The history of night clubs is one of stories: some thrive on embellishment. Others are too strange to require the addition of filigree details. The tales told of the Mint Tea Room stampedes - to get into one of London's hippest underground events, to get out again relatively unperturbed - are all true.
It was Marcus and Judy's peculiar and repellent November performance with a plate of shit and chips that provoked the most recent stampede. Matthew Glamorre, ringmaster to the Offset, a loose collective of some 30 musicians, poets and artists who stage the (usually monthly) Tea Rooms, is unsure whether it was this incident alone that got them banned from their original venue, the Water Rats Theatre Club in King's Cross. Unsure, because it could have been so many other things: the habitual full-frontal nudity affected by Nicola Bateman-Bowery, Glamorre's co-vocalist with Minty, the band originally formed by Richard Torry and the late performance artist cum club celebrity, Leigh Bowery. Or the regular body-piercing activities of Alex Binnie and his partner Lezanne, which can always be relied on to cause fainting fits. Or the time, earlier last summer, when Marcus and Judy had force-fed themselves Nurofen and raw liver. On that occasion, weaker-stomached visitors had merely staggered outside and thrown up.
The Mint Tea Rooms, soon to relocate to Camden Town, is but one manifestation of the Offset, founded by Glamorre and Neil Kaczor in March 1995. Even though many of the Offset's members had their development within London's club scene, they avoid the club label like the plague. They are rather an underground arts gang which aims, with all seriousness, to channel the anger of those marginalised through reasons of sex, sexuality or education towards creative outlets. And they find inspiration in anything that usurps the established order. They are an idiosyncratic mix: Glamorre, though only 27, is a familiar figure in the world where nightlife, popular culture and art coalesce; Kaczor is a post-graduate composition student, once rusticated by the Royal College of Music for writing an acid house opera; Aiden Shaw, a slab of pre-BSE beefcake who leads his own band, the Whatever, is Britain's top gay male porn star; Sexton Ming is a transvestite poet, whose mild manners, once transformed by a cock-eyed wig, three days of stubble and some laddered tights, are lost in his performance.
Dedicated to fostering a spirit of collaboration between artists of various disciplines, the Offset is a disarmingly open grouping, working to make a space where anything can happen. Offset members run clubs, sculpt, write books and poetry, make films and records: its debut five-track EP, to be released in July by independent label Poppy, features Ming, Shaw and Minty, as well as poet Donald Urquart and actress Jenny Runacre, with analogue synthesiser trio Add N To X. As a loose-knit group holding free rehearsals, the novelty of the Offset's vision of collaboration lies in the territory it attempts to straddle.
Although music, nightclubbing, performance and visual art have an august tradition of cross-fertilisation, the idea that these relationships could in some way be formalised still invites suspicion. Club art has vigour but often lacks rigour. Yet as numerous post-war movements have shown - from minimalism to pop art to punk to, most recently, the late Joshua Compston's Factual Nonsense group - the most interesting developments usually happen in exactly the kind of peripheral spaces colonised by the Offset. The results may be, as Glamorre noted in a programme note that accompanied the Offset's three-night Mint Tea Rooms season at the ICA last September, "bizarre and wonderful". But, he added, "the tensions and harmonies of so many characters are a powerful catalyst".
"What was interesting about the Offset," Lois Keidan, director of live arts at the ICA, acknowledges, "was its enthusiasm to make connections between the underground and the establishment. They provide a forum for a range of eclectic and provocative work made at the extremities of all performing art." If the Mint Tea Rooms did leave some spectators baffled, it was nevertheless noisily successful. Films by Cerith Wyn Evans, Alison Leary and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker were shown. Performances included Link Leisure's Osmosis Beauty Clinic and a body-piercing routine involving Binnie, Lezanne and dozens of live goldfish. The 200-capacity theatre was sold out five times over. Glamorre and Bateman-Bowery finished each evening singing "So You Think This Is Art?", a song consisting of one line repeated over and over with a sense of rising defiance commingled with campery.
That these connections are being made at all owes much to Glamorre. Originally from Devon, he is possessed of a charismatic, manic energy. His talent for the unusual was honed from his early years: expelled from his position as a cathedral school organ scholar after substituting the theme from Star Wars for the scheduled Bach at a society wedding, he gravitated to a London whose night life was dominated by Leigh Bowery, dancer Michael Clark and the BodyMap designers. He began a drastic series of self-inventions: as self-proclaimed club freak, by staging religious epics of hallucinatory detail at Heaven and, for a brief time in 1987, by running 2XS, the first gay acid house club in a venue beneath a transvestite shop in Euston.
But it has been as the host of the immensely influential club, Smashing, that connections began to be made overtly. Created in November 1991 by Glamorre with Adrian Webb (now manager to Menswear), Smashing cut a swathe through a club scene that had dissipated the original influx of energy that acid house had provided. Opposed to the exclusive quality of Eighties nightlife, Smashing was enthusiastically inclusive and early Smashings could seem deliriously chaotic. The DJs played everything from the Buzzcocks to Burt Bacharach; "Let the Sun Shine In" from Hair would be mixed with Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Drop Dead", while "Jesus Christ Superstar" and the theme song from Follyfoot, a 1970s TV serial for children, always provoked a strange and eclectic dancing. Glamorre would stand in the middle of the tiny dance-floor organising congas, rain-dances and prayers to the sun. It's not surprising that, when once a psychotic climbed into the DJ console to announce that he really, really was the antichrist, everyone applauded him as part of the night's entertainment.
As a venue that continues to provide a home for anyone disaffected with routine clublife, Smashing has thrived. Nirvana and the Beastie Boys, even painter and grand old man Lucien Freud, have visited, and the Britpop bands - Blur, Pulp and Elastica - became regulars. The club's self-conscious sense of itself as a community of outsiders drew Jarvis Cocker's attention and identifiably influenced Pulp's own reinvention. Cocker was, as Pulp began their extraordinary ascendancy, to use both Minty and Menswear as supporting acts. The kitsch value of Smashing's easy listening music was soon recognised: numerous other clubs also playing Mantovani and Mancini sprang up: Green, with designer Patrick Whitacker and EMI's Tristram Penna, compiled the Sound Gallery album which typified the sound. The album sleeve was shot in Leisure's Hoxton apartment, and featured tableau vivant artist David Cabaret, dressed as his favourite painting, the Blue Lady.
If the Offset is a movement, Glamorre is reluctant to claim leadership status. He admits to an ability to facilitate, but stresses the enormous work contributed by others. "If anything describes what we do," he says, "it's a feeling about creative violence. The Offset are all freaks; we don't fit into any standard mould. We're a mirror that reflects society back at itself; we're also a community that looks after its own." He thinks back to Compston's Fete Worse Than Death events, at which various Offset members participated alongside artists such as Damien Hirst and Helen Chadwick. "They were like the best jumble sales," he declares happily. "We were all, metaphorically speaking, baking cakes, holding tombolas, rummaging around. As a community for ideas, the Offset is open. And," he adds archly, "we recruit."
n Smashing runs every Friday at 189 Regent Street, London W1. The Offset EP will be released by Poppy Records in July. Minty's third single, "That's Nice!", is released on 15 April by Sugar Records; UK tour dates 15-24 April. The next Mint Tea Rooms is on 23 May at Dingwalls, London NW1
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