Having briefly surveyed clubbing in London, Sheffield and Manchester in 1984 we must now turn to the centre of the musical universe, or at least my universe at that time – Luton in Bedfordshire. For any non-UK readers, this is an industrial town 30 miles north of London – or at least it was at this point, before General Motors closed down the Vauxhall car factory.
Martin at Beyond the Implode has already chronicled his memories of the downside of living there in the early 1990s – driving around all night listening to Joy Division on the run from ‘Clubs where you'd pay 10 quid to enter (5 if you were a girl) with the promise of a free bar all night. Pints of watered down Kilkenny Ajax, or single vodkas with a squirt of orange. Bobby Brown skipping on the club's CD-player. Bare knuckle boxing tournaments outside kebab shops’. Sarfraz Manzoor has also painted a less than flattering account of the town in his book Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion, Rock’n’Roll.
There’s nothing in these accounts I would really disagree with, though only people who have lived in Luton earn the right to criticise it. I would of course defend it against other detractors by pointing out to its interesting counter-cultural history!
I was born and grew up there, and actually chose to move back to be a full time anarcho-punk for a few years in the mid-1980s, having earlier left the town to go to college. I think the anarcho-punk stories can wait until another post, but for now lets look at the mid-1980s nightlife, such as it was.
The Blockers Arms
There were several pubs with an ‘alternative’ crowd in Luton around this time – The Black Horse, The Sugar Loaf, later the Bricklayers Arms. But in 1983/4 the various sub-cultures of punks, psychobillies, skinheads and bikers tended to congregate at one pub more than any other, The Blockers Arms in High Town Road. A hostile local historian has written that ‘During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the pub became a Mecca for some of the undesirable elements of Luton society, it being reported that the pub was used by drug-peddlers, with the result that there was much trouble with fights and under-age drinking’ (Stuart Smith, Pubs and Pints: the story of Luton’s Public Houses and Breweries, Dunstable: Book Castle, 1995). Most of this is true, but of course we all thought we were very desirable!
The micro-tribes gathered in the pub were united in their alienation from mainstream Luton nightlife, whilst suspicious of each other, sometimes to the point of violence. The bikers dominated the pool table and the dealing. The traditional charity bottle on the bar read ‘support your local Hells Angels’, and you really didn’t want to argue with them. Skinheads would turn up looking for a fight, throwing around glasses. Even among the punks there were different factions, albeit overlapping and coexisting peacefully – some slightly older first generation punks, Crass-influenced anarcho-punks and goths. The layout of the pub catered for the various cliques as there were different areas – the inside of the pub had little booths (the smallest for the DJ), and there was also an outside courtyard where bands sometimes played.
I saw in 1984 in the Blockers. There was drinking, singing and dancing, with midnight marked with Auld Lang Syne and U2’s ‘New Year’s Day’. Inevitably Bowie’s 1984 also got an airing. Later in the year it closed down for refurbishment in the latest of a series of doomed attempts to lose its clientele. It reopened only to lose its license in 1986, closing soon after. The pub is now called The Well, and I am glad to see that it seems to be still going strong as a subcultural haven, hosting happy hardcore nights among others.
After The Blockers on that New Year’s Eve nearly everybody went on to a warehouse party at 'the Sweatshop' (22a Guildford Street). Luton had once been famous for its hat industry – blockers were one of the groups of workers involved – and there were various former hat factory spaces in the old town centre. One of these was put into action on Christmas Eve 1983 and again on New Year’s Eve – the flyer for the former being recycled for the latter, inviting people to bring their own bottle and dance till dawn for £1. As well as Cramps, Siouxsie and the Banshees etc. there was lots of 1950s music, in addition to what I noted in my diary at the time as drinking, dancing, kissing and falling around.
The space was used a few times in the mid-80s for parties over Christmas and New Year. There was a small room downstairs and a big open space upstairs, I remember one year the banister on the staircase between the two collapsed, and somebody broke their arm. But most people there would surely rather have taken their chances with dodgy health and safety than risked going out in the main clubs and bars of Luton town centre.
Tuesday Night Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees
The dominant nightclub culture in the town catered for pringle-clad ‘casuals’ as we derided the mainstream youth fashion of the time. The biggest club was the Tropicana Beach – once known as Sands, it still had plastic palm trees. I often wondered whether it might have been one of the inspirations for Wham’s Club Tropicana, given that George Michael grew up not too far away in Hertfordshire.
With a dress code of ‘casual or interesting but not scruffy’, punks were generally banned and indeed most other deviations from the norm. I remember seeing the organiser of a student disco there turned away from his own party on account of his vaguely hippyish appearance. Of course the people they did let in were often far more dangerous than those outside – once when I was refused entry there were knives outside presumably left behind when people realized they’d be searched on the way in.
I did occasionally go there on Tuesdays, when with punters in short supply free tickets were given out to more or less anybody able to buy a drink – seemingly regardless of age as well as clothes. The music was whatever was in the charts with a DJ who spoke over the records mixing sexist banter with comments designed to police the dancefloor – telling my friends to stop their raucous slam dancing with the warning ‘do you girls want to stay until one o’clock?’ (not sure they did actually).
For one night only in 1984, the Tropicana Beach fell into the hands of the freaks. The local TV station (Anglia) were filming a performance by Furyo, one of the splinters from the break up of Luton’s main punk band, UK Decay, and all the local punks, goths and weirdoes were rounded up to be the audience.
Strokes and Shades
The quieter mid-week nights in Luton clubs did sometimes permit a bit of diversity. Since so many of us were on the dole it didn’t particularly matter whether it was a Tuesday or a Saturday night.
There was a club called Strokes where an occasional ‘alternative’ night called The Gathering was held in 1984, and the same place previously hosted the itinerant Stingray Club which also took place at Doublets, Cheers and The Mad Hatters. I also went to a reggae sound system night at Strokes.
Another occasional oasis was Luton’s only gay club, Shades in Bute Street (formerly the Pan Club). In 1983 it hosted Club for Heroes, an attempt at a new romanticish club night with lots of Bowie, Kraftwerk and Iggy Pop. I particularly remember Yello’s ‘I love you’ playing there. There were attempts at robotic dancing. All this for £1 and beer at 82p a pint!
These and other venues can be viewed in this fine gallery of notorious Luton punk venues.
Most of these nights came and went, but there was one which defined Luton’s post-punk nightlife for quite a few years – The Switch.
In the early 1970s, Luton Council became one of the first to embrace the indoor shopping mall in a big way – by bulldozing much of the existing town centre. The Arndale Centre which replaced it opened in 1972 and was for a while the biggest indoor shopping centre in Europe. Needless to say it was, and is, a bland soulless affair but the planners did provide for it to include a pub, originally named The Student Prince and then the Baron of Beef. The name had changed again to the Elephant & Tassel by January 1985 when on a Thursday night – it happened to be my birthday – The Switch held its first night there.
The Switch was to remain at the Tassel for a couple of years, and continued at various other venues into the mid-1990s with the DJs/promoters Nick Zinonos and Bernie James spreading their empire to run nights in Northampton, Oxford and Cambridge.
My time there though was in 1985/6, when Thursday night at The Switch fitted nicely into the Giro Thursday routine of me and many of my friends. This involved picking up our cheques from the government (£39 a week), cashing them at the post office, getting in the vegan groceries and then going home to crimp our hair before heading to the pub and then The Switch. There to drink and dance to songs like Spear of Destiny’s Liberator, Baby Turns Blue by the Virgin Prunes, the Sisters of Mercy’s Alice, Dark Entries by Bauhaus and The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary. In a departure from the general gothdom the last record was usually 'Tequila' by The Champs.
Tracks like these were to become staples of goth clubs for years to come, but at least we were dancing to them when they were new and anyway Luton can claim to be the town that invented goth. So at least some say on the basis that UK Decay was one of the first punk bands to start referencing horror themes, plundering Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Hesse for inspiration (see 1981 article Punk Gothique). We might also add that Richard North (aka Cabut), sometime editor of Luton/Dunstable punk zine Kick played a significant role in the early goth/ ‘positive punk’ scene – he coined the phrase in NME in 1983 and played in one of the bands, Brigandage - you can read his account of being a Dunstable punk at 3am magazine (Dunstable is Luton's next door neighbour).
The Switch sometimes had live music. I recall seeing a band called The Veil there in 1986, strangely enough including some Americans who had been in a band with Bryan Gregory from the Cramps and had ended up living in Luton and working in the local cinema.
The UK Decay website has resurrected a whole virtual community of punks and goths from the Luton area, and includes some good memories of the Switch such as this one: ‘I started going late '84 when I was 16 and it was wild! The most amazing collage of weird and wonderful people…I drank LOTS of DRINKS, got into lots of bands, and dyed my hair various colours. It was where I learnt about wearing makeup as a boy, lots of new bands, subcultures, and of course...GIRLS! It was a life experience, that club, and we all came away changed’.
Another recalls: ‘Oh happy days. 1985 was the start of my new alternative social life and the blueprint to the soundtrack of my life. After leaving school and starting working in the alcohol aisle of Tesco's I was introduced to this cool goth called Karl. He informed of this goth club under the Arndale called The Elephant And Tassel. After visiting for the first time in the summer of '85 and being lucky enough to obtain a membership straight away, I was born again’.
The same person also remembers the downside: 'I remember also, all too well, getting done over on the way home by an unpleasant man with a half-brick and three mates who objected to my fashion sensibilities…Dressing in black, crimping your hair and spraying it with the contents of one of those big fucking tins of Boots hairspray somehow always managed to cause offence to beer monsters’.
When I recall my time in Luton, violence is always mixed up with my memories- skinheads threatening blokes for wearing make up, bikers beating people up for talking to their girlfriends, drunken arguments with bouncers. In the Switch one night, the DJ got a bloody nose from a guy called Maz - who really put the psycho in psychobilly – just because he hadn’t played his band’s demo tape enough. Then there was gang warfare – Luton Town Football Club’s hooligan firm the MIGs (Men in Gear) and its baby wing the BOLTs (Boys of Luton Town). At least unlike some of the London firms they weren’t linked to the far right, but the fact that they were racially mixed (white british and african-caribbean) didn’t stop them from engaging in a long and violent conflict with the asian Bury Park Youth Posse.
As the 80s wore on, the punk uniform began to feel restrictive and more to the point anybody with an appreciation for music had to acknowledge that some of the most innovative and exciting sounds were coming out of black music, such as early hip hop and electro. For some reason it was Prince more than any other artist who seemed to provide the bridge which a lot of Luton punky types crossed into an appreciation of this music.
In search of something different we sometimes went to a gay club at the Elephant and Tassel on Saturday night, where there was a diet of hi-nrg pop like Bronski Beat, Divine and Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round. In January 1987, I went to another night at the Tassel, Rubber Box, where DJ Crazy Fish played versions of Kiss by both Prince and the Age of Chance. The next week I moved down to London and my days clubbing in Luton were more or less over.
I did use to come back sometimes over the next couple of years and go to The Mad Hatters (which later became Club M), where the Switch had moved to. They played indie stuff upstairs while downstairs there was 80s soul and funk. By this time I was spending more time downstairs than up, down among the casuals who I was now indistinguishable from with my flat top and bomber jacket. Maybe they weren’t so bad after all -well my sister was one – and to be fair as well as intolerant unmusical thugs there was always a hardcore of dedicated soul boys and girls in Luton who took their music very seriously, heading off to Caister for soul weekenders etc. Mind you some of them were still thugs!
That was it for me and dancing in Luton (so far!), although I did make it back to Bedfordshire for a festival put on by the Exodus Collective, Luton’s free party warriors. And of course I had to go when Exodus put on a party at the Cool Tan squat in Brixton when I was living there in 1995. Some of the old Luton ex-punks were there too, still going strong in an electronic outfit called Big I. Having put down roots elsewhere I can’t imagine living back in Luton, but respect to those still trying to make interesting things happen there, some of whom have now been at it for 30 years.
Vandalism begins at home is a current Luton music site. UK Decay is the best source of Luton punk history, with a gallery of photos that future social historians will pore over as a record of subcultural style in an English town in the 1970s and 1980s.
See also clubbing in 1984 in London, Sheffield and Manchester.