The future of clubbing
Ibiza may still have its takers, but clubbers are finally losing patience with the formulaic dance scene. In its wake an alternative, 'intelligent' dance scene is emerging - and it's serious stuff. Howard Byrom reports
Sunday 30 August 1998
Over the last few years, total house domination has splintered into a multifaceted tapestry of club music - techno and trance sitting comfortably alongside speed garage and drum n bass. But, although the sounds have been broken down into a thousand tiny sub-genres, clubs themselves have been happy to stick to the same format: DJs, dancefloors, and punters. Now, ten years after the first summer of love, that formula's getting tired. Even the DJs are bored. "A guy on stage putting two records on isn't that interesting," says Coldcut's Matt Black, head honcho of ultra- cool label Ninja Tunes. "McClubbing has run out of road. There's so much more out there than rhythms and the 'boof' of a bass drum. People want stimulation."
It's a familiar complaint from long-term clubbers, who've been moaning for years that the scene isn't as good as it used to be. Apathy and boredom have become the scourge of dance culture in recent times, as the masses tune into the mainstream Essential Mix on Radio One and discerning clubbers, hardly able to contain their indifference, have been turning off. So while dance parties have become increasingly more glossy with souped-up multi- tiered weekend festivals like Creamfields and package trips to Ibiza, the bubble is on the burst with "superclubs" becoming blatantly commercial, the weekend extravaganzas by no means assured successes and the big name DJs no longer a draw.
In its wake, a new trend is slowly emerging, led by the east London scene, in which clubbing is beginning to encompass a broader, more inclusive and interactive definition, dependent less on how "messy" you can get in the evening, but on how many ways you're stimulated. This new direction is inextricably tied to drug culture. "Originally the rave scene was single-mindedly about Ecstasy," says producer Chris O'Reilly from live action and animation company Nexus. "But ten years later it's a polydrug culture which means that the clubs need to entertain a bunch of people under the same roof who are having vastly difference experiences, from E to cocaine to dope. You can't just pump out a beat any more and hope that everyone will be dancing to the same tune."
It's moot whether the increase in drugs such as cocaine at clubs is directly linked to the fact that the quality of Ecstasy has plummeted in the last few years, taking its elite, illicit appeal along with it. For Holly, 26, from Birmingham, E-ing is no longer motivation enough to go clubbing. "Five years ago, I relied on my Es to have a brilliant evening, no matter where I was clubbing or what the music was like," she says. "Now, taking an E isn't enough to guarantee me a good night. The quality isn't nearly as good for one thing, but my outlook has changed too. I take less drugs as a rule, and need to know that the night has the right attitude, and mix of music and people."
One such night is "Kentra" in London - definitely not the place to go if you want to lose your head on the dancefloor, neck six Es, and end up snogging the DJ. This audio-visual meltdown in a dilapidated West End church hall is being touted as the future of clubbing. An ever-so occasional one-off, it's rapidly become a legend in its own lunchtime. When it happens, it's a Monday - hardly the most conducive night for a bacchanal, but then all-out roistering isn't the point. Kentra is less to do with primal urges, it's more of a night for indulging your social graces.
"We're playing down the music and playing up everything else," says organiser Dan Couch, who also owns Embassy, a chic bar in Islington, "Kentra happened to grow out of what the Halloween Society [an experimental film collective] were doing. I went to one of their events during the London Film Festival where they showed films without soundtracks and had a DJ playing along to them. I thought it had potential and approached the organisers." Film loops and other visual imagery are now specially commissioned, and the DJs jam along, fusing the audio and visuals together.
Throughout the evening (it finishes at 11.30pm) there are screenings of short films (recent shorts include those by Nil By Mouth star Kathy Burke, and The Face photographer Elaine Constantine), lighting pyrotechnics courtesy of the Light Surgeons, and DJs like Jon Carter and Andy Weatherall lobbing their aural communiqui into the display. Naturally, there aren't many people dancing. "A few people shuffled around at the back at the last one," offers fellow organiser Adi Merril, "but it's weird - it's not so much a club, more of an event. You get absorbed into it, and the night comes alive around you."
Vested interests aside though, there are few complaints from the punters, "It's well organised and the music's really pukka," says Jason Evans, a photographer and face about town, "There's a nice crowd who give gentle applause and appreciative murmurs after the film. I used to go out all the time, but I got fed up with clubs - it's all 'schism' this and 'ism' that. Kentra's a nice alternative; they allow a platform for music that's not just about shaking your ass to it. Plus I got chatted up - that hasn't happened in ages."
Aside from the success of one-offs, another new factor has come into the equation - club/bars like the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane, with late licenses and a better grip on reality. Laid-back attitudes, low prices, and quality music policies are coaxing homebirds back into the fray. "Manchester is a good example," says Rachel Newsome, assistant editor of Dazed and Confused, "All the big clubs like the Hacienda have closed down. But every time I go back these days, three new bars have opened. The promoters are now putting nights on in the bars."
Tangible, more "social" clubbing is now a big draw, and throughout the year there's been a steady rise in specialist nights at London venues, with Cynergy, Raya, and Electric Lounge at the ICA; the Aesthetic Alliance at the Notting Hill Arts Club; and 3-D, a monthly at 333 in Old Street.
Another forward thinking night at 333 is OMSK, a hot bed of radical club culture where, according to their flyer, "Nothing goes to plan and everyone has a good time." Amongst the attractions are wandering performers adorned with working TV sets, tromboneing minstrels and fetishist Geishas offering pornographic sushi. "We give people a slap in the face," smiles organiser Steven Eastwood, "we dare to put on a club that isn't really about dancing. People can either chill out or see something that's really in your face. They're often astounded by the sheer level of activity, and come away with something that's worth talking about the next day."
Not everyone is impressed, however. Dom Phillips, managing editor of clubbers' bible Mixmag, for one: "The problem with smaller, more arty clubs is that it can take the fun out of it," he says. "'Cerebral Clubs' can be a little bit po-faced. I love all that mood DJ stuff and I can see DJing to a film must be a challenge, but you have to remember - if you're 19 and you work in MFI all week, on a Saturday night you want to let loose, dance on a podium, and go mental."
But then, who wants to go mental with 8,000 teenagers? This opinion has been driving this new scene to a large extent, led by older, mellowing clubbers for whom "getting out of it" suddenly doesn't seem so alluring. So is "intelligent" clubbing just a creaky-kneed excuse for those too old to dance all night? Like most emerging trends, it's true that it represents only a small proportion of clubbers, in what is now multibillion-pound dance culture. On the other hand, the new clubbing generation is genuinely also starting to demand more out of the dance experience.
"There's a whole new level of expectation," says Ministry of Sound co- owner, Mark Rodol. "Drugs on the dancefloor are on their way down, and clubbing is now an aspirational mainstream activity. There's been a shift towards nice comfortable nights, we've realised that. It doesn't mean clubs are dead, it's just that the ethos has to change." This is significant stuff, coming from Ministry, home to a million Japanese teenagers and the most mainstream superclub of the lot. Even so, its commitment to "aspirational mainstream activity" highlights the way in which superclubs are stuck on the idea of mass club nights and traditional structures. (Heaven now has a pounds 600-a-year VIP list with separate entrance, in stark contrast to hip bar/club/gallery Shoreditch Electricity Showrooms, which is free.)
Dazed's Rachel Newsome highlights the dilemma for many clubbers: "Clubbing has lost its illicit aura. You have to queue up, pay loads on the door, or you might not even get in - the whole romance is gone. It's no longer a minority interest. There's a gap to be filled, and the potential's there with clubs like Kentra. But it's just the starting point."
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