Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Clubbing in Luton 1984

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.

Sweatshop parties

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 -whenever I hear the Arctic Monkeys sing of 'dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984' I am transported back to this place. 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.

The Switch

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 latter 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.

Post-post punk

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 Hatter (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.


Martin said...

Ha! Brilliant post, way too much to respond to in just one comment - didn't know the Bury Park Youth Posse were around back then, I was once attempted mugged by a few of them ('attempted' because I literally had 3p and a bus pass on me, causing much mirth - enough mirth for them to wander off to vandalise some cars instead of kicking my ribs in). I saw one of my would-be muggers around town a bit after that, he once asked me where I got my bondage trousers. One way of avoiding hassle with the Pakistani kids was to say you supported the IRA. Sounds pretty cringeworthy now but it earned you 'anti-English' cred (sometimes).

Incidentally, around late '96, "MARSH FARM MIGS" appeared scrawled on one of the pillars of Deptford Town Hall for a couple of months. Just to say, I know the Luton Town fan who did this, and he had nothing at all to do with the Migs. He did it the night we went to see LTFC play at the New Den and Luton won 1-0. Sadly, some Lutonian woman decided to scream, "YAH, MILLWALL, LOAD OF FUCKING SHIT!" on the platform at South Bermondsey - I was just glad I was going in the Peckham direction - you could feel every Luton fan on the platform tense up, thinking, Yeah, thanks for that love...feel perfectly inconspicuous now.... Mind you, I'd support Luton against w*tf*rd any day...

Is the big SMASH UNILEVER graffitti still up at the bridge near Wardown Park(I think)?

Transpontine said...

I don't know if the Bury Park Youth Posse were around in 1984, but pretty sure they were by the end of the 80s. There was a later famous incident involving the MIGs and the Hells Angels, when the former smashed up the George pub next to Luton bus station frequented by the latter. Think this must have been late 80s too, when the George replaced the Blockers as one of the main 'alternative' pubs.

Not sure if the 'Smash Unilever' graffiti is still there but I think it dates from 1984-6. Unilever has a big laboratory in Bedfordshire and Luton animal rights activists were involved in campaigining against it at that time. I remember in the 80s you could still read some 'Victory to the Viet Cong' graffiti under a bridge near the football ground in Luton, probably twenty years old then. Ancient graffiti like this should be listed by English Heritage.

Anonymous said...

Remember the mouthy bird on the platform well, i was one of a handfull of MIGs on the platform that night and she done us no favours, i think she went on to write a book called "A hatter goes mad",i'm almost 100% on that! Scottish Brian

Anonymous said...

Nice to hear it all I worked in Blokkers 89 -90 it was a fun place it has to be said.....

Anonymous said...

also.... Glen of exodus fame if you ever read this ..... fuckin well done mate and remember tripps? :)

Anonymous said...


Transpontine said...

Interesting that that Maz guy is still a rockabilly rebel and making music, fair play to him (see link in previous post). Feel a bit guilty now saying that he 'put the psycho in psycho billy', but the punch up story is true - I wrote it down in my diary at the time. In his defence - if you can call it that - there was a pervasive atmosphere of drunken violence in the town at the time and very few people can say they never got caught up in it. I even got in a couple of bar room brawls myself, which people who know me now may find hard to believe!

Anonymous said...

Maz was a nutter, went to a party at his flat above hairdressers in wigmore lane. Am sure the party was to celebrate him getting out of Nick. Also while he was there heard a story about some gippo's with a shotgun trying to kick his door in.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone tell me what ever happened to 'BADGER' the main leader of the BOLTS crew - Luton's main hooligan firm in the 70's & 8o's before the Mig Crew ever came into existance? This guy I think his real name was Dan or Danny used to teach martial arts, own his own body-building gym somewhere in Herfordshire and served in the Parachute Regiment, and also worked the doors at most Luton & London Clubs as a doorman with the late guvnor - Lenny Mclean. Bedfordshire police have told me he is now a Minister of the Gospel, is this true?

Jules said...

Martin - The Bridge in Bury Park just got pulled down, so no longer is the "big SMASH UNILEVER graffitti still up".....

Brilliant write up which managed to stir up some grest memories!

Anonymous said...

I remember BADGER! He was an Italian guy and into martial arts who formed the BOLTS - Luton's first frontline hooligan firm. I remember him one season standing toe-to-toe with ten of Everton's main crew members in their away end at Kenilworth Road, getting thrown out of the ground, and then charging into a whole group of Everton being escorted back to the train station, after one Everton fan threw a brick at him which caught him on the side of his head. With blood pouring from his head he went balistic and charged straight into several Everton fans, and then getting bit on the backside by an alsation dog. I was one of the Everton fans that day - respect to the man BADGER and the BOLTS of Luton.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Yes, Badger of the BOLTS hooligan firm is some kind of religious nut working for God now

Anonymous said...

I used to run a mobile disco and did it few times at the Blockers during the week. I was always shit scared when doing it and it never ended when so called last orders were called.I remember playing the theme from Hawaii 5-0 and the place erupting into a drunken dance. I was a postman at the time working in Leagrave and I always remember my cloths stinking of weed when I got up at to go to work. I had usually only had 3 hours kip because my trailer was blocked in the Blockers arms and it was a flash BMW and I was too shit scared to get them to move it. I only did 3 gigs there and then gave it a wide berth. However, it was not that long after, visiting High Town one day the place had been burnt out. I went in for a look and nicked some of the spotlights that were on the walls and used them in my disco lighting after I had cleaned them up and replaced the bulbs. I guess even though the Blockers had died, it still lived on in my disco lighting rig.....LOL :-) Sparky D MC FC DJ of the Sight 'n' Sound Mobile Disco....

Cath. said...

i just spent bloody ages writin a load of stuff and just managed to wipe it all out so basically yea i remember workin in Th switch th George th Tropicana and started drinkin in Th blockers age 15 in bout 1980 and remember th night th stairs collapsed also many a night takin acid after th pub and wanderin th streets off our heads.i also was workin in Th George wen th migs smashed it up and many a time th band th Rattlesnakes played in Th blockers they were gr8.i was livin in Ashburnham rd.along wiv loads of others all in Th B and B days.those were gr8 times and i remember we held a house party at Ella Jo's who was then known as Helen or even The Mystic Cheese.Nick Drake did music.i did th bar and Fossie did th door askin th pigs for their tickets wen they tried to close it down.classic night. Exodus was takin off then and went on to do some gr8 bigger and better things. As for me i went off to live on th road in a truck and many years and 100s partys L8r im now livin in Ireland and only get back to luton every five or so yrs but ave very fond memories of my time there as a young punk and still like to party so will be comin to luton this yr in Th summer and hope to catch up wiv some people i aint seen in yrs.i hear there is a Love Luton festival and am hopin that it will be worth goin to if only to meet up wiv old mates.if anyone remembers either me (Cath.)my sister Helen or bro.pete then you will find me lurkin in luton in July 2012 at this festival in Th park where th bands play.does anyone no where all th old heads from th blockers etc hang out these days as i refuse to believe everyone has grown old and past it! Never surrender! Cath keenan. Somewhere in Eire where there is a wkd festival on 5th MAY 2012 near where i live at mo.called The Festival of th Fires.check it out online.i may see ya there! Adios. Xx

Transpontine said...

Hi Cath, yes I remember you and Pete. Remember that fancy dress party at the Unigate club?. I live in London now, go back now and then. Mich was over from the States last year and I went out for a drink at the Brickies with her, Jane G. etc. (much the same crowd in there as in the 80s, so you'd probably find some Blockers survivors there!). We went out to a Leviticus party (some of the ex-Exodus crew), they're still doing regular nights where I also spotted some ex-Luton punks. All the best and say hello to Pete, Neil (not Forder, the other one who used to live in London Rd bedsits and then with Jo & Lesley in Leagrave).

Cath said...

ah Hi Neil yea i do remember that party as it was my 21st! Gr8 to hear from someone who is as old as myself or near it! Pete is livin in hackney now for th last few yrs.i aint seen or heard from Mich in yrs but remember her well.ill def ave a look in th brickies then and ave heard bout th leviticus crew as Helene still livin in luton tho she over here wiv me at the min. Th last time i was in luton it was covered wiv snow and we couldnt get out at all so didnt really see lookin 4wd to goin over this summer tho and hope there be few good parties on! I do miss those days it was a laugh indeed and ave had some gr8 times over here too.bugsy and sandy and Neil forder all livin over ere down in Kerry and used to stay down there too wiv em but aint seen em for yrs as im up th other end of the country now.ill be movin again soon but at min not out of th country as ave son still in school.cant wait to leave tho its been too long in one place for my likin. Anyway gr8 to hear from ya and maybe bang into ya sometime im in London or luton.its been 20yrs since i left luton its gone so fast its unbelievable but glad to hear there still some people in th brickies and will def check it out.take care and thanx for th info. Cath.x.

Tony Hough said...

Some of us are still here, Cath! I still drink in the George....

Daz (Blonde rockerhippy) said...

Me, too! I still drink with Tony.

Anonymous said...

This was a great journey of memories into the past of my nights out in the various venues of Luton. I can recall most of the people mentioned in this blog and various scary encounters at the Blockers, The Wheatsheaf in Dunstable and of course the George. One night a guy had been thrown through the window we were sitting at and other intimidating members camr through the main door and tried to set the guy alight who they just threw! The Switch was my favourite haunt, great music and times. I was also there at the Tropicana that night uk decay did a session.

Anonymous said...

My parents were the publicans at the blockers from about 1980 to 1984. All I remember is a fab time growing up with punks and now have the ability to sleep through anything! Happy days, was sad to leave.

Anonymous said...

Cath, Tony, Neil... and of course Helen and Plateface Pete, Neil Forder, Bugsy, Sandy, etc. I remember you all very fondly.

Hope you're all well and happy.
Dave x

Transpontine said...

Hi Dave, good to hear from you mate. Living in South London now, the adventure continues though not quite so hectically.

Anonymous said...

Drank in the Blockers when the punks were there and then worked there for a while a few years on. Remember watching one bloke glass his mate cos they couldn't decide who was paying for the round. Ended up drinking in the Mad Hatters and The Cotters. Happy days...thanks for the memories.

Pete (bauhaus) Hosier said...

Thats great report,
I was the DJ in the Blockers that new years eve abd indeed did play bowies 1984, remember it like it was yesterday, wish it was sometimes, thanks for the memories
Pete (bauhaus) Hosier