A few weeks ago, news came out that the number of clubs in Britain had declined markedly. There are apparently now 50% less nightclubs in Britain than there were 10 years ago. The Guardian greeted this news with delight, declaring that the fall showed that British culture was becoming more refined, that getting caned and dancing no longer held the same appeal for a new generation. But this triumphalism misses the point. Go down to your local city centre on a Friday night and you’ll find it as rammed as ever. The difference is that the choice and the diversity have gone. Where once you’d have found a range of spots catering to various different tastes and scenes, now you’ll find a couple of big, identikit venues, pumping out chart tunes and VK offers. Club culture isn’t necessarily dying but it is having its soul removed.
Clubbing has always been a slightly derided activity. There’s a considerable section of the UK population who would rather shoot their own feet off than use them to enter a nightclub. For many, it represents a carefree, slightly embarrassing period in their late-teens, early twenties when these sweaty, high-street dungeons were places to drink away their Friday nights. There will be many who greet the news of their apparent demise with the same attitude as The Guardian, even more who simply shrug half-heartedly.
But that attitude ignores the sad downward trajectory that clubs are set on today. Love them or hate them, at one time clubs represented a vibrant part of UK youth culture. The late-80s saw the birth of rave culture, as house music spread across British dancefloors, a phenomenon that influenced everything from style to the way people spoke. Later, garage emerged out of a handful of London clubs and spread to cities around the country, who imbued the scene their own local flavour, such as Niche nightclub in Sheffield. Indie nights were the destination for a generation of newly of-age college students to try their chances with the opposite sex and commiserate their failures by chanting along to Chelsea Dagger.
The point is once upon a time, clubs were a way of establishing your burgeoning adult identity. You went along, saw different kinds of people, different scenes and realised for the first time that there were more people out there than the kids you went to school with or saw around your town. The clubs you went to represented your idea of what was cool, your musical tastes and who you wanted to hand around with. Where you went depended on the sort of person you were and the various tribes were catered to by their own venues.
Of course, there’s always been the big places on the edges of town that specialise in putting the latest edition of Now That’s What I Call Music! on repeat and £1 shots of obscure fluorescent liqueur. A lot of people’s only requisite for a night out is to get smashed on the cheap. Music is an afterthought and needs only be energetically upbeat to meet approval. These are the haunts of the big office night out, the football club socials and the freshers. They serve their purpose and generally whatever town or city your in they’re the ones you’ll find packed out every weekend.
But increasingly, it seems that these sticky floored complexes, the Liquids, the Pryzms, are the only option available to the weekend reveller in your average town. Cultural commentators in papers like The Guardian have misread the trend. Clubs closing doesn’t mean UK nightlife is evolving into something more interesting and lively; in fact the opposite is true. The clubs they think of when they celebrate the closures are the ones that are still thriving; it’s the smaller, more unique venues that are disappearing.
Take Brighton. One of the UK’s trendier cities (or at least it likes to believe it is) and something of a destination in terms of nightlife, the clubbing scene is pretty uninspired. The two biggest venues are Pryzm, a cavernous, multi-story club that feels like someone stuck some carpet and a dj booth in an abandoned shopping centre and Shooshh, which is as shit as you’d expect somewhere called Shooshh to be. The seafront stretch is comprised of a handful of slightly smaller versions of the same thing.
There are, as Brighton residents will be quick to retort, a few exceptions to the blandness. Concorde 2 hosts live music from acts as diverse as The Fall to Krept and Konan. The Volks has catered for Brighton’s D’n’B crowd for years. But for those looking for an alternative to getting splashed with Vodka Cokes while strobes flash in time with Calvin Harris tunes, the pickings are slim. For dance music fans, there’s pretty much nothing going on at all. Even the indie disco, once a staple in Brighton has mostly died out.
Brighton’s hardly alone in this respect though, and probably has more choice on offer than other provincial towns. In a lot of places, it’s a choice between the local branch of Liquid Envy or going home when the pubs and bars shut. But even in the biggest cities, non-chain clubs are under threat. In London, licensing issues and a generally hostile attitude amongst the capital’s authorities towards venues has seen numerous places struggle to keep the doors open. Clive Martin wrote an impassioned piece for Vice condemning the closure or threatened closure of some of London’s most famous night spots, including the legendary Fabric.
Perhaps the sharp decline in clubs does represent a changing culture. Fewer places seem driven by a particular scene, maybe because there just aren’t as many to cater to. True, House is popular and many of the more successful independent places, particularly in Manchester and London, are in this bracket. But House is one of the few UK music scenes that seems to be thriving and even then not to the same extent it was in the 90s and early 00s. Indie has grown stale; it’s hard to sustain an attractive night off the occasional Arctic Monkeys album and playing What Became of the Likely Lads as the big finale. Much has been talked about the grime revival, but attempts to bring grime to the clubs have always been problematic.
Ultimately, what always drove the UK’s most vibrant clubbing cultures, from Northern Soul to Garage, was the music. Those scenes were sustained by people wanting to come together and be a part of something as it happened. They wanted to hear new records and show off the styles that went hand in hand with the sound. There just isn’t that sort of movement around today to sustain a similar thing.
Take away the music from clubbing and you’re left with the bare essentials. It’s pure mindless hedonism. Clubs go from the heartbeat of a scene to a big nondescript space to get as mashed as humanly possible and flail around to a DJ sleepwalking through the top 40. Of course, there’s clearly a market for that, as there always has been and probably always will be. But there’s not much soul to it. Essentially UK clubbing is being reduced to a colder, wetter year-round version of Maga. It’s a shame to see one of the best clubbing cultures in the world devolve into something so stale and monotonous. British clubs like The Hacienda and Fabric are known around the world. Can anyone say that about the local branch of Tiger Tiger?
So maybe the obituaries for British clubs are premature, but the scene’s in desperate need of some fresh ideas.