To celebrate the 30 year anniversary of the Summer of Love, Wag Club founder Chris Sullivan revisits old haunts and speaks to pioneers. In the first of this epic series we look at the dawn of house music and its inexorable rise to be one of the biggest, most punk subcultures ever…
“Three elements collided in 87/88 to make this unique cocktail of hedonism that took over the world,” says DJ, promoter and producer Dave Dorrell, whose landmark club Love at The Wag gave that heady summer its indefatigable moniker, the Summer of Love.
“The first was this music from Chicago called ‘House’; which was modern, up-tempo, relentless and underground, and was designed for dark basements and flashing lights, which was a new paradigm then. Another element was chemical – Ecstasy, of course – an amphetamine-based drug that gave you tons of energy, along with a certain euphoria; and finally there was fashion, which was loose, unstructured, and the perfect accompaniment to the other two. When this hit the UK it went through the roof. It was flawless. It was revolutionary and it was absolutely bloody marvelous!”
House music had been around for a while in the UK. Releases such as Your Love by Jamie Principle and Acid Tracks by Phuture (DJ Pierre, DJ Spanky Spank and Herb J) had done the rounds in groovy club North and South while Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk’s Love Can’t Turn Around had the audacity to hit number 10 in the UK in October 1986. Jack Your Body by Steve Silk Hurley reached number one in the UK charts in February 1987.
Maurice and I wanted to bring … this house music to London. It took a while to take off because house was considered to be “too gay” by a lot of clubbers
But at the time house music was simply another genre mixed up with hip-hop, disco and rare groove. DJs such as Mike Pickering in Manchester, Graeme Park in Nottingham, Derby-born Hector Heathcote at the Wag Club (who played Your Love, the first house record I ever heard, in ‘85 after a record buying trip to Chicago), and brothers Noel and Maurice Watson, sensing that it was time for a change, were mixing more and more house music into their sets.
“London was locked tight by the Rare Groove scene,” remembers Belfast born Noel Watson. “But Maurice and I had been to clubs like The Paradise Garage, Area, Danceteria etc, so we wanted to bring that here, and this vibe, this house music to London. It took a while to take off because house was considered to be “too gay” by a lot of clubbers.”
Lest we forget, ‘house’ music was named after the Chicago gay club ‘the Warehouse’, while other gay clubs such as Frankie Knuckles’ The Power Plant, also in Chicago, and New York’s Paradise Garage (nicknamed the “Gay-rage”) with Knuckles’ best friend DJ Larry Levan, was where the music was coming from. MDM (a close relative of ecstasy) was the drug of choice with a bit of LSD thrown in.
I went to Garage in August 1980 and, after running the gauntlet of drug dealers outside who proffered everything from Quaaludes to Mexican mushrooms, PCP, Acid and THC, made my way up this ramp and into this huge space filled with about two thousand rampant, almost totally black and Hispanic gay men. Dressed in singlets, t-shirts, trainers and shorts, they were all totally off their boxes, dancing their asses off.
The atmosphere and sheer power of the music hit you like a brick in the face. I had never seen or heard anything like it
The atmosphere and sheer power of the music hit you like a brick in the face. I had never seen or heard anything like it, and the only woman I saw in the place was my girlfriend. But the influence of US gay clubs on the resultant UK and international rave scene is paramount. It would not have existed without them.
Back in 85/86 the only clubs I can recall that played a good chunk of house music (mixed with the likes of Feels Good by Electra and Don’t Make Me Wait by The Peech Boys) were gay clubs like The Pyramid at Heaven on a Wednesday, with DJs Colin Faver and Mark Moore; The Jungle at Busby’s on a Monday with Faver, Vicki Edwards and Fat Tony, and the mixed gay night at the Wag on a Saturday with DJs Fat Tony again and Hector – all of which also, and not coincidentally, had a big MDMA presence.
In 1986 certain promoters who crossed into the London/gay/fashion scene began employing DJs with an eye of the future. Robin King and Nick Trulocke (whose girlfriend at the time was Clothes Show host Caryn Franklyn) did Delirium at the Astoria, beginning September 1986, with DJ’s Noel and Maurice Watson who injected a fair slab of house music into their mix.
Another aspect that seemed new but wasn’t was Ecstasy, AKA Methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA, which was first synthesized in 1912 by German chemist Anton Köllisch. The US military used it in experiments in the 1950s while hippies had caned it since the mid sixties. It was named Ecstasy by businessman Michael Clegg in 1981 who manufactured it legally in Texas and sold it as a ‘fun drug’ that was “good to dance to.”
MDMA by 1980 was all over the US and was the number one drug of choice for patrons of the aforementioned gay discotheques, and was legal in the US till July 1st 1985. As for the UK, it was illegalised in 1977, but it wasn’t until 1980 that, to fund their visits, enterprising New Yorkers (including my then girlfriend) smuggled in significant amounts of the powder to sell in underground clubs like Le Beatroute in Soho, after which it became more and more popular amongst groovy club goers for whom Ibiza Town (and not San Antonio) was a premier destination.
THE IBIZA CONNECTION
The playground of naughty jetsetters such as Grace Jones (who was Tony Pike of Pike’s Hotel’s girlfriend), Terry-Thomas, Amanda Lear, Roman Polanski, Steve Strange, Freddy Mercury and Kenny Everett (whose orgies were legendary), Ibiza had been the premier destination for Spanish gays and hippies escaping the wrath of Franco (whose fascist regime ended in 1975) and was as camp as a row of pink tents. It was like the Blitz, Taboo and Studio 54 on Sea.
Transvestites (some on stilts) roamed the streets handing out flyers for its premier nightspot The Ku Club that featured a swimming pool, an abundance of extremely beautiful people (many wearing very little) and unbridled hedonism. I‘d been going to the Ku since 1981 and there was nowhere else like it in the world. It and Ibiza were unique. At the clubs you’d see transvestites (on stilts), a man dressed in full American Indian kit con feathered head dress, a couple in Day-Glo Lycra and huge platform boots, Cavaliers, a couple in loin clothes with Aladdin Sane hair and make up. And all in 90 degrees heat. It was off the Richter Scale.
I was exporting London to Ibiza and didn’t think of doing it the other way around. I just didn’t think it would ever work. Others disagreed
In 1985 in an effort to spend more time there I started bringing Wag DJs to the island. I was exporting London to Ibiza and didn’t think of doing it the other way around. I just didn’t think it would ever work. Others disagreed.
At the end of August 1987 four friends – Danny Rampling, Johnny Walker, Nicky Holloway and Paul Oakenfold – went to San Antonio Ibiza to celebrate the latter’s 24th birthday and meet up with their old pal DJ Trevor Fung who, working there, informed them of this club on the other side of the Island named Amnesia and this new drug called ecstasy.
“You and I used to go there after the Ku who used to give out hot chocolate dosed with magic mushrooms at dawn,” reflects Steve Holloway, the first Wag DJ to play on the island. “It was never that busy, but then again we never arrived till after 6am.”
For yours truly, Amnesia took off only after Alfredo started mixing New York and Chicago sounds around 1985, after which it started opening at 5am where it attracted all the local club workers, who went bananas.
“In Amnesia, DJ Alfredo fused all these different types of music including Paradise Garage stuff, ‘Jibaro’, the Woodentops, Cindy Lauper and Talking Heads,” explains Danny Rampling, the man behind the legendary one-nighter Shoom. “He inspired us all.”
“I felt very surprised by all this English boys and girls loving the records I was playing,” reflects Argentine Alfredo Fiorito. “In Amnesia, background or social class didn’t matter and it was freer and cheaper than elsewhere. Also the British appreciated this open-air club and partying together with people of different nationalities, ages and colour. And, as I always say, they weren’t the main thing but the drugs certainly helped.”
DJ Nancy Noise had worked there for two summers before 1987.
“I was going out every night all night at Amnesia, Glory’s, Ku…” she explains. “It was those nights that led to clubs like Future. It was a special time in London during the Summer of Love but I wouldn’t say those nights altered my life as much as the nights in Ibiza previously. If I could relive just one night of my life again it would have to be a night in Amnesia. It was the best place on earth!!
BRINGING IT BACK TO LONDON
“We all came back and all started clubs, mixing Balearic with Acid House and it went off in a way that we could never imagine,” recalls Rampling. “We broke down barriers and we were all about inclusion and bringing people together breaking down race, colour and sexual mores.”
“It became the most important and the best holiday we ever had,” reminisces Oakenfold. “We were compelled try and recreate it, even if it went tits up.”
The first UK club that Alfredo played in in the UK was Project in Streatham, opened by Oakenfold shortly after his return from the island. Initially billed as an Ibiza reunion the club was open till 6am, and Oakenfold played tracks he’d heard in Ibiza; The Chant by Nitzer Ebb and Why Why Why by the Wooden Tops – two records that might have been played at the Blitz club in 1980 – alongside the few Chicago house and New York dance tunes that were available then.
Project closed after six weeks, and Oakenfold, with his business partner Ian St Paul, moved their operation to The Sanctuary at the back of Heaven where Future was born. A tiny dark room that held just a couple of hundred it was intimate, and really bloody hot.
Indeed, what Rampling did with Shoom, and Oakenfold with The Project and Future was bring back this distinctly Ibicencan approach
Oakenfold’s manager Mickey Jackson remembers it well. “It became the place to be in London, with everyone (including Prince!) coming down, but we were all there for each other and not because of who’s who; it was our scene and everyone was invited. I remember when Leigh Bowery waltzed onto the dance floor in a wide dress lit head to toe in light bulbs. He was awesome so the crowd gave him a bit of room while he flashed his bulbs, pirouetted a few times and left!”
Indeed, what Rampling did with Shoom, and Oakenfold with The Project and Future was bring back this distinctly Ibicencan approach, mix it with acid house, put it in a tiny club, add smoke machines and flashing lights, throw in a decidedly London edge and open the doors to a crowd, many of whom had never have considered going to Amnesia, Ibiza Town or the Warehouse in Chicago.
And their timing was perfect, as that summer quality ecstasy had hit the streets by the truckload. The Summer of Love was under way.
“The music and attitude was great,” clarifies Gary Haismann, whose record We Call it Acieeeeed stormed up the charts in 1988. “But this wouldn’t have happened without the ecstasy. It would be like the first Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967 without LSD – no fucking way Jose. In the summer of ‘87 the Dutch turned MDMA into tablets that were easy to sell, easy to take and as strong as fuck, and their importation coincided with the rise of all these clubs like Shoom and Oakenfold’s Project in Streatham, and your night in Clink Street.”
IT FELT LIKE PUNK
After a dismal first night at Shoom, for the second night a month later Rampling went flat out. They filled the basement with dry ice and strobe lights and pulled in DJ Colin Faver who’d cut his teeth paying Euro disco and electro at Steve Strange and Rusty Egan’s club The Camden Palace.
A former punk rocker, Faver (who was give MDMA by Soft Cell associate Cindy at the Camden Palace in 1984) was all about electro and up-tempo throbbing beats and as such was the man for the job. To add to it, Rampling now used the soon-to-be-ubiquitous smiley logo, printed on a t-shirts he’d bought from RAP in Covent Garden. Designed by Simon ‘Barnzley’ Armitage the look certainly hit the zeitgeist head on, and they had themselves a hit.
“The energy in that basement was profound,” remembers Rampling. “It was fun, and apolitical, and all about the music. But like punk it gave a lot of people the chance to be creative and be a part of something that was theirs.”
“We had 50 people at Shoom on the first night and queues of 2,000 three months later,” says Rampling. “ It was mind blowing.”
“My brother Joey supplied the sound and I helped him,” chuckles DJ legend Norman Jay. “And as Colin Faver was blasting it out a top volume and the smoke machines were pumping out these kids climbed into the tiny space in the speakers and these were powerful – 10,000 watt reggae sound system speakers. I knew than that something was happening. I loved the madness, the anarchy and the punk rock DIY attitude. Out with the old and in with the new.”
By January Shoom (the name describes the rush of E as it hits) was off the scale and had developed its own mores and style of dress. Bandanas, Converse, dungarees, baggy t-shirts and long hair; it was utilitarian, cheap, accessible. And suited the scenario down to the ground.
“We had 50 people at Shoom on the first night and queues of 2,000 three months later,” says Rampling. “ It was mind blowing.”
DAWN OF THE RAVE CULTURE
This was now a scene with its own music, drugs, clothes, attitude and philosophy. It was destined to kick off.
“Shoom was like travelling into a different dimension,” smiles Charlie Fitzgerald, formerly Colston Hayter, whose uber rave promoter brother Tony was dubbed ‘the acid house king’.
“It was like transforming from a chrysalis into a butterfly. Like suddenly belonging. There was no ego, no pretentiousness, no shoulder pads, nobody hitting on you, and definitely no handbags! It was just people on the same level having the best night of their lives. It was so hot in there we were melting, and I remember being in the bar area and pouring bottles of Perrier on our heads. It was such a shock when the lights went on at the end of the night. I think Danny played Why Can’t we Live Together [Timmy Thomas 1972] but everyone sang ‘Why can’t we Shoom Together’, and then it was over and I didn’t want it to end. And it didn’t. That was just the beginning…
In part two Chris explores the explosion of house and the dance culture, from its storming burst into popular culture, and the hedonism of illegal parties and raves…
Chris Sullivan promoted a long list of warehouse parties, founded and ran the Wag Club and is a former GQ style editor who has written for many others including Italian Vogue, The Times, Independent and The FT. He now is Associate Lecturer at Central St Martins School of Art specializing in ‘youth’ cults.