Nudity, crudity, gypsies, tramps and thieves: it’s just a regular night at Duckie

The unique club night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been running for 20 years, and remains the only place I’m allowed to play what I really want to dance to.

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Just speak quietly will you please? I’m still recovering from Saturday night. For the second time recently I was DJ-ing at Duckie, with my lovely pals Mark and Jelly – or to give them their proper names, Chelsea Kelsey and Kim Phaggs – who are there every week as the duo Readers Wifes. This unique club night takes place at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, as it has done since its inception in 1995.

Back in 2015 the Guardian ran a piece to mark the club’s 20th anniversary – and it’s still going strong four years later. Hosted by Amy Lamé, and run by the same people who started it, the ethos is simply not to play the same music you’d hear everywhere else. As Chelsea Kelsey said in that Guardian interview, they favour loud, odd, exciting pop records, and are especially fond of “records with screaming”.

It’s the only place I’d be allowed to play what I really want to dance to. Last time I started my set with Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”. This time, I meander through a selection made up of the rackety, semi-stumbling version of “Lola” by the Raincoats, the soulful glory of Jackie Moore’s late 1970s classic “How’s Your Love Life Baby”, the furious feminist punk of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”, and the swaggering reggae of Barrington Levy’s “Here I Come”. I play “Like a Girl” from the new Lizzo album – “So if you fight like a girl, cry like a girl/Do your thing, run the whole damn world” – and McAlmont and Butler’s “Yes”, loving the defiance of lines such as “Am I looking better? Did you forget whatever it was that you couldn’t stand about me?” I play X-Ray Spex and T-Rex. Cheryl Lynn and Joyce Sims. Massive Attack and Madge.

And I finish with Andy Williams’s cover of “My Sweet Lord”, gazing out from the DJ booth at a whole club full of sweaty punters dancing with their arms in the air and chanting HARE KRISHNA at the top of their voices. I tell you, there’s nowhere else like it.

In between the DJ sets, there are cabaret acts, which are as hilarious and slightly shocking as ever. There’s nudity and crudity, and there has always been a tradition of people pulling things out of various orifices, but the club’s vibe is so warm and welcoming it never feels gratuitous or dark. The Readers Wifes DJ in full make-up – big eyes, big lips – so we compete as to which of us can do the fullest, most lipsticky pout for a selfie. I’m still on the dance floor at 2am when someone puts “Missing” on, and to say there’s an air of mad celebration in the room would be an understatement.

Like an idiot, I’m wearing heels, in order to make my jeans look good, and while I’m dancing I don’t care, but later that night, as I undress for bed, I realise that my toes, which have been hammering into the ends of my boots all night, are now angry with me. My knees are complaining. My hips are seizing up.

Because I’m sensible, I do some stretches before bed. Because I’m not sensible, I don’t get to bed until 5am. Because I’m 56, I am nearly too old to behave like this. Because I’m 56, I am determined to keep going as long as I can. As Karen O sings, on “Heads Will Roll”, another track I play tonight, “Dance dance dance till you’re dead!” On the Sunday morning, I actually think I might be.

To recover, the following day Ben and I head down to Cornwall for a short holiday. Regular readers may remember that when we did this a year ago it almost ended in divorce, after a row of truly gargantuan proportions, and they may applaud our confidence in risking it again. Well, what is life without the occasional risk?

So we’re chancing it, and once again renting a small cottage from which to gaze out at the sea, relying on it to perform its usual restorative function.

And it’s gorgeous, restful and charming in a quiet way. The opposite of a night at Duckie, but just as pleasurable. There are different ways to be happy. Life is best with both excitement and peace. The euphoria and hedonism of the dance floor, the serenity of the sea view. A martini, AND a cup of tea. Bikini Kill AND Andy Williams. Bring it all on. 

Tracey Thorns Duckie playlist is on Spotify here

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes