Just before the pandemic struck, the DJ, producer and recording artist Fred Again took an impromptu away day trip from his London home to Berlin.
‘I went in and out one Friday to Berghain,’ he recalls. For the past 15 years, Berghain has settled into consensus agreement as the greatest nightclub in the world. The Studio 54 founder, Ian Schrager, once told me it was the only place that came close to inheriting the spirit of decadent freedom, sexual experimentation and raw Bacchanalia he once presided over from the middle of Manhattan.
‘I landed at dinnertime,’ says Fred. He was accompanying his brilliant fellow DJ and musician, Jamie xx, booked to play a five-hour slot in the main room. ‘I had a quick disco nap, then went on the maddest 24-hour bender before getting on my flight home, crying all the way back because of the ’shrooms.’ Within weeks lockdown started. For what feels like a very long 17 months, this kind of disco vacation has been unthinkable.
As we stand, touching wood, this week is set to be British nightlife’s equivalent of VE Day. The plans that have been hatching for the rebirth of British clubbing from empty, cold venues across the country are about to be realised. Some of that old, familiar mischief is close enough to sniff out, if not quite yet taste. For those of us who came of age under mirrorballs — who learnt our tastes, appetites and etiquette by sticking our heads next to bass bins at 3am with a new best friend we’d made elbowing off a podium half an hour earlier — the significance of the reopening feels quasi-religious. That it is a Monday night should prove no obstacle to the faithful and committed among the congregation. A government review has declared no vaccine passports or Covid testing will be required as licence to dance again.
On club nights, we have been the best of ourselves and, often for the particularly memorable moments of it, the very worst, too. Falling in love with music, people, places and faces is indivisible from stepping into blacked-out, subterranean rooms throbbing to the pulse and promise of new thrills. The waft of smoke machines is as evocative to us as a first love’s scent; the flicker of a strobe light is medicinal; the sound of a skittering hi-hat or air horn as profoundly moving as symphony orchestras. Not everybody learns to appreciate nightclubs as second homes. But the best people usually do.
Most of the service and entertainment industries has been bulldozed by restrictive pandemic measures. Nightlife was put into an enforced coma. Last summer, there was no ‘dance out to help out’. Restaurants, churches, gyms, pubs, cinemas and sports fixtures have all sprung back to life. Nightclubs have remained shuttered through it all. As storied Bugged Out! promoter Johnno Burgess notes, ‘There is no such thing as social distancing in nightclubs, unless you want to make a point of standing at the back of a room or wear a one-metre-wide plastic bubble suit.’
The Covid nightclub hiatus curtailed an industry built from the foundation stones of pleasure. Most of its foot-soldiers work for the love of the night, for precarious financial reward. Since the revolutionary, ecstatic advent of acid house, nightclubbing has held a firm, friendly, frequently spannered grip on the national psyche. Cities like Manchester (The Haçienda) Liverpool (Cream) and Sheffield (Gatecrasher) have been momentarily defined by their most feted nightclub spaces.
Whole subcultures of London can be gauged through its nightlife, from the New Romantics at The Blitz to the acid teds of Shoom, the drum’n’bass explosion at The Blue Note, UK garage at Cookies & Cream. Entire boroughs — Brixton, Shoreditch, Vauxhall, Dalston, now Tottenham — have been overhauled by virtue of becoming nightlife hotbeds.
If you want to separate London by tribal affiliation, the nightclub is still its most useful gauge. The head-nodding blogger house boys at Corsica Studios might just as well live on a different planet to the wasted toffs of Annabel’s and the extravagantly, gloriously outré fashion kids at PDA. Yet all are aligned by the invisible connecting tissue of the night. They combine to make London sparkle after twilight at every junction of the social spectrum with their well-oiled rituals of social foreplay.
Nightclubbing was once considered a countercultural pursuit, inflaming tabloid ire and government bills. Now restaurants, hotel lobbies, shops, even hotdesking spaces such as WeWork look like nightclubs. There are DJs in department stores, food chains, hairdressers. Our surgeons, newsreaders, government advisers and headteachers are ex-nightclubbers. Nightlife is so embedded in the British establishment that an exhibition launched at the Dundee outpost of the V&A this spring, celebrating it all. We understand the value of nightlife on multiple levels. ‘For queer people,’ says Shay Malt, promoter of the legendary Tottenham gay rave Adonis, ‘the nightclub is the place you find your family, learn about yourself, let yourself loose, often for the first time.’
The kinship between specific nightlife contingents is strong. ‘Nightclubs expedite the closeness and vulnerabilities of strangers,’ says Fred Again, ‘I don’t care where it is. It could be a tiny room in a shitty pub or among thousands at Printworks, I’d take any of it right now. I have a renewed appreciation for absolutely everything we had before Covid.’ He anticipates a fresh bout of nightlife madness once everything opens up. ‘Humanity will always prevail over bureaucracy,’ he says. ‘Going out dancing is the crux of a happy life.’
‘The desire to dance goes way back,’ says Burgess. ‘It’s inherent in our culture. What the Government kept overlooking is how much culture has come out of nightclubs. People in their 20s know it. DJ Harvey is as understood by those in their 20s as he is by those in their 40s. Recent club culture has been absorbed into the wider culture. Grandchildren don’t hear war stories anymore. They hear grandparents talking about the battlefront of nightclubs before the smoking ban.’
Despite a complete nightclub blackout since Lockdown 1, elements of the culture have battled on. Muscular British house acts Disclosure and Bicep have released career-best albums with no live outlet to support their talent. A sincere rush of disco revivalism has been expertly executed and made fit for 2020s purpose by Róisín Murphy and Jessie Ware, winning several Grammy and Brit Awards for Dua Lipa.
Crowdfunders to help unsupported, much-loved clubs weather the financial ruin of Covid have sprung up regularly to warm, ground-level responses and pockets dug deep. Talking about nightlife has found fitful public forums online: Facebook groups reminiscing about clubs gone by, streaming services overtaken by garlanded DJs still obsessed with the sound of the new, WhatsApp huddles anticipating what the next wave might look like. Nightlife is a fluid friend in its progress, trustworthy enough to hand over dearly held personal freedoms. It was always an outlet, a release. Some London clubs are planning to open at 12.01am, 19 July, on the first minute of the first hour that nightclubs are allowed to operate again. This is not just a show of fortified support for going out and losing yourself in the night; it is about giving the dormant corpse of the most neglected, forgotten industry in all of the coronavirus business disasters the kiss of life.
In my house during lockdowns, the repeated hopelessness of watching the nightly death toll unfurl on Channel 4 News was quickly replaced by regularly live-streaming Masters At Work’s Louie Vega plucking 12”s from his record wall on to our TV. Because Vega’s immaculate taste connected so many dots on the nightlife map, it felt lifesaving. ‘I’ve enjoyed a lot of the streaming events,’ says Burgess. ‘But everybody is ready for the real thing now. They have that extra 100 per cent euphoria in them.’
‘Nothing that you do at home can match the infinite variables of a night out,’ says Fred Again, ‘That extra shot you’re handed by a stranger. You lose your bearings slightly.’ Then the fun really starts. ‘The advanced people-watching, while acknowledging you’re being watched, too. Being in the pit does a lot of good for the soul.’
In February 2021, precisely one year after his last lost Berlin weekend, disco lockdown found its buoyant anthem at the hands of Fred Again. His tune ‘Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing)’ cut straight to the nub of what disappeared during lockdowns. The titular Marea (aka US DJ The Blessed Madonna) is featured in cut-up conversation about the closure of clubland. ‘What comes next will be marvellous,’ she says.
So will it? ‘We’ve had the rug taken from under our feet,’ says Shay Malt. ‘But when it finally comes back, people are actually going to go crazy. In the long run, this could reinvigorate nightlife. People are literally going to want to go out all the time.’
The promise of the song may yet come true.