Gay and straight and black and white united.
Early in 1982, I was in New York City and spent several memorable nights at the legendary Paradise Garage, an extraordinary gay club in a former car park where 3,000 people of all ages, colours and backgrounds danced to the funkiest, loudest black music imaginable. I can remember thinking: why isn’t there a gay club that plays music like this in London and attracts a totally mixed black, white, gay, straight, up-for-it crowd? In the early 80s, most gay clubs played anodyne and dreary so-called ‘gay disco’, or ‘high-energy’ music and were populated almost exclusively by mustachio’d white males – generally known as clones. I resolved to do something about it.
If there was one hotspot in London that year it had to be The Gargoyle Club, which had last been fashionable in the 1930s. It occupied the fifth and sixth floors of an office building in Meard Street in Soho. It was operating as a fairly seedy strip joint until 10.30pm after which it was transformed into different club nights run by various promoters. The club was only accessible by a tiny lift. Visiting the club one night, I had a light bulb moment after noticing several clutches of cool-looking (definitely not cloney) mostly black, gay men in dark corners of the room, clearly enjoying the amazing music and fantastic energy of the night.
The idea of The Lift was born. Why shouldn’t I launch London’s first ever, underground, hip, diverse and inclusive gay club night right there?
The Lift opening party was a huge success and the music and atmosphere was electric. The flyer encouraged people to “bring your mother” – and people did! The crowd was deliciously mixed and even included Susan Sarandon. The Lift went on to run successfully until 1987 in various West End venues, and it was immortalized as The Shaft by Booker Prize Winner Alan Hollinghurst in his first novel The Swimming Pool Library. Later that year, The Face magazine ran a double-page interview with me, during the time that The Lift was situated at the end of a dark alley behind Tottenham Court Road tube station.
The Lift had most definitely arrived – and it was hip. Next up, The Lift hosted London’s first-ever underground, all-night, illegal rave in a four-storey warehouse in Rivington Street in Shoreditch (which was then just an industrial, working-class area) and it was a massive success. There had been no glossy flyers, just a photocopied sheet which simply read “Memorise And Destroy” with the address, date and time printed below. The dance floor was in the basement, which was accessed by a rickety, wooden staircase. By midnight, it was a sweaty, heaving mass of wildly boogieing bodies. The other floors were chill-out areas, which I’d decorated with shower curtaining that I’d spray-painted with abstract designs – all pretty low-fi. The atmosphere was buzzing, sexy and warm. Some plain-clothed police arrived at around 5am, but they were really polite and pleasant and simply asked me to turn the music down, then left.
Fast-forward 30-odd years to Febuary the 8th, 2014 and my Lift reunion party at the long-running, leading black-music, gay club night Queer Nation, which is held on the second Saturday of every month at Bar Code in Vauxhall. I got there early to find the front bar already busy and the original Lift DJ Mel pumping out the soulful classics. Soon, true to the original spirit of the club, my friend Marlon arrived with his mother Angela.
Well known Gay Human Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell – a regular at The Lift back in the day – arrived, followed by Vernal Scott, the handsome author and diversity, HIV and AIDS media commentator. They were later to make inspirational and heartfelt speeches about LGBT History Month and all our community has achieved over the years, before the main dance floor opened and over 600 people got their groove on until 6am. I’m happy to say that ‘All Human Beings Welcome’ – The Lift’s original slogan – still very much applies and was celebrated with great gusto after all these years.
I was chatting on the phone with my mum the other day and told her that I was going to be writing a couple of articles to coincide with LGBT History Month. She then had a bit of a June Whitfield-in-Ab-Fab-moment, asking: “Is that something to do with London transport dear?” I laughed and replied, “No, it’s the rather ungainly acronym for Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender – not the greatest bit of 21st century branding really, but hey…”
I ‘came out’ to my family as bisexual in 1970, because I was. Then I decided that I preferred men when I was 21 – the year I moved to London – and they’ve always been completely fine with it. I’ve often slept with boyfriends in the room next door to my parents, with their knowledge and consent.
I’d opened The Lift after visiting several largely black, illegal, gay, house parties (or ‘Blues’ as they were generally known), which were usually held in council flats in South London. People were charged £1 or so to enter, beers were the same price, with spirits costing maybe £2. They were unlawful because money was changing hands, in completely unlicensed premises. The music was always pumping and comprised mostly of black Amercian and Jamaican imports and the flats were always packed – with a large queue for the only toilet. My memories are of lots of beautiful men, much bumping ‘n grinding, clouds of weed smoke, really good vibes and no trouble at all. I don’t recall the police closing any down, but this was before the days of the dreaded Environmental Health Police, or whatever they’re called.
After The Lift’s successful first warehouse rave in Shoreditch in 1983, I went on to successfully hold several more in various venues, mostly in South London. For example, my New Year’s Eve bash in a band rehearsal complex (the sound-proofing was a definite plus) on the top floor of a warehouse in Clink Street, near the now achingly fashionable Borough Market where over 500 polysexual people partied ‘til dawn and beyond. The positively Orwellian year that we were seeing in was 1984 – so I decided to call this rave Big Brother Blues. Again, there was no trouble, no police, no worries – and all for three quid, including authentic West Indian food.
I started a bit of a Lift tradition by holding a Bank Holiday Blues. Most people wouldn’t be working the next day, after all. With the second one, I took a bit of a risk by holding it in what was usually the old peoples’ social and dominoes club in the middle of one of Stockwell’s most notorious sink estates with its graffiti-covered, grey concrete walkways, abandoned shopping trollies and burnt-out cars. Well, at this night, there was a problem. One particularly flamboyant, queen got mugged by local teenagers on BMX bikes on his way to the party. He came rushing in and recruited a vigilante ‘posse’ of about 20 party-goers (most of whom happened to have their tops off) to get his wallet back (and steal the boys’ bikes for good measure). This task was successfully accomplished by employing the shock tactic of the muggers being potentially ‘queer-bashed’… by a bunch of queers.
They triumphantly bought the bikes back in and we bolted the doors. Was this the first instance of what might be termed ‘poof-power’? Some of the muggers’ big brothers started banging on the doors and I got my two, very large, gay black security guards to go out and inform them: “Right, there are 400 angry batty men in here who are gonna come out and rape your asses unless you fuck off. You can have your baby bro’s bikes back when we’ve finished partying!” A bit of a hairy moment – but everyone went home happy.
There were many more successful and trouble-free Lift all-nighters over the next few years in various unusual and left-field venues. The only one that almost matched the potential danger and drama of the Bank Holiday Blues in Stockwell, was when a DJ on Kiss FM announced (unsolicited) that we were holding a rave in a dance studio complex in Covent Garden, resulting in us having to barricade ourselves (nearly a thousand people) in the building as a near riot erupted outside, caused by the hundreds unable to get in. The police came and cleared the street – having been told that by me “this was supposed to be a private party.” We carried on drinking and dancing until dawn.
This is an amalgam of two articles which first appeared in Planet Ivy in Febuary 2014.
All photos (and flyer designs) by Steve Swindells, unless otherwise stated.