Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Licensing Laws for the Lower Sort of People

Where do the licensing laws that control where and when people can drink, dance or listen to music come from? The principle behind them is quite extraordinary - that people need permission from the state to exercise these basic human functions.

In his book 'Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, c 1780 -c.1880' (London: Croom Helm, 1980), Hugh Cunningham notes that during this period many capitalists were concerned that workers 'had a high leisure preference' (i.e. that they would prefer to play rather than to work - who wouldn't?). One response to this was that authority "sought to control the actual leisure pursuits of the poor, in particular the alehouse. The records of central government and of quarter sessions in the eighteenth century abound with attempts to extend the licensing laws, to put down fairs and wakes, and to prevent horse-racing, prize­fighting and other sports. Typical is the preamble to the Act of 1752 for licensing places of public entertainment:

'And whereas the Multitude of Places of Entertainment for the lower Sort of People is another great Cause of Thefts and Robberies, as they are thereby tempted to spend their small Substance in riotous Pleasures, and in consequence are put on unlawful Methods of supplying their Wants, and renewing their Pleasures: In order there­fore to prevent the said Temptation to Thefts and Robberies, and to correct as far as may be the Habit of Idleness, which Is become too general over the whole Kingdom, and is productive of much Mischief and Inconvenience'.

See also: Disorderly Houses legislation, 1757

Monday, February 26, 2007

Birth of rave

When was the birth of rave as a word for a wild party and raver as the party-goer? Quite a few sources suggest a Caribbean origin. The Wikipedia entry on 'Rave' currently states that 'The slang expression rave was originally used by people of Caribbean descent in London during the 1960s to describe a party'. We have however already established that jazz parties in London were already being called raves by 1952 at the latest.

Simon Reynolds has pondered (by email) that 'he wouldn't be surprised if it was actually a Scottish or Irish term originally cos there was a big Irish influence in Jamaica, a lot of indentured servants and the like, and you have that whole crossover between the shebeen and the blues - rowdy house parties'. This is an interesting line of enquiry, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes the word relating to madness is Old French, with another meaning in Scottish dialect. The dictionary mistakenly dates 'rave' as party to 1960, but pushes the birth date back further by noting that 'rave up' for party goes back to 1940. So far then, 1940 is the earliest specific use related to partying. Anyone got any examples from that time, or even an earlier usage? The full definition from the Online Etymology Dictionary is as follows:

rave (v.):
c.1374, "to show signs of madness or delirium," from O.Fr. raver, variant of resver "to dream, wander, rave," of unknown origin (see reverie). The identical (in form) verb meaning "to wander, stray, rove" first appeared c.1300 in Scottish and northern dialect, and is probably from an unrelated Scand. word (cf. Icelandic rafa). Sense of "talk enthusiastically about" first recorded 1704. Noun meaning "rowdy party" is from 1960, though rave-up was British slang for "wild party" from 1940; specific modern sense of "mass party with loud, fast electronic music and often psychedelic drugs" is from 1989. Raver, from this sense, is first recorded 1991. Raving is attested from 1475; sense of "remarkable" is from 1841.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

1950s Raves Continued

In an earlier post, we referred to the revivalist jazz raves organised by Mick Mulligan and George Melly in London in the early 1950s, the earliest use we have found so far of the term 'rave' and 'ravers' in a musical context (as opposed to 'raving mad').

Another key figure in this first London rave scene was the clarinettist Cy Laurie (1926-2002), pictured here. Cy Laurie’s Jazz Club was held downstairs at Mac's Rehearsal Rooms at 41 Great Windmill Street, Soho. The space had earlier been the base for Ronnie Scott's Club 11, one of London's first modern jazz clubs which opened there in 1948, before moving to Carnaby Street. But it was Laurie's club that became famous for all-night raves.

One 50s raver recalled 'The Windmill Street club was the Saturday Night magnet in my late teens; it was the music and the atmosphere, but also the place to find out the address of that week's rave; there were five of us, and between us we could muster three cars - unusual in those days - which ensured that we always gathered passengers who knew the ropes. On one then celebrated occasion, four of us went to Manchester, at the drop of a hat in an Austin A35, by the time we got there it was all over, so we returned to London with an extra passenger, who had been given a trumpet which he taught himself to play on the journey' (so years before the late 1980s London orbital parties, the convoy of rave pilgrims was established).

Another remembers 'all nighters at Cy's were a buzz. I was one of the - all dressed in black and often barefoot - dancers who was first AND last on the floor.... Cy's place was a culture thing, and included the early morning rush to Waterloo station to get the Milk Train to Hastings, for "FUN" in the Hastings caves'. Others would stumble into the Harmony Inn cafe in Archer Street. By the end of the 1950s, Laurie had moved on to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, beating the Beatles to it, while revivalist jazz had been superseded by the trad jazz boom and a new crowd of ravers.

In Bomb Culture (1968), his overview of 1950s and 1960s underground culture, Jeff Nuttal observes that the revivalist jazz scene was very much a Paris as well as London bohemian sub culture:

"Paris, after the war, has been the traditional home of bohemianism... the post­war pop-bohemianism launched itself with a cult of the primitive, of ceramic beads and dirndl skirts, of ankle-thong sandals and curtain-hoop ear-rings, of shaggy corduroys and ten-day beards, of seamen's sweaters and home-dyed battle-dress.... the clubs which set themselves up in London and Paris and promoted New Orleans jazz like a religion were totally outside of commerce, running at the start of things on a non-profit-making basis, employing amateur bands, collec­tions of students, particularly art students, who imitated the great recordings by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton with varying skill and complete self-decep­tion... The following was a minority following, self-conscious and partisan, opin­ionated and crusading. The world was evil, governed by Mam­mon and Moloch. New Orleans jazz was a music straight from the heart and the swamp, unclouded by the corrupting touch of civilization. It would refertilize the world".

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Disco: blueprint for a future society

Good article on disco by Paul Lester in the Guardian this week:

'For Steven Collazo, the musical director of Odyssey, disco was a time of tensions: between musicianship and mechanisation, between what he calls the "plastic clubs" that played commercial disco and the underground where the harder stuff got aired, and between the latent violence of mainstream hetero discos and the carefree exuberance he witnessed on the gay scene that helped spawn the movement .

"I learned at the 'plastic clubs' to never raise my arms above the imaginary homosexual line, ie above the eyebrows, otherwise the sphincter police would arrest you," says Collazo. But he's got a serious point. "I'm not gay, but I remember one amazing night when I was 18, going to this huge gay club in New York called the Paradise Garage. It was almost like a blueprint for a future society, devoid of social or sexual barriers in an atmosphere of total abandon. I'll never forget that night."

From 'Can you feel the force?' by Paul Lester, Guardian, 23 February 2007.

Essex police target raves

From Herts and Essex News, 15 February 2007:

Raving the day!

Illegal ravers were stopped dead in their tracks when police broke up an event in a remote farm in the Dunmow and Walden area... The dozen or so organisers were setting up a generator and sound equipment in a barn at Spains End Farm, in Cornish Hall End, at 10pm on Saturday when officers swooped. As police from Saffron Walden, Braintree and Great Yeldham seized the machinery, people were spotted running across adjoining fields. The Essex Police helicopter and Braintree dog unit were deployed. Six people were detained but not charged as no damage had been caused.

Police pounced after a tip-off from Suffolk police and reports from residents who spotted convoys of cars on the rural back roads in the Finchingfield and Sampfords area. Operations commander Supt Colin Steele said: "We would like to thank the residents as they helped officers identify these people, especially one taxi driver who contacted us and gave us some very important information. Essex is not a force for rave organisers to chance their luck with. We will prevent, disrupt and enforce measures to ensure their events do not take place in Essex, thereby ensuring public safety."

Last August, violence erupted between 600 ravers and police in Great Chesterford as officers tried to break up an illegal event. Missiles were thrown and nine officers injured

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

'Hooliganism in Dancing' before World War One

The Daily Express has been a fount of right wing bile for many years. Here's a classic example of its historic racism, a leading article from just before the First World War bemoaning the popularity of US/African-American dance crazes:

Hooliganism in dancing has established itself in the ballrooms of today, and the whole charm and delight of dancing are threatened. The modern regrettable tendency to introduce any and every kind of eccentric dance into a programme where once the waltz held sway has now reached a point when it calls for protest from all those who do not desire to see any longer the antics of negro minstrels in the ballroom.

These new dances are now seriously taught in London. Certain people of New York indulge in the freak caperings that are known by strange names, and an attempt is being made by certain English hostesses to foist these dances on young people here.

The most outrageous of the latest dances to be imported from New York is the 'Turkey Trot'. It is both ungraceful and disgraceful in the ballroom. There is not one redeeming feature about it.
Its technical description may not sound very dreadful, but the real manner of its dancing can only be judged at sight. The couple wriggle a few steps together, and then take steps sideways, hopping first on one leg and then on the other, after the manner of a lame bird.

The next contortion is a bending of the body downwards with widespread legs so as to look as nearly like a turkey as possible. After that the couples go prowling about in circles round each other. They may make gobbling noises if they like.

Then there is the 'Huggie Bear' dance. The 'Huggie Bear' is capable - as indeed all these dances are - of degenerating into some­thing more than vulgarity. The gestures and the body movements are indecent in them­selves, and this is not surprising when the British public under­stand that these dances are taken direct from the negro dancing rooms and the night clubs of Vienna, Berlin and Budapest.

The 'Huggie Bear' consists of the two dancers hugging each other and performing a slow, irregular dance with the clumsy movements of bears. It is considered good form to growl during the 'Huggie Bear', and in America they make uncouth noises and sing at intervals:

Babe! Come along!
O kid! O kid!
Hug ‘em Hug ‘em
Put your arms around me Babe.

In the passion to model its ballrooms after the pattern of the 'coloured gentlemen's' places of amusement, society is learning the 'Huggie Bear', the 'Argentine tango', and the 'Dandy Dance'. The 'Dandy Dance' begins with the woman dancing along until she is caught up by the man, who draws her along with the familiar cake-walk steps, side by side. Occasionally the woman falls sideways or backwards, as in the 'Apache' dance. Then they gyrate face to face, and presently they change to a species of a waltz, kicking their legs backwards like hens scratching for grain. So it goes on.

Source: The Way we Were, 1900-1914 , based on the files of the Daily Express – James McMillan (William Kimber, London, 1978). The date of the article is not given but it must presumably have been after 1910, as this was the peak pre-war period of novelty dances.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Trinidad Carnival

The Trinidad Carnival this week has commemorated a key point in the Carnival's history - the Canboulay riots of 1881-1884 (the picture on the left, from Illustrated London News is of the 1888 carnival). According to one account:

"The year is 1881 — the Canboulay riots — when a 'major armed clash between the Trinidad colonial police and the 'local' population occurred/ following a decision to clamp down on the Carnival celebrations of that year. The barrack-yards of Port of Spain, where the 'Diametres' ruled, presided over neighbourhoods, nurtured loyalties, honed and hoarded the weapons of survival for confrontations such as these, gathered their bands of revellers turned warriors and went forth to defy and try the governor. If Canboulay was a fight between bands where individual 'stickmen' resolved their inter-personal rivalries and waged regional warfare against other bands, in 1881, 'it took on the character of a historical underclass in united action against the police.' In 1882, Trinidad again — riot this time in San Fernando when the state tried to limit 'Playing' till 9.00 p.m" (Behind the Masquerade: The Story of Notting Hill Carnival – Kwesi Owusu and Jacob Ross, London: Arts Media Group, 1988).

In 1884 in 'In Princes Town, the masqueaders attacked the police station after magistrate Hobson decided to confine the police to barracks because the crowd was too large. After Hobson was felled with a stone, the police opened fire on the rioters killing a youth and seriously wounding two others'.
Picture right: Trinidad carnival 2006

Carnival in Brazil

It is Carnival time in Brazil, now a major cultural celebration, but one which people had to struggle to establish:

'By the turn of the [20th] century carnival had become the staging ground for a new battle fought between the proponents of a 'civilized' celebration and the recalcitrantly 'African' blacks. A flurry of police regulations and restrictions sought to limit or eliminate the black influence on carnival. African drum sessions were prohibited. With an eye to keeping black revellers up on the hills, many regulations specified that only 'certain types' of carnival associations could parade down Rio's principal streets... Police would raid sambistas' homes in order to confiscate their guitars' (Alma Guillermoprieto, Samba, London: Cape, 1990).

Today carnival is commercialised and partly contained in the Sambadrome, yet still arguably a festival of liberation:

'Nowhere is the world created by the festival more completely and absolutely opposed to the world of normal daily life, of work, suffering and sadness, than in the parade of the samba schools... without ever losing sight of the often oppressive, exploitative commercialization of the festival, it is still a world in which the experience of oppression and exploitation is swept away in a sense of freedom - a world in which the masses are heatlhy and energetic, well fed and well informed. It is a model of the world as it ought to be, yet as it is only during carnaval... The vision of carnval is clearly utopian - a model of the world as it might be rather than as it is'
(Richard G Parker, Bodies, Pleasures, and Passions: sexual culture in contemporary Brazil, Boston: Beacon Press, 1993)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

From Hangars to Warehouses

When was the warehouse party born, that is a party in an industrial space rather than a specially designed dancehall or ballroom? One candidate must be aircraft hangars and similar spaces in World War Two, as swing grew in popularity. US servicemen paid a prominent role in spreading the popularity of this music and related dance styles.

Margaret Townsend has recalled her time in World War Two: 'When I was 16 living in Cheltenham working as a trainee tracer in Gloucester Aircraft Company Brockworth. We used to go to the Queens Hotel in Cheltenham to be bussed to the hangars at Tewkesbury where we used to go dancing with the American G I's on a Sunday night. Very often we went home minus a few girls, soon they stopped that and a head count was taken before we left for home partly'.

An RAF serviceman remembers: 'A smoke-hazed aeroplane hangar somewhere in England, the floor crowded to capacity with uniformed boys and girls swaying gently or jiving wildly according to the dictates of that essential commodity, the dance band... The dance was on and all we were conscious of was the music (and what music it was) the exhilarating rhythm and of course, the girl in our arms' (quoted in John Costello, Love, sex and war - changing values, 1939-45, London: Collins, 1985, p.110).

Friday, February 16, 2007

No spitting on the dancefloor

Extracts from 19th century ballroom manuals:

From a New York publication 1864:

"Loud conversation, profanity, stamping the feet, writing on the wall, smoking tobacco, spitting or throwing anything on the floor, are strictly forbidden."
"The practice of chewing tobacco and spitting on the floor, is not only nauseous to ladies, but is injurious to their dresses."
"A gentleman should not address a lady unless he has been properly introduced."
"No persons engaged in a dance that requires their assistance to complete the set should leave the room or sit down before the dance is finished."

From a Boston publication 1858:

"Persons who have no ear for music, that is to say, a false one, ought to refrain from dancing."
"Married or young ladies cannot leave a ballroom, or any other party, alone. The former should be accompanied by one or two other married ladies, and the latter by their mother, or by a lady to represent her."
"Ladies should avoid talking too much; it will occasion re­marks. It has also a bad appearance to whisper continually in the ear of your partner."
"In giving the hand for ladies' chain or any other figures, those dancing should wear a smile, and accompany it with a polite inclination of the head, in the manner of a salutation."
"In public balls, a gentleman offers his partner refreshments, but which she very seldom accepts, unless she is well ac­quainted with him."

From a Dundee publication 1890:

"Change partners often during the evening, in order that all may enjoy themselves. When requiring to use a handkerchief, put it in your pocket immediately when finished with it. Avoid all vulgar practices, such as biting your nails, making noise with the feet etc."

From a London publication 1817:

"No person during a Country Dance, should hiss, clap, or make any other noise, to interrupt the good order of the company."
"Snapping the fingers, in Country Dancing and Reels, and the sudden howl or yell (introduced in some Scotch parties as partly national with them) ought particularly to be avoided, as partaking too much of the customs of barbarous nations."
"Gentlemen are not allowed to enter the ballroom in boots, spurs, gaiters, trowsers, or with canes or sticks; nor are loose pantaloons considered proper for a Full Dress Ball."

Source for all the above: Scotland through her country dances - George S. Emmerson (London: Johnson Publications, 1967, pp. 23-24). Unfortunately the author does not include detailed references to sources.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Northern Soul dancing

'I was in a shit environment that I hated doing stuff I didn't want to do. I loved dancing, it was the first time [for] northern males it was OK to dance'. Great short video on Northern Soul dancing, reflections of impact of jazz dancing and martial arts on the dance styles of the '100 mph dancers'.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

They Shoot Horses Don't They?

There is a dancefloor utopia, the fantasy of a Boogie Wonderland, a Saturday night that never stops. They Shoot Horses Don't They (a 1935 novel by Horace McCoy) is the opposite - a dancefloor dystopia, the misery of a dance that drags on because the dancers are too desparate to stop. The context is the west coast of the USA during the 1920s Great Depression, specifically a ballroom on a pier in Santa Monica where a Marathon Dance is in progress.

Dance Marathons were a popular entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s, lasting for weeks or even months at a time, with crowds paying to watch the dancers and associated entertainments (sometimes film stars and other celebrity guests would be arranged). The rules in the novel seem to have been fairly typical: 'you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten-minute rest period'. Hundreds of couples would start off, dropping off with exhaustion until one couple were declared victorious. The incentives to take part were a place to stay (albeit without proper sleep) and food, as well as the small chance of winning a cash prize.

The novel (and the later film) focus on one couple, Gloria and Richard, both unemployed and hoping for a break in the movies. Her exisiting nihilistic despair is deepened by the dance contest, and at the end Richard grants her her wish by shooting her. Gloria is not only a broken down workhorse begging to be put out of her misery, she is also a horse on the carousel bobbing up and down for others' amusement, dreaming only on getting off the Merry-go-round for good.

Like modern day 'reality tv', these spectacles combined participants' desparation for money and the hope of fame with audience appetite for watching other people's suffering ( a point captured in the poster for the 1969 film version with its tagline - 'People are the Ultimate Spectacle'). Gloria certainly speaks for many today when she says 'I'm sick of looking at celebrities and I'm sick of doing the same thing over and over again'.

While everyone who loves to dance must sometimes have had a euphoric utopian moment, most will also be familiar with the opposite sensation - stuck on a dancefloor and feeling blue, wanting to be anywhere else, a slave to the rhythm and not enjoying it at all. Presumably people for whom dance is work must feel this sometimes too, if not often.
(top photo: Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin in the film version)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Dancing questionnaire 1 - Neil Transpontine

I want this site to reflect people's personal experiences of dancing and musicking, so I've designed a short questionnaire which I've sent out to various people and which I will post as replies come back in. If you're really keen you can fill one in yourself and send it to me at You can also add another question of your own devising if there's something else you really want to say but can't squeeze into one of these questions! To pilot this I have filled it in for myself, Neil Transpontine.

Can you remember your first experience of dancing?

I remember primary school discos in Luton. It was the 1970s and I won the best dressed boy competition (aged 11) – purple shirt with a big round collar, checked flared trousers, stack heels and a two tone suede bomber jacket (Robert Elms describes these ‘Budgie’ jackets in his book 'The Way we Wore'; Felt wrote a song about them). I remember trying to follow the girls' dancing moves, attempts at ‘The Hustle’ and kind of disco line dances. A few of us decided it was time extend our social lives beyond the confines of our own school, so we went to check out a disco at another local school. Dressed up and looking forward to a dance we were surprized to be set upon almost immediately and chased through the nearby Runfold Estate. Clothes, clubbing and running in the streets at the age of 11 - the pattern was set for the next 30 years.

What’s the most interesting/significant thing that has happened to you while out dancing?

My mum and dad met dancing at the California Ballroom in Dunstable – I guess that was pretty significant for me even if didn’t happen to me. I met my partner at the other great meeting place – work – but it was defininitely dancing and clubbing that brought us together from a drunken snog dancing to Chic in Upper Street after a Christmas party to several years clubbing all over London in the 1990s.

What’s the best place you’ve ever danced in?

Aesthetically, my favourite venue would be the Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley (South London - pictured left), a wonderful old dance hall with velvet walls, chandeliers etc. In terms of the thrill of being there, I would say the M41 during the Reclaim the Streets party which closed down the motorway for a day in July 1996 - London Acid City – Our Time was Then.

You. Dancing. The best of times….

Hard to pin down one, but I suppose going to Club UK (in Wandsworth) with my new girlfriend (now wife) for the first time in 1994 would be up there. I can remember lots of details of the night – listening to a pirate station on the way out, J’s clothes, talking in the queue to some kids who’d done a bunk from the local children’s home to come out. Most of all I remember walking in and they were playing that Pigbag remix (Perfecto Allstarz – Reach Up), the whole place seemed to be exploding, everyone was dancing including the bar staff. Chemicals were obviously adding to the effect for me and most of them, but I also felt this sense both of instant community and continuity, as I’d seen Pigbag play this track live years before and had also seen and loved The Pop Group (Bristol post-punk agit-funkers) from whom Pigbag emerged.

You. Dancing. The worst of times…

Nothing terrible has happened to me personally, but in the early 1990s I helped put on a party at the 121 Centre in Brixton. There was a basement with a wooden staircase down to it. A guy fell straight from the top to the bottom, people carried him up (probably not the best thing to do in terms of first aid) but he died on the pavement outside – whether from the fall or that combined with drugs and alcohol I’m not sure.

Can you give a quick tour of the different dancing scenes/times/places you’ve frequented?

After school and youth club discos I started out with post-punk gigs, getting my glasses smashed in the mosh pit at The Undertones (Aylesbury Friars), leaping over the barriers at the Albert Hall to get to the front when Echo & The Bunnymen played there (1983). Then on to anarcho-punk squat gigs, mid-1980s (Old Kent Road Ambulance Station, Kings Cross Bus Garage), rare groove/funk nights 1987/88 (Jay Strongman’s Dance Exchange at The Fridge in Brixton, PSV in Manchester), ‘world music’ clubs (Mambo Inn in Brixton, Whirl-Y-Gig in Shoreditch Town Hall), indie pop nights in the late 80/early 90s (Camden Falcon, New Cross Venue), clubs in West Belfast (Felons). Everywhere possible with increasing frequency in the 1990s from house music clubs (Club UK, Ministry of Sound, Leisure Lounge, The Gallery at Turnmills, The Cross, The Aquarium), trance and techno nights (Megatripolis at Heaven, Eurobeat 2000), drum and bass (Speed at the Mars Bar) to free parties/squats (Cool Tan and Dead by Dawn in Brixton, bus garage in Hackney, United Systems parties in Market Road, north London). The photo right is in Ibiza (where else?), 1995. Finally stopped for a breather due to children later in the 1990s, sporadic and eclectic dancing, DJing and musicking ever since, highlights in the last year including Norman Jay at Notting Hill Carnival and rediscovering dancing to indie pop at How Does It Feel to be Loved? in Brixton.

When and where did you last dance?

Sean Rowley's Guilty Pleasures at Everything Must Go in Soho, just before Christmas 2006. It was most people’s last day at work for a week or two, so it was like the Saturday night release feeling magnified in intensity, hundreds of people singing along to Carly Simon (‘I had some dreams there were clouds in my coffee…’) dancing on tables and in every available space. I started having this utopian fantasy about everyone deciding that they wanted to carry on like this all the time and refusing to go back to work after the break - a kind of disco general strike spreading across the planet.

You’re on your death bed. What piece of music would make your leap up for one final dance?

Probably some epic house anthem, Scarlet Beautiful by The Beloved would certainly be up there as the song we played at our wedding. Your Loving Arms by Billy Ray Martin. Something like Joe Smooth ‘Promised Land’ or Bedrock’s 'For what you dream of' would also work. Or maybe ‘Walk away Renee’ (Four Tops). Or Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Boy with the Arab Strap’. Or…. Or….

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

No Sleep Till Morn

The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell...

On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet.

Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Photo by Caspernita taken in Decibal, a New Delhi nightclub, 2006.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Vortex eviction looms

"On Sat 6th Jan a group of local people, along with others, occupied 139-141 Church Street [Stoke Newington, London] with the intention of opening it up as a social centre. Previously the home of the famous Vortex jazz club the building is set to be demolished by notorious landlord Richard Midda to make way for a Starbucks on the ground floor with luxury apartments above. This development highlights the continued erosion (and unique character) of Church Street as a community hub, where corporate logos increasingly proliferate while the cost of housing in Hackney escalates beyond the means of most ordinary people. Again and again rich property developers and the dominating power of capital determine our social, living and cultural needs - as with the eviction of the original Vortex private greed always wins out against community need. Social centres are a means whereby people can come together to create, conspire, communicate and offer a collective challenge against this domination" (see here for more details)

The Vortex ran as a jazz venue from the 1980s until 2004, closed by the landlord with a view to demolishing it. Latest news is that the property developers are going to court to get the centre evicted. If you want to experience this place, tomorrow's No Borders benefit might be your last chance. Starbucks however have stated that they are no longer looking at this site.

Saving the Astoria?

I'm not sure that central London gig venue The Astoria Theatre is still under threat - the fear that Derwent Valley Central (a property company) were about to demolish it seems to have evaporated, but Save the Astoria are still concerned about a possible threat from the Crossrail public transport project - apparently The Astoria Theatre could 'be demolished to make way for a worksite necessary for the construction of the new Crossrail station platforms and passages. That's right. Instead of the London Astoria, we get a hole in the ground. A building site.'

I support this campaign but I do have mixed feelings about the desire to conserve music spaces for the sake of it. Change in use of buildings is part of the urban dynamic, which sometimes works in favour of music and dancing. After all The Astoria would never have become a music venue if the pickle factory and later the cinema in the same building hadn't closed down. I've been to enough parties in converted or squatted banks, schools, offices and bus garages to appreciate the beauty of abandoned, empty and marginal spaces in which new possibilities can be created.

On the other hand, the rule of the market means that fluctuations in property values can lead to these kind of spaces being squeezed out leaving little room for music. For instance, all over London (and beyond), pubs are being converted to housing, and big new property developments being built with no space for socialising without the pressure to spend lots of money (i.e. lots of shops and restaurants, no scuzzy pubs). We need to hold on to room to live, to dance, to music, without turning the spaces that are left into some kind of music heritage theme park.

Image: 808 State ticket from the Astoria, 1990. Incidentally, coming out of Brixton tube in this period a ticket tout dropped a ticket for 808 State at the Academy. No sooner had I picked it up than another tout came up to me and offered to buy if off me - quickest money I ever made.