Fabric’s arrival at the turn of the century was considered suitably important that we covered it over six pages in the defining Ninties music magazine The Face, alongside artful photographs of the building site. It was iconic even before it opened, London’s first purpose-built nightclub since 1979 when Heaven replaced a run-down roller disco under the arches at Charing Cross. The club’s licence has now been revoked by Islington Council in a review sparked by the recent drug-related deaths of two 18-year-old patrons who consumed the Class A drug MDMA inside the venue.
The loss of an iconic cultural asset would hurt the capital at any time, but the pain is particularly acute a fortnight after TFL launched the night tube and Sadiq Khan advertised for his new “night czar”. London is bigger than one club but Fabric was a large-scale entry point for thousands of people, and a way of national and international DJs playing to large crowds that are hard to find outside of strip-lit malls like the 02. Fabric claim that 6.7 million people have visited the club during it’s lifetime, the equivalent to two Glastonbury festivals each year. Barring a legal appeal to the decision, it’s a significant loss.
More broadly, it marks another downward notch in London’s cultural reputation post-Brexit. For decades London’s been the place to come in the world if you were interested in new music, and it delivered time and time again. That period might have come to an end anyway, but the absence of nightclubs, soundsystems and promoters who love the music has a broader impact. Physical, real-world nightclubs are part of an ecosystem that encompasses radio, take the influential online station NTS for example and music-sharing websites such as BoilerRoom which streams live performances by big name artists. Without real places to go and meet real people, the culture loses its central point. The energy dissipates.
London has lost nightclubs before, but those were times of plenty. Bagleys and the clubs under the arches at Kings Cross closed as part of the commerical developments in that area. Turnmills, the first British club to obtain a 24-hour dance licence, was shut in 2008 after the owners lease expired and was later demolished to make way for a new office block. The Blue Note — one of the earliest reasons to visit Shoreditch, which was desert-quiet after dark until the mid Nineties — later became the site of another hipster bar. The losses could be swallowed because there were new nightclubs, back rooms and basements to replace them, councils who were willing to support them, and an absence of property developers eyeing up prime sites.
Reggae historian Lloyd Bradley once told me that nightclubs were heavily underestimated as places of social change. He’s right. Where else do you get to meet people outside your class demographic where you’re all equal? There’s a cost to music, of course, and to the world-leading generation of new music scenes that DJs and dancefloors nurtured in this city since the mid-‘80s. But there’s a social cost too; a loss of public places where people of different backgrounds and different ages mingle — see the Polish pensioners who recently came to visit Fabric. In fact the original undercover police report, which was commissioned after the first drug-related death occurred in June, referred to the club’s “diverse demographic in regard to race, with people speaking French, Italian and Chinese.”
Promoters have been ringing the alarm for some years, citing a painful mixture of gentrification and the housing crisis. There are small nightlife venues in Peckham like Rye Wax and the terrific Total Refreshment Centre in Dalston, which is fine for the scenesters who already know what they like, but where are the entry points for everyone else? Outside of London, club culture is healthier: Manchester has added to its cache of basement venues over the last decade with places like The Warehouse Project and continue to develop their own artists and musical niches — developments that can only happen if you’ve got nightclubs in which people can go to connect, share ideas and have a dance.
There’s a special kind of solidarity that you get from sharing a night out with people who are different to you, and it’s increasingly rare. People mix at secondary school (if they go to a comprehensive) and then drift off into socially segregated workplaces and lives. Nightclubs have been the prime melting pot, and a large-scale one at that, for Londoners for decades. You don’t need any qualifications to get in. No-one’s going to make you feel stupid for not knowing anything — there are no invisible barriers as there are with museums or galleries. Clubs are one of the few remaining public spaces where literally anyone who wants to go, or has the chutzpah, can go. Luckily, dancing in the dark is a human need, so what is squeezed out in one place, will pop up somewhere else. It just might not be in London.