Sunday, February 24, 2008
After more than ten years of the instant altered states offered by drugs, dancing and electronic beats it has become almost a cliche for people to see themselves as following the shaman’s footsteps on the dancing ground. A typical example talks of 'techno trance parties as the new contemporary ritual', embodying “the power of ecstatic trance dancing' like 'the temple dancers of Egypt, the ecstatic Dionysian dances in the temples of Greece', Sufis, Native American Sundancers and Australian Aboriginals (Return to the Source).
Music, dance (and sometimes pyshcoactive plants) are certainly key ‘archaic techiques of ecstasy’ (Eliade) used to achieve trance states throughout history and in most parts of the world. But it is misleading to think of a universal, unchanging trance dance. There is a great deal of variation in terms of the kind of music used (and in some cases there is even dancing without music); the bodily movements of the dance, which range from the calm to the frenetic; and the kind of mental state induced. Most importantly, the meaning given to the trance state varies according to the ritual context and the beliefs of the participants.
Clearly there are parallels with modern dance scenes, but it is arrogant to assume that all the various techniques of trance dancing amount to the same thing as staying up all night at a club in South London. It implies that we already know it all, and have nothing more to learn. Considering the differences may be more instructive.
In most settings, trance dance is not just about hedonism (although pleasure is often part of it) or even the mystical state of oneness. Typically, trance involves some notion of possession, with spirits being invoked in a controlled ritual context. These spirits may be ancestors, nature sprites or aspects of Gods and Goddesses. Furthermore these rituals tend to be undertaken not just to achieve altered states of consciousness but to bring about change in the material world, such as curing sickness or making it rain. These rituals can be very complex, with the trance dance only one element. For instance the all night dance of the Navajo’s healing ‘medicine sing’ marked the conclusion of a nine-day ceremonial featuring prayers, sand paintings, sweat baths and medications.
It follows from this complexity that to be able to master the trance experience can take years of training. It is perhaps typical of the commodified New Age spiritual supermarket that people imagine they can achieve the same results for the price of a pill and a ticket.
To say that contemporary mass dancing offers a different kind of trance experience is not to say that it is always inferior. Practitioners of esoteric/magical trance dancing sometimes bemoan the lack of focus for the energy raised in a club or party, but in some ways the key to this experience is precisely the pleasure of abandon and excess without purpose, an anti-economic expenditure of energy without return (Bataille).
There is a clear political aspect to many traditional trance practices. I.M. Lewis refers to spirit possession/trance as a ‘ strategy of mystical attack’ by which people of low social status are able to act and speak in ways which would not otherwise be socially permitted. He gives examples of spirits which possess women and servants, demanding that their husbands or masters treat them with respect or offer them gifts. Since it is the gods or the sprits who are responsible, this ritualised rebellion is tolerated within certain limits, beyond which people risk being labelled as witches or sorcerers.
Trance dancing is also characterised by what the anthropologist Victor Turner calls ‘liminality’ (from the Latin for threshold). This describes the way that people in ritual activity ‘separate themselves... from the roles and statuses they have in the workaday world’ crossing the threshold to a space emphasising ‘equality, anonymity and foolishness when compared with the heterogeneous, status-marked, name-conscious intelligence of the social order’ (Driver).
An example is the medieval phenomenen known as St Vitus Dance or tarantism. In Germany, Holland, Belgium and Italy ‘In times of misery, the most abused members of society felt themselves seized by an irresistable urge to dance wildly until they reached a state of trance and collapsed exhausted... peasants left their ploughs, mechanics their workshops, house-wives their domestic duties, children their parents, servants, their masters - all swept headlong into the Bacchanialian revelry’ (Lewis).
Trance dancing ceremonies often involve reaffirming the bonds between people, between the living and the ancestral dead; between humans, animals and the land. Turner calls this ‘communitas’, a spirit of unity and mutual belonging generated by ritual that is more than simply the fact of living in a common space implied by ‘community’.
Prior to their last stand against confinement in a reservation in the 1870s, the Comanches held an elaborate sun dance: ‘the people danced in bands for five days before the sun dancers themselves danced, drummed and sang for three further days, doing without food and water for the duration of the dance’ (Wilson). We can trace a similar link between dance, community and resistance today. On Reclaim the Streets parties for instance dance music is much more than just a soundtrack. It is the act of dancing together that help creates a collectivity from a collection of isolated individuals, giving us a sense of our power and a vision of a different way of being.
Anybody who has been out dancing in the last ten years will recognise something of their own experience in these ideas of liminality and communitas. (I would add that this applies not just in the self-defined trance scene, but in dance music scenes generally whatever the soundtrack.). Of course, it is possible to criticise this experience as illusory, compensating for, but not challenging the ruling society that denies real community. In this sense, the contemporary dance scene could be said to perform the same role as religion as ‘the heart of heartless world... the opiate of the masses’ (Marx). And there is a truth in this. In clubs you sometimes get an incredible mix of people dancing together, but whatever the feeling of togetherness, at the end of the night some go back to stately homes, some to children’s homes. Yet, however fleeting this feeling, it is never entirely a fiction - even if it only provides a glimpse of how different things could be.
- G. Bataille, Eroticism, 1962.
- T.F. Driver, The magic of ritual: our need for liberating rites that transform our lives and our communities, 1991.
- M. Eliade, Shamanism: archaic techniques of Ecstasy.
- I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: an anthropological study of spirit possession and shamanism.
- Return to the Source, Deep Trance and Ritual Beats booklet, 1995
- B. Wilson, Magic and the Millenium, 1973.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Martin at Beyond the Implode has 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 (later filmed as Blinded by the Light).
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 the mid-1980s 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. There were the early indie pop kids too, though I don't think anybody called them that at the time (The Razorcuts came from Luton as did Talulah Gosh's Elizabeth Price). 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 remember for instance seeing Welwyn's finest The Astronauts there.
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 later reopened and eventually became The Well.
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 flyer states 'Dirt Box Rip Off', a reference to the popular Dirt Box warehouse parties in London at that time.
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 time 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.
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 BBC East 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.
There were sporadic alternative nights in some of Luton's clubs which offered a bit of diversity. Sometimes they took place on the quieter mid-week nights - since so many of us were on the dole it didn’t particularly matter whether it was a Tuesday or a Saturday night.
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!
There was also the 33 Arts Centre, a community arts space with print shop, video and music studios that sometimes put on gigs and events. 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 Spiritwalker. 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 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 me 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 firms the MIGs (Men in Gear) and 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 some of 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.
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 more or less 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 I also went to a 2011 night put on my their successor Leviticus. 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 Eye. 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 Communities 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.
Monday, February 04, 2008
Berlin, King Street: Ballroom Blitz every thursday, adm.75p for members. 15 years of glitter from Bolan to Bauhaus, all drinks 60p till 10.30. Friday House Of Noise, the ultimate dimension in terror! Subversive and underground classics from the last decade.
Cloud-Nine, 15 Cross St: Sats, Alternative party night, Alan Maskell & Dave Booth DJ. Wed &: Thurs bands and disco, only £1.
The Ritz, Whitworth St, round the corner from Oxford Rd station. Monday night.
Archway 66 Whitworth St West, Mon-Sat 10-3 (bar to 2am) Hi tech, macho men and trendies. Tues: men only, free membership with UB40.
Heroes. Ridgefield St, off John Dalton St. Wed-Sat 10-2, Sunday 9.30-2 (special sunday membership). Thursday (Powerhouse) mixed. Other nights mainly men and mainly High HRG.
Jilly’s Rock Club, 650 Oxford St Manchester. Fri &: Sat rock music 8-2. Alternative night every Thursday 60p admission, drinks 60p.
Hacienda, 11-13 Whitworth St West. Fridays when no gigs adm.50p before 11pm, most drinks 60p, special offers on cocktails. Tues: l hometown gig.
Band on the Wall, 25 Swan Street, live music 6 nights a week.
See also 1984 clubbing in London, Luton and Sheffield
- THE LIMIT, on West St. Best nights Monday (free before 10, £1 after that) and Friday (£1.50 before 11 , £2 after that)
- WIG WAM, Saturdays at Mona Lisa's, 9pm-2am, adm. 75p. Hot Funk!
- ROCKWELLS on West St has live bands on Mond & Wed, pub hours.
- GAY BOPS: Every Friday at Stars on Queens Rd; Once a month on Friday at the Top Rank.
Get Up Offa That Thing, Tony Baxter
Walk Alone, Sisters Of Mercy
In The Mood, Glen Miller
Out Of The Flesh, Chakk
Sensoria, Cabaret Voftaire
Ignore The Machine, Alien Sex Fiend
We Are Family, Sister Sledge
I Like Plastic, Marsha Raven
Gutter Hearts, Marc Almond
PAUL, D.J. at The Limit top 10:
Sensoria. Cabaret Voltaire
Attica, Spear of Destiny
Walk Away. Sisters Of Mercy
I'm So Beautiful. Divine
Heartbeat. Psychedelic Furs
Why, Bronski Beat
Slippery People. Talking Heads
Fever Cars, Hula
Bonnle & Clyde, Papa Levi
- The Snatch. Fun and Funk. Admission £2.50 at Legends, 29 Old Burlington St.
- Kit Kat Club, run by Simon Hogart. Punk funk for £3.00 10 pm-3am. Fouberts, 18 Fouberlt Place W1
- Batcave, nocturnal entertainment, admission £3.00 9pm-3am at The Cellar (behind Heaven). - H.E.D.S, at Crazy Larry's, 533 Kings Road SW1. 9.30pm-2am, admission £3 or £2 before 11 pm.
- Asylum at Heaven. Admission £3, Hi-Energy and Disco.
- Pink Panther DJ Graham Vine plays Hi-Tac, from 12.00 – 5.30am admission £3. 57 Wardour St.
- Mud Club run by Phillip Salon. DJ Jay Strongman and Tasty Tim, 10pm-3am. Busby's, 157 Charing Cross Rd, WC2
- Life run by Steve Swindle. DJ John plays Hi-Funk. 10pm-3am, admission £3 at Fouberts, 18 Fouberts Place W1.
- Do-Do's at Busby's, 157 Charing Cross Rd, London WC1. 10pm-4am, admission £4 or £3 before 11 pm.
- Culcross Hall, music across the board played by DJs Noel and Morris, 11 pm-4am, admission £2.50. On Battlebridge Rd, off Pancras Rd, Kings Cross.
Meanwhile, here's a few Christmas Dos NOT TO BE MISSED in the capital: The Mud Club Christmas Ball at Heaven, Dec 24th, The Wag Club Christmas party, Dec 20th. Do-Dos’s Santa Claus Soul party at Busby's, Dec 11th. The Circus- Date'n' Venue to be announced and don't forget! The Wharehouse.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
There's music to dance to, and then there's music about dancing (which may not even be very danceable). Sometimes a song is simply an exhortation to dance (move that body etc.), sometimes its an attempt to evoke the feeling of dancing or to tell the story of a particular night out, good or bad.
First up in a series of songs about dancing is this slice of Swedish indie pop by Those Dancing Days, a song of the same name that goes: 'High on life, in love with me, dancing in the night, dancing through the days... Living for music, living in a dance, music for life, those dancing days'. OK it's not Shakespeare but I like the bubbly exuberance and sense of music as a lifeforce.