what is the future of london clubbing?
Since the dawn of dance, the grimier parts of London have incubated some of the most innovative movements in electronic music. But with space in London at a premium, are we at risk of losing our underground heart to property developers? Boiler Room’s...
"It's not brain surgery," said a friend who throws legendary parties. "A soundsystem, a bar, some friendly security, job done." But can it be so simple? And if it was, everyone would do it, right?
Lately I've been consumed with thoughts about what makes a great space for people dancing together. It's at the core of my new role here at Boiler Room - but specifically, it was pulling together testimonials for Plastic People that really set it off. Seeing hours of raw interview footage and hundreds upon hundreds of photos, listening to the playlists and mixsets, hearing people again and again mention the same principles - a sense of family, music and dancing taking precedence over all else, social preconceptions being left at the door, the kind of inclusiveness it's possible to achieve in a club environment - was enough to wipe away any hint of cynicism. In fact, I found myself getting right into a bit of dewy-eyed old raver back-in-the-day-man sentimentalism.
I know from first hand experience what these people were describing was real. I can listen back to the tracks they were getting gooey over, whether that be some 70s cosmic jazz collector's holy grail, or a Loefah or Geeneus dub, or Caribou's Ye Ye' and whether or not I went to the relevant night, know that, yes, with that soundsystem in that darkness with those people, magic really did happen. Though occasionally some of the testimonials would get a bit OTT in their talk of vibrational energies, there was still something special in that basement in Shoreditch (and before that Oxford Street) that short circuited the natural expectations of how people look at each other, move around each other and treat each other, to create a micro-society that was simultaneously London through-and-through yet somehow shorn of all the stresses and aggravations of urban life.
It wasn't - and isn't - just Plastic People of course. Given solid amplification, a few drinks and a crowd who can get into a venue untraumatised by security rhinos, that state of grace can in theory be engineered any time, any place. There are still great parties out there, of course. If London was just a herd of mooing ket-head tech house tourists, or posing numpties more concerned with the angle of their New Era caps than any sort of pleasure in their surroundings, then those of us who still care about music and the culture that surrounds it would have packed up and gone home a long time ago. But we haven't, and we won't. We still keep on keeping on with what we do, knowing that it's still possible to get it right.
It is getting tougher, though, as the pressure gets pumped up on Londoners' space and time. We can all see the transparent corruption that's kicking aside huge swathes of Soho nightlife history to make room for more plate-glass nonplaces. We see the social cleansing at work in bulldozing the Heygate Estate - the land underneath it sold for a song, the residents scattered to the grimmer suburbs, all promises of replacement social housing evaporating like the brandy fumes at the end of the lavish dinners where the deals are done - and wonder selfishly what'll happen not just to the rest of the ordinary people of Southwark, but to the Elephant & Castle musical mainstays, The Coronet and Corsica Studios, if the process continues unchecked. Sometimes the wiping out and dehistoricisation seems to be moving so fast that you never know whether your favourite spot, full of memories and beerstains, might not be there tomorrow if some Qatari or Chinese plutocrat with a yen for tall shiny things has managed to catch Boris's eye at the right moment.
Anyone running any kind of venue that isn't an overdressed, interchangeable multipurpose mall-plex must be getting nervous. Fabric battles on, relentlessly put under pressure that no High Street winebar would come under to control the behaviour of its clientele. Plastic People itself managed to weather the same borderline harassment, especially when Hackney Council came down like a ton of bricks in 2010, and in fact its owner Ade Fakile actually quashed any idea that he was driven out by any specific outside pressure - but its closure must be in part to do with the changing character of Shoreditch. It was still a wasteland of frequently unoccupied buildings when PP moved there at the turn of the millennium - incredible to think of it now, really, considering it's five minutes walk from the gleaming towers and shifting trillions of the City of London - but is now densely populated and doubly so at the weekend. Any little cracks that we might have been able to hide in and escape the city's own dominating rhythms for a while are quickly being found and filled.
Some will argue that this is the way of the world, that change is the only constant, that London is resilient, and/or that we should just suck it up. After all, areas have always risen and fallen, shifted and changed, and as the artists and ravers got priced out of Shoreditch, Dalston was waiting, then Peckham... And there are still plenty of spaces - big ones, even - in both of those districts where the magic can still happen. But as an adopted Southeast Londoner myself, I've seen how fast Peckham has changed first hand: it's unrecognisable from a decade ago, flooded with the upper-middle classes creating all-white property value enclaves fortified with cupcakes and moustache wax, and the pace of change, as everywhere, is only accelerating - so what hope for the Bussey Building, Canavans and the Peckham Palais as the speculators inevitably clamp down here too in a frenzy to get their investors' money spent before the next crunch comes?
Raving culture is an integral part of the fabric of our nation and our capital city. You can't legislate or police away the driving desire to get involved.
But no, much as it'd make good headlines, there's no crisis in nightlife - just yet. We have our Hydras and Dance Tunnels and every other railway arch in Vauxhall (though even Vauxhall feels threatened as the glass monstrosities spring up like giant sci-fi mushrooms along the south side of the Thames). The Bloc Studios in Hackney Wick are able to exist because of zoning regulations that protect light industry and employment - otherwise the whole district would be swallowed by new flats. But the closure of Plastic People does leave a gaping hole, it throws into relief how easy it is to lose a precious thing - and should give all of us in the capital pause for thought about exactly what it is we want, and how so often you genuinely don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.
The question of what clubbers and party promoters can do is a very complicated one. There are always warehouses to be broken into - and indeed a couple of years ago, the illegal party scene seemed to be finding a new lease of life. What had been dominated by relentless psytrance for the best part of a decade had an influx from drum'n'bass, dubstep and other scenes, leading to a bigger, better and altogether more fun and impressively-run operation. Multi-rig parties, with lighting, security and professional sound for up to 6,000 people were happening in hidden-away warehouses and highly visible venues alike - it doesn't take much digging to find YouTube videos showing that these were thronging with a broad cross-section of young clubbers, miles away from the cliché of shaven-headed or stinky dreadlocked diehard tripmonkeys jerking away and twirling their poi. Crowds of 6,000 are pretty visible, though, and when the sadly inevitable happened and a 15-year-old died at a Croydon party last summer, it was an excuse for the police to clamp down hard - and now a newly creative and highly promising scene has retreated into hidden corners outside the capital where it's easier to rave unbothered.
Raving culture is too much part of the fabric of our nation and our capital city, though, and you can't legislate or police away the driving desire to get involved. Pirate radio culture may have become more diffuse and less visible as it dissolved into the internet, but its patterns are still everywhere if you care to look: wherever there's space to set up two decks and a microphone and beam the results outwards, no matter the size of the audience, someone is doing it. The mighty Kool FM still brings generations of ravers together from all kinds of sounds and scenes, and more niche broadcasters create fascinating ecosystems of their own - take Mode FM, with its attached MFR label, for example: kids from the far northern boroughs creating fascinating hybrids of mainstream tech-house, deep house and grime (and, incidentally, raising the questions of whether it's time for the suburbs to step up to the mark and take their place in underground culture again, as the Bromley Contingent did in punk and the Boys Own brigade in the days of acid house).
These are questions we deal with every day at Boiler Room. BR's broadcasts started - yes - in an honest-to-goodness boiler room with a couple of webcams, created by people who loved a particular party scene and wanted to share it. Four years on and BR is an international concern, broadcasting huge artists' shows from castles and classical concert halls, but we are nothing if we lose touch with that original urge to find spots in London and put on parties in them: one of the hardest working members of the team is our locations manager, who maintains a vast file of lofts, warehouses, clubs, pubs, arts centres and, for all I know, a couple of holes in the ground that happen to have good acoustics, ready to drop our production squad into at a moment's notice.
We know that an internet broadcast is never going to be the same thing as bodies moving together in the same space, but it can anchor the importance of the real gatherings of people and even amplify and multiply them: we increasingly hear of friends gathering together with a soundsystem to listen to Boiler Room broadcasts live. Our party is taking place in multiple spaces at the same time. We fight every day to maintain the importance of small, spontaneous gatherings of like-minded souls around unique music, and are constantly watching with eagle eyes to find that one special London space that we might make into a permanent venue.
None of this is, in itself, a panacea. The institutional urge to shut down unregulated fun, regardless of any evidence of harm caused, is as strong as it ever was when the Criminal Justice Act came in in the 1990s. The drive to commodify culture by people who will never understand it but have superior business skills will always mean that the market favours grim cattle-herding and witless spectacle over the creation of warm, embracing spaces. The ease of generating headlines by raising "security concerns", and the power of lobbyists selling dubious technical services, means that ID scanners and the like are going to make club doors ever more unwelcoming. And the steel and glass infection that wants to erase history and identity really does get more virulent by the day.
If we've learned anything from Plastic People it's that yes, it really IS as simple as my friend said: with a good sound, a good attitude on the door, and a bar - plus of course some good friends - you have everything you need. Everything else is window dressing. But what Plastic People also taught London's club scene is that you can never, ever rest on your laurels even if you have those things. Keeping them is hard work. There are always going to be the pressures of insatiable capital that wants to cannibalise your vibe, wipe out your precious space and swallow up your memories. So however cheesy any testimonies to a place's spirit, family feeling or "vibrations" may seem, remember: every time you find the right place to throw a good party - a really good party - you are maintaining and protecting something extraordinarily precious, perhaps even essential for the character of one of the world's great cities.
Text Joe Muggs
Photography Gadgee Fadgee