While so many of us have pined for the return of nightclubs in the UK, there can’t be many who long for their return more than the nation’s late adolescents who have never legally been allowed to go out to a dance. Turning 18 tends to be the most exciting birthday in your lifetime, opening up a world of possibilities previously restricted by age. But the possibility to mark the occasion by going clubbing has been snatched away from those coming of age during lockdown.
The experience of going to a club for the first time presents a sense of freedom that can’t be experienced elsewhere, it offers a chance to discover new cultures and connect with like-minded individuals in a space intended for bringing those from all walks of life together. A nightclub isn’t just four walls and a DJ, and the nightlife industry contributes much more to society than its financial value.
Back in February, when Boris Johnson and the Government announced their proposed ‘roadmap’ to freedom, all music lovers circled June 21 in their calendar as the day normality would be restored. However, with COVID-19 cases on the rise once again and new variants present in the nation, the Prime Minister, despite previous confidence that there would be no delay to the lifting of restrictions, announced a further month of measures would be added.
Not only was this a devastating blow for an industry that has often been the last thought in COVID-related conversation, but for everyone who had waited so patiently for the return of the night-time industry after 16 arduous months. Now, with the Prime Minister saying it’s time for us to "learn to live" with COVID, nightclubs across the country are finally preparing to open their doors with a degree of certainty.
At the front of the queues come July 19 will undoubtedly be the nation’s teenagers, many of whom have never set foot in a club before. We caught up with four 19-year-olds – Ben, Tamzin, Finlay and Megan – to hear about what they expect from Monday.
Ben is a 19-year-old Journalism student at the University of Leeds. A self-confessed music lover, he reviews new releases for Leeds’ university paper The Gryphon and listens to everything from punk and indie through to ska, synth pop and drum ‘n’ bass. A regular gigger before the pandemic hit, he turned 18 in April 2020. “Before lockdown, I’d been going to gigs every week so for that to stop, it was really challenging,” Ben says. “If I’d had a bad week at school or wherever, I knew I had something to look forward to on the weekend. I’m 19 now and have still never been in a proper club, which is absolutely crazy.”
Having never been to a club before, he does not know what to expect when he gets the chance. “Everything I’ve got to go off is from films, so I don’t know how accurate that is,” he says. “It’s been built up so much now because I’ve been waiting for so long. I’m worried that it might be a little disappointing when it does happen.”
However, due to the reputation Leeds has for an eclectic range of nights, Ben is optimistic about getting the chance to experience the city he moved to back in September. “I’m looking forward to getting a chance to go and discover new places. A lot of my mates turned 18 before me so were able to go out to the clubs and they’ve been telling me about certain ones. To be honest, I’m not that clued up about the clubs in Leeds so I’m excited to get out there and discover some new favourite places.”
Like Ben, Tamzin is 19 years old and has never got the chance to go to a nightclub in the city she goes to university in. The recent fresher in Birmingham is a pop music fan and alongside her studies acts as the digital editor at University of Birmingham's student newspaper Redbrick. All those currently at university have had their learning and social experiences disrupted over the past year or more, but none more than those who have just come to the end of their first year. “We’ve missed out on the typical student experience of being able to go to nightclubs and mix with people in societies,” says Tamzin. “It’s been difficult to do many of the things we’d normally get to do.”
And like Ben once more, she too was a regular gigger, but does not know what to expect when the time comes for her to set foot inside a proper club for the first time. “Before the pandemic, I was used to always going out to gigs and concerts, so I definitely feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of things,” she adds. “I’m looking forward to the chance to listen to music and dance with friends. I have never really experienced late-night clubs either, so being out to the early hours of the morning will be a completely new experience as well.”
Megan is the same age as both Ben and Tamzin but managed to get some clubbing experience under her belt before the first lockdown. When she was 17, she used a friend’s ID to get herself into her local Nuneaton club, as well as some clubs in Sheffield, where she has just spent her first year at university. “I don’t feel like I’ve majorly missed out because I’d already been clubbing,” Megan says. “However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not really eager to go out!”
She adds the most enjoyable part of club culture for her is getting to visit and experience new cities, as well spending time with friends, both new and old, in a social environment. “Having the chance to catch up with people will be really nice,” she says. “Not being able to go to events has meant you end up making a lot less friends, as when you’re on a night out you get to meet lots of people.” The social aspect is what Tamzin is eagerly anticipating as well, with the English and History student adding: “Going out will give me a chance to mix and connect with people I normally would never meet so that will be a different kind of vibe.”
Meanwhile, Ben recognises the power that music has to bring people together where they can, for whatever length of time, forget about everything else and lose themselves in the moment. “Music is something that is best enjoyed in person and shared with other people,” he muses. “Those are the experiences I’m looking forward to having; being able to let off steam after a week but also making memories with friends and meeting new people.”
Finlay is a soon-to-be 20-year-old who is a devotee of all things house. A lover of everything from the deeper end of the spectrum through to minimal tech, he cites artists like Chris Stussy, Eats Everything and Patrick Topping as some of his favourite artists. Before the pandemic took full effect, Finlay had some sweet months experiencing London’s booming nightlife, going to venues including Printworks and Corsica Studios and festivals such as Boomtown. Alongside his job as a fibre engineer, he’s also a DJ, producer and promoter.
His experiences of the pandemic are different to the others, as his hobbies have been directly affected by the lack of club nights. “Not being able to do the things that you love because of it all is just shit,” he says. “I’m lucky my main hobby is mixing and producing so I’ve still been able to do that at home, but in terms of going out, not being able to do my favourite things like going to house raves and festivals has been awful.”
Like so many of us, he has tried to fill the void with a slew of sit-down and restricted events but finds the over-sanitised duplication to be too far from the real thing. “I’ve been to a few and have played at a few as well, but they’re not the best,” says Finlay, who DJ’s under the moniker Fin Mac. “Sometimes you get ones where security is a bit more lenient on what you can do, but the ones where they’re properly strict aren’t much fun to be honest.”
The one positive that Finlay is taking from lockdown is that it’s given him the drive to start putting on his own events. “I’ve always wanted to do it but haven’t really had the balls to. Having the free time over lockdown got me thinking about how it’s something I’d really like to do.” His first event (called We Select) is due in late July in his local Hertfordshire, with plans to expand into London and Cambridge set for the future.
While Finlay is preparing for his own events, the others are filling up their calendars for the forthcoming months, eager to make up for lost time and enjoy a summer of freedom that was taken from them last year. Ben is booked in for the Lovely Eggs in Leeds and New Order in Manchester, Megan is set for Leeds Festival and a weekend also enjoying the city’s nightlife, while Tamzin will be heading to a number of festivals including the Big Feastival.
However, as much as they are all looking forward to either returning or going for the first time to a club, there is an air of caution surrounding what to expect. “I still don’t know for sure if [my gigs] are going to happen, but I’m just going to kind of go with the flow,” says Ben. The two who have been to clubs before, Megan and Finlay, think certain restrictions may still be enforced. “I don’t know what to expect but I hope it is back to normal,” says Megan. “I kind of think it will be how it used to be, but maybe less people will go to start and we might need to take lateral flow tests.”
Finlay agrees, saying: “I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be new measures in place, which might change the atmosphere.” This is a worry for Ben as well, who finishes: “I feel there could be a twist where they won’t reopen fully with no restrictions which would be annoying, especially for young people who have worked so hard to try and get things open again throughout the pandemic.”
In recent weeks, despite the Government’s stance that it’s time to live with COVID, the nation has seen case numbers soar at rates we haven’t seen since the middle of the third lockdown (although hospitalisations and deaths are not spiking in the way they did during previous waves). Our teenagers seem to be split on whether this will impact their decision to return to clubs. All still want to go as soon as possible, but the regularity that they go might be a consideration. For Tamzin, she thinks she might look for a balance of how often she visits clubs, perhaps waiting to see how the virus spreads once restrictions are dropped.
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On the other hand, Megan and Finlay believe the time has come to open. All of our teenagers have taken the first opportunities they’ve had to be vaccinated, opposing the narrative that the younger generations need incentives to have their jabs. It’s proof that the only incentive they need is the chance to move forward and live their youth. “Obviously we’ve got to be careful and don’t want to push ourselves back, but at the same time, I think it’s time to open up again,” says Finlay. “We’ve been cheated out of over a year of our lives.” Megan agrees, stating: “Everybody just wants their lives back now.”
The past 16 months have been tough for all in the music and arts communities. Artists have left the industry, clubs have had to close their doors for good, and ravers have been left with a sense of emptiness while they await the return of events. With the long-awaited date just days away, many of us feel that nature will have returned. As for our teenagers, Megan summarises best the excitement they feel for when the doors will open again. “I will be the first one there,” she promises, echoing the feelings of so many up-and-down the country. After the 16 months they’ve had, who can blame them?
Paddy Edrich is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter