The weekend started here

Eighteen years ago CHRIS SULLIVAN opened the Wag, a hang-out for style misfits. It was the birth of clubbing as we know it
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Karl Jung called it synchronicity, I'd call it damn weird. When we named the Wag it was not intended as an acronym for the site on which it stood, that of the infamous Sixties nightspot, Whisky A Go-Go. In fact, the name was chosen because of my penchant at the time for Edwardian dress, a "wag" being, as the Collins Gem English Dictionary explains, an "old- fashioned, humorous, witty person", the very type we aimed to attract. To add grist to our mill, we hoped that these people would also "move from side to side", the other definition of the word wag.

Now, 18 years later, I am still here, which comes as a total surprise. I, for one, never envisaged that I would end up running such an overtly commercial enterprise as a nightclub. Maybe the only person more surprised than me is my father, a paint sprayer from Merthyr Tydfil, who constantly accused me of wasting my time as a youth, travelling all over the country visiting nightclubs and other such hostelries of ill repute.

Originally I embarked on the venture just so that my cohorts and I could have a club to go to where the music was to our liking and where we could avoid the violence that our rather outlandish dress would normally provoke.

Clubland back then was a very different place. Most clubs up and down the country catered to the rank and file who listened and danced to very basic chart music. There was no one-night format, where different promoters do different themed nights. The same DJ would play every night to the same meagre, disenchanted crowd. In London there were a few pockets of resistance, where club owners would give their premises over to the occasional one-nighter, usually on evenings at the start of the week that were badly attended by the tourists they were aiming to attract.

So the Wag was the first club to operate entirely on the one-nighter principle familiar to today's clubbers, whereby the promoters received half the door receipts for their trouble but employed their own DJs, did their own promotion and attracted their own crowd. Most club owners then overlooked the advantages of this system: that one can constantly turn over and change the crowd that attends the club, while keeping up with every nuance and musical change as it happens.

The writer and broadcaster Bob Elms, a semi-permanent fixture at the early Wag, remembers the club as a pioneer and a breath of fresh air. "The Wag in many ways was a taste of all the futures. It was the first with the new jazz on a Monday, it had the first real House night in London, the first hip-hop performance - the term `rare groove' was coined around the Friday Black Market. In one week at its height you had all the things that were to become fashionable for the next 10 years."

Putting the punter in power, so to speak, produced some interesting results. Fashion designer Steven Lynnard's Total Fashion Victim on a Tuesday was, as Steven puts it "just gorge. We had Fat Tony, Princess Julia, Jeremy Healy and Jeffrey Hinton playing everything from Abba to Wham to disco and fab show tunes. Jeffrey once even played the slip mats instead of the records. Didn't stop us dancing, though. Everybody dressed up - John Galliano, George, Marilyn, Leigh Bowery - everyone had a ball."

As the Wag became renowned we were able to afford to book bigger acts. We soon found that the size of the act does not determine predictability. When the legendary dub producer and toaster Lee Perry played, he missed the soundcheck entirely. He then decided that he wasn't "spiritually" ready to go on stage. After two hours of coaxing, the clock was edging towards 1.30am, and the assembled throng were champing at the bit. It was then that he decided to grace us with his performance. The catch was that he performed the same song some 15 times, to the utter bewilderment of both backing band and audience, each time gleefully announcing in broad Jamaican accent, "Dis id mi new single y'know." Unfortunately, we knew only too well.

Some artists can, of course, get away with almost anything. One of our most seasoned acts was the legendary Slim Gaillard. He quoted his age as 76, but we later discovered he was in fact 80. I bumped into him as he was passing through London and booked him on the spot. He stayed and married one of our teenage barmaids for a fee which he never paid. He became a regular Wag fixture even when not performing. At 6ft 6in tall he waltzed on stage for one performance in full boxing kit and proceeded to play the piano with boxing gloves. On another occasion he played half a song, downed tools and then announced that he needed his quota of "peanut butter and lager sandwiches". He made his way to the bar, fell asleep on it, and woke up some three hours later, ready to play and totally amazed that everyone had now gone home.

Perhaps the most memorable night was the legendary Black Market Friday. Soho tailor Mark Powell recalls this as "one of the best club nights ever - good dancers, great dressers, fantastic mix of people, black and white, and totally without pretension." It was at one such night that a fiery couple engaged in one of their all-too-common arguments. This time, it resulted in the young lady launching a table at her rather challenged spouse. When he ducked, the table hit George Michael. Luckily George was a regular and took it all on the chin.

Still, we have somehow survived. The music policy has now gone almost full circle, back to what we began with: Northern Soul, Latin, Sixties and old school funk. The crowd is a still a mixture of all types, with art students, DJs, labourers and even the odd viscount. Many of the old regulars still pop in, some even ring up for the guest list, but these days it's usually for their children. As Suggs of Madness said recently, "I think my daughter wants to come down if you can put her on the list - she likes all that hip Sixties stuff." Then after a pause, "It's mad that after all these years I should ring up for my daughter." I think my answer was that "I should coco", but then again, it has been 18 years.

THE DESCENDENTS

CREAM

The Liverpool club, which started in 1992, now attracts 3,000 clubbers a week, with "a spirit that no other Northern club can match", says resident DJ Paul Okenfold. Also resident in Ibiza. FABRIC

Three dancefloors, VIP bar and garden courtyard, London's hottest new venue feels more like a disco village than a superclub. And "not a dodgy toilet in sight", says its promoter, Tubbs West.

THE BIG BEAT BOUTIQUE

The splendidly named Brighton home of Skint records and showcase for the innovative Big Beat sound the town lays claim to having invented. Can't go far wrong with Fatboy Slim behind it.

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