Despite gloomy predictions for the future of London nightlife, clubs around the rest of the UK are thriving. Kristan Caryl shines the spotlight on some of the best.
The establishment has spoken: Fabric’s time is up. Years of ever-evolving good practice mean nothing. Islington Council has revoked the Farringdon club’s licence and the UK’s most iconic nightspot is closed (at least for now, pending appeal). Many are making this out to be a general attack on fun-loving party people, underground music fans or recreational drug users. But is it? Look at the rest of the country and it would be hard to say yes.
New venues open up, festivals continue to multiply and Temporary Events Notices are as popular as ever. Promoters continue to get permission to party in disused railway arches and grotty old warehouses. Thousands of people get out to get down without being invasively searched, screened or scanned. Plus, of course, there are plenty of clubs already in existence who continue to quietly go about their work, often in London’s shadows. As it is, then, fun can still be had in plenty of places. You just need to look around.
In fact, many cities boast clubs that would get people well and truly hot under the collar in Berlin or New York, but with the UK media constantly focused on London, they barely get a look in. Now is the time for that to change: if you’re prepared to make the effort, take the time and cough up the beans to go to Berlin or Amsterdam, then why not make the quicker, easier and cheaper journey to Leeds, Bristol or Glasgow? It’s just a bus or train ride away. If you do, you will find clubs with world-class sound systems, reasonably priced drinks, absorbing atmospheres and colourful crowds who are as passionate as you are. Fancy it? Here, in no particular order, are eight of the best.
The epitome of a club for the heads, 300-capacity Wire is a small basement with low, brick-lined ceiling arches and a fine Funktion One system tuned by a very attentive sound engineer. It’s a cosy club designed for dancing, with little space for much else bar a couple of small booths. It boasts tasteful nights like Butter Side Up and Hessle Audio boss Pearson Sound’s vinyl-only Acetate night, as well as being a breeding ground for the next generation of underground promoters.
DJ-wise, Theo Parrish, Hunee and Craig Richards are all returning guests. “I love running my night at Wire because of the great sound, friendly staff, and intimate vibe,” says Pearson Sound. “I’ve been playing there for 10 years now and it’s continually improving.”
Hidden beneath the streets of Stevenson Square, Soup Kitchen is a cult venue that holds 200 music-hungry heads a few times a week. Tama Sumo, Kowton and Kassem Mosse are the sort of guests you can expect to hear playing at the unfussy club, which has steel girders, exposed wiring and industrial air con units hanging from a peeling-paint covered celling.
“Soup Kitchen is the spiritual home of our meandyou events,” says DJ, producer and promoter Juniper. “There is a real family atmosphere there for me, and it often feels like a big house party with many friends. With many places I feel like I have to be a little more functional, but at Soup I feel I can truly express myself without the energy of the dancefloor dissipating. I like tangents when I am DJing and I like to explore the far corners of the electronic spectrum. Soup Kitchen allows me to do that and any curveball you throw at the crowd is greeted in an enthusiastic and noisy manner. The sound is great and the staff are always welcoming to everybody.”
You don’t become the longest-running underground club in the world by chance. Sub Club, which opened in 1987, is an icon of the scene and for good reason. In recent times much of that has been down to the peerless work of legendary residents Harri & Domenic, who serve up DJing masterclasses week-in week-out that perfectly sync with whatever guests are on that week, and never fail to put one of the world’s largest bodysonic dance floors through its paces. Most famous for being the home of JD Twitch and JG Wilkes’ Optimo (Espacio) every Sunday from 1997 to 2010, it also houses the likes of MCDE, Ben Sims and Andrew Weatherall on the reg’.
“To play there is a milestone for a DJ and a notch on your clubbing bedpost as a punter,” says Dixon Avenue Basement Jams co-founder Wasp. “It’s such an easy place to play because the set up by Shambles and the troops is fantastic, and it’s well documented how responsive a Glasgow crowd is. All this combined makes it a dream gig, and I don’t think you’ll find many arguments with that.”
One of the newer entries on this list, since 2012 Hope Works has very much helped put Sheffield back on the map after the halcyon days of Warp and bleep techno back in the 90s. Ostensibly a large, raw warehouse on the edge of town, it has become the centre of a music community that not only showcases label collectives and big names from Floating Points to Hessle Audio, Boddika to Martyn, but also helps bring through new names each week in the smaller second room.
“To survive in places like Sheffield where money definitely doesn’t grow on trees, the idea of community seems to be more important and is something that, if cultivated, can be for the benefit of many people,” says venue owner and techno producer Lo Shea. “That lack of money breeds hard work and creativity. Reduced opportunity allows the few things that do happen to go off big time. We are friendly here and like to party hard, and because of the location it has allowed us to work with great sound systems and not be bothered by noise restrictions.”
Not a club often talked about south of the Tyne, it’s hard to really work out why: WHQ is a dark and, frankly, dingy club that places all the focus on the music. Over the years it has played host to very early gigs from the likes of Skream, as well as focussing on a bass-heavy brand of music from D&B to dubstep. Nowadays you are as likely to see Helena Hauff as you are the legendary Channel One Soundsystem take up the controls on any given weekend.
“The fact that it’s a small, intimate venue with no gimmicks makes it fiercely independent,” says Mike Jones, former Deviate promoter and regular spinner at the club. “If you get 200 people in there it always seems to go a bit bonkers, because it’s small enough to get that sense of community between the staff and punters. Because there’s no real backstage areas, the DJs often end up mixing in with the crowd and properly interacting. I don’t think there’s enough of that generally.”
Taking over the site of Audio, Patterns has a bar, club and sea-facing terrace that works with both local and national promoters. It means that on any given weekend you can find the big beats of Hannah Wants or the more connoisseur techno of Zenker Brothers playing out under its low ceiling, beneath muted lighting and between belches of cocooning smoke.
“I recently played for the First Floor crew back-to-back with Ryan Elliott and it was a great night,” says Spencer Parker, who got up close and personal with the crowd thanks to the intimate, floor-level DJ booth. “The people behind the night completely get the music that myself and Ryan play, and their excellent resident Charles Green already had people bouncing off the walls before we’d even started. A great small venue in a fun UK city, hosted by true music enthusiasts with great taste, playing music to a super energetic crowd: what more could you ask for?!”
The Rainbow Venues is a sprawling, multipurpose musical empire that takes in 11 different spaces from warehouses to railway arches to gardens, terraces and a pub. It’s a creative hub that offers massive raves for 10,000 people, smaller underground after-parties for 200 people and pop-up markets, festivals, street food events, art exhibitions, cinemas and much more all throughout the year from brands like Defected, Jamie Jones’s Paradise and El Row.
“It has over 10 years’ solid history, covering a wide span of electronic music,” says Adam Shelton, whose Below party called the space home for many years. “I can’t think of many names that have not played there. It’s always evolving and trying to improve the spaces for the clubbers, which is very unique. I have seen it all from the early days when I was a part of it and have seen many struggles to keep the place alive. This reflects in its loyal following from all around the UK.”
Motion has been the focal point of the Bristol scene for many years. Evolving from a cave on the back of the skate park into an expansive multi-roomed club, it has four rooms and a terrace overlooking the Avon. Able to cater to large-scale live gigs (think Chase & Status or DJ Shadow) as well as mid-sized promotions (with guests like Adam Beyer, Marcel Dettmann or B Traits), bass, D&B and dubstep will always be popular, but house and techno also makes up a large part of the regular scheduling.
“The vibe in Bristol is pretty special,” says local native Eats Everything. “It has a proper up-for-it crowd who fucking love to get down and rave. For me it has a real edge and Motion is truly a world-beating, world-class venue that rivals clubs all over the world in terms of line-ups, sound, facilities and most importantly crowd. I feel very lucky to be a part of it and play there.”