December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Night out clubbing in the 1990s

6 min read
Clubbing in the 1990s meant when you left your front door, you had no idea when you'd return home as Tony McMahon remembers

One weekend in 1996, I went out clubbing with some mates. Literally starting on Friday afternoon and ended at some point on Monday morning. Sleep didn’t feature. Chill-outs did. Times had truly changed. When I went out clubbing in the 1980s, it was a relatively predictable experience. A night out commenced with pints in the pub followed by a tinselly club which closed at 2am. In the 1990s, you left your flat for an adventure of indeterminate length.

This was the decade when all-night clubbing became a reality. Fuelled, it must be said, by a combination of booze and very available drugs. For me, it was a second youth. Many of us born in the 1960s felt denied the ability to express ourselves in the early 1980s. The club scene held few surprises. A step up from the school disco on many occasions. Chicken in a basket. Babycham. Fight on the dance floor.

Early 80s clubs were effectively racially segregated. Only years later, being white, did I realise the extent to which black youth were deterred from entering mainly white clubs. Gays and lesbians drank and danced in dark venues invisible to the public. Transgender people were not even a talking point (just being honest here). Making a decision to enter a gay bar was a big deal. The windows were blocked out so there was no clue to what lay within. And a chance of being beaten up by bigots on the way out.

Not that we didn’t have a great time. We did. But it was never quite enough. The 1990s gave us a second chance to have fun before we got old.

FIND OUT MORE: Racism in 1980s clubs

The late 80s paves the way for 90s clubbing

In the late 1980s, Ecstasy turbocharged the rave scene. Smiley faces and House music. This was a total rejection of the dressing up and New Romantic style ‘sophistication’ of the early 1980s. Things got a lot messier and grungier. Clothes got baggier. Plenty of illegal ‘raves’ in fields and warehouses.

I was always slightly sceptical about claims that rave broke down barriers of race, class, and sexual orientation and posed some kind of existential threat to the dominant Thatcherism of the times. But – the media and authorities certainly reacted as if it did. And that gave it a rebellious or rather nihilistic veneer.

1988 to 1989 was dubbed the ‘second summer of love‘. A re-run of the 1967 summer of love centred on San Francisco with the hippy peace-and-love, flower power ethos, anti-Vietnam War sentiment, and trippy music festivals. Something was undoubtedly happening at the end of the decade. A rejection of yuppie style perhaps. But it was no revolution. However, it did change dramatically what happened on a night out.

Dressing for the 90s

In 1983, I’d have put on leather pants, a dressy shirt, thin black leather tie, white Italian shoes with a gold strap, and a cream cocktail jacket bought in Camden market. Hair gelled and blow-dried. What a sight!

By 1996, we’d gone through the anti-fashion of early 90s grunge and while things sharpened up a bit, it was still very casual compared to the previous decade. Urban sportswear and Britpop with its nod to 60s Mod. And even references to 70s disco. I was especially attached to a gold metallic Diesel shirt at this time. Later in the decade jeans were nearly an endangered species as cargo pants ruled supreme.

Clubbing in the 1990s becomes an adventure

Everything that had been happening in a field in the late 1980s moved indoors in the 1990s. That weekend in 1996 I mentioned earlier kicked off at a bar off Trafalgar Square called Kudos. A gay bar which – take a deep breath – had clear windows. Ruperts in Rupert Street led the way on clear windows allowing passers-by to glance inside. The Financial Times, of all newspapers, even ran a feature on this new and exciting development.

For whatever reason, white guys occupied the main ground floor bar area. Chinese guys were at one end of the bar. And black guys in the basement dance area. If anybody thinks I imagined this – please say. From there we walked down to the Heaven night club. After hours of dancing and talking shit, it was off to Comptons cafe in Soho and then a group ended up back in my flat in Wood Green – unable to sleep!

It was while in my living room with my mates that I realised one of our group was a complete stranger. He had bundled into the mini-cab with us. There were no Ubers btw and London cabs were always thin on the ground and never prepared to leave the centre of the city.

So, you got into what claimed to be a mini-cab but was often just some bloke pretending to be a cab driver but in reality just trying to make some money. This posed a risk to women on their own – and some men! But back to our stranger. Freaked out by us all looking at him in confusion, he bolted for the door and left.

Trade – the epitome of 1990s London clubbing

Later that day it was off to the Fridge cafe in Brixon – starved of sleep – and then the Fridge club. Hours of dancing on stage, hands waving manically in the air. Then another mini-cab across town to Trade. This was a 1990s clubbing institution. We queued outside as another club emptied – the walls throbbing to the bass track of the music. At 4am on Sunday morning, Trade kicked off.

The venue, Turnmills, was a Victorian warehouse near the meat market at Smithfield. I worked nearby for several years and loved the atmosphere in that part of London. It oozed history. The internal decor was a weird mash up of Gaudi and Geiger. You walked down a wrought-iron staircase confronted by a sweaty scene reminiscent of a rung of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I used to call it the Sea of Torsos. A mass of interlocking, drugged-off-their-faces muscle Maries you had to negotiate to either reach the bar or the main dance floor. Under one of the alcoves, two guys with money belts sold E or whizz with two queues snaking through the bar area. The openness of this activity was taken as completely normal.

The pervasive odour was a combination of perspiration and Homme by Jean-Paul Gaultier – a pungent aftershave that came in a bottle shaped as a limbless male torso. After countless hours spent dancing badly and wandering around the three-level venue in some kind of stupor, our group left some time after midday. Inadvisably, I caught my reflection in a shop window – as it was now daylight – and nearly screamed. Could that green-skinned, sunken-eyed monster staring back truly be me?

By the early evening I was back in Turnmills only now the club was called Warriors. I sat opposite a friend Matt at a small table, rested my head for a moment, and fell asleep. When I awoke, Matt had gone. Or so I thought. He was actually curled up on the floor!

Ah, the delights of 1990s clubbing!!!

Trade – some postscripts on the epitome of 1990s clubbing

I used to call the music at Trade “demented fairground”. As I discovered when I bought the Trade Volume Three CD set released in October 1996, it was unlistenable outside of the club environment. Once, I tried to do the housework with DJ Tony De Vit blaring out and after ten minutes saved my ears putting on some Northern Soul instead. Trade’s cacophonous sound was the soundtrack to the pills but didn’t work in stone-cold sober conditions.

In 2008, Turnmills shut and the local council decided that what the area really needed was an utterly soulless office block of no architectural merit whatsoever. Some property developer obviously showed an “exciting” image of what it was going to look like and that was enough. My suspicion is that the mediocrities who permitted the wrecking ball to swing thought they could exorcise the spirit of 90s hedonistic clubbing.

But memories aren’t snuffed out so easily…

2 thoughts on “Night out clubbing in the 1990s

  1. Respect, especially given that you were in your early 30s. I met someone at about this time who knew you and referred to you by the nickname Caligula! (Feel free to delete this comment.)

    1. Hey Joe – Is this President Bennett of the Guild? If so, how are you? I was unaware of the Caligula nickname. Wish I’d been that dissolute and depraved but sadly far more restrained in reality 🙂

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