You still dancin’? You still askin’?
For most of this week, Una Mullally’s piece in Saturday’s paper on the current health of Dublin clubland, written on the back of last week’s news about the changing-of-the-guard at the POD complex, has featured in the most-read column in …
For most of this week, Una Mullally’s piece in Saturday’s paper on the current health of Dublin clubland, written on the back of last week’s news about the changing-of-the-guard at the POD complex, has featured in the most-read column in The Irish Times. It’s also attracted tons of comment and response, both of the considered, thoughtful kind (see Ian Maleney’s fine piece for more on this) and the usual online ad feminam attacks on the author because they disagree with her point of view (a thread which then turned into something about the difficulties of changing a baby’s nappy in the middle of a packed dancefloor or maybe I was imagining that). Plus ca change and all of that, to keep it foreign.
There’s nothing factually wrong with Una’s piece, just as there’s nothing factually wrong with Ian’s reply. The former is pointing out that the closure of the POD complex and the imminent arrival of a Copperface Jacks’-type club on the space helmed by the people at the nearby Flannery’s pub is a sign of the times in Dublin clubland, that the city’s clubosphere is full of places offering cheapo drinks’ deals and cheesy pop music to get folks in the door because that’s what works. The latter is pointing out that, actually, there still is an undergound element to the city’s clubland despite the lowest common denominator approach of the super-clubs. There always was an underground, there always will be an underground. Yes, Watson, it looks like another case of the farmer and the cowman.
But they should be friends because the truth is that Dublin clubland has always been like this and the data exists to back this up. I’ve been compiling Dublin and Irish club listings for various publications (first, the Event Guide, i-D and dSide; later, The Ticket) since 1992 and it’s fascinating to look back and see what has changed – and what has not. The one mainstay during all this time? The Leeson Street dives, believe it or not, who are still operating in boozy, bolshie independence after all these years.
Over the last two decades, we’ve seen clubs and scenes come and go with great frequency. Leaving aside an earlier underground based around the legendary Sides and clubs at the Hirschfeld Centre (see Paul Tarpey’s amazing post from the OTR archives on this), we’ve seen music-first club nights and venues since the early 1990s like (deep breath) the Temple of Sound, UFO, Columbia Mills, the Gardening Club, JuJu Club, DropOut, Powderbubble, Gag (maybe not music-first in that case), Influx, the Tivoli, the Asylum, Blue, Club So, the Furnace (thanks Fin in the comments for jogging my memory), the Funnel (likewise h/t to OC) the Ormond Multimedia Centre, Strictly Fish, HAM, Monkey Tennis, Horny Organ Tribe, Mars Needs Women, Firehouse Skank, Louder, the System, Wax, Refuge, Quadraphonic, Stereophonic, Fresh Mode and dozens, nah, hundreds of more during this time (this list is far from exhaustive or even comprehensive – I’m leaving out tons of clubs from more recent years like POGO, Big Dish Go, Fatty Fatty and Electric City, for example, to concentrate on the history lesson). And that’s just the capital – we could go on and on if we headed out of here and took in everything from SugarSweet up north to Jazz Juice out west to Sweat down south to that place in Wexford whose name escapes me which was a big techno mainstay for a couple of years.
And yet at the same time as all of this was going on, you always had an equal number of joints which didn’t care what the DJ was playing as long as it was in the charts and people were filling their boots at the bar. For example, as long as I’ve been compiling club listings, Fitzsimons has stood tall on a corner of Temple Bar offering just that kind of fare. I remember the nice man from the club dropping into the Event Guide every so often during the 1990s when I worked there to talk to advertising super-woman Joan Kerins, but I don’t think I ever listed anything from there because the listing were always supposed to be music-led. He didn’t need the listings because he had all the traffic he could handle.
There’s a cycle to everything so it’s no surprise that we’re currently seeing many bemoaning how much mainstream clubbing has taken over, while others will shout that we’ve never had it so good if you go looking for it. Remember that when the POD opened in 1993 that the city didn’t have that many venues for music-first club nights. Such was the lack of venues at the time that I was involved in a number of clubs which used to operate in the foyer of what’s now the Irish Film Institute and others put on clubs in restaurants around town. But 12 months after the POD opened, you had the Kitchen and Ri-Ra opening for business and there was a strong media focus on the new breed of clubbing which led to more people checking out these places.
Everyone points to the Twisted Pepper on Middle Abbey Street as a sign of just how vibrant things are right now and certainly the venue, going on what I’ve seen, is rammed from Thursday to Saturday nights. But that’s just one venue in a city of 1.5 million people. If one thing has changed in the last few years, it’s that the number of venues open to having music-first clubs on the premises has dropped. Independent promoters used to have a rake of venues open to persuasion in the past, but the number of club-friendly venues in the city-centre is currently smaller than it has ever been. You can probably now take the Button Factory out of the equation for independent promoters too, seeing that POD Dance have established a base there on Fridays and Banquet are in situ on Saturdays.
But yet it’s at times like these that innovation comes to the fore. One of the truly brilliant Dublin answers to a Dublin problem came roughly a decade ago with the whole club-in-a-pub buzz. Down-at-heel gaffs like the Thomas House became home to a slew of vibrant, smart, fun nights out (like the aforementioned Monkey Tennis) and suddenly, you had a new gang of promoters with a dedicated following who could move onto established venues and give them a sprinkling of fairydust. Perhaps, given the problems the pub trade are having at the moment (see the series of articles like this one which have been running in the paper all week about problems in the pub trade), there is scope here to manipulate things.
Then again, you have to wonder if there are enough people around to give this a shot of working. Clubs need promoters to bring in the crowd and this recession has seen people who should be taking chances and having the crack with their own nights here head to Berlin or London or somewhere else on the emigration trail instead. At the same time, though, their potential audience is also leaving, adding to the problem.
Clubs need new, younger promoters because they’re the ones who will bring in new ideas and new faces and ensure they stick around. Established club promoters have always had a hard time moving over to let new blood have its turn in Dublin. What used to happen was the older promoters went on to own or operate a venue themselves and provide the space for the newer promoters to have a go. This is something which rarely happens now because, despite the opportunities you might think the recession provides, a combination of rents, overheads and prohibitive licensing regulations make this an onerous task.
But as both Una and Ian agree, there’s always been bright sparks and silver linings when it comes to Dublin clubland. Even with the natural imbalance in the numbers between the mainstream and underground clubs, there’s always been room and demand for the latter. Everything comes in cycles. Expect us to be marking a new rake of underground clubs and nights out which sprung from seemingly nowhere within the next two years.