Night clubs are places of wonder for me. Not the usual ones where people wear ordinary clothes and dance in an ordinary way drably around a handbag unimaginatively drunk on pre-club shop bought shorts. A good club isn’t just about drinks with a few mates.The legendary ones have atmosphere and enough resident characters to encourage ‘muggles’ to become magic folk, for one night or more if they catch the spell of music that needs to be distinctive. Most have about the same shelf life as art movements: a few years if you are lucky. Those I visited are ill recorded by photographs and film. These mediums do not capture atmosphere and how it felt and that’s why I wanted to paint them.
I began with Heaven about 25 years ago. Intending to go home from a boring college party I flirted with a bisexual ticket collector at New Cross. Giving me a ticket he told me to go to Heaven. I’d not even been to a gay bar but was a little drunk so I did. Walking in from what was then a dingy alley below Charing Cross station, I passed through doors that said Heaven ‘Ultra Disco’ into the fairy hills, from a drab straight world, to a place full of light and treasure. I have loved nightclubs even since. Heaven had been a disco called Global Village but just reopened and remodelled, it was the newest and the sexiest club in London, throbbing with energy. The club lights we take for granted now were a revelation then, better than anywhere, even New York. The distinctive lightning flashes and animated orbital rings are nothing today but then it was gobsmackingly exhilarating.
The extraordinary thing was that it was gay: for once we had the best place to go, not some backstreet dive or a club on a slow night. Like Doctor Who clubs are reincarnated with new personalities and one of Heaven’s secrets was the flow through one space into another. Different music in each, different atmospheres, and lots of places to stand and watch or be seen. The smaller Cellar Bar had a separate entrance and was a dress code space for New Romantics and my friends and I had to reinvent ourselves to get in. Off the peg would not do, imagination was the key to entry. We scoured charity shops, Great Gear on the Kings Road, and Kensington market for ingredients to transform into Birds of Paradise.
Pretending we were special, conjuring outrageous fortune you could cross over into Alice’s looking glass world. The competition was fierce and like the Moulin Rouge there were Jane Avrils to compete with: Boy George, Marilyn and Philip Salon took doses of exhibitionism that, as Quentin Crisp said, would kill ordinary people. Steve Strange and Salon were masters of ceremonies but most of all I remember the famous door whore Scarlet, a fierce but wonderful looking hatchet faced woman with shark’s fin hair, who guarded entry to Cha Cha and patrolled the Asylum. Like the best clubs, you don’t go to them to be seen with celebrities but to spot them before they are famous. Like Club 57 in New York one week you were wondering who that amazing looking person was only to spot them in I-D or the Face or Top of the Pops a few weeks later as someone on the rise. If you chase celebrity you are always playing catch up.
The flash money of the eighties, the rot of speed, heroin and coke, destroyed the peacock clubs like Camden Palace, Pyramid and Taboo. Kinky Gerlinky was a brief bonfire of every costume going but, if you hadn’t grown up and got a proper job, those of us who still wanted fantasy found it in the fetish bars. Some people think they are mean and moody places but I never see them that way. If the fairy hills of Heaven were full of light then Backstreet, and the old Coleherne were filled with dark steely reflections. Backstreet is not big but it has atmosphere and deviants abound. The dark moves – bodies have an oily shine – and a dance of a kind is taking place. Sometimes the eye is full of mischief, sometimes malice. Binding spells are cast below the boot strung ceiling (like the feet of the hanged or resurrected), and wishes and curses are fulfilled.
It is as much about masquerade as about expressing yourself. In order to become someone new you try costumers and masks. They might be protection, disquise or armour. The mask brings courage and, like Mardi Gras, emboldens rebellion and adventure. No one is more terrifying than an angry drag queen on the war path. I love the spectacular creations that people can become and the disturbance they leave in their wake. But there is another side I like as well – the inside. Everyone has a core that cannot be reached, even by intense love or sexual penetration, and I sometimes think that is why I make things: to try and make it visible. The flip side of my nightclub pictures are these interior landscapes, the private places, where a different music plays. [link to new work]
Works pictured were first shown at ‘Nightlife’ (1993) and ‘Unstill Lives’ (1996), both at The Orangery, Holland Park, Kensington, London, and at ‘Sex & Dancing’ (2003) Adonis Arts, West Brompton, London.