For one London nightclubber it was the exotic taps in the lavatory — there was a secret to making them work that instantly identified regulars. Another recalled asking a man for the time and his watch glowed the letters “NOW”. For yet another it was “dancin’ on a sofa upstairs”.
The closure last week of the Fabric nightclub in central London prompted a remarkable outpouring of nostalgia, grief and anger at the death of a dance music institution.
“R.I.P. Fabric”, read one note left outside the club near the Smithfield meat market in Farringdon. “You’ve gone to join the big club in the sky.”
Nearby, as if at a wake, kids sat crossed-legged beside candles, drinking beers. People in Fabric T-shirts wandered up to take photographs of the club that closed for ever on Tuesday after its licence was permanently revoked.
On social media, thousands of fans used the hashtag #fabricmoments to share memories of “cracking parties”, “the night that changed my life” and “the night the light tech made the room go purple”.
It was, for many, a shocking moment in the history of British nightlife, a crushing defeat for the forces of youth, happiness and dancing. Just as London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, was celebrating his new night-time Tube service and launching his search for a “night tsar” to shape the capital’s future as a “24-hour city,” the club that had done more than any other to keep London’s thrill-seekers awake all night was forced to close its doors and turn off its pulsing laser lights.
In one sense there was nothing surprising about Fabric’s demise. The recent deaths of two teenagers who had taken drugs at the club presented London’s authorities with a health and safety challenge they could not afford to ignore.
Yet many of Fabric’s fans were convinced there was more to the club’s closure than drug use and security. What could have been dismissed as the routine demise of yet another drug-addled disco was instead provoking a passionate debate about cultural diversity, urban development and national identity.
“Fabric wasn’t just any old club, playing ’80s pop hits for a drunk post-pub crowd,” said Carl Loben, editor of DJ Magazine. “It was the No 1 most culturally important club for cutting-edge electronic music.”
Loben added: “The UK’s club scene is a vitally rich part of our cultural landscape. The UK’s music industry is worth billions in exports. Some UK clubs have been a Petri dish for the creation of new dance music scenes. Fabric was hugely influential in nurturing dubstep, drum & base, techno, grime and breakbeat.”
Fabric also helped establish popular DJs such as Groove Armada, Chase and Status, Skrillex and Annie Mac. These names may not mean much to anyone over 40, but they wield enormous influence over the musical tastes of a 21st-century nightclubbing generation.
Perhaps that is why the Albert Hall publicly championed Fabric on Twitter last week, writing: “From one London icon to another, we support you.” The English National Opera sent Fabric a letter of support. So did the Tate. “To a generation of people who listen to electronic music,” said Cameron Leslie, Fabric’s owner, “this venue holds that level of cultural importance.”
It certainly hasn’t been easy surviving as a cutting-edge dance club. In 2005, the UK had 3,144 clubs; by 2015 there were just 1,733. In the past eight years more than half of London’s nightclubs have closed, among them such dancehall delights as The End, Turnmills, Cable, Bagley’s and Plastic People. The Arches, one of Glasgow’s best-loved venues, where Daft Punk played their first UK show, went into administration in June last year. Meanwhile, three of Birmingham’s biggest clubs, Electric, Gatecrasher and Rainbow, shut last month after police demanded a review of their licences.
Some suggest millennial apathy is to blame for the UK’s dying club scene. With Netflix, UberEats and even Tinder providing fun on demand, there’s less need than ever to leave the house. The New York Post has cruelly claimed that Millennials are “the greatest generation — of couch potatoes.” Rising university fees have also taken a toll on dance club student nights, once a cut-price staple but now too much for many budgets.
A clean-living generation of young fogeys has also had an effect. Among 16 to 44-year-olds, frequent drinking has fallen by as much as two-thirds since 2005. Luke Johnson, chairman of Brighton Pier Group, which owns about 20 late-night bars, has noticed the change. “The typical 21-year-old is much more health conscious than even a decade ago”, he said.
Johnson believes smartphones and social media have also fundamentally changed how young people socialise. “Dating has changed — nightclubs used to be all about boy-meets-girl, but dating sites and social media have transformed the way people get together,” he said.
Yet plenty of people disagree. “The club scene isn’t dying because people aren’t wanting to go out,” said DJ Andy C, a drum & bass pioneer. He cited the “huge upsurge in dance music in the last 5-10 years” and increased attendance at festivals.
Dominic Madden, co-owner of Electric Brixton, argues that the statistics misrepresent the real position: old-fashioned nightclubs have suffered but electronic music venues thrive. “In London, especially in Brixton, I see a massive demand for edgy, exciting and musically diverse events. In cities like Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, too”.
Andy C believes gentrification is the real reason behind Fabric’s closure. “Drugs are used as an excuse to claw back valuable real estate and turn it into flats. Vital, inspirational clubs are being lost . . . [Clubs] don’t get turned into youth clubs or places for people in the community to go.”
The trend started in Manchester in 2002 when the superclub Hacienda was turned into luxury flats, the Hacienda Apartments. Since then, club after club has closed for property development. Bagley’s, Canvas and the Cross were all sacrificed to the regeneration of King’s Cross. The Astoria was demolished for London’s Crossrail development. Turnmills’ site has been developed into offices and flats. Meanwhile, extension works to Manchester’s Piccadilly station threatens The Star and Garter in Manchester, a music venue for 150 years.
“People move into areas near clubs and then complain about noise,” noted Loben of DJ Magazine. “This is what happened in Brixton and Hackney. Venues opened when those neighbourhoods were cultural wastelands have since come under more pressure by police and local authorities now those areas have gentrified.” The Ministry of Sound in London’s Elephant and Castle has faced noise complaints as that area has developed. Likewise, this year’s Notting Hill Carnival was beset by complaints from residents who arrived long after the carnival was established.
Loben believes it is unfair the way clubs have been blamed for drug-related incidents. Fabric regulars argued last week that security on its door was “really strict”. Drugs found on site were confiscated and handed to authorities. Suspected drug-dealers were interviewed in CCTV-monitored rooms and turned over to police.
Leslie, Fabric’s owner, claims the club had “the highest annual security bill and the highest ratio of security guards to patrons of any venue in the UK”.
Alan Miller, chairman of the Night Time Industries Association, said that if Fabric’s anti-drug measures could not satisfy a licensing committee, no club could. “On the basis of what they’ve done in Fabric, they can close every single bar, club and licensed premises in the UK,” he said.
Leslie compared the UK to New York, where a once-vibrant night-time economy and progressive club scene were “wiped out” by what he described as over-sterilisation. He pointed to Berlin, where huge all-night dance clubs thrive, recognised by authorities as cultural institutions. And he rubbished the idea that people in Britain no longer go out. Fabric was welcoming 250,000 people a year — 3,000 people a weekend night. More than 150,000 people signed the petition to save the club.