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NYC Downlow at Block9
NYC Downlow at Block9Photography by Henry Knock

How drag queens invaded Glastonbury

Inside ‘homo disco’ NYC Downlow at Block9 – even Florence gave a guerrilla performance

TextDaisy JonesPhotographyHenry Knock

Jacqui Potato has been dancing by the speakers for 48 hours now. Somebody turned the music off ages ago, but she’s still dancing,” said performance artist Scottee, the morning after getting on stage at NYC Downlow to “sing in a wig” (his words). “I can literally smell the drugs from here,” he added, rolling his eyes and doing up the top button of his polka dot blouse. His words were a neat embodiment of NYC Downlow as a whole; the infamous and wickedly fun self-described underground “homo disco” which is situated at Block9, the art-club hybrid tucked between the trees in one corner of Glastonbury Festival.

It’s supposed to be a “film set replica” of a post-apocalyptic New York tenement block with a gay disco inside, as if a bomb had dropped on the city in 1989, destroying everything in sight except for the coveted gay district in it’s golden age. In reality, it’s like your best and most seedy nights at The Joiners Arms and back-in-the-day Soho combined, but with a backdrop of portaloo stench and drag queens caked in mud. In other words, there’s nothing quite like it.

The concept of NYC Downlow started in 2007 by creative duo Stephen Gallagher and Gideon Berger, who noticed there was a lack of an alternative LGBTQ space at Glastonbury. “I went out to Burning Man and saw some of shit they did out there and was blown away by the homo camp stuff,” Berger told Dazed. “They built massive pieces of art and had really cool people and I thought ‘how come they’ve got their shit but we haven’t?’ I came back to Steve and said ‘lets build a gay bar at Glastonbury’ ­­– it’s the best festival in Europe but there’s zero gay presence there.” From this original conception sprung Block9, which is the name for the trio of venues that sit in the space, which includes outdoor concrete site Genosys and the imposing tower block space The London Underground. “NYC Downlow is like the mothership, which has now given birth to an older, straighter, butcher big brother. There’s this whole pool of UK dance music that’s fucking amazing. We don’t do EDM and all that David Guetta shit – the UK has outgrown this, and we have quality music. Block9 is about creating a space for the music to inhabit, according to our vision of what a perfect space to experience a piece of music would look like.” If UK dance music should be experienced in a murky and fantastical dystopian future where everyone is in wigs, fishnets and fake moustaches, then the pair have got this vision spot on.

"For me, NYC Downlow reacts against that straight assimilation. It’s seedy, the barmen wear leather jockstraps and nobody tones it down. Being here is a reminder of that good old fashioned chaos that I miss." - Luke

NYC Downlow itself has been shrouded in myth and hearsay since it first began. Before I arrived for this year's festivities, I was told that there was a drag queen living in the space all year round (not true), that Mick Jagger had once performed a surprise DJ set (true) and that all the drinks backstage were spiked with MDMA (only half true). One thing that the weekend did highlight was the desperate need for a fun, gay venue like this outside of the festival, and that happens all year round. “Gay culture has changed massively in the UK, and especially in London, over the past few years,” Luke, who has been to every Block9 since 2009, told me. “All the best gay venues have disappeared and I think it’s for a combination of reasons. As gay rights have progressed, I feel like being queer has lost it’s “otherness”, which is a good thing in many ways, except that instead of becoming more gay as a society, we’ve all become more straight. We have gaybies and shop at Homebase. For me, NYC Downlow reacts against that straight assimilation. It’s seedy, the barmen wear leather jockstraps and nobody tones it down. Being here is a reminder of that good old fashioned chaos that I miss.”

By the time Saturday had swung around, there were whispers of a special guest appearance at midnight, with rumours ranging from Grace Jones to the return of Mick Jagger. And as the clock struck midnight, one statuesque queen started singing the words to Florence & the Machine’s “Spectrum (Say My Name)” before Florence Welch joined her on stage to finish her own song against a backdrop of screaming drag queens and shocked clubbers who promptly threw their laughing gas-filled balloons in the air to dance. “I love it here!” I heard her say, before she disappeared with the performers to hang out beside the portaloos.

The rest of the weekend flew by in an explosion of lip-synching performances, vogue battles and screeching drag queen karaoke. Every night, cult drag ringleader and cabaret revivalist Jonny Woo took his band of pan-sexual performers to the stage to dance, seemingly for hours, in a half-synchronised routine until the sun came up, and at some point a performer bit the head off a fake pig and sprayed thick, gloopy blood over a sweaty-faced audience. As the sun began to rise in the early hours of Monday morning one leather-bound queen shouted from the top of the building: “My name is Emeli Sandé and I need to get sectioned” and outside Genosys, somebody fell asleep with their feet tucked into the mud. It was raucous, unbridled and ridiculous fun, and I’d bet anything that Jacqui Potato is still dancing.