celebrating 21 years of duckie, a gay club unlike no other
Sadiq Khan’s new Night Czar Amy Lamé has been running Duckie at Royal Vauxhall Tavern for over two decades now. A club night that mixes together sexualities and ages and spans many musical genres. As it prepares to celebrate it’s 21st birthday, she...
As 2016 draws to a close, Londoners are becoming increasingly aware of threats to the capital's nightlife. A battle to save much-loved Farringdon nightclub Fabric has thankfully been successful, but other venues like Dalston's Passing Clouds and Shoreditch's George & Dragon haven't been so lucky. London's Mayor Sadiq Khan is so committed to helping the city's nighttime economy that he's recently appointed Amy Lamé, co-founder and hostess of long-running LGBTQ club night Duckie, as the capital's first ever Night Czar. Going forward, her job will be to protect and cultivate London's after-hours culture against a backdrop of gentrification, ever-tighter licensing laws and the prohibitive expense of actually going out to party.
Because the capital's nightlife feels kind of fragile right now, it's important to celebrate the success of a night like Duckie, which has been running every Saturday since 1995 at south London's Royal Vauxhall Tavern. This weekend, Duckie is throwing a huge 21st birthday bash for 1300 loyal punters at the Brixton Electric. Countless other LGBTQ club nights have come and gone over the last two decades, but Duckie's charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent has enabled it to survive and adapt with the times. "It was a hit from the start," recalls Simon Casson the night's producer and co-founder. "In the 90s everyone was building up their buff bodies and taking ecstasy and going out dancing to house music. We wanted a club night for skinny kids who liked jangly guitar music, so we started our own. I think the combination of punk rock, pogoing and and performance art was a good antidote to the wipe-clean gay scene of the time."
The idea of a club night that features live performances as well as DJs spinning records may not feel especially novel in 2016: today, you can go and watch a RuPaul's Drag Race veteran judge an amateur stripping contest at gay superclub Heaven almost every Thursday night. But back in 1995, Duckie's vision was pretty revolutionary. "You could go and see theatre in a theatre, you could go and see live art in the ICA, and you could go and see drag in a trad drag pub. But there was nowhere that really mixed it up," Amy Lamé explains. "So we came up with this club night where the performances were the centrepiece, but which also played all the music we loved listening to that you didn't hear anywhere else. And then we put it on in a spit-and-sawdust gay pub in south London. There was nothing fancy-schmancy about it."
Today, Duckie's performances still stand out because they're so completely unpredictable. I was there a few Saturdays ago when a male-female duo called The Romford Rumble took to the stage and basically had a brawl. At first, the crowd at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern looked a bit bewildered, but once they twigged that the act was essentially a tongue-in-cheek parody of a couple having a row on a drunken night out, they lapped it up. The moment the atmosphere turned from confusion to appreciation was thrilling.
"They teeter on the edge of the glorious and the embarrassing," Casson says of Duckie's performances, which typically last around five to ten minutes and include everything from singing and dancing to burlesque and more experimental performance art. "Why does it have to be neat or acceptable? It should be messy and it should be a bit chaotic - we're not at the fucking Royal Court, we're at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern." Lamé says the venue's unusual layout raises the stakes every time. "That stage is like a magnifying glass and the performers are really in the audience's laps. If you're good, that stage makes you look brilliant. But if you're not good, you do look quite shit. And I've been there myself so I can say that from personal experience!"
Duckie's other USP is the eclectic blend of music played by resident DJ duo the Readers Wifes (sic), who've also been involved from the start. One half of the Readers Wifes, Mark Wood, says their sets have always been different by design. Songs by artists you'd never have heard in other gay clubs in 1995 - David Bowie, Kate Bush, The Clash - segued into old soul records, old reggae records and hits by "bands from the glamorous end of Britpop" like Elastica and Pulp. "And now we keep it fresh by playing new records alongside some of those records we've been playing since the first night," Wood says, citing Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Janelle Monáe and Robyn as the new wave of Duckie artists. "Something like Tilted by Christine and the Queens is perfect for Duckie: she's got a good image, it's intelligent and sophisticated, but it's also fun and doesn't take itself too seriously."
The enduring popularity of the main Duckie Saturday club night has led to spin-off events and what Casson calls a series of "community projects". Duckie Family is a twice-annual party for queer people of colour and their allies. D.H.S.S. is an annual "training lab" for emerging young performance artists aged between 18 and 26. The Posh Club brings cabaret and comedy to older people living in Crawley, in Sussex, where Casson's late mother used to live, and Hackney. "It's like Duckie, but for people in their seventies and eighties who like drinking tea instead of four pints," he says drily.
Because Duckie is now a hardened veteran of London's LGBTQ scene, it's become an increasingly cross-generational affair. Rock up on a Saturday night and you'll find people in their twenties dancing to Destiny's Child's Bootylicious and David Bowie's Young Americans next to people in their fifties. Where else would this happen except at a wedding? Lamé is keen to point out that Duckie has always been a night where everyone is welcome. "We don't ask anyone's sexuality on the door. All I say is: be up for a good time and don't wear nice shoes because they'll probably get covered in beer."
On the one hand, Duckie's continuing appeal is a testament to the inclusive atmosphere the team have worked so hard to create. But on the other, it's a heartening sign of wider social changes. "It's indicative of the massive progress we've made in LGBTQ liberation and LGBTQ rights," Lamé says. "Coming out from Section 28, gaining the equal age of consent, being able to get married - so much has happened in 21 years. We even have gay couples bringing their kids to Duckie now - seriously, it's mind-blowing."
Duckie Is 21 takes place at Electric Brixton on Saturday 3 December. Find out more at duckie.co.uk
Text Nick Levine