Photo by Dario Mitidieri
Artillery Row

Clubbing after Covid

The meek may inherit the Earth, but not yet

Through all the long, weary months of the pandemic, no part of the “old normal” seemed so remote as clubbing. The queues, the crowd, the crush, the sweat, the strangers. There was no place for it in the world of social distancing. 

Precious few of those who lived for nights out with the possible exception of the shape-throwing Michael Gove were making any of the decisions. Your average Conservative voter was more likely to be filing noise complaints than buying tickets. Hopeful-sounding introverts on social media wondered if people would ever go back to the club?

There’s an inescapable whiff of the tomb

Then we unlocked, and the old normal came rushing back with remarkable and reassuring speed. The dancefloors are full again; Covid has not yet completely transformed us into a nation of homebodies. The meek may inherit the Earth, but not yet. Perhaps the next plague will do it. For now, going “out-out” is back.

It has changed, inevitably. Even in normal times the night economy is an unloved sector, and shuttering it for more than a year inevitably pushed more people out or under, leaving their old followings to do the same or find somewhere new to go.

Alas, I turned out to be one such refugee. The Gallery, which seems to have been London’s last regular trance night, shows no sign of coming back. The genre’s (gracefully) ageing base seems content with a selection of “day raves”, civilised afternoon affairs that wrap up around 10pm. A chance to get it all out of your system, get the tube home and be tucked up in bed by midnight. The best of both worlds.

I get the appeal, I really do. I’ve been to more than a few. But there’s an inescapable whiff of the tomb about them, the faint outline of the OAP activity day, neon face paint and warm blankets. A day out can be great fun. But it’s not a night out.

Which leaves one option: go exploring. Be a stranger in strange lands, and hope that one is the right sort of strange for me.

Neither of us remembered fancy dress, or stilts

Standing in a queue between two fluorescent tribespeople and a man in a head-to-toe Beetlejuice costume, I’m not sure I’ve found it yet. 

On the face of it, it seemed like a good prospect. The night is psytrance, which is a subgenre of trance which (apparently) works better on acid. Definitely something you can pound out five hours of dancing and tens of thousands of steps to. My FitBit and I are ready to go.

I’m under-dressed. This isn’t uncommon in day-to-day life, but it’s the first time I’ve experienced it clubbing. Dark clothes, comfy shoes, a bag with a spare t-shirt and couple of energy bars the usual club kit. My companion is dressed similarly. Neither of us remembered fancy dress, or stilts.

Inside, more strangeness. The venue isn’t actually a club at all, but an art deco theatre. The entire floor is carpeted, a dancefloor innovation experience that is unlikely to feature in Fabric or Ministry of Sound anytime soon. 

It is also extremely well-lit. No darkness-and-lasers anonymity here. It’s a place to see the splendid outfits, or be seen in yours. Professionals from the stage show wait, the what? mingle with the crowd, upping the apparent level of effort on the costume front considerably.

The DJs are on stage at the front, as expected. Less expected are the trapeze artists, jugglers and contortionists. One muscular barbarian swings a cube of real fire around. A girl in a leotard gets her foot tangled in some netting, is discretely assisted by a stagehand.

She danced so hard her knickers fell off

Why are they here? What’s the vibe? With each performance, the music takes a back seat. We’re supposed to stop, to see. No slipping into the zone, no rhythm of break and drop. It’s not bad the DJs are in fact very good, the fire mesmerising but it is different. I’m not quite getting what I came here for.

Other patterns are different too. Not being an actual club, the smoking area sacred space for the forging of fleeting friendships is a cramped one-way prison yard on the roof. Water, which as a matter of welfare is normally free, costs £3 a bottle, no refills. 

It gets better. There are more familiar faces, disparate groups of friends washed up on the same self-consciously crazy shore. A couple of regulars from Egg and Fire, dressed to sweat. A large posse of French ravers in black and chartreuse warpaint. My brother’s girlfriend, trapped on a hen do.

With the right people, you can have fun almost anywhere. We dance in the loud moments between acts. We queue to smoke. One girl vanishes, and re-emerges to report that she had needed to stow something in her bag. It emerged later she had danced so hard her knickers fell off. So it goes.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover