Five-minute memoir: Philip Hoare recalls being catapulted into a world of punk and rebellion

'I was about to be admitted to a place out of my dreams and nightmares'

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The boy in the queue for the Roxy Club asked someone for a light. He wore a black leather jacket and had blond spiky hair. His voice was a New York drawl – all the more remarkable for the fact that we were standing in a wet, dreary winter street in the blasted, semi-derelict streets of Covent Garden, a Suffragette City by one remove. He probably came from a London suburb not dissimilar to my own in Southampton, but he was the very embodiment of what I wanted to be. A sunken-cheeked London Lou Reed, wreathed in the acrid air of decadence.

I was wearing a pink mohair jumper I'd found at a jumble sale – the source of my fashion statements now for two or three years, product of another, entirely different nocturnal queue, outside a scout hut or school hall, to rummage among the sharp-elbows of smelly old women and pull out some period treasure from under the pile of cast-offs. The jumper was embellished with little rubber monsters which I'd safety-pinned to the wool. I hoped the effect was suitably surreal. My jeans were skinny – itself a statement of rebellion against the flapping Oxford bags I had so recently sported. Everything was tightened and tapered and taken in. I was ready, after all the rehearsals, after all those different costume changes I'd already undertaken in my short teenage life to date, for my debut: my first real-life nightclub.

My social life until then had been comprised of illicit visits to local pubs with my best friend Peter, dressed up in the satin cast-offs of early glam. My nearest point of contact with nightclubs was an imported American magazine called Rock Scene, which published paparazzi-style photos of Davids Bowie and Johansen spilling out of CBGBs in satin and tat. It was an ambisexual other world to which I aspired yet knew I would never attain. I'd seen a glimpse of it earlier that year, when I witnessed Bowie on his Station to Station tour in Earl's Court, a Berlin cabaret singer lit by white fluorescent lights and morphed through some future dystopia. But here in blackened 1970s London, in a city I feared and loved, a blacked-out place of strikes and disarray, I was about to be admitted to a place out of my dreams and nightmares, a place from which I might never escape, nor ever want to, either.

I paid my money at the box office-like window, fearful I might yet be rejected at this gate as unfit to enter the den beyond. The walls were painted black; a narrow corridor led to the stairs that descended to the basement below. No going back now. Indeed the physical crush of bodies – young bodies, dressed like me or much better or even worse – meant retreat was impossible. We were like eels in an eel-trap.

Downstairs was utter mayhem. A heaving mass of those same bodies, pressed even tighter together here, unholy worshippers to the electric crackle and roar that reared out of man-sized speakers. The sound itself was the place. To indiscriminating ears it was one long blur of buzz-saw racket, more feedback from a black hole than music. To me it was the sound of insurrection. The Vibrators were onstage, or were soon about to be, their lanky frontman in white plastic sunglasses, taken-in jeans and platform boots. There was barely any delineation between the tiny stage on which they were performing and the crowd which reacted as one to the noise they were making. That barrier had been breached. For me, the glamour was intensified, rather than destroyed, by that removal.

I went back, week after week. I was at college in an outer London suburb – where I might as well have been translated from one place of confinement to another, from my home to another version of home, for all that it was so lonely. Now I'd found a new home, via the slam-door train into the city, the dark walk over the river, and the forbidding warren of streets that lay beyond. It was my real education. Rather than volumes on 18th-century naval warfare, Sniffin' Glue became my preferred reading.

I saw The Jam and The Damned again and again, and in that scuffed corridor my way was once blocked by a sneering Johnny Rotten, demigod of the new order. I jumped onstage to shout into the microphone, brandishing a water pistol. My hair was cropped short, and coloured with the same red dye my mother used, bought in cheap silver foil sachets from Boots. My transformation had begun in earnest. I was used to hearing music in my box bedroom through the single speaker of a cassette recorder, and dressing up in the mirror. Now the volume had been turned up, and any sense of responsibility overturned. No going back now.

'The Sea Inside' by Philip Hoare (4th Estate) is available now, £18.99