Review: "A religious experience" - the return of clubbing in London - Features - Mixmag

Review: "A religious experience" - the return of clubbing in London

With lockdown restrictions no longer in place, we head to three parties across London as clubbing returns to the capital

  • Gemma Ross, Megan Townsend, Patrick Hinton
  • 23 July 2021

June 21 wasn't to be, but the month-long delay of lockdown restrictions being lifted to July 19 went ahead as planned in England this week. Clubs wasted no time in reopening their doors, with many welcoming back dancers at the stroke of midnight and attracting long queues.

As clubbing returned in London, we headed to three parties across the capital. The mood varied among dancers and venues, as did the approach to the still-present concern of the risks posed by the pandemic. The dominant feeling across the board was excitement, as dancefloors thrived again for the first time since early 2020.

fabric, East London

It’s a sweltering day in London as hundreds of sunburnt faces take to the queues outside London’s illustrious fabric, which opened its doors for the first time in 16 months on Sunday night. Seeing in the first few minutes of the newly dubbed ‘Freedom Day’, revellers rejoiced on fabric’s doorstep, cheering for the moment midnight struck. It was a moment unlike any other in club history; the crowd finished tinnies outside as others jumped and hugged ecstatically over the thought of returning to a long-forgotten memory - but one we were thrilled to rewrite.

On its opening night - not to be confused with fabric’s official re-opening party this weekend - Journey to Planet 9 promised an ‘immersive world of artistry, expressiveness & innovations’. Very few caught on to the space-themed dress code other than the dancers and drag queens who entertained the masses lining the block around fabric. Armed with bubble machines while dressed ready to defeat an alien invasion, the dancers made their way around the queue, stopping for the occasional picture before midnight hit. A last-minute drop out from Sweely disappointed some fans, including a group who travelled all the way from Leeds: “We came tonight because Sweely was playing, but he cancelled,” they told us. Tones quickly reverted to a positive one when the adrenaline kicked in, “tonight is about escapism, love, community, music… and I’m probably gonna sweat my head off,” said one of the lads.

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Like many other clubs across the country who opened their doors on Sunday night, or Monday morning as it were, fabric didn’t undertake a strict policy on safety precautions, simply giving the perk of a priority queue upgrade if a negative COVID test was produced. One of the newly installed rules, however, paid homage to the no-picture policy common in Berlin by asking club-goers to put a sticker over their phone cameras. “No pictures guys, just enjoy the night,” the doorwoman told some confused looking revellers, who accepted their Insta-less fate and headed inside regardless. The crowd was a varied mix of students and music heads alike, an expected bunch for a Sunday night at fabric.

“I think there will be a lot of students here tonight, especially because it’s a Sunday,” said 19-year-old Esme in the queue. “I turned 18 during the lockdown, so this is my first ever club experience,” she explained. And she wasn’t the first - this had the potential to be something way beyond just the first night back in the club for almost two years - but the first night ever for some. “I want the freedom of a big crowd, just to be in the middle of a club and disappear. That freedom is primal,” said Sol, another 19-year-old student who’d travelled down from Birmingham for his first-ever legal club experience, admitting he’d been once or twice at the age of 17. “I honestly just want a religious experience,” his friend chipped in.

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Inside, most screamed and jumped for joy arm-in-arm with friends while others hesitantly peeked over the terrace before joining the crowds, feeling the bass before they felt the heat. Hundreds of bodies packed back into the small space and found their feet quickly after a 16-month hiatus. Spatterings of drum ’n’ bass were met with tech-house before Desert Sound Colony and Radioactive Man took over the headline slots. Catching Desert Sound Colony before his 3:AM set, he tells us, “I’m a combination of excited and nerve-racked. I haven’t touched the decks since my last gig before lockdown!” he said. “This is the first club I ever went to, it’s been my dream to play room three since I was about 17.”

Although surreal, it’s difficult to explain the feeling, but one clubber summed it up quite nicely: “It feels like less than 16 months since we were last doing this - but the old normal is the new normal I guess”. Catching up with the Birmingham students who relayed the excitement of their first legal club experience, one said, “Walking in here was glorious, I felt like a Roman gladiator entering the colosseum”. Others were slightly hesitant over the fate of clubs in the coming weeks as COVID cases soar in the UK.

Clubbers adjusted to basic human interaction - small talk in the smoking area, rubbing shoulders with hundreds of others. Worries of imminent club closure was on the tip of everyone’s tongue in the smoking area. “I think the cases are going to rise a lot. We all did tests before we came in, I think people should at least have the decency to do one before they go clubbing,” said one person. In a post-COVID world, clubbing might not feel like a yesteryear activity if it can be maintained by governmental coordination. The euphoria felt at Journey to Planet 9 on Sunday - or a ‘trans-dimensional voyage of escapism’ as fabric called it, goes unmatched. Making lifelong mates in the queue for the loo or finding your soulmate on the dancefloor is just the beginning.

[Photo: Enrico Policardo]

Adonis at The Cause, North London

Has there ever been a better example of trial by fire than heading to Adonis as a reintroduction to clubbing after 16 long months?

Adonis is a balls-to-the-wall, proudly in-your-face queer night that usually takes place on the last Saturday of every month (at least it did, in the “before” times).

The night boasts a reputation in being the most hedonistic, “sweat-is-falling-from-the-ceiling” of gatherings - an alluring yet intimidating prospect after 16 months spent distancing from others. Tonight's line-up features Midland, Sonikku, Gideön, OK Williams and more.

An NHS COVID Pass was required for entry, with a separate queue set-up for security to check for it. The entire outdoor area of the venue - expanded for Costa Del Tottenham during the pandemic - was open, ensuring the crowd could spread out.

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Inevitably there were some teething issues, from the difficult to anticipate: It was very easy to exchange tests between friends if the opportunity arose and talk of turning off contact tracing once inside could be overheard.

To the glaringly obvious: The Cause is a 400-capacity venue and this was a sold-out event - the draw of the club is its low ceilings and an intimate dancefloor that ensures audiences are packed together. Anyone who had slipped through checks would find it difficult to avoid infecting others once inside.

It was difficult to dwell on any of this for too long on the approach from Tottenham Hale though - as the hum of chatter from those waiting outside and the slight thump of bass grew louder. There wasn't much hesitance to get in from loyal lingerie-clad Adonis fans - who had formed an hour-long line before doors had even opened - instead, there was a palpable “so what” feeling, like heading to a club was pretty pedestrian, and there had been a few weeks restrictions instead of a year-and-a-half.

One partygoer in the queue - who described themselves as dressed like “a prostitute in GTA” said: “I’m not worried cause this isn’t that bad is it?”, pausing and looking at their friend thoughtfully, “It's not like its one of them foam parties. Now if it was a foam party then it would be so rank.”

Read this next: "In-your-face party": Why Adonis is doing the queer underground proud

But the laissez-faire attitude outside was replaced inside with a reflection on how important this moment was - people were embracing each other, throwing fans in the air in hysterics as Night Sheen’s Josh Caffe welcomed them in with open arms and a little early slam. Turning around the dark corner and onto the dancefloor - the only thing that was visible other than sweat-drenched bodies was the parties signature blood-red lasers across the ceiling.

Being in this type of space again appeared to be affecting the crowd in different ways - some lingered shyly by the entrance, testing the waters while others threw themselves into the deep end, some appeared to stand still for a second - allowing their senses to recalibrate and become familiar with being on a packed dancefloor once again.

It was a strange thought to realise how much of this experience our brains have forgotten. Remember hearing the chatter beneath music? That low decibel that fills the space in the club that you can simultaneously hear alongside the track, rising and falling excitedly as the tempo changes. I'd forgotten it even existed, but to hear it again felt like being reunited with an old friend.

OK Williams was greeted with cheers from outside the cage before she’d even put a track on. The moment it all seemed to fit together so poignantly was as she lifted out a record from her bag - waving it in the air to applause so loud it almost drowned out the music. Did anyone know what was coming? Who cares. There was a clear understanding that it was going to go off.

Of course, the opening bars of Paul Johnsons 'Get Get Down' began to play and their suspicions were confirmed, the crowd going so wild Williams was wheeling up the track within 30 seconds.

And just like that, everyone remembered how to rave again.

Through 'till the morning, the crowd remained mesmerised - Midland stepped up to the cage teasing the throngs with a mix of nineties garage, acid and jungle, building up towards a shattering drop of Fabulous Baker Boys' 'Oh Boy'.

And the party didn't stop there - Adonisee's headed outdoors as the sun came up, dancing on tables, wearing as little as possible and singing Kylie Minogue as loud as their lungs could muster.

“It’s been transcendental, pure joy,” said Shay Malt, Adonis founder and resident. “The month leading up to it was a real emotional rollercoaster trying to plan it and deal with all the hurdles.”

“But as soon as the music started at midnight, it was just beautiful really.”

[Photo: Aneta Pruszynska]

Ministry Of Sound, South London

The return of clubbing has been a towering event on the horizon through the pandemic with so much hope and expectation placed upon it. Through the confusion of the beginning months and the bleak winter lockdown, the dream of getting back amongst it in a heaving crowd with a belting soundsystem has kept us going. But initially, it’s the little things that feel so welcome: spotting groups dressed in streetwear on the tube platform and knowing exactly where they’re headed, the excited babble in the air as the streets fill with people exiting trains, buses, taxis and streaming in the same direction. “It’s freedom day!” shrieks one young reveller excitedly, with just a hint of disbelief. It hasn’t felt real until now, but nightclubs are actually back open, and hundreds of people are already inside.

It’s Monday night and we’re in South London for the reopening of Ministry Of Sound. Tonight’s party is helmed by the venue’s resident student night Milkshake alongside BPM London, with four rooms of music open offering a full-bodied range of house, hip hop, UK garage, drill, drum ‘n’ bass, and more. It might not be Mancuso at The Loft or Harvey at Pikes, but it’s a nightclub that’s open after 16 long months, and giving many young people the chance to get a taste of raving for the very first time. "If you've never been clubbing before - welcome!" shouts an MC to an ecstatic response as the main room fills up. Turning 18 during lockdown and not being able to enjoy the new freedom of going out clubbing is terrible luck for any outgoing teenager. Tonight the crowd is dominated by people at the start of, or early into, their clubbing years, and the exhilaration is palpable. “Seeing the club busy again after so long was wonderful, having our incredible soundsystem pumping out to thousands of people is something that will never get old,” says Deniz Hilmi, Head of Talent and Promotions at Ministry of Sound.

Among the broad range of music played, the DJs educate the crowd in rave anthems spanning The Prodigy to Faithless and classic slices of UKG among newer takes on the sound from the likes of Disclosure. When Dem 2’s 1998 banger ‘Destiny’ goes off, a student in gleaming white Fila trainers climbs onto the speaker stack to dance as a wave of hype overcomes her. She confides she’s never heard the track before after stepping down. Jamie Jones’ anthemic ‘Hungry For The Power’ remix also has the dancefloor bouncing, moving a new generation of dancers just as it did when it took over Ibiza almost a decade ago.

It’s not just the crowd who are happy to return, with the nightlife industry’s workers also delighted to get back to business. "It's just good to see people enjoying themselves," says Greg, a 40-year-old security guard who pivoted to working government security jobs during lockdown, and is now back inside the club upon its return. "I've never wanted to work so hard in my life!" laughs a bar worker as she prepares cocktails.

“The uncertainty was the most difficult thing to deal with, thankfully the Government gave us enough support to keep the lights on,” says Deniz, reflecting on the 16 months of closure. “The promise of playing music and dancing with our fans was what kept us all sane, we are looking forward to welcoming everyone back to our opening weekend events.”

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Despite the free atmosphere inside, we are still in a pandemic with case numbers on the rise. Following the government’s ending of lockdown measures, Ministry Of Sound does not have any formal restrictions in place. But it has outlined as COVID-19 safety policy, including urging attendees to get tested before coming and stay home if they feel unwell. A reminder that we all have personal responsibilities to fulfil for clubbing to return safely and for the long term. Hand sanitising stations are also located around the club, anyone wishing to wear a mask is encouraged to do so, and the sizable courtyard provides an open-air space. Speaking to revellers out there, most seem unfazed by health concerns and are just happy to be out of lockdown. “It feels good to be back out,” 21-year-old recent graduates Daniel and Otis say, with their primary worry being made to feel old among the youthful crowd. Students Jasmine and Katie, also 21, say “it’s weird to be back out - not so much because of health worries, just being among crowds of people again - but it’s really exciting.”

“It is crazy to think that this is the first taste of clubbing for people who turned 18 over the lockdown period,” says Deniz when we catch up after the event. “I can only imagine how excited they were, and it really showed on the night as the energy was electric. The future of dance music seems to be in good hands.”

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