Saturday, March 29, 2008

Turnmills closes

Another London nighttime landmark has closed, following the final weekend of Turmills - the famous club in Clerkenwell. The final record to be played last Monday afternoon was apparently Blue Monday by New Order. Landlord Derwent London is planning to convert the building into an office block.

Turnmills opened as a wine bar in 1985 and came into its own as a club from 1990 when it became the first in the country to be granted a licence to open 24 hours a day all year round. In the mid-1990s it became home to groundbreaking gay nights Trade and FF and then to the Friday house night The Gallery, which started in July 1994 and featured DJ 'Tall' Paul Newman - whose dad John Newman owned the club.

I spent some happy nights at The Gallery and techno club Eurobeat 2000 which was also held there for a while. The pages reproduced here are a hyperbolic article about The Gallery from Muzik magazine (July 1998 - click on them to read) which described it as 'the full-on Northern club night in the middle of London' on the basis of it being an attitude-free night of full-on hedonism in 'a cool venue full of twists, turns and little hideways to indulge in a "bit of the other"'. It is true that the dancefloor wasn't massive, but it didn't matter as there were speakers all over the place and people danced wherever they happen to be standing, by the bar or the pinball machine as well as on the dancefloor proper.

There was also a gallery overlooking the main part of the club. I remember sitting up there on The Gallery's first birthday night in 1995, watching Boy George (who is a tall bloke) walking though the crowd in a T-shirt saying "Hate is not my drug", shaking hands, and heading into the DJ booth to announce himself with Lippy Lou's Liberation, followed by a stampede to the dance floor. I remember wearing a silver sparkly top, girls with fairy wings and a man walking into the toilets wearing a dress and offering round a bowl of bonbons (at Easter 1996 they also gave out chocolate mini eggs at the door). Musically I remember pumped up mixes of disco classics I Feel Love and Do you wanna Funk, Insomnia by Faithless and more than anything else bouncing around under the lasers to Access by DJ Misjah & Tim.

In his book, London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd mentions Turnmills, seeing it as an inheritor of Clerkenwell's historic reputation for disrespectful nightlife and more broadly as 'the harbour for the outcast and those who wished to go beyond the law'. For Ackroyd, these continuities in London life 'suggest that there are certain kinds of activity, or patterns of inheritance, arising from the streets and alleys themselves', a kind of spirit of place which he has referred to as a 'territorial imperative'. Whether this spirit of Clerkenwell will withstand property developers remains to be seen. Derwent London at least seem intent on exorcising the ghosts of Clerkenwell radical and salubrious past, stating that their business is 'to improve the desirability of people coming to these buildings'.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Here We Dance

Last week I went to the launch of Here We Dance, at Tate Modern. The exhibition aims to look at 'the relationship between the body and the state, exploring how the physical presence and circulation of bodies in public space informs our perceptions of identity, nation, society and democracy. The title derives from a work by Ian Hamilton Finlay, which refers to the celebrations that took place during the French Revolution, and alludes to the importance of social gathering in any form of political action or resistance. Bodily movements and gestures, collective actions and games are examined through media as diverse as film, photography, neon text and performance'.

At the private view there was a performance of Gail Pickering's Zulu - a woman moving around wooden shapes while reciting texts which seemed to be from the Weather Underground and similar 60s/70s urban guerrilla groups. This is powerful material that needs a lot of critical discussion and I am not convinced that playing with it in a gallery context really allows the space for reflection - given that most people viewing it would have no idea of the context or even where these words come from.

For me, the most striking piece is the late Ian Hamilton Finlay’s neon sign Ici on Danse ('here we dance/here one dances') - the words displayed at the entrance to a festival that was held on the site of the Bastille in July 1790 to celebrate the anniversary of the storming of the prison. On the gallery wall next to the sign, there is an accompanying text by Camille Desmoulins:

‘While the spectators, who imagined themselves in the gardens on Alcinous, were unable to tear themselves away, the site of the Bastille and its dungeons, which had been converted into groves, held other charms for those whom the passage of a single year had not yet accustomed to believe their eyes. An artificial wood, consisting of large trees, had been planted there. It was extremely well lit. In the middle of this lair of despotism there had been planted a pike with a cap of liberty stuck on top. Close by had been buried the ruins of the Bastille. Amongst its irons and gratings could be seen the bas-relief representing slaves in chains which had aptly adorned the fortress’s great clock, the most surprising aspect of the sight perhaps being that the fortress could have been toppled without overwhelming in its fall the posterity of the tyrants by whom it had been raised and who had filled it with so many innocent victims. These ruins and the memories they called up were in singular contrast with the inscription that could be read at the entrance to the grove – a simple inscription whose placement gave it a truly sublime beauty – ici on danse’.

The image of dancing on the ruins of the Bastille certainly appeals to me, even if the experience of Desmoulins – a revolutionary executed in 1794 by the new post-revolutinary authorities – suggests that those celebrating should always be looking over their shoulder for those building new Bastilles around the corner.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Neither Washington, nor Moscow, but Eton?

Interesting article by John Harris in today's Guardian looking at the seemingly bizarre phenomenon of English Conservative politicians expressing their love for the anti-Conservative music of their 1980s youth. That Tory leader David Cameron claims to like The Smiths, Billy Bragg and The Jam is not new - the latter particularly amusing as Cameron went to top toff public school Eton, satirised by The Jam in a song that included the line 'Hello, hooray, I'd prefer the plague/To the Eton rifles'. Paul Weller of The Jam at least remains uncompromising about this period according to Harris: "I think they were absolute fucking scum - especially Thatcher, who I think should be shot as a traitor to the people. I still think that, and nothing will ever change my opinion. We're still feeling the effects of what they did to the country now, and probably always will: the whole breakdown of communities, trade unions, the working class - the dismantling of lots of things."

More surprizing was to hear that Conservative MP Ed Vaizey was a fan of avowed trotskyists The Redskins: 'he still treasures a vinyl copy of their sole album Neither Washington Nor Moscow - strap-lined, in keeping with a Socialist Workers party slogan, "but international socialism"'.

The article mentions a day that I remember well: "Bragg has a theory that when he, The Smiths and the Redskins played a benefit for the doomed GLC in 1986, Cameron was probably in the audience". The gig in question was actually the Greater London Council-sponsored 'Jobs for a Change' festival on 10th June 1984, in Jubilee Gardens on London's South Bank. The GLC, then controlled by the Labour Left, was in the process of being abolished by the right-wing Thatcher government. Whatever the limitations of municipal labourism, the GLC did put on some fantastic free festivals in this period. As well as this one with The Smiths, I also saw The Pogues at an event in Battersea Park (1985) and The Damned, The Fall. New Model Army and Spear of Destiny in Brockwell Park, Brixton (1984). These were huge events, 80,000+ plus.

I could hardly forget seeing The Smiths but what sticks in my mind from that time is a feeling of powerlessness not of collective strength. While The Redskins were playing, a group of fascist skinheads stormed the stage. Despite there being thousands of avowed leftists in the crowd and only a few dozen nazis (at most), the former mostly fled in panic. Shortly afterwards a group of anti-fascists punks, Class War and Red Action types found each other and chased the fascists through the crowd - only to be slagged off by other festival-goers for being aggressive and spoiling their party. Later I saw the skinheads returning towards the festival over Waterloo Bridge - when I tried to summon up some interest from stewards I was met with complete indifference. After all these people had only just physically attacked one of the bands playing, nothing to worry about!

In the light of this I would have to reluctantly agree - albeit from a diametrically opposed perspective - with Tory MP Vaizey who is quoted in the Guardian article saying: "People could do all this ranting from the stage, but you knew it wasn't going to change the tide of history."

There are some interesting considerations in this whole discussion about the limitations of pop politics, and despite my loathing of Conservative appropriation of music that I love, I would also question any suggestion that people should automatically let their taste in music determine their political perspective, even if the bands' political perspective is a good one - that way lies the aestheticization of politics and the abandoment of critical thinking.

There is a recording of The Smiths GLC set out there somewhere

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Classic party scenes (2): Basic Instinct

It's 1992 and cop Michael Douglas pursues suspect psycho Sharon Stone into a San Francisco club with sex, drugs and pumping sounds by Channel X (Rave the Rhythm) and LaTour (Blue). Jacques Peretti once characterised this as 'The Citizen Kane of club scenes... in which Michael Douglas, playing an Andrew Neil-lookalike in V-neck jumper and no shirt (a sweaty fashion detail signifying middle-aged man smelling out sex) watches Sharon Stone, who taunts his manhood by indulging in a faux-lesbian sex dance'.

Apparently this scene was not filmed in a real club but on a Hollywood film set inspired by the Limelight Club in New York.