Turning our boozers into Assets of Community Value
Thirty years ago this month (thirty!) I took a breather outside on the terrace of Bagley’s nightclub in King’s Cross (now the upper level of Coal Drops Yard), gazing wide eyed across the twinkling lights of London with some friends, as we contemplated a New Year resolution. We’d all been going ‘out out’ a fair bit over the previous months, which all agreed had been very fun but inevitably draining, so heading fresh into 1994 we decided it might be best to restrict our all-night raving sorties just to special occasions.
Looking back, that’s far from how things panned out. Perhaps a clue to our abject failure to rein it in was the fact we were already out clubbing in the first week January when we made the doomed vows, but the main reason for ’94 ending up being the year we ended up going ‘out out’ pretty much every single week, was React.
For electronic music lovers who remember/revere that era, React was the record label that powered a high energy sound of European techno, proto-trance and harder house that, in the heady cultural melee of the early 90s, was really picking up steam.
Trailblazingly enough, their ‘Reactivate’ compilations were among the first to assemble an all-killer selection of the biggest tunes into a single album, rather than the only other alternative at the time – spending hours tracking down Belgian import vinyl 12s, for £15 a pop. They also helped crystalise a sound that was dancefloor dynamite, despite being looked at a bit snootily, if not ignored, by the self-apointed custodians of club culture at the time.
I was reminded of the power of these compilations and the impact they, the label, and the people all around it had on me by the recent news of a new range of t-shirts and merch reviving the React brand. It’s all courtesy of rave-inspired Aussie fashion company Synthd Designs, just released to celebrate the label, its music, and the unique design aesthetic that was a key part of its cult success. So what better excuse to reminisce about those unbelievable days, right?
I was working in a Covent Garden restaurant back then, where the staff were all bang into techno, and there was already a culture of relentless raving through the week. Midweekers like Knowledge at SW1 or Eurobeat 2000 at Turnmills meant one or more members of staff would have come virtually direct from the night before pretty much every shift.
It was from this hedonistic petri dish that someone must have suggested – or insisted on – a team visit to Garage at Heaven after work one Friday. I can’t remember much, obvs, but I have a feeling that after the very first trip I realised I’d found my place. How foolhardy it was to think any January resolutions would really be able to tame that already compelling weekly ritual of dance floor homecoming. Ridiculous.
React owners James Horrocks and Thomas Foley had taken on promoting this established weekly night at the famous Charing Cross venue, which sprawls out under the railway arches. They had assembled a weekly line-up of DJs playing this hard-edged sound, alongside the occasional blockbuster guest, and it was all just fucking ace.
Heaven has always been renowned as a gay club, but it has also been the home to broad church of groundbreaking parties and crowds, from early Fabio and Grooverider drum & bass breakaway night Rage to the psychedelic festival vibes of Megatripolis, the zippy-hippy Thursday night raves promoted by Primrose Hill resident and visionary, Fraser Clark.
The crowd at Garage was high-percentage homosexual, but beautifully accommodating of our rag tag bunch of all sorts. I wasn’t new to clubbing, having spent most weekends over previous years exploring Camden’s smorgasboard of night delights, starting out at places like Electric Ballroom (as I celebrated here), graduating to raves at the Astoria, then getting properly blown away by the power of early jungle at regular trips to AWOL over at Islington’s Paradise. I was new to gay clubbing though, and nowhere had ever given me the huge group hug – united by unashamedly epic breakdowns, shoulder-twitching basslines and euphoric horns ‘n hooks – that I felt every week down at Garage. Instant regulars, we were, of course, accepted by the gay crowd as honorary ‘strays’, some of our number even exhibiting the kind of fleeting gender fluidity that is now par for the course, but was quite the eye-opener – for all – back then.
Away from the grim pressures of alpha male clubbing, with all its inherent bravado and zero sum focus on pulling girls, I was suddenly free to be me; Heaven’s dancefloor the ideal canvas for my early 20s self to play by my own rules. As with all the best nightlife experiences, it was pivotal stuff, which accordingly changed my life.
React’s Garage regulars ruled the roost. If you are reading this as someone in your 20s today it might seem odd, but hearing the same resident DJs in the same space, week-in week-out, was exactly what we wanted; Mrs Wood, Rachel Auburn and Blu Peter, every Friday like clockwork in the main room. Dropping our cheeky halves upstairs, perfectly timed to descend into the cauldron of the main dancefloor as tunes like Misjah and Tim’s ‘Access’, Marmion’s ‘Schonenberg’ or Josh Wink’s ‘Higher State of Consciousness’ kicked in – along with everything else.
It was our secret society, a sweatbox of sin, (where actual members of the church could always be found in bar area, gladly ready to wash the bare feet of any tired ravers who considered a brief moment of repentance over a cigarette). And as with anything so clearly, compellingly brilliant, it wasn’t going to be contained.
The apex of our near-weekly attendance in 1994 was also the year that Blu Peter was given the honour of mixing the tenth edition in the Reactivate LP series (listen to it here). Reactivate 9 had featured wall-to-wall Garage anthems, but with so many hot new classics from the club to choose from, and the prevailing winds, Peter’s mix was a genre-defining moment.
The album was a must-have smash with our group and wider ecosystem of friends, as the ‘nu energy’ and comedically named ‘hardbag’ sounds swiftly coalesced into something that clubs all over the UK wanted a piece of, right before our eyes.
Inspiring passionate DJing and clubland entrepreneurship within our ranks, we began promoting our own nights (up in Leeds), were regulars playing (and playing) at Birmingham’s huge Que Club, and booked the likes of Blu Peter and others to come with us. Turnmills’ Sunday morning afterhours juggernaut, Trade, saw its resident Tony De Vit catapult the sound to the superclubs, with his DJ residency at Cream, while React continued to put out absolute barn-stormers in the rapidly competitive, cluttered compilations market, including Carl Cox’s unequalled double mix CD F.A.C.T, and broader partnerships with the likes of Café De Mar, founding that seminal series of chilled albums.
Our trips to Heaven continued for years, as Garage later became Wildlife. It was so familiar I discovered the joy of going solo clubbing there – just heading down and ending up having an unpredictable, but always fabulous, time with whoever happened to be around. Dedication was absolute. On one occasion, I left a brand new squeeze in bed to pop down to Heaven for a few hours dancing, then went back to find her still fast asleep. Other nights didn’t end when the lights went up under the arches at 3am. We often carried on straight afterwards down at Open All Hours at the Ministry until 9am, before a regular afterparty gathering in Bethnal Green. Then perhaps there might be a shift to go and work back in the restaurant, before powering up once more if there was a good night at Philip Salon’s Mud Club at Bagley’s or Club UK in Wandsworth. Sunday afternoons back at Heaven’s Soundshaft for Sherbert or later DTPM at The End and then Fabric were not uncommon too. Good times – resolutions be damned.
In the summer of ’95, James and Thomas told us that React would be heading to Ibiza for their most ambitious promotion on the island to date; partnering with the 9k capacity Manumission at Privilege on Monday night, then throwing an afters at Space on Tuesday morning with Blu Peter supporting Carl Cox – celebrating two of their biggest compilations of that summer at once. And that was it. I knew where our adventures in clubland were leading next.
The Space party turned out to be Carl’s first ever gig at the mighty Playa d’en Bossa daytime club. It sewed the early seed of his 15-year residency there, possibly the most important and unequaled such partnership in nightlife history. So the photo above, dug out from a load of highly amusing snaps from that wonky summer, really does capture an important morning on that famous terrace under the flight path.
Some funny wranglings with Manumission and the party the night before meant that the event wasn’t even particularly well attended, while Thomas and James were already hot-footing it to the airport to escape the squabbles by the time we arrived, but Carl was suitably sold and history was again being written with the hand of React in the mix.
We limped on in Ibiza through some basically penniless weeks trying to earn enough money to stay living the dream before inevitably having to head home, but similarly, I knew that my own history simply had to include more of Ibiza, more involvement with this wild, uber-creative industry and more of this epic music.
A few years later I got an editorial job at DJ Magazine where I stayed for seven years, and React A&R Simon Eve wrote our Hard House reviews for many of those. A decade after that I ended up running an agency alongside James Horrocks, reminiscing about the blags we used to give him on the door at Garage, and the antics we’d shared at WMC in Miami.
While it’s such a long time ago, the revelation of React and the unstoppable energy of its music and that time still echoes down into so many parts of what I went on to do, and continue to do today. And while this is not an unusual story for anyone who ever got swept up by a moment in time, it’s music and a scene, I will always come back to my own experiences here to be reminded of the fantastically positive things that can happen when a load of people start to move to a beat in a dark room, let go of pretty much everything else, and see where it takes them.
Turning our boozers into Assets of Community Value
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