Wow Save the Last Dance

e endangered Corsica Studios crouches under the railway arches of Elephant and Castle Station, a clubbers’ hideaway in southeast London. The neighboring district lays low on weekday evenings, populated by commuter traffic, bored teens, and the occasional clan of city boys ambling by from a pub on the roundabout. But when I arrive one Tuesday in the fall, the DIY performance space is aglow. Inside, gloriously profane rapper Princess Nokia is inciting a riot amongst art students in chokers and drawstring backpacks, tropical shirts and sports shorts. “Children, are you having fucking fun?” she enquires, as purple spotlights dance in the fog. The couple hundred in attendance scream their approval.

At midnight, friendly clusters split into squadrons of solo dancers, carving out space with fluid hips and fast limbs. As the DJ’s baile-funk rhythms swell, a succession of women twerk and belly-dance onstage. Beside me, a man and woman suddenly become entangled, hands delving as they back onto a carpet of crumpled craft beer cans. An hour later, everyone streams through the exit and past a series of billboards on the backstreet. The glimmering triptych of signs, streetlamp-lit and mounted on construction fencing, herald a multi-billion pound makeover for Elephant and Castle, including a handsome new housing project opposite Corsica. For clubbers, the corporate enthusiasm tells a familiar story: One of London’s last surviving underground clubs now stands next to the most ambitious renewal project in the capital.

“There’s a sense that we’re being surrounded—and there’s probably stuff going on behind the scenes that none of us are aware of,” Corsica’s Adrian Jones tells me, leaning into a table in the club’s operations room. Hanging over his head is a nebulous social vision determined by councillors, developers, and inflating rents. In the last 10 years, London has lost roughly 50 percent of its nightclubs, many due to developments like the housing project opposite Corsica. In typical cases, developers locate underfunded areas set for “activation”—that is, glamorized to prospective residents by lifestyle industries, particularly nightlife. But the social good of extra homes is undermined by shady deals between developers and local governments.

Thanks to government cuts, local councils such as Southwark’s—whose remit includes the Elephant and Castle district—are under-resourced and notoriously pliable. In rebuilding the Heygate Estate opposite Corsica, developer Lend Lease convinced councillors that the project required a 94 percent cut in apartments for “social housing”—the category of cheap homes reserved for those most in need—compared to the project demolished to clear its path. Such schemes have been described as class-cleansing, with low-income residents displaced to remote boroughs while wealth fills the luxury flats. Rents shoot up, as do business rates for clubs. Councils juggle new tenants’ demands with the borough’s existing nightlife ecosystem. When in doubt, they prioritize residents, and clubs vanish.

“I don’t want young and creative Londoners abandoning our city to head to Amsterdam, to Berlin, to Prague, where clubs are supported and allowed to flourish,” Sadiq Khan, London’s new centrist mayor, announced on the campaign trail last spring. His basic plan, based on a rescue document for London venues commissioned by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, is now in place: As well as opening 24-hour tube lines, Khan has pledged to implement the Agent of Change principle, which stops residents challenging noise that predates their arrival. In LGBT advocate Amy Lamé, he’s also appointed a new “night tsar”—a title contrived to swerve the “night mayor”/“nightmare” homonym—who will work alongside a newNight Time Commission to represent the night economy. Contributors to that economy are still skeptical, though.

“What worries me is nothing’s being done fast enough,” Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, who Khan has invited to discuss nightlife at City Hall, tells me. “We’re gonna lose everything, and then everyone’s gonna wake up and be like, ‘Oh well, we don’t have any nightlife, we should try and build some up now.’ That doesn’t come out of nowhere—it takes years.”

Benji B, a stalwart club DJ and BBC Radio 1 presenter, says London clubs have incubated a “particle collision” of dance styles in recent years, producing vanguard work by the likes of Floating Points, Joy Orbison, and the Hyperdub label. It’s these established spaces, Benji and Hebden argue, that foster London’s diverse subcultures. “When people use a space creatively, there’s an invisible impression that’s left behind,” Corsica’s Amanda Moss says. “You can’t see it, but you can feel it.”

“We’re gonna lose everything, and then everyone’s gonna be like, ‘We don’t have any nightlife, we should try and build some up now.’ But that doesn’t come out of nowhere—it takes years.”

FOUR TET’S KIERAN HEBDEN

The predicament facing London nightlife dates back to the turn of the millennium. By then, rave had long since returned from the countryside, shepherded into regulatable venues by the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which clamped down on outdoor parties and the attendant mood of national anarchy. In the capital, superstar DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Sasha commanded enormous crowds (and fees) filling superclubs like Ministry of Sound and Home. Metalheadz, Goldie’s drum’n’bass night at the Blue Note in Shoreditch, became an incubator for forward sounds. “That period of innovation is unparalleled in my experience of clubbing,” Benji B attests.

But the big-club boom was a bubble, and by 2002, DJs were declaring an end to the superclub era. This was a transitional period for nightlife: The 2003 Licensing Act gave pubs permission to set up dancefloors, hire functional DJs, and stay open until 2 a.m. Their gain was a major loss for clubs, whose captive market when pubs closed at 11:30 p.m. disintegrated overnight. It didn’t help that barely any London councils supported the act’s other revolutionary factor: the possibility of 24-hour licenses for clubs.

Regardless, as the superclubs fell, new midsize spaces and warehouse parties rushed into the void. After cutting his teeth at superclub the End in the mid-2000s, Hebden turned his attention to a poky new sacred space called Plastic People. Over a two-year residency, he developed Four Tet’s club-focussed 2010 album, There Is Love in You, breaking out of a creative rut in the process. “I was making records to play in that club, to play to that audience,” says Hebden.

Plastic People remained supportive even when only a few dozen fans were turning up—for Hebden, but also, crucially, for pioneering experimental nights. With FWD>>, where DJs such as Skream andYoungsta advanced dubstep before the term was synonymous with big-tent EDM, Plastic People earned a reputation as “the last bastion of credible club culture” in rapidly gentrifying Shoreditch, Benji B tells me.

In 2010, the club survived a license review, but 2015 saw new restrictions on alcohol sales and opening hours hasten its closure; although the club denies developer pressure, Benji believes authorities meted out harsh licensing rules because planners wanted the space. “There were people getting ambulanced out of the bar [across the road] and having their stomachs pumped in the street,” he says. “And yet the one safest and most mellow and music-dedicated space—with the friendliest, non-druggy, non-dangerous crowd in the whole of Shoreditch—was the place that the council attacked the most.”

In the early ’80s, a poignant mission statement printed on flyers for the legendary Manchester club The Haçienda read: “To restore a sense of place.” The line remains a pithy summary of the challenge facing Sadiq Khan and London’s save nightlife initiatives—but now it’s the sort of doublespeak familiar from signs promoting new developments, on which every erected high-rise is heralded as a gift of utopian vision. As PR wars rage around London real estate, nightclubs have become symbolic battlegrounds for the future identity of London. And no club has been more tightly entangled in that battle than Fabric.

The London club Fabric stands at the epicenter of the city’s overall conflict with nightclub culture.

Since opening in 1999, Fabric has survived rampant gentrification, encroaching pseudo-nightclubs, and the epidemic of superclub closures. Founders Keith Reilly and Cameron Leslie set their stall by rejecting superclub status, snubbing bold-name DJs to promote diverse bookings like Asian Underground pioneer Talvin Singh and international crate-digger Gilles Peterson. “It was brilliant, madly exciting, on a bigger scale to other new clubs,” says Hebden, who first attended Fabric in its opening week to see Daft Punk. That same night, he recalls dreamily, he saw Boards of Canada, Autechre, and Roni Size play sets elsewhere around London. “Where’s the equivalent of that now? We’re miles away from it all of a sudden.”

After years of friendly relations, Fabric’s first major clash with police came in 2014, after the club’s fourth drug death in three years. At a review, the Metropolitan Police argued the council should revise Fabric’s license to include a string of tougher measures. The council agreed, but at Fabric’s appeal, the magistrates’ court rescinded two key conditions: ID scanners and sniffer dogs. Speaking to BBC Radio 1 this year, Cameron Leslie said he believes the decision “put some noses out of joint” at the Met, causing them to launch a “vendetta” against Fabric.

Last August, Fabric closed voluntarily after two more ecstasy-related deaths at the club. Sadiq Khan’s office panicked—as emails obtained by Mixmag show, the deputy mayor for culture, Justine Simons, worried closure would discredit Khan’s pro-nightlife campaign. But at a hearing in September, the Met stood firm. They insisted there’d been more deaths at Fabric than any other London club. (Leslie has blamed the rise in drug deaths on a “massive increase” in MDMA purity, a claim backed up by the 2016 Global Drugs Survey.) During a string of undercover visits to Fabric, named Operation Lenor after a brand of fabric softener, police observed people “sweating profusely and staring into space,” which they believe implied widespread drug use. The Met argued Fabric was already ignoring conditions—they claim staff overlooked unconcealed drug deals, for instance—so adding additional restrictions wouldn’t help.

Islington police superintendent Nick Davies said that, while he accepts clubs like Fabric will always have drugs, “You can’t honestly think I’m doing my job with six dead bodies that the police do nothing [about].” Reading details of the deaths, one Islington councillor broke down in tears. Committee chair Flora Williamson concluded Fabric had incubated a “culture of drug-taking.” After hours of deliberation, the council revoked the club’s license with immediate effect.

The scene outside Fabric days after it was forced to close down last September. Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images.

Two weeks after the decision, Fabric advocate Nathalie Wainwright welcomes me to her flat in east London, apologizing for nonexistent mess. A few days earlier, alarmed by the verdict, she had cut short her travels in southeast Asia to join the club’s sizeable resistance. We chat on the mezzanine, sipping Becks as the last daylight bleeds through the windows.

Born in 1983, Wainwright was the second child of middle-class parents. She grew up in North Lincolnshire with her brother, Jean-Marc, a promising artist. At school, she piggybacked on her sibling’s social cachet, despite their nerdy preoccupations: Jean-Marc buried in sketchpads, Nathalie in the ballet studio. “The thing with being a popular kid is you can do what the fuck you like,” Wainwright recalls, smiling, as she taps a Marlboro Gold into an ornate ashtray. “But he wasn’t like a mad painter—he made pen and ink drawings, things like that.” She rolls up her sleeve to reveal a floral tattoo based on one of her brother’s incomplete sketches.

On June 7, 1997, Jean-Marc and his friends descended on a happy hardcore rave at the Zoo, a nightclub in an amusement park roughly an hour’s drive from home. Like his friends, Jean-Marc dropped his pills early and kept going. Nobody is sure what happened in the club, or when Jean-Marc consumed an extra batch, but Wainwright believes, at around 2:30 a.m., he had taken eight pills and “a load of speed.” By that time, his friends were urging venue staff to call an ambulance, because he’d fallen ill after an apparent overdose.

There’d been a similar incident in the Zoo the week before, when Daniel North, a 16-year-old from York, collapsed after taking ecstasy and died 12 hours later. Local police, who had arrested nearly 50 ravers in a previous raid at the club, urged them to tighten health and safety. But the threat from law enforcement proved counterproductive. Wary of the Zoo’s image, staff refused to call an ambulance for Jean-Marc, reassuring his friends he’d recover shortly. Without cell phones, they had little choice but to trust them.

Half an hour later, as a friend cradled him in his arms, Jean-Marc had a seizure, then another. Alarmed, the friend noticed Jean-Marc had swallowed his tongue, which he extracted from his throat. Wainwright says the ambulance took 40 minutes to arrive. By the time he got to the hospital, Jean-Marc had suffered lung failure, which led to blood clotting. His cause of death was fluid on the brain.

Wainwright pins much of the blame for Jean-Marc’s death on the club’s amateurish health and safety protocol. “There’s no way that fluid would’ve developed if he’d been responded to straight away,” she says. “I know it must’ve been really, really bad, because—and I should never have looked but I did—when they returned his stuff to our parents, his jeans were cut all the way up here”—she points up her leg—“and his top was cut all the way up here”—she runs a finger along her stomach and chest, to her throat. “And it was covered in blood.”

While Wainwright fiercely fights for new drug policy, she’s sympathetic to bereaved families who rally against club culture. But she’s also found a community for whom losing loved ones prompted a conversion toward liberal thinking on drugs. Wainwright recently wrote a letter urging politicians to reconsider the Fabric decision, and her own dad offered testimony. “To shut down cultural institutions in the name of families like ours, who have lost loved ones in such a tragic way, is shameful,” he wrote. “You do not do so in our interest, you dishonour the names of those who have tragically lost their lives by no longer providing them with a safe space to enjoy the music and culture they love.”

The Zoo closed days after Jean-Marc’s death. Owner John Woodward, the millionaire behind several caravan and entertainment sites, invited press to photograph him smashing its quirky driftwood sign. The tragedy sparked a local press campaign against ecstasy, which police unquestioningly cast as the villain—despite claims from Jean-Marc’s friends that the club had switched off cold taps to sell bottled water. “Our message to the young people is that you are playing Russian roulette with a 50-chambered gun,” detective inspector Martin Bontoft told one paper. “How many more times do you have to be told about the dangers of the drug? If you take ecstasy you are dicing with death, you are going to die.”

Fabric, which employed two trained medics a night and a respected security firm in Saber, was held up nationally as the gold standard for club management. The club’s diligence could be seen in 2014, when a security guard found a student named Keith Dolling seven times over the limit for recreational MDMA use, with a life-threateningly high body temperature. The club’s medics packed his body with ice, suctioned his airways, monitored oxygen levels, and, when his breath shortened, ventilated him and prepared defibrillators. They couldn’t save Dolling, but the incident forced the Met to acknowledge Fabric’s above-average medical care. “I’m tremendously impressed by that,” senior coroner Mary Hassell told an inquest. “It was really quite advanced care. Care like that gives a person the best chance they could have. … [It’s] quite extraordinary that a nightclub would have that level of expertise and would be delivering that level of care to the clubbers.”

When I read the report to Wainwright, her eyes widen. “That’s fucking incredible, if you ask me,” she says. “If Jean-Marc had been in Fabric, this would never have happened.”

Nathalie and Jean-Marc Wainwright as children. Jean-Marc died after an apparent overdose in a UK club in 1997; Nathalie now advocates for clubs like Fabric. Photo courtesy of Nathalie Wainwright.

Wainwright now believes in policies of harm reduction to make drug culture safer. Advocates argue that authorities should accept that drugs aren’t going away and, instead, use methods like drug testing—whereby experts analyze powders and tell you exactly what’s inside—to promote safe practice among users. In 2013, then-Home Secretary Theresa May spoke about the possibility of introducing drug testing in British clubs, after a teenager died at Manchester’s Warehouse Project. May, now prime minister, said, “If somebody has purchased something that the state has deemed illegal, it is not then for the state to go and test it for you.”

While opinions collide over how and where drugs should be tested, nightlife hubs across Europe broadly agree that harm reduction saves lives while zero-tolerance endangers them. “The first obligation of a government is to keep people safe,” Mirik Milan, the Amsterdam night mayor and self-proclaimed “rebel in a suit,” tells me over Skype one afternoon. “I understand people say, ‘It’s illegal so we’re not gonna test it for you,’ but the outcome is that people will do it anyway, and that people are dying.”

With such inconvenient truths in mind, Amsterdam provides daytime drug-testing facilities in labs around the city. In late 2014, when a bad batch of “Superman” pills circulated, Amsterdam caught it and issued a televised warning. There, nobody died; in the UK, only the fourth “Superman”-related death prompted authorities to issue cautions. In the liberal Swiss city of Zurich, where festivals provide on-site drug testing for attendees, seven years have passed without party drug deaths.

Recently, UK charity the Loop, which offers to test drugs for deadly adulterants like PMA, has been installed, experimentally, at Manchester’s Warehouse Project and festivals Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling. Outside of the Met, which says drug testing sanctions drugs, London authorities have some appetite for such facilities. After Fabric’s license was revoked, Islington Council leader Richard Watts told BBC Radio 1 that front-of-house testing in clubs “would be pretty sensible. As a council, we would consider those kind of approaches. I am personally pretty convinced that the current approach to drug laws isn’t working.”

European cities including Amsterdam and Berlin acknowledge that a certain level of drug tolerance can lead to a safer nightlife culture.

Berlin perfectly illustrates that drug tolerance and political common sense can revolutionize an ailing club scene. To discuss how, I meet Lutz Leichsenring, a leading nightlife advocate, at a café the German capital’s Mitte district. As his dog Lola runs laps around his ankles, Leichsenring, an affable firebrand, fluently criticizes Britain’s focus on so-called “night time industries.” “It includes a lot of bullshit,” Leichsenring sighs. He argues dedicated clubs define a city’s nightlife identity.

In Berlin, Leichsenring adds, “We just know young people in the music scene take drugs. You don’t want to criminalize people who go into clubs, even if they take drugs—they’re not criminals. We want to make it hard for the criminals to sell them drugs.” When I ask about the chances of security parading sniffer dogs along Berlin club queues, he laughs into his lap.

Berlin’s ascent as a nightlife superpower began after reunification, in 1991. Radical artists and squatters swarmed into abandoned banks, warehouses, power plants, and shopping centers in the East. In 2000, a spate of zealous police raids struck the club scene they’d established. Six nightlife figures allied and formed the Club Commission to protect their culture. Leichsenring, a former promoter and club owner, was elected spokesperson in 2009. “We haven’t had any raids since the Club Commission was founded,” he tells me, “because the police know now that there is a voice—somebody who can work on problems.”

In the face of aggressive gentrification, the commission plugs clubs, local government, and developers into one network. In recent years, they’ve fought planners to preserve club heartlands; linked venues with government culture and planning sectors, via a funding body; and drawn up a map of Berlin music venues, which incoming developers must consult before pitching authorities.

The benefits of that work—enjoyed by the city’s loose workforce of artists, musicians, and other creative freelancers—provide the backbone of Berlin’s unique night culture. Financially stable venues foster experimentation, while reverent clubbers embark on sessions that sprawl across liberal opening hours.

Shanti Celeste is one of many UK-bred DJs who’s upped sticks for Berlin in the last decade. In Bristol, the twenty-something helped put on nights at the Island, a renovated court complex with underground holding cells, where she and a few mates would throw intense parties lasting several hours. But Berlin is different. “Here, there’s so many more clubs to go to, and they open from god knows when until god knows when, so your window to rave your tits off is way bigger and more spread out, which gives you a more relaxed attitude,” she says as we sit in her roomy Neukölln flat. Despite that, Celeste doubts London could adopt the model wholesale. “I don’t know how well 24-hour clubs would do,” she admits, “because it’s a hard place to live. People work 9-to-5. People struggle.”

“There needs to be a bit of edge in life, otherwise there’s no sense of individuality in civilization. It is a question of finding the balance between giving people freedom and protecting people.”

FABRIC LAWYER PHILIP KOLVIN

On November 21, as Fabric’s fundraising campaign hit £320,000 ($390,000), it was announced that pre-hearing negotiations with Islington council had succeeded: In a seemingly unprecedented move, the council reversed Fabric’s license revocation. But while greeted with relief, the agreement—which saved both parties enormous fees—wasn’t quite a fairytale ending. For Fabric, the price of avoiding an appeal was a strict license rewrite they might have defeated in court: ID scanners, lifetime bans for those seeking drugs, new lighting and CCTV on dancefloors, and a raise on the age of entry to 19.

A week after the agreement, Fabric’s lawyer, Philip Kolvin, welcomes me to his office in central London. He wears a suit, jacket open, and speaks with the regal English accent of a ’50s radio newsreader. While he can’t discuss the Fabric negotiations, Kolvin, who recently became chair of Sadiq Khan’s new Night Time Commission, is diplomatic towards the deal’s critics.

Club purists argue that ID scanners are invasive, vulnerable to identity thieves, and terrifying to those with drugs in even trivial quantities. They speculate that lifetime bans will encourage users to swallow pills excessively before coming in; that 18-year-olds will take drugs elsewhere, without Fabric’s gold-standard medical team; and that abundant CCTV turns a club from a pocket of escapism into Big Brother’s venus fly trap.

“I’d hate to think that Fabric set a precedent,” Kolvin admits, after sipping his tea. “I’ve picked up from the blogosphere this idea that you should be able to go to Fabric and express yourself as you want. I’ve still got some sympathy with that—there needs to be a bit of edge in life, otherwise there’s no sense of individuality in civilization. It really is a question of finding the balance between giving people freedom and protecting people.”

I ask whether he thinks Fabric found that balance, or if it was tempting to put the funds towards a full appeal. Kolvin furrows his brow and, with some awkwardness, slides a hand inside his shirt to clasp his shoulder. “Fabric was in a situation where it needed to reopen,” he says finally. “In the perfect world, would that be the prescription? I don’t know. But if somebody’s carried into the emergency room about to die, you can’t scratch over every little thing that happened by way of treatment. They were in an emergency situation.”

Fabric’s ID scanners in action on the night of its reopening earlier this month. Photo by Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

At 2 a.m. on January 6, Fabric’s reopening night thunders ahead. Earlier in the day, club co-founder Cameron Leslie told the BBC there was no “pleasure or relief” in the reopening, but punters, it seems, leave their reservations at the heavily staffed door. At one point, hundreds dance under a neon-red “#yousavedfabric” sign as the “Stranger Things” theme mixes into a drum’n’bass salvo. Men part the dancefloor, hoisting up rounds with wobbly hands; the recipients greet them like returning war heroes, all but forgotten in their absence. Strangers offer lone dancers stoic fist bumps, acknowledging their euphoria. Out a side exit, a loose-tongued clique hovers around the club’s new medical tent; beyond it beams the smoking area, which, to pupils attuned to the dark club, appears floodlit.

It’s 2:30 a.m. when I step outside, just as security lead a resigned-looking man and his friend indoors by their arms. Beside me stands Tom, a Fabric patron of 14 years. His friend Dave traveled from Manchester to celebrate the reopening. “It’s a music culture that’s not available anywhere else,” Tom tells me. “Fabric is the pioneer. There’s no club like it.”

Both drug-free, Tom and Dave roll eyes at the suggestion tighter rules will constrain clubbers. Neither seems concerned by the lighting or ID scanners, saying longer queues were tonight’s only quibble. “If you can’t have a good night without drugs, then you’re here for the wrong reasons,” Dave says.

As we speak, a group of 19-year-olds tumbles outside, angling for smokes. One tells me his name is Benny, and I offer some Extra for his hectic jaw. His friends, whose gum was confiscated on entry, eyeball the packet in disbelief, as if I’d produced a handful of magic beans. “I started coming up [on MDMA] in the queue, freaking out,” admits Benny, gratefully taking a piece. “But I didn’t want to risk a lifetime ban.”

This younger clan backs its philosophy—that government drug stigma critically endangers users—with impressive screeds on policy nuances. Animated, they wax lyrical about harm reduction, citing arguments mainstreamed in publicity around Fabric’s closure. “When people drink, they go out to get fucked,” concludes Benny. “We come out to enjoy the music—that’s what it’s all about. We’re a family.” With bowed heads, they drop their cigarette butts and approach the entrance. A faint grime beat emerges from within, and the security guard steps aside, smiling, to permit their return to the night.