How Liverpool's legendary Club 051 was brought back from the brink of demolition - Features - Mixmag

How Liverpool's legendary Club 051 was brought back from the brink of demolition

One of the last remnants of the city's superclub past, Club 051 reopened this September — Megan Townsend meets the team, to find out how they brought this slice of UK clubbing history back to life

  • Megan Townsend
  • 24 November 2023

It's 7:PM, and you can already hear roars emitting from Lanigan's Irish Bar as we descend the steps from Liverpool Lime Street Station — and even though it's not quite dark yet, the air is buzzing with the excitement of hundreds preparing for a big Saturday night in town. In true Scouse fashion, we've already started chatting to a group before we've even sat down for a quick pint; a couple celebrating a birthday excitedly ask us what our plans are and I explain that we're heading to the reopening of a club nearby. I'm met with a wide-eyed look as soon as the words have left my mouth. "No way. You got to tickets to 'five one?" Despite the various local news headlines, and whispers from family members who have seen posts on Facebook and Instagram around the relaunch of this storied '90s nightclub, it's here that I realise just how significant this night is for Liverpool.

Having been shuttered since 2005, Club 051 was built in 1991 as an addition to the city's then-burgeoning superclub circuit — beginning with a series of acid house nights, and even being responsible for bringing New York greats David Morales and Roger Sanchez to Merseyside for the first time — it was its rivalry with Cream, 500 yards away at the now-demolished Nation, that helped cement its place as a beloved Liverpool nightspot. "We went through lots of sounds, but the thing is, we were always up against Cream... not just the biggest brand in Liverpool, but probably the world," says Lee Butler, former resident and now Club 051's promoter. "They had Paul Oakenfold as a resident, Pete Tong, Laurent Garnier, Paul van Dyk all regulars."

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"But while they were still full, so were we! Because we had locals playing, artists from North Wales, the North West; whereas Cream had people from all over the country. That was what was different about the 051. Even though Cream was yards away, with the biggest line-ups you could imagine, we still were locking out alongside them." The "O Five One's" focus on Liverpool not only helped it hold its own against a dance music juggernaut, but it also helped to grow the Scouse House movement and to foster local talents such as Dave Graham, Lil John, Mark Simon and of course, Lee Butler. After decades standing as an empty, dilapidated relic of Liverpool's golden era of clubbing, rumours began circulating earlier this year that Club 051 was set to reopen its doors once again; speculation that was later confirmed in July.

It's an undeniable anomaly for the current UK nightlife industry. Figures by CGA Nelson revealed that over 100 independent nightclubs have closed in the last 12 months, while an investigation by Mixmag earlier this year told of venues being pushed to the brink by rising costs. Tonight, a 2,000-capacity piece of British dance music history would be opening its doors once more. Not as a block of flats, or an office building, for a "multi-use arts space"... not even as a "party series"; Club 051 will be reopening as a fully-fledged nightclub.

As we approach the towering Club 051 building on Mount Pleasant later that evening, the pink sky still reflecting off its tall glass windows and the words "O FIVE ONE" still visible at its height, it becomes slightly clearer as why this has all been possible. The queue to get into the opening night - a strictly over 30s party, with a line-up consisting of former residents - is snaking around the street, and there's an audible, almost nervous cheer, as the doors finally open. "Oh my god... the stairs," one woman shouts, quickly reaching into her bag for her phone to take a picture. Once inside, every face is painted with disbelief — there's no queue at the bar for at least 20 minutes, with excited groups wandering around the venue to explore its refit and relive memories. This isn't a crowd curious to experience a slice of '90s nightlife past — but rather, a crowd who has been waiting for this moment for nearly two decades. "We were confident in the relaunch, but we weren't expecting the response we got," Club 051's Ryan Garvey tells me. "We had 60,000 people trying to get online to buy tickets in the end, people had taken the day off work so they would be online for when they dropped... it ended up crashing the website!"

The refurbishment of the venue had remained tightly under wraps during much of this year, with contractors even sneaking into the back door to avoid lifting the club's shutters and arousing speculation that it may reopen. "The council had asked us to paint the outside ahead of Eurovision in April," Ryan says. "Within two hours of painters being up there people were flooding Facebook with comments... you even had people calling up Lee's breakfast show on In Demand Radio going: 'What's going on with the 051?!'" Much of the team's secrecy, it becomes apparent, was less around anticipating an overwhelming response from former club regulars, and more to manage expectations of what a reopening would look like — and if that reopening would be happening at all.

Work on the building first began earlier this year, though the team were apprehensive about their ability to bring it back to life. After a year of back-and-forth with the former owners and Liverpool Council, the team were given the green light to rebuild Club 051 in February — though when they entered for the first time, they quickly realised they had far more work on their hands than originally thought. "We were all taken aback by the state it was in," says Ryan. "It was so wrecked, we weren’t sure if it would even be possible to bring it back. It had been a demolition site a few months before — that had been the plan for it.”

Abandoned since 2016, and despite being bought by a Leicester-based development firm in 2017 with the intention to turn it into student flats, reports began circling in early 2020 that the Club 051 building was set for demolition —with Lee Butler posting a picture of the building's run down exterior and writing: "Looks like it nearly time for the mighty Club 051 to be demolished. Had an email off the owners saying it's due soon. What's ye fav memory then." The building's future remained in jeopardy throughout the pandemic, though it was following a fire in summer 2022 that the now-Club 051 team began their push to reopen it as a nightclub. "We realised that we were up against time to get the club back [after the fire]," Ryan tells me. "There had been homeless people living in here, there were people breaking in to vandalise it. It was being destroyed.”

When I first visited the venue in August, the club as it once was, was already taking shape - the flooring was down, the lights were on, there were tiles being applied to the bars. It's an incredible space, a massive room with imposing pillars and overlooking balconies — there was a real sense of nostalgia for a scene that you never got the chance to experience, the kind of space that features prominently in those hazy rave videos from the '90s.

It's difficult to equate it with the images taken when the team first entered, which Ryan - who gave me a tour of the venue - aptly described as resembling "the inside of Chernobyl." Now proudly displayed at the bottom of Club 051's website, they act as a symbol of the hurdles the team have overcome to make this happen. "It was touch and go," Ryan admits, “but we just didn't want to see the venue left like this to just not exist anymore — we don't want it see it get destroyed.” He recalls how, when building work began in April, the venue began to flood every time it rained: "It was four feet deep in water at one point, and there was no power so we were using torches," he laughs. The team brought in the original maintenance crew who used to work within the building, who they say were the key to making everything possible — relying on their expertise to pull it back from its dilapidated state. Even then, the team had avoided making any indications of their intentions visible to the public, not wanting to get everyone's hopes up if they couldn't pull it off.

Despite the upper floors of the building having been used for various leisure activities since 2005, including a gym and a "paintball centre", the basement within which Club 051 had resided remained untouched. Ryan shows me the Versace tiles still in place in the toilets that had been emblematic during its glory years, and the club's steep staircase — a favourite of regulars, who share memories of hearing the booming soundsystem grow louder and louder on their descent. "Even the disco ball was still hanging in here," he tells me with a grin. "We decided to keep it and get it refurbished, so everyone is dancing under the original ball."

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The disco ball would eventually play a key part in Club 051's big reveal. Though rumours had already been circulating on Club 051 social media groups, and throughout the city, for weeks — the team wanted to tease news of the reopening to its eagerly awaiting fan base. With plans to share a series of images of those iconic finishings mentioned above, they settled on posting a picture of the club's disco ball first: "Everyone knew straight away," says Ryan. "The cat was out of the bag then.” The official announcement came just five days later, during Lee Butler and Dave Graham's set during a Reminisce event at the M&S Bank Arena in April — eliciting cheers from the show's 10,000 attendees as Lee delivered the announcement over the mic. The lasting impact of Club 051 cannot be underestimated when it comes to exploring how a dilapidated city centre nightclub has come back from the dead; any news on the venue shared within the last decade has always elicited a flood of posts recounting memories from time spent at the club. “It was dead territorial back in the day,” Ryan laughs. “Everyone had their own spot, you wouldn’t venture into anyone else’s space. When we posted up that we were reopening you had people comment like: ‘Oh that’s the Wrexham Corner, that’s the Huyton Corner... we need to get our spot back.'”

The "new" Club 051 not only serves as a reminder of the countless nights spent here across its original 14 year tenure, but also a look back into a golden era of Liverpool clubbing. The city's "superclub era" was arguably instigated when Liverpool's "first laser club" The State opened in 1982, within months of the Haçienda opening 30 miles away in Manchester — and was followed by Bootle's acid house-angled Quadrant Park in 1988. Though "Quaddie" would be shuttered by 1991, and The State would end its run of nights in the mid-'90s, more followed in their wake. In 1991 the 3,000-capacity Paradox in Aintree, home of Radio City's Saturday Night Live broadcast, first opened. Meanwhile the city centre would see the rise of Club 051 on Mount Pleasant, and just yards away Nation, which would become the home of Cream in 1992. "[Cream] actually started here," Ryan tells me. "James Barton was DJing at Club 051 before he decided to hang his decks up to become one of the best promoters in the world."

“Yeah, Manchester had the Haçienda, but all the other clubs there then tried to do the exact same thing," he says. "Whereas in Liverpool, everyone did something different. The 051 was different to Paradox, which was different to The State, which was different to Quadrant Park. All these clubs had a niche, and they were still full every weekend.” Quadrant Park, Paradox and Nation have now been demolished, while The State is set to be converted into a restaurant, “All these iconic venues are gone, and this is one of the last ones that is still here,” says Ryan. “You look at Cream, it was demolished in 2016. We can never bring that back, but this is still here, and it's the last superclub from that era in the North West that we can actually bring it back.”

Though I had been taken aback by the sight of the venue while it was still being built in August, watching light reflect off the disco ball across its industrial-yet-sleek surfaces as crowds file their way in gives it a new life. Despite much of its expanse consisting of its huge central dancefloor, there are endless nooks and crannies across the room — darker spaces below the balconies where groups convene to get a better look at the booth, there are dance platforms and walkways that quickly become the locations of nightlong chinwags. It's a testament to the '90s approach to club design, putting a focus on creating a space of coalescence — it's not just a place to see a DJ, but to have an entire night out. "It's like a big air raid shelter, with its balconies and it's all made out of cement," says Lee Butler "It's just like, it's a proper club... it's hot, there's lasers, smoke, loud music."

"The nightclub in itself is a thing of the past," he continues. "Most of the stuff people class as nightclubs now are bars or bar-restaraunts that have DJs playing in there and it's booze culture. There is industrial clubs, especially in London - but in Liverpool, there isn't really any." It's difficult to disagree with Lee, being in this space with its pillars and it's expansive-yet-intimate atmosphere feels markedly different to being in the kind of modern venues that tend to be of a similar capacity in the UK — converted warehouses and industrial spaces, with a routine approach of sticking decks and the end of the room alongside the soundsystem and a bar at the back. There are balconies for the crowd to lean over and take in the atmosphere, dance platforms so the dancefloor appears levelled and varied. “It’s about creating an unbelievable atmosphere, and this space has been purpose-built to do that," Ryan says, though he insists that the team wanted to hold onto the venue's rough-around-the-edges vibe when refitting. "It's always been for that, raw, industrial, organic type of clubbing - it's never been a plush venue." To do so, contractors have brought forth industrial elements like the club's air ducts, exposing the rawness of the room — with only a coat of black paint added to the concrete walls.

Just 20 minutes after opening its doors for the first time in 18 years, Club 051's cavernous dancefloor is already littered with partygoers. The crowd seems to mostly be made up of former regulars — many are making their way to the toilets to see if the tiles are still there — congregating in groups around certain areas with a distinct air of familiarity. By 30 minutes in, I notice the dance platforms at the rear of the dancefloor are already occupied as Rusty opens with a mixture of old school and new house music; a man doing the robot and a woman brandishing a extra-large fan seemingly get into a competition of who can dance the hardest, pointing at each other and laughing as their respective groups look on from below. It's 8:30PM. Everyone is dressed to the nines, and I determine that at least 40% of the dancefloor is wearing heels and still managing to dance with more vigour than your average rowdy rave festival set — and double fisting cans of Madri as they do so. There's groups who are gossiping about their adult children also being out in Liverpool tonight, as they brandish light-up rave specs and give each other the tightest hugs you've ever seen in your life. It feels like a homecoming, the gang are finally back together after so many years. "It's such a big occasion for these people," says Lee Butler. "Some of the messages we've had are from couples who met here 20 years ago, they've got three kids now. The memories and the stories in the build-up, of how special the place was... it brings a level of pressure to ensure [the night] delivers that."

The club's now promoter and figurehead Lee Butler, has been a key driving force in bringing about the return of Club 051. Having made his debut at the venue in 1996, following a years-long tenure at The State, Lee recounts the atmosphere of the crowd during his debut: "The opening night was 'battle of the heavyweights', me vs Dave Graham," he says. "People took it so seriously, people had flags and shirts for either one of us, people had brought flowers and banners. That's the passion you get here, Liverpool's a very loyal city." It's alongside Graham that Butler makes his return to the Club 051 booth this evening, as the pair kick off their b2b full of reimagined old school bangers that have the crowd unanimously raising their hands in recognition to every transition — ensuring they shout intermittently over the mic "C'mon Oh Five One!"

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"We wanted to make sure we stayed true to the club," says Lee following his set. "But as well as that, there's lots of new edits and slightly updated versions of those classic sounds. I played a lot of my own new edits and remixes of the older stuff, that have a slightly more tech-y feel, I've really updated bassline. A lot of the old stuff sometimes, it's a bit old and it's weak — so we did have that edgy stuff in there as well, that made it feel a bit more modern without taking away from that 'homecoming' feeling." Lee has remained steadfast in his commitment to bring Club 051 back since it closed in 2005, flying the flag for that pumping, Scouse house sound that he, and his fellow 051 regulars Mark Simon, Lil John, Les Calvert, and Dave Graham, became renowned for. Though he admits, when I speak to him following his set, that tonight has been a "mixture of excitement and nerves" for him personally. "It's important as a project that it goes really well. I think importantly, I just want everyone else to have a good time. It's less about me having a good time, and more about them," he says. "There's some pressure, when you're baring the brunt of the excitement. If something's not right, they have a port of call to come back to - and tag. Lot's of nightclubs/festivals don't have that figurehead, whereas I'm the driving force as far as the public goes on how this goes."

"But it's been a fantastic crowd," says Lee. "Most of them had registered to get their tickets, most of them were over 30, most of them used to go there. They only need to hear a sample, or a bassline or a vocal and they knew the songs before they were even coming in the mix. This is what makes this crowd special, they absolutely love the music. As a DJ, you can't ask for much more than that. Just like it should be, it's not about posing, it's about partying in here."

As we approach the wee hours, and the somewhat knackered crowd make their way towards taxi ranks — including a celeb spot in the shape of former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher — there's a tangible sense of relief in the air for those who brought Club 051 back. The night was a success, but it was also a test run of sorts, and those behind the project are well aware that every night will not be tailored to the old faithful, but rather, now is when they will have to determine if the venue will have a role in helping to develop Liverpool's future scene. "We've got a big techno night coming up," says Lee Butler. "We're talking to a lot of up-and-coming promoters in Liverpool, though we'll still have space for our own nostalgia nights. We want to cover all bases." Similarly Ryan says that, while the project had been launched with those who have been waiting for Club 051 to come back so many years, they now want to help bring another golden era of Liverpool clubbing to fruition. “Liverpool can be the party capital of the UK again, and this can be part of it — it can be that venue that brings in people from all over the North West again, maybe all over the country. It is the best of what Liverpool has to offer.”

“We also want the people of Liverpool to be able to come and see a venue that they've never seen before, I think young people today they miss out on what their mums and dads had... which was this incredible scene that just blew everybody away, and I think it's unfortunate that fizzled out. But maybe this is the kickstart we need, hopefully it'll start some healthy competition and other places will be wanting to put on bigger events and revive the scene as a whole,” Ryan continues. "It's unique, because a lot of young people today, they've never experienced that, they go to warehouse raves, and they are brilliant, but there's something different when it's been designed for this.” Since the opening night back in September, Club 051 has thrown a sold-out Halloween party, as well as a special birthday party for Lee. Though this December will see it begin to pack its schedule , starting with a Wigan Pier vs 051 party featuring the likes of Mikey B, Steve Cocky, Mintra M, as well as the 051 crew, while the venue's 30th birthday party will take place on Boxing Day. Though it remains to be seen if the venue can attract the younger generation it so clearly wants to welcome.

But as someone who is under 30 when I visit, seeing the massive expanse of the Club 051 dancefloor fill up with a smoky haze and all bodies moving to raucous house music, I can't stop picturing the different nights that could be held here, as well as what nights here must have been like in its first iteration. The story of the return of Club 051 feels even less likely after I've visited the venue — in a time where we continue to lose venues hand over fist, and grow accustomed to a clubbing experience that is commercialised within an inch of its life. There's a tangible energy to the venue, it feels like a real clubbing experience; one that we lost somewhere along the way, and with all the hard work of the team here in bringing the venue back to life, I can't help but hope that its a sign of things to come, rather than an anomaly.

I asked Ryan during my first visit to the venue in August, what it is that has kept him involved in the project when the team has suffered so many setbacks in their journey? He sat back, and thought for a minute, before replying with a sense of steely determination: “When we got the keys in February, even though it was destroyed and we were in shock, you could still feel that energy. You could still feel that the place wasn't dead and that's what really excited us. That's what has kept us all going.”

You can check out upcoming events on Club 051's website.

Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Editor, follow her on Twitter

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