The culture of clubs

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The Independent Online
These photographs by P-P Hartnett give some idea of the astonishing variety of self-expression that British club culture has witnessed over the last two decades. They are evidence of the way that night life has become a kind of cyberspace, where dreams and aspirations can be realised, and new identities assumed, if only for a few brief hours. And perhaps they give some clue to the way in which club culture, now the predominant form of popular culture, is fast becoming the British culture. As we leave the 20th century, it's arguable that images like these will soon be regarded as our real history, a genuine cultural tradition that one day might come to represent what is distinctly British.

The distance now between popular and establishment culture has completely elided. Last year, every tabloid and broadsheet newspaper ran at least one major front-page feature on Oasis; many ran several. When Liam Gallagher was caught in possession of cocaine and let off with a caution, questions were asked in the House of Commons. This year it has been the turn of the Spice Girls, who have sold 10 million albums and broken sales records held by the Beatles; they are analysed and intellectualised, and their influence on the development of female children is discussed at length. Both these pop groups were courted by the leading political parties in the run-up to the election. (Did anyone else notice that the logo for BBC TV's election coverage was a giant, electric blue "E"?) Certainly, our advertising industry revels in knowing allusions to a drug culture that is thoroughly embedded in British life and shows no sign of decline. The latest estimates put Ecstasy consumption at around one million doses every weekend.

Publishing is tuned to a similar frequency. The success of Loaded first dictated a shift in the men's magazine market. The current runaway success is FHM, a kind of Loaded minus the irony, which sells a staggering 500,000 copies every month. That former Loaded editor James Brown has been hired by Conde Nast to edit the more upmarket GQ indicates how things are moving. Yet Loaded copped most of its attitude from the Leeds-based Herb Garden, a magazine which both celebrated and satirised the drug-saturated club culture. Conde Nast has thrown in its lot with the heathens.

It was very different 20 years ago. Try to imagine a world without style magazines, MTV, gay culture, the cult of the body, supermodels, computer graphics, video clips, the CD Walkman, the Hi-8 camera, cable television, Dat recording, Ecstasy, techno music and subterranean, nocturnal tribes.

This was the mid-1970s, a much simpler time, closer now in spirit to the pre-War era than our own digital, virtual age. Following the seismic rumble of punk and the global dance craze that we now call disco, British youth culture changed very rapidly - at least in terms of the way it viewed and presented itself. It became self-conscious; it started to contribute to its own myth.

Today's youth culture grew in the late Seventies and early Eighties as young people lost interest in changing their parents' world and began to construct their own. The profusion of new fashions, musics, electronic consumer products, technologies, media - even new drugs - inspired visions of a world in which the endless pursuit of pleasure and self-knowledge would be regarded as a noble cause, where they might never grow old or tired. The world they devised was called Night Life.

Night clubs have been around for most of the 20th century, but it was only with disco that night life became an enclosed, self-referential world, with its own distinctive music, behaviour, fashions and language. The new mythology that emerged stated the right of all individuals to recreate themselves, to take on a new identity. "Style" was the engine of change for early Eighties British youth culture. Instead of being late-night places where people danced to records, night-clubs became laboratories where all kinds of strange human experiments were conducted. And a new genre of youth-orientated publications emerged, one after the other, to document and make comprehensible the street fashions that were erupting in the last bastion of the post-punk ferment

May 1980 saw the launch of The Face, followed within six months by i- D and the now-defunct Blitz. Over the next few years, these magazines established the parameters of what became "the style press". In some ways, they were following the lead of Peter York, then a young Harpers & Queen journalist, whose 1980 book Style Wars would become the manual for this new media.

The Face was generally more coherent. i-D, on the other hand, was as volatile and anarchic as the clubs it featured. Its ideas flickered across the page, reflecting the way they appeared on the streets. In issue two, both Boy George and Spandau Ballet are featured, along with pictures from Steve Strange's club Hell, and a fragmented report from the i-D club night itself, a celebration of British youth culture at its most eccentric.

From its inception, i-D magazine championed the creativity and diversity of "styles" to be found in British cities, with a series of full-length photos called "Straight-Ups". These grainy black-and-white images showed what young people were wearing on the streets and in the clubs, and the result was a series of intriguing images, some mundane, some bizarre, some hilarious, but all possessed of a hard-edged immediacy lacking in conventional fashion magazines of the time.

Perversely, when detailing these looks, i-D magazine used the word "mode" instead of "fashion". The difference indicates the complete rupture that occurred at this time between the "style" of these new magazines and the conventional understanding of fashion's meaning. Mode, meaning "fashion" in French, in English sounds more technical; it carries a sense of the transitory: computers and multi-function machines work in different modes, according to the will of the operator. Thus i-D implied fashion as a "mode" of being which one entered into, but also a "life-style" which could be changed at whim, simply by altering the image. Change the clothing, hairstyle, jewellery and make-up, and you change the "mode", the way of being.

These days, such an idea is commonplace. In 1980, it was provocative. British definitions of identity were still firmly rooted in class structure, gender, dialect and community. Before the arrival of this new media and the recontextualisation they engendered, the suggestion that one could enjoy a choice of "life-style" was preposterous. But the social and cultural disruption of the Thatcher era, the increased fragmentation of familial and community life, and a rapid expansion of media allowed ideas and images to circulate more freely, creating the illusion that identity was largely a matter of choice. And by the end of the Eighties, this choice would be enshrined as a consumer right.

For many, then, the Eighties were indeed a "revolt into style". The Thatcherite era was anticipated and reflected by the aspirational entrepreneurs of "style", the open sesame of the new youth culture based on night-life. Style became a kind of cultural currency, a means of establishing and maintaining one's status in a rapidly changing landscape. It was the "stylish" who frequented the new one-night clubs which the style press wrote about so regularly.

Peter York, who had pioneered this kind of journalism, encapsulated the idea of style as currency in Harpers & Queen when he wrote about Spandau Ballet's first sold-out show in America. The band were representatives of a larger phenomenon, wrote York, there to sell "the story... that there is now a new kind of young person - brave, stylish, working class, positive - glowing in a new London clubland full of mutually supportive talent and creativity. Writers and artists and musicians, but nothing artsy and angsty - these are real sons of toil."

It is interesting that York emphasised this "working class" self-definition, and how keen Spandau and others were to deflect any image of themselves as being "arty". Clearly, while they were busy manufacturing the illusion of an elite, it had to be a "working-class" elite. They had to underline their class background as a way of rooting their identity, as if, in the process of social mobility, they might lose themselves should they stray too far from the world of pubs and football stadia.

Style was not what kind of clothes you wore but how you wore them, said the style press. The implication was that, if you understood style - how and why the latest looks and sounds were developing - then you could penetrate and manipulate the new scene. And so began a period of incredible creativity in Britain's night-clubs, as countless weird and wonderful looks were thrown together. Some were sad, others brilliant, most fell in between. But the overall effect of all this experimentation was to push back the barriers of the acceptable and lay the ground for what was to follow.

Ecstasy changed club culture forever. The style press held a mirror to night life, and Ecstasy was the sprinkling of fairy dust that made the beholder beautiful. There are many reasons why Ecstasy became so popular, but perhaps the most important was its saturation coverage by the tabloid press, and the fact that it was a relatively effortless experience.

"Compared to cocaine, which involves chopping out lines in the toilets, it's not a sleazy drug; it's almost quite suburban," says Dom Phillips, editor of Mixmag. "Ecstasy is a nice little pill, easy to take, and you can still go to work on Monday. Users regard it as a happy, fun, positive drug, despite the obvious health risks. They believe it will make you feel friendly, it will make you smile, it will make you dance. And it doesn't necessarily separate you from society in the way other drugs do. There are many people who have taken Ecstasy who would never have taken other drugs."

This is why the dance scene has penetrated into the very heart of British life, into the suburbs and rural areas, into Middle England and the Scottish Highlands, and why it reflects the real state of Britain as certain TV soaps do. While Coronation Street provides a nostalgic image of working-class Northern England, Brookside represents the reality: microwaves, housing estates, nice cars. "And that's where house music is at its strongest, in the suburbs and provinces, "says Phillips, "the supposedly nowhere places, not the cool inner cities. Over the last couple of years, it's been Slough, Basingstoke, Mansfield, Scunthorpe and Rochdale, and now it's Wales, the boom area for clubs."

At the beginning of the Eighties, club culture offered style as a means of exerting individuality, a way of succeeding in the big city. Now, when youth has very different priorities, club culture offers an authentic experience involving a sense of community, one which both celebrates and transcends mundane existence.

Perhaps we will look back one day and agree that here, after all, is our national genius: the infinite creativity of our pop culture and our ability to adapt it in ways that give relevance and meaning to our lives. That, and a lot of very peculiar outfits

Alix Sharkey's book on night life, `Club Culture', will be published by Flammarion later this year