by / September 21st, 2016 /

Opinion: Demon Days – Fabric & The Fall of Nightlife

“Opium? No! Cocaine? No! The Great American Brain Killer Is Dance Music!” 

Portland Oregonian, June 12th 1932

As an Irish-based site, you might question if it’s within our purview to speak out on the closure of a venue most of our readers might never have visited, in a city they don’t live in. I’d argue the opposite. Fabric’s forced closure matters on a wide scale and not just for dance music fans. On a personal level, I’ve been collecting their monthly mix CDs since I was 14, and it’s difficult to overstate how influential they have been, how severe the recalibration that took place in my head as I learned just how beautiful, life-affirming and exciting the world of underground electronic music is. As a young music fan in the backarse of the Galway countryside, where even the city’s nightclubs are uniformly dreadful, they were my introduction to a world of possibilities. Kentucky-raised DJ The Black Madonna, currently in the middle of her breakthrough year, recently expressed a similar perspective.

To have the support of Fabric, particularly in the form of their globally renowned mix series, was as close to a holy grail an ambitious young DJ could get. Daniel Avery, Jackmaster and Mumdance’s entries loudly announced exciting new talents. Ricardo Villalobos, Omar-S and Mathew Jonson released mixes that functioned as thrilling solo albums, showcasing singular personalities. Thanks to Fabric’s policy on letting the artist do what they wanted, Kieran Hebden was bolstered to zig when everyone expected him to zag, and his 2011 mix as Four Tet threw eclecticism out the window for a lovingly crafted love letter to UK Garage. This is to say nothing of the mixes by established legends like Michael Mayer, Robert Hood, Surgeon, Carl Craig, Dave Clarke, and John Peel, to name but a few. These are not just good mixes, or ads for a nightclub. They are great albums, period.

In his elegy for the Guardian, Alexis Petridis praised Fabric for their large-scale creative impulse, eschewing excess and hedonism in favour of booking boundary-pushing artists who refused to talk down to audiences or treat them as easy-to-impress luddites. It was a statement against the arrogance of 90s “superclubs” that contributed to the dance music bust of the early 2000s.

Sunil Sharpe, the Dublin-based techno DJ, played Fabric for the first time this year, and was thoroughly impressed. “The tech setup was outstanding as was the sound across all the rooms. I was also struck by how hands-on the bookers and staff were… the warm and friendly spirit I experienced there was an unexpected surprise.”

But if my reasons for being angered and disappointed in Fabric’s closure were purely sentimental, this article would be fluffy and irrelevant. Petridis argues in his article that the cycle of venue closure and renewal is natural. Normally I would be equally as zen, but not now. The real heart of the case is the continuing demonisation of clubbing, of niche and innovative artforms that are being crushed by a political class that plainly cannot, and refuse to, understand them.

The ostensible reason Fabric was subject to hearing was the deaths of two young men who died following ecstasy overdoses on the club’s premises within weeks of each other during July and August. These deaths were tragic, avoidable, devastating events that called for a serious response. Closing the club temporarily to investigate and take any precautions necessary to prevent further tragedy was absolutely the right call. But as the pause on the license was extended to further deliberation, alarm bells were ringing across the electronic music community.

The resultant hearing was a farce, Fredric Wertham-level nonsense by way of Reefer Madness. Police statements gave a vague picture of the club as crack-den, while in the same breath admitting that they did not consider any of the harm reduction measures proposed by the club, implicitly suggesting that such measures proved a collusion between Fabric’s owners and the drug trade. A staff member’s onetime membership of a left-wing political party was given as evidence of encouraging drug smuggling. It was suggested that bouncers did not do enough to check for smuggled drugs, even though Fabric’s reputation would inform you that if bouncers were to be even more stringent in their checks, they’d have to be obliged to ask you out for coffee first in accordance with social norms. “No other business sector is held to this standard, or held responsible for crimes permitted on their premises they have done everything in their power to prevent” Fabric have said in a statement

The hearing plumbed to its risible nadir when a councillor suggested that the beats-per-minute on Friday night events be lowered to reduce risk. The concept that any kind of broadly defined music is directly responsible for indecent behaviour or the downfall of polite society is not just laughable, it is contemptible. It was the case when Led Zeppelin was accused of Satanism, it was the case when Tipper Gore blamed Prince for the downfall of the nuclear family, and it was the case when the UK’s Criminal Justice Act of 1994 banned musical events specifically defined as housing “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”, the first time that a movement of popular music associated with youth culture was effectively criminalised, not to mention damaging the integrity of the people’s right to free assembly. 

It’s the case right now when this councillor claims that there’s a connection between the high BPM of drum’n’bass and drug usage. No wonder Goldie is threatening to melt his MBE in protest.

This is part of a continuing narrative surrounding club culture wherein incubators for forward-thinking music suffer and are punished as a result of wilfully misinformed powers-that-be that see a boogeyman and work backwards from there. This can be seen plainly in a Telegraph article where it’s argued that Fabric was struggling as a business (untrue), aimed to change their lineups in order to attract drug-users (untrue and offensive), and that if the club wanted to survive, they should have been more like Ministry of Sound. With all due respect to the surely fine people behind MOS, that is like demanding an artisanal wood-fired pizza restaurant be more like Dominoes. Making the argument even more gross is the pains made to point out that MOS was founded by “an old Etonian”, implying that only men born into wealth are capable of running a business centred around youth culture.

One British radio DJ even asked why Fabric needed to be open at all in the modern age given the existence of dating apps, which misses the point so widely it feels like something out of a comedy sketch. The tendency for people who have never been to a club to assume that they serve as meat-markets where the music is irrelevant and nothing more is part of why it has been subject to attack.

You don’t need to be a dance music historian to know that club culture as we know it began as a safe haven for the LGBT and African-American communities. Disco, house, and techno soundtracked the slow path to freedom from centuries of invisibility, and the racism and homophobia found in the angered response casts a long shadow. Steve Dahl was the most vocal, holding a disgusting demonstration whereby he collected 10,000 disco records and blew them up on a football field, sparking riots that resembled a white-power rally. When Pasadena DJ Darryl Wayne asked listeners for suggestions to “abolish disco in our lifetime”, one idea was to “cut off the Bee Gee’s oestrogen supply”. The University of Ankara published a study that “proved” that listening to disco music made mice homosexual.

I am not accusing the councillors that made this decision of explicit, unambiguous homophobia. However, it is one more step in the same legacy of fear that led New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to plaster “NO DANCING” signs in bars and give police carte blanche to raid and fine any establishment where there was dancing without an antiquated cabaret licence. Which they did. To this day, the once legendary nightlife in New York City is a shadow of itself, brought asunder by a media campaign that tried to convince parents that their child could die (or worse, be turned into a communist) at the hands of music that at its heart preached tolerance and compassion. The anti-rave hysteria reached its peak in 2005 with an attack on a concert by the National Guard that had filed its permits and made all necessary precautions to avoid harm for the attendees, and which had up until the raid gone swimmingly with no incident.

In the past month, a Chicago councillor attempted to shunt nightclubs out of the city’s laws concerning tax reductions on small venues, essentially forcing them into bankruptcy, with the argument that dance music, along with hip-hop and even rock, do not count as actual art. That this happened in the birthplace of House Music, the city Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy called home, adds ever more salt.

The 2003 Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation act made promoters and venue owners legally responsible for the drug crimes of clubbers, even when the crimes remained unproven. The bill was sponsored by players in the alcohol industry, who were frustrated by the perceived lack of people drinking themselves into a coma because they were spending the night drinking water at clubs to keep themselves hydrated. There has been no shortage of similar theories as to the motives behind Fabric’s closure, the most damning being the Independent’s look into the Islington council’s pre-mediated plan to shut down Fabric using drugs as a scapegoat and police as pawns. “Operation Lenor” (geddit?) was in the works long before the tragic deaths that occurred this year and it was ready to take any paper-thin evidence to bring Fabric down. Never mind that there have been 80 arrests made at Fabric’s behest with only one prosecution. They had made up their mind. The whole thing is worth a read.

Even if you don’t find the Independent article convincing, the motivations of the committee remain suspect. “The thing that gets me about the Fabric decision was that it was just a three-person committee, who by the sounds of it had no connection with or appreciation towards electronic music,” says Sharpe. “It is similar to the alcohol advisory group who helped determine legislation in Ireland in 2008. Its chairman joked that he wouldn’t even know what the inside of a nightclub would look like, yet he was able to influence changes regarding them.”

This is why Fabric matters. It put countless amounts of effort, care and love into being a safe, welcoming family for music-lovers the world over, with medics to help those who went too far and campaigns to curb sexual harassment, among other forward-thinking initiatives. It doesn’t matter that we’re not in London, it doesn’t even matter if you don’t like dance music. First they came for the clubs, then they’ll come for the establishments that nurture metal, hip-hop, punk, or any music of a particular stripe they find unworthy. The precedent has already been set: the UK’s current Prime Minister notoriously banned performances by an American rapper for using naughty words in songs he has more-or-less disowned.

“The reality that the will of just a few people can overpower that of thousands has to stop,” says Sharpe. “We have had this in Dublin’s city centre for years – literally two or three local residents who between them can call the shots on sound levels and closing curfews in nightclubs around Temple Bar… two or three killjoys should not be able to dictate what happens with thousands of others who are out and contributing to the night-time economy.”

Sharpe finishes with this: “I think anyone with an interest in these matters needs to follow the current fabric campaign and appeal, and donate if you can.” The donation for Fabric’s appeal can be found on their website, and the proceeds of the upcoming fabric 90 mix album by Scuba (the last DJ to play the venue before it’s closure) will be donated to the campaign. Anyone who has ever loved or believed in the power of music to change the world, as cheesy as that might sound, should be outraged at this cultural repression.

Further reading: Click here to access an exhaustive list of articles surrounding the case.

With thanks to Sunil Sharpe for his contribution, the work of Frank Broughton, Bill Brewster and Simon Reynolds whose books offered context for the situation, and to the people behind Fabric.