After the sudden closure of the historic London venue, we chart its reputation as a queer cabaret bar and party pub hybrid
As gay parties go, The Black Cap was pretty reliable at throwing a good one. Perched at the middle of Camden High Street in London – a random location given that the borough has never been an official hotspot for LGBT revelers – the venue became legendary on the scene for hosting radical drag shows that always felt way more progressive than the slightly ropier drag queen routines of old school Soho. Its promoters helped encourage and promote new drag talent.
A diverse crowd was also one of the venue's unique sells. Whether you were a queen or a bear, a student or a longstanding regular (maybe all of the above) it didn’t matter – The Black Cap carved itself a niche as mutual drinking territory for London's queer scene. Something it had been doing for decades.
“It was the first gay pub I went to regularly when I was 16,” explains London club veteran and East Bloc owner Wayne Shires, “because it was open until 2am, it felt like a club though. That’s where I first met Princess Julia and the rest of my gang. There was always such good drag shows on and it's where Lily Savage used to perform.”
I personally fell in love with the place way back when, as an indie-music obsessed student in the summer of 2006. It was one of those booze heavy Saturdays that my friends and I liked to indulge in. It started with a few bottles of Tesco’s Cava on the Camden side of Regents Park that ended with a stroll down to the Black Cap for a couple of pints of Strongbow and a few sneaky whiffs of Poppers on its rooftop garden.
Those particular summer nights felt so hypnotic – not because of the amyl nitrate – but due to The Black Cap’s ability to go from a pub to club thanks to its downstairs bar hall. For a reasonable door fee you were instantly entitled to some form of bonkers drag show, cabaret, karaoke or straight-up club night that would guarantee you a brilliant, carefree night.
“What was important was that even if you didn’t go there all the time, you knew it was there,” says Ponystep founder, fashion events planner and club night pro Richard Mortimer. “The Black Cap just was what it was. It never tried to become trendy. Essentially it was a throwback to an old music hall but that’s what was so great about it. It also really supported London’s drag scene on a consistent basis.”
It’s sad news then that on Sunday the owners, Faucet Inn, decided to close the pub after a year of speculation as to when or even if the venue would close due to redevelopment plans. It was a sudden turn of events and one that has left London’s LGBT community feeling down. Who can blame us? With this being the third closure of a popular gay venue this year (East London favourites the Nelsons Head and the Joiners Arms both closed recently due to similar problems faced by their respective landlords), it’s an unsettling time.
With the Black Cap’s remarkable ability to work a magic all of its own in mind, we’ve decided to celebrate the venue’s iconic appeal with these memorable moments from its nocturnal back catalogue.
ITS ALTERNATIVE DRAG-SLASH-METH LAB
Drag performer and pioneer of alternative drag, Meth, has been working hard on making the Black Cap a cabaret hotspot for a new generation over the past two years with her surrealist take on drag performance. Her self titled Meth Lab introduced the scene to bizarre acts and her performance troupe The Familyyy Fierce. Singing, stripping, live music and porn star cameos are all part of the Meth Lab show itinerary. “We’d have go go dancers on the bar as well as our drag performers,” explains Meth who had been curating the venue’s events list for two years before its closure “we’d throw a pop-themed night called TLC hosted by Tasty Tim and I, and we’d have Rehab which was a night focused on unique drag performance.”
BRINGING RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE TO LONDON
Yep, that’s right. The Black Cap was also host to a series of sell-out shows featuring key players from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Raja, Michelle Visage, Bianca Del Rio and DWV (of "This Boy Is A Bottom" fame) all bought their international fierceness to Camden and attracted a new wave of younger customers. “It meant eighteen year old twinks who were obsessed with RuPaul were filling the place,” explains Meth, "and we sold out every single one of those shows."
DIY OPEN MIC NIGHTS
Not content with putting on the show itself, the Black Cap also let paying customers take to the stage too. Whether you wanted to belt out "Total Eclipse of the Heart" or vocalize your take on a Siouxsie Soux track, its regular karaoke nights were the perfect antidote to the midweek hump. Even if you weren’t up for singing, TBC promoters had a grasp on indie music culture, most recently with its Friday night party Audacity. That meant gay fans of electroclash, credible pop and rock knew exactly where to go for a hit of music that actually meant something to them.
It wouldn’t be a Camden establishment without a huge dose of alternative appeal and that’s exactly what TBC held for many gay men. For those who wanted something a little rougher around the edges compared to the West End or the fashion-conscious bars of East London, the Camden boozer was a great place. With that wild mix of characters that represent different generations of London gay culture stemming right back to the sixties, you’d have been hard pushed to leave The Black Cap without some sort of story that sealed your experience with a memory all of your own.
As Meth puts it: “We had so many different types of customers, some who had been coming everyday for forty years either just for a pint or to watch a show. We were part of their daily routine and part of their lives."