16.1.13

A State of Its Own: London Party Review

Above picture by Katie Brooks
When I told my Berlin friends and colleagues that I was going to London for New Year’s, many of them stared at me like I was mad.

“My God why? It’s so expensive there!” said one.
“The last time I went to London, it was about 25 pounds to get in to one club!” said the other. Other comments I got: “London parties there are great... but they always finish too early.” and “You cannot drink in London. One Prosecco and you’re broke!” and “And the men in the clubs there are slimy. They just don’t leave you alone.”
I said the same thing to them all: "I'll be fine... I know places that aren't like that."  They were immediately curious and wanted to know where.
 Uh, everywhere and nowhere...? "You usually find out on the night," I told them.  
"So you never know where you are going to go?" they asked anxiously.

"No," I smiled, "but that's what makes it fun."       

Exhibit A: North London.  January 1, 2013 at 12:30 a.m. 
My friend Al and I are sitting on a bus, headed to a gabba/breakcore/drum n’ bass party in an abandoned church in North London. Not a rented, renovated or otherwise gentrified old church, just an old abandoned one. 

On the bus, we end up sitting next to a group of three girls and one guy. Their faces are glowing. The guy is wearing one of those baggy hooded parka jobs, unzipped and hanging akimbo. He’s grinning and laughing at everything the girls say and a quite few things that they don't. His flashing teeth speak for him in the place of words. The girls’ already-curly hair is curling ever more floridly in the humid air. Every detail of them is unravelling but, like one of those pullovers that looks better when it's a bit destroyed, the look suits them.

Al and me can't help eavesdropping on their banter, as they're sat right next to us and drunk n' shouty to boot. We overhear that they're headed to a psytrance party that is just down the road from the party we’re going to. 

"Oh, you're going to the [name removed] party, right?” asks Al, turning to the black girl next to him. She nods in a downcast way. "It's the one right next to the [name removed] tube, yeah?"

“Do you know where that is?  Cool!" she blurts, "Kerstin couldn't find it on her map app.”  A second girl with dark curls, sat opposite her, stops stabbing away at her smartphone screen and turns to us.  A pearly stick-on star gleams on her cheek.  She tells us the name of the road and we tell her what stop she needs to get off. They group looks wildly soothed, then starts pressing us for details about where we're going.  A few minutes later they also press their half-empty wine bottles into our hands, plying us with second-hand drunk that we're happy to receive.
"Keep them!" cries the girl with star-sticker . 
“We’re so sad you aren’t coming with us!” says one of her friends as they all stumble to their feet at the next stop and get off the bus, waving and calling out Happy New Year's.

“Wow. They. Were. So. Nice,” Al says with a wistful glance out the window.

A few stops later we get off and, after swerving into an off-license to pick up drinks, we swerve back in the direction of the abandoned church. It's not hard to spot, what with that huge born-again Christian slogan painted across it. It looks dead and dark but when we get closer we see a little portcullis of light, a postal slot of some sort. I call through it until a face appears on the other side.

“Hello!” says its owner, squinting at us through darkness and a few dreadlocks of hair. Seconds later he opens the door.  The main dance floor is whitewashed, vaulted glory hole, discarded after some sort of one-night stand with fundamentalism. For some reason it makes me think of one of those pagan wells that Christians always build their churches on top of - except this one has been reclaimed by the natives. Juddering geometric lights and dancers skipping to jungle rhythms pay homage to the formless spirit of music.  A cabaret of men dances across the stage to old school in hoodies as the crowd in front of the speaker stack grows.  Even without the strictures of doctrine, they still see the light and feel joy in the presence of sound and each other. Order doesn’t create this, we do. 

Exhibit B: South London, January 1st.  Shortly after 4:00 a.m.


On the way to the second party we find ourselves in the company of another group of psytrancers, only this time, we are the ones who are lost and they are showing us where the next party is. So far we haven't paid for anything except for a few store bought drinks and other sources of energy.  The Tube is free on New Year.   But even in the underground we will have to pay to get into the party, on New Year's.  They call them "free parties" not because of the price but because of their refusal to adhere to any set of boundaries - stylistic, musical, social as well as legal.

The pint-sized ring leader of the psytrancers is a dark woman in a kaleidoscopic puffy jacket and huge, opaque shades.  Her face is dotted with sparkles that highlight her dimples whenever she smiles. She points us in the direction of a well-hidden courtyard off the high road.  Then she waves and says, "Have a good one!" before heading on down the street with her all-male entourage in tow. On the other side of the courtyard fence, we find a familiar scene: vans are parked right up to the various doorways and people are thronging around them, in and out of various entrances. It takes a minute to realize which one we should be lining up for. The queue is more of a rounded, bulging triangle of people than a line actually; can't be many English people in it, they are known for their ability to form queue, even in the underground.  

When we finally make it through the triangle shaped queue-cum-scrum, we find ourselves inside of a deceptively small, boring entrance hall. It's wall-to-wall with people, all of them heading in wildly different directions… whether they're moving towards anything, or just away from everybody else, is not clear. It's a bit claustrophobic and the only music seems to be coming from somewhere beyond the mass.  Guys in football jackets and girls in heels crush past psytrancers and bohemians in tactile layers of whimsy, who squeeze around crusties with spiky doughnut dreads and mohawks.  All are intersecting and rebounding like electrified pinballs through mud.  A dull roar of voices from Spain, Italy, the home counties and by golly, even a few Londoners fills the air.  

Beyond the crowd and the mundane hallway, we find a building as mind-bending as the labyrinth in Berlin's Wilden Renate club.  Stairwells jut off in corners and curve into airy lofts.  We cross bridges into neighbouring buildings and can't find our way back.  There are rooms of loose-limbed drum n’ bass and ear-rupturing dubstep... rooms of psytrance refugees from a nearby party (now shut down)... rooms where a light show is provided by a woman wreathed in blinking lights... rooms where the strains from several different rigs blend into one... rooms with hard teknival heads... there is even a room of progressive house, which I still can't figure how it got there since this party is wholly dedicated to the bona fide underground sound, invented by and for parties like this.

We lose most of the rooms as quickly as we find them but eventually make it to the biggest one.  It's a warehouse with people are dancing on metal stairwells and speaker stacks dotted round the dancefloor as islands of sound.   In the bar next door, where drinks cost only a few pennies more than they did in the off license, Al finds a tenner and immediately orders several drinks.  Across the bar from us, a pixie-ish blonde in bare feet, fishnets and a bra, sat on a table top, is getting a stiff look from an androgyne dressed like Adam Ant. Buttoned-up and encased in her image like a hostage, Ms. Ant is the antithesis of the blonde's effortless aesthetic. 

"Why are you wearing so little clothing?" demands the Ant. 

"Because I like it!" the blonde retorts.  "You got a problem with that?" Ms. Ant tries to argue around her question, avoiding any admission that actually, she does have a problem with it.  She quickly gives up and slinks away though. She is the exception that proves the rule about free parties: the only thing that matters, here, is what you like.  Not what others dislike... not what they reject... not who they feel compelled to be... not how you feel obligated to live... What other people tell you to do or like or be isn't important here.  That some people find it hard to let go of their limits is a sad reminder of how widespread limits are in the open spaces beyond the party walls.  In the confines of this building there is much less standing in our way.         

Our favourite room is about half the size of the warehouse room with low ceilings, shuttered windows and glowing pink lights.  The dancefloor's always full as the DJs respective sets segue through every underground style from old school, jungle, hypnotic acid techno, steely electro, all mixed on vinyl by guys and girls who play like they were born with a Technic under each hand.  There's no fixed sound, no fixed theme for this space... it evolves to accommodate the changing tides of people for as long as they keep rolling in. 

We leave around 1:00 p.m., too early for the room to be anywhere near closing: it's packed.  Later, a friend tells me the party went on 'til Thursday.

So now I’m back in Berlin, and people keep asking me how my trip went.  Was it expensive?  Well, the trains were; the shops were too... but not the parties, no.  They were free in style, spirit, body and mind. They didn't end too early and I wasn't limited to one drink or one party or even one borough.  And as for the guys?  I do have a vague recollection of someone asking me (begging actually) to fly with him to Rome the next day. I had to decline due to having just arrived in London... but I will gladly take a ticket to London for next New Year's Eve!

Video courtesy of Katie Brooks, free party photographer extraordinaire.

Club Alien and co. will be bringing a slice of London's free party scene to Berlin this March with an event featuring DJs from Stay Up Forever records and other underground (anti)institutions in the U.K. capital. Stay tuned to the blog for more details!

2 comments:

  1. Clubbing in London seems to be a good alternative when it comes to nightlife in London.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comment but actually, none of the parties described above took place at clubs. London clubs are generally very poor value for money, in my experience. If you can recommend one that isn't like that, please feel free to drop us a line!

    ReplyDelete

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Berlin, Germany
...is NOT a fashion blogger! I write about underground music, activism, social media rights. Other publications that I have written for: OpenDemocracy, Urban Challenger, Siegesaeule, Alternative Berlin and Sensanostra.