If you live in a big city, you don't need to pay money to see a celebrity. There are tons of them just walking around, eating in tacky sushi restaurants and doing boxercise on Clapham Common as if they were normal people like you and me. As a result, city-dwellers are less likely to be dazzled by fame. If you roll up to the club in a rented stretch Hummer in London or Liverpool, people will probably just throw kebab meat at it. But move out of the city and it's a different story.
Fame's currency increases every mile you move away from any place a tourist or a terrorist would ever want to visit. Cruise along the A-roads and through the "leisure districts" of a place like Chelmsford or Wigan in a massive pink car, and onlookers will point and assume it's someone worth giving a shit about behind the blacked-out windows, rather than you and your mates arguing with the driver because the bride-to-be puked all over the cream pleather interior.
While city clubbers have been busy trying to figure out if they really have the time or the money to sustain that trap lifestyle, a new trend has gripped the suburban nightlife scene – at some point, provincial promoters became entranced with the idea of paying minor celebrities to make "public appearances" in nightclubs. More depressingly, it seems to be wildly successful. Yeah, you might laugh at the videos of people groping Danny Dyer as he tries to mix "Harlem Shake" into "Born Slippy". And yeah, it basically seems like the death of nightlife. But as a touring scene, it's one that currently has more nationwide appeal than any music scene does, so it must mean something to someone, right?
It was time for me to explore this new trend, and where better to start than the absolute worst of the worst, the beta-blocker Brasilia, the town that has become British shorthand for suburban futility?
How you doing tonight, Milton Keeeeeynes?
The night I chose for my descent into high street Hades was the launch party for a new magazine called TrendLife. The participants were me, several hundred people with waxed eyebrows and Mark Wright and James "Arg" Argent, stars of 2010's biggest reality hit, The Only Way Is Essex.
Interestingly, they were keen to emphasise that this was Mark Wright's first official appearance in Milton Keynes, as if every time he'd been there previously had been a kind of white label visit, Wright living a secret double-life of under-the-radar excursions to the National Badminton Museum and bootleg skiing lessons at the SNO!zone complex.
You might think that, so far, I've been a bit too harsh on Milton Keynes. But consider for a second how odd the concept of a club in a suburban shopping centre is. Traditionally, nigtclubs have been places where people have gone to get fingered, take drugs and gouge each other's eyes out. I'm not saying that's what goes down at WonderWorld, but it felt weird finding it at the top floor of the Xscape shopping precinct, nestled between Frankie & Bennys and a branch of Quiksilver. Imagine if Berghain moved into Lakeside, or if the Hacienda had been in the Trafford Centre.
The club itself was designed with an aesthetic that called to mind both a strip club on-board a Baltic cruise liner and a branch of Laser Quest. The chintzy decor reminded me of what I thought nightclubs were when I was a kid, tacky playgroups for grown-ups, full of sweating bad dads in iridescent polyster shirts and hysterical matriarchs sobbing into drinks that taste of coconut.
To be honest, if the music policy was themed around the guests, it was pretty accurate. The DJ made me feel like I was stuck in a cut-scene from TOWIE, his set consisted mostly of those vaguely recognisable synth-pop tracks they use in the soundtrack – the ones written for those grime artists who seem to have spent the last few years on parole in the Top 40, like Tinchy or Dappy. I stood around awkwardly not really knowing what to do with myself, feeling less like a weekend warrior than an extra in a pub that had been hired out by a TV production team on a Tuesday afternoon.
Why does every group of young women confronted with a camera bigger than an iPhone these days feels the need to assemble themselves into formation like this? Are they hoping that some desperate svengali might stumble upon the resulting Facebook album and decide that the world needs a new reality show about the bewitching glamour of their lives?
Also, is jutting your arse at the camera the new duckface?
If the latest photo-pose trend for the women is the lensward arse-jut, then the boys seem to have developed their own new move: the "sexy" head-rub. Our man probably thinks it makes him look like David Gandy in the D&G aftershave ad he saw at the bus stop that morning, but really it just makes me think of people clawing at their own skull after too many Es.
They prowled the dancefloor like Home Counties Tony Maneros, on a disco safari for worse for wear lasses in bodycon playsuits who might believe they were douchey enough to be part of Mark Wright's entourage.
Is there any sight in the club landscape more depressing than the empty private booth? They linger at the edges of the carpeted dancefloor night as symbols of misguided decadence, like burnt out American yachts during the fall of Batista's Cuba. The guy who'd booked it never did come to claim his throne, maybe because it looks like it was upholstered by a psytrance crack baby, maybe because "Kyle Welch" doesn't even exist and the promoters just wanted to give off the vibe that their night was coveted by the Milton Keynes glitterati. Either way, those columns of plastic tumblers served as a grim reminder that even people who book private booths in nightclubs didn't fancy this one.
The latest accessory for those desperately trying to convey a sense of that Maybach life on Saab money is the E-Cig. They might think they look like ballers, but it was actually a depressing metaphor for the whole night. Nobody was actually rich, nobody was actually famous, nobody actually had the money or social sway to convince a bouncer to let them smoke a real cigarette up in the club. These people are basically the grown up versions of the kids who claimed they were getting drunk off cider lollipops.
As the night ratcheted up through the gears of vacuous tedium, the blazer crew started to filter in. Their swagger suggested this was Milton Keynes' version of the TOWIE Rat Pack, or Spencer Matthews' Chelsea Pussy Posse. But if Mark Wright is the Essex Sinatra and Matthews the King's Road DiCaprio, then what’s left? Two strange men in ill-fitting jackets rehearsing scenes for a show no one else realised existed, like an inverse Truman Show without the happy ending.
On the other end of the scale was this guy, who was all dolled up in what looks like the first piece from the River Island X Rick Owens collab all the fashion bloggers are waiting for. And yeah, he looks pretty cool. Say what you like, it takes a lot more balls to wear a leather tabard and trouser combo to a high street club in a shopping centre than it does in East London. My initial thinking was that he didn't really make sense here, but then I looked around the room and realised that no one did. Not the admin ballers or the gym freaks. Not the trainee aromatherapists or the drunk rugby props. Who were these people? Why were they here?
And then it occurred to me that, more than anything, this was an event without an identity.
The night was further confused by the chaos that greeted the arrival of The Artist Only Known As Arg. Oddly, his arguably more famous TOWIE co-star Mark Wright opted to take the graveyard slot, so much so that when I occasionally heard a disembodied Estuary accent shout "Yes, yes Milton Keynes!" at the two drunk girls and assorted staff members that were in the building, I didn't even realise it was him. I know you think I was elsewhere soaking up all the hedonism Milton Keynes had to offer at the time, but the Brentwood Bogart really had left the building by midnight, leaving his tubby sideman to take the headline set.
It seemed weird to me that they didn't even cross each other's paths. They were in the same club on the same night, but they avoided each other like awkward exes at a house party. It was quite sad in a way; two ex-best friends reduced to being ships in the suburban night on the same miserable PA circuit. A childhood friendship torn apart by that extra 200 quid Wright gets because he brings more girls in.
I'm sure you're wondering exactly what it is a man who's chiefly famous for being unlucky in love and out of shape does in a "personal appearance". Well, there are actually many facets to such a role. That cash-in-hand money doesn't earn itself. Chiefly, he seemed to loiter around the DJ booth, co-sign their choices with the occasional gun finger and sometimes lean into the mic to shout stuff. I realised that one of the main duties was remembering the name of whatever satellite town he happened to have wound up in and inserting it into stock phrases like: "Milton Keynes girls are definitely much fitter than Essex girls." And suddenly I became very depressed.
After his set, the great entertainer retreated to his backstage boudoir, like some kind of Ziggy Stardust character trying to escape from the adoring masses in the darkness beyond the stage. But the promoters weren't letting him have that moment with himself. For tonight, he was their dancing monkey, and they had paid him at least three hundred pounds, so he was to dance for them once more.
A gaggle of screaming girls assembled into single file in the VIP lounge. The security boys made sure nobody got too close to this rarest of talents. Arg looked deep inside his soul, took a deep breath and headed once more unto the breach.
Firstly, they made him do a shot of something.
When the poor bastard didn't like his shot, the crowd jeered and booed, as if to mock him for his very humanity. They seemed to enjoy a telly icon being reduced to the victim of a fratboy pledge. I began to wonder if despite the security presence, I was witnessing some kind of ritual, an emotional flaying visited upon a man who was deemed to have grown too big for his boots by his resentful public.
Still, he regained enough dignity to pose for loads of photos with girls trying to make their boyfriends jealous. I regained some respect for him, despite the minor celebrity passion play he'd been forced to star in he was swagging it out like a modern dandy, taking revenge on those who had called him a "fat cunt" during his DJ set. I think he was a bit creeped out by me being the only man in the queue to meet him, though.
After Arg had set back out onto the open road, scouring the darkness for another cluster of lights like the depression-era travelling minstrel he's become, I made a final circuit of the club. I couldn't help but think I was witnessing the end of British nightlife. If you want to see the true horror of hyper-capitalism at work, you don't have go to the Square Mile to hang out in toilet queues full of sniffing city boys, you've got to look at small-town service workers pretending to be Young Money.
Of course, as anyone who's woken up on a stranger's sofa with a blocked nose and Rick Ross still on repeat will know, this kind of thing is a tempting facade. Why bother taking responsibility for yourself in a society that feels no responsibility towards you? Why save and invest that shitty wage you make when you can blow it all on one night out in a third-tier town centre and chill your Bulmer's in an ice bucket?
It appears that in the wake of all the bullshit we've been put through in the last few years, the minor celebrity guest appearance scene represents a new kind of emergent club culture, one which wasn't readily available to the masses before. Going out used to be about getting fucked up, getting laid and maybe getting in a fight if you were so inclined, but there was none of that here. Just disparate groups of bored looking people all trying to impress each other with displays of attainable wealth. Sure, this kind of thing has gone on for years, from Studio 54 to Diddy yacht parties, but in a club on the top floor of a Buckinghamshire shopping centre, it presents a few problems.
There are towns just like Milton Keynes up and down the country. Babylons of fun where people conduct their social lives like they're in an expensive retirement community. I'm not saying everywhere should have its own Trocadero and gang colour coding system, but people deserve better than this. Especially young people. Because young people are fucking great, or at least they can be if they're not culturally dispossessed, forced to subsist in places where all the rough edges of the human condition have been smoothed off to create a heartfelt memorial to the real world.
I know that a club in Milton Keynes with a PA from two washed-up reality stars doesn't seem like it has anything to do with modern-day British youth culture, but everybody's gotta live somewhere, and most of them live in places where nights like this are the week's hottest tickets. And if that's the case, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions about what the fuck it is we're doing here.
Back in the club, the vibe was absolutely terrible. The DJs played awful music all night long, the UK garage section they promised consisted of "Gotta Get Thru This" and not much else. Nobody danced, nobody cried, nobody got in a fight and the drinks weren't cheap enough to justify any part of it. It was the worst combination of pretentious and shit. Everything about it was terrible and I wanted to leave.
On the way out, I noticed this; the perfect metaphor not just for the night but quite possibly for current British nightlife itself. A plush room full of velvet sofas and fake books, with a leaking roof and a gaggle of drunk girls in party dresses trying to avoid getting wet. It might not look like much, but I think this could be 2013's Bayeux Tapestry.
I came into this night expecting to find some kind of higher truth in our shared love of getting fucked up. I wanted to come in and find out that really, despite the odd 70p slapped on top of the drinks prices and the odd two years behind in the music selections, there really wasn't that much difference between TrendLife and real life. I hoped that perhaps some of my issues with my own sheltered social existence would be tempered with a dip into the mainstream.
But in reality I came away thoroughly depressed. There was just nothing here. No style, no class, no grot, no filth, no fear, no music policy, no dress code, no nothing. It felt like being in one of those late-night Hollyoaks specials were they say "bollocks" occasionally rather than a palace of sin where, if you looked in the right dark corners, you might have the most important experiences of your life.
At its best, that's what clubbing can be. That's what disco was, that's what acid house was and that's what many club nights across the country still are. But while I don't think every night of our lives needs to be Larry Levan and Madonna at the Paradise Garage, booking two TV chancers that even Heat aren't interested in any more to co-ordinate an underwhelming Harlem Shake is not an acceptable event to charge money for. At best, it should be a Holiday Camp freebie. At its worst, it is here.
Follow Clive and Jake on Twitter: @thugclive
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