles that had been executed.
“It was the most surreal holiday ever,” Wieczorek says. “They took me to Poland and [then] we went to Berlin, [then] all these obscure Eastern Bloc places, and certainly then it was horrible. I lived on bread and jam and cornflakes out of the American dollar shop, I couldn’t eat none of that food they eat.
“Never ever really had the wish to go back, you know? After my dad died, the Polish side of it sort of dropped off, and I never really heard too much of them again to be honest.”
As a teen, partly due to this outsider upbringing, Wieczorek fell deeply into music and the subcultures of the time, flirting with skinhead culture before eventually working security backstage at concerts: Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen and The Faces among them.
In 1987, he came across the nascent rave scene while working at a venue called Clink Street, when, at the height of his fame, Boy George held a party in which all the partygoers were given T-shirts as invites with the ubiquitous mascot of acid-house, the yellow smiley face, emblazoned on them, cordially inviting them to the “boy’s” birthday—quite an induction.
He then started to put roving illegal raves on under the banner of Labryinth in the late 80s, having forged a fire certificate, which he stole from under the fire officer’s nose. It worked.
One night in October 1988, when an inspector from Haringey police came to inspect his night with the SPG [Special Patrol Group] with him, Wieczorek assumed the worst. With his folder of papers and real and forged certificates in hand, the officer, after having walked round the venue said: “Well done son, congratulations on a well run party, have a nice weekend.”
“That really was our green light. And then after that, I thought, you know what, if we can blag him, we can blag anyone. About another year or so left right and centre we were taking liberties. Ferry Lane, Homerton High Street, you know, we were putting thousands in places, but after a while, they [police] came and had a chat with me.
“‘See you son, carry on, we’ll bury you, you’re going.’ That was all the warning I needed, you get that from Old Bill… time to have a little think. And that was how we went to Dalston Lane, it weren’t out of choice mate.”
The iconic Labryinth, based in the The Four Aces Club on Dalston Lane, is the reason we’re talking in the first place. Pressure from a combination of the police, the acid squad, and what we’ll euphemistically refer to as “local characters”, meant securing warehouse space was difficult, so Joe was forced into looking for a licensed premises.
After a year or so, the club grew on them. “In the end, even virtually a decade later, we didn’t want to go. We really did like it there. It was our place, we ran it, and we pretty much did it our way. Yeah, you could never repeat that, when I look back I think we were very fortunate, to have been there at that time. Most definitely in comparison to how it is now, because it’s nothing like it.”
Rave culture was fostered and embraced at Labryinth, where, under the stewardship of Wieczorek, acid house, hardcore, and jungle ruled the soundsystems. The crowd was mixed: black and white, gay and straight, all raving under one roof. Wieczorek tells me he’d see a true enemy in the dance and, thanks in part no doubt to the ecstasy, he’d no longer be a foe.
The number of nightclubs in London has almost halved since 2010, and things aren’t looking great across the rest of the country either. You’ve got to wonder, does Joe almost feel sorry for the younger generations now?
“Of course, absolutely, you know I’m very fortunate. I was a little sort of herbert when I was young, I copped the skinhead times of 69′ and 70′ and 71′, and I went to Tamla Motown and Trojan clubs and places like that, and I’ve seen two or three changes of culture. I’ve got to be honest with you, this one [rave] really has lasted longer than all of the others put together. But the one downside is now, after all these years, it’s taken a massive step backwards, clubs are returning to the sort of era of carpet and chrome, where Sharon and Tracy dance round their handbags.”
Wieczorek finds himself “horrified” by some of the practices he’s become privy to in contemporary clubs—with a promoter charging punters a pound for using the smoking area being a particular bugbear. The influence of gentrification, and increased security measures have, Joe says, made clubs comparable to prisons.
After a long spell in Dalston, Labyrinth took up residence in Tottenham for two years. This was followed by an eight year hiatus, the result of Sue, the love of his life and co-founder of the night, falling ill. He says it took him eight years to get over it.
It wasn’t until his best mate and regular DJ at Labryinth, Ginge, become ill with cancer that he was convinced to throw another Labryinth night again. Ginge played it, and was due to play a second event, before passing away a few weeks before.
“But by then, we had all reignited with each other again,” said Wieczorek, but what happens when the children of the Second Summer of Love grow up? “You know, some of the stories and the things that have happened to us all is incredible, and I didn’t realise how many people it had affected.”
Back on to Labryinth: “Someone showed me a thing on Facebook, and said: ‘There’s 15,000 people here Joe, they all liked your club.’ I was like ‘What?’, you know I looked through all the other pages, it was amazing.”
Looking back at his legacy, Labyrinth must be a source of real pride for Wieczorek, even if the memories are a bit misty. So what, to the uninitiated, was it like to be amongst it and be very much a pioneer of the second summer of love and the subsequent years?
“Amazing to be around, amazing to see it happen, especially over here what we were all used to with the football and this and that and the other. No one really liked anyone from a different area or a different colour, and all of a sudden, bang! You know, over night. Quite a journey.”
Those days of yore are remembered so fondly for good reason; without clubs like the Labyrinth, and promoters like Joe Wieczorek, we wouldn’t be here today.