When the West went dayglo


When Venue arrived in 1982, clubbing as we know it today didn’t exist. Dance culture thrived in the margins, at b-boy house parties and soundsystem ‘blues’ in St Pauls, but it wasn’t the mass participation sport we know today. John Stapleton, who's been a major player in the West’s dance scene since the 80s, remembers it well: “Discos were like the old Locarno – chart music, watered down drinks and an underlying threat of violence.” Back then, Stapleton was the Friday resident at The Western Star Domino Club, an establishment whose very name gives an insight into the make-do spirit of the times. “It was an underground thing that very few people were involved in,” he says.
John Mitchell was Venue's clubs editor in the 1990s but he lived and partied in Bristol from around 1985. “Everyone was on the look-out for venues they could make something of because demand outstripped availability,” he says. “There was a whole bunch of really creative people doing nights, but it was definitely a Bristol way of doing things.” The 80s underground was synonymous with friendly competition, as crews like 2 Bad, FBI, UD4 and City Rockas battled it out for supremacy, but the it all came together at The Dug Out, a basement on Park Row whose Wednesday night sessions were hosted by The Wild Bunch. In many ways, The Dug Out’s mix of classes, races and musical influences was a precursor to the come-all spirit of rave, but it was famously tiny – there was no guarantee you’d get in unless you knew the right people. Between the closing of The Dug Out and the opening of Lakota, a series of cultural, musical and – yes – chemical influences combined in a perfect storm that changed the West's nightlife forever. “Acid house opened everything up,” says Stapleton.

House music arrived in Britain around 1985 but, as Mitchell puts it, “Bristol didn’t get the hang of it until late in the day. For a long time you could only hear it in gay clubs.” While venues like Thekla and The Moon Club emerged in the mid-80s, their main focus was ‘jazz funk’ – hugely popular in Bristol at that time. “The real breakthrough,” Mitchell remembers, “was Vision” – John Stapleton’s mid-week session at Busby’s (later Creation), which started “in ’88 or ’89”. Vision brought Carl Cox, Frankie Bones and Derrick May to the West for the first time, and coming at the same time as the explosion in warehouse and squat parties, it marked a turning point. By the turn of the decade, nights like Club Yeyo, One Love and Stapleton’s DefCon were taking over venues like Thekla, The Lochiel and The Rummer for whole nights at a time. “I saw Oakenfold play at Club Yeyo and it was like the Wild West,” Mitchell remembers. “There were glasses flying everywhere, chaos in the bowels of this boat. The DJs were used to big house nights like Heaven but that’s the way it was round here.”

Club Yeyo’s promoter was Tim Barford. A former traveller who’d settled in Bristol, he sees the influence of the free festival scene in acid’s anarchic hedonism. “The big outdoor parties set the tone for the rave generation,” he says, “and Bristol was a big gathering point for travellers on their way from Wales to Stonehenge.” If 1989 was the year acid exploded, 1990 was the year the shockwaves reached the high street. “Italia ’90 – that’s when it went dayglo,” says Barford. “You went down Broadmead – everyone had acid house clothes, everyone was banging out tunes, skunk was everywhere, everyone was fuelled up.” Before long plasterers, students, bank clerks and football hooligans were united in their love of house and techno, and the existing clubs weren't big enough to contain it. Acid mutated into hardcore, sustained by pirates like Dance FM, Passion and Power Jam, club nights at The Depot and free parties at glamorous locations like the Pill railway tunnel and Shirehampton Golf Club. Most of the DJs from that era – Dazee, Jody, Cridge, Vinyl Junkie, Bunjy – are still at it 20 years on.

Clubland caught up in 1992. “Lakota was the turning point,” says John Mitchell. “Bristol became a clubbing destination. You’d meet people at Lakota who’d come from all over the country, and that had never happened here before.” Lakota's Friday night resident Nick Warren became Bristol’s own superstar DJ, with a residency at Cream and crossover success with Way Out West. Bath got in on the action with The Hub, as well as nights like Karanga at The Pavilions. Crucially, the West retained its identity. Even at house’s commercial peak, Bristol was a haven of underground music and casual style, seemingly as ingrained in the city’s culture as dope and cider. “I don't think clubbers in Bristol do 'bling' particularly well,” says John Stapleton. “Or rather, they’re not interested, so the whole dressy house thing has never really worked.” Stapleton himself became synonymous with the rise of breaks as a distinct genre with ‘Dope On Plastic’ and the BlowPop nights at The Blue Mountain. “I guess breaks fits the Bristolian mindset," he says. “Bristol was one of the first places in the country to really embrace hip-hop, right back from the Wild Bunch days." Big beat – the heavily reinforced variant of breaks that was huge in the mid-90s – also made a big impression round these parts – not least in Bath, with Skint’s residency at Moles, the long-running Eggshells night and the crossover success of Propellerheads.

The West’s deep-rooted love of breakbeats goes some way to explaining its enduring love affair with jungle. “Bristol and drum & bass were natural partners,” says John Mitchell. “There were great nights like Ruffneck Ting – a melting point between the energy of rave and the more dubby soundsystem thing.” Drum & bass appealed to people from all parts of the city’s dance culture, and Bristolians played a role in the genre's development, from the atmospheric chimes of Roni Size & DJ Die's 'Music Box' to the dubwise explorations of More Rockers. By the time Reprazent’s ‘Brown Paper Bag’ blew up in ‘97, it seemed as if every bar in Bristol and Bath had a drum & bass DJ, and no Ashton Court Festival was complete without a turn from the Full Cycle crew. Drum & bass is still huge business here, and Bristol has also provided a home for the ragga-jungle and breakcore underground with key nights like Toxic Dancehall.

And so it was with dubstep – another style from the South East that found a mass audience at this end of the M4. Subloaded started in 2004, and along with nights like Ruffneck Diskotek it created such a shockwave in the Bristol clubs scene that the city became known as ‘dubstep’s second city’. Like drum & bass before it, dubstep has infected everything in recent years, to the point where even trance promoters often put dubstep DJs in the back room, while cheese night Pop Confessional scored a marketing coup with the slogan ‘Stop Pretending You Like Dubstep’ . Meanwhile, the wider ‘bass music’ movement is providing some of the most distinctive club sounds in the South West right now, from the re-configured house of Hyetal and Julio Bashmore to Addison Groove’s unique take on electro and the smashed-up, wonky hip-hop of Bath’s Slugabed.

It is – of course – impossible to do justice to 30 years of good times in any number of words, and from the big room house vibe of Metripolis to the psytrance wonderland of Tribe Of Frog, the West’s club culture is as diverse as it is enduring. The basic principles still apply, though. As Tim Barford says, recalling the heady summer of 1990: “It was a totally new culture, and it was ours. Nobody knew what to do with it except us. People from the outside were just looking in on the chaos. They tried to make it about money, they tried to make it about revolution, but all it was about was people having a good time.” It still is.
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