Luke Howard's Brief History Of London's Gay Clubs: From Bang to Heaven

The first part in the story of London's gay clubbing history. From Tricky Dicky's one-nighters to the opening of gay superclub Heaven, via Bang, Louise's, Scandal's and more.
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The first part in the story of London's gay clubbing history. From Tricky Dicky's one-nighters to the opening of gay superclub Heaven, via Bang, Louise's, Scandal's and more.

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Prior to the opening of Bang in 1976, gay venues in London were either small members' clubs providing dinner, dance and cabaret for the stately-homo set, or small dives with postage stamp-sized dance floors where young queens would dance their tits off to the latest soul, funk and proto disco imports, provided by DJ's like Talullah, aka Martin Allum, at Shanes in West Hampstead and Chris Lucas at The Catacombes in Earls Court.

Tricky Dicky was one of the first promoters to grasp the idea of the 'one-nighter', hiring out a pub or bar for the evening to put on a gay night. 'Dick’s Inn Gay Disco', operated out of straight venues as far a field as Croydon, Ilford, Bishopsgate and Euston, for a few hundred gay boys and girls at a time.

In 1975 Tricky Dicky held a one-nighter called Fangs underneath a hotel in Paddington. Much to his surprise the place was full to capacity with 600 dancing queens lapping up every minute of being surrounded by like-minded people. The night didn’t last long due to interference from the venue owners, who were none too happy about homos taking over their place, but Fangs, although not one of Tricky Dicky’s longer lasting nights, demonstrated that the scene, however underground, had enough dance-hungry punters to fill the bigger clubs.

1976 was a groundbreaking year for the development of gay discos in London with the arrival of Bang: London’s first gay superclub. Held at The Sundowner on Charing Cross Road every Monday night, subsequently opening on Thursdays due to popularity, Bang had a 1000+ capacity; a good, loud sound-system; all the hot, new disco imports played by experienced DJ's Gary London, Talullah and Norman Scott; and dramatic lighting effects operated by the venue's very own lighting engineer.

As 1976 was the year of the first commercially available 12” single it was perfect timing for a night like Bang - improved audio quality and extended track length for a bigger and better dancing environment.

Gary London, who was already the resident DJ at the Sundowner on straight nights, took inspiration for Bang from the big gay clubs of New York, LA and San Francisco. For London’s scenesters, discophiles and clones, a trip to Bang in its early days, with its vastness and hedonistic disco energy, could be as liberating an experience as going on a Gay Pride march (whose numbers in those days was scarcely bigger than the crowd at Bang). Speaking at the time in Gay News, London articulated it thus: “Discos create the right environment for gays. The right world where they feel secure and they can let their hair down (if they’ve got any left) and they like to dance to funky music like Tina Charles, The Stylistics and Natalie Cole.”

Talullah, who up until his untimely death in 2009 was still DJing in London and abroad, also had fond memories of the Bang effect, “Everyone on the scene went to Bang, it appealed to all sorts of queens: leather queens, clones, twirlers and trolley dollies who’d come back from New York and tell us what the hot tracks were over there. Bang was a major event on the scene. We had a phone in the DJ booth that linked to the lighting booth and we’d call up the engineer and tell him to do a black out at the next break, or when to use the strobe effects or do a balloon drop. There was also a huge cinema screen at the back, as the Sundowner was a converted cinema, and we’d show Busby Berkley dance routines from all the old Hollywood musicals”.

Bang took a leap out of the underground with its size, but attracting that many punters also meant a more commercial sound that wasn’t to everyone’s taste. The number of smaller gay discos that thrived during this period proved that Bang certainly didn’t have the monopoly on hedonism or disco music. Plenty of venues still retained their edginess and a more underground sound. El Sombrero (sometimes known as Yours Or Mine) on Kensington High Street was a more chi-chi intimate affair with a racially-mixed crowd of Euro queens, black soul boys, rich Arabs, pop stars, antique dealer-types, rent boys and their punters and the excitement of a flashing under-lit dance floor. Rudy, an Italian with a penchant for extending the disco breaks and playing lots of percussive tracks, was the DJ with Timmy Thomas’s Why Can’t We Live Together and Michael Polnareff’s Lipstick being two particular favourites. Make-up artist and webzine publisher Kenny Campbell remembers dancing at the Sombrero, “The first time I went there I took a blue and me and my friend Black Michael danced the hustle - you know, partnered disco dancing - so ferociously, that the whole dance-floor stood round us cheering. We were buzzing so much we walked all the way home to Tottenham!”

Black disco music was also being played at the Rainbow Disco underneath the Rainbow Rooms in Manor House who advertised in Gay News as playing all the best US soul and funk. Chaguaramas on Neal Street had a soul/disco music policy with DJ Norman Scott at the helm until it became The Roxy and became a live venue for the emerging punk scene. Louise’s, the lesbian club on Wardour Street where Diana Ross’s Love Hangover was the theme tune, served alcohol till 3:00am and was made famous by regular visits from the Sex Pistols and their coterie, the Bromley Contingent, who would arrive after gigs at The Roxy.

Chris Hill DJ’ed at gay nights at Crackers in Soho (West End Affair) and the Lacy Lady in Essex (East End Affair) which advertised themselves as ‘New York gay discos’ and Tricky Dicky moved to up to the West End, finding a weekend home at Spats on Oxford Street. A more dressed-up, chic crowd could be found at Mounkberrys, a cabaret and disco club in Mayfair where Grace Jones performed for the first time in London. Adams in Leicester Square was another West End gay club playing all the latest disco sounds.

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DJ Talullah went from Bang to residencies at Napoleons in Bond Street and Scandals in Soho, which also featured a lit-up dance floor and can be seen in the video for Ant Music by Adam & The Ants. In 2006 he recalled, “I’d moved to New York in 1977 for 18 months, where I worked at Studio 54. The first time I went there I fell over the velvet rope and landed at Steve Rubell’s feet and when I stood up I asked him for a job. He put me behind the bar for a while and I stayed for 3 months and probably DJ’ed there about nine times until I got a summer season DJ residency at The Sandpiper on Fire Island. When I came back from New York the disco scene was peaking and it was easy for me to get work. When I had the residency at Scandals (which meant playing 6 nights a week) they gave me a record allowance of £70 a week, which was a fortune in those days, so I was able to buy all the American and European imports I wanted.”

Chris Lucas from the Catacombes went on to DJ at Glades upstairs at Global Village on Wednesday, which as well as playing the best in contemporary disco, had a very sexually charged atmosphere - one American visitor at the time who found the London scene unfriendly and somewhat dated was delighted to note that men at Glades danced with their tops off. Lucas then went back to Earls Court to take his residency at the Copacabana, a much needed large club for the area, which was then the hub of London’s gay scene, giving the regulars of The Colherne and Bromptons pubs some late night action. The Copa was at the forefront of the emerging London clone scene.

It took the arrival in 1978 of the Embassy Club in Bond Street to really put the glamour into the gay disco scene.

Jeremy Norman was inspired to open The Embassy after numerous trips to New York clubs where the openness and designer drug-fuelled lifestyle of NY gay life seemed at odds with the parochial feel of the London scene (you could get banned in some London venues just for sniffing poppers). The Embassy was designed for an upmarket, mostly gay clientele who wanted something less provincial and less claustrophobic than other clubs had to offer. The space was designed for dancing, offering less seating and more dancefloor, and the sound system and lights were state of the art. Bus boys in shorts á la Studio 54 provided eye candy for the sophisticates in attendance and the club was briefly the place to be seen, with Sunday tea-dances being particularly legendary – just £4 for all you could eat and drink. The Embassy was immortalised in the video for Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel Mighty Real, but ultimately its popularity and destination-status proved to be its downfall as the up-market straight crowd soon outnumbered the core gay element.

On the eve of a new decade in December 1979 Heaven arrived in London. The biggest gay club in Europe, it was the brainchild of Jeremy Norman who wanted to extend what he’d done at The Embassy by creating a bigger, better and gayer environment. Heaven would change the face of London’s gay nightlife forever by finally giving London’s gay scene a space to be proud of, somewhere that visiting Americans and Europeans could flock too and finally have something good to say about the London scene. Costing a staggering £300,000 to renovate and install with 5000 Watts of sound from a system that featured bass horns built into the floor and over-head tweeters and a hi-tech lightshow that featured amazing lasers, lightning-effect and planet-shaped neons, tracking spotlights, high power colour flood-lights and inlaid light chords in the floor, Heaven would endure much longer than the New York and LA discos it was trying so hard to emulate.

Resident DJ was Ian Levine, who as resident of the Blackpool Mecca had been at the heart of the Northern Soul scene in the early 70’s and had broadened his musical remit to embrace disco after experiencing New York gay clubs on trips stateside hunting for rare soul. Levine became one of the first DJ’s on the gay scene to truly embrace mixing, keeping the tempo steady at 128-134 BPM’s Levine put paid to the Motown medleys that were common place at Bang, Copas or Scandals. Heaven’s attractions may have been its music and lights, but its prime purpose was for cruising and Norman was intent on stopping straight punters from taking over, so a rigorous gay men-only door policy was enforced. Norman’s concerns were justified by the excitement that Heaven’s launch created and even The Evening Standard in a review of Heaven’s opening night deliberated on the door policy: “Heaven’s biggest headache could be in deterring London’s non-gay discophiles who could end up trying to pass for gay to get past the elegant bouncers at the disco’s equivalent of the Pearly Gates.”

Heaven’s arrival coincided with new directions in disco. The beats got faster, mixing became an essential part of the musical journey and electronic sounds replaced live instrumentation. Gay disco, Boystown, or, as it was finally to be known, Hi-energy (named after the Ian Levine produced Miguel Brown hit of the same name) became the soundtrack to the men-only clone scene that had taken over at Heaven and the Earls Court scene. Adam’s in Leicester Square became Subway in 1981, and claimed on its advertising to offer London’s first American-style cruise club. With an over-21’s and strict men-only door policy Subway offered, along with a legendary mix of progressive sounds provided by John Richards (the Hot Trax remix of Walking On Thin Ice by Yoko Ono being a favourite), a backroom for a spunked-up clone fest. Leather and uniform were in and flamboyance (unless provided by one of the drag shows in the bar) was definitely out.

This article first appeared in an issue of Faith Fanzine.