This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
It was revealed last year that over the last decade half of Britain's nightclubs have closed down. In many cases, former clubs had become restaurants, apartments, or shops. The ALMR, the group that represents venues and put together the report, said that in some towns, "they are gone for good and we're never going to get them back." It seemed like just another story about gentrification and profit. British cities are being stripped for parts and sold to the highest bidder.
But the changes to what the country does at night are a lot more profound than a few clubs turning into branches of Carluccio's. There is a bigger transformation going on, one that strikes at the very heart of British youth culture, and the nightclub closures are a symptom, not a cause.
The unique character of British nightlife was born from two anomalies. The first, our history of illegal raves, throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Unlike, say, America, where dance music has largely been another part of the commercial entertainment industry, contemporary nightlife emerged here as a form of resistance, legally agitative and ostracized by mainstream values. Raves eventually antagonized the government into creating the Criminal Justice Bill of 1994 which tried to explicitly ban gatherings where music "characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats" was played. The bill was largely successful in killing off the illegal rave, but it had the unforeseen consequence of enshrining clubbing as a counterculture, creating an explosion of super clubs, and beginning a lineage of underground club music—through jungle garage, grime dubstep, and house—unrivaled in the rest of the world. All of this was helped by the other anomaly: our prissy licensing laws which meant, for many years, that most pubs closed at 11:00 PM, leaving hopeful debauchees looking for something more.
Nightclubs, particularly British ones, often located in basements or railway arches, should be shit. A cold room with loud music and no chairs, where you can't hear what anyone is saying and all you can do is dance, something you have no idea how to do. They are deeply dysfunctional. Yet in those two decades since rave, we learned that lack of a plan is the essence of nightlife. At the cinema you watch a film, at restaurants you eat, at the pub you drink—but in a club, there is no established goal. It's really up to you whether you dress up like a sequined dragonfruit or just tie a jumper around your waist, whether you take a fistful of narcotics and shuffle along the dance floor like a sloth having a fit or spend your whole evening on the prowl, eventually going home with the doorman.
For two generations, that particular strand of lawless nightlife in the UK flourished. From blockbuster films to the colonization of the balearics islands, British nightlife was imperial. Married couples met pilled-up in room two, babies were conceived in Gatecrasher toilets. The dance club became a fact of British towns like the butcher or the Tesco Express. It seemed like this is how it would always be.
But in the past five years, things have changed immeasurably. Clubs have closed, while food culture and late-night pubs boom. Certainly, part of that story is about our towns becoming less rugged and more uniform as property prices increase, and clubs are priced out, but it's also about an unwillingness from authorities to allow young people to use the night for hedonistic freedom, an unwillingness from business to let clubs be independent, unregulated, and unprofitable. It's about pervasive racism in some of London's most prominent nightclubs. It's about the rise of festivals and online dating replacing many of the nightclub's main functions. It's also about a new generation of young people, for whom years of dancing and drug-taking may be a long way down their priority list.
This week, VICE UK and our club culture channel Thump will look at the new state of nightlife in Britain—from the questionable door policies of West End clubs, to the rise of corporate interests in clubbing, to the next generation of teenagers and their alternative view of going out. Nightclubs might be falling out of favor, but that still leaves the bigger question: who owns the night now?