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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Feel the rush: an all-nighter reading Life After Dark

Phew, after my marathon all-nighter I've emerged from the experience drenched in sweat, shivering in the chill dawn air and absolutely dog tired. Euuuugghhhh! It's almost as if, as if … as if I’ve been to a nightclub or something. But no, I’ve been reading Dave Haslam’s Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues. Blimey! Gimme some more dexies, mate …

In other words, it's a long session at the decks. Four hundred and thirty pages' worth. It's by no means uninteresting. On the contrary. But Haslam goes in for breathless pack-it-all-in "slice-throughs". Lots of names thrown our way - bands, venues, towns, promoters, DJs, records - and a helter-skelter pelt through music scene after music scene. Across chapter after chapter. Here's an example: on page 300, with Haslam jogging us through one of many mini-episodes in the early-ish post-punk scene:

"On 5 June 1980, U2 played for John Keenan at the F-Club. The night before they'd been in Manchester at 'The Beach Club', an almost regular Tuesday night at Oozits, formerly known as the Picador (the first club owned by Manchester drag act Frank 'Foo Foo' Lammar). The Beach Club had been launched in April by a group of friends around the New Hormones label, and the City Fun fanzine, including, among many others, Richard Boon, Eric Random, Lindsay Wilson (Tony's wife) and Sue Cooper."

And so on. Feel the rush: of dates, locations, bands, DJs. Paragraphs twisting and turning among a never-ending thicket of people, places and musical acts. Like a lot of other musicians, poor old U2 pop up, keep their heads above water for a couple paragraphs, then get submerged again.

But hey, let me take this already-boring record off the turntable and flip it - let's see what's on the B-side … well, OK! A good tune or two. To my taste, Haslam is over-hurried and verging on the superficial with some of his broad-brush approach, but there's still a lot of interesting stuff in his book. A few of my favourite Life After Dark nuggets:

*According to Jeff Horton (the recent owner of the 100 Club: is he still?), in 1964 there were over 200 music venues in just Soho and the wider West End part of central London.

*The Jamaican sound system operator Duke Vin memorably described 1950s Britain as lifeless: "I couldn’t find nowhere for a dance. The country was dead".

*Haslam reckons that cinema was the primary means of popularising insurgent music - first jazz in the 1920s and 1930s, and then rock and roll in the 1950s. A fascinating point which I must admit I don't recall coming across previously.

*The future Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon staged an early Sex Pistols gig in the painting studio of the art department at Reading University by getting his course tutor to consider the performance a part of Boon's assessed course work. (Fail!)

*The Torch soul all-nighters in Tunstall near Stoke-on-Trent in 1972-3 managed to head off complaints by people who lived in the same street by employing them as cleaners at the club, apparently more or less putting them on the payroll so they wouldn't complain about noise and traffic.

Life After Dark, 
with a rare photo of my dad 'hammering it' on the dancefloor in 1961

One of the things that comes cross very clearly in the book is the significance of key individuals, usually DJs and/or promoters, who did a lot to forge a scene in one or two key locations (in some cases these mercurial figures keep popping up in different cities in the midst of different music scenes). So you have the soul-R'n'B-and-much-else DJ Roger Eagle playing at the Twisted Wheel in Manchester in the 1960s, before re-appearing in 1976 with Eric’s in Liverpool and gigs for the Sex Pistols and early punk bands. Between times, he'd also run the Magic Village in Manchester, putting on psychedelic freakshows, playing Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Doors records. Far out, man.

Other key DJ/promoter/hustler impresario types include Andy Czezowski (The Damned, the Roxy club, the Fridge club) and Guy Stevens (the Scene mod/R'n'B club, The Clash). Not to mention Jimmy Savile. Haslam champions these figures (Eagle and Stevens especially) for caring about the music they played more than their own fame or earnings. It’s commendable, eminently likeable. But there are times in the book where Haslam seems to slide away from this "it's for the love of the music" value system. In a chapter on the New Romantics - Billy's, Blitz, the Batcave et al - he comments on Duran Duran and how they'd played several of their early pre-Rum Runners gigs in the small upstairs room (the "Star Club") of a Birmingham pub: "I guess there aren't many artists who'd be happy to spend their careers playing dives." Oh, they’re dives now, are they? 

Coming in a chapter featuring quite a few popstar wannabies like John Taylor, you rather get the impression that here Haslam's excusing or subtly aligning himself with the careerists of the music world. It happens a few times in the book. Even the slightly romanticised final paragraph of Life After Dark features a set-piece scene of imagined excitement outside a venue with a "queue" and "taxis pulling up". This might be how it is where Haslam goes these days, but there aren't any taxis or queues outside the venues I go to. (Ahem).

I don't mean to disparage Haslam or his book. It's packed with interesting snippets (about 5,000 of them) and covers a lot of ground. His heart generally appears to be in the right place, but I think the book's just over-ambitious. On the plus side, it seems to be on its most secure footing when it's chronicling the scene Haslam was himself a part of - the Hacienda, house, rave and the 90s big beat / D'n'B fall-out. In this area I think Haslam is pretty good when discussing important topics like violence in the rave scene (something I sensed an undercurrent of myself at the Hacienda or Konspiracy in Manchester) or the still-continuing tragedy of Ecstasy deaths.

Unsurprisingly, he also seems securer talking about Manchester than any other city. On London, where I've lived for over 20 years, I think he's often wide of the mark. Especially with contemporary (or near-contemporary) London, in particular the "indie"/experimental scene, which I know most about. For example, he rightly points to CafĂ© Oto as an important venue for adventurous music programming in the city, but he ignores - or just doesn’t know about - numerous other venues: the Old Blue Last, DIY Space, Sound Savers, Boat Ting, the Windmill, New River Studios, the Shacklewell Arms, plus other now-deceased but recently-important places like Power Lunches, the Buffalo Bar or "ROTA" at the Arts Club. Meanwhile, out of London the best venue in modern-day Sheffield (the Audacious Art Experiment) or Nottingham (JT Soar) both fail to get a mention.

The sins of omission, eh?

But hold it! I should take this miserable, downbeat record off the wheels of steel and play something more uplifting. Yunno, kind of spirit of Hacienda 1989. Airhorns blasting. Blokes stripped to the waist dancing on the podiums.

In all likelihood me and my purple t-shirt-clad student mates ourselves danced to some of Mr Haslam's tunes back in our Madchester undergraduate days, so I feel I ought to end with a positive sentiment. In fact what better than quoting DJ Sasha remembering what it was like at Shelley's Lazerdome in Longton near Stoke-on-Trent during those heady rave times:

"It had a real innocent energy. The big thing for me was holding the crowd back; they'd be gagging to hear a record they knew, and as soon as they did the whole place would go mental. From that point onwards I had to completely go for it. I knew that as soon as I put that one record on the airhorns would go off and that would be it. I'd have to completely hammer it."

Woah, another hard day's night hammering it! Sasha, you should take a night off. Read a book or something. What about Life After Dark …?

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