Writer Adam Mattera talks to the people who made the Turnmills club night a thing of legend.
Words by Adam Mattera / Photograph by Jason Manning…
Rewind 28 years. Were you to find yourself passing the corner of Clerkenwell Road and Turnmill Street in the wee small hours of a Sunday morning, you wouldn’t be able to miss a long and very eager line of clubbers waiting to get into what was only a few months earlier a somewhat forgotten wine bar. Maybe, and god bless you if you were, you might be bold enough to join the queue yourself alongside the muscle Marys, party girls, Adidas clones and rent boys punctuated by a smatter of glitter and the odd angel wing. The reason: one word – TRADE.
Founded in November 1990 by Laurence Malice, TRADE was, simply put, a revolution in UK clubbing. Not just gay clubbing, but clubbing full stop. Zeroing in on a unique combination of demand and zeitgeist, altruism and commercialism, it was simultaneously a church for the disenfranchised, an ‘all-night bender’, a superclub trailblazer and, ultimately, a global brand. The smartly curated hard and fast musical policy, provocative pop-art aesthetic, state-of-art lighting and sound system and cavernous venue with its ever- changing theatre of fluorescent decor all played a part in marking it out as a singular club experience. But of course its vitality, its throbbing heartbeat, was down to the punters.
They were the ones who just didn’t want the party to end. TRADE’s all-night license was a siren call to those who would flock to the 3am door opening and leave blinking into the sunlight 12 hours later on Sunday afternoon. Why? Because once you got past the picky door staff and descended the stairs to the basement where the sweat dripped off the walls and the beat penetrated the very core of your being, it was quite possible, for a few precious hours at least, to feel like anything was possible.
If that sounds like overblown hyperbole, you have to step back to the mindset of the era into which TRADE was born. Here was a hedonistic pleasure palace where you could escape into a world of unabandoned sexual freedom, and perhaps more importantly, community. Of course the drugs helped. Following the rave new world promised by acid house, TRADE saw gay and straight, gangster and lawyer, side by side on the dancefloor at a time when homophobia was rife. That sense of unity and freedom that all great clubs offer meant even more at a time when Clause 28 was still on the books and Colin kissing his boyfriend on EastEnders would provoke unchecked screams of ‘yuppie poof’ from the country’s biggest tabloid.
TRADE’s success helped usher in a new wave of more open, modern gay clubs and bars throughout the 90s (in quite sobering contrast, 50 per cent of LBGT venues have subsequently closed over the past decade). And of course, once the party got started everyone wanted to come. Madonna, The Beckhams, Alexander McQueen, Kate Moss and Rupert Everett all clamoured to get in. There’s a particularly insane story about a security guard having to step in when a woman was being wildly tossed into the air by her friends. It turned out to be Björk.
After 12 years, TRADE ended its weekly residency at Turnmills in October 2002, by which point it had become so big it had launched internationally – from Ibiza to New York and LA – and started developing off shoots Kinky Trade and Trade Future. Turnmills carried on as a clubbing venue, but the ubiquity of 24 hour licenses and rising property prices meant the writing was on the proverbial wall, and the venue closed its doors forever in March 2008. But not before TRADE returned home for one last hurrah. The ecstatic faithful returned, as did many of the original DJs, the venue crammed with heaving semi-naked bodies – the self-styled ‘Trade babies’ of a decade earlier — and the partying didn’t stop till 5pm the next day. There would never be anything like it again.
Random rumours, titbits and tales from Dante’s Inferno
1. In ‘All That Glitters’ – a 2002 episode of Sex And The City – Carrie and the girls visit TRADE in New York where they generally shriek a lot and Samantha ends up getting up to no good in the men’s urinals.
2. It wasn’t uncommon for celebrity lookalikes to be booked to turn up at the club, another crouton in the surreal soup of a trip to TRADE. Princess Diana was a recurring favourite.
3. In the original flyer for the very first TRADE night in November 1990, a full English breakfast was promised to punters.
4. As well as the self- explanatory ‘Muscle Alley’, other punter-christened areas of the club included ‘Dante’s Inferno’ (the heaving main dancefloor), ‘The Wendy House’ (underneath the stairs) and ‘Slappers Corner’.
5. Trade Records was launched in 1993. The label’s first 12” release was ‘Let’s Rock’ credited to E Trax, with later releases by Kitty Lips, DJ Gonzalo, Semtex Suzy and the late great Tony De Vit.
6. For its 11 birthday, a Grace Jones lookalike was booked to appear with flyers showing Jones and the Twin Towers tagged ‘11 skyscraping years’. The imminent 9/11 attacks meant the flyers were swiftly redesigned to show Grace licking the Chrysler Building, and the event renamed ‘Madhattan’.
7. By the mid-90s a range of branded merchandise – fur-collared bomber jackets, black record bags and the rest – were available for diehard TRADE babies. The real hardcore of course would go for a pill logo tattooed on a pumped bicep.
8. One of the regular security guards was nicknamed ‘The Mortician’ due to his slow, deep speaking voice.
Mark Wardell aka TradeMark rose from the Blitz club scene of the 80s to become a key figure in creating the visual legacy of TRADE.
How did TRADE happen?
It was a perfect storm of a lot of different factors – it was the moment where the ‘gay scene’ came out from the shadows. Up until then, a lot of gay venues were very dark and exclusive with blacked out windows. Suddenly all that changed. And TRADE wasn’t really ever exclusively a gay club – we never had a men-only policy or a gay-only policy. It was for freaks and misfits who didn’t want to go home at 3 in the morning. People could go there and reinvent themselves as whoever they wanted to be. And a lot of people would then go back to their very establishment jobs in the government or whatever after living this fantasy wild hedonistic lifestyle at the weekend.
What was your inspiration behind the visual identity of the club?
A lot of gay clubbing imagery before TRADE was quite stereotypical – it was all black and white pictures of muscle men, or Tom of Finland type stuff. That’s all fine, but I was more interested in pop art, post-punk graphics, Soviet propaganda posters. I wanted to incorporate that, plus a bit of gay imagery and some humour too, into a kind of visual remix. The idea of it being a democratic artform appealed. Flyers that kids with little or no money could collect as free street art pieces.
Any bizarre stories from back in the day?
Where do I start? I was on the door once when they were doing work with a pneumatic drill on Clerkenwell Road, and this girl came up to the door completely off it. She was raving to the sound of the drill. She asked me if it was Mrs Woods!* Then there’s the notorious story about someone wanting to have their ashes scattered on the dancefloor. They brought them in disguised as wraps of coke and apparently one of them went missing. They think someone might have bought it and snorted it.
*For the uninitiated, Mrs Woods was a one of the leading DJ/ record producers of the 90s UK techno/hardbag scene – best known for her crossover hit ‘Joanna’
Do you think a club like TRADE could exist now?
Never. Now everyone’s taking selfies at clubs. Thank god there were no mobile phones in Turnmills! I actually think TRADE should have ended when it left Turnmills. People identified it so much with that venue. Everyone had their little patch – you’d know that so-and-so would be up in the arches, and so-and-so would be down by Muscle Alley. People had their little territories that would be their particular spot religiously, week in, week out. When it moved that was all lost. It’s funny thinking back to TRADE now – it was more than a quarter of a century ago, in a different century. Incredible.
For more on TradeMark visit TradeMarkArt.com
Mark White regularly attended the club in the 90s, at the same time as being a key contributor for magazines like Mixmag and Attitude.
Talk me through the actual experience of going to TRADE at Turnmills in the 90s?
Well, opening at 3am meant you’d already been out for a bit, and this was the pinnacle of clubbing. “No sleep till bedtime”, and all that. Just entering the joint was an experience. The party started the other side of the front door. It was happily relentless. All I can remember are clouds of smoke, steam and lots of muscled topless men.
People have talked about how diverse and inclusive the crowd were. Was that your experience — straight boys who just loved the vibe mixing with muscle Marys and the like?
It wasn’t really somewhere you had earnest conversations about sexuality and gender politics. Thank god. I have vague memories of trying to chat up straight boys, but I could do that in any gay club!
Some punters at the time referred to the club as ‘church’. What made them feel that strongly about it?
A church is where people practice their faith, and part of faith is belonging. Many religions use sound – liturgy, repetition, song – as a means to create a collective spirit. To that extent, the harder side of TRADE, when vocals fell away and the music became a rhythm, was a means to that end. But of course there were other clubs, gay or not, in the UK that were their own churches: the Hacienda in Manchester pioneering house music, Queer Nation in London playing gospel garage and NY house to a multiracial gay crowd, even gay pop clubs like Bangs and G.A.Y.
Do you think the success of TRADE was unique to that time and place?
For at least two reasons, yes. Hard house was still pretty fresh when TRADE started out. Now all music is a retread of the past. And in the era of global digital networks, a “secret” like TRADE would last about two weeks – in fact, it wouldn’t get time to begin. Connection has replaced proximity, and we’re all the sadder for it.
Was it possible to enjoy the club without taking massive amounts of drugs?
How massive is massive?
Any fun anecdotes from back in the day?
I do recall a night when I was there with a mate who looked spooked and said we had to leave the main dance floor. When we reached the other bar, he said he looked around and everyone around us had turned into Cybermen. Given the body type of the average muscle Mary and those cheekbones, it was an easy mistake to make. That was a fun night!
Laurence Malice was the mastermind behind the club, steering it from ambitious new after-hours Eastend party to global brand.
What specifically about Turnmills in Clerkenwell made you choose it to launch TRADE in 1990?
The late 80’s were a dangerous time to be gay – Clause 28 was enacted in 1988 and the AIDS epidemic had created an atmosphere of fear and hatred. Homophobia was rife. Most clubs ended at 2 or 3am, and after-hours parties were illegal, even dangerous. Clerkenwell back then wasn’t like it is today. It was the gateway to the East End and there were no other clubs or bars nearby, so this dodgy wine bar Turnmills was perfect for what I wanted – to create a safe environment for gay men, and to help stop the risks they faced after clubs closed. Not only that, but also for straight people to show that gay people weren’t a problem and that we can mix.
The all-night license was central to your success. How did that come about?
I knew the owner, John Newman, and encouraged him to apply for an after-hours licence, as there was no precedent that stopped an all-night licence being approved. The only condition was that alcohol could not be served. So without any opposition a licence was granted in 1990.
What were the qualities that TRADE unique?
I put a great deal of thought into what I wanted TRADE to be, with no idea if it was going to work or not. I wanted the music to be different to anything else on offer at the time. In fact it was the first place to play techno. I wanted to create a journey through music gradually increasing the BPM and to transform the dark basement club into an explosion of colour and vibrancy, not just with the now iconic crazy UV décor, but also with people expressing their individuality and creativity. It was a crazy heady mix, but somehow it all worked!
The diversity of the crowd you attracted was unusual at the time. Were there challenges around that re door policy?
TRADE changed club culture through the people that it brought together. While the night was perceived to cater to the gay community, as long as an individual had the right attitude they were welcome, regardless of their sexuality, social background or gender. It was a crazy group of characters from different walks of life: trannies, working girls, muscle Marys, lawyers, judges, doctors, street sweepers… Once you were inside, we were all just one family, albeit slightly dysfunctional! It was notoriously difficult to get in, people would queue for hours, only to be turned away at the door for just not quite being right. But they would be back the next week to try again, and once in they would run to the desk to get their members card which guaranteed entry.
What are your favourite legendary stories about the club?
I could write a five-part novel on some of the stories over the years, but most people would think it was pure fiction! But I can confirm two popular ‘myths’. Yes, I did turn Axl Rose away for being homophobic. And Cher did drive away at speed, in her limousine, when the manager refused her long list of demands before she would agree to enter. Once you were in TRADE, we were all just ONE people with a real sense of belonging, of community.
Smokin Jo began her career at TRADE, before winning the #1 DJ in The World award in 1992 launched her to international fame.
How did you get your break to DJing at TRADE?
It must have been about two weeks after the club opened – Martin Confusion was sick, so I stood in for him and ended up taking his job basically. I’d just bought my first decks a few months before. I used to do the 5am to 7am slot. Perhaps a little disco nap beforehand, or as I got more well known maybe I’d have a gig or two at other clubs first. By the time I’d show up it would be absolutely rammed.
What made the club special?
The music for a start. When I had my residency there were four of us – Malcolm Duffy, Daz Saund, Trevor Rockcliffe, and me – all with different styles that flowed together. Really cool underground house music at the start, followed by amazing American garage then into banging techno, so it really took people on a journey. House music was coming into its own at the time. Plus the crowd was really mixed – all walks of life were there. Barrow boys, gay, straight, club girls, whatever – it didn’t really matter who you were. People didn’t want to stop dancing. Obviously there were the drugs as well, so it was really hedonistic. It felt naughty and crazy – it was our Studio 54.
Would you ever get on the dancefloor yourself?
Of course – as soon as I finished DJing! I was getting £30 a gig when I started, so it wasn’t about the money. I used to get there early to listen to Malcolm’s set, because I loved his music, then after I played I’d get off my tits and be dancing all night long, or hanging out in the corridor. I’d be there till the bitter end every week, about 1pm in the afternoon!
How did you get the name Smokin Jo by the way?
A friend of mine who was really into boxing suggested it – after Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Plus there was a label at the time – Smoking Records – that I loved as well. I liked the idea of a name where people wouldn’t immediately know I was a woman. For a while the TRADE guys gave me this nickname DJ Murder because people kept passing out during my set and being carried off the dancefloor. Don’t worry, I don’t think anyone actually died.
Any other memorable moments?
I remember once going crazy and dropping some Michael Jackson into my set. I played Black Or White and the place went absolutely mental! I was going to do it again the next week but Laurence went ‘don’t you dare ever again!’… It was meant to be a really cool club.
Would you want to do it all again?
I do miss those days. Most of my best friends still are people I met there. But I couldn’t do it all again, no. I’d kill myself. Jo recently started her DJ school, 1-2-1 private lessons to teach the new generation and original ravers the skills to DJ properly. Get in touch via Facebook messenger.
SMOKIN JO’s TOP 10 TRADE BANGERS
1. Todd Terry, Put Your Hands Together (Champion)
2. M1, Dynomite! (Emotive Records)
3. Sil, Windows (Rhythm Records)
4. Smooth Touch Come And Take a Trip (Strictly Rhythm)
5. The Party, In My Dreams (Exodus Mix) (Hollywood Records)
6. Pointer Sisters Insanity (Hurley’s Club Dub) (Motown)
7. Alison Limerick, Where Love Lives (Arista)
8. Banji Boys, Love Thang (Strictly Rhythm)
9. Fierce Ruling Diva Rubb It In (React)
10. Clivillés & Cole Pride (In The Name Of Love) (Columbia)