Josh Baines, 20/01/2016, THUMP
A few months back now, I met Dave Haslam in a coffee shop in Berlin. We were both there to attend the Pop Kultur festival, which was being held at Berghain. I was there to drink beer and watch DJs, and Dave was in town to interview Bernard Sumner of New Order before DJing at the Panorama Bar. He’d asked if we could meet at Cafe Sibylle, on Karl-Marx-Allee. Cafe Sibylle is famous for housing Stalin’s ear.
Haslam is a DJ, broadcaster, and author of several books that concern themselves with the relationship between music and British society, including Manchester, England and Young Hearts Run Free; the Real Story of the 1970s. Recently, he published Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues, a monumental work of socio-cultural history that charts the course of what we, as a nation, have got up to after the sun’s gone down from the Victorian age to today. In a way, the book is a complete antithesis to the cupcakes and cricket ideals espoused by Conservatives young and old, the people who’d prefer not to think as Britain as a nation that fundamentally needs the escapism that pubs and clubs and concert halls offer. We seek out these dens of inequity because without them we’d be nothing more than 64 million bitter, resentful, sacks of blood and congealed fat with nothing to look forward to other than a new series of the Bake Off and the possibility that a woman might put a cat in a bin again. Nightlife is a form of transcendence, in a very real sense, from the humdrum of the everyday, and, as Haslam discovers in the book, this idea of the excitement of the night—in both literal and more metaphysical terms—as a fundamental necessity, isn’t something that just arrived on our shores in the Northern Soul days.
Given that Haslam was a resident DJ at the Hacienda and still plays out around the world today, he’s in an incredibly good position to ascertain the continued importance of nightlife on British society. As part of our Britain at Night series, we interviewed Haslam about the book and the past, present, and future of clubbing in the United Kingdom. Sadly, or luckily, our conversation took place away from Stalin’s prying ears.
THUMP: Obviously you’ve a long and storied history when it comes to nightlife, and clubbing in particular, but what was it exactly that made you want to document a few hundred years worth of British cultural history in your most recent book?
I discovered some stuff about Victorian music halls 200 years ago in Britain, big places where two or three thousand people would gather, get drunk, watch entertainments of all kinds —from pianists to performing dogs— and there were prostitutes there and off-duty policemen and all kinds of shenanigans. I wanted to link all that to what happens now, and to tell the story of everything in between – mods, disco etc. Plus from personal experience I know how important live venues and nightclubs are to people; the best times of your life. I wanted to celebrate that.
During the course of your research, what, if anything, shocked you most about our ancestors approach to nightlife?
I was struck how uncontrolled things were; no health and safety! But really what was great to bring out in the book was how each generation makes its own spaces, has its own music, its own drug, its own fashion. Did you know you could buy cocaine from a sandwich shop in Soho in the 1920s? I didn’t!
Related to that, have things really changed that much, or have technologies just advanced?
Human nature doesn’t change. People love to socialise, they like music, dancing, unpredictablity, places where they can escape to, where they might find a lover. People like to dress up. The music changes, and the technology. We’re also more international in our outlook now. Even up to thirty years ago people would only have experienced their local disco, now people travel to Ibiza, to festivals, to Berlin or whetever. I remember at the Hacienda we’d get cars full of people who’d travelled from Wolverhampton or St Helens or Leeds. One nation under a groove.
Is nightlife blighted by the nostalgia industry? Are we all so concerned by what happened in the past that we forget to concentrate on the present?
Life After Dark is a work of history not nostalgia. It doesn’t portray a “golden age” in 1963 or 1988 or anything. I think if you read the book it makes the present feel more exciting; it’s like we’re the heirs to all this amazing activity, there’s momentum there. Producers like Bicep and Jamie xx—they see dance music’s past as a resource and inspiration and that’s how it should be.
As someone who’s been able to DJ round the world, do you feel that we do things differently here in the UK? Does that Booze Britain stereotype of us a nation of pissed blokes flashing our arses before falling into the road after a WKD or 9 in a nightclub say anything about in a sociological sense?
There’s always been a shallow or naff thing about life after dark I mean, there’s always been terrible novelty songs and commercial cringey stuff in the charts but that hasn’t stopped other musicians from rebelling against the mainstream and making great music, underground music or whatever. I talked to James Barton, one of the founders of Cream, he said when he first started going out in Liverpool, aged 16 or whatever, his first aim was to find somewhere where there wasn’t a fight every night. He found somewhere called the State. But some people don’t want to look harder for their venue or club of choice. Who cares? It’s tribal; the kind of people who flash their arses or fight or whatever, it’s good they have clubs to go to. Otherwise they’d be ruining all the good clubs.
Can anything realistically be done about the unceasing wave of club closures across the country or are we at the total mercy of councils and licensing boards?
We can petition and protest. But money rules in our society. Look everywhere; fracking, the NHS. Its all about squeezing money out of every situation. Its never about culture or the long term or quality of life. For landowners and council, venues and clubs – by and large – are less lucrative than “luxury” apartments and retail malls. So what do we do? We find new places, we adventure further; we do what every generation has done, which is be resourceful. Some cities are better than others; Sheffield and Manchester still have empty warehouses or factories or whatever and the music kids are staying one step ahead of the property speculators.
In the book you make a very, very convincing argument for the idea that the best club in the world is the one that changes your life. What club, Dave Haslam, changed yours?
I’d have to say the Hacienda of course. There are countless other candidates, but from being in there and seeing New Order play, and Mantronix, and the Smiths, to DJing there nearly five hundred times, watching from the DJ box as the whole rave/techno thing exploded, it was an honour and it was unforgettable.
Lastly, and it’s the big one: is there an actual, positive future for British clubbing?
Absolutely. Through the 200-year history I researched there were a few blips and changes people had to adapt to, but people did adapt. And move forward. One of the great things now is the richness of music making; the internet gives you a library of great music from the past and music being made from round the world There’s got to be stuff that turns you on. Thirty years ago it was only really dedicated DJs like me who’d be in import record shops four or five times a week hoovering up all the hard-to-get stuff. Now it’s all out there, and ready to be discovered. As for venues? If you can’t find a night you like, start one.