Interview with Jim Ottewill, author of ‘Out of Space’ - How UK Cities Shaped Club Culture
Wednesday, July 27, 2022
Most proper dance music fans, whether they be northern soul heads or acid house ravers, retain a certain fondness for the places they travelled - often many miles - to dance. These bastions of tribal youth come and go but have become an integral part of UK culture. Often under threat from a variety of angles, they have had to withstand everything from commercial planners to pandemics. It is time the rich history of the UK’s dance spaces were properly captured for posterity whilst using the past to help paint a picture of the future. Author Jim Ottewill has executed that perfectly for Velocity Press who have become a literary hub in exploring dance music culture.
I first want to start by asking how the idea for the book came about?
Of course, it stemmed from a blog I put together for Mixmag back in 2017.
At the time I was living in London in Hackney and had been spending an unhealthy amount of time falling in and out of nightclubs. It was around 2015 that the capital’s nightlife seemed to go through this period of acute contraction - the Mayor of London’s office published a report revealing that half of the capitals nightclubs had shut during the previous five years. Fabric was suddenly fighting for its life after two tragic deaths and a number of other clubs had also closed their doors. The Joiners Arms was a boozer in Hackney where we used to hang out and when this spot was suddenly under pressure from property developers, the trouble life after dark was in became all too real. It sparked this blog, then broader thinking around the challenges nightclubs face in our towns and cities.
Where do you start with a project like this, it’s no small undertaking. Did you start in one part of the country and work across systematically, or was it a bit more complex than that?
It’s a good question. I guess, I’d had some experience of going out in many of the places and scenes I’ve explored in the book and put together an outline based on chapters for each of the ‘spaces’ I’d been to. The word count for a book is fairly intimidating to say the least, roughly around 100,000 words, and I’d never written anything of this length. So initially, it was all about breaking it down into these chapters but even then, it was unwieldy, particularly as I didn’t limit myself to any time period. But as I was putting it together, the idea of starting the narrative from the top of the UK, then winding its way south down the spine of the country made sense - and I started piecing it together place by place around this central pillar.
Your book isn’t just about the actual clubs themselves but the history of the urban spaces they are located in which we can often forget. At what point did you realise there was more to a club than the actual after dark space?
In my book, producer and DJ Toddla T says how we are all a “product of our environment” and that certainly applies to nightclubs too as well as ourselves. As we stand, the bricks and mortar need to be located in a specific place so you can’t help but be aware of what goes on around it. It’s how that seeps into what happens in a club or in a recording studio that’s interesting. For example, I went to university in Sheffield and the relationship between the city and the sound of its record labels, artists, bands and nightclubs is well documented. Synth pop from the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Heaven 17 was forged in the city with the latter’s Martyn Ware citing the sound of the drop hammer from the steel works as leaving an indelible influence on the music he created. A night our gang used to attend in Sheffield in the 2000s called Kabal was a roaming, nomadic entity. Rather than having a designated home, they would take over anywhere they could find to host their events - so former abattoirs, cutlery factories, metalworks… just by going, you’d be exposed to a different part of the city which would make each night exciting and unique.
Your book explores unlikely places where club culture created a foothold in urban spaces outside of the major cities. That was quite notable after the acid house movement and this was very much a do-it-yourself vibe. What was it about that time that allowed promoters and DJs to set up in these venues in a way that it was much easier to do than it is now 30 years on.
I guess that dance music was so new, the idea of a space being co-opted and used as somewhere to listen to loud “repetitive beats” as the authorities dubbed it, took them by surprise. Legislation (such as Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977) favoured squats and party promoters - but that obviously didn’t last and the government cracked down on raves with various laws like the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
In some ways, the culture and community surrounding dance music has always orbited innovation and coming up with bold ideas. The entrepreneurial risk-taking vision of those behind the Blackburn raves or the huge free parties around London seems breath-taking. Arguably, that spirit of innovation persists if you look at the way electronic music culture now exists in a huge range of different spaces - from the metaverse to the classical concert hall and beyond.
Looking back, many venues in that period between 1988-1995 were pretty unsavoury inside and at times had an edge. Yet we have very fond memories of these places, why do you think that is?
For some of us, these are places where we forge identities, find our tastes and friends and have new experiences for better or for worse. For some of us, they were just places to go and get twisted in after the pubs shut. Either way, these can be really formative moments, forging the way we behave and interact with the wider world. I remember the Roadhouse basement in Manchester as a particularly special place when I was a teenager getting my first rushes of club nights and live music. The venue might have been falling apart at the seams with constantly overflowing toilets but it was all the more amazing for it. It felt lawless and removed from the more controlled outside world happening above.
Do you think enough has been done by society as a whole to celebrate the UK’s rich club culture and especially the venues we held so dear and given that we’ve now got cross generations of the population who have the same shared experience of dancing to a four on the floor beat.
Covid has demonstrated how important nightclubs are - but it’s also revealed the lack of respect that the powers-that-be have for it. Club culture should be considered as a valuable cultural asset - and hopefully this perception will continue to be accepted by the authorities, particularly as younger generations more familiar with them roll into power. You can see the scenario slowly changing with the establishment of organisations like the Night Time Industries Association, the numerous night czars that have been given roles. Elsewhere, we’ve seen an increasing number of exhibitions about nightlife - Night Fever at the V&A or the Use Hearing Protection exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry - while Berlin’s clubbing community looking for UNESCO status is also a massive leap forward. All these things suggest that perceptions around the gravitas of nightlife are turning - slowly but surely…
Dance music festivals have considerably grown in popularity over the last two decades. Is it fair to say that part of the reason for the decline of traditional club culture is a divergence of where people go to dance, especially in the summer?
Entertainment is now a far more diverse entity than before, especially now we’re living in a hyper-connected digital age. It’s tougher for nightclubs of today to survive as they are vying for attention among a plethora of ‘entertainment’ options. Festivals are certainly part of that - so rather than go clubbing every week, just go to a festival once a year and catch all your favourite DJs there. Still, for the most part, it’s the clubs where you will hear the freshest music and artists as many festivals will be booking their line-ups far in advance.
You talked to residents of renowned clubs in the book, these are often the unsung heroes of the club scene. How would you describe the relationship between a good resident and their residence?
That relationship is a special thing and it hinges around trust. We’d go to a night called Lights Down Low in Sheffield where the soundtrack was all basement-soul music, house, disco and r&b. The residents had impeccable taste and would usually take on the whole night and it’s from here that a community develops. We would go month in, month out as you’d have that faith that wherever the DJs took you, the music would be off the chain. The Sub Club in Glasgow is another obvious example where their residents Harri and Dominic have been in situ and pushing the musical envelope for more than 30 years.
From the thorough research and interviews you carried out, have you come to a conclusion as to what makes the perfect club?
The Sub Club offers that classic basement vibe and energy - amazing soundsystem, up-for-it and knowledgeable crowd, darkness and the focus on what comes out of the speakers rather than the DJ. I really like this Dark Room concept from the Secret DJ where there are no line ups and no great reveal of who is playing on the night. It means that the whole night is all about the soundtrack and the dancefloor, which can only be a good thing.
What is your favourite club of all time and which one would you have most liked to have gone to?
Ah there are so many wicked things that I’ve been lucky enough to go to. From Berghain and the Warp 20 party with Rustie, Hudson Mohawke and Andrew Weatherall to seeing Skream DJ at Fabric or the Despacio Soundsystem take on the Roundhouse. From the interviews I did, NYC in the seventies and eighties sounds such a vibe, nights like Save the Robots and the outrageous sounding Area nightclub just sound unreal.
Out of Space is out now and can be purchased through Velocity Press Discover new digital dance music with Trackhunter