The night is a free agent. It can offer freedom and fantasy to those who want it, but only if it is taken control of, if it is owned. Every place has found its own way to own the night. In the superclubs of Berlin, it’s owned with dilated pupils and limbs flailing, in and out of time with techno beats. On the boardwalks of Miami it is driven into submission by muscle cars that peruse and peacock up and down the seafront, blaring dirty south trap from their souped up speakers. On the town squares of Florence, teens on vespas swerve round buskers and drink beer under the watchful gaze of some priceless romantic statue.
In Britain, land of bitter winds and drab high streets, we were never going to get a fair fight in the open-air. Instead we’ve taken control of the night by taking shelter from it. Youth culture in this country has taken place not on the streets but in the haven of small indoor spaces.
They are sometimes called “toilet venues” because of the diminutive size and occasional smell, but that is a cruel moniker: Britain’s small venues aren’t lavatories, they are sanctums of adventure and camaraderie. From King Tut’s in Glasgow to the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and on to Clwb Ifor Bach in Cardiff, when you step into these spaces it doesn’t feel like you’re stepping into some soulless pitstop for a band on an endless tour, it feels like you’re stepping back home. In Britain, the small club is as much as part of our leisure lives as the seafront pier and Saturday football.
In Britain, the excitement around tiny venues grew out of the swing clubs of the 40s and 50s.
The 100 Club, launched in 1942 as the Feldman Swing Club, was frequented by GIs during the war, and by the stars of British and global jazz in the 1950s, including BB King and Muddy Waters. But it was in the 1970s that it became an iconic venue for the punk scene, hosting “the 100 Club Punk Special”, an event which included the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, Buzzcocks and The Damned. The event cemented punk as an idea and a subculture - look at the photos of it now, in studded leather jackets, crisp Fred Perry shirts, it seems like in the basement in Oxford Street a whole world was created.
It wasn’t just incredible bands that emerged from these independent venues, but tribes of fans devoted to new ways of thinking. Stuart Hall, the legendary cultural theorist, believed subculture emerged in Britain as a form of resistance by “winning space” - in other words, taking over small venues and making them sites of mini-cultural revolutions. From the mods in the marquee, to the skinheads in the 100 Club to Mr George in Coventry where The Specials had a four month residency (back when they were still called The Coventry Automatics). In each venue fans discovered as much about each other as the bands, and subculture, as we understand it today, was born. With each gestation of tribalism, so the Fred Perry shirt became adopted, worked into the subcultural uniform of the backstreets and basements.
I first got a small venue to call my own when I was 15: it was a pub with a live room on the corner of an estate of the Caledonian Road where the barman turned a blind eye to underage drinking. Still in school, without so much as a paper round, we started putting on our own nights there - a couple of bands, some DJs and all the cider blacks you could handle. To any passing adult it would have been horrifying, but to us it was communion. Queues of year 10s snaked round the block, the smoking area filled with hormones, flirty stutters and nervous hands placed lightly on the small of backs. I remember strongly having to call out a plumber because someone had broken the sink doing who only knows what. Bands like Bombay Bicycle Club played their first ever show there. The place itself was about the size of your average coffee shop, but to us it was a palace - every corner filled with possibilities.
That’s what small venues are about - stepping into a place that has as much character, as much personality as the bands booked to play there. Small spaces mean you’re not lost in an anonymous throng, they mean you can show up without even knowing who’s playing. They are an attraction in themselves.
The legend of places like the 100 Club inspired an explosion of new venues in the 80s. Outside of London, they weren’t so hampered into basements and backrooms. The Hacienda, the heart of rave and rebellion in Manchester, was a yacht builder's shop and warehouse. Later, Lakota in Bristol became the most famous club in the country, the likes of Pete Tong and Carl Cox turning it into a little piece of Ibiza in an old brewery in Stokes Croft. In the 2000s the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds transformed from an old working men’s jaunt to the heart of the city’s student life and DIY scenes, all while keeping its tuck shop.
But this is not a story with a happy ending, Britain’s small venues are under threat. A combination of tougher licensing restrictions, the effects of the smoking ban, and skyrocketing rents have meant that half of Britain’s venues have closed in the past ten years. Clubs are the most vulnerable victims of gentrification because they're seen by people who don’t go to them as a nuisance rather than a public good. Rich people build expensive flats next door and then complain about the noise, resulting in revoked licences.
The venues where I discovered my identity, my friends, and a world beyond the normal are all disappearing. Madame Jojos, the home of extravagant cabaret and the White Heat new-bands night that birthed a thousand indie bands: gone. The End, location of the electroclash juggernaught Trash, the only club to turn people away for not looking enough of a mess: gone. The beloved pub where we put on those underage shows when I was a teenager: demolished and turned into flats.
The 100 Club itself was threatened with closure in 2010 but was saved by a huge public campaign. “The number of people that called in to the venue during that period at all times of the day and night to wish us well was astonishing,” says Jeff Horton, whose family have owned and run the club for 75 years. “The good will and best of luck messages that flooded in just floored me. People from Newcastle, Oldham, Leeds came to the venue to shake my hand. People from Europe, America, Japan did the same. I saw the absolute best of humanity in that period and that helped keep me going more than anything really. People still want to see someone they love up close with no pit or barrier in front of them, no heavy security and lines of paramedics in hi viz jackets. I sound like my dad now, but I've always tried to give people the same gigging experience that I had growing up, no matter who the artist is.”
The outpouring is something I can identify with, I remember my first visit to the 100 Club, a matinee Babyshambles show put on by the then-hip DJ duo Queens Of Noize. After the show everyone just stayed, having afternoon beers and hanging out. I got to meet musicians I idolised, but their dressing rooms just felt like front rooms.
The successful fight to save the 100 Club proves that the death of small clubs is not inevitable, but the struggle will not be easy. Nor should it be, the night has never been a right, it’s always required a fight. 100 years ago people rarely went out into the early hours, the night belonged to a privileged few who tended to go to lavish private parties. It became democratised by advances in technology and a cultural revolution in youth culture. Now it is once again returning to those who have money to spend in ritzy clubs that are too rich to fail. Unless we all decide that the small clubs we love are worth saving. Music venues in Germany and France are considered assets to their community, offered legal protection and are given financial help because they know there is a positive knock on effect throughout the community. We need to rethink the way we see venues in this country too.
Jeff believes it’s a battle we should all be committed to, and that we might find it easier to win than we think. “It makes no economic sense for these venues to disappear,” he says. “What we need is help. We should be considered assets of community rather than a bloody nuisance. Who is going to headline the Pyramid Stage in say, 2022 without venues like these? The average age of the average headline band at British festivals last year was 57. That stat alone tells you that something isn't right, something needs to change.”