Okay, now that my brain and body have somewhat recovered, and the whirlwind around me has somewhat receded, I believe I can embellish a few paragraphs to try to capture what will go down in my books as the absolute best "weekend" of my life thus far. Why should you give a crap about my personal sortie across the Atlantic, you ask? Because there is a lesson to be learned by all of us here, if we are to continue on with this scene in hopes of elevating it to a new level. Which is precisely the reason I took this trip.
For quite some time now (the 10+ years I've been involved in clubbing), I have had a serious interest in running my own club/record label/anything else to do with the industry. And, for the past 5 or so years, since I have really understood what the dj/rave/club scene is about, I've been most interested in exploring the ins and outs of how it all goes down in the Mother of All Clublands, the UK. If you take any notice to what goes on in the world of clubs, djs, records, and club/culture-oriented magazines (like Mixmag, URB, DJ, The Face, etc.), you notice very quickly that much of what we see here comes from abroad. True, "House" music may have been born here in the States, somewhere in the depths of Chicago and/or Detroit during the "Acid House" revolution of the 80s, but Progressive House, Trance, Drum and Bass, and almost every other genre you wish to categorize is purely European. And, I believe that the only real way to understand the music is to submerse oneself in the culture from which it comes. This is why I HAD to go to the source to find out how they rule everything revolving around the club world. So, my buddies and I jumped an aero and headed across the drink for a quick taste of the London nightlife.
What you will find here is a review of but three of the many club nights featured on a weekly/monthly basis in the town of the underground. I will be reviewing Bedrock at Heaven, The Gallery at Turnmills, and Fabric. I think one of the most amazing things is that we caught some fairly rockin' events, but the list of parties/clubs that we didn't hit was huge. Everything from Paul Oakenfold & Dave Ralph at Home to Parks & Wilson at the UK mega-club, Ministry of Sound, Graeme Park, Nigel Dawson, and Sister Bliss at Renaissance, to Mr. C's blazing venue The End. So, if you head over there, be sure to pack lots of asprin and plan lots of time for recovery, because in this city, there is no rest for the wicked!
Upon landing at Gatwick airport and travelling by train to the city, it starts to become apparent why there is a need for such uplifting music and release. The landscape seems drab, dull and scarred by the countless wars fought on their soil. (Which is one major difference that the US has managed to avoid thus far.) And though we had wonderful weather the whole time we were there, the sky still seems to have a constant dreary look to it. The sun would lazily rise between 7:30 and 8:00am, never get very high into the sky, and then it would be completely dark by 4:15pm. That doesn't leave one a whole lot of daylight when you still haven't slept by the time the sun creeps over the horizon! Hence the need for Nightlife! And BOY do they deliver there!
I had pretty much mapped out all of my clubbing experiences for the weekend ahead of time, (through hours of research, browsing the Internet, magazines and talking to folks who were in the know), but all of this was subject to change without prior notice. Leading a large group of eight guys, anything could happen. One thing that I knew was a given was that I'd be at the now-infamous Thursday nite Bedrock party at Heaven. Bedrock is the host of one of the most acclaimed Progressive House/Trance nights in London, with residents Danny Howells and John Digweed rocking it monthly. We had already been warmed up for Digger by his most excellent set here in Atlanta less than two weeks earlier, so I was very anxious to hear him play on home turf. Not to mention I've never heard Danny Howells, and we were getting a very special live performance by Progressive icons, Evolution.
One of the first, and foremost, differences that one will notice about a clubbing experience, is that the whole thing gets going a LOT earlier over there. There is so much to be said for this that I don't know where to start. How many great dj sets have I missed here at home because the djs I wanted to hear don't come on until 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning? Way too many to count. And, as much as some of you (myself included) like to rock it all nite long, sometimes it's just not feasible to try to pull an all-niter, when you are trying to maintain a "normal" day job and a 9-to-5 type lifestyle. Needless to say, the fact that the club opened around 9ish and was to close (sometime before 4?) was okay with me. Plus, it wasn't like they tried to put so many friggin' djs on a bill that each one got an hour, too. These guys played nice, "extended" sets with no worries of a timeslot massacre because the first dj went 15 minutes over their allotted time.
Now on to the music. After arriving at Heaven around 9:45pm, we found a queue (that's British for line) of about 150 people waiting to get in. No worries, the queue moved exceptionally quickly with the aid of a few no-nonsense bouncers and a metal detector. (Hence the reason for no great club photos.) Once inside, you will find something almost obsolete in most of our good dj experiences here, and that would be multiple bars serving alcohol and adults drinking it! Knowing that anything before ten o'clock in the states is ungodly early to go anywhere, I was really amazed at the amount of people in the club. A good half of those people were already kicking around on the dancefloor, warming up for what would prove to be a rocker.
Heaven's space itself was not too unlike most of the club venues I've seen. A few highlights were that there was plenty of real spaces to sit down (tables, chairs, couches) all around the bars and surrounding rooms of sound. This alleviated the annoyance of having a bunch of shot-out folks lying all over the dancefloor and trafficked areas of the club. As a matter of fact, nobody was lying anywhere, unless they were accompanied by someone on the couch, locked in a serious match of tonsil hockey. (And this was really a BIG one that rang true in every club we went in. Nobody on the floors. Plenty of places to chill.) The dancefloor was a long, narrow rectangle space surrounded by speakers/podiums to dance on, a stage in the back, and a balcony running the length of one side. The dj booth was elevated above one end of the room which led to another bar area. There were tons of lighting effects and the soundsystem was incredible. When we first got there, Danny Howells was warming it up and they didn't really have the system turned up yet, but you could tell from the low rumble and the clarity of the highs, that this place was gonna get rockin'.
And that it did. Danny is probably the best "warm-up" dj I've heard to date. It was my first time hearing him and he was spot on. Every track was one baby-step above the last one, the mixing was in-line, and the energy kept building and building from a deep/techy vibe, until about 11:15, when he started throwing down the Progressive stuff. The crowd on the dancefloor grew larger until about 11:45, right before Evolution, when the floor packed out. There was barely enough room (and that's without kids taking up way too much space swinging glowsticks around like nunchucks in their dance circles and breakin' moves) to throw the hand not holding a beer in the air and bounce to the beat in unison with about 1,000+ others.
Evolution f@*$!%g rocked it! Tearing up a peaking crowd seemed to be nothing new for these two punters. Using what appeared to be a purely digital setup, these guys got everybody pumped with an incredible live performance of their nearly-anthem tracks and remixes like that of Arrakis' "Aira Force" (their opener). For around 35 minutes, the intensity grew until they dropped their final song, and their newest release, "Phoenix." Just about then, all hell broke loose. I nearly threw my full beer into the crowd I was so pumped. Some guy standing on the speakers dancing had a bull-horn of sorts that he would blow to the rhythm, right as their song was building out of the break-down, and the crowd f@*$!%g erupted! This guy was so on it, that a friend I was with (and fellow dj) and I looked at each other in amazement. We thought it was in the record, only it was about 10 times louder than the already bone-shaking soundsystem, and he kept dropping it at the most opportune times. Full, standing ovation for the group, and on to Digweed...
As much as it hurts to say this, John Digweed, in all of his capacities as one of the finest djs I've heard, couldn't deliver the crowd on this nite. Evolution had set the crowd up and all John had to do was slam them home, but to no avail. His set was a bit anti-climatic for the direction of the nite. He played a wonderfully mixed set, full of lush tones and warm synthy riffs for most of the night. He never really locked onto that hard, tribal/progressive groove that he pumps so well. It was almost the exact opposite of what he played while here in Atlanta two weeks earlier. I couldn't exactly figure it out. Everyone (including me) was still dancing and having a great time, but with a few exceptions, this set really lacked the balls it needed to get there. We finally decided it was time to call it quits a little early (~3:45am) considering all we had ahead of us. (Plus, I believe Heaven closes around 4.)
Rather than give you the tour we got from our guide the next day (although, as a former student of architecture, I would like to say that London has some absolutely breathtaking sights and structures), I shall proceed directly to the next club night.
Friday night has come and the city seems alive, even more so than before. This club night was given to me as a surprise from the dieties, because up until I walked into Turnmills for their weekly called The Gallery, I was determined to hit Ministry of Sound to experience the mother of all soundsystems and the almighty power of the über-club.
Anyways, somehow I got talked into going to this place, Turnmills, which I later read was one of the oldest (and first to hold an all-night license) clubs in London. (Note: Very few clubs in London stay open past 3 or 4am; hence the early queues, etc.) While finding the place wasn't hard, it wasn't exactly in the poshest part of town. Actually, it was in a down-right dodgy area about 11 Tube stops (45mins) away from where we were staying. (Note: By the way, the Tube is the way to travel in London. It's a bit confusing at first, but it's cheap, it goes almost everywhere, and most of all it's a blast to people watch. One rule of the tube..."Mind the Gap." One thing we were concerned with was that the Tube stops running sometime after 2:00am or so, and being that far out could pose an expensive problem to getting home. Deal with that later.)
With all of that aside, we met some nice ladies in the queue who were more than happy to entertain our crazy-drunk, American asses for a bit prior to entering the club. (Much love, ladies...you know who you are!) And no, I'm not blushing!
Anyways, after getting a little "action" from the bouncers, who overextended their courtesy during our frisks, we made way into one of the most interesting venues I've seen. Down, down, down into a bit of a dungeon, I must say. (Many venues in London literally are "underground." Often utilizing old tube/train stations, etc.) The lighting throughout the bar was dark and eerie, composed primarily of deep reds and blues. Once again, there were several bars to choose from, multiple rooms of sound, chill spaces, couches, and decor to boot. The decor of this place is really inexplicable. It gave me a H.R. Gieger-meets-Mad Max-with a Gaultier twist-kinda-vibe to it. I know that's hard to grasp and I really wish I had pictures, but if you can imagine those three collaborating, this is what you'd get. Crazy black and red orb/spheres with mad protrusions hanging from the ceilings in the bar. The bars themselves had these tarnished brass tubes about 3.5 ft in diameter curling from the ends of the bar to the floor. Everything was very space-aged with a rustic look to it. (Kind of like the Millennium Falcon or something.) Hell, now that I think about it, this bar wasn't unlike the space bar scene in Star Wars. So, we make our way to the bar. Red Bull (the energy drink not the malt liquor) and Vodka is all the rage over there. Don't bother getting one, though, because the Brits have NO IDEA how to pour a liquor drink. My theory...when in Rome...drink beer. They have some of the best beers on tap there. (Note: You'll probably want to stick to the pub scene for the really good beers, though. But, even the pubs in England play House music nonstop.)
So, we hit the dancefloor. The music is pumpin' and the vibe is thick enough to spread on a piece of toast. I would have killed for a piece of toast! (Note: British food sucks!) The drug market over there is so saturated, but appears very territorial like it's run by "house dealers." Everywhere you turn, someone offers up something. Definitely a buyer's market. It's actually like watching cabbies outside of the Ritz Carlton fighting over fares. So, if you decide to experiment over there, you're on your own, but just be careful and be wary of the potential problems. Also, there may be tons of people 'avin' it on a good pill there, but there appears to be very little excession in comparison to here. Everyone stays in control at all times!! Everyone stays on their feet, in a seat, or on the move to the grooves.
The dancefloor itself was on the smaller side, running long and narrow to the back of the club, with a split-level on one side providing more dance space up top and a wall opposite that boasted huge bust paintings of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Sid Vicious, from left to right. Very interesting. The lighting was very intense. The only light on the dancefloor was coming off the lasers aimed at a medium-sized disco ball refracting deep colors, creating a wicked dark vibe. I counted 14 argon lasers and several red and blue spots in an area no more than than 25 yards long by about 15 yards wide. They were pumping major smoke into the air (aside from the fact that everyone smokes cigs "fags" over there). And Tall Paul was pumpin' the serious beats into the crowd as I leaned back against a bass bin to observe.
Tall Paul's set was hard and banging. Lots of energy, and although his mixing was a little rough, he was really working the crowd. No pretty, epic breakdowns in this club. The tracks were jammed in tight, and right as the first break of a track would be coming up, the next bangin' choon would come punching in. Punchy would be a good way to describe the types of records and mixing coming from The Gallery's resident.
After a couple of hours, Chris and James stepped to the decks to close out the nite. I only vaguely knew of Chris and James through their tracks and remix work on Stress Recordings, so I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I found out very quickly that I was in for a treat. These guys (I speak as if there were two of them, but I never saw more than one in the booth at a time, and if they were tag teaming, I never could distinguish any type of differences in styles of mixing) were frigging phenomenal! They f@$%&*g ROCKED it! Hardly ever giving a breakdown for the crowd to catch up, they dropped track after lustful track of deep, progressive choons mixed ever so smoothly. They garnered much respect. For several hours, I could not tell the difference between them and a rocking set by "The Man Like" himself, Sasha.
We kicked around in the second room of sound for a bit dancing to Digs and Woosh and people-watching, but we had become completely exhausted and dehydrated. Though the club was open at around 6 or 7 am when we left, the bar closed hours earlier. We grabbed our coats, said goodbye to our newfound friends, and began "The Walk of Shame" to the tube. Fortunately, the one buddy of mine out of the crew that could hang and I had outpartied the public transport system, so when we left the club, the Tube was running again. Albeit a 45 min Tube ride, it beat the $20-30 USD cab ride home the rest of our crew took earlier. (Note: Only take the "Black Taxis." The "minicabs" are notorious for ripping people off. Especially Americans.)
The next night was a tough call. Although, by now, many of us were looking and feeling a bit threadbare from lack of sleep, lack of food, too much drinking, etc., we still had one more night to go. This one had to be big, because it was one of our group's birthday. Unfortunately, the previous night was going to be next to impossible to top, so with that in mind, we had a few options. We started out drinking in pubs early and had tied a pretty good one on already, so it was fairly easy to convince the group that we should go to Sasha's club Fabric. I don't know if he owns it, or if it's just being referred to like that based on his monthly residency party called Tyrant. At any rate, some good, old, American House music was on the menu because even I (a progressive trance maniac) was tranced-out. We took a serious lashing the previous two nights and needed a more downtempo vibe. Fabric proved to be the logical choice, hosting one of the top-rated djs in the world right now, Terry Francis, along with ATLiens representin' in tha UK, The Wamdue Kids, who have really made a name for themselves overseas. Several other local djs were spinning as well, but I had never really heard of them, nor can I remember their names.
Fabric is basically in the same area as Turnmills, so at least we knew how to get there. Upon arriving, there was a very small queue, so within a matter of minutes, we were standing in front of the door man, about to experience our first case of severe "nationalism." As I lead the troops into battle, I was confronted with a question by the door man. (Not unlike the bridge scene in Monty Python's The Holy Grail.) "Who are you with, mate?" "Just myself tonite," I reply. "Sorry mate, no single lads allowed in the club tonite. Please step out of the queue." "Okay. I'm with him," I say pointing to my next friend in line. "Oh, now someone's not telling the truth. Please step aside," Jackass says. So, furious, I step out of the queue, and meander around to find a friendly "bird" to escort me in with her. As the rest of my crew approach the bridgekeeper, they were asked to "Please step out of the queue. You should try dressing down a bit. Maybe some trainers." (Note: A few of the guys I was with on this trip were very tall and looked extremely "American" in that regard.) But, we all looked good, damnit! Everyone was well dressed, no jeans, and we explicitly DIDN'T wear "trainers" (tennis shoes) to avoid having any problems with the door policies.
It was painfully obvious that this particular bouncer did not want to let us Americans into the club. One issue we had though, was that one member of our group had already slid in with a couple we met on a tour that followed us to the club. (Those poor two had to think we were off of our bloody rockers!)
I knew there was no way I wasn't getting into this club, so we all step around the corner and start asking single girls if they'd escort us in and it didn't look promising to find 6 strays that were up for it. I make mention to the group that we could always go to Home to hear Paul Oakenfold, and that seemed like a very worthy substitution. As we were walking back to the Tube station, lagging behind our motley crew, I come across a threesome of single birds that agree to escort one friend and myself in. Back to the queue we go for what could be an embarrassing second attempt. This time was much smoother for me. Right past the troll, with no questions or complications. But, my buddy was spotted and asked, "Did I not turn you away once tonight?" "No," he says. So, the bloke starts asking the girl questions about my friend, which she apparently had the answer to, so they were permitted to pass.
Once inside, Fabric is another example of an underground (literally) club that appears to be a converted Tube station. It is far beneath a street-level market (Sheppard's Market?, I believe). Being one of the newest venues in London (only open for a couple of months), this place was very posh and very clean. The interior of this club is absolutely amazing! Very much like the picture in my head of how a club should be. If all of my dreams came true, and one day I were to have my name behind a club, it would be very much like Fabric. As you walk down the long flights of stairs and into the main floor, the sight is overwhelming. For the main room, there is a huge dance floor, accompanied by a split level floor a few steps up that was comfy enough for another several hundred people. There were a few nooks and crannies about, video projections of trippy, flowing gel-like patterns, and even a video projection of the dj's names and timeslots posted (very beneficial when you can't find the dj booth). Once again (and I cannot stress the level of importance of this enough), the soundsystem was out-of-this-world. The intensity and clarity of the systems in all of the clubs over there is amazing, but Fabric stood out as being the most complete in my experience. The rest of the club was peppered with couches, seating areas, about 7-9 different bars, 3 levels of dancefloors and sound. Their "2nd Room" was bigger than most main floors in clubs I've seen here, and the sound was far superior.
Atlanta's own Wamdue Kids were burning up the house grooves in the 2nd room, dropping that oh-so-familiar brand of house, laced with their own tracks and remixes (my favorite being the one sampling Atlanta vocalist, Gaelle). Though the vibe at this club didn't really compare to the two previous, the crowd was still into it and everybody was dancing. It was a little harder to move about in the 2nd room, so we pretty much stuck to the main floor.
Terry Francis blended in and out of his signature style of deep, techy house grooves seemlessly. Terry is a very talented dj and deserves much of the respect given. I might venture to say that he's a tad bit overrated, but that's just because one expects so much from these globally acclaimed djs. Plus, I would be judging on having only seen him twice this year. His track selection and mixing were impeccable. Creating a very mellow, easy-to-stomach, fun-to-drink-to house vibe. The crowd never really boiled over, but that's really the nature of Tech House. We had our moments, and my ass was still shakin' the whole time. My problem is that when I hear those basslines, I just want the track to really kick me in the arse and it rarely does. As I stand elated, staring up at the 50ft cathedral ceilings, done in all brick, rising high above the dancefloor, I can only imagine what it would be like to have something this cool in the States.
Terry finished his set up and the next dj came on and he was having a bit of trouble keeping the mixes on, so we went for another round of shots before leaving. (Actually, I bailed on my shot and my buddy probably should have too, because it caught back up with him in the cab! Fortunately, we had a wonderful cabbie who loved American football, Dan Marino and the '86 Bears!) (Note: People puke all the time in London! I saw tons of street-hurlers, people hurling out of cabs, people hurling in the pubs, it's crazy I tell you!) Morning would come far too early for all of us.
I think one of the hardest things in my life (besides actually carrying my luggage and all of the records I bought) was putting my stuff back in my bags and coming home. I was running late, shafted out of a morning shower, hung over as hell, and about to get left by my friends and I could honestly have given a crap if they had left me. I felt at home. This is where I belong...
Well, with all of that said, it was an amazing whirlwind of a trip that brought a new light to my eyes, new music to my ears, and a newfound appreciation for what a scene can be and how far we have to go to take it there. It will be very difficult for me to go out here now without feeling that longing, but there are still many great things about America and our club culture. Sure, I think there is a lot to be learned from the Europeans, but they borrowed a lot from us, whether they like to admit it or not. Don't fret about a little commercialization in the industry, because how the hell do you think it got so big over there? Everywhere you go, you will see club poster bills, fliers, you'll hear the music in every store, on the radio, etc. Pete Tong, Judge Jules and company have elevated dance music to a national "household" level all over Europe with their weekly mix shows like The Essential Selection on Radio 1. The Brits love their Pop, but over there the beat is King. The important thing to remember from all of this is that our scene is still a newborn compared to theirs and we have a long way to go. We just have to keep things on the right track here. PLUR is a wonderful concept in theory, but in practice, it is an amazing feeling of depth and security. Party responsibly, keep an open mind to the environments around you, and together we will create a scene as great and as free as the land we stand on.
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