Why they're all glad to be G-A-Y

For today's popstars - whether shooting up the charts, or falling faster than you can say Gary Barlow - there's one London gig that really matters. Not Wembley Arena, but a tatty West End gay club whose playlist is strictly Top 10 and not at all cool. Josh Sims says there'll be murder on the dancefloor if it ever changes its image
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The Independent Culture

"Whooh! I just love Gareth and Will! I love this place!" screams a sweaty James Tornton, a 22-year-old regular at the G-A-Y club night at the London Astoria. He was handed a whistle on the way in and now balloons are floating down from the ceiling. Every one of the 2,000-capacity crowd is on their feet. Sugababes, Louise, Boyzone, Blue, Westlife, Justin, Christina and other high personages of pop have had their vinyl shimmy on the decks. The atmosphere is New Year's Eve on a nippy October Monday. James is in heaven.

Or rather, he isn't. Heaven is the rather more snooty-sophisticated "in" club for out men, 10 minutes away at the opposite end of Charing Cross Road: they don't do balloons or Britney there. And yet Britney herself does G-A-Y, in person.

All the big pure-pop acts have played live at this rather careworn, if carefree, venue situated on a scruffy street corner in the West End. It is no Wembley Arena, and yet Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Texas, Bjork and Mariah Carey have all graced its stage.

G-A-Y was where the Spice Girls played their first ever gig. It was where ex-Boyzoner Stephen Gately played after coming out. It was where Kylie once performed, unannounced: imagine the dropped jaws that night. She has played there every year since. And it's where pop princess Britney is due to perform next month.

"There have been events here that have gone on to become pop phenomena, that have been part of pop history," says DJ Jeremy Joseph, now 36 ("it just flies by"), who founded the club night 11 years ago.

"G-A-Y has always been about creating a simple, attitude-free party atmosphere with live acts. And to be part of an artist's success, part of the campaign that gets them to number one, is very exciting. It has all been about building relationships with these artists from the start of their careers. They don't forget you when they're massive."

Indeed, Joseph has created an icon of the gay clubbing scene and a benchmark venue for pop and wannabe pop stars. This goes deeper than a marketing move by an artist to win the pink pound, though undoubtedly this - along with the club's tabloid-friendliness - is part of the strategy: with its restless exuberance and the camp vein of many of its performers, pop and the gay scene are natural bedfellows.

There also remains a certain cachet in performing to a gay audience. It may also now be trendy for big acts to play small venues (Madonna at Brixton Academy, for instance). But few venues are so appreciative of performers from the much-maligned pop genre as G-A-Y. Household names now play there, Joseph says, not because it is a gay club but because it is G-A-Y, fuelled by Joseph's passion for pop and the fact that he has a genuine ear for new talent. Small surprise that he is a Pop Idol devotee (Michelle is his hot tip for the winner, "and I really don't want another pretty boy to win it"). It is perhaps only mildly more shocking to learn that his hero is its caustic, if spot-on, pop marketeer Simon Fuller.

"Pop music is my first love and I'm not ashamed of that," says Joseph. "I don't follow trends in music. For me, trends just get in the way of pop. No other style of music can give you that uplifting feeling, and there seems to be plenty of other people out there who enjoy that as much as I do. Sometimes it's hard to find DJs to play pop. For many, DJ-ing is all about 'credibility'. I'm forever running up to the decks and screaming 'get this shit off, and play what G-A-Y is about!' We've been slagged off for playing pop. It's an easy target. But without pop there would be no G-A-Y."

"That's why the new acts go there: Jeremy works at getting the names in, but he's a pop fan before he's a businessman," says Louis Walsh, the manager behind Boyzone, Westlife and Girls Aloud. "Playing there is a guarantee of being on the front pages on Monday. But more than that, it's useful because you can gauge the success of a record by the crowd's reaction there. Jeremy is a better barometer of pop hits in the UK than anyone I know. He should be running a record label."

That would be Joseph's dream: to launch a G-A-Y label and discover new acts. Such has been the success of G-A-Y - it is Britain's biggest gay club night and has weathered changes to the club world that have seen many bigger names fall flat on the dancefloor - that brand extensions have begun. It has spawned a G-A-Y album and, more recently, a G-A-Y video café in London's Soho - one that shows Eurovision and Pop Idol in the way a straight bar might show football matches. The future is bright, and pink, and bubble-gummy.

Certainly, while Joseph insists that Britain is suffering an "entertainment recession" and that business is harder than it looks (he does not own G-A-Y's venue, so is dependent on often subsidised door charges), the club's standing is still a long way from Joseph's origins. A self-confessed "annoying pub DJ, the kind who has to speak between the records", Joseph began running club nights at a Hampstead gay pub (which now plays for the other side as a lapdance venue). He did so well there (with a magic touch for his audience, he would convince the likes of cast members from Prisoner Cell Block H to make guest appearances), that he was invited to rescue Bang!, a major but failing club night of the time. He was successful again, and it was only a matter of time before his own pop party baby was created.

"It was the first big gay club I went to. It's a real rites-of-passage place, like a school disco," says Mathew Todd, deputy editor of gay lifestyle magazine Attitude, who points out that G-A-Y used to teasingly be nicknamed "Grab-A-Youth". "The club scene can be vitriolic and some clubbers are snobby about what Joseph does - people go there, but pretend that they don't. But he does it well. Yes, it's tacky and naff, but that's part of its charm. It has no pretensions to be anything else."

"I don't understand why, but some people tend to think of G-A-Y clubbers as shallow or of the club as a bit of a joke, while the likes of Heaven are supposedly more grown-up," adds Tris Reid-Smith, editor of the Pink Paper, the leading gay news journal. "Young people are bombarded with pop, so [at G-A-Y] they're in their element. It's a welcoming place and important because, for a lot of gay men, it's probably their first experience of a gay club. Jeremy has hit on a strong formula. Going back there is almost like going home. Admittedly, there's nothing original about it. But it is great fun."

The club does have a more serious side, however. "It's important not to underestimate Jeremy's political contribution to the gay scene," says Reid-Smith. G-A-Y was, for instance, active in campaigning against Section 28, with Joseph managing to collect more than 10,000 signatures on a petition, a figure of significant influence. When in 1994 the gay male age of consent was only reduced to 18 [rather than 16, to give equality with heterosexual adults], protesters gathered at G-A-Y. Next month it will host a celebratory "Death of Section 28" party and, somewhat controversially, it maintains a "majority gay" door policy, one that Joseph says is simply a question of giving priority to its regular supporters.

He considers his club is important in raising awareness about gay issues among younger clubbers. Because many clubbers go out mainly to pull, free condoms are distributed in the foyer. It's not all about brief encounters, though: G-A-Y recently hosted an anniversary party for couples that met there 10 years ago.

"We're part of the gay community and have a responsibility to be an active part of it," Joseph says. "It doesn't ruin anyone's night to sign a petition."

But he can't keep a straight face for long. Joseph makes sure that fun is first. He admits there are acts he would love to book whom he has yet to persuade: Madonna, "the ultimate"; George Michael, "one of the all-time great male vocalists"; Robbie Williams, "who always said he would do G-A-Y but never has", and "my own personal dream would be Olivia Newton-John. I don't know if that one would go down well with the crowd. But sod the crowd. That one would be for me."

Those whom he has persuaded, however, have agreed to Joseph's requests to do offbeat things in the name of good times. Girls Aloud performed in school uniform. Atomic Kitten made their entrance by abseiling from the roof. When Ash said they wanted to appear, Joseph told them they could - but only if they only played indie versions of Abba songs. They agreed. Press rumour has suggested that even Oasis would like to play there. Joseph would welcome them - on the condition they perform a version of "YMCA". They haven't called him back. Yet.

"I'm still very childish," says Joseph, "and what keeps me going is my immaturity. Frankly, it's the only way to get artists to do such silly things. But at least it makes the club different.

"Besides, you need more than just a good single. We look hard at the personalities. Some stars - like Gareth or Will - you simply can't help liking, and that's good for our crowd. There are others that have great records but, mentioning no names, they're just not very nice people. So we don't put them on. It all has to be fun.

"That said, you can never be complacent. You never know what a club's lifespan will be. All I can hope for is that we'll survive another decade, because I'm not qualified to do anything else."