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Derek Ridgers, KU, Ibiza, 1984
KU, Ibiza, 1984Photography Derek Ridgers

Photos from the heady Ibiza club that rivalled Studio 54

At its zenith, KU had over 20 bars in its grounds and was frequented by Grace Jones, Divine, and Jean-Paul Gaultier

While foam parties, glow sticks, and Paris Hilton DJ sets make it all too easy to dismiss the cultural validity of Ibizan nightlife, those partying on the island before it earned its reputation as Europe’s rowdy, raucous, and lawless party capital came to know a very different kind of celebration. Ibiza was once a place that offered unofficial asylum to queer and alternative Spaniards, providing a place of escape for liberals during Franco’s rule, hippies in the 70s, and clubbers in the 80s – a precious decade before the island’s commercial explosion.  

Today, one of the island’s most famous clubs is also the world’s largest, Privilege. While Privilege is a household name, the story of its predecessor, KU, remains elusive. In 1979, footballer Jose Antonio Santamaría and two fellow Basques, Jose Luis Anabitarte (aka Gorri) and Javier Iturrioz, came to Ibiza and purchased Club San Rafael. It was a space with a “rustic garden” and a swimming pool perched on a hill, overlooking Ibiza’s shoreline. They named it KU, after the Hawaiian god of prosperity. Together, with a team of creatives, they transformed the space into what would become one of the most influential and beloved clubs in the history of the island. KU reached a legendary status in Ibiza comparable to Studio 54 – a nightlife space which represented the heyday of hedonism in its era.

“It was almost like a James Bond film set... I’d never seen anything like it” – Derek Ridgers

Legendary nightlife photographer Derek Ridgers captured the spirit of KU during a night out in 1984. “It had the reputation of being the biggest and best club on the island. You might even have been able to say it was the biggest and best club in Europe,” says Ridgers. The complex centred around the gargantuan San Rafael pool, complete with a water slide designed like a dragon. “It was almost like a James Bond film set... I’d never seen anything like it.”

While at the time, the best clubs in the UK were repurposed from other buildings – usually in downmarket areas – Ku was constructed with its intended purpose in mind. The club opened its doors with just one humble bar in 1978, in 1980 it added the gay bar Coco Loco, followed by the club’s most renowned, Bar Privé, in 1984. In an effort to supply the bewildering demand during their busiest month, KU reached its zenith at 20 bars, sprinkled throughout the massive property. With a large part of the club remaining open-air (this predates the arrival of the law forbidding open-air discotheques), the people of KU quite literally danced in the moonlight until the Spanish sunrise.

“The dress code seemed to be as little as possible and some people looked like they’d come straight from the beach. There was the heavy scent of sex and suntan oil everywhere,” recalls Ridgers. “It was like paradise, you could do anything you want. There were no sexual boundaries, no voyeurs, and the drugs were pure. Envision total freedom with beautiful scenery, new music, and a diverse crowd,” adds Faruk Gandji, one of Ku’s creative masterminds.

The wonder of the physical space was matched with an extremely innovative approach toward club’s party themes, engineered and executed largely by Gandji from 1982 onwards. Themed evenings at KU spanned geographical locations to colour combinations and the four elements, with highlights such as 42nd street, Spanish Hollywood, Revolution, Jurassic Party, and Gnome. KU hosted a massive celebration for each full moon – throwing parties like Luna Romantica, Luna Erotica, and Luna Loca. The KU team decorated the space to reflect each occasion, a grand task considering the club’s size. Tirso Martinez Santiago, the man behind its decor and lighting, built elaborate sets and stages in record time. “Every couple of days we had to change everything in the garden, the pool, the entrance, the bars,” reveals Gandji. I remember Tirso and his team running around getting bamboo for Noche Africa and constantly creating new worlds out of coloured cellophane,” recalls Gandji. The end results were not unlike movie sets, populated by people in costumes as extravagant as the atmosphere. For Tirso, KU’s San Fermin party epitomises KU’s bewildering commitment. “We released a few young bulls and turned KU into Estafeta street in Pamplona. There were roughly 3,000 people dressed in red and white. It was monumental chaos – fortunately, there were no major accidents.”

The invitation for clubbers to dress in thematic accordance bred artistry and helped earn KU a reputation as a fashion hotspot. “Jean Paul Gaultier used to come here and get inspired. He would watch people and then go back to Paris and design according to what he saw,” recalls Gandji. KU’s allure was bolstered by their widely popular contests, like Mr. and Mrs. Ku, Miss Tanga, and Miss Waterfall, in which patrons served as the jury. “In 1984, one contest brought 4,700 people. They were crawling over the walls, on the palm trees, and hanging all over the place. The numbers were just amazing.”

“(For one party), we released a few young bulls and turned KU into Estafeta street in Pamplona. There were roughly 3,000 people dressed in red and white. It was monumental chaos” – Tirso Martinez

KU was a playground of experimentation, and their approach to music was no exception. “Ibiza was at its very best in regard to being at the forefront of electronic music,” says Gandji. KU DJs would choose music mostly from record shops in Belgium, which had the best selection of avant-garde sounds. “Ibiza had a style from the 70s onwards that became very clear-cut by 1986; electronic, synthpop-oriented music, with a touch of new wave, but managed to mix in all tendencies. At KU we played underground music that was danceable and ideally had some kind of message.” Although it was unnamed at the time, UK DJs Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling named the distinctive Ibizan style Balearic Beat, after being credited with its “discovery” in the late 80s. The KU nights were split in two according to music and crowd, with the midnight to 3:30am DJ playing popular tracks for tourists, and the 3:30am onwards DJ to catering to the more unique tastes of the people of Ibiza. “It would carry on until 8am sometimes 10am until the light became too much and you had to put your sunglasses on,” remembers Gandji. He also recalls nights when people continued dancing in the blaring sun, long after the club ran out of alcohol and cigarettes.

Nightlife spaces are often described as utopias, and KU was no exception. The strength of the club lay in its openness and diversity. At the peak of the 80s, KU became a melting pot of both local and international people, of varying races, classes, subcultures, and sexual orientations. Gandji describes the scene: “Sometimes I would scan the dance floor and see a topless girl dancing in the middle of tattooed Germans, drag queens, Osho cult members all dressed in orange, a flamenco dancer with a fan, and a hippie with a crystal in their hand, worshipping the cosmos.” The club was frequented by celebrities – Grace Jones, Freddie Mercury, and Divine, to name a few – who flocked there due to the respect and freedom it gave them, and the unspoken agreement amongst the KU crowd that VIPs be left unhassled.“It was kind of a cleansing meditation for everyone. No one bothered or judged anybody else. People felt really safe and let themselves go.” Many of these stars also graced KU’s stages. “One particularly memorable one was when Freddy Mercury and Monserrat Caballé performed the Olympic song Barcelona. It was one of Mercury’s last shows,” recalls Tirso.

The tropical ecstasy that was KU in the 80s was rendered 2D in the work of KU’s poster designer, Yves Uro. The Frenchman worked for KU for roughly ten years, designing different posters for every themed evening and contest, and leaving behind a massive body of work that remains to this day chronically underappreciated. “His talent and creativity were unbelievable. Sometimes he only had an afternoon to design a poster, yet every single one was a work of art,” Gandji recalls. Printing between 5,000 to 10,000 copies at a time, the KU team was sure to cover every boutique, cafe, and corner all the way from Ibiza airport to KU itself to promote the parties. Gandji explains their appeal: “The posters were constantly getting stolen! We had to tear off the corners so people wouldn’t take them home.” Although Uro tragically died at just 40 years of age, the legacy of his talent and the vibrant spirit of KU live on in his vivid designs.

As is all too often the case with nightlife, KU’s popularity led to its demise. The seductive sounds and reputation of Ibiza spread like wildfire toward the late 80s, prompting the invasion of the music industry and the explosion of party tourism. In the early 90s, new building codes mandated that KU cover its open-air paradise with a roof. The extensive costs of the construction were too burdensome for Santamaría and his associates and left them bankrupt. In 1992, ownership was transferred and the club’s name was changed for Privilege.

When Faruk returned to what was once KU, he discovered a heartbreaking scene. “The KU statue was dirty behind a glass door, covered with spider webs. The swimming pool was a fraction of what it used to be, and there were empty plastic bottles and trash floating on the water. Paradise lost,” he says. But perhaps more tragic than the degradation of the space is the commercialisation of the island’s nightlife culture more broadly. Gandji, however, has hope that the next generation of nightlifers in Ibiza will usher in a new chapter. “There’s a new consciousness growing fast. A lot of kids are waking up and don’t see the fun in worshipping a DJ, created by the industry, who they don’t even identify with, just to take selfies. They want something that speaks to their souls – they want to feel free,” he says. Reflecting on KU’s golden decade suggests that Ibiza’s past may be a persuasive blueprint for a more hopeful future.