Researching my new book ‘Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues’ involved exploring many routes. It was five years in the making. In some ways, as you might imagine it was inspired by what I witnessed at clubs I have DJd at, including the Hacienda, and the Boardwalk in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s.
But distance from those days has given me a wider perception; that it’s not just about what happens in the four walls of a great club or venue but also about how ideas and influences percolate out from them, change lives, nurture and shape communities.
If you take a look at any local history websites and message boards, many of the most active are those hosting memories of clubs and music venues. People remembering gigs, trying to contact friends, trying to place exactly where a long gone venue had been, and sharing links to the music that in some way transports them back to the clubs and venues they loved.
So the book was also inspired by the desire to document other places, places I’d not been to, but clubs and venues that had clearly had an impact on the personalities and the lives of so many people. From Bristol to Belfast, from Streatham to Sheffield.
Some of these nightclubs and music venues in the book are well-known - Wigan Casino, the Marquee etc - but any historian likes to find out what was going on under the radar. The places that have been slightly neglected. Locally, for example; the rave club the Thunderdome, or the Sixties venue the Tabernacle in Stockport. And the book goes back far into the beginnings of the 19th Century; a time when no-one had much of an inclination to document nightlife venues. You hear most about Victorian music halls in the newspapers, for example, when there’s been an accident (a fire, usually) or some scandal.
I got off Google, and instead emailed people, phoned people, got on the train and interviewed people. What I learned time and again was how much of a personal attachment people have to the clubs and venues they frequented, and the sense of lived history embedded in venues like the Ritz in Manchester; whether memories go back to the 1980s and dancing at the Ritz on a Monday night to endless Smiths records, or the 1950s and 1960s when Phil Moss’s big band was in residence.
There’s plenty of intriguing social history, including that of the Afro-Caribbean community for whom venues were integral in the 1950s and 1960s, providing music links back to the West Indies, and a sense of community and strength here in Britain. For the black community, though, the establishing of self-organised venues was partly out of safety or necessity too; a product of the so-called “colour bar” city centres overtly or covertly deployed (“colour bar” is a polite name for a racist door policy).
So, nationwide, not everyone has only happy memories of nights out. I also couldn’t resist including a comment from a former habitué of the Ilford Palais; “Outside the Palais my girlfriend's brother had his jaw broken”.
At their best - ie. when there aren’t fights breaking out inside and outside - venues have a role in personal and communal memory but also have a role in cultural history too. In the book I give multiple examples of venues that act as catalysts, bringing people together, creating a sense of potential and often triggering cultural activity way beyond their four walls; in music, fashion, and art.
As we get older (I should know!), favourite venues close, landmarks buildings in our towns and cities get demolished, time moves on; to some of us, this process seems to have accelerated in recent years as property speculators and city planners run rampant in their search for ways to squeeze every penny out of every acre.
Seeing the end of buildings that once connect us to our past is traumatic. In the book’s last chapter, as you would expect, I attempts to deal with the threats to venues in the current era. In Manchester, this includes the possible end of one of my favourite venues; the Star & Garter.
But it isn’t all pessimism. There’s plenty of evidence that people go out as much as they ever did. And our city remains blessed with many great venues. Among the best, currently, is Albert Hall on Peter Street, refashioned out of huge chapel built by the Methodists in 1910. It’s a stunning venue, and the sense of history you feel inside those walls is part of the attraction. I see queues of people in their late teens and early twenties – the formative years, I guess, as your sense of identity and community and your music tastes are all being shaped – and I can tell that what they’ll be experiencing at the Albert Hall – or other Manchester venues – will live with them forever. Today’s good times are tomorrow’s favourite memories.
‘Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues’ by Dave Haslam is published on August 13th 2015. More information here; http://www.davehaslam.com/#/life-after-dark/