Looking for the heart of Saturday night
How Liverpool does dance differently
By Abi Whistance
It’s just gone 10pm and I’m in the middle of Concert Square, sandwiched between a hen party and a stag do. Both, in some strange twist of fate, are donning glittery cowboy hats and feather boas. Three words bounce around my head as a donk remix of the Countdown theme thumps out the speakers: God Help Me.
It’s not like I’d usually spend my Saturday nights here. In fact, in the eight months I’ve been living in Liverpool, I’ve deliberately gone out of my way to avoid these sorts of places. My regular haunts are usually down on Constance Street (formerly home to Melodic Bar, a legendary venue for dance music DJs across the UK — the closure of which remains a sore spot for me still) or Arts Bar Baltic (though I’m normally DJing behind the decks, rather than standing in front of them). Tonight though, I’ve made a conscious effort to explore the entirety of Liverpool, warts and all.
In my short time living in the city, I’ve heard all sorts of complaints about the nightlife. Promoters struggling to sell tickets for underground events. Ravers complaining about the lack of a major club to compare to, say, Manchester’s White Hotel. Gone are the days of Cream, the iconic venue that saw Paul Oakenfold and The Chemical Brothers take to its stage, and that famous video of Quadrant Park rocking to the sounds of N-Joi. The scene is dying, I’ve heard some people say. We just need to let it go.
Which is tough luck for people like me, who arrived too late for the good old days. Frankly, though, I’ve never totally trusted this narrative of decline. Is Liverpool’s nightlife really on the wane, struggling to compete against neighbouring cities like Manchester? Or is it just different — carving out its own little segment of the world and choosing to operate against the grain? Surely, all nightlife scenes have their peaks and troughs over the years? Tonight, I’m trying to find out more.
My plan was to make a list of the hottest places to head to on a Saturday night about town, and hit as many as I could before my bedtime — a reasonable 2am. In my Liverpool nightlife awakening, I hoped to discover the real heart of the city, a collection of thumping, pumping new clubs that will make it into the history books.
Yet, never one to plan too far ahead before a big night out, it’s not until 4pm that afternoon that I begin searching for events on Google and Resident Advisor. To my surprise, there are slim pickings. It’s payday weekend, the end of dry January, the grand finale of Independent Venue Week. What do you mean I have to choose between an immersive Fleetwood Mac tribute and six hours of speed garage?
Slightly downtrodden by the night’s prospects, I begrudgingly wonder if the people complaining about the scene might have a point. I head to a place I know will raise my spirits and get me in the party mood: Arts Bar Baltic. It’s rammed when me and my boyfriend arrive. A man on the door thrusts a leaflet for Independent Venue Week into our hands. “We’ve got loads on tonight,” he grins, gesturing for us to take a seat inside. There’s a woman on stage strumming a guitar. While we weren’t after a night of live music, we oblige, and before long we’re nattering away with the bar’s owner, Tom, about our plans.
I explain to him that I’d taken to the internet earlier to find a next level club night for us to attend, but came up empty-handed. “What are you on about?” he laughs. “Sonic Yootha is on down the road!” For those not in the know, Sonic Yootha has a bit of a cult following. A queer club night that has taken place at Camp and Furnace and 24 Kitchen Street for nearly a decade, the party has developed a great reputation thanks to its throwback tunes, great DJs, and welcoming atmosphere. How had I missed it?
Turns out, they feel little need to boast about their fandom. There’s no post about tonight’s event on the 24 Kitchen Street Instagram page, and it’s not linked on their website either. There are, however, a few posters dotted around the Baltic Triangle. “It’s a bit of an if you know, you know thing,” Tom says, before dashing back behind the bar to serve a crowd of blokes carrying amplifiers.
It piques our interest — but not wanting to be the first kids at the dance, we head into town first before embarking on the main event. We start at Metrocola, a bar that serves almost as many beers as it has chairs with climbing plants wrapped around its rafters. I’d heard great things about the place; club nights hosted upstairs and tables swiftly moved out of the way to create dancefloors when the clock strikes twelve.
Tonight, we aren’t so lucky. When we arrive, there’s an episode of Casualty blaring across four TVs that are dotted around the place, all shown without sound or subtitles. While it’s not quite the Saturday night lash we were after, we grab a pint and look for somewhere to sit. No luck. We end up leaning carefully against what looks like a kitchen counter, next to a bag of wilting lettuce and a few crumpled napkins.
Tucked away in the corner, a DJ is playing some Glitterbox anthems. A small crowd of girls are softly waving their arms in front of him. We were after something a little rowdier than this tonight, so we sneak upstairs to where we think the real action is unfolding. We make it up to the events space, following the sound of Chicago house music producer Paul Johnson to the door. Unfortunately, a sign blocks the entrance: “Private party only”. Drat.
A boy, no older than 19, stands in front of us as we try to make our way back downstairs. “The last time I was in here, girl, I put a full grown man right through that window,” he says. He’s got a vodka and coke in one hand and is gesticulating wildly with the other, occasionally stopping to rest his arm on the shoulder of the girl in front of him. “Nah I swear, he was trying to scrap and I was trying to proper box him. I’m a boxer, you know?” She smiles back at him, a look of wonderment in her eyes. “Wow,” she says. “That’s heavy, that”.
Not wanting to break up such a romantic moment, we awkwardly shuffle past them and take that as our signal to leave. Onto our next, and perhaps less hopeful, location: Concert Square. While we’re not expecting to find the next Paradise Garage here, I feel it’s important to get a sense for what partying is like all over Liverpool. In nearly every top ten article about the city’s nightlife, this spot is referenced. It feels like a rite of passage.
It’s easy to know when you’re on the approach. The first thing I see is a solitary sign that’s being thrust into the air by a young lady. “STRIPPERS?” the sign inquires. Soon, two more signs appear. And then another. And another. We’ve arrived.
You can see why tourists flock here in their dozens. There are countless bars and venues with al fresco drinking; strobe lights flashing in all directions that give it that real Euro-holiday vibe; and a half-inside, half-outside club called Soho that acts as the nucleus of the operation.
I wander into the club and try to speak to one of the bartenders. “Do you like working here?” I half-ask, half-yell over the sound of what can only be described as aggressive trance. “Sorry, love,” the woman next to her says, clearly her boss. “She’s too busy working for your questions. Buy a drink?”
Beer in hand and feeling a little put out by my previous interaction, I head back to find my boyfriend, who’s taken to listening to BBC News on his phone. The evening is shaping up to be a far cry from the dream night-out I had promised; his face wearing a pained expression as he rests himself against the carnival-style entrance of a bar called Play Box.
We conclude that coming here was a poor idea — we’re out searching for the real gems of Liverpool, not what tops Tripadvisor’s rankings. What we’re really after is the cooler-than-cool, the places people look back on and say: “Yeah, nights at that club were the best of my life, right?”
For a split second I consider sacking it all off and taking him to Meraki or The Quarry — two of my favourite clubs in the city — for some light relief. I know those places are great and I’ve had fantastic nights out in their smoke-filled rooms, dancing to techno and watching my mates DJ. But both venues are small, a little too intimate for what we’re trying to uncover here. Tonight’s about the next big thing — that essential, life-affirming night-out everybody you know is at; that Human Traffic moment you reminisce about in the pub in ten years’ time.
So, we finally decide to head for the night’s crescendo. The place that you go to, or so I hear, if you want to be someone or meet someone: 24 Kitchen Street.
It’s just gone half eleven by the time we get there, and there’s a queue snaking out of the venue and into the smoking area. It moves fast, and before we know it we’re stood inside, a giant glitter ball hanging precariously above our heads; the letters S and Y for Sonic Yootha stamped on the walls and the radiating heat of sweaty bodies around us.
“If you’re ready for me boy, you better / Push the button and let me know…”
Is that The Sugababes I’m hearing? Christ, I haven’t heard this in years. We grab a drink — eight quid for two halves, may I add — and we’re eager to hit the dancefloor, surrounded by people syphoned off in their little friendship groups. The entire place is heaving, and the couple in front of me are necking off in profound fashion. Could this be what we’ve been searching for?
“This place is boss,” Karl tells me. He’s outside having a fag with a mate when I intercept him, quizzing him about Sonic Yootha and Kitchen Street before he dashes back inside. As luck would have it, he used to be the bar manager here, and has been coming to this event for nearly a decade.
I tell him of my plight for Liverpool’s best clubs, and explain the difficulty in finding somewhere that feels like a real generation-defining night-out. “I think it’s because we keep it underground, yanno?” he says. “When you go to Paris, or Barcelona, you go where most tourists go. The same applies here — but if you want to go to the good places you’ve gotta ask the right people who actually know the city.”
There are parts of Liverpool that still ride on the coattails of venues like Cream and The Cavern Club, he says, but there’s a real “counterculture” forming in places like 24 Kitchen Street. Counterculture? I ask, fully aware I’ve just been listening to the Sugababes inside. “What I mean is, Liverpool’s a big fucking dance city, but from that there’s small splinter-like things that break away from that. It’s punk,” he says.
Here’s the thing Karl is getting at: the city has had its fingers burned before. Once the hub of all things cool back in the 1960s and ’90s, Liverpool now finds itself flooded with tourists every weekend, filling clubs and bars like clockwork on a Friday night, blocking locals from their locals.
When we look back at the days of massive venues like Cream and The Cavern Club, there was only a small window of time in which those places actually served the people that live here. As soon as a club or venue becomes the go-to destination of a city, it starts to cater to the vast swathes of people that flock there for a weekend away or stag-do.
Of course, places like Manchester and Leeds still have their own iconic venues that attract countless visitors and locals alike (the White Hotel and Freedom Mills spring to mind), but these venues feel a little too well established to fully hold onto their “underground” reputation. Liverpool, on the other hand, keeps a tight grip — the quiet success of places like Kitchen Street down to the fact they’re made by the people who live here, for the people who live here.
As we walk home, our legs feeling a little jellied after sinking more than a few, we talk about how different the evening turned out from what we expected. Despite not quite finding that “generation-defining night-out” I still felt victorious. I felt I understood the city I live in a little better.
The nightlife here may not revolve around one sun, nor does it have to. Instead, it is a galaxy of little stars.