The island of a thousand dances
A decade ago on Ibiza, a whole new sort of music was born. How strong is the Balearic beat today?
Sunday 23 August 1998
At the island's airport terminal, among the standard posters for car rentals, you'll see, rather more unusually, those for London's superclub, the Ministry of Sound (motto: "More balls, less bollocks'). Within minutes, a visitor will be familiar with the names of the main club venues on the island - Pacha (where the Ministry of Sound holds its Friday night summer residency), Privilege, Amnesia, Es Paradis and El Divino. Augmented by a relentless media presence - roadshows and holidays from BBC Radio 1 and Kiss FM; specialist package holidays for clubbers; diets of dance music CD compilations and, more infamously, Sky TV's recent no-holds barred Ibiza Uncut- it's a cross between a dance music Glastonbury and Top Shop. And it's been pretty much this way since the summer of 1987, when a group of London DJs visited the island and brought what became known as "the Balearic spirit" back home.
The origins of Balearic involve a convergence between house music - a dance music that has its roots in the European electro tradition of Kraftwerk as much as the pioneering disco mixes and instrumentals of a group of Chicago and Detroit-based DJs and musicians - and a relaxed, laissez-faire attitude. The clubs set up by DJs Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker and, most significantly, Danny and Jenni Rampling, changed the face of British nightlife, with Europe and North America following soon after. Shoom, the Ramplings' south London club, arguably lit the touchpaper to the acid house movement and, in the process, launched the biggest musical revolution since punk. Ibiza remains the spiritual, if not the actual home, of house music and its successors - but times have moved on.
The extent to which the island has taken commercial initiative has surprised many old hands. New clubs are being built, while the existing ones renew their sound systems, restaurants, outdoor terraces, in bids to outdo their rivals. Roadworks improve and widen the existing communication lines. Tracts of the island resemble building sites and, wherever you drive, you'll see large real-estate signs sticking out of fields and hillsides. Even the sunset strip of San Antonio - a length of coastline where people gather to watch the rays of the setting sun - is not exempt. Ten years ago, the strip was occupied solely by the Cafe del Mar, a small, laid- back bar whose DJ, Jose Padilla, was famous for serving tunes out of a relaxed ambience. Padilla's bar has now been joined by Cafe Mambo, Savannah and El Divino's Sunset Bar: the four jostle uncomfortably for room and airspace as rival DJs blast their tunes towards the western horizon, and drug-dealers are silhouetted in the fading light.
As a measure of how club culture has commodified, there's no better example than the Ministry of Sound. Opened in September 1991 by James Palumbo, Old Etonian, City broker and son of Lord Palumbo, in a disused warehouse off one of London's less-than-select spots at the Elephant and Castle, the Ministry was Britain's first superclub. Modelled on New York's legendary Paradise Garage, the Ministry - quickly renamed "the Misery" by wags - combined state-of-the art sound systems with huge spaces, top DJ line-ups and opening hours which stretch towards dawn.
Palumbo quickly established the Ministry as a formidable presence, underlined by its corporate logo: a fish-eyed subversion of the Civil Service portcullis and crown. Now eight years old, the Ministry organises club tours (visiting the obvious European cities as well as some more recherche nightspots, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Vietnam among them); runs its own record label (CDs sell up to 750,000 copies each); operates a website-based merchandising shop and publishes a monthly 150-page magazine titled, appropriately enough, Ministry. The entire organisation has an annual turnover in excess of pounds 200m, and 90 full-time employees.
The Ministry's punters crowd into Pacha as if their lives depended on it, their ages ranging from extreme youth upwards. And the Ministry's genial promoter, Danny Whittle, a former naval weapons technician from Stoke-on-Trent who served on HMS Hermes during the Falklands War, isn't surprised. "This is our third summer in Ibiza and it's gone insane," he says. "We've had to raise our prices tonight from pounds 28 to pounds 32 to cut demand. I know it sounds greedy, but we're victims of our own success. We're just controlling it."
Whittle anticipates that the club will look to more subtle, word-of-mouth methods of marketing in the future. For the moment, the Ministry is not, says Whittle, so concerned with making money as establishing a market for its future CDs. "The only way the Ministry will survive is by riding trends as they start up in other countries." Industry sources say the figures speak for themselves: if licenses for a 32-track CD range from pounds 300-pounds 1,500 per track, even with the addition of DJ fees, artwork and manufacture, the profits can be huge.
But if clubs are to work well even as promotional vehicles, they must be seen to succeed. Manumission is one club which literally rises to the occasion, by staging live sex shows at its climax. Manumission originated as a series of gay one-off parties in Manchester, before its organisers - brothers Mike and Andy, and their respective partners, Claire and Dawn - fled the city's gangland violence to reinvent themselves as an anything- goes club in Ibiza, with the emphasis on carnival excess. Manumission is held in the palatial space of Privilege; 10,000 punters weekly make it the biggest club on the island. Taking Ibiza's tendency towards ostentatious behaviour to new limits, parades of fire-eaters, strippers, drag queens, dwarves and fake Elvises make Manumission seem like a Fellini out-take. Mike and Claire, the live-sex perpetrators, are reportedly stung by press stories that their night is depraved. "Doing our sex thing in front of thousands empowers us," Claire told one publication recently. The hordes of awkward young men clutching their groins as they gather around Manumission's central stage presumably have few problems with Mike and Claire's libertine pursuits, but it's a long way from the spirit of '88.
Currently enjoying its first Ibiza season, Carwash is one of this year's most successful new clubs, offering the sole alternative to house music's hegemony. Running in central London since 1989, Carwash is temporarily ensconced amid the wrought iron ghastliness of San Antonio's Es Paradis. Its main visionary, a sharp-sideburned man called Dexter, presides over a heaving club raving to the disco classics of DJ Miss Jo Lively, a former classical pianist who divides her time between Carwash and house music residencies. "We're club-orientated rather than chart-orientated," explains Dexter, referring to the range of retro and up-to-the-minute sounds that are taking Carwash's music ethos into the mainstream. While Carwash is unable to enforce the same strictures of dress code that it has in London ("There we have bonfires of afro wigs that people try to wear to the club," Dexter says with a severe note), Carwash's success does suggest that the island - which has space for 40,000 clubbers each night - is welcoming an alternative to house music. If so, it's actually a gesture that returns to the spirit of 1988, when left-field rock from the Residents and Thrashing Doves featured alongside the acid anthems.
Even so, the fantasy that Ibiza is one effortless party is beginning to fracture. "It is difficult to make money here," says Dexter, reiterating what most clubs prefer to say off the record. Promoters speak of how Spanish owners retain management of their venue's doors, meaning that they, rather than the promoter, control ticket prices and crowd capacities. There have been instances of British promoters arriving at a venue to find that their prices have been raised by pounds 10 above the advertised charge. The effect has been twofold: while some clubs have become unbearably overfull, others have lost money hand over fist. Carwash isn't one of them, but Dexter's aware of the way that such localised difficulties can lead to bigger headaches. "The Ibiza season isn't that long - it runs from May to September - but there's too much self- interest on the part of the venue owners,' he says. "Sometimes I think that it would be good to get all the promoters together in the pre-season and announce that we weren't coming that year. It would be interesting to see what happens next'.
Early morning and, with Carwash over, Miss Jo Lively heads off for Space. "Probably the most overwhelming club," she says. "Its atmosphere is completely unparalleled. There's this enormous sense of urgency about the place, as if people are partying like it's the last day of their life. For those who have been ripped off right, left and centre all over Ibiza, this is at least some reward, an unique high point that they'll always remember."
The Ibiza Annual, mixed by Boy George and Judge Jules, is available on Ministry of Sound Records from tomorrow.
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