Once you enter a club for the very first time, some part of you will never leave. That first big night out is a bonafide rite of passage. For most people the process takes place aged around 17, when they band together with a few mates for fake IDs and a night of group hugs, fist pumps and selfies with pints. But for some, it arrives a lot earlier that. For decades now a select few British nightclubs have attempted to turn the old clichés of door policy on their head, to forgo the nuances of dress code and go full iconoclast on the status quo. These nights actively seek to attract a demographic hitherto shunned by the nightlife elite: children.
To be clear, I'm not talking about seedy back alley clubs that let in underage drinkers in the hopes of clawing back depleting revenue. I'm talking about the noble few nights on our sceptred Isle that make a proper go of it. I'm talking about alcohol free under-18 nights with 'ground rules' and garish websites and legal approval from the council. Nights that have child protection policies and reps' phone numbers for parents to call at any time. Nights that, for one night only, check your ID to see that you're under the limit, before ruffling your hair and letting you through their gilded double doors.
Under-18 nights—or Nappy Nights—have been around for decades. The most popular take place in glossy chain clubs like Pryzm (née Oceana), or their scaled down small town equivalents, often featuring pyrotechnics, celebrity appearances and chart music; but in recent years an increasingly diverse array of options have become available to the modern tween. Nights like Manchester's 'Pop, Bubble, Rock' and 'Pulp Party' centre themselves around competitions, giveaways and indie-loving DJs, whereas other nights, like Brighton's 'Retrospekt', act more like proto-warehouse nights, catering to an edgier 15-16 year old crowd with aggressive dubstep and free Chupa Chups.
For personal context, let me tell you about my first Nappy Night. I distinctly remember being sat in the passenger seat of my Mum's Ford KA, my best friends crammed into the back, the car circling the vicinity of Oceana for a drop off point. There was this wild, electric energy in the air, as sprawling masses of t-shirted bald blokes zig zagged between the technicoloured superclubs that line Bristol's waterfront. I remember looking back at my Mum as we got out the car, patting my pocket to reassure her my 3510 was charged, patting the top of the car because I'd seen grown-ups do it on TV, and then slamming the door shut and disappearing into the adult world.
I remember the main dancefloor. It seemed to stretch on into an infinite expanse, the crowd jumping to the swelling synthetic pulse of DJ Alligator's "Whistle Song." In the corner lay a smaller dance-floor, a synecdoche of it's larger cousin, and one that lit up when you stood on different parts of it. We took photos of our feet silhouetted against the colours, and photos of ourselves jumping up and down, and photos of one of us with his finger poking out of his flies, and then we made our way on to the real dance-floor for some big boy's shit.
Inside Oceana, the drinks were fizzy and the thrills came cheap. It seemed like everyone I knew was there and yet periodically even more big names would pile in from the queue and run up the fuscia carpeted stairs. And we did run, we ran everywhere that night. I Imagine if I ran around in a club now I'd probably throw up.
They might sound like harmless fun, but nights catering to an under-18 crowd are the subject of widespread scorn. In Bristol, for example, a judge issued a personal diatribe against them, with his declaration that "it is naïve to assume that [kids attending] may not be tempted to behave in a way that may be dangerous and damaging to them". Meanwhile in Shropshire, a group of Christian Street Pastors lent their condemnation to the practice after a teenager had been sent to hospital for alcohol poisoning at the town's renowned watering hole Club Crush. Such concern is not surprising when kids' safety is at stake, but promoters and youth groups have been quick to hit back, emphasising the safeguards put in place to ensure kids' well being. Luminar, then owners of Bristol's Oceana, released a statement saying they'd run similar nights without incident for seven years, and always worked in tandem with local authorities to ensure the safety of everyone attending. Similarly, in Telford, club owner Costas Vanezi frothed at the Street Pastors with an uncompromising statement to the local press, saying that "other places like the cinema are open later and have 16 and 17-year-olds at them." You can't argue with facts.
Yet, despite the backlash, Nappy Nights are growing in scale and ambition, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. Events like Evoke in Chelmsford promise not only UV lights, but freeze-jets, blackouts and balloon drops—and their clientele are likely to grow ever thirstier for new gimmicks, bigger capacity and bigger name DJs. Only, beneath the scale of the events, and their perceived social threat, what's really going on? Are Nappy Nights a sign of a generation that has forgotten how to be young, or simply an excuse for a nightclub to make extra cash on a school night?
During my research for this piece, looking back into my personal archives, I stumbled across this photo of myself at an Under-18 night. It's a photo that sums up the whole bizarre circus, better than parents, promoters, or my retold memories ever could.It's the ultimate tableaux of what a Nappy Night is all about. I wasn't a kid you'd find sneaking pingers onto the dancefloor, or pissing on a car bonnet as I left the club. I was, in effect, the silent majority.
It's the cold of freshly applied face-paint, popcorn being pelted at you from an air cannon, and a DJ screaming shout-outs into the dark while the sun still glares outside. Sure, occasionally they might hit the headlines of the Shropshire Star for the wrong reasons—and yes a club photographer snapping images of a 13 year old girl trying to twerk isn't something anyone should ever feel "comfortable" about—but for the most part these nights are about the novelty of being a child in an ordinarily adult environment. That window of time where the prospect of the future was more exciting than anything happening in the now. Where nightclubs were palaces, and the thought of growing up didn't seem like such a bad thing.
Which is why, for all their dubiousness, I still remember my first Nappy Night fondly. I'd found my place in a new world, I was Adrian Mole in a polyester going out shirt, a fresh faced courtier in Takeshi's Castle, an insecure teenager in a place too loud and gregarious to care. Then 10:50pm came, I made my way out through the exit to the spot where we'd been dropped, and climbed into my Mum's car. By 12 I was in bed, dreaming of the rest of my life.