Taking aim at Sarah

It’s been a tough time for wise-cracking American talk-show hosts of late. Letterman, Leno and Stewart have found Obama just a little too perfect to make the butt of their jokes and their lines about McCain’s age were getting a little, well, old. But then along came Sarah, the answer to their prayers. They’ve been taking aim at her lack of experience, her image and of course her gun-love. "Another vice president who's a hunter” remarked Jay Leno. "What could go wrong there?"

With rumours of Sarah Palin having an affair appearing in the National Enquirer (who turned out to be right about John Edwards's indiscretions after all), it looks like Sarah will keep setting them up and the comics knocking them down until election day.

Coping with a leak

Now to hissy fit news. In a move that will only affect those who know the names of the Jonas Brothers, author Stephenie Meyer is threatening not to finish the final part of her Twilight book series (a sort of teenage romance with vampires) after an early draft was leaked online. "I feel too sad about what has happened to continue working on Midnight Sun, and so it is on hold indefinitely”, sobbed Meyer. “This has been a very upsetting experience for me, but I hope it will at least leave my fans with a better understanding of copyright and the importance of artistic control." We can but hope, Stephenie.

Elsewhere, Metallica are coping rather better with internet leaks after their new album, Death Magnetic, appeared online this week, ahead of its official release on 12th September. "If this thing leaks all over the world today or tomorrow, happy days", said Lars Ulrich. "It's 2008 and it's part of how it is these days." Whether their management will be quite as philosophical is questionable. Earlier this summer a playback of Death Magnetic was organised for a variety of music magazines. Thequietus.com turned up and wrote a fond review, only to face irate phone calls from the band's management demanding it be taken offline. At which point Metallica themselves got involved, and expressed surprise at their management’s decision: "WHY?!!! Why take down mostly positive reviews of the new material and prevent people from getting psyched about the next record. . . that makes no sense to us!"

No joy for lesbian horses

Finally, the wait is over. The Diagram of Diagrams has been announced. The Diagram Prize is the prize for the oddest book title, now celebrating its 30th birthday with a competition for the best of the worst. Despite tough competition from How To Avoid Huge Ships and People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead, the public has chosen a winner: Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers. Commiserations to the Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories.

NICOLA TYSON, COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ, LONDON
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Dave Haslam's history of venues makes nightclub walls talk

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues reveals the ghosts of hedonism past.

“If these walls could talk . . .” The cliché owes its force to the notion that buildings are sentient – the suggestion that what happens inside them leaves a trace element. We feel the power of this idea in very different ways as we tour, say, Versailles or Dachau. It’s an idea very much at play in the best passages of this book.

There is a wonderful moment early on when the author tours the Dean Street Townhouse building in Soho, central London, along with a few young members of staff. The location is now an upscale hotel and restaurant but, as Haslam explains to them, back in 1978 the basement hosted Billy’s nightclub. Billy’s was run by Steve Strange and played host to the burgeoning New Romantic movement, with the likes of Boy George and Spandau Ballet all trooping down the steps off Meard Street. Later on, in 1982, the ultra-hip original Goth club the Batcave opened its doors on the top floor of the same building, and the elevator would have ferried the likes of Robert Smith of the Cure and Marc Almond skywards.

The twentysomething staff don’t seem altogether sure who these people are, but Haslam goes further as he tells them (no doubt to further head-scratching) that the building has in fact been a nightclub since the 1920s, when it was called the Gargoyle. The people who danced and partied there over the decades would have included Henri Matisse, Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Astaire and Noël Coward, he says.

It is a fantastic example of the deep vein of hedonism you sense thrumming behind the walls of many buildings in such areas as Soho, and Haslam extends this approach throughout the book as he travels across Britain, digging into the history of the likes of the Leadmill in Sheffield, the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow, the Cavern in Liverpool and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, often tracing the origins of the venues back to Victorian times. It makes for a fascinating read, especially if you have ever stood in an old music venue and wondered (as I have often done) about the many previous generations whose fights, fashions, frugs and frocks have played out on the very boards you are treading.

Along the way, there are in-depth, illuminating interviews with figures as diverse as the novelist David Peace (on Goth clubs in Leeds) and James Barton, the co-founder of Cream (on the problems of running a nightclub in a city rife with gang warfare), as well as less familiar names such as Hyeonje Oh, the current owner of the Surakhan restaurant on Park Row in Bristol. Haslam explains to the amiable Mr Oh (in a wonderful scene reminiscent of that visit to Dean Street Townhouse) that, back in the mid-Eighties, the basement of his restaurant played host to the Dug Out club, where the careers of Massive Attack and Nellee Hooper began. None of this means very much to the restaurateur, until Haslam points out that Nellee Hooper has worked with Madonna. Mr Oh has heard of Madonna.

On occasion, the book slides into potted histories of the youth movements that came out of the nightclubs it is documenting. So we get a few pages on the emergence of punk rock, a few pages on the rise of acid house – nothing, frankly, that anyone with a passing interest in music or youth culture wouldn’t already know. I’m not sure we need to hear again that “one of the people energised by the Sex Pistols [at the Manchester Free Trade Hall] was Tony Wilson, who arranged for the band to premiere their ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single . . . on his Granada TV show”, except in a book aimed at the most general reader (which a book with the subtitle of this one surely is not).

Haslam is on much more interesting ground in the basement of a Korean restaurant that once throbbed to the heavy dub reggae whose influence shaped a generation of music performers and producers. Or when he describes the progress of the Coliseum in Harlesden, north-west London, from cinema in 1915, to fleapit punk rock venue in the Seventies – where, in March 1977, you could have seen the Clash (along with three other bands, and a couple of kung fu films) for £1.50 – to the Wetherspoons pub that stands on its site today. In these pages he asks you to imagine Daddy G of Massive Attack working the decks where the crates of produce are now stacked, to see Joe Strummer’s right leg pumping just inches from where office workers now sip discounted Sauvignon. In these pages, he makes the walls talk.

John Niven is the author of the novels “Kill Your Friends” (Windmill Books) and “The Sunshine Cruise Company” (William Heinemann)

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues by Dave Haslam is published by Simon & Schuster (480pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war