A History of NI Club Culture (I)

Lyndon Stephens and Sandra Gourley detail the youth culture revolutions

Northern Ireland’s cultural life on street level has been shaped by political turmoil and three major youth culture revolutions. For some reason, the people of Northern Ireland have always primarily responded to the rhythmic elements within music.

First the rhythm and blues craze of 1964-66, which was so vibrant at one point there were eighty clubs in Belfast catering to the scene, the most famous local exponents being Van Morrison and his R&B outfit Them.

Next came the punk rock explosion of 1977-1978 which shoved two fingers up at the troubles and the venues began to come to life again as a new generation didn't want to hide indoors but instead brought their own spitting, noisy protest back into the forgotten pubs and clubs of the city centre.

They pogoed furiously kicking and spitting to carve out a niche for themselves in some of the braver establishments across town. This era laid the roots for a small underground club scene, readying the pitch for the next generation of Youth.

Then arrived disco mania of 1974 – 1982 the troubles had long arrived (5 years) and in Belfast the scene in clubs died away and became very low key, as people became afraid to leave their local communities. The capital remained like this during the political turmoil of the 70's, but in some out of town enclaves disco was just as celebrated as it was elsewhere in the world. One of the key large venues was Kelly’s and one of the key DJs was a young teenage budding entrepreneur called Alan Simpson – who went on to become Entertainment Manager of Kelly's and then co-promoter in Lush.

The house music revolution, which exploded in 1988, grew to epic proportions in the mid 90's before collapsing under its own weight, while pockets of underground resistance thrive to this day.

Firstly as mass consumers of this cultural phenomenon, the people of this part of the island took to the house music club explosion with gusto, largely because of the resonance of house music’s message of togetherness, understanding and love. With the tense political situation at the time, it was amazingly appealing to escape every weekend into an alternative universe where everyone was welcome.

As it was becoming within the economic range of a few at the time to make this new computer music, like the punk pioneers before them, they decided to ignore the fact that there was no formal music industry and started to make their own.

Currently a new explosion of hungry young bands are making their own waves in a new musical spearhead, and some of the most interesting outputs are occurring where there are collaborations between the two.

Today Northern Ireland is home to a myriad of gigs, clubs, bands, producers and a hot bed of creative activity.

Along the way the airwaves have been hi-jacked by numerous DJ’s and outfits from local shows such as BCR where Eddie Wray ran his Club Chart Dance show which became institutional for many, through to Cool FM’s dance show courtesy of Mark Wesley, Phil West’s all night shows on Citybeat, and also the influential Across The Line dance show with Paul McClean on BBC Radio Ulster.

National radio broadcasts from Northern Ireland have included outdoor shows at Belfast City Hall to recordings at Lush, the Odyssey, Larne, Derry and Top DJ’s such as Pete Tong, Judge Jules, Fergie and Annie Mac all broadcasting their shows from the province.

How did all of this happen, how did such a small place (1.5 million people) grow so quickly?

To understand we’ll go back to just before the revolution and trace it from there.

In the Beginning there was Jack… and Jack had a groove

'What we need to do right here is go back……..way back.'

If you wanted to hear house music in the London scene in 1986-87, then your best bet was to head to Delirium on the Charing Cross Road. And if you were looking for one of the most sussed DJ’s, then Noel and Maurice Watson were the boys. Schooled at Orangefield Secondary in east Belfast and sometimes residents of Bangor, Co Down, these Irish brothers were so ahead of their game that they almost caused riots during their sets.

The club was founded on hip hop and rare groove, and many of the London B-Boys hated this new music that was burning up the clubs of Chicago and beyond. The management had to install a cage around the DJ area to protect the Watsons, who were so far into the scheme now that they weren’t going to relent in their mission to convert the capital to house. Maurice was spending much of his time in New York, checking out the Paradise Garage and realising that this house thing was unstoppable.

When they moved Delirium from The Astoria to the Heaven venue, they brought Frankie Knuckles over for a long stay, building up the roots of the scene even more. One of the regulars was Danny Rampling, who was putting his own vision together. In time a bunch of acolytes came to the Watson camp. People like Phil Asher and a young whippersnapper called David Holmes. Noel taught the latter how to mix.

Some years later, David paid his dues by dedicating his album Bow Down to the Exit Sign, to the memory of Maurice, who passed away in sad circumstances.

Back in Belfast, the scene had started with small, DIY clubs catering for a wide spread of youth tribes. People ran these events for the love of it, providing themselves, their friends and like-minded souls with somewhere to go. So at a club like The Plaza in Belfast, they played soul and high energy punk, goth and electro. The mid 80's had no strong identity- the great youth cults of mod, punk, skinhead and new romantic were dying and nothing had taken their place. Nothing that is until acid house changed everything.

In 1983 a young music obsessive named Robbie Nelson was tuning in to Radio Luxembourg’s Disco Mix Club (DMC) show presented by Tony Prince (who later launched Mixmag, the UK’s first ever dance music publication and further developed the DMC brand) Robbie joined the Disco Mix Club and visited Demark regularly in 1985 where he first learnt to mix.

In 1987 the DMC Mixing Championships visited Northern Ireland for the first time and Robbie went on to win them for the first three years running. Around the same time Robbie became resident at the Helmsman in Bangor alongside Ken Dorrell (from Soul In the City acclaim) playing soul classics from the likes of George Benson. In 1988 when the acid house phenomenon kicked off Ken left. Robbie took Monday nights in the Hellsman to a new high where it continues to euphoric extremes before it got shut down by the police in 1991.

When this new dance music blossomed there was only one place you could go to hear it. You had to go underground. Most of the people who embraced the wave of freaky all night dancing and smileys that crossed the Irish Sea had their first taste of dance music at either the mod clubs or underground gay clubs.

Both had respectively opened people’s minds to black American music in the form of soul, funk, disco and hip-hop. To them, the natural progression to the four to the floor on the kick drum house beat seemed to be what they had been waiting for. They embraced it with a passion. These were the children of the underground, and for years it would be their secret. Small gatherings grew into medium sized venues until finally and relentlessly it reached the mainstream.

In the UK, the tide turned during the ‘First Summer of Love’ in London, 1988. Clubs like Danny Rampling’s seminal Shoom were blowing the minds of clubbers with the Balearic sound they had brought back from Ibiza. New dance crazes, the curly bob, Wallabies and the poncho were all imports from the island of love, along with raving all night and hugging strangers. The vibe spread to Belfast about a year later by returning holidaymakers and those brave (and rich) enough to join the London weekenders.

Around the same time Peter Spence, who still plays occasionally at Thompson’s Garage, was one of the very first house DJs, working out of Tokyo Joe’s. Another DJ who appreciated the new style was Stephen McKenna, previously a member of experimental electronic act The Infant Pedestrians, who threw a few curious art installations at the Crescent Arts Centre back in the day. Before long he’d left the Roland 808 for a set of decks, cutting his reputation at places like The Venue.

The first venture that was to turn into something significant was Joy. It started with humble beginnings on Halloween night 1989 at Richardson’s Social Club and moved to the Playpen (next to St Georges Market), as it quickly outstripped the venues capacity. This was the work of Keith Connolly, Paul McCourt, Alan Ferris and Dee O’ Grady, who later ran One World, which mutated into Choice. The latter ran bi-weekly alongside Sugar Sweet at the Art College, and introduced Belfast to the likes of Paul Daley (of Leftfield fame) a relationship that is still there today between Daley and Alan Ferris.

One month after Joy began in November 1989 Iain McCready and David Holmes were both working at Zakk’s hairdressers. They were already DJ’ing on the soul/mod scene (something very apparent in some of Holmes later production work) and they really caught the new vibe. With some support from the then owners of Zakk’s (Wally Mount and Jay St John) they held Belfast’s biggest house event at the Thrupenny Bit, an annex of the Kings Hall. Homers mum had just returned from a trip to Chicago where she’d lucked upon a specialist dance shop. She brought back a stack of white label dance records. Result.

The club was called Base and it was a swift success, ultimately moving to the Art College. This in turn became Face (For A Cosmic Experience) and things started to get crazy. Face birthed Sugar Sweet and so the Art College became the chosen venue on a Saturday night of most Belfast clubbers with alternate weeks of Choice and Sugar Sweet.

People queued from an hour before it opened. The visuals were amazing. The atmosphere was like a space launch. The early feeling of collective euphoria was what people went crazy for, in the midst of the troubles people lost it, even being joined on one night by two policemen who partied with the mass of raving clubbers in full uniform!

Orbital even named a track ‘Belfast’ after a long crazy weekend in the city. The list of DJs and acts who performed here reads like a who’s who of acid house. Notable mentions are deserved by, amongst others, Orbital (of course), The Dub Federation, The Dust Brothers (now the Chemical Brothers), The Aloof (especially Richie on the congas), Sabres of Paradise, The Sandals and Bandalu.

Some of the DJs who ripped the roof off, and provided something just that wee bit special, included Andrew Weatherall, Justin Robertson, Fabi Paras, Stuart McMillan, Darren Emerson, Phil Perry, Charlie Hall, Johnny Moy, Graig Walsh, Scott Braithwaite, Luke Slater, Claude Young and Dave Clarke.

First Past The Post
Amongst all of this, after familiarizing himself with the studio, David Holmes began recording with Ashley Beedle (later of Black Scence Orchestra and Xpress 2 to produce the single ‘DeNiro’ as Disco Evangelists), a sizeable dancefloor hit in 1992. The following year, his Scubadevils project (collaboration with Dub Federation) appeared on the first volume of the seminal compilation series Trance Europe Express.

That first taste of success brought David Holmes much remixing work during 1993-1994, for Andy Weatherall, Sabres Of Paradise, St Etienne, Therapy?, Sandals, and Justin Warfield, among others. He later signed to Go! Discs and in 1995 released his debut album, This Films Crap, Let’s Slash The Seats, named by his friend Basil, a barber from the Creggagh Road, on a lost weekend in Amsterdam.

Besides the cinema-terrorist persona evoked in the title, the album featured other ties to the cinema: the single ‘No Man’s Land’ had been written in response to the controversial Guildford four film In the Name of the Father. Television director Lynda La Plante ended up using many of the tracks from the album for her series Supply & Demand, and one track was used in the Sean Penn/Michael Douglas film The Game.

Holmes' first proper soundtrack, the Marc Evans film Resurrection Man, appeared in 1997. The experience inspired Holmes to travel to New York and gather a wealth of urban-jungle environment recordings, compiled and mixed into his second proper album, Lets Get Killed.

He followed with the remix collection Stop Arresting Artists, and in 1998 scored Steven Soderbergh's A-list Hollywood feature Out of Sight with a prescient set of groove-funk. (The attention also earned him a place in Entertainment Weekly's list of the Top 100 Creative People in Entertainment.) His single My Mate Paul even featured as the theme music to the Sony Playstation game Psybadek.

His Essential Mixes from 98/01, assisted by Chris Caul on scratch duties followed later that year, and in 1999 This Films Crap Lets Slash The Seats was reissued with a bonus disc of rarities and unreleased tracks. Holmes issued his third studio effort, Bow Down To The Exit Sign, in September 2000. One year later, Soderbergh tapped him to produce another feature-film soundtrack, Ocean's Eleven, and it pushed a single — Elvis Presley's ‘A Little Less Conversation’, as remixed by Junkie XL — into the charts (as well as the top spot in many countries).

Holmes' next project was a studio band, The Free Association, introduced on the 2002 mix album Come Get It I Got It. On the record, Holmes mixed and matched older tracks with new productions from him and his lab-mate Stephen Hilton. Late that same year, a full album of new tracks (David Holmes Presents The Free Association) followed it onto the racks. The Free Association came to an end when David was commissioned to score the follow up to Oceans 11, Oceans 12.

It is a testament to the current creative climate in Belfast that David has remained true to his roots and chosen to stay in the city and make it his permanent home.

From as early as 1991 Robbie Nelson has been producing his own music. His first take came in the form of ‘Bolivian Angel’ (alongside Mark Jackson, Billy Dunseith and Paul Masterson) the track was re-released in 1993 on Manchester based Eastern Bloc Records where high flyers Rob Tissera and Ian Bland from Dream Frequency acclaim added their own remixes. The track and its follow up ‘Bolivian Angel II' aka 'Angels Fly' are still a collector’s item today.

Whilst David Holmes was creating alliances with audiences in Belfast, Robbie Nelson became a household name elsewhere in Northern Ireland. He was the biggest name on the local circuit. Holding residencies at the infamous all-nighters Circus Circus in Banbridge from 1991 – 1993 (alongside Mark Jackson, Gleave Dobbin and Marty C), through to The Arena in Armagh in 1993 (where Robbie played to weekly audiences of 3,000) Charlie Heggarty’s in Bangor, Kilwaughter House in 1994 and the hazy mass marketed days of 1996 where he played 2 High on Life parties each night furiously driving between the hugely popular Yeke Yeke @ The River Club, Enniskillen and Spank at Carlingford Bay Hotel in Warrenpoint. Both institutions in their own right!

In 1995 Chris Agnelli a young lad straight out of university having studied music technology in the UK joined Freerange studio as in-house engineer and began producing tracks under his name. 'Lush (State of the Floor)' and 'Lush Gold' received major support through the media and main players throughout Ireland and the UK.

Chris Agnelli and Robbie Nelson began writing and producing dance music together since 1997 under the now household name of Agnelli & Nelson. Their massive Ibiza classic ‘El Nino' has become one of the defining tunes of the Balearic experience, while five national top thirty hits, and countless buzz chart remixes have ensured that the pair remain synonymous with the more musical end of club music.

Apart from their own produce, Agnelli and Nelson have given re-rubs to the likes of Madonna, Louise, Ruff Driverz and Lange. They have appeared on Top of the Pops, the Essential Mix and have been chosen to usher in the New Year on BBC Radio 1 live from Belfast for the past two years. The UK label Xtravaganza has been the main home to Agnelli and Nelson since 1998. Chris also remixed two U2 tracks ‘Beautiful Day’, ‘Elevation’ (and) in collaboration with U2 engineer Richard Rainey (also from the North) under the guise of Quincey & Sonnance.

Under the alias of Afterburn, Chris and Robbie signed ‘Summer Sun' and ‘Winter Sun’ to Ferry Corsten's Tsunami label, while their more driving, tech-trance material under the guise of Cortez was reserved for the Dutch ID&T imprint. Successful releases as Green Atlas & Afterburn saw the boys make a welcome return to record stores throughout the globe as Agnelli & Nelson with the release of ‘Holding onto Nothing’. The boys also held a relentless remixing schedule turning in highly acclaimed re-workings of Armin Van Buurens ‘Blue Fear’, Matt Dareys ‘Point Zero’ & Solarstone & Scott Bonds ‘3rd Earth’.

However, their masterpiece came in the form of their ingenious remix of Ferry Corstens ‘It’s Time’ which many reviewers hailed as being better than the original. Cutting down on the remix requests towards the end of 2004 enabled them time to work on their latest Agnelli & Nelson productions and it proved a good move.

Lyndon Stephens and Sandra Gourley