Like many new clubs at this time, it was launched in a blaze of publicity about its luxurious decor and facilities. Like most, the reality was that the money was mainly spent on the sound system, and it was in fact a 'utilitarian, cavernous warehouse' (to quote DJ magazine), with 3 different music rooms - the 'techno room', the 'pop art room' and the main room - there is a detailed description of the place at 'the Club UK experience' site.
Final Frontier flyer, January 1995 (click to enlarge)
Saturdays was a house night, with a dominant soundtrack of the kind of anthems despised as 'handbag house' by tedious musos, but which I loved (and indeed still do- hooray for funky!). Yes lots of disco diva vocals and four to floor rhythms. When I think of Saturday nights at Club UK, the tracks that come to mind are things like Your Loving Arms by Billy Ray Martin (the Junior Vasquez Soundfactory mix), To the Beat of the Drum by La Luna, Wildchild's Renegade Master, Push the Feeling On by the Nightcrawlers. Oh and that piano break track with the sample of Blur's Girls and Boys (Pianoman - Blurred).
Club UK flyer, February 1995 (click to enlarge)
What made Club UK special was a crowd of 1400 people for which the term 'up for it' seems completely inadequate. I can still vividly picture walking in there for the first time on a Saturday night - as soon as we stepped through the doors it felt like we were in the middle of an explosion of energy. The track playing was Reach Up (Papa's got a brand new pigbag) by Perfecto Allstarz - the whole place was erupting, there didn't seem to be any sense of a dancefloor, everybody in the place was dancing including the bar staff. You would meet all kinds of people there from public school kids (there were press reports of Etonians being suspended for taking drugs there) to squaddies - I remember on that first visit chatting to a couple who had done a bunk from a local children's home to be there.
Club UK was the opposite of cool, in every sense of the word. It was a sweatbox with little or no air conditioning, condensation dripping off the ceilings and sometimes unbearably hot and crowded. One night when we there they had to open the fire exit into the Arndale to let people breathe - so there was an impromtu chill out area on a balcony overlooking the deserted shopping centre (pretty sure this was on their second birthday party, July 1st 1995, with Danny Rampling playing). I remember sucking ice pops to try and cool down. The place was ecstasy fuelled, so many people would go the whole night without buying a drink. Many dubious clubs at that time used to turn off the water in the bathrooms so that people had to buy water from the bar. I don't recall Club UK going to that extreme, but sometimes the cold water taps were reduced to a dribble and they certainly made a small fortune selling their own brand of bottled water. Like in many clubs, there were many random acts of kindness as strangers offered each other sips of water on the dancefloor.
South London Press, 17 October 1995 (click to enlarge)
One hazard was the sporadic police raids. The first one was in December 1994 on a Friday night. Then in October 1995, 150 police raided it on a Saturday. Operation Blade involved dogs, horses, and the Territorial Support Group. 800 clubbers were turned out on to the streets, and many searched. 10 people were arrested. The police raid on Club UK was carried out with TV cameras in attendance, correctly described by the clubowners as a 'media circus'. It seems the raid was deliberately timed to provide a story on which to hang the launch two days later of a new anti-drugs campaign called SNAP (Say no and phone). Ironically the police launched this campaign at Club UK's South London rival, The Ministry of Sound, a place where drug use was just as widespread.
With hindsight, there were though some very dodgy people involved with Club UK. As in the United States when prohibition of alcohol led to the Mafia control of drinking clubs, the prohibition of drugs like ecstasy created a huge market for UK gangsters to fill.
In December 1995, three men were found shot dead in a Range Rover in a country lane near Rettendon in Essex: Tony Tucker, Pat Tate and Craig Rolfe. There are different versions of why they were killed, as they had many enemies from their involvement in violence and drug smuggling. But it is well established that Tucker ran security at Club UK. According to Tony Thompson in 'Bloggs 19: the story of the Essex Range Rover Triple Murders' (London: Warner, 2000), 'Controlling the doors of a club instantly means that you control who sells drugs inside. Tucker began to charge dealers 'rent' of around £1000 per week in return for granting them exclusive access to the club... in March 1994, twenty-year old Kevin Jones died at Club UK in south London after taking ecstasy. In a bid to track the source, police put two of the club's suspected dealers under surveillance and discovered they had been paying Tony Tucker, the man responsible for security at the club, £1000 per weekend for the exclusive rights to sell ecstasy and cocaine'. Thompson also suggests that Tucker supplied the ecstasy to a dealer at Raquels nightclub in Basildon, the source of the infamous E that caused the death in November 1995 of Leah Betts at her 18th birthday party.
In a statement to police after the murders, Christoper Hall of the (unrelated) Club UN in Tottenham stated: 'I first met Tony [Tucker] when I was operations director for 'First Continental' the Hollywood chain of nightclubs. The directors of this company was Marios George Ellides and Chris George Ellides. My duties at that time included the operation of each club my role was a supervisory management role. At each club the security staff were controlled by Tony Tucker. The clubs were Hollywood Romford, Hollywood Ipswich, Club Art Southend, Club UK Wandsworth'.
The Rettendon events are fictionalised in Jake Arnott's novel True Crime, where one of the characters declares: 'It's who runs the doors, Gaz. That's what this thing is going to be all about. It doesn't matter who runs the club, who promotes the event or whatever. It's who's in control of security, that's going to be the thing. That way you decide who can bring in drugs and deal inside the place'.
The real story of criminal gangs in the 1990s club explosion remains untold. There were all sorts of rumours - e.g. that members of the Inter City Firm ran The Leisure Lounge club in Holborn - and surely most of the players in that scene - DJs, promoters etc. - must have been on more than nodding terms with some very dubious people, whether they liked it or not. That gangsters like Tucker controlled the drugs trade in clubs is not surprizing, but as they made more and more money it seems likely that some must have crossed over to investing profits in buying and running clubs. It would be interesting to know where some of the money came from for some of the high profile new clubs that opened in that period. And its a sobering thought that in any counter-culture/alternative scene organised around drugs, you are only ever two degrees of separation away from a thug with a gun.
More memories, flyers and mixes on the Final Frontier and Club UK groups at Facebook. Great to remember all the good nights, but let's not forget those who didn't make it: Andreas Bouzis (18) and Kevin Jones (20) who died after collapsing at the club.
See also Clubbed to Death