Club class: 20 years of the Ministry of Sound

Twenty years ago, a club in south London opened its doors, turned up the volume and transformed nightlife. Ian Burrell rewinds to the beginning of the Ministry of Sound
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The Independent Culture

There's something special, something thrilling, about walking the snake bend of a darkened corridor that leads you to The Box, the main dance floor at the Ministry of Sound. The frisson of danger is compounded by a bright yellow hazard sign that confronts you just before you hit the crowds of moving shadows, the dry ice, the kaleidoscopic LED screen visuals and the full force of Britain's most powerful sound system. "Caution", it warns, "Excessive Sound Levels".

The symbol, with its image of a man wearing heavy headphones, has become almost as iconic as the internationally-recognised portcullis logo which has helped Ministry of Sound become the most famous nightclub Britain ever built. And according to Justin Berkmann, who founded the club 20 years ago, the risk of entering The Box (right) is real.

The sound system has a capacity of 156 decibels – somewhat louder than Concorde taking off. "I told the DJs: 'If you turn it up to 10, not only will you kill everyone in the room, you will also kill yourself'," says Berkmann, who compares the power of the system to that of a Formula 1 motor car. "There were a number of DJs who were terrified, and rightly, because you were playing with a gun basically – it was something that could really hurt people. There were a lot of DJs that were barely going over five because they were just terrified." These days, the club never uses more than 45 per cent of the system's power to maximise sound clarity.

From its outset, the club has had enormous ambition. Today it runs the largest independent record label in the world, the biggest online dance radio station and hosts more than 2,000 parties a year under the Ministry of Sound, Hed Kandi and Global Underground brands.

Ministry of Sound was Berkmann's dream. His vision emerged at the end of the 1980s, in the aftermath of a rave in the Surrey countryside that had descended into violence.

"The security staff had a pitched battle with the police in the middle of the road," he says. "I had some really bad experiences there and I thought I need to build a club which encapsulates the vibe that I had seen before."

What Berkmann, a Londoner, had previously witnessed was the power of dance music to break down the tribal nature of British youth culture and create a feeling of peace and love not evident since the Flower Power era 20 years before. But while others regarded such events as necessarily taking place in the open air, or in disused and unlicensed warehouse buildings, he had witnessed something else.

Working in bars in New York as part of a planned round-the-world trip that never got past the Big Apple, Berkmann experienced its nightlife in the mid-1980s before Mayor Rudy Giuliani's clean-up. It was "an anarchic, almost post-apocalyptic city," he recalls. "For a 23-year-old it was the best Disney World you could go to." And the chief attraction was Paradise Garage, especially on gay nights, when Larry Levan was at the turntables.

"It was in the middle of the Aids scare in New York, and so even though it was a gay club it didn't have that cruising vibe to it, everyone was there for one reason only – to dance to the music. You could see that everyone had their own plot, they danced in the same spot every week," says Berkmann. "Larry was the puppet master. When he DJ'd well he was incomparable, because he knew how to work every part of his dance floor and if he saw a group of people not dancing he knew exactly what record to put on to make those people dance."

As the British rave scene became contaminated by criminal elements and, at the behest of politicians and the tabloids, was subjected to aggressive policing, Berkmann began driving around London looking for somewhere to create a British version of Paradise Garage. When he turned into Gaunt Street, just behind south London's dilapidated Elephant and Castle junction, what he saw "just shouted at me".

Ministry legend suggests the club was built in a bus depot but, though there was a bus stand nearby, Berkmann says the space he chose was an office car park, converted from a former tubing factory. "There were about five cars in there and 100 pigeons crapping all over the floor."

Because the building had a glass ceiling, he needed to create a noise-insulated "Box" to house the sound system – that was far more important to him than the club's décor. With his business partners, James Palumbo and Humphrey Waterhouse, he then applied for Britain's first 24-hour music and dance licence. Legal advice suggested they would only get it if they didn't sell alcohol; Berkmann was comfortable with this – Paradise Garage only had a juice bar and the Ecstasy-fuelled rave scene had quenched its thirst on water and Lucozade.

When the booze-free nightclub opened its doors on 20 September 1991, many were confounded. The Daily Mail gave it a page of coverage, incredulous at the idea. "They weren't the only ones," says Berkmann. "I remember talking to other club owners to see if they'd get involved in investing and they all told me I was mad, that it'd never work and how could you get people to come if you had no alcohol. They couldn't get their head around it."

Even so, the coolest clubbers in London did come, enticed by 1,500 free memberships that had been personally handed out by Berkmann in visits to other night spots in the weeks before the launch. Publicity was minimal, with a deliberate policy of keeping the club's location a mystery. It was the members who spread the word.

"The next week we had 10,000 people wanting to go to Ministry. That just snowballed and, before you knew it, half of London had heard about it but didn't know where it was. It was before the internet and information seeped out by word of mouth, which is by far the best."

The unrivalled sound system had been designed and installed by Austen Derek, who had previously worked at New York club Studio 54. And it was the arrival of the cream of American House music DJs, such as Tony Humphries, Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles and Roger Sanchez, who cemented Ministry's reputation by bringing the best out of the system. Levan, who had faded from the New York scene after the closure of Paradise Garage in 1987, arrived at Ministry in its third week and stayed in London for three months. "Up until that point the sound system had been in black and white and when he touched it, it turned to colour," says Berkmann.

Sanchez, a New Yorker, was back at Ministry last month, playing a seven-hour set as part of a relationship with the club that has lasted 19 years.

"I've seen the many changes that Ministry has gone through and from the very beginning the thing that they've had that stood above so many clubs in the world is a dedication to quality of sound – that's what they built their name on." For Sanchez, The Box offers "that feeling of a cavernous room where people lose all sense of time and just lose themselves in the music".

The 24-hour dance licence was fully utilised, though Berkmann admits that the 36-hour party sessions were too much. "We were pushing them right to the edge and maybe even a couple of them over it," he says. After two years without liquor, the club finally obtained a drinks licence. It also showed chutzpah in its marketing. The portcullis was beamed onto the Houses of Parliament in 1993, then Buckingham Palace in 1996, on the club's 5th birthday, with the message: "Lasts Longer Than A Royal Marriage".

Ministry of Sound's history has not been one of unrelenting progress. Its fortunes have, to a large degree, been entwined with the popularity of dance music, especially in Britain. Its rampant success in the early years led to the opening of a merchandising store in central London, selling the distinctive MA1 jackets with the portcullis logo. Ministry magazine became the biggest-seller in its sector. But when the publication closed in 2001, the media took it as a sign that dance was finished, an impression that was reinforced a year later when Cream, Ministry's closest rival, shut its doors in Liverpool.

But a decade later, it's still here. Walking around the empty club on a Tuesday afternoon, the joint managing directors, Iain Hagger and Duncan Collins, talk of their determination to keep the club relevant for young clubbers. "There have been a number of other clubs that have come and gone over the period [but] we have stuck very true to the original vision of the club, which is the major reason we are still here," says Hagger.

"It's still all about the sound system and the music and when a DJ drops the biggest track of the moment and everyone sticks their hands in the air. That's the feeling that powers our whole business."

Tony McGuinness had his "first hands in the air" experience in 1995. He was a busy record company executive and was intrigued but slightly sceptical of what he'd heard about Ministry from his brother. "I just discovered what modern clubbing was all about, the whole friendliness," he says. "Before that, my memories of clubbing were lots of beered-up blokes not dancing, an undertow of violence and people throwing beer bottles around. I started going out clubbing pretty much every weekend and would always end up in the Ministry of Sound. For me, it's the place where it all started. Clubbing, when it's right, is the opportunity to have an ego-less experience – to go out and feel that empathy."

Today, McGuinness is part of the trance group Above & Beyond, who are a big attraction at Ministry on Friday nights. "Ministry is not about the décor and it's cooler for that," he says. "There's a cauldron atmosphere – it's just fantastic."

The club has been careful to maintain good relations with the police, hosting seminars on gun and knife crime and winning plaudits for its 1997 pre-election Use Your Vote campaign. Security is tight but the metal detectors are given a less threatening appearance by use of the words "Boys" and "Girls".

Bizzy Koffman spent 14 years working at the club, mostly supervising the queues. She was offered a job on her first visit to Ministry, as a first-year student at the University of Greenwich.

"We couldn't believe the flamboyant costumes and the extravagance of it all, it took our breath away," she remembers.

The arrival in Elephant and Castle of the glamorous party night Pushca introduced a new code of exclusivity at the club's door. "The transvestites used to walk up and down the queue and pick people out and lots of people used to be turned away," says Koffman, who felt obliged to wear a different outfit every week. In contrast to other London clubs, Ministry has never hankered after celebrity patrons. "If you got in, you were special and you would have people dancing around you who were celebrities, but you just thought they were as good as you were."

Through her twenties, Koffman worked at Ministry seven days a week, either in the club's offices or at its parties, meeting her husband in the process. "I came from Chichester and I'm probably the most naïve type of person you could imagine but I always felt safe," she says.

Ministry has expanded its global footprint, though not to the extent of Spanish club chain Pacha. There are clubs in Egypt and Malaysia and a business in Australia. In 2001, it staged a festival at Knebworth that attracted 35,000 people, and later the same year more than 40,000 dancers filled the Millennium Dome on New Year's Eve. It has championed British dance genres such as grime and dubstep and has a roster of recording artists that includes rising stars like Example, Wretch 32 and Yasmin.

But the beating heart of the club will always be that sound system in a side street in Elephant and Castle. Later this year, the top American House DJ's will fly over to pay homage once again. Larry Levan won't be there – he died in 1992 and Ministry staged a wake in his honour with flyers drawn by Keith Haring. But Berkmann kept the recordings of Levan's Ministry performances and they will form part of a series of 20th-anniversary releases from the record label.

"One More Tune!" is what ravers used to chant at the end of the first all-night sessions. Ministry of Sound can promise a lot more than that.

Ministry's top tunes, as chosen by its staff

Such a Good Feeling (Brothers in Rhythm)

Big house hit from 1991, the year MoS opened

Needin U (David Morales)

1998 track from one of the first superstar DJs

Believe (Ministers de-la-funk)

Diva Jocelyn Brown belted out the vocals for this 1999 dancefloor hit

As the Rush Comes (Motorcycle)

One of the biggest vocal trance anthems of 2004

One (Swedish House Mafia)

Chart-bothering 2010 club banger from house trio

* Ministry of Sound Club Residents: Michael Woods is released on 25 April