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Dave Swindells/YOUTH CLUB
1985Dave Swindells/YOUTH CLUB

Photographing the outrageous club antics of 80s London

From the ascendancy of acid house warehouse parties to larger-than-life club legend Leigh Bowery, Dave Swindells saw it all

A is for acid house, B is for Bastard Batty Bass, C is for crusties. On nightlife photographer Dave Swindells’ website, an A-Z of partying details a lifetime spent at the heart of the rave. Swindells has spent 30 years following dance music culture from London to Ibiza, Sri Lanka and beyond, documenting the rise of warehouse raves and superclubs in the capital. 

“Keeping it Real” is a new zine of Swindells’ work, released today by YOUTH CLUB, a non-profit organisation working to preserve, share and celebrate youth culture history. It charts the emergence of the rave scene in the late 1980s and traces the mutation of dance music culture over the last three decades. Swindells evocatively captures the spirit of clubland luminaries like Leigh Bowery and Paul Oakenfold and the Friday nights of anonymous, gurning revellers. We caught up with him before the launch event at Dalston’s Doomed Gallery to hear the stories behind the images.

If a 20-year-old promoter picked up a copy of this zine, what do you hope they would take from it?

Dave Swindells: Two things. One is that at the end of it all, going out should be fun. Sometimes, clubs can get a little bit too serious about themselves. Too self-regarding. This is about going out and having a good time. 

The other thing that a young clubber might take from it is: wow. Look at what people used to do, look at these events where they took over the Brixton Academy and put in funfair rides and dodgems (at late-80s club night West World). Obviously, I’m not saying to promoters, ‘Pull your socks up and start installing skateboard ramps.’ A dancefloor can be enough, but it’s fun adding other elements.

Of course, exciting things are happening now, but promoters these days are under so much pressure. The most creative events these days are not dance music events, because so often the money all goes on talent, on the DJs and PAs. It’s not so much about the experience.

So what kind of contemporary events create that experience?

Dave Swindells: The adventure has gone to the alternative scene: to vintage events, burlesque, and festivals. The great thing about festivals is that you get crossover between the serious dance scene and cabaret and burlesque. In a club, there are so many rules and regulations. I don’t think health and safety would let a club install a helter-skelter with a 30ft drop.

Do you think that pressure from the housing market – and politicians catering to the housing market – is also having an impact?

Dave Swindells: Totally. You can’t have creative, underground clubbing in a place where the houses all cost a million pounds. There’s pressure from all sides – from the police, from passers-by, from local residents, from businesses... The problem now is that clubs in London get so little help from local councils or the mayor or central government. There’s not even a law saying that if people move into an area they can’t complain about the club next door. 

Kids nowadays are much more work-focused. If you want to pay off your student loan, if you want to save more than a fiver a week, you have to be.

“You don’t ever think it's going to end. You think it’s going to keep on going forever” – Dave Swindells

During the late 80s and early 90s, was there any sense that you were living in a golden age of clubbing?

Dave Swindells: You don’t ever think it's going to end. You think it’s going to keep on going forever. London was the best place to dance in the world, and it felt incredibly buzzy. Even in the beginning of 1988, going to Shoom, I could see this it was going to be massive. You looked around this club and you saw the biggest club promoters around, all having a wild time.

There was Nicky Holloway, Spike and Neville who did the Hug Club, Joel Coleman and Graham Ball who did West World, Paul Oakenfold and Ian St Paul who did Spectrum. There was too much energy and excitement to be contained in a couple of clubs. You immediately thought, ‘This is going to go across Europe, this is going to go across America.’ We didn’t realise it was going to be 25 years before EDM took dance music into the mainstream in the States. And of course, the reality is that property prices have shifted everything around. Perhaps it’s just as well that we don’t have foresight. 

Does any one of these pictures capture the excitement of that time?

Dave Swindells: The one on the cover I just absolutely love. It was taken at an absolutely amazing night called Kinky Gerlinky. They also threw voguing parties at the Cafe de Paris, and this particular event was called the Drag Ball. It was gay, straight, whatever, which is a club combination I really like. It’s very easy and enjoyable to photograph in clubs like this, because nearly everyone has made an effort to dress up, or to work a look, and they are happy to flaunt it. If you’ve got it, flaunt it – and they were always flaunting it. What I like about this picture is all the attitude in it. The people are either laughing hysterically or gazing broodily into the camera. It reflects the crazy hedonism that Kinky Gerlinky was all about, with people flying in from South Africa just for this one event. It was an amazing destination for a Monday night.

There are some great shots here of Leigh Bowery, too. What was it like being around him at the time? 

Dave Swindells: Leigh was very confrontational. It was part of the fun of being around him: he’d come on to the dancefloor and start rolling around and bash into people. He’d laugh and smile and he was looking amazing, but at the same time, some people would be getting really wound up. 

At one night at Taboo in 1985, somebody had brought back a suitcase full of ecstasy tablets from New York, where it was still legal at the time. Half the club was on ecstasy, and it was really, really mad. Leigh was spinning around with David Holah on his shoulders. He’d fall over and people would pile on top of him, including the DJ, and all you could hear was the needle scratching across the record. And then, eventually, the DJ would get back to the booth and start playing another record. I was so annoyed I didn’t have a camera with me that night. These days, you’d just call it binge drinking, but then it was… well, it was still binge drinking, but it was fashionable. It was avant-garde binge drinking.

Time and again, he’d end up on the floor, either drunk or just performing. He was great in that he kept pushing himself in all sorts of different directions. When you saw him out, that was the highlight of your night: ‘Oh my God, look what Leigh’s wearing tonight.’ He took it to another level. He wasn’t just a clubland clown, he was a talented guy. Every time you went out, if you saw Leigh, you wanted to photograph him.

That’s partly why I put that picture of him on the back of the zine. He’s dancing at Kinky Gerlinky, and he looks like he‘s waving goodbye. It’s an incredible look, with the cabbage head and the organza-tooled construction. I remember seeing him down at (acid house night) Spectrum in 1988. He had a very elaborate tiled mirror costume on, but he was saying, ‘Oh, this isn’t really for me, I don’t think.’ He preferred events that were more about people’s creative work. His events were very loud and very ecstasy-driven, but it was a different style of clubbing. 

What was your own relationship with drugs?

Dave Swindells: I’ve only ever done a couple of cheeky halves (of ecstasy). I was offered ecstasy often enough, but I’d seen how much it was changing people, how much they needed it. Ecstasy was £25 a pill at the time, and I thought, ‘I can’t afford this.’

I don’t think I needed it. I was in clubs where 75 per cent, 80 per cent, sometimes it felt like 98 per cent of people were on this drug, and there was such a collective high that I was buzzing off. I know some people would say, ‘How can you understand it if you haven’t done it?’ But there’s such a thing as imagination. Just being there gives you this incredible rush, with the music, and the atmosphere. I do kind of regret it, but someone had to focus. Someone had to take some pictures.

Keeping it Real, printed by YOUTH CLUB, launches at the Doomed Gallery on Tuesday May 3