Most people will be personally unaffected by iconic London nightclub Fabric’s closure. They will not lament the opportunity to stand wide-eyed among a swathe of sweaty, gurning teenagers, paying £10 for a double that realistically, they’ll be reacquainted with in the near future at the bottom of a toilet bowl. It is unlikely that they will lose sleep over all of the thwarted chances to stand in a queue, intoxicated, only to eventually reach the front of it with a Bambi-on-stilts swagger and be refused entry. As for the dance music, well, it’s all just noise anyway, right?
As a society, we are blighted by our propensity to eradicate something before we truly understand it
But then, the existence of Fabric was never intended for the masses. The emergence of club culture in the 80’s was borne out of opposition to the mainstream and when Fabric opened in late-1999 in Farringdon, it promised a haven for clubbers from all over the world. Fabric, along with nightclubs all over the country were, and are refuges for a generation of young people struggling to stave off the homogenization of culture and escape from the increasingly bleak outlook for their adult lives.
On the surface of it, the closure of the club seems like an open and shut case. Two drug-related deaths in as many weeks doesn’t make for great PR. So when the mainstream media inevitably paints a mental image in their reader’s minds of a wholesale, free-for-all drug den, providing the general public with an honest, practical assessment of the challenges a club faces is next to impossible. It is easier to determine that the venue with a face is the culprit, than it is to blame it on an abstract web of societal issues.
As a society, we are blighted by our propensity to attempt to eradicate something before we truly understand it, and the drug problem in the UK is no exception. The ‘war on drugs’ has been an embarrassing failure for the Western world – not only failing to reduce drug-related crime and deaths, but creating a climate of innovation within a thriving black market that has seen the advent of new psychoactive substances or ‘legal highs’, which were attributed to 88 deaths in the UK in 2014 – up from 22 in 2010.
The club spends more than any other venue in the UK for when drugs get past security and things go wrong – they have a fully-equipped medical room with two medics on-site
You need only travel back in time for a relatively short period to witness the inherent failings of prohibition. In 1920 the United States of America banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol under the 18th Amendment and then spent over a decade dealing with the fallout. Aside from the natural explosion of crime and the drastic economic damage, poisoned, bootlegged alcohol was thought to be responsible for over 10,000 deaths until the law was repealed in late-1933. President Herbert Hoover famously called prohibition ‘The Noble Experiment’ – perhaps its nobility lay in its value as a cautionary tale.
The deaths in Fabric weren’t isolated incidents. In 2010, club classics MDMA and ecstasy were attributed to only eight deaths. In 2014 they were responsible for 50. The government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs claim that it’s not uncommon to find ecstasy pills containing around 250mg of the active ingredient MDMA at festivals this year – a big increase from the 100mg usually found in the rave scene glory days of the late 90s.
The drugs that tragically killed Ryan Browne and Jack Crossley this summer weren’t manufactured in Fabric nightclub. They were manufactured by an unregulated, criminal entity as opposed to a regulated, taxed one. If they were, it would be safe to assume that they would contain non-lethal doses and come with adequate safety information.
Fabric was probably one of the safest places in the country to take drugs
The suggestion that Fabric as a venue is directly responsible for any drug related deaths is absurd. The club spends more than any other venue in the UK on security to help prevent drugs getting in, and for when they do and things go wrong – they have a fully-equipped medical room with two medics on-site. This is not the behaviour of an institution guilty of neglect, but one that understands the need to address a complex problem from a number of angles.
The great irony of the situation is that Fabric was probably one of the safest places in the country to take drugs. In contrast, there were an estimated 170 illegal raves planned in response to Fabric’s closure. Illegal raves are traditionally held in abandoned buildings or more remote outdoor spaces such as fields in the countryside. The very nature of an illegal event can often prevent organizers from accessing the same high standards of safety and security that a legal one is able to benefit from.
According to one event promoter who used to host illegal events and has since become strictly legal, ‘the safety of the people is of utmost importance. Whenever we did an event we had security (searching for weapons, not drugs), private paramedics with ambulance on site and we always checked the building had running water (unless held outdoors). Unfortunately, that is not the case with all event organizers. I have seen some situations in which somebody would overdose or even get attacked by others and there hasn’t been security or anyone to deal with the situation accordingly. That said, people also overdose and fight at licensed events as well…’
Several breaches of licensing conditions highlighted by officers were tenuous, and failed to find any hard evidence of drug-taking
He goes on to explain how an illegal setting offers certain freedoms that licensed venues don’t: ‘a lot of clubs these days can make you feel as if you are constantly being watched and can’t fully relax and feel free and comfortable to do whatever it is you want to do. Oh and you can’t take drugs freely at a licensed venue.’
Islington Council, the body responsible for the revocation of Fabric’s license, knows this. The basis of the claim that the closure was in response to the issue of drug-taking was largely derived from an undercover police report from July 2016, wryly named Operation Lenor (think fabric softener). Through witness statements from undercover officers placed inside Fabric, Operation Lenor highlighted several tenuous breaches of licensing conditions, such as the lack of staff intervention in the case of several clubbers who were ‘sweating profusely and were staring into space, their eyes were glazed and red and they were drinking water’, but failed to find any hard evidence of drug-taking.
In fact, conversely, Fabric has often gone above and beyond the call of duty to comply with zealous licensing regulations. The club have unwaveringly attempted to implement a string of measures imposed on it since a review in 2014 of its license, including a brief period where it was required to place sniffer dogs outside of the venue for at least 50% of the night – a security measure not seen in most airports. Interestingly, the use of dogs ceased to become a requirement after a court ruled that it could jeopardize the club’s ability to confiscate drugs under its search policy. In a bitter twist, there were reports from clubbers that the presence of the dogs encouraged people to take all of their drugs at once before entering the club, rather than risk trying to get past them with anything on their person.
Freeing up prime real estate in the center of London is almost certain to attract investment from hawkish property developers
If Islington Council were genuinely concerned with public safety, then perhaps it would have been wiser to keep open a club which a judge had branded ‘a beacon of best practice’ a mere matter of months ago. Instead, the council did little to resist the media furor around the deaths of six patrons in 17 years – a figure taken wildly out of context when you consider the fact that 6 million people passed through its doors during that time. It alternately chose to cease to devote any further time, resources and funds to the dynamic response necessary to tackle the many-headed Hydra that is the UK drug problem.
But then, who could really blame Islington Council for trying to conserve time, resources and funds in any way it can after having its government funding cut by an astronomical 50% since 2010? In line with Conservative Party policy, Islington has been forced to make £150 million in efficiency savings over the last six years – a move that has seen it scrambling to protect frontline services such as child protection, housing and policing, let alone nurture an ailing, controversial nightlife scene.
It’s important to note that Islington Council has no direct financial interest in the site – it does not own the building. At the same time, freeing up prime real estate in the center of London is almost certain to attract investment from hawkish property developers, eager to make a quick buck in the explosive luxury housing game. The prospect of a new wave of wealthy, desirable residents, perceived as unlikely to become a drain on vital resources, must surely be an attractive one.
The number of nightclubs in Britain has almost halved since 2005
The social acceptability of the next residents of Fabric, a former meat packing warehouse, will be telling. It’s a familiar phenomenon in the UK today to witness your local scrappy pub or club replaced with an unfeeling glass façade devoid of character. It is not unusual to see old commercial spaces on your high street transformed into trendy new coffee shop chains selling almond milk lattes and making pretend airs of independence. It is unlikely that you’ll notice an explosion of licensing applications approved for venues that cater to the types of people that mainstream society considers unpalatable.
The number of nightclubs in Britain has almost halved from 3,144 in 2005 to just 1,733 in 2015. The steady decline brings with it a nagging feeling amongst dance music lovers that the UK authorities have nothing but disdain for the counterculture movement. Poetically, on the same day Fabric’s license was revoked the notoriously exclusive trance music venue Berghain in Berlin was awarded a status of cultural importance by the Cottbus court – allowing for much more favorable rates of taxation. As European cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona and Berlin continue to thrive as bastions of emerging culture, the willingness of the UK government to show any meaningful sign of intervention is far from apparent.
Already, the deliberate decimation of the UK’s artistic landscape is becoming a self-defeating exercise. The illicit underground rave scene across Europe shows no sign of slowing down, and as access to regulated space diminishes, it’s inevitable that it will remain underground – far away from the prying eyes of the very people who are so eager to supervise.
Among the voices heard in the case against Fabric were one undercover police officer who suggested that ‘light color finishes on walls and ceilings should be used’ and one councillor who requested that if the club were to remain open then it should play music with a lower BPM. Aside from the bizarre set of circumstances that allow for the interior design and key curation decisions of a cultural landmark to be dictated by an officer of the law and a civil servant, it’s important to recognize that this sentiment is not shared merely by a killjoy minority, but by an increasingly contemptuous many.
Electronic music is a staple of counterculture in the UK that largely exists outside of the sphere of government funding – it doesn’t need propping up by the state
To the layperson, it is difficult to comprehend how wiling away a night rubbing sweaty shoulders with a bunch of strangers is a rite of passage with value. But speak to any seasoned raver and they will undoubtedly tell you about the lifelong friendships that have been forged on a dark, dingy dancefloor where people of any sexual orientation, race, gender or background can come together. They will laud the opportunity to build real life networks of like-minded people from all over the world that they never would have otherwise had an intimate cultural exchange with. In an increasingly digital age, it’s imperative to cherish those authentic, offline moments and protect the spaces that facilitate them.
When government budgets are tightened, funding for the arts is often the first to be axed in an environment riddled with economic short-termism. After Arts Council England examined government data, it found that local government arts spending fell by 11% amid overall budget cuts of 40%. Even if you consider this an unintended consequence of a necessary reshuffle of our nation’s finances, the fact remains that a generation of young people will now grow up with less outlets for their creativity than their predecessors. It would be remiss to ignore the overwhelmingly positive effect the arts can have in tackling the general malaise of a profoundly alienated youth.
Like it or not, electronic dance music has become a staple of a thriving counterculture movement in the UK and it’s one that largely exists outside of the sphere of government funded institutions. Nightclubs like Fabric don’t need propping up by the state. What they do need is the freedom to operate within a reasonable set of guidelines and support from the state in the form of a less ludicrous drugs policy. What they require above all else is an elevated level of respect and tolerance from society as a whole.
Young people are watching their cities degrade into cultural wastelands
The significance of any club during its era is determined by the strength of its community – and the Fabric community has miraculously thrived in a hostile climate. Far from admitting defeat, Fabric and its worldwide following have launched the #saveourculture campaign, raising over £100,000 in four days. Legendary underground music internet TV channel Boiler Room hosted a panel discussion on 20th September with Goldie, Emily Thornberry MP, the mayor of Amsterdam, the owners of Fabric and other recently closed club owners among other veteran DJs and Fabric enthusiasts – the subject is the future of club culture.
What is ultimately most treacherous about the trajectory of the UK dance music scene is the implication for the wider creative community. Dance music doesn’t exist in its own cultural sphere – all art, music, film and design are interwoven elements separated by only a few degrees of separation. The origins of electronic dance music can be found in blues, jazz and soul to name a few, and undoubtedly it will continue to morph as DJs and producers continue to experiment and innovate. With each wave of ingenuity brings a new movement – bringing with it a surge of originality in every cultural aspect from cinema to fashion.
If the legislation that determined that Fabric should close sets a precedent, these are ominous times for license holders across the country. While councils are free to revoke licenses on the basis of a failure to adhere to unworkable legislation, young people will continue to see their cities degrade into cultural wastelands. As a deeply divided post-Brexit Britain struggles to reconcile its differences, perhaps the unifying space found in our country’s nightclubs is space that is simply too valuable to lose.
Image: Maja Walker