An upstairs‑downstairs tale of two key nightspots
First published as the cover story to The Face No 34 in February 1983. Photography © by Derek Ridgers.
Reprinted in The Faber Book of Pop, 1995; and in Night Fever, Boxtree, 1997
69 Dean Street is an address implanted somewhere in the folk memory of every FACE reader. During the four years when the launchpad for musical experiment shifted from traditional rock gigs to the dancefloor, 69 Dean Street became a factory farm that has fattened each passing cult en route to today’s richly flavoured mainstream.
This is an upstairs‑downstairs tale of two separate nightspots which share the same building and the same pioneering policy of fostering a different theme each night of the week. At Christmas the upstairs club, the Gargoyle, passed into history with the expiry of its lease, though the one‑nighters it hosted are all now resurfacing elsewhere. Downstairs a lavish sign in the street proclaims the proud history of the second club, deep in the basement cellars: “Gossip’s, formerly Billy’s”.
Here is the birthplace of the one-nighter through which the TransEurope Express once roared towards the Blitz and beyond. It was here that ritualised the weekly party. It is here that the nightclub has identified yet another role for itself in 1983 . . .
❚ THE STRIPPER RETRIEVES her scattered tassels to a smattering of applause from the idlers in Burton suits. Pinki Pirelli scurries naked from the fifth‑floor bar that was Soho’s idea of plush when it opened in the Fifties, into the ladies room to dress for her next appointment. She leaves by the notoriously rickety lift and in the street pushes past a youthful queue waiting to take the same lift skyward for a night billed as “thoroughly nasty”. Participants include the ubiquitous Siouxsie, music bizzybodies, a BBC producer who says he doesn’t mind being two years late on the scene (“that’s television”) and a dazzling kaleidoscope of current cults you could describe extremely inadequately as Dracula meets the Muppets.
It is 11pm and since this is Wednesday the rooftop Gargoyle club is undergoing its weekly transformation into the Batcave, the most unsubtle of London’s one‑night stands, fronted by a Jaggeresque youth in mascara and black lace and without doubt the runaway success of the year.
The rest of the week The Gargoyle becomes in turn a moviemakers’ showcase, a Sixties soul night, a gay club which welcomes straights, and the Comedy Store which back in 1979 threw up the Alexei Sayle school of “alternative” comics who seem now to have colonised half our TV.
A few paces along the pavement a second door leads down to the cellars of the same building and the sinewy and refreshingly unfamiliar rhythms of Afrobeat. A white youth in a sabbath hat is greeting the kind of mix‑it membership that’s becoming a regular feature of nightlife: a gracious black beauty just in from Nigeria, a Camden Town trendy, Sixties art dealer Kasmin (“Is that his first name or his last?” asks a junior clubber called Lloyd) and in separate company, Kasmin’s son Paul.
Since this is Wednesday this is the Gold Coast club but other nights in the Gossip’s week are devoted to straight jazz, rapping, rocking blues, jazz‑funk and roots rockers with Capital Radio DJ David Rodigan. By the time you read this any of these could have dropped out: in the world of one‑nighters, two weeks means make or break.
Since 1978 when Rusty Egan’s Bowie Night at Billy’s ritualised the private party which enjoyed full disco facilities, Gossip’s astutely wised to filling the slack nights in its week. In came Pink Monday, Pistols, The Clinic, Jive Dive, Vidzine and five different Tuesday tenants in the past year alone. The nature of the one‑nighter is its transience – that now legendary Bowie Night ran only three months. Certainly fast bucks have encouraged exploitation of passing fads but club‑owners have had to depend entirely on streetwise young frontmen to bring them each craze. Central to the Billy’s‑into‑Blitz axis of Egan as DJ, Strange as greeter, was the innovation that youth assumed the initiative. “These were the first clubs run for kids by kids without feeling we were being ripped off,” it was said at the time.
Perry Haines with his i‑D night was next off the grid with his “100mph dance music”. He succeeded at Gossip’s. Stevo and Jock McDonald tried and flopped. Gaz Mayall’s Rockin’ Blues is now in its third year and one reason why he’s enjoying London’s longest run is inevitably the universal appeal of the blues he plays. Another is Gaz’s membership list. It reads like a hip Who’s Who without regard for age.
“A promoter’s social register must be strong and if it’s not he won’t keep a following,” says Reid Anderson, co‑licensee of the Gargoyle upstairs. With a former pageboy to the Queen, the 24‑year‑old heir to a 13th Earl hosting Tuesdays (called Soul Furnace, he says, because “it’s hot”), this not surprisingly is the strongest night of their week.
Steve Strange and Perry Haines carefully constructed their own social registers but most aspiring promoters who walk in mean a gamble for the club. “Gossip’s has always had the bottle to take chances,” says Mick Collins, manager downstairs. “You need courage to let anyone who impresses you have a go. And you need courage to cut it if it fails on its first night. I’ve lost fortunes in the past advertising people’s second nights.” What happens of course is that some kid on an ego trip falls to realise that it’s his own job to promote the event.
With dwindling cash closing clubs two or three nights a week, last winter saw the West End stiff with handbills for Mod revivals, paisleyed psychedelia and mime‑faced futurism. Some club‑owners got stung. The Gargoyle scored a first for rapping but when the air got a little too heavy the Language Lab had to go. Gossip’s, in line with a solid black‑music reputation, gave reggae a home last winter, but now has to display signs requesting “Gentlemen: No Hats on Fridays and Saturdays” which is a euphemism to blacks like “No jeans” is to whites.
“That’s our only restriction,” Collins says, “and because of it the club feels safe. People can get away with a lot here and that matters. Some kids can only afford one night out and they’ll spend all that week’s dole here. There’s no longer the money to go out every night so we’ve learned to vary our clientele through the week.”
Upstairs, owner Don Ward has also made a stripclub which had outlived its purpose viable. “As long as people leave here with money in their pocket, they’ll come back next week. Yes I’m taking a little now off a lot of people. Each night’s promoter works hard too. And the profits go to him.”
❚ 69 DEAN STREET CAN TRACE its ancestry back to the dawn of clubmanship. It stands on the corner of what seems a quaint filmset, Soho’s oldest intact Georgian terrace, where lived Batty Langley, the carpenter-architect whose many pattern books became templates for the neo-classical features of the four-storey London town house.
Scarcely a proper street, more a passage linking Dean Street to Wardour, today a spraycan has dubbed the strip alongside Gossip’s “Rapping Yard”, while an old tablet set into the same wall dates it: “Meard Street 1732”, named after John Meard, the carpenter who built No 69 on the Pitt estate. The original Jethro Tull, wouldn’t you like to know, was writing his revolutionary theories about English farming then and in the building boom which followed the Great Fire of 1666, speculators spread mansions over Soho Fields. Artists quickly adopted the new suburb as London’s fashionable quarter, and the king, Charles II, purportedly visited his mistress “pretty, witty” Nell Gwynne in a house on the site of No 69.
During the 19th century the Novello music publishing family took over the lease and added two upper storeys between 1864 and 1875 to house a music printing-works. As recently as their 1930s incarnation, these two floors housed the radical Gargoyle club. This boasted a theatrical-artistic-political membership which included Noël Coward and Tallulah Bankhead for whom it daringly relaxed the evening dress requirement. Up to the Fifties, as the haunt of Francis Bacon’s Soho group, the club had hanging on its wall Matisse’s Red Studio, arguably his most important painting. When the Gargoyle’s founder, the Hon David Tennant, sold up during the second world war, the Red Studio was offered to the Tate for the price of £400 and declined as too expensive (this translates to a mere £6,000 in 1983 when Matisses go for millions!!!) so it was lost to North America amid scandal.
At the Gargoyle vestiges of lost splendour still shine, like an Art Deco staircase designed by Matisse in steel and brass that links the dancefloor with the rooftop theatre and bar. As the Nell Gwynne revue staging three lavish stripshows a night, this was where businessmen came to clinch their deals over dinner and a hostess and whatever – until the last Labour government said, sorry but hostesses are no longer tax deductible. The Astor closed, the Churchill [continued after the jump...]
The rooftop Gargoyle club at 69 Dean Street opened in 1925, boasting the French painter Henri Matisse not only as a member but as the inspiration for the Moorish interior of its ballroom – a steel and brass staircase was still in evidence when the Comedy Store took over the club in 1979. Michael Luke recalls other gems from the nightclub’s heyday when owned by the Hon David Tennant: “The large picture by Matisse that hung in the dining-room, lending an air of go-ahead culture to the club… was one of two paintings David Tennant had bought from Matisse in Paris… The Red Studio (1911), a large canvas roughly six foot by seven recognised as one of Matisse’s most original and daring inventions, and described by the painter as one of his ‘all or nothing works’, now hangs in MOMA in New York. The other (now part of the Phillips Collection in Washington), The Studio, Quai St Michel (1916), caught and held the eye as you descended the main staircase in the club with its sublimated voluptuousness. Lorette, Matisse’s favourite model of the period, lies naked on a couch with the spire of the Sainte Chapelle seen through the window across the Seine on the Ile de la Cité…
Described by the art critic David Sylvester as ‘two of the most important works of art of the 20th century’… Tennant had bought the two Matisses for what now seems to be the ludicrously small sum of £600 [... after spotting them] stacked in the Quai St Michel studio, amongst a mass of other canvases… [When the Gargoyle reopened in June 1941, both Matisses were gone. The Quai had been] acquired by Douglas Cooper for a derisory sum… He turned a quick profit by selling the painting to Kenneth Clark whence it went in due course to the Phillips Collection.” – Quoted from David Tennant and the Gargoyle Years, by Michael Luke (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991)
[continuation...] closed, but in May 1979 the Gargoyle did some speculating of its own. Don Ward, himself a one‑time comic, imported the American Comedy Store format: an evening of stand‑up comics plus an achingly trendy audience who gonged off the most hopeless performers. “I feel as welcome here as Hitler at a Barmitzvah,” said one joker last month to a Saturday crowd that’s still in its twenties but after three years rates only a Springsteen in trendiness.
The Comedy Store did prove to be a crucial staging post in weaning young comics off left‑wing benefits and on to the music circuits. Then last year along came the eminence grise who’d been trying to make Pythons out of the breakaway Comic Strip team, Simon Oakes, who in the words of a friend “knows absolutely everybody” and in those of a rival “has more fingers than there are pies to put them in”.
What he injected by putting music first with the Language Lab and (Lord) David Ogilvy’s Soul Furnace was a social mix you seldom find elsewhere. So though you really can hear some Henry say “They let you in for half price after 1am, like a half‑day ski pass”, once inside you nevertheless find underage Wembley mods Doing the Dog beside young Lady Cosima Fry. “This club has been a great leveller,” Oakes says, “because it’s based on people not style.”
Likewise at The Lift on Thursdays. “Straights have such misconceptions about gays: people still ask me if I play the male or female role,” says co‑host Steve Swindells, who encourages gays to bring straight friends of all sexes. The bait is the hardest music in town, not the usual wimpy American gay disco, but rebel funk, BLT, Man Parrish. The DJ has scrawled across the wall “Boogie leads to integration”.
If the top-floor Gargoyle has cast itself as an equal opportunities crusader, down in the cellars Gossip’s pads the musical waterfront with as much zeal. The Jamaican Vince Howard, who has owned Gossip’s since the days when gay clubs like Billy’s led musical taste, is a Soho legend himself, straight out of Shaft, huge hats, fistfuls of rings. His jeweller along Meard Street once showed me a mock‑up for a mountainous ring he was making: “18‑carat gold, 16 diamonds, it shone like a torch. I showed it to Vince and he said, I want more diamonds on it.”
One DJ said: “When Vince calls by even the manager stands to attention so it makes sense that I should too.” Gossip’s is the kind of place where nobody admits a surname until they know you. Yet everyone working there, staff and one‑nighters, uses the same fond word about the few square feet of stonechip floor and mirror: atmosphere. Collins says: “It’s not posh here. What we have though is heritage.”
It’s no accident that the nights which have survived the carnival of cults here say much about the dominant musical forces at work in 1983. Amazingly for a jazz‑funk night, Steve Walsh on Fridays pulls an almost exclusively black crowd: “Very upfront, advanced in their tastes – it doesn’t appeal to the white party‑crowd.” Equally unusually for an essentially reggae Saturday night, Rodigan and his ace toaster Papa Face pull a healthy mix of black and white. “It is rare,” he admits. “We emphasise the rootsy, sweeter end of reggae, Rudi Thomas, Carroll Thompson, and that attracts a lot of women.” With the lights out, the dancefloor throbs like a Ladbroke Grove blues. “Everyone dances to reggae: you have to get closer,” says Dave Gordon, aged 18.
Gossips stands alone in championing reggae in the West End and it is perhaps significant that it occupies the week’s prime spot, Saturday. Both of the other hit nights at Gossip’s fall happily into playschool roles. Ghanaian Jo Hagan likes playing the educator and says the highlife at the Gold Coast is a lot less aggressive than people expect, but admits “it can be intimidating not to hear an English word sung all night”. His partner Christian Cotterill who owns half the records says: “The press made African music flavour of the month but in fact it’s all so danceable. When Gaspar Lawal played here, Gossips had its most profitable night for a year.”
If you want to see a genuine Stetson, check Thursdays and you’ll find 24‑year‑old Gaz beneath one. When he began playing blues masters B.B. King and John Lee Hooker back in 1980, Gaz said: “People didn’t know how to dance to this stuff but they’ve been practising.” For nearly three years Gaz, himself a vinyl junkie, has devotedly been handing down history – by numbers.
❚ THE IMPACT OF NIGHTLIFE ON THE STYLE of the past five years is not to be underestimated. However much Futurist‑Romantic labels make the skin crawl, their legacy is evident in the vitality of today’s streets and charts, obvious though the ingredients may have been in Britain’s late-Seventies post‑punk vacuum: SF movies, a Dada retrospective, headline‑making performance art, a revival of intimate cabaret.
Yet the positive accelerators of change were a handful of nightclubs. During research for this article, photographer Derek Ridgers coined the perfect quote: he recalled that Tuesdays at Billy’s were “like walking into a Hieronymus Bosch painting: furtive but lively and with a dedication that’s never been equalled since”.
Those formative Bowie Nights and Electro Diskows were parties with a vengeance, glorifying the individual, wresting power and profits from the elders. In particular, the imaginative deejay became lionised for engineering new sounds, resplicing Kraftwerk, say, and eliminating the mid‑range in playback.
As those events of ’78 were a reaction to the sterility of Saturday Night Fever and Boney M, to dancehalls turning into discos, so the circle has turned again. What Giorgio Moroder said then is as true today of the Palaces and Haciendas: “Most disco‑goers are not dancers.” Nor are they convincing posers. Conceits which were once daring, the megadisco has now sanctioned. The mainstream giants have sanitised the cults, standardised the music and dwarfed the individual with pyrotechnics.
But what Billy’s developed, the factory farm at 69 Dean Street went on refining. The small‑scale nightclub has emerged as the customised club‑night. It reasserts the supremacy of bedrock music and consequently attracts a strong social mix. And because allegiance owes less to age‑group or to dress, it activates more socially rewarding reflexes.
What the one‑night clubgoer has discarded is the disposable identity in favour of a confident expression of taste. The Pose Age appears to be buried. Here at last is the party which requires you to come as yourself.
Text © Shapersofthe80s.com
THE CLUBBING WEEK AT 69 DEAN STREET
UPSTAIRS: THE GARGOYLE CLUB
MONDAYS The Reel World (since Aug 82) Little‑screened movies, hosted by Spencer Style, lately superseded by Adam Baker’s Music Box.
TUESDAYS Soul Furnace (Mar 82) Hosted by David Ogilvy. Stax, Tamla in three‑minute strips. “I’ve lots of rare copies of Ray Charles which seem to go missing from here.”
WEDNESDAYS The Batcave (Jul 82) Hosted by Oliver Wisdom and pet rat Basil. Sexist mud‑wrestling, UK Decay live, Sweet on disc. “We don’t suck our cheeks, we have fun.”
THURSDAYS The Lift (June 82) Hosted by Tim Clark, Steve Swindells and DJ John Richards. Mixed gay club “where no one gives anyone a hard time”.
FRIDAYS Striptease 6‑11pm Mon‑Fri (early 1970s); from 11pm Comedy Store (May 79) Stand‑up comics being gonged off by students and couples.
SATURDAYS Comedy Store (May 79) Appealing to predominantly stag audiences from waist level. Sample: “Cadbury’s chocolate is the sweet you can eat between work, rest and foreplay.”
DOWNSTAIRS: GOSSIP’S (FORMERLY BILLY’S)
MONDAYS Rebel Rockers (Aug 82) Lately superseded by Just Jazz with Jeff. “Live bands like it used to be.”
TUESDAYS Sir Jules’ Sound Table (Aug 82) “Rappin’s the fashion, man.” Superseded by Some Chicken: a different party each week.
WEDNESDAYS The Gold Coast (May 82) Hosted by Christian Cotterill and Jo Hagan. Highlife Eric Ageyman, Afrobeat Fela Kuti, Juju Sunny Ade, “all so danceable”.
THURSDAYS Gaz’s Rockin Blues (July 80) Hosted by Gaz Mayall. “John Lee Hooker through Little Richard with roots reggae from the beginning of West Indian music.”
FRIDAYS Radio Invicta Night (Feb 81) Hosted by Steve Walsh. “Newest jazz‑funk for the hippest crowd in London; more mature than some.”
SATURDAYS Roots Rockers (Jan 82) Hosted by David Rodigan, Papa Face, Tim Westwood. “70% lovers rock and heavy dub, 30% soul to lighten it.”
❚ ORIGINAL FOOTNOTE The Gargoyle closed December ’82 but that has not prevented its successes from striding on into 1983. At time of writing the Comedy Store was reopening mid-January in Lansdowne Row, Mayfair. The Lift has already resurfaced on Thursdays at 28 Leicester Square and the Batcave follows on Wednesdays in February.
❚ IN 2007 the whole building was acquired for redevelopment and in 2009 a boutique hotel, Dean Street Townhouse run by the Soho House Group, opened its doors.
❚ THREE decades later Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues is still going strong as London’s longest running club-night, these days at St Moritz in Wardour Street every Thursday.
➢ VIEW ♫ video for Culture Club’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me – spot the club scene filmed at the Gargoyle with assorted Blitz Kids in the audience, August 1982:
WHat BECAME OF THE FACE COVER STARS?
❏ Terrie Ford writes: I was the girl with the red lipstick on the front cover walking across the dance floor. The Batcave was a brilliant place, I went to all of them in the early years.