From The Vault

March 2024
Words by James Anderson
Header shot by Ashley Evans

Rediscovering rare nightlife footage of subcultural scenes, sounds and styles from the ’80s and ’90s

Nowadays, the nocturnal antics characterising mainstream or the most niche clubs, raves and gigs are routinely captured on smartphones and shared across social media or online as a footage free-for-all. Your dodgy dancing, directional attire, or drunken mishaps from a night out can easily go viral before the subsequent hangover has even kicked in. Unless, of course, you were losing it at Berlin’s infamous Techno cathedral, Berghain, which firmly bans the use of phones inside.

Such footage and photos can be easily stored for viewing in the future, which will eventually make nostalgia a thing of the past, in more ways than one. On a positive note, this democratic form of documentation makes it easier for everyone, anywhere, to be in-the-know and, ahem, ‘down with the kids.’ The downside? Such widespread access to newfound night-time netherworlds can kind-of kill the buzz, as recognised by the aforementioned Berghain. After all, during decades gone by the best nights out largely took place away from potentially judgey voyeurs, or a finger-wagging mass media with little understanding of the nuances involved in the music, styles, codes and behaviours associated with them. New forms of subcultural activity have, ideally, always needed something of a gestation period in which to find their feet, before inevitably crossing over into the mainstream. That can be extremely difficult to achieve nowadays, though, when they so rapidly achieve peak TikTok, becoming yesterday’s scroll in the blink of an eye.

Such widespread access to newfound night-time netherworlds can kind-of kill the buzz, as recognised by the aforementioned Berghain.

Since the onset and accessibility of the internet, back in the 90s, various examples of obscure documentaries, ramdom media reportage, or amateur footage shot back in the day - all haphazardly preserving the past forty-plus years of UK youth culture - have found their way online. These have been viewed by millions, young and less-so, eager to revisit their wayward past or see for the first time these sometimes-scratchy vintage VHS gems. Whether it’s the origins of the Goth or Acid House scenes, or a glimpse into the rise of the Ska and Jungle movements, the wildly varied nature of these historical moments is united by three noticeable elements, differentiating them from after-hours activities of the 2020s. Firstly, no one is vaping, because vaping hadn’t yet been invented, but there’s a whole lot of cigarette smoking going on – inside nightclubs, pubs and live performance venues, which seems weird now but was the norm at the time. Then, there’s the obvious observation that punters are seemingly living-in-the-moment, too preoccupied with fun to bother whipping out a camera. And, finally, when hands are euphorically raised in the air, they are conspicuously not clutching smartphones.

Here, we excavate and examine a few of the best yesteryear on-screen time-capsules from across the UK’s dancefloors, raves, and smoky corners of Ye Olde disco venues, dive bars and gigs, to show how going out used to be done.

Cool as fuck in Coventry 

Channel 4 took a look back at the origins of the UK’s 2-Tone movement and same-named record label, from the early 80s, in this 48-minute documentary made in 2004. The focus is on the emergence of the scene, in Coventry, which then quite rapidly spread across the nation, set to a backdrop of high youth unemployment, racial tensions and even riots, during the ever-controversial Margaret Thatcher’s first term as Prime Minister. Members of the key Coventry, Birmingham or London-based bands – The Specials, The Selector, Madness, The Beat and The Bodysnatchers – proudly recall the punky-reggae 2 Tone Ska sound they evolved, the multicultural message they upheld, and the sharp clobber they wore, which arose from Rudeboy style originally found in Kingston, Jamaica, mixed with the UK Mod style staples: cropped trousers, shaved hair, Fred Perry polo shirts, trilby hats, tassel loafers and skinny ties, for example, as worn by the bands and the fans.  Best of all, there’s loads of archive footage of 2 Tone devotees losing it at wild gigs by The Specials, as well as vintage film snippets of British Ska-loving youths hanging about on the streets and looking effortlessly, timelessly stylish.

Yorkshire Alternatives

Filmed in 1984 at the marvellously-named Xclusive nightclub, located in the market town of Batley, this 2.5-hour long footage documents one of the regular ‘alternative’ nights held there. Watch regulars, supping pints of cider or lager, and dressed-up in homemade fashions, towering hair, severe make-up, skinny leather pants and studded belts-a-plenty, to a soundtrack c/o local lad DJ Paul, mashing-up Sisters of Mercy, New Order, Theatre of Hate, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cramps, Bauhaus, a dash of vintage David Bowie, and more. Allegiances to specific bands are pledged upon the dancefloor, via distinctive moves such as the foot-stomping and dramatically arm-flapping ‘Chicken dance’, as it was known at the time. Aside from the occasional moments of chat between the film-maker and cheery punters, or DJ Paul, and the venue’s owners – who commissioned the film to be made - there is no voiceover, just a steady camera’s gaze at the era’s post-Punk youth tribes in action.

Devilish Manchester Moments

Thirty-nine minutes of prime dancefloor footage shot inside the Manchester niterie, DeVilles, one heady night in 1983, similarly archives plenty of first-wave goths and more instances of Chicken dancing. As Manchester has long-since been a university city, however, the clientele here arguably looks a tad more multi-cultural and eclectic, style-wise, compared to its Yorkshire counterpart. DJ Dave Booth, a local legend, unleashes tracks from Billy Idol, Grace Jones, The Cure, Dead or Alive, The Stranglers, Killing Joke and PIL, among others, lapped up by goths, mohawk punks and trend-setting art students, with boys favouring vests, cut-off shirts and skinny jeans, and some of the girls clad in either ultra-mini or full-length skirts, fetish-y latex and PVC-attire, plus underwear-as-outerwear. Copious amounts of hair dye, hair gel and hair spray had clearly been applied before this lot set out for the night ahead.

Soho Spookies

At only 8 minutes long, this little gem of footage is a bemused ‘those crazy kids’-style London Weekend Television report, from 1983, about the cult Soho club night, The Batcave. Hailed by many as the ground zero of UK goth clubbing, The Batcave was run by The Specimen’s lead singer, Olli Wisdom, plus Jon Klein and Hugh Jones, bringing a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach to the fledgling goth movement. From the coffin-shaped sign at the door of the various West End venues it took place in – The Gargoyle, Subway, Fouberts, and Gossips – to the DJ sets from Hamish Macdonald, which brought together New Wave, Rockabilly, Psychedelia, 70s Glam rock and the sounds from newly emerging goth bands, such as Alien Sex Fiend, or Sex Gang Children – the emphasis from its young dressed-up devotees was on fun, not posing. The footage follows a few of the club’s regulars getting ready before a night out – in combos of spiky bleached hair, heavily powdered faces and thick black eyeliner or dark sunglasses, hitting the dancefloor, and refixing their make-up in the bustling loo, while talking about their everyday lives either on the dole, at art college, or working 9 to 5 jobs. The DIY outfits and hairstyles originally seen at The Batcave have, during the ensuing decades, inspired countless high-profile fashion designers’ collections, proving that even the most-dinky or local of subcultural scenes can have a major and enduring influence around the world.

Jungle Rumbles in London and Wolverhampton

As the rave scene got bigger during the late-80s and early-90s, certain homegrown DJs and producers wrenched the focus away from House to a more frenetic sound and mindset named Jungle, melding Dub, Ragga, Soul and ferocious MC-ing. Result? Bass-heavy, sample-filled tracks, that shook teeth and loosened limbs. This 30-minute BBC2 documentary, titled Jungle Fever, from 1994, predominantly covers North London’s network of Jungle talents at the time. Featuring clips from the Capital’s related clubs, such as AWOL and Rage, in addition to a trip to Quest, in Wolverhampton, we see high voltage dancefloor action from dressed-to-sweat multicultural crowds clad in clingy frocks and vest tops, for the girls, and camo gear, the occasional Armani jacket, baggy jeans and freshly ironed Tees or shirts for the guys. Other fly-on-the-wall moments include DIY bedroom-based recording sessions (making music with old-skool Atari computers and cassette tapes), and shopping at specialist record stores. Interviews with the scene’s prime movers - including Fabio, LTJ Bukem, Shy FX, UK Apache, DJ Rap, Mc Lenny, Mc Gunsmoke and Peter Harris of Kickin Records – collectively reinforce a sentiment of wanting to keep the scene underground and independent. It subsequently proved difficult to contain, however, as Jungle’s popularity and sound surged and throbbed throughout the land.

Disruptive London Disco

This 1986 episode of the London TV show, South of Watford, captures one of London’s notorious nightlife disruptors, the cult clothing designer and club promoter, Leigh Bowery. Presented by a young (pre-Hollywood stardom) Hugh Laurie, the 30-minute episode - split into 3 sections on YouTube - unpacks Bowery’s offbeat orbit. He models his outlandish designs in his garish East London council flat in section 1, ventures to a fashion show in section 2, and in section 3 hangs-out at his own weekly West End club night, Taboo, which proved influential and infamous in various ways. An anything-goes, poppers-sniffing approach to sexuality, for starters. And, the deliberately-kitsch-trashy styles worn by club-kid regulars seen frolicking in the footage, echoed at edgy LGBTQ+ clubs and raves ever since. All sound-tracked by tacky Italian disco, pop and Hi-NRG tracks, from DJ Jeffrey Hinton, spliced alongside his homemade cut-up videos projected above the dancefloor. Taboo is acknowledged as London’s first club (even before Acid House took off later in the ’80s) at which a then-obscure drug, Ecstacy, gained popularity. Bowery’s bacchanalian knees-up was eventually shut-down, though, after a sensationalist tabloid newspaper expose.

Hardcore West Midlands Mentalists

Small on budget, but big on enthusiasm, this hour-long documentary – independently produced by Daylight Robbery, in 2021, and uploaded to YouTube in 2 parts – is dedicated to one of the most-loved Hardcore House and proto-Jungle-Techno clubs of nights-gone-by: Eclipse, in Coventry, which ran from 1990 - ’92, and could cram 1,600 eager ravers inside its three floors. Various of its now middle-aged former DJs, punters and behind-the-scenes faces – including Jumping Jack Flash and Jay Holder - recall to camera the rise and eventual, er, eclipse of the venue, framed against backdrops of exhilarating archive footage showing its most dedicated ravers. Regulars flocked there from all over the UK each weekend, to drop an E, dance for hours-on-end – and, evidently, sweat a lot - amidst the strobes. Such was the intense heat generated in the venue, that Kangol-hat wearing lads with their tops off were commonplace, likewise girls trying to stay-ventilated in micro dresses. Eclipse was a trailblazer: the first venue to get an all-night license in the UK, and the spawner of the craze for illicitly-recorded bootleg live cassette tapes, sold everywhere from Germany to Camden Market. Also, before they became mega-famous chart-toppers, The Prodigy played their first gig there for a mere £60 fee!

The Home Counties goes House

In 2006, the BBC broadcast The Summer of Rave 1989, an hour-long documentary, looking back at and contextualizing the gleefully-rebellious, Ecstacy-fuelled Acid House scene which gathered momentum across the UK during the hottest summer for 20 years. Grainy but awesome archive footage shows loved-up party-seeking teens in their thousands dancing through the day and night to House music at illegal outdoor raves, in fields, old aircraft hangars or disused warehouse buildings, in and around the Home Counties. Clad in loose-fitting dungarees, oversized T-shirts, trackies and baseball or bucket hats, the rave promoters and attendees outwitted the government and police who were desperate to stamp out the fun, and provoked tabloid outrage due to the obvious drug usage and general insouciance towards Middle England’s indignation.  Featuring interviews with former editors of The Face and NME, publications which at the time excitedly charted Blighty’s most significant youthquake since ’70s Punk, as well as DJ’s and promoters of mega-raves such as Sunrise and Energy, the documentary celebrates a thrillingly hedonistic flipside to the decade’s dreary Yuppies, oppressive Tory government and cheesy chart pop.