Lowri Clarke: The changing face of London clubbing


Shiny superclubs have had their day. Simplicity, a warehouse vibe and versatility are what the punters want

Fabric nightclub, London

The word clubland to me conjures up fluffy boots, glowsticks, arm fulls of neon bracelets. That will be my Nineties clubbing baptism of neon peeping through the cracks. Such was my introduction to London clubbing – sweaty raving, galloping beats, exotic creatures throwing their limbs around. A spectacle, a peacock display of all that is enchanting and unreal. 

But today’s London clubland looks very different.

Ah, the death throes of the superclub. The cries could be heard back in 2008 as the wrecker’s ball smashed the hallowed King’s Cross complex to bits. Those beloved venues The Cross, The Key, Canvas. The End in West Central Street and Turnmills in Clerkenwell quickly followed to make way for offices. South of the river, London Bridge’s SeOne tumbled last year, thanks to the recession, and Matter shortly after.

Turnmills nightclub

Turnmills nightclub in 2008 before it was shut and turned into offices

The face revealed by these losses is slightly grubbier, edgier, more niche, more underground.

Has the thirst for main room, hands-in-the-air euphoria had its day?

Pulse, the “multi-purpose superclub in the heart of the Southbank” – which launched to great fanfare in March – sits empty.

The Island – next door to Heaven – sank without trace. Matter, stuck out in Greenwich, struggled to attract the thousands needed to sustain it and shut up shop, leaving the path clear for Proud to have a bash at running the city’s most well-designed club.

“They are given themes, blood transfusions, new life breathed into tried-and-tested formulas in a bid to bring the cool kids back to the yard”

The fact is, people are demanding more from the parties they frequent. The allure of that authentic warehouse vibe to a young Londoner is strong. These days people want to feel as if they are where it’s at.

The perfect rave must be on a sunlit terrace, or in a warehouse which feels as though you are doing something illegal, or under the draughty arches of a railway station, or on the 21st floor with sunrise city views, or be zombie-related, or boast live graffiti, or burlesque, or begin at 11am.

Nights are dubbed ‘festivals’ by promoters in an attempt to entice the crowds, to make it sound like something more substantial. They are given themes, blood transfusions, new life breathed into tried-and-tested formulas in a bid to bring the cool kids back to the yard.

Big-room clubbing has been dented by the huge increase in DIY clubbing. Anyone can be a club promoter today in the same way that anyone can be a DJ. Book a bar, come up with a theme, a hyper-brand, ring-fence your audience via a cannily worded Facebook event and open your doors. Your success or failure is determined by the number of bods through the door. It’s no longer essential for DJs to be superstar, or even famous, for a night to have herd appeal.

Koko nightclub in Camden

Koko nightclub in Camden

London – especially Dalston – is rammed with the kind of trendy, low-maintenance venue best suited for these shindigs. Late licensed, narrow stairwelled, snake-hipped punters spilling outside breathing smoke, cheap door tax, art on the walls, friends on the decks.

There is a steadily increasing rash of this kind of place stretching up Kingsland Road towards Stoke Newington, curving round the corner of Shacklewell Lane, stretching away from the bright lights of expensive Shoreditch.

The Dalston Creep. How far will it go? Pool halls frequented by Daisy Lowe and Alexa Chung. Cafés which come alive at night, tables shoved aside.

Urban culture is expressed in so many ways, but very poignantly in these club nights and parties which spring from various movements. These events grow organically – and this culture and appreciation of creativity can’t easily be simulated or expressed by shiny superclubs week in week out. 

These nights develop, gather momentum, explode at particular moments – not on demand. And the DIY clubbing which we see in cool little pockets of our cities is an expression of this. Culture distilled – or boiling over. They come and they go. Shining and bursting like bright loud stars.

“The successful venues are the ones with versatility in their scheduling. Koko, Heaven and Corsica Studios continue to thrive. Corsica even holds flea markets in the venue to keep the schedule busy”

There are of course, certain big-daddy exceptions, nights and clubs which are doing fantastically well. Fabric is a global brand which successfully walks the line between the overground and underground. Global travellers make a point of including a visit to the meat-packing district on their itinerary.

The exemplary booking team has a real sense for what is cool, for attracting those artists who are ahead of the curve. And its mix CD spin-off is a master stroke which does away with the necessity of being a Londoner to be involved in the brand. Young producers clamour to do a featured mix, it’s then downloaded globally. Ministry does this too, but with less success. Pacha? Don’t get me started.

Certain promoters continue to reign: secretsundaze and mulletover sell out their terrace and warehouse raves respectively. FWD – the night which famously provided the birthing canal for dubstep, with producers making tracks with the Plastic People dancefloor in mind, (supported heavily, symbiotically by Rinse FM), continues to show no sign of abating.

The most successful venues are the ones with real versatility in their scheduling. Koko, Heaven and Corsica Studios continue to thrive. Koko is famed for gigs as well as clubbing, Corsica even holds flea markets in the venue to keep the schedule busy. Heaven, once solely a beautiful rave den, has become a gig venue.

There will soon be a new kid on this particular block: step forward Electric Brixton. Dubbed (by its creators) the Koko of the South, this huge, former cinema has a glorious past. It used to be The Fridge: an iconic Brixton clubbing venue, and almost everyone who cut their clubbing teeth on glowsticks will have done a 12-hour marathon at Escape from Samsara, the infamous psy trance night.

Electric Brixton opens on 24 September. Its success will surely be in its versatility. Too many clubs stand closed during the week, but Electric Brixton will be open all week for live gigs and taken over by the big-daddy promoters often seen at Matter at weekends. Proud2 – Matter’s latest incarnation – would do well to take note.

Club   Opened Capacity Closed?
Proud2   2010 2600 No
Matter   2008 2600 2010
SeOne   2002 3000 2010
The Island   2007 450 2010
Heaven   1979 1625 No
Koko   2004 1410 No
The End   1995 1200 2009
Corsica Studios   2002 500 No
Fabric   1999 1800 No
Pulse   2010 3000 No
The Cross        1993 550 2008
The Key   1996 400 2008
Canvas / /Bagleys   1991 1200 2008
Turnmills   1985 1000 2008
Egg   2003 900 No

Lowri Clarke is editor-in-chief of Spoonfed.co.uk. Spoonfed is the definitive What’s-on guide to London, with 30,000 events listed every month across the entire city. From huge concerts at the O2 to backwater local gigs, club nights in the Ditch to exhibitions in Whitechapel and your local pub quiz in Balham. A one-stop-shop for London events.