the cream of british clubbing

It's official - Cream in Liverpool is the biggest, best superclub in the country. Decca Aitkenhead reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ome months ago, over dinner, the debonair owner of one of Britain's biggest clubs put a proposal to me. Would I write a dish-the-dirt piece exposing the dodgy dealings behind that drug-infested club full of northern scum in Liverpool? He was very insistent.

This kind of antagonism towards "that Scouse club" is not uncommon among the club-owning elite.We hear much about business executives building faceless corporate clubbing empires these days, yet, to their intense irritation, Britain's biggest superclub is Cream, the creation of a couple of working-class northern lads.

Cream, housed in an old ammunitions store in the heart of Liverpool, has grown since 1992 from an unremarkable dance club for 400 to an institution attracting more than 2,500. Last month it won Muzik magazine's Club of the Year Award; last week, it carried off the British Entertainments and Discotheque Association's Dance Club of the Year. After Platinum success for its first Cream Live album, the second went on sale this week.

Now turning over some pounds 5m a year, Cream markets merchandise nationwide, tours endlessly, hosts monthly nights in Glasgow and Birmingham, dominates Ibiza's summer club scene, and owns a DJ agency and sister bar. Now it is setting up its own record label and plans to open a second Cream. This is no longer uncommon for premier league clubs. What makes Cream remarkable is its success in a city beset with gang violence and drugs, rampaging crime, historically hostile licensing authorities, and a reputation as the poor relation not just of the country but even of the north. So what accounts for Cream's pre-eminence? Perversely, the pleasingly scruffy pair behind it, Darren Hughes, 29, and James Barton, 28, say it is all about being in Liverpool.

"We were completely paranoid about the Liverpool thing when we started out," admits Barton. "So we always felt we had to do double compared to anyone else.Mind you, one of the biggest thrills has just been proving you can come here without getting the wheels nicked off your car."

Yet the most striking feature of a night out in Cream is its simplicity. No drag queen freak show greets you at the door, no sponsored onslaught of distractions tempts you to play video games, try this perfume, or otherwise deflect from the business of dancing. "But that's the whole point," says Barton. "Cream's a totally honest club. We aren't interested in the City, we don't wear blazers, and the kids who come here can see that." A recent vote for Cream's favourite DJ chose not regular star guests like Jeremy Healy but Barton, the monthly resident DJ.

Which is not to say Cream has been complacent. This year, joint initiatives with the local police and hospital prompted the replacement of doorman security firms with an in-house team, and the installation of a club doctor. Again, Barton and Hughes argue, such innovations, now setting the standard for all clubs, came about thanks to Liverpool's particular problems.

"There's a war going on in Liverpool," says Hughes, "and when you've got the number one club in the country, it's the ultimate prize for selling drugs. Safety is the most important thing, and we've had to show the way." Where other clubs have been accused of hypocrisy for howls about the evils of Ecstasy, Cream is pragmatic. "What would be ideal?" asks Barton. "Dance music without Ecstasy? Yeah, it would be great, wouldn't it? But are kids going to dance for seven hours without it? I doubt it."

In a survey of the city's undergraduates, Cream was the main reason cited for choosing Liverpool, and its economic contribution was recently awarded with an easing of arcane 2am licencing laws. But as the Cream juggernaut thunders on, how will it protect its local-boys-made-good integrity?

"It's all about music. As long as we focus on that, there's no reason why we won't still be here with Cream in 10 years' time," says Barton. But for a club which owes its all to House, a music borne of technological innovation, there is an irony in Hughes's final caution.

"The only thing that will kill this club is technology. One day, people will have a better time sitting at home in their own bedroom."