A brief history of London’s most legendary nightclubs

Rob Crossan

19 July 2021

Celebrate the return of clubbing with a trip through the capital’s infamous after dark drinking dens

19 July 2021 | Rob Crossan

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How we’ve missed it all: the overly zealous bouncers in high vis jackets by the entrance, the larcenously overpriced plastic bottles of water, the sweaty bloke in the gents toilets who rents the ‘watered down cologne and Chupa Chups lollies’ concession and the DJ whose pretence of being a ‘serious artist’ is such that he spends his six hour set peering down at his decks in the manner of an A Level geography student cramming for the final exam.

We forgive all this because nightclubs in our fair city also provide some of the most euphorically happy moments of collective felicity and joy that we’ll experience in the course of our lives. As of today, we can once again form outdoor queues seemingly without point or purpose, lose our cloakroom tickets and get furiously sweaty to throbbing, seductive and oft just downright filthy beats in darkened rooms until the earliest of hours.

However, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that nightclubs, by their very essence, shouldn’t outstay their welcome. So while we salute the nightspots that have weathered the Covid storm, let’s now recall the clubs that have fallen, not just during the pandemic but way, way before that, all of whom, in their day, contributed to the aching limbs, sore feet and empty wallets of hedonistic Londoners of yore.

Turnmills

If you were staggering down the Clerkenwell Road on a Sunday afternoon at around 4pm in the early ‘90s then you can consider yourself a true nightclub pioneer. You had, in all probability, just left Turnmills, the first club in the UK to receive a 24 hour license.

This former gin distillery was home to one of London’s all time greatest club nights: Trade. Its hours ran from 3am to 1pm on a Sunday afternoon, handily catering to the predominantly gay crowd who wanted to carry on partying after clubs like G-A-Y and Heaven closed. Madonna, Bjork and Kate Moss all turned up over the years and versions of Trade popped up in Ibiza, New York and LA.

Finally closing after 18 years in 2008, Trade never again found a permanent home as Turnmills itself was demolished; the site is now home to the most anonymous possible looking corner office block.

Blitz

Image: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Boy George worked the cloakrooms, Spandau Ballet played their early gigs here and you simply (for better or worse) would never have heard Ultravox or Visage were it not for the Blitz Club. In 1979 it was from this Covent Garden spot that the New Romantic movement came forth to rescue England from a music scene of lumpen post-punk mediocrity.

The ‘Blitz Kids’ were the gang who unofficially ran the club, with members included Gary and Martin Kemp from Spandau, dance choreographer supremo-to-be Michael Clark and Siobhan Fahey (later of Bananarama). For a year or so, this was an explosion of androgyny, increasingly bizarre and fabulous homemade fashion and lashings of clunky, proto synths. The spot is now a lap dancing club called The Red Rooms.

Shoom

When record producer and DJ Paul Oakenfold went to Ibiza in 1985 to celebrate his birthday, he hired a villa and invited then-unknown DJ’s Nicky Holloway, Pete Tong and Danny Rampling. Taking Ecstasy for the first time and experiencing the euphoria of the blissed out Balearic beats at Space nightclub, Oakenfold and his wife Jenni came home and tried to re-create it in a 300 capacity basement gym on Southwark Street.

Between 1987 and 1990, when police pressure forced its closure, Shoom was where the London dance club as we know it today was born. At the fulcrum of the acid house scene, it became absurdly popular, partly thanks to its strawberry scented smoke machines and strobe lights. Open till 5am and with no alcohol license, this, more than any other London club, marked the end of the ‘sticky carpets and flock wallpaper’ design of clubs in the capital and triggered the beginning of nightspots being seen as somewhere to dance rather than a place to get hammered and attempt to grope members of the opposite sex.

Plastic People

Image: Everynight Images/Alamy

Nobody came to Plastic People for the glamour or décor. A bare room with the most rudimentary of bars at one end (cans of Red Stripe or nothing) in a Hoxton basement, the place came to prominence in the Nineties and Noughties as an incubator for dubstep and for possessing one of the greatest sound systems ever owned by a nightclub. With a capacity of barely 200, the vibe, somehow, always kept its intimate, non-exclusive air.

Every club claims that it’s ‘all about the music’ but in Plastic People’s case, the ideology really did manifest. From the weekly FWD>> nights, where the UK bass scene emerged, to the broken beat nights Co-op, this was a club that managed to evolve and change while somehow remaining the same for over 20 years, a run that ended only when long-standing manager Charlotte Kepel felt the time was right to pull the plug in 2015. The site on Curtain Road is now the uber-cheesy Sunset cocktail bar and offers ‘VIP Packages’ underneath a branch of the burger chain Hache. Depressing isn’t it?

Tramp

Ronnie Wood, Ian Mclagan, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Lane & Kenney Jones at Tramp, April 1973

Having recently celebrated its 50th birthday, Tramp has changed remarkably little in the half century since the small door on Jermyn Street in Mayfair opened its doors. Now, as then, this is still the party spot for the rich and privileged, with a fair smattering of showbiz excess included.

The clientele these days is more likely to include the sons and daughters of sheiks and potentates quaffing Cristal and dancing to mainstream R’n’B but the restaurant area (yes, this is one of those kinds of nightclubs) still sees the odd A-lister float by when they’re in town. Regulars over the years have included Michael Caine, Keith Moon and Jack Nicholson. It’s a members’ only club but the present owners are open to granting membership to those who aren’t necessarily currently gracing the cover of Hello! magazine.

Ministry of Sound

Image: Ministry of Sound

The immovable object of the London clubbing scene. MoS is an institution, still respected by much of the dance music cognoscenti but derided in many quarters for having long since become the Bluewater of nightclubs; mostly now populated by coach parties from Essex. It wasn’t always such a corporate machine, however.

Founded in an old bus garage in 1991, it’s far from salubrious location deep in pre-gentrification Elephant and Castle gave it genuine edge. Anyone who is anyone has DJ’d there over the years (as the endless MoS series of album releases testifies), including Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong and Armand Van Helden.

The brand name is constantly evolving and the club continues to survive despite numerous threats of closure. As of 2021, MoS now also has its own record label, gym, cruise ship franchise and full size members' only shared workspace on Borough Road incorporating private offices, a cinema, meeting rooms for hire and a full service restaurant.

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