The band Dr. Feelgood outside The Crescent. Before my time, but you get the idea: bleak.
For reasons unknown, nature had decreed that not until I was older than Bruce Forsyth's wank sock would puberty be for me. By this time, my friends had developed the cojones of Ukrainian separatists and jaw-lines like sculpted beef. In a cruel twist of irony, one my two best friends was 6' 3" while the other, Ricky Adams, had completed his entire pubic cycle by about age 10. His nickname was Ed, short for Early Developer - that and Grizzly Adams, owing to the fact that he was such a hairy shit. By Prep.7 he resembled a Bulgarian Robin Williams with twice the forearm hair. We got off lightly, though, compared to Hob-knob Bob, whose ill-timed erection in the boy's changing rooms was legend by the time I arrived at Sullivan Upper.
I still don't get what the connection was between boners and oat-based tea biscuits, but then these nicknames didn't always have to make sense. As for Wanky Warny, though - I mean, if you can't do the time. As you can imagine, this made it difficult to get with girls. That year, I stalked the corridors of the 6th form building like an upright man-baby in a child's blazer, fated to spend my Friday nights with my mum in our over-heated living room - a couple of fuzzies sucking boiled sweets and bonding over a shared love of Paul Daniel's Every Second Counts.
The point is, my appearance also made it difficult to get into clubs. Throughout those years, I came to dread the inevitable 9 o'clock phone call home to ask mum if she'd pick me up by the fountain next to the taxi rank. In the queues for these clubs (be it Bangor's The Boom Boom Room, or one of Holywood's local crap-holes), right before making it to the door, everyone around me would miraculously disappear. No one wanted to play Ian to my Jimmy Cranky, lest they wind up on that same, slow train ride home. One time, I told the bouncers to fuck off and ran away. On occasion, I'd resort to begging. At the door of Hunters, I mis-remembered the date of birth on my new fake ID - apparently, I was born some time between the Suez Crisis and the Cambodian civil war. I walked back to Botanic train station, vowing to learn karate.
No matter what, though, the one place where I was always welcome was the rancid, rave-pub stroke spunk-bunker hell-hole, The Crescent Bar And Nightclub: a shit stain on the yellowing pants of western civilisation and, when you're 16 and smaller than your own mum, just about the best night out in the world. In every large town and city in Britain there's a bar like The Crescent: what was essentially a licenced youth club with a relaxed policy on projectile vomiting, and murderous teen-on-teen hand jobs in the toilets.
In the 80s, it was uncommon for anyone from the small towns around Belfast to venture into the city for a night out, such was the climate of fear in civil war-era Northern Ireland. My eldest brother had spent his teens attending functions at golf course bars, hotels or church halls in the surrounding countryside. Going to The Crescent was that bit more treacherous, however, because it was at the mouth of Sandy Row: a self-governed, loyalist stronghold, which for years had been the setting for much bloodshed on both sides of the community.
The Crescent itself was bombed in 1974, while right up until the late 90s the two loyalist factions who controlled the area - the UDA and the UFF - where embroiled in a tit-for-tat blood feud. In the years following the 1993 IRA cease fire, however, tension thawed and "post-war" babies like our lot drifted way deep into the heartland of south Belfast - and right up to the doors of The Crezzy.
Garbed in our gingham Ben Sherman shirts, brown leather shoes and royal blue denim Kickers jackets, every time you'd turn off from Shaftsbury Square on to Sandy Row you were hit by how much closer the bar seemed compared to the last time. It would just jump out at you, as if the auld bastard had been waiting for us. By the time we began attending, all the buildings around the bar had been demolished, leaving The Crescent to stand alone in a wasteland against the blue night sky like a terrible monolith. As if it had simply sprouted like a shit-ass oak from the detrital filth that surrounded it. All it was missing was fork lightning and a drawbridge.
As you came in, to you right was an old man in charge of taking your £5 entry fee - "Mr 'Ankyou" - who you imagined lived in the tiny cubbie hole he worked in, and who looked like he might have a hand in building the Titanic. To get to him, though, you first had to make it past head bouncer Jimmy. Some people he would rag on just for his own amusement (Andy Wright told of how one time Davey 'Boo' Best used his sister's passport as ID, and was made to explain that he was a Scandinavian woman called Linda), but Jimmy would always just laugh at the sight of me walking in all dressed up like a 9 year old at his first wedding, muss my hair up and hand me one of the lollies they gave out at the door. If you were lucky, you got a Creme Egg.
Then, like that, everything was pure mash and gravy. In like Flynn, like school dins. In like a dog in a hat with a bone and a ten-tonne rat – in! The smell of old dick would hit you but bang a cigarette in, side-by-side with the other 400 people smoking, and you'd be okay. Available at the bottom bar was the most incredible array of shite: MD 20/20, 50p shots of Rumple Mince, faux-Oriental alcho-pops and out-of-date Harp. You'd wake up the next day with a hangover that felt like an industrial accident. They had beer barrels for tables, and for seating you were given the choice of wartime era stools, or greasy, second-hand cinema seats.
If you were stupid enough to fall asleep on them, you'd wake up with your cheek coated in a thin patina of spaff-toffee, which would attract dust like a lint-roller until your face looked like Brian Blessed's asshole. Spaffy though the seats may have been, it never stopped people going fully at it on them. Sometimes whole rows would be occupied with hornball teens, hands everywhere. I pulled once at The Crescent. She had really big feet.
The clientele was a potentially combustible mixture of inner city kids from the surrounding area, and us, the well-to do kids from the East Belfast suburbs, though I never once saw a fight break out. In a way, it was utopian. Apparently the local paramilitaries saw is differently, though. One Saturday night they forced their way into the bottom bar with guns, shut the music off and announced there'd be dire consequences for anyone caught fighting outside at closing time. You'd have thought they'd have been more concerned by the rows of teenage girls pissing against the club's wall, but those cunts work in mysterious ways. The incident became another piece of Crezzy-lore to add to the pile. The following Monday at school, everyone who'd been there was telling the story. Jenny McWilliams said she nearly shit herself.
In reality, though, the only injuries sustained where from people falling down the vertiginous staircase leading to the second floor. At regular intervals throughout the night, there'd be someone or other hurtling headfirst down the sweat-slippy stairs at breakneck speed on their fronts, battling to save their pint rather than protect their genitalia in some kind of weird spin on Sophie's Choice. Sometimes it'd be whole groups of people: folk on top of others, riding each other like man-surfers. This is what happens when you squeeze 500 16 year olds into a concrete shed, and ply them with Tennents Super at £1.00 a pop.
The fire exit was constantly open with people yacking out of it. A kindly bouncer would man the door and give you a friendly pat on the back, before ushering you back inside like a friendly mortician. If you couldn't make it to the fire exit there was always the floor, which was covered in sawdust for that exact purpose. The legend was it was impossible to get chucked out of The Crescent.
I would spend my 18th birthday party at The Crescent. Despite having twice filled the sink of the local pizza restaurant with regurgitated Goldschläger, 20 of my ruinously pissed mates and I made it past the door staff without a single hitch. My only other memories of that night are waking up on the couches to the opening bars of Jamiroquai's 'Deeper Underground' and the arrival of our smarmy cunt P.E teacher, who had somehow learned that our girl mates would be attending and had shown up under the pretence of wishing me a happy birthday. He would later be chucked out for dancing on the tables. I'd say it probably wasn't his last run-in with the authorities.
By around half eleven, it was time to make your way up to the second floor. The dancefloor. By this point, the night would disintegrate into a series of stolen Polaroids: a bar-man's beer-wet hand, the back of a dress, my mate Cogzy laughing in my drunk face, my shoes as my chin drooped onto my chest in some red-painted corner - but some things I remember vividly. The floor was often so packed that you only need open the door, and out would spill a couple of revellers. On to the dancefloor now, and everything falls apart. The Dresden of all dry-ice machines would burst great flumes overhead as your mates shouted inaudible prayers in pure vibration, a clammy hand round your hot neck.
Groups of Instonian boys in rugby shirts would dance in awkward perv-herds next to the tough girls in their mini skirts, while Christian-looking Strathearn Sloans in hipster jeans would swoon over the local bad boys, some of whom I remember sporting the white gloves and hi-vis jackets of the 'ardcore era. The crowd was impenetrably dense. Of course, everyone smoked on the dance floor, so that invariably you'd come away from the melee with scorched knuckles, forearms, and elbows. Lads with their tops off might end up with a couple of extra nipples.
The music was fast and cheap: sped-up Space Brothers tracks or that brand of high-BPM cassette 'ardcore you could only hear on Scottish pirate radio stations. JX's 'Son Of A Gun' was a must-play, as was Brit post-hardcore pop like QFX's 'Freedom' and N-Trance's 'Set U Free'. Poker-faced, stack-the-boxes rave dancing was rife. Later there'd be pop-house medleys featuring Mousse T's 'Horny' or weird Italo oddity 'Feel It' (The Tamperer feat. Maya) while peak-time was all about the trance. Paul Van Dyke's 'For An Angel' was the in-house anthem.
This is how I remember it – as a fantasia, a dream. Add in the criss-crossing lights, the promise of romance, your first experiences of this unreality and the thunderous sound systems, all told the effect on our new bodies; so full of serotonin and responsive to stimulation, was dazzling and almost chemical. With or without the rose-tinted glasses, the hormonal furnace that was The Crescent's upstairs was dreamlike even then - not just in the ether of nostalgia.
Within 6 months of our leaving Northern Ireland for university in September 1999, the old nag was finally put to rest in a heap on the floor. That Easter, after a night on the piss in Belfast, we went to see for ourselves. There it was, a pile of rubble that used to be The Crescent. We picked through the wreckage looking for mementos. Most of us salvaged a brick or two, though lo and behold Ricky unearthed the famous wooden sign reading 'Sawdust And Soul', which tragically his Dad would later throw out.
We stood for a moment in the sodium gloom surveying the resting place of one hundred golden nights. It was then we knew that our lives would never be the same again. I mean, actually, after The Crescent closed we just went to The Globe round the corner instead, which was pretty class and had pool tables. But still - it felt like buried beneath that chalky purple debris was a little part of our childhood, along with like a used condom and a shoe someone lost, and whose owner had to lie to their mum that someone stole one of their shoes.
Belfast was changing. The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought to an end to three decades of bitter violence™, and while freed IRA men poured out of the prisons (one of the terms of TGFA) money was pouring into the city from every direction. The infamous Maze prison was closed and became a shit Northern Irish version of Alcatraz, where Americans could take photos of the room where Bobby Sands drew his last breath, or the cell where LVF high commander Billy "King Rat" Wright played Tekken on his Playstation One.
The Potthouse, Belfast.
By the end of the decade super-club nights like Shine were blowing up (not literally), while a batch of deadening clubs opened inside the newly built Odyssey Arena: Belfast's answer to the O2. Soulless All Bar One-esque boozers, all brown leather and pseudo-sophistication, were springing up all around the city, in an embarrassing attempt by Belfast publicans to approximate the neo-winebar culture that had taken root in 90s London. Everywhere you looked luxury apartments blocks were being built, many of which lie empty to this day. The Potthouse, an all-glass monument to the "New Northern Ireland" with its sterile, deodorised feel and modernist, austere décor, was built. A palace of pop-up collars, preppie weight-trainers and stoney BT9 girls pretending to like R&B that was about as much fun as a puncture wound.
It was one of those apartments that would replace The Crescent. In 2006, Ricky's school sweetheart Suzi Waddell, my reluctant date for our Upper Sixth Formal who I was always totally in love with, moved into the plush residences built on the site where once had stood The Crescent. One afternoon, while walking the laminate flooring of the apartment's freshly painted hallway, a memory like a vision reached up 6 floors and landed in me. We were back in The Crescent again, before we thought about time or working every day. We were dancing, and worried about nothing. With every new minute came new excitements. And they were forever.
You can follow John Calvert on Twitter here: @JCalvert_Music
RIP The Crescent