At the start of this year, the legendary club Plastic People shut its doors on Curtain Road in Shoreditch for good. It came among an ongoing wave of club and venue closures, and it was one of the smaller venues in London – fitting just 200 dancers – but it provoked a huge wave of nostalgia. This wasn’t just a sense of loss though: notable in all the tributes that were paid to the venue were an enormous sense of pride in the values of the club and how it represented all that is best about London and its people.
Founded originally on Oxford Street in 1994 by the then 22-year-old Ade Fakile, Plastic People moved to its long term home in 1999, when Shoreditch was still barely more than a post-industrial wasteland – certainly not the sea of coffee bars and City money it is now. The venue was as stripped-down as they come, just a basement with dark walls and no lighting on the dancefloor, inspired by the clubs in Nigeria where Fakile grew up. But instead of investing in fancy décor or publicity, he put all his money into what became known as the best soundsystem in London.
This combination of rough-and-ready surroundings and pristine sound was what gave the place its magic. The sound was so good that even quite experimental or out-there music could be made to feel welcoming, and the unpretentiousness of a small, dark space meant that often people would wander in not knowing what to expect and end up staying to enjoy sounds they’d never have expected to. And so it was that Plastic People became a home for everything from free jazz to drum and bass, and nurtured unique London electronic sounds like dubstep, grime and broken beat through vital phases of their development: all the while maintaining a family-like party atmosphere that was the envy of clubs around the world.
It was important too, not just for what it was, but as a microcosm of what has made London so culturally magical over decades. The imported sensibility and knowledge of an immigrant colliding with the best available technology. The dustiest old records being played next to the very newest subcultural innovations (one clubnight, CDR, prided itself on only ever playing unreleased music!). The cosmopolitan no-nonsense Londoners in relentless pursuit of a good time, dressed up but willing to sweat and get their trainers dirty on the dancefloor.
It represented the same spirit of mixing without dilution that you could find in the R&B clubs of the sixties where African and Caribbean musicians covered black American music for white audiences – trading knowledge and leading to uniquely British fusion bands like Cymande and Osibisa. The spirit which led Don Letts to play heavy dub cuts in between bands at the first punk gigs, and later to explore electro and funk with The Clash’s Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. Which got curious music fans checking out gay clubs to hear hi-NRG and early house. Which drove eighties DJs like the late Colin Faver to draw a direct line from post-punk to the first techno records coming in from Detroit, and that fuelled the warehouse parties of the middle of the decade where people like Norman Jay, Coldcut and Soul II Soul to blend funk, hip hop, reggae, electro and more. And which of course fuelled the rave explosion, jungle, garage and all that followed.
For each of these fusions and innovations, there were magical, secret spots dotted around the capital: places whose names can still send old clubbers misty-eyed. Clubs, bars, speakeasies, warehouses, even cafes and shops where meet-ups happened, flyers were exchanged, plans were made. Etched into the fabric of this city is a whole parallel nighttime history, one that’s often only half-remembered even (or especially) by its keenest participants, one that often hinges around the activities of tiny and tight knit groups of people – yet which is as important to the identity and culture of London as far bigger and more publicised events.
That doesn’t mean culture as something abstract, either. Nightlife is about the constant exchange of ideas, stories, dance moves and of course sounds between real people interacting in the flesh: something more valuable than ever in an era where it feels like everything is a blizzard of information filtered through laptop and phone screens. That’s one of the key reasons behind the founding of Big Fish Little Fish: to preserve and share those unique values and experiences, and to make sure another generation understands that clubbing is not just about big tunes and good times. At its best, it can be something powerful and important for society well beyond the walls of any individual venue.
Joe Muggs is a raver, a DJ and a member of Big Fish Little Fish, a music and events crew that put on family-friendly raves created for the post rave generation of parents and their kids.
Big Fish Little Fish are working in partnership with the Museum of London to present Family Rave: Anchors Aweigh!. This maritime themed family rave at the Museum of London Docklands on Sunday 29 November is at the rave-tastic time of 14:00-16:30 meaning everyone can have a well-earned afternoon nap. Book your tickets for the rave on our website.