‘There is a Pulse around every corner’: why gay clubs matter

Gay clubs were supposed to be safe spaces where lives were transformed. They were never meant to be newsworthy. The Orlando shooting changed that. Plus: how gay disco shaped pop

The first time I went to a gay club, a stranger looked over his shoulder and said: Arent you hot in that? It was a Thursday night at the Number One, a small underground box tucked behind Bootle Street police station, Manchester, with a ludicrous corner VIP area where you would occasionally see Coronation Street actors. It was run by a chirpy, resilient fellow named Bubbles. It was 1987, the summer before Clause 28. I was 16, at sixth-form college a couple of miles down the road in Rusholme. That night, I begged, borrowed and eventually stole a chunky Ralph Lauren pullover from my big brother, not thinking that in a city that frequently entertained entire dancefloors of men wearing cagoules, it would be any reason for concern. In front of the bar, I flinched, said no (a lie) and carried on taking in every detail of this new life.

Collectively, we know the familiar mundanity of being in a workplace, on public transport, at school. We know first hand the significant communion of attending a gig and the sanctity of being in church. When the severity of the bloodbath at Pulse in Orlando emerged, many could have imagined what clubbing on a Saturday night feels like, too. But not everyone is privy to the triumph of the neighbourhood gay disco. Maybe thats why news bulletins about the dead and wounded, our spiritual allies, hit LGBT viewers as a personal affront, and provoked a militant anger.

Clubbers at Horse Meat Disco, London. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for the Guardian
The local gay disco is not supposed to be newsworthy. In the past 30 years, as the British LGBT cause has turned us from enemies to friends of the state, certain gay clubs have become enshrined in legend. The bacchanalia at the Paradise Garage and the Saint in boundaries of ethnicity and sexuality, turning the gay night-time experience into hallowed ground. UK gay clubs became unique mirrors to their individual political and sociological moment. British LGBT folk danced for their rights to be taken on their terms at Taboo, Kinky Gerlinky, Vague, Flesh, Trade, Queer Nation, Homoelectric, the Cock, Horse Meat Disco. We took over monolith venues: the Fridge in Brixton; the Hacienda in Manchester; and the Arches in Glasgow. Eventually, through the brilliant endeavours of everyone at the NYC Downlow, we took the straightest of all British institutions, Glastonbury, and turned a corner of that gay, too.

Sink the Pink, London Photograph: amy@eastcreativeagency.com
These are key moments in the fortification of the gay experience. They open us up to mainstream attention. We stop being something to be pitied, chastised, ostracised or othered and we turn into a party that everyone wants to go to. In the freedom and liberation floating through the air, there is something even to be a little envied.

The neighbourhood gay disco is the foot-soldier that puts in the groundwork for these marquee events to exist. Bennets in Glasgow, Cruz 101 in Manchester, Flamingos in Blackpool, Garlands in Liverpool, small, significant strips in Cardiff, Brighton and Newcastle. There is a Pulse around every corner. The reason you dont know them is because you arent supposed to. They are part of the latticework of personal experiences that moves nations toward acceptance. Omar Mateens gun is pointed directly at the experiences that make us us. You go to an unheralded place such as Pulse not to change the world, but to change your own, in incremental steps. Slowly, that feeling of being yourself fans out and becomes infectious. Slowly, word travels. Slowly, change emerges.

NYC Downlow at Glastonbury. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Because it is a minority rite of passage, the unsung gay disco is a special space, furnished with magic beyond the lighting rig and the drinks specials. It is not just about learning the real name of a drag queen or who remixed what; neither is it how to politely bat off the lad with the wandering hands and invite the one you really want to wander somewhere with. The local gay disco is the place where you stop being the odd one out. It is a halfway house, a leap towards building the home that you calls you, a little but not much different from the one you came from. A home built on love.

It is the first place you recognise someone at the back of the room and pretend you havent seen them, as they pretend they havent seen you, until you share the absurdity of keeping something as essential as your sexuality secret, then laugh about both being in the same place. It only takes one.

The gay disco has its own ecosystem, a pyramid structure that begins with the owner and waterfalls down through the DJs, security staff, the barman who will give you a free can for a smile, the promoter who chose the picture for the flyer. There is a shared vocabulary, built partly around disposition but also the raw necessity to pass on the things that school couldnt teach you and that church refuses to. Suddenly, there is a body of people that understand shallow preoccupations such as a new TV pinup, and important ones such as the availability of PreP.

DJ Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, New York in 1978. Photograph: Bill Bernstein

Its almost impossible to overstate the importance of gay clubs to the development of pop music. Dance music as we now know it was born in gay clubs; modern pop music was shaped there: the vast majority of singles in the current Top 40 contain at least some element that you can trace directly back to them, whether the people behind them realise it or not. Disco, house music and a multitude of influential sub-genres; beat-mixing, the 12 single, the remix, the idea of the DJ as a star, the idea of the DJ as an author of dance music rather than someone who just played it: all were invented for, and because of, gay clubs.

Its tempting to wonder if the sheer volume of artistic invention that took place in and around them in the 70s and 80s wasnt somehow linked to the clubs post-Stonewall atmosphere of liberation: as if the sense of freedom and possibility that came with the loosening of strictures on an oppressed culture also unbridled peoples creativity.

Bands such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood have their roots in gay dancefloors. Photograph: New Eyes/Redferns

Certainly, the innovations came thick and fast. Francis Grasso, the man most regularly credited with singlehandedly inventing the latterday notion of a club DJ beat-mixing records into an unbroken flow of music, declining to take requests plied his trade at two New York clubs that straddled the rupture caused by the Stonewall riot: The Haven, remembered as the last place cops smashed up with impunity simply because it was a gay bar, according to Bill Brewster and Frank Broughtons history of dance music Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and The Sanctuary, which Albert Goldmans 1979 book Disco called the first totally uninhibited gay discotheque in America. Meanwhile, at The Loft, David Mancuso minted the idea of the DJ as a kind of storyteller, someone who could create a narrative, generate and change the mood of a dancefloor through his choice of records. The remix, meanwhile, was born out of the clubs on New Yorks gay holiday destination Fire Island, where model turned producer Tom Moulton watched the DJs and dancers and wondered if life wouldnt be easier for all concerned if the tracks they played were longer and more tailored to the demands of the dancefloor (it was Moulton, too, who came up with the idea of pressing them on 12 vinyl for better sound quality), although others quickly ran with the idea, not least Walter Gibbons, resident at another New York club, Galaxy 21, whose 1976 remix of Double Exposures Ten Percent didnt extend the song so much as reinvent it entirely.

DJ Frankie Knuckless re-editing of old disco tracks led to the birth of house music. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Long after the homophobic disco sucks backlash, gay clubs continued to innovate. The sound pioneered by Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage in New York fed into everything from post-punk to electro to the hugely influential experiments of Arthur Russell (the Ministry Of Sound, the first British superclub, was openly inspired by the Garage). Before the ecstasy-fuelled eclecticism of 1988s second summer of love, DJs at The Saint were soundtracking Sunday mornings with sleaze, a term that could encompass downtempo disco, Euro-pop, even Cliff Richard. In Chicagos Warehouse club, DJ Frankie Knuckles refusal to abandon disco, preferring to freshen up old tracks by re-editing them, led to the birth of house music: the earliest house records were crude attempts to mimic what Knuckles was doing. Ron Hardys Music Box, the club where acid house was birthed, was more mixed, but still fuelled by the abandon of its gay clientele. If you couldnt stand to be around gays, you didnt party in the city of Chicago, one Music Box regular told Brewster and Broughton. They would ask, Are you a child, or a stepchild? If you were a stepchild, it meant you were straight, but we accept you.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/13/pulse-gay-clubs-matter-transformed-lives-orlando-shooting

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