London Clubbing


Standing at the bar inside London’s hottest club, Megatripolis, I am watching a couple of guys adorned in full Mad Max gear and tattoos.

Wild fluorescent patterns spiral around their eyes like the markings of mandrill monkeys. One has a manic, bug-eyed grin and a pierced forehead.

“He’s a complete banana,” the barman explains. “Fried his brains in Goa, taking acid and watching Vietnam movies.”

Spend a week in clubland and you’ll see all the real sights of London.

Londoners Love their clubs – but not just any old club. They love THE club for this week.

Since the Ecstasy/rave revolution of 1988, when clubs like Spectrum and Shoom set the pace, the scene has been ruled by DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling who play techno, house and their thousand iridescent variations. Each DJ plays his own hybrid: Dutch techno, happy house, Eurotrance made in the USA – the more obscure, the better.

Just now, though, Megatripolis is changing the London definition of what a hip night out clubbing looks like.

Like many of London’s clubs, Megatripolis is more like a theme night, booked into a popular venue that can host seven or more of these events per week. Every Thursday (at night) and Sunday (all day), London’s ravers transform the huge gay venue Heaven (under the Arches in Villiers Street) into a freaks’ bazaar.

The dance club’s teeming walkways are lined with market stalls selling crystals and pamphlets, lectures on LSD, cybertonic drink stands, and trip machines like the Brain-Wave Harmonizer.

The Megatripolis crowd still dances to techno and still takes E, although acid is catching up. But London’s new hedonists want more than good tunes and strong drugs. “They want ideas, weird cults, and philosophies,” says one young convert.

Inside Megatripolis’s teeming corridors, I am trying to tune in. A man in thick spectacles is offering me a twenty-minute trip on his homemade Brain-Wave Harmonizer, adjusted according to “how many E’s you’re on.”

A blinking infrared light, like a sunlamp, flickers patterns and pulses onto my eyelashes and the insides of my eyelids, like the beating of butterfly wings. When the man gently turns it up, the patterns quicken, then explode and go green.

Megatripolis is a blast, whatever you’re into. On the dance floor, a spacey mix of psychedelic trance and ambient dub floats over the crowd.

Quieter club-goers learn to breathe, or chant, or listen to hip guest speakers in the classroom-like Techno Silence Suite. Aldous Huxley’s nephew giving an address on “LSD and Other Doors of Perception I Kicked In” for example.

If you still don’t believe that Megatripolis is the rave of the future, then listen to the message pounding from Heaven’s huge speakers: “We are the final generation. Rave culture is the new world order.”

Clubbers who are really tuned in say that Ministry of Sound is a club of the past.
“It’s so mainstream,” one yawns. Nonetheless, Ministry is still popular enough to draw monster crowds all Friday and Saturday night. But you’ll have to virtually hijack a cab to get there. London cabbies hate going south of the river especially late at night, especially to nightclubs.
“Ministry of bleeding hooligans, more like,” grumbles my driver.

At the gates and in the entrance yard, squadrons of stern-faced security guards conduct operations through walkie-talkies.

I have to sign some sort of temporary membership book (English regulations), and then run the gauntlet of an army of steel-eyed flunkies. Getting in to Ministry is like trying to infiltrate the Israeli embassy.

Above the entrance to the warehouse-size dance floor, there’s a sign saying ‘Excessive Noise Levels’ – as if anyone needed to be told. The sound hits my head like a truck.

Still, the pulsating music system is one reason why serious London clubbers still come here. Ministry is always “well-rammed” – i.e. packed with pillheads in tie-dyed T-shirts, inside-out Levi’s, Puffer jackets, and Caterpillar boots, not to mention hordes of nubile, semi-clad teenagers.
“Enough to make you forget which persuasion you are,” sighs one queen.

On one of the crowded dance platforms, one girl is getting completely carried away, thrashing around in Lycra hot pants and a bra – not a fashion bra, just an ordinary dirty white one – while her boyfriend tries to make her get dressed, facing down the loud cheers from the audience.

Further back in the club, in the dark of the cinema room (as Jacob’s Ladder unreels), young bodies are strewn on the floor. I can see a ginger-haired boy in a Joe Bloggs T-shirt snogging, fondling, and generally interfering with a delicious young girl. After half an hour of this, she focuses and finally snarls: “Who the fuck are you ?!”

A short cab ride away, in Buckland Road, there’s United Kingdom – another giant South London venue famous for its enormous midnight queues, its “pukka” techno sound, and its giant dance floor.

Like Ministry, U.K. draws a hot and heaving hardcore dance crowd. This is one of those places where the phrase “well-rammed” is actually a compliment, meaning like rush hour on the tube or a capacity crowd at Wembley, the soccer stadium. People are trying to find somewhere to stand. I ask one of them if he doesn’t mind it always being so rammed, and he just smiles. “More chance of a fuck, isn’t there ?”

A Japanese girl in Stüssy and Doc Martens is so far gone that she’s not dancing, she’s swimming (mostly breaststroke, some front crawl).

I watch one huge nodding yob (“mong” – short for mongoloid – is what clubbers call them) twisting and wrestling, frantically trying to take his Adidas T-shirt off. It’s some time before I realize this is his idea of dancing.

Some might find yob-watching better than dealing with a night of the music known as hardcore/jungle. This new sound is “dark, nasty, ugly music for dark, nasty, ugly people” (that’s a fan talking) and is undoubtedly London’s next gift to world music. Even the club fiends who like extreme techno (which sounds like jackhammers) hate hardcore/jungle. At 180bpm, the beats are so fast and furious that your insides and eyeballs vibrate.

The best hardcore in London is probably found in warehouses or in the council estates of urban wastelands like Hackney or Stoke Newington. The Laserdrome and the Paradise will give you the general idea. When I drop by the Paradise on Thursday night, even the shadows look nasty to me. Most of the individuals I try to talk to can’t speak – except one guy to my right, who mumbles so that I can hardly hear it: “No wonder they’re all on crack.”

After an evening of hardcore, it’s always a relief to hear a guitar chord. Or something as crazy as a lyric. Still, as I walk onto the dance floor at Silver in Camden High Street, I can’t help but think that, like a clean-living politician, a good grunge club is virtually a contradiction in terms. Since you really can’t dance to grunge, hanging at a grunge club will always be like going to a gig where there’s no band to look at. At Silver, they even have an empty stage for you to watch.

London grunge fiends like to look down on those kids from Seattle (call that rain ?) for being too healthy, too rich, and above all too macho. The American singers they like most are the ones who wear dresses – like Michael Stipe, Evan Dando, and the late Kurt Cobain.

Here at the Underworld, the first thing I see is two pale English girls in flowery frocks, pogoing as they chant the words to Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’.

A pair of grunge fans are pushing toward the bar, groaning, “Oh, no – fashion beer !” as they spot the telltale yuppie bottles with limes stuffed in.

The bar itself is usually lined with minor players from London’s rock world: members of Suede, the Charlatans, Elastica, Pulp and Blur. Two of the players are talking about the latest rock rumour. A certain member of the Sex Pistols (all right, Steve Jones) has discovered Iron John.
“The stupid prat’s running around the woods all the time, bollock-naked,” jokes one musician. He’d be all right at this club, I think, remembering a scrawled bit of paper near the entrance that reads NO SUITS.

But I’m getting tired of hanging out with the unwashed and the underdressed. That’s how I find myself, late on a Thursday night, in the highest, airiest reaches of Fashionable Clubland: drifting round the Drum Club in Craven Street under the Arches next to Heaven, tuning in to the trancy techno dub.

Somehow, I end up on a metal walkway overlooking the cavernous, teeming dance floor. The Drum Clubber standing next to me is coolly stylish. I ask if he’s going to dance.
“Nah,” he replies. “I just come to look down on the cunts.”

The Drum Club caters to one of London’s more deeply fashionable factions, but the word these days is not good: The Drum Club is so very hip that the only people going now are DJs, club promoters, and insiders. This is invariably the beginning of the end of a really good club.

I discover that Pleased is so fashionable you can’t get in even if you’re on the guest list.
“And if you’re not on the guest list ?”
“Then we don’t want you.”

Pleased is set in a long, wide red room with a low ceiling. The crowd here is high fashion – glamorous boys and lovely leggy girls who also happen to be model agency bookers. All the girls have the dress code down pat: Margiela shrunken knit tops, Spanish heels, gray pleated schoolgirl skirts, and pop socks.

Through the mists of drink, I can see a girl who is the spitting image of someone I always fancied at school but never dared approach.
“What’s your name?” I ask her as we head for the bar together.
“Androgyny,” comes the perfectly purred reply.
I resolve to stop chatting up men in dresses.

“Is this Smashing ?” asks a member of the proletariat. The clubgoers waiting in line sigh in unison. If you have to ask…

Smashing is more fashionable than life itself.

This new new-wave cabaret club takes place once a month (sometimes more often) at discreet velvet-clad venues all over the city. The crowd here are ageing punks and young fashion students, dressed up in original ‘70s Vivienne Westwood. They sit at tiny candlelit tables in their red hunting coats, Seditionaries T-shirts, and bondage trousers, accepting cucumber sandwiches (“with the crusts cut off”) from cool-mannered hostesses.
Keanu Reeves, Deborah Harry and Jean Paul Gaultier have been known to drop by.

When I remark, “It’s always been fashionable to be unfashionable,” a nearby dandy snaps quickly back, “Yeah, but not as fashionable as being fashionable.”

The evening closes with a few style victims doing the hokey-pokey to ‘Lust For Life’.

Smashing is perfect London: good-looking, hip, and rowdy. But not as rowdy as Someone’s Yearning or Fantasy Ashtray at the Leisure Lounge, two post-punk clubs where the DJs will play anything from Nirvana, the Breeders, and Renegade Soundwave to Parliament, House of Pain, and the Brand New Heavies.

These places are wild and dirty, mad and sexy. On a Saturday night, the crowd at Someone’s Yearning looks shabbily glamorous, as befits the venue: Winston Churchill’s favourite gentlemen’s club.

Pale stringy girls wear Marie Antoinette wigs, Westwood platforms, fake fur coats, and slut’s underwear. One girl there is wearing children’s panties and wings. At the back, three fantastically ropy old tarts in tattoos and lingerie are performing what is surely the closest England gets to the dancing in Blue Velvet.

The blokes wear Casely-Hayford Chinese shirts, Duffer of St. George trousers, and stagger about from table to table drinking the dregs of everyone’s glasses.

Sean McLusky, the club legend who founded U.K. (among others), gives me a tour of the Leisure Lounge, where Fantasy Ashtray is held on Friday nights. The bar area looks like a groovy airport lounge – a design that’s meant to encourage clubbers to talk (a radical notion). There are no celebs here yet, he says, because they haven’t heard about it.

That’s how hip the Leisure Lounge is. McLusky proudly tells me about a few of the bands he’s managing on the side: Speedway, the Xerox Girls (“who are boys”), and two twelve-year-old girls in a punk band called the Walking Abortions – “’cause that’s what they look like.”
“What do they sound like, Sean ?”
“Absolutely fuckin’ terrible.”
Very London.

Round about 2:30am, the clubbers head for espressos and videos of Italian football at Bar Italia in Soho, a 1950s coffee bar flooded with light, which is packed full at all hours. A sleazier choice would be Gossips, a legendary late-night drinking dive frequented by alcoholic club fiends, Japanese heavy-metal girls, and ropy strippers off-duty from working the nearby clip joints. Gossips is the sort of place where the DJ asks you if you want to buy a porn video of him and his call-girl missus.

More style-conscious clubbers might head for Fred’s, an elegant members-only bar in Westminster. Fred’s is unfazed by the passing of the mid-80s – the protocol here is still to leave your credit card behind the bar and get absolutely shitfaced. And you can’t get much more English than that: Londoners drinking alcohol like…er, water.

What’s even more English, though, is to get drunk and then try to do something that requires a lot of hand-eye coordination. In the country, Englishmen like to drive very fast on one-lane roads; Londoners have to settle for late-night games.

Chinese gamblers and porn cinema clientele are puking up in the rain outside Chinatown’s Double Six Club where three young men in velvet tuxedos welcome me to London’s first board-games club.

There are no computer games here, no fantasy games, no gambling – just dice, cards, dominoes and 180 vintage board games. If you’ve never gotten drunk in Chinatown at three in the morning while playing Buckaroo and Kerplunk to the strains of Shirley Bassey, then you haven’t really lived. I lose at Buckaroo, then clean up at Escape From Colditz (a board game set in a Nazi prison). Luckily for me, cheating is “encouraged.”

There are games of another kind at the monthly Torture Garden, one of the biggest kink clubs in Europe and a very English affair for SM fetishists, rubber queens, exhibitionists, and serious fashion victims.

Usually held at the Paradise, Torture Garden is the kind of club where you’ll feel underdressed if you haven’t put on a dog collar and leash, or tattooed your (shaved) genitals with the word SLAVE.

When I check the lineup at the gents’, I get the distinct impression that I am one of the few people there without a Prince Albert (slang for a hoop ring piercing the penis) or a bolt through my bollocks. To the strains of Wagner, Verdi, and Nine Inch Nails, the third floor teems with people in manacles, politely inquiring, “Excuse me, would you beat me, please ?”

It seems rude not to comply. On the way out, I hear a man fluting, “Say what you like about a cattle prod, it always does the trick.”

Drag artists, trannies, leather queens, and sex-changers pack lots of London clubs – but on Saturdays they’re at Love Muscle. This vibrant club has unfortunately gone from being the most popular mixed place in town to enforcing a strictly no-hetero policy.
“We’ve got to put a stop to straights getting in,” the box office tells me firmly.

Walking down the steps into Heaven is still one of the most exciting London experiences. With its blue light and amyl-nitrate atmosphere, this club is the most glamorous big venue in town – despite the redevelopment of the Arches outside, where the homeless masses used to gather at night.
“It’s not the same,” sighs one bitchy queen in the gents. “You felt much more hedonistic when you had to step over a homeless person.”

At around three in the morning, when the fever at Heaven or the Fridge begins to die down, the most fiendish London clubbers head on to Trade, which is on at Turnmills from 3:30am to 12 noon. Trade is a heaving hell of smoke, strobe lights, sweating torsos, and Eurotechno. Its walls are draped with banners proclaiming THE ORIGINAL ALL NIGHT BENDER.

Trade may be 20 percent straight, but the crowd’s taste in drugs is 100 percent gay: The smell of poppers hits you like napalm in the morning. The quintessential Tradesman is the gay guy who is sitting dazed on the floor, in an acrid pool of poppers. Later, I hear that the amyl-nitrate has seeped through his 501s and given his goolies third-degree burns.

Coming out of Trade at noon on Sunday into harsh gray light (and even, occasionally, sunshine) is a feeling that even practice can’t diminish. After you’ve washed up and changed your gear, it’s on to DTPM – Delirium Tremens Past Midday– where Sunday rages on for seven hundred or so hardy clubbers from 2:30 to 8:30pm. The Italian restaurant where DTPM happens is one of the few places in London which is licensed to serve brew all Sunday afternoon.

Having hammered DTPM to death, the last holdouts (almost all of them gay) traipse back to ££ at Turnmills, which runs from 9:30pm on Sunday till 5:00am Monday morning.

My club tour ends outside Turnmills, next to a leather slut in leather cap and trousers with the arse cut out, wearing a T-shirt that catches me off guard: So Mny Gerbils, So Little Time.

I have to smile. And, of course, he smiles back.

London clubbers keep moving.