After Dark: Cream rises to the top

1997 dealt clubland a bit of a dodgy hand. At best it was a mixed bag, but in truth there was little innovation. Northern cities, like Manchester and Birmingham, continued to exhibit impressive signs of creative revival, while London smugly opened a new club each week

Last year's regional differences could not have been more stark. With regard to club culture, the north traditionally led the way in musical innovation. In most instances London simply followed suit, happy to churn out carbon clubbing copies. Same DJs, same neo-industrial aesthetic, same deep throbbing house. While the clubbing recession continued to hit our friends in the north, southern promoters initiated the rebirth of slick - dress to sweat hit the road and glam returned. The packaging of the venues improved but beats in 1997 were nothing new.

The best club of 1997 was The End which proved that the populace could and should be educated. After a slightly sticky start, this two-year-old club has championed great music (like Skint and Reprazent) and are now reaping the rewards.

By and large, the chasing pack just sat on their laurels, while top DJs cloned each others' compilations and cluttered up the charts.

Last year's only significant innovation was "speed garage", which blew up big time. Media-generated genre or distinct innovative sound? Now it's all academic as speed garage continues to steal mainstream audiences all over the UK.

Originally the chosen music of London's Sunday clubs and their black audiences, speed garage split acrimoniously with its lone parent, garage, before claiming clubland's centre stage in a manner that had always eluded garage.

The unruly bitching that ensued between garage and speed garage protagonists in the music press made great reading but masked two important facts. Firstly, that the two warring genres were different sides of the same coin and, more importantly, that the new sound was the most innovative thing to hit clubbing since the commercialisation of drum 'n' bass a couple of years ago.

1998 doesn't look like it will herald any major change to your clubbing weekend. With few musical surprises coming from the Technics, 1998 looks set for more live acts within clubs. London simply has too many clubs, but the continuing success of bars in a crowded market may force admission prices down. The Dogstar and The Fridge Bar in Brixton are two of the best, while The Blue Note in Old Street, seems to have something excellent on every night of the week.

Thankfully there is a groundswell of innovative music beneath the bland surface. With most of the big clubs playing formulaic house, it's left to the smaller clubs/bars to lead the way. Brixton alone houses a plethora of interesting gigs: no pretentious dress codes, free entry and fresh music.

With a little luck one of the bubbling sounds (breakbeat gets my vote) will break the surface and shake up the status quo in the big league. Who knows, maybe 1998 will give us a new Goldie... we definitely need one.

The re-emergence of northern clubbing is illustrated by Cream's planned invasion of the capital. Liverpool's clubbing giants are reported to be finalising a licence for a venue in Leicester Square. With their proven track record, it will be interesting to see if they offer something new or just try to recreate the northern original.

As long as they screen out the area's unwashed masses of tourists, the revellers are sure to come. Who knows, they might even upset Ministry of Sound's plans for world domination.

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