Ahead of World Unknown's Easter Special, Ian McQuaid explores how the club night harks back to rave's utopian dream.
If you go down a certain Camberwell street, on a certain night, at a certain time, you'll find a sight straight from a misty eyed documentary about the Second Summer of Love; a queue of ravers, aged from just-about 18 to probably-past 50, all hustling to get inside a nondescript pub on an otherwise deserted street. Once you're in through the door of the pub - let's call it the Love Pub - you find yourself in a long dimly lit room, neon lights flickering blue over the bar, lurid erotica decorating the walls, people falling about in a hot mess. At the far end is a door; the door to the basement. This night is called World Unknown, and the basement is where World Unknown happens.
The first thing you notice about the dance floor at World Unknown is what isn't there - there are no DJs to be seen. Andy Blake and Joe Hart, the two selectors who keep the night running on a stream of obscure techno, electronic body music, scuzzy house and the occasional rhythmic wild card are hidden in a small side room concealed behind a curtain, a Wizard of Oz arrangement that ensures that firstly, the records do the talking, and secondly, they seem more mythical than mere truth could allow. Out on the floor there's a smoke machine, a laser, and a crush of people sliding in and out of dancefloor abandonment. There are no photos being taken, and no one is tweeting their opinion of the night - not because there's a rule against it, but because no one can be bothered to remove themselves from the now. In a world where dance music has been squeezed into a polished and highly lucrative commodity, World Unknown is something of a throwback, a space offering an alternative to commercialised clubbing, instead harking back to rave's utopian dream. Dance music as a space to experience collective joy.
World Unknown has been running for six years now, and for the first four of those it's online presence was entirely negligible- an occasional, vaguely worded Facebook event page would be the best you'd hope to get. Although they eventually succumbed to setting up a proper Facebook group, there are never any photos or videos from the party posted online, venue addresses are rarely (if ever) shared, mixtapes are few and far between, and Andy Blake is equally likely to use the account he manages the group with to post rants against neo liberal politics as he is to post tracks you might hear in the club. This reluctance to create 'shareable content' that would commodify the brand online flies in the face of prevailing wisdom concerning modern youth culture. In recent years Bonin Bough, elite media analyst whose portfolio includes stints heading digital strategy for Pepsi and Kraft Foods, has happily declared that-
"The icons of this generation are the 'like' button, the 'tweet' button, the 'reblog' button… to not learn how to participate in those channels is outrageous. To stand on the side line is not an option."
But World Unknown isn't participating - at least not at any sort of level Bough, and similar digital gurus would appreciate. Instead they're undercutting the dominance of social media, not ignoring it exactly, more treating it as a trifling adjunct to the more important issue of meeting up in person and sharing experiences on the physical plane. This extends to getting into the party; if you want to buy tickets to a WU event, you have to meet in person to collect them from one of the DJs at one of a handful of spots in South London, places like clothes shop Wavy Garms or record shop Rye Wax. This is old fashioned localism; in fact everything about the set up seems old fashioned.
World Unknown isn't alone in this re-embracing of the physical over the digital. The live techno act Paranoid London spent last year headlining clubs around the world, belting out murky analogue acid from some battered Roland 303s, accompanied by surrealist poetry from their MC-cum-soothsayer Clams Baker. They dominated superclubs, playing repeatedly at fabric, despite refusing to speak to press, having no website, maintaining no internet presence, and (for the first three years of their career) refusing to release music on anything other than vinyl. Like World Unknown, the personnel behind Paranoid London are dance fanatics old enough to have experienced the rave explosion the first time round, and, like WU, they are trying to pull back to an earlier time, to regain something that has been lost in the rush to reduce our lives into conveniently digestible feeds and streams.
It's not too much of a stretch to say that these outfits are to techno what Jeremy Corbyn is to politics - older, slightly crotchety outsiders who are seeking to go against apparently accepted neo-liberal hegemonies, focus on ideas that were last popular in the 80s, and preach heartfelt optimism over cold realism. And like Corbyn, and to the disbelief of anyone following Bough's widely accepted methods of appealing to youth via maximum marketing and maximum branding, the likes of WU and Paranoid London are remarkably popular with a younger generation. It seems the kids aren't as predictable as the mainstream would hope - hence the queues outside nondescript South London boozers, hence the dancefloor abandonment, and hence a new generation enjoying the liberty of partying without the stifling sensation that the world is watching, liking, commenting, and sharing.
As for World Unknown, whilst the ideology may be from an earlier time, Andy Blake insists that the crew are doing anything but looking backwards.
"I'm old-fashioned enough to think that dancefloors are for dancing on," he muses "but along with all manner of other interesting and stimulating subjects, there's definitely room for political discussion and debate in the bar or the smoking area. People often forget that intelligent discourse is a big part of a proper party along with dancing, chirpsing, plotting, conspiring and making merry."
"If World Unknown and the other parties that Amy [Blake's wife], Joe and myself are involved in have played even a small part in people getting a glimpse of the powerful mystic energy of coming together to dance, have fun and cook up schemes and capers then that's something I'm really pleased to have been part of. I'll be able to look back on it fondly when things are running a little slower. For now though it's onward, onward ever onward. There's so much to do and so little time to do it."
World Unknown's Easter Special is tonight, 24th March.
Text Ian McQuaid