Go for a pint? No thanks, I’m off to the Die Hard-themed shooting range
Forget pubs, never mind clubs. David Lloyd on how ‘competitive socialising’ is reshaping Liverpool’s nightlife
By David Lloyd
There was a time, not so very long ago, when, ahead of a Christmas night out in town, you might reasonably ask of a venue, “Can I wear trainers?”, “What time’s last orders?”, or at the sort of places I used to be papped for the pages of the Echo’s About Town spread, “Can I book a roped-off banquette and willingly part with £500 for a bottle of Grey Goose?”
Now, these perfectly civil questions seem like the quaint etiquette of a long-gone golden age, to be supplanted by enquiries such as “Can I bring my own axe?” (with the criminally underused supplementary question: “Can I throw an axe if I’m pregnant?”)
Who amongst us hasn’t tossed around all night in bed pondering the very same thing?
Scrolling through the Frequently Asked Questions sections of Liverpool’s new nightlife sites today reads more like a fever dream where you’re forced to learn a useless course of Duolingo phrases. But, increasingly, it’s vital prep before you head into town.
Welcome to the kidulting sandbox that is Liverpool after dark. A city where you can smash a golf ball around granny’s house, learn how to throw two-axe trick shots, and blast the living Jesus out of Christmas, John McClane style.
The phenomenon has a name. After the competitive posturing of Twitter and the competitive decorating of Insta, welcome to the world of competitive socialising. And unlike fish-nibbling salons and, well, nightclubs (remember them?) it could well be here to stay.
What is it? Well, it takes many, many forms. But if this Christmas you’re just sitting in a pub, drinking and chatting with your mates when you could be playing augmented reality darts or electronic shuffleboard, or go-karting around an old department store then, frankly, why are you even bothering to leave the house?
Where did this all start and, more importantly, can I blame the Tories, I wonder? Well, actually, yes. I can. And, specifically and deliciously, I’m fairly certain I can blame Sebastian Coe.
But more on that later.
As Christmas approaches, I’m reminded also of a time (it might well have been the same time) when, on the run up to the big day, venues would have tarted the place up with TJ Hughes tinsel and a canteen of mulled wine, and popped Santa hats on their bar staff. Now they’re offering you the chance to grab an AK 47 and reenact the snowy shoot outs of Die Hard: surely the festive denouement we all conjure up when pressed to choose our favourite Christmas scene.
“Christmas is our busiest time,” says Meg Edwards of Castle Street’s shooting gallery, Point Blank: “And at this time of year, everyone wants to shoot with the guns of Die Hard.” I predicted it at the time. Closing down the Littlewoods Grotto would be the death of Christmas. I didn’t expect Santa to be gunned down in a salvo of bullets fired by a tanked-up hen party.
Point Blank calls itself ‘The Ultimate American Bar’ in a tag line which, without a whiff of irony, ends: ‘with shooting’. Well, yeah, when it comes to authentic Americana they do kind of go together like love and marriage. Or cherry pie and grits. Yippee-Ki-Yay, Mother Christmas.
“People are tired of the same old Christmas parties,” Meg tells me over the sound of gunfire (actually converted airsoft weapons). “Meals with friends are boring. And for get-togethers where you don’t really know anyone, this is the perfect ice breaker.”
And here’s me thinking that it was a glistening pyramid of Ferrero Rocher. Shooting as a substitute for small talk, though. Yeah. I totally get that. I can only assume Point Blank’s founders went to the same PR agency’s Christmas parties that I did.
I start chatting to Jan (that’s her trained assassin name, not her actual one), a lawyer at one of the city’s leading no-win-no-fee solicitors. She’s six rounds into annihilating a warehouse full of terrorists, and she’s got that blissed out, beatific look in her eyes, like the Virgin Mary on freshly lain hay. For Jan, this is flow state with firearms.
“I love it,” she says, while slurping her Rock Out With Your Glock Out cocktail. “The staff are great, the people are great. After a week dealing with lowlife, this is like releasing a pressure valve. It’s better than sex.”
I make a mental note to have Jan on my team next time I’m sued by Signature Living, and to pitch Judge Judy with an Uzi to Amazon Prime as soon as I get home. “I met my financée here,” Jan tells me. “I think it was the way he held his M1911 that got my attention. We’re going to have our baby shower here.” I dance away, my heart bursting with joy, like a born-again Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life.
“We use the same systems that military professionals use,” Meg says. “It’s the closest thing you get to real shooting.” Just add chicken wings and cocktails and Liverpool nightlife just got a new triple threat. “Women make up around 60% of our customers,” Meg says, adding that Point Blank is an equal opportunities shooting range: “As long as kids can stand up, they can shoot, as long as it’s in the school holidays. And we’ve even had the residents of a care home here. That was a great day.”
If you’re after a bellwether for the whole shooting match, you only have to look across Derby Square. If Liverpool ONE is interested, it’s safe to say it’s here to stay. For a while at least. “Post pandemic, people want to invest in themselves more,” says Liverpool ONE Estate Manager Iain Finlayson. “The days of going to a pub and sitting around a table have gone.”
Have they? That sounds a bit sad, I say. Isn’t all this a bit tiring? Whatever happened to good conversation? Liverpool’s proud tradition of pub philosophy? Putting the world to rights over a flinty Sancerre after a decadently long meal? When I was in my 20s, a Saturday night out in town centred around the twin pillars of dancing and drugs. Now it’s about enrolling in a decathlon.
I know, after dark this isn’t my city any more. Maybe it belongs to the sober-curious Gen Zedder and their desire for connection without inebriation (market research company Mintel’s 2023 report revealed that 93% of Gen Zs did at least one competitive socialising stint in the last year).
Or maybe it’s more gen-fluid than that. There’s certainly a broad mix of ages blasting away at Point Blank. “I think it’s about Millennials, too”, one of my Gen Z colleagues at The Post says, with a suspicious readiness to shift the blame. “I think it has something to do with the rise of social media and wanting to have something interesting to post.”
Guns, zombies and axes replacing MDMA, intimidating bouncers and Jagerbombs as social lubricants. It’s an after dark twist no-one saw coming, and one which might just have made social spaces more democratic, safer and all-welcoming. Whatever generation we call our own, who doesn’t want a bit more of that? I snap back into my ancient carcass and join Iain on a trip to Gravity Max, the new(ish) two-floor adventure palace, with arcades, and virtual reality sporting booths of every imaginable variety. We’re followed by a troop of Santa’s elves: a cheery bunch of women on a Christmas day trip from Wrexham.
If, when they start filming the final series of Stranger Things, the scriptwriters come good on their promise to set a storyline in Debenhams, there could be no better Upside Down to the dearly departed store’s rows of brushed cotton onesies and sensible slacks than the full-on ayahuasca head rush of Gravity Max.
Where, once, you could get a reasonably-priced muffin and rest your weary feet, now you can blow zombies’ brains out in the Hologate VR Zone, fly with fire breathing dragons (ok, admittedly, I had a facial from one of them at the Debenhams beauty bar), or race Mario Kart-esque neon-fringed cars over two floors of switchbacks and banked corners.
Against my better judgement (and my age-appropriate kagoule) I instantly fall for the place. It’s all I can do to stop myself from hopping on a simulator and having a dual to certain death with a holidaying child from Spain. “It’s a bit of a sensory overload, isn’t it,” says Iain. “It’s quite difficult going back into the real world after a couple of hours here.” And suddenly I get it. That’s the point. This is why chain restaurants and pubs are struggling. The real world is shit right now. Who’d want to spend a night there?
I suppose that’s why I enjoy sneaking downstairs to the smoke-filled subterranean cigar and whisky bar of Old Hall Street’s Puffin Rooms: isn’t that just a holographic representation of a 1930s Greenwich Village speakeasy? We’re all looking for our own personal escape rooms.
As we gawp at virtual reality batting cages and robotic food serving hatches, Iain tells me 27,000 restaurants will have gone bust by the end of this year alone. It figures. You can call Uber for a pizza. But even Deliveroo can’t summon up a dragon to your door.
“We’re always asking, ‘what is it that people want to come to a city centre for?’”, Liverpool ONE’s Iain says, “and, increasingly, it’s experiences. Cinemas can be challenging, because they’ll live or die on what they’re showing. With competitive socialising, you know what you’re going to get.”
Which is to say pretty much everything, including the kitchen sink – which, if memory serves, is hole nine in Golf Fang. Fun, food, free flowing booze and tunes – all under one roof. When Liverpool ONE opened, just 16% of its offer came from non-retail. A decade and a half later, that’s closer to 40%. Gone are the egg slicers of Lakeland and the fuchsia leggings of American Apparel, in their place the boozy games of Roxy Ball Room and Call of Duty battles of Leveltap.
“Covid pushed things forward ten to fifteen years in the space of two,” Iain says. “People really looked at how they lived their lives. They don’t go out as often, but when they do, it really matters to them.” When they do, they want to be taken somewhere else. Perhaps to Flight Club, Liverpool ONE’s next arrival. It’s darts. But not as you know it.
Until my initiation on a recent trip to Glasgow, darts conjured up memories of complicated maths and casual sexism: not always what I’m looking for from a night out. But, after a 90-minute initiation, I can’t wait for Liverpool’s venue to open next autumn.
Flight Club offers a darts and donkey derby mash up: hit the right number and your horse advances, hit your opponent’s number and watch their old nag stumble. Or how about darts with snakes and ladders, or darts with duck shooting. Darts with all the smarts.
“They’ve been really clever,” Iain says, of Flight Club’s owners, Red Engine. “They’ve thought about what people struggle with, and the rubbish environment, and opened it up to a much wider audience.”
And it all started with ping pong.
Spotting the growth of the experience economy, entrepreneur Adam Breedon mopped up all the discarded table tennis tables from the 2012 Olympics. He opened his ping pong concept bar, Bounce soon after. The rest is competitive socialising history. So when Sebastian Coe talked up the Olympic’s sporting legacy, he might have promised northern playing fields and gymnastics academies, but what we got was beer pong tournaments and the cage-fighting bears of Junkyard Golf.
Like all successful competitive socialising franchises, Flight Club, Bounce and even Hatchet Harry’s ‘Urban axe throwing’ down by Costco don’t trouble themselves with inventing something new. The trick is to take something we thought was past its sell by date, tease out the fun bits, and give it a glow up.
We know how to do that around here. See also Eurovision. Maybe that’s why Liverpool’s responsible for two of the UK’s most successful competitive socialising brands. And both Bongo’s Bingo and Golf Fang (the culturally-sensitive new name for Ghetto Golf) have gone on a party-anthem-fuelled rampage, opening new venues around the country faster than you can say ‘The Vengabus is coming’.
Across town I meet Daniel Gilbanks, co-owner of one of the city’s biggest such venues — the sprawling playpen of Pins Social Club on Duke Street. Within the once-echoey Cream car park are full-sized bowling alleys, shuffleboards, karaoke booths, intimate snugs and pool halls. I try to think of what this sleek venue, with its all-weather roof top hang out, reminds me of. Then I get it: throw in Jane McDonald and a few ice sculptures and it’s like one of those supersized cruise ships has crashed, Speed 2-like, into the city.
“We want more out of our nights than vertical drinking,” Dan says, “Pins isn’t an in-between space, somewhere to have a quick game of bowls before you go on somewhere else. People come here to eat, drink, play and have fun.”
For Dan, whatever Pins is, he’s sure about what it’s not: “We’re not a bowling alley. These are not bowling sheds on retail parks with questionable beer,” he says. “They’re intimate, social spaces. Places that bring people together. I wanted Pins to be a neighbourhood hub, and that’s what it’s turned into. It’s also great for a first date.”
I have visions of me cupping the hand of my new love, tenderly, around a polished 16-pounder, and — gently but decisively — guiding their trembling fingers away from the gutter.
With more venues set to open in the new year, have we reached competitive socialising over-saturation point? Are we about to witness a night of the long knives? “Not quite,” Dan says, “but it will come. A lot of operators will try to make a quick buck, but the crap ones won’t last.”
Night of the long knives…Now there’s a thought. Competitive machete throwing, with a spit roast and ‘90s bangers. Who’s in?