Guest post – Notes on an Irish disco landscape
Paul Tarpey is a Limerick-based DJ and writer from the Cheebah crew who has begun to sketch out a history of the Irish dance scene and clubland. Here’s what Paul has to say about this project. “Booking DJs for Cheebah …
Paul Tarpey is a Limerick-based DJ and writer from the Cheebah crew who has begun to sketch out a history of the Irish dance scene and clubland. Here’s what Paul has to say about this project.
“Booking DJs for Cheebah nights in Limerick, I tended to seek out those who DJ-ed around the original spirit of hip-hop that existed in this country since the early 1980s because this breed were morally obliged within themselves to mix all types of beats with active respect to a black history mediated through an Irish experience. As I talked to them about trends coming and going, and particularly the digitalism that is accelerating the scene, the most interesting stories were those where people got the fever before the DJ was taken for granted and gigs happened out of pure enthusiasm.
I realised that the period before 1993 was overshadowed by the rockist history of the Irish music scene and that these early days merit some sort of record before memories fade and we forget about that scene’s pioneering activities.
This piece is my introduction to the idea of collecting information for what is hopefully is a definitive story. I intend to seek out more of the participants as the story is not strictly Dublin based. If anyone would like to take part, I can be contacted at email@example.com”
Assemble any metropolitan club history from the Paradise Garage in New York to The Hacienda in Manchester and the same details are arrived at: innovative DJs within a specialised environment create their own rules to soundtrack a communal experience while being spurred on by a dedicated crowd. These classic night spots build slowly and peak after a few influential years leaving behind them reputations and energy flashed memories.
The Irish files to be dusted off from this period contain a sections marked “Flikkers” and “Sides”. In remembering the history of these Dublin dance clubs, we consider the roots of an Irish dance movement that is as important in its own place as those overseas mythical dance palaces with their own associated cultural legacies.
It’s a long way from the back seat of an Austin Morris in Mullingar in the 1960s. That seat was dismantled and taken each week into the local ballroom where it was found to have the perfect shock absorbers to balance the two record decks on the stage on which a bequiffed DJ warmed up the showband-expectant crowds with the best rock’n'roll singles he could find in Ireland at the time. The promoters of these romance-drenched ballrooms thought an extra spark could be created between the jiving couples by some buck spinning a few auld records. The yellowed photo of this forgotten pioneer now historically hangs in a Mullingar bar.
As the dancehalls faded beyond and inside the Pale, formica and leatherette lounge bars opened. With flashing tubed lights and a band sound system, Top 40 chart-spinning DJs glamourised the adolescent ritual, previously accommodated in these predominantly rural halls. The dancehalls still occasionally hosted bands, like touring art rockers Horslips, who rightly shook things up as a tenacious link to a sweaty past of another type of youth. Incidentally a decade later Horslips drummer Eamon Carr could be found occasionally filling in for Dave Fanning, gleefully spinning Public Enemy and acid house to the nation, writing cutting-edge music stuff for the Herald and club DJ-ing in the mid 90s. Beat-driven music that didn’t chart was rare on the radio in the late 70s/early 80s and Irish kids, particularly country kids, looked to jukeboxes and poolrooms for any type of music.
Mail-ordered music and fashions from the back of English music magazines were another avenue for that adolescent definition thing. As a country boy, The Irish Times’s John Waters describes this stamp-licked practice in his 1991 book “Jiving at the Crossroads”. Once decked out in the fly gear culled from the NME, these uniforms acted as a barrier between the followers of the likes of Big Tom and the scooped t-shirt-and-platform-shoed Springsteen listening townies who advocated a modernism through rebel music from abroad (albeit of a rockist bent). The concept of dance music being an outpost for a rebellious “other” identity was perhaps a little futurist in Roscommon in the late 1970s.
The post Saturday Night Fever of alternative music found occasional breathing spaces in the youth club discos where, for example, Bowie’s music continued to find glamorous favor. There was, and is, a sense of containment about this sketch and to this day, a trace of a music conservatism prevails separating town and country halls. Looking at the Bowie-influenced portrait on Limerickman Barry Warner’s 1987 Irish electropop single “Just A Floor” is a reminder that the androgynous look had always the power to wind up Catholic Ireland. Incidentally, Warner, who is still DJ-ing, was probably the first Irish artist to produce and release synth and drum machine music influenced solely from Italo and Detroit sources in Ireland (The b-side of the above single is “Jack the Floor”, an over-sincere homage to Steve “Silk” Hurley’s house classic “Jack Your Body”)
To the capital then. In the late 1970s and early Eighties, the interior English trend of venues decked out in marble and mirrors floated across the Irish sea. On Dublin’s Leeson Street, the idea of a cocktail-fueled nightclub experience became the hot social option, as the quietly closing city ballrooms that hosted the jiving rituals of the Sixties were seen as outdated meeting spots. The image of the nightclub as an otherworldly Xanadu was a frequent scene in the flash urban narratives seen in the new trend of the mainly American videos that were rented countrywide. As the recession settled, the communal ritual of the ballroom appeared passé, almost pre-electric. The need to socialise, with the day to day put firmly to bed and forgotten about, circled the city’s subconscious.
Zhivago’s in Baggot Street glittered as did the Afrospot in Fleet Street and Lord John’s of Sackville Place. These snazzy cabaret joints soundtracked modern mating rituals with a slick pop radio selection delivered by a chatty waistcoated music host on the mic. Often an unwieldy black telephone stood in for headphones and the disc-cueing DJ appeared to whisper sweet nothings to the dancefloor from a spangled pulpit. He was a grinning prop, a servant a notch below the bow tied barmen and the Farrah Fawcetted waitresses in the general scheme of the place.
The guys who went here were now released from the archaic dance rituals of the jive and standing against the wall in lines for courting. Instead they circled the bar and splashed out on exotic drinks for ladies at their leisure. Before people seemed to stumble awkwardly through a process now modernism had finally arrived, People now… mingled.
In this, men mimicked perhaps the suave behavior of J.R Ewing, Larry Hagman’s glamorous portrayal of the cowboy as cute hoor. The man, in theory, of the land, yet who was at ease in cosmopolitan Dallas nightspots, J.R was a potent role model for an up-from-the-country Irishman’s tentative steps onto a city dancefloor.
Confidence in shaky times. City folk themselves liked the bit where J.R. (vote Fianna Fail) wound down, whiskey in hand in some fancy joint, usually after throwing rival Cliff Barnes (Vote Fine Gael) out of his gleaming corporate office. The décor and rhythms of the new cabaret spots channeled the potency of shows such as Dallas and Dynasty which held huge ratings in a late Eighties Ireland still scratching their post “De Valera —Europe?” heads.
Aspirational characters of the like of our own squire Haughey also gave the impression of operating in this teleplay, cut glass tumbler in hand, holding court after a day of reassuring the country of his determination to banish the grey economic mists that blanketed everything beyond the Pale. A photo from those times, later published in The Sunday Times and surfacing after Haughey’s death, shows a poolside scene. He is relaxing with mistress Terry Keane in Hinde postcard colour. Confident and smiling, the couple’s holiday snap is taken at a surely unintentional, nearly exact replica of the Southfork ranch pool.
Top of the piled carpet of the then glamorous hierarchy in the capital was the Pink Elephant, off Nassau Street. This was the Shamrock Studio 54 of its day, an essential place to be seen in should you swing in media and entertainment circles. Dance music as played there was derived from the popular radio sources of the time and operated, dancefloor and all, close to background noise.
The environment in these churches reflected a congregation who in parts, as Waters commented in his book “regarded themselves as the social and intellectual elite of modern Ireland, but who ideally would have like to have been born somewhere else. Over the following years under the direction of Paul Webb and other DJs, the Pink absorbed contemporary dance sounds and became known as a dance club rather than a Sunday World social page, after the underground scene became too prominent to ignore.
In the general populace, emigration was cutting deep and for those left at home the act of socialising with a few bob was a serious business. £3 for a bottle of Ritz definitely focused the courtship ritual in these chrome and mirrored joints. Music was often seen as secondary to the swishness of the venue and in that paradigm too, it was very English.
In a concession to the rest of Ireland and its crumbling dancehall rituals, the all important last slow set took place even in Dublin 4’s gilded palaces. Couples shuffling to the strains of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” was a ritual as weary and sacrosanct as the national anthem as last song of the night. The crossfaded tone that hung between the national anthem’s beginning and the ringing end chord of Clapton surely is the ultimate Palovian bell for a generation now in their forties, its responsible toll ringing as the lights come on, stripping the artifice from Xanadu for another night.
Downtown in the then dilapidated city centre area of Temple Bar, things represented a decidedly different social turn. Surrounded by greasy bus lanes signaling the area’s once intended demolition for a massive transport station, it was a place not to be seen in once the sun went down. In its current prosperous incarnation, Temple Bar offers little evidence of the role it played in the creation of contemporary Irish dance culture, when Eighties property developers had turned the city into a pockmarked pile and the depressed city centre was a lost Vegas run down with burger joints and arcades.
Creative advantages presented themselves as cheap rents and allowed artistic types to establish studios, galleries and party spaces downtown. Standing proud in this bohemian landscape was the Hirschfeld Centre, a property that was at the time one of the established official gay and lesbian bases operating day to day in a urban centre worldwide.
Situated at 10 Fownes Street, the Hirschfeld Centre was a hang out by day and a dance venue by night that promoted a positive gay agenda. More importantly at the time, it was a place to socalise for those of an alternative sensibility, marooned in the country in those strait-laced grey times.
The centre, which housed a café and cinema, was funded in part from income from the in-house nightclub Flickers and it’s here that the dynamic history of Irish club life begins.
Tonie Walsh, activist and Flikkers DJ at the time, remembers the Hirchsfield as a place of resistance against a culture where the anti-gay legislation of the day paraded itself down O’Connell Street with Legion of Mary marches.
“The centre was a contract with a community”, he says, echoing the organisation of New York gay clubs that took place after the Stonewall riots.
Post Stonewall, gay club music reconfigured certain music and the way this music was played (empowered female soul anthems for example). This affirmed within gay groups a collective identity that refused to be ghettoised. In the light of this agenda, selected music when presented as such in the context of an exclusive party intentionally represented a statement of defiance.
The parading sons and daughters of old Ireland would be appalled at Walsh’s description of his night The Cage as a celebration of sleazy music. As the son of a freelance showband sax player, the notion of music defined as style was in Walsh’s blood. The performance with a soundtrack was theatre. The notion of music as background noise could be applied here only if you can imagine it now as an audio code for sex! And here, that needed to be LOUD.
“I Need Somebody To Love Tonight” by Sylvester was spun. “Nightclubbing” by Grace Jones and the low-slung funk of the Bar-kays and Millie Jackson came to define the off-centered confidence of the night. musical heroes such as the group Odyssey (whose anthemic song was ‘Our Lives Are Made For What We Are”) preformed for these pioneering promoters. Sylvester, the penultimate gay performer, was eventually booked to play, but he was taken by what was known then as “the gay plague” as the comprehension of AIDS was still alien in Ireland. The community downtown were aware more than most. An early term for AIDS in the worldwide gay dance community at the time was “the Saint’s disease”, so called after the decimation of the gay clientele from one of New York’s dance palaces in the first wave of the epidemic.
For a while, these were the good times. Walsh says the space was almost virtual in a 20th century way. “These parallel realities were an attempt to redress the imbalance felt by those involved in wider society”, says Walsh who is adept at discussing the history in both polemical and nostalgic fashion as he assembles those memories for a book he is currently writing.
In the London of 1983, the parallel Irish actions by Walsh and his crew were described as “parties with a vengeance” by David Johnson in The Face. In his article, he mentions the rebel dance parties that were “glorifying the individual and wrestling power back from the elders”. Johnson was referring to the comodification of the disco after Travolta sublimated the dance for the tribal “release from the bondage of weekday work” spectacle.
As the mega-disco arrived in London, the hybrid styles of a reactionary underground scene abroad inevitably made its way back to Dublin via those who worked there for the summer. In the Eighties, it was almost mandatory to get the boat for a few months work. Once there, you had access to new sounds. A bootleg tape from Camden Market or a set from a pirate station playing on one of those Sony Walkmans on the way back got Paddy hip for Holy head as well.
Saturday nights down the steep stairs to the basement was the major night for the queens left in the country and the first all-night disco was held in the centre in 1981. Fashion and dress reflected a combination of street and glamour drawn in part from the secondhand shops that surrounded the centre, again emphasising dole-fueled creative options. The non-alcohol restrictions of the centre’s license meant an inevitable sprinkling of acid, speed and qualaluded rebel footwork. The association of ecstasy with clubbing had yet to provoke the tabloids and, while the gay scene had access to the odd pill courtesy of adventurous visitors from abroad, the prohibitive cost at that time was £25 a pop.
For those out and proud, the centre was the start of the anarchy of the now institutionalised Alternative Miss Ireland contest. Superstars like Panti emerged who were Celtic cousins to Warhol’s glamorous stable of Hollywood Seventies wannabes. As the parties became established, Temple Bar sparkled as the place in Ireland to be out.
Stories about No 4, a mid-Eighties gay shebeen at 4 Mc Curtain St Cork which pursued the same agenda, could be slotted in here, but its non-licensed state means the historical title for influential Irish club status must go to the pioneering Hirschfeld Centre.
Politics and passions combined in a combination of post-punk and disco grooves. A gay agenda ran the show accommodating gays and progressive straights who gravitated to the dimly-lit area around the Central Bank as word about the crazy music and unrestrained extroverts cavorting in a New York style got around.
The frission of the wrong side of town raising its party flag drew the committed. Evidence from these specific nights are documented by flyers and print paraphernalia held by the National Library courtesy of the National Queer archive. The night Senator David Norris got elected was, by all accounts, some party, his election an affirmation that this show was going to run and run.
The rare sounds for the parties were initially mixed with the indie hits of the day (referencing the above English template) by DJs like John Cronin, creating a tribal environment for those that transgressed neat punk/goth/new romantic labeling. Manchester’s Hacienda, for all its house music glory, initially used to finish off its equivalent nights with goths and Bowie fans doing the conga to the Thunderbird’s theme. The music spectrum had to have the edgy stuff from the B52s side of the charts to emerging electronic rhythm manifestos from Europe and the States. A commitment to forging a sound was now made by the Hirschfeld DJs who set aside cash to fund a record pool. People came to hear the new and the new had to be found.
Paul Webb, who currently DJs at Limerick’s Trinity Rooms, was then working the decks at the Pink Elephant and is emphatic about the impact of the downtown set up. “DJs who guested at the club knew they could push the boundaries and play off beat music as the crowd and promoters supported the new and the innovative”, he says. “People came for obscure sounds. I’d clear the floor uptown if I chanced a heavy Trouble Funk track. But at Flikkers, there was never a problem as the crew running the night trusted the DJ”.
As hip travellers returned from abroad, they brought with them various records they thought would suit the scenes agenda. Tracks such as “Love Reaction” by Divine, with its “Blue Monday” stylings, was sufficiently edgy and cutting to appeal to both indie and gay camps. Divine was the larger-than-life transvestite star of the John Waters flick Pink Flamingos and her husky singing generated a type of freaky funk for all types for outsiders to enjoy.
One song which had a huge impact was Donna Summer’s electro tranced “I Feel Love”. This robotic soul masterpiece was immediately set upon and dismantled by European producers. Its throbbing template became the definitive gay club sound that was explicitly referenced in tracks like Patrick Cowley’s “Menenergy” in 1981. Those relentless electronic beats needed to be spun out over a couple of hours for effect, something incomprehensible to the casual pop and rock punter who frequented uptown. New musical journeys downtown dispensed with any trace of the slow set, jive or party performance conventions that were in place uptown to orientate the unfamiliar visitor to the experience provided by the venue.
In Temple Bar, the absence of these (nominally straight) conventions can be seen as a pledge of definition by the nascent dance community to themselves. It was a way of saying “these are our rhythms and we own them”. If slow sets appeared on the crazy party nights where show tunes or familiar songs were aired, these sets were slow and low and once again out of reach to those out of the loop.
Traditional folk and Anglo-Irish Dubs reassured themselves that this musical aberration was just a bent soundtrack. Big Tom’s Ireland may have found rock music just about derisible, but that quare stuff was much more acceptable to the queer stuff pumping from Temple Bar.
Check the record shops such as All City and Big Brother that now occupy Temple Bar and you will find remixed versions of this once derided “faggot music” currently enjoying a renaissance nearly three decades years after pumping from the Hirschfeld’s basement. Flashbacks like The Biddu Orchestra’s “Voodoo Man” – an electro classic from 1979, for example – was gloriously resurrected last year.
Tonie Walsh doesn’t register Irish pop radio impacting on the club’s music policy but emphatically points to the influence of MT-USA. Vincent Hanley hosted this pioneering independent Irish TV show which played dance-tinged glossy American pop videos each Sunday afternoon, long before MTV fashioned its own culture. To this day, MT-USA is fondly remembered as a welcome distraction by those who were imprisoned by Inter and Leaving Cert studies at that time.
Pirate dance radio ships had yet to sail in Dublin leaving the DJs the job of constructing the hot playlists themselves. However, the desired import records needed to fuel this mission commanded high prices. Webb points out that if you could manage to part with the cash for dance floor classics likes the 12’’ mix of Roy Ayer’s “Running Away” (€50 in today’s money), you took solace in the fact that there were less than 10 copies in the country. The thought of discerning punters clamoring to request it in the coming weeks was often the reason for hard0earned cash being handed over.
In sourcing grooves, Webb points to the influence of British DJ James Hamilton. His weekly charts in Record Mirror magazine, combined with his yearly dance mix on BBC Radio 1, counted as essential research. Kilkenny’s DJ Cool C from Dublin’s All City crew also remembers these charts, diligently cutting them out because they contained the BPMs of various hot tracks thus allowing a virtual mix in the eager DJ’s head as if he had heard them himself. This charming labour-intensive behavior certainly merits the well-worn “pre-internet” comment.
Commercial nightclub DJs were not well-paid individuals as they were seen as the cheaper alternative to a band by venue owners full stop. The concept of DJs as performance artists in their own right was laughable, except for the guys from the radio RTE sometimes sent on the showband trail. These roadshows were often based on the spectacle of a showband itself, with the likes of Gerry Ryan being the radio star who descends on a country town for a night to give a taste of the big city and hinting at the showbiz paradise it is. This profiling added to the obscurity of the Temple Bar DJ’s mission. Denied the status of a Gerry Ryan or Pat Kenny, their true job description didn’t really exist as it was by all intents too modern in the face of the airwave sanctioned disco at the crossroads.
The passionate spinner in the shadow of institutionalised radio had to be committed. Webb, for example, travelled every week to the record company headquarters on the Long Mile Road to request promo records that were often just unplayable chart fodder. “Every Friday, I used to cycle around all day to these places for nothing, but I still did it. Every week! Now, I get direct emailed demos and tracks from producers and groups before the record companies.”
As part of this developing scene, Hanley physically brought back the latest US disco and post punk exclusives from New York along with his recommendations. Hanley and others repped for the home scene in America by checking out what was voguish and thus keeping Flickers progressive. In one twisted example, the Flickers crowd worked The Weather Girls hit “It’s Raining Men’ on the floors months before the radio non-ironically delivered the concept of a downpour of accessible males to the rest of the country. It remains a staple on the Irish hetero wedding playlist to this day
The significance of getting down to anthems that could only be heard in specific spaces cannot be underestimated in terms of pink solidarity. Music radios or programmed music were not an intentionally prominent feature in bars and a DJ spinning in an Irish bar is really only a decade old. Yet a tale is told of a regular Sunday afternoon disco in one gay-friendly bar (possibly The Parliament) that was a daylight extension of the Temple Bar groove and great fun in a non religious Sunday drinking way by all reports.
Only Webb’s column in In Dublin magazine as well as regular reports in the Dublin Event Guide carried any dance coverage as the capitals other publications, notably Hot Press adopted a conservative anti-dance stance. A moment from this time on radio. After touring the “October” album in America, Adam Clayton arrived on Dave Fanning’s programme to play some records he had bought back. U2’s bassist opened his selection with the unexpected backwards0bass slurp of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”. It seems this was the sound of the black clubs the blonde Afro-ed bassist was fascinated by on tour. Of course, Webb had been playing Clinton’s song in discerning spots months previously and the rare sound of this black funk slab floating over national airwaves hosted by the U2 guy registered overall as no more than a curious artifact from an urban field trip, instead of the punchy anthem Webb made it downtown.
On the ground, the lines were clearly drawn. The idea of a congregation worshiping at a stage that was not miked for guitars and drums seemed incomprehensible for print and radio coverage. Webb’s disco reports eventually ceased “when the editor wanted more of a club spy angle”. No doubt that imagined spectacle was the easier sell than a regular funky rundown on hot trends.
A safe environment for congregating and dancing heightened a progressive unity between crowd and DJ as Flikkers began to push special disco megamixes acquired by Hanley and others. New York Dance producers like Jellybean (who assisted Madonna’s rise to fame) began playing specially mixed vinyl containing many dancefloor hits on one record. These popular edits were an alternative to tracking down all the necessary underground beats for mixing themselves, but still remained coherent dancefloor tracks in themselves. These tools were the next step as well as the always vital new thing. Disconet and Hot Traxx “DJ-only” 12’’ records segued electro themed American and Georgio Moroder pulsed Eurobeats, consolidating a futuristic alternative again only to be experienced downtown.
A couple of minutes from the Hirschfield across the Liffey, Abbey Discs and the gay-run Beat Records began selling downtown sounds. These traders began pushing non-chart sounds in the rough and ready stalls in the Abbey Street mall. Cassette tapes began to be passed around as DJs traded beat ideas amongst themselves. By the late Eighties, the Virgin Megastore opened on the quays and a policy of dumping excess dance vinyl into bargain bins from Virgin’s stores in London inspired many a follower to consider a set of decks now that the content was available. By 1991, these shops stocked the Irish scene’s tentative vinyl outings in the dance market. One such object was a compilation called “Music To Move To, Vol I” on the Futuresque label. Barry Warner had by this time recorded a beat-tripped version of Bowies “Sound and Vision”, which didn’t get clearance, but was heard and appreciated by the Thin White Duke himself.
Two other mid-Eighties albums lost in those times but out there on a rhythm tip that may have circled Temple bar were “The Protagonist 28 Nein” (1986, Dossier Records) by Dublin poet/singer Stano and “Hyperspace” (1987, Tara Records) from Sligo’s Those Nervous Animals. Stano’s effort musically twisted towards the post-punk (Cabaret Voltaire listening, William Burroughs reading) Virgin Prunes set, while Those Nervous Animals contained surprisingly deft Arthur Baker touches amongst their pop stylings.
In 1986, John Nolan and Cyril O’Brien open Sides DC at 26 Dame Lane (the “DC” stood for Dance Club). A stone’s throw from the flickering of the Hirschfeld, the opening of Sides announced that this was a scene which was more than just a necessary environment for the gay and curious. Rather than a hedonistic hint of New York at Flikkers, you were now able to experience a full on 100 per cent dance club.
At The Cage, DJs like Liam Fitzpatrick worked alongside Webb at the still new concept of the mix. Slow grooves building steadily would peak and drop as a theme teased through the night. “Liam was flawless”, says Tonie Walsh. “He would stretch records with two copies taking the crowd to130bpm then dropping the sound before building it up again.
In the other corner, Webb’s maverick style involved layering black civil rights speeches over James Brown instrumentals and peaking with a Kraftwerkian onslaught of euro-electronic. Webb recalls parties being thrown by “a Nigerian guy in Ballsbridge” who played Afrobeat sounds and introduced the DJ to Fela Kuti records. “Man, I would have so much work for that guy right now”, Webb says.
The trip was now established and the crowd demanded a night that lived up to the new template. By the time Webb and Fitzpatrick had installed themselves as the first DJs in Sides, they owned the keys to an uncompromising sonic racecar with minimal white walls housing a purpose-built Cerwin-Vega soundsystem in Dame Lane. The race track was theirs.
The gap between the sticks, the Leeson Street clubs and the Temple Bar movement widened. Now the scene moved overground and there was an classy alternative that lived up to the expectation of graduating club kids. Though Sides was never marketed exclusively as a gay club, Saturday nights had a proud pink crowd and the concept of a high profile spot in Dublin city centre where the gay night was not hosted on a Monday was read as “quite rebellious” says Walsh.
The Sides scene was predominantly male, 50/50 gay and straight, with a healthy art college input where a passion for serious dancing was the essential attraction. Active punters pushed the visual boundaries and began dressing themselves and the club to exacting standards. Niall Sweeney, a designer currently based in England, was a Face and ID magazine junkie. “I remember one shop in Rathmines where those magazines would arrive and next day at St Mary’s School in Rathfarnham, those in the know would furiously debate the hip content within”. Like many of his peers, Sweeney’s youthful studies included devouring pop videos and late night Channel 4 TV exotica which led him to visualise far-out theatrical sets for the interior of Sides.
In our You Tube cocoon of today, it’s important to remember that the extravagance of club fashion in music and visuals literally had to be studied in the mid Eighties through the pages of a couple of English magazines and some progressive pop programming on Channel 4 beamed to an eager audience on the east coast. This was the channel that produced an hour-long scratch video based on Talking Heads music before that group’s own “Stop Making Sense” premiered. This funky audio-visual urbanity combined with the postmodern diktats of the Face united not just the Dublin kids, but those from the sticks who made it to the capital to study, particularly the visual arts.
At this time, the National College of Art and Design students held parties in places such as the Cathedral Club (a disused part of Christchurch Cathedral), creating another flank in the continuing battle against the doom-laden recession. Artist Nigel Rolfe, who lectured in NCAD in the mid Eighties, was known to DJ at collage parties from cassettes playing uncompromising break-dance electro, referencing the contemporary collision of punk and DJ culture glimpsed in The Clash’s video for “The Magnificent Seven”.
The anarchic midsummer night, Hallowe’en and New Year’s balls held in the Hirschfield were well established mini Mardi Gras, where Sweeney and other creatives perfected crazy glitter and glue skills for the cause.
They say the personal is political and in throwing these bashes, the collective were creating an active social agenda on their own terms and on their own budgets. The rest of the country may have been concentrating the words of Haughey’s “tighten your belts” speech, but these teams probably spotted the ill-gotten designer cuffs poking from his mohair suit on TV and what was good enough for the goose became good enough for the gander in the creation of an identity, albeit with different budgets. The square community presided over by Haughey were born to suffer, but those downtown, in the words of the Hi-NRG song, were “Born To Be Alive”.
Sweeney and another Flikkers regular Frank Stanley, who both went on to design Dublin’s iconic 1990s shop Makullas, gleefully began to use Sides as their deranged canvas. Things had to be different, new and exciting to mirror the dominant sound now rendering the music partially abstract. Due to the power of the speakers, the bass warped the dancers’s moves and the visual space of the club expanded and contracted accordingly. “People wanted to get inside the bassbins, the sound had such a presence”, Webb recalls.
The DJ booth hung as an altar halfway up a wall overlooked the changing ceremonies. The club’s seats were black modules that formed new shapes each week and a sculpted fountain dispensed water beside the dance floor. Shaking his head thinking about the audacious energy of Sweeney’s men, Webb remembers half of a life-size aeroplane protruding from a wall one week. When Andy Warhol died, those who went to dance the night away in Dublin during the week of his passing did so around an elaborate altar of glass and UV light created in the middle of the club.
Other nights saw the crew truck a cherry tree onto the dancefloor and simply adorn it with a disco ball as the only décor for that night. The Alternative Miss Ireland book published last year hints at the explosion of eye candy on walls and limbs that marked Sides’s classic period. These installations were the perfect acid landscape as again, mainstream dance-associated chemicals for personal dance visuals had yet to hit the country in force. Sides was the first commercial place in Ireland to offer an environment that was not a bar first with dancefloor as an afterthought and those running it knew the responsibility that came with that. The rota of DJs and designers who passed through its doors came to define a distinct visual ethos that would define Dublin physically in the 1990s.
Fergus Murphy, who as a promoter and DJ fronted the influential late 90s Velure club nights in the Gaiety, was then a UCD student drawn to the scene. As a punter, he followed UCD’s John Donelley into Sides in 1989 when that DJ held down a Thursday night residency. “The grammar of record collecting by these DJs had transferred into nights where the psycho metronomic funk of a Bohannon record was now the dancefloor norm”, Murphy enthused. “You could get the records now, and the gap between hearing about contemporary international releases and experiencing them mixed for the dancefloor had disappeared more or less”.
The DMC (Disco Mix Club) now known for turntablism and scratch battles, set up its Irish base on the Tuam Road in Galway and distributed promos and remixes. Dance fanzines came into being to cover the scene with Mark Kavanagh’s Remix and Dublin Funk Collective News being essential reads in the early 1990s.
By now, Sides wasn’t alone. Eoin Foyle ran an electro-tinged indie night called The Motion Club in the Warwick Hotel in Galway, before defining a commercial funk and hip-hop template in the capital with Ri-Ra. Galway also hosted hugely influential pure electro nights in a spot called The Castle with a Donegal DJ called Chris Orr, who now resides in San Francisco. The legendary Sir Henrys in Cork with Shane Johnson and Greg Dowling was up and running by the early 1990s attracting busloads from Dublin, with many of these Jackeens then starting their own club nights.
Acid house, initially the most abstract form of disco’s revenge, began to attract attention and the first DJ generation inspired by Webb and Fitzpatrick began to pass through Sides. A profile of DJ Noel in the July 1991 issue of DFC news by DJ Bass mentions that he will be throwing down “Italo, Techno, Indie, Ambient and Deep House”. Noel mentions he likes working in Sides because “it’s different to any other club”. The description of his playlist signified that the varied pulses of Webb’s inaugural sound had been streamlined and this defining house groove would be the foundation of nationwide dance parties throughout the 1990s. The impending onslaught of Irish rave events, often cited as the beginning of a dance scene, in Ireland was coming.
A geographical description of the dance scene in London from The Face’s December 1989 issue lists the grooves that were now also the progressive sounds of Dame Street: African chants, flamenco guitar, indie thrash, Eurodisco, Chicago house, hip house, Detroit techno, New York garage, rap, skacid, acid jazz and “almost an thing else you want”.
In today’s comfortable specialist clubbing age, with Dublin currently offering minimal techno nights, dirty south hip-hop nights, indie-electro night and all disparate tribes i-Poded up in-between, there is no form of electronic dance music that today’s Ireland cannot absorb. That menu from the Face reads like the proud work sheet from the Warhol-inspired factories that were in effect the Hirschfield and Sides.
This historical sketch ends with the beginning of the Celtic Tiger prowling round the notion that there may be some financial sense in these dance clubs as house music and hip-hop in the charts made what was previously underground accessible.
The thrill of dancefloor discovery on the same level as back in the early days ended. The secret of obscure sound, the careful building of music, the fun of building an environment, the community, the wine license restrictions, printing the names of the bouncers on flyers for Sides because everybody liked them: all this belonged to a slower, more transitional age. As the developers and drug-monitoring gardai moved into Temple Bar, the spots here and throughout Dublin began to accommodate a faster tempo.
More was lost, however, than just time and place. By then, everyone knew the consequences of AIDS, none more so than many of the original pioneers of the Hirschfeld. “Just before the end of Sides, the scene was very dark with funerals of many who were integral to the scene”, recounts Webb.
The Hirschfield itself fell victim to a fire before Sides too finally closed. With it went a decade of sonic and social achievement that redefined the transition from suited showband shuffling to synchronized hands in the hair. With dance remixes of U2 on the radio and Paul Oakenfold warming up for them in Landsdowne Road, the job started in a Dublin basement by some very energetic outsiders was done.
* Thanks all who were interviewed, especially Shane, Tonie Walsh for the focus and Paul Webb for being consistantly relevent. Special thanks to my brother John who defended my playing of Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” in the tape deck of our local bar in Mayo in 1988.