❚ NOT ONLY IS ADAM ANT TOPPING THE BILL on Saturday but half-price tickets were still available today to followers of Chris Sullivan, joint host for 19 years of Soho’s legendary Wag club which he founded in 1982. This bank-holiday weekend Aug 26–28 he plays deejay and music programmer at the three-day West Dean Festival near Chichester in rural West Sussex. The knees-up 90 minutes from London will be a “nice alternative” to the annual Notting Hill Carnival, he says. In fact, “a Wag rerun… for parents”!
As undoubtedly the most influential club host of the 80s, as well as vocalist in the crazy Latin band Blue Rondo à la Turk, Sullivan commands one of the fattest contacts books in clubland. So while this weekend’s festival across two stages and late-night café bar aims to celebrate all aspects of the arts, it’s no surprise that the day-long live music is designed to attract the aficionado. Friday headliners are Natty Bo and The Top Cats, plus The Third Degree … Saturday boasts the reborn Adam Ant and his band The Good The Mad & The Lovely Posse, plus Polecats, Dulwich Ukulele Club, and 80s warehouse deejay Phil Dirtbox … Soul singer James Hunter headlines on Sunday.
When I reminded 51-year-old Sullivan that the locals are billing it as “A magical escape for all the family” he was keen to promise this would not put a damper on the fun. “Kids go to bed at 9-10ish and when there’s a few of them they look after each other with the supervision of one adult maybe. Meanwhile we let rip in the knowledge that they are near and we save money on babysitters and have a right old beano.”
That’s the Wag spirit! In fact, beano was the very word he used in 1983 when my report in The Face rounded up the four hottest nightposts in the swinging New London Weekend. The Wag had been open less than a year and his pitch was: “We’d like people to come in with a sense of beano and to leave with hangovers and blisters on the feet.”
Despite his origins in the Welsh Valleys and being built like a rugby player – “I’m six foot two and sixteen stone” — Sullivan’s unswerving sense of personal style got him into two London art schools while his exuberant warehouse parties during 1978-9 established him as a pivotal tastemaker in the post-punk vacuum. It goes without saying that his two passions were music and clothes. And that his wit was as quick as silver.
By 1980 he was the highly articulate pathfinder for the non-gay men’s team putting the Blitz Kids in the headlines. The ultimate soundbite “One look lasts a day” was Sullivan’s. Here was a New Romantic dandy whose ever-changing attire referenced every movie matinee idol from zoot-suited gangster to straw-hatted playboy to Basque bereted separatist. Here was an MC who along with his deejay contemporaries displaced electronics in favour of funk — drawn initially from his own collection of 7-inch singles — at a string of creative weekly club-nights, St Moritz, Hell, Le Kilt and then the Wag in the huge premises that had been known as the Whisky-A-Go-Go since the Swinging 60s.
During three helter-skelter years British music trended from punk, Bowie, electro-pop and mutant disco back to James Brown and funk. “Things moved so fast then, that the 80s heralded a completely new era,” Sullivan said. The claim he will not make is about his own enormous circle of influence. Back in the dark age before mobile phones the defining measure of his social clout came from Steve Dagger, manager of Spandau Ballet. He gave me the priceless paradigm: “You could put Sullivan outside a public lavatory, announce a party and within two hours you’d have a queue of 500 people paying £3 to get in.”
Few other individuals on the London scene of the early 80s had a greater impact than Chris Sullivan on shaping the intimate relationship between sound and style in the private worlds of the new young.
Under his partnership with Ollie O’Donnell, who himself had already made a clubland institution of Le Beat Route, the Wag eventually ran seven nights a week to become Soho’s coolest hangout for artful posers and musical movers and shakers. In Sullivan’s own words, the place “basically predicted the future of music for the next 15 years” which gratifies him no end.
The club’s unique appeal was a reflection of his sub-cultural instincts, which were refined as a teenage graduate of the Northern Soul scene during the 70s. The Wag also proved a mighty kick in the teeth for the smug ruling elite in the rock press — those “white middle-class punks who couldn’t dance and hated black music” and whose vitriolic attacks on Blue Rondo undermined industry faith in his stylish seven-piece band and their jazzy Latinised funk.
Blue Rondo à la Turk was a dream project inspired after Sullivan made “one of those mad trips” to the black clubs of New York in 1980: “I wanted to start a band that would play the music I could dance to — a mix of Tom Waits meets Tito Puente meets James Brown, and all a bit off-kilter.”
Rondo were a bizarre multi-racial troupe of live musicians who also boasted wild dancing feet and tapped into like-minded audiences who’d misspent their youth on Britain’s underground soul circuit, a mighty fanbase either unknown to or utterly scorned by the rock press. His band were born entertainers and their first album, Chewing the Fat, was easily the most inventive of 1982. Not long ago Sullivan vented his spleen to me: “Those middle-class twits in the music press hated us because we had the effrontery to play dance music and we weren’t black, but also because we dressed up onstage — which basically became the remit for the next two decades. The press were all-powerful in those days and some took it upon themselves to make us their whipping boys.”
Well, the magnificent seven in Blue Rondo were precursors of the wags Sullivan named a nightclub for: “The wag from the 20s was a bit of a cad, wore monocle and spats, was a mean dancer and very much the ladies’ man.” Musically, his Soho nightspot was the most progressive venue of the 80s. Nowhere else came close. “I knew from day one we were selling a Saturday night nobody else was doing — a really hip club which played all manner of black dance music.” Only last month before deejaying at the Southbank’s Vintage festival, Sullivan wrote: “The Wag is important because it opened funk and black music to a huge, new crowd of people which still prevails. We were one of the first to do it and it’s still going on.”
➢ Mention Sullivan’s name at the gate for 50% discount on the West Dean Festival tickets or mail chris [@] sullivan60.co.uk