"The goal was just to stay open that weekend, and hopefully the next." Jimmy Sykes is telling me about the origins of a nightclub located in Scotland's fourth largest city. The city is Dundee and that club is the Reading Rooms, the the self-deprecatingly self-styled 'small town club' with a big reputation. Syke's weekend has lasted 14 years.
If your knowledge of the city extends to vague, stoned memories of Alan Partridge's barefoot, Toblerone-fuelled odyssey, a brief lesson: Dundee is a small, densely small, densely packed city perched on Scotland's beautiful, severe and ball-shrivellingly cold north-east coast. Famed in the 19th century for it's 'jam, jute and journalism' fuelled prosperity, it's more recently become the U.K's first UNESCO city of design. Dundee, as the shitheads might put it, is a city on the up. It's home to pehs, not pies, two thriving universities, Scotland's only full-time rep theatre, and two professional football teams in such close proximity that Danny Dyer lost every atom in his mind upon arrival at Tannadice Street.
But that's not the whole story. Dundee has accrued a perhaps unfair reputation as the 'black sheep' of Scotland's major cities. Currently flecked with pockets of severe deprivation, the city's population, and economic health, took a major pounding when, in the 70s, the heavy industry that propped up it's prosperity fell into a major decline, before slowly bleeding out. Caught between the oil-fuelled riches of Aberdeen to the north, Edinburgh's architectural splendour and establishment affluence to the south, and with its post-industrial problems dwarfed in sheer scale by the much larger Glasgow in the west, there was—and still remains—a sense that Dundee inhabits the periphery of things.
It's an an issue that surfaced in the early days of the Rooms. Sykes told me that despite the "incredible musical heritage" Dundee boasts, "it never gets written about," primarily, he believes because it's part of the central belt dominated by Edinburgh and Glasgow. "Which means," he says, "very few people outside of the city know it's history."
Duncan Barton, a regular DJ at the Rooms, and the man behind some of the venue's most iconic artwork, agrees with Sykes. "Dundee, at large, isn't necessarily like the Rooms, so it acts like a bit of an island for those that need it." The primary issue facing the Rooms, and other smaller clubs in smaller towns and cities across the UK, is one that links the limitations of space with simple economics. "Bookings are usually about money and the size of the venue is what puts a cap on that," Barton says. "Glasgow's reported to be one of the best clubbing cities in the world— Dundee gets the same quality of acts coming through it's just that it only happens in one club up here." For Barton, the Rooms' size and location shouldn't be a pressing issue, or rather, it shouldn't be the primary concern. "Recognition is another story though, someone needs to get Jim a book deal because he's got stories for days. As a venue, it's similar to the people that are described as "DJ's DJs," everyone that actually encounters the rooms agrees that it's great, but being away from the hubs means there's usually no one to do the reporting."
Yet, piece by piece, the city's image is changing, and it's longstanding creative heritage is becoming a central part of the conversation regarding the future of Dundee. These conversations, however, are only possible if the voices of committed, locally-focused but broad-minded institutions are listened to. Without that essential level of discursive co-operation, shifts in perception aren't possible.
At this point it feels right to admit a kind of bias: I fucking love Dundee and I fucking love the Reading Rooms. I love the imposing slab of Edwardian stone the club's built into. In a past life it was a reading library created to improve the Blackscroft district of the city, which was considered by some as 'sordid'. Nowadays, it's more likely to act as a sanctuary for students fed up of days spent in their libraries.
It was as a student that I made my first visit to the club that changed my life, a 21 year old man bored and bloated by the entertainment on offer at the student's union. It felt like a Moment. Here, in Dundee of all places, was a community with a cumulatively exhaustive knowledge of good shit. Here was a group of people who knew their hip hop, their reggae, their every-fucking-thing-available-in-Rubadub. Within weeks of my first visit, the Jager-soaked memories of foam parties were but a (thankfully) distant memory. No longer was I hoping to find love in a hopeless place, never again was I going to be stand, two pints aloft, looking back in anger. The Reading Rooms was, and is, a club where epiphanies bounce off the walls.
Barton moved to Dundee to study graphic design in 2003. "Unbeknown to me then I'd moved into a flat across the road from The Reading Rooms." Back then he was more into Mos Def than Sven Vath and, like many 18 year olds, clubs were places visited out of some kind of social obligation. "I didn't really think there was anything for me at nightclubs, they seemed to be full of "dance music" I though "dance music" was a bit stupid," he says. "I had a change of heart when, during the week I moved in, I found out the club across the road was hosting Afrika Bambaataa. When I got there I discovered a place where the music was good and the people were cool."
For Barton, like, presumably, many of his peers at university, the last thing he expected to find in Dundee was a Reading Rooms. "At the time I'm sure there were house and techno nights but I wasn't really interested," he says. "I was just hooked on the amount of great hip hop and reggae and stuff I could see, the DJs played great music and seeing people gather and react to stuff that wasn't dance music definitely opened me up to what could go on in a club."
Now, it'd be a fairly blatant bending of the truth to suggest that grand, long-term visions of social, cultural, and economic regeneration were central to the club's beginnings back in 2002, and Sykes is more than happy to confirm that he only got into promoting and running club nights because he wanted to somehow bring the excitement and inherent radicalism of punk's early days in London to Dundee. "I'd been promoting clubs and concerts in venues across Dundee and, in many cases, the venues were on their last legs and often in the 'wrong' part of town with the 'wrong' security for the kind of nights I was running," he explains.
Indeed, good fortune was to thank for the genesis of the Reading Rooms. The local council offered Sykes a lease on the venue just as they'd decided to close down another property that he was leaseholder of. "We didn't have any business plan, cashflow projections or the like, it was pure punk rock ethos. The (then) landlord trusted us and didn't ask for any deposits or down payments," he says. The way the club initially operated—with it's cash and carry bought stock, and student cheque book scams—put Sykes in mind of his acid house days.
Since that chaotic opening weekend, and the subsequent early struggles with cripplingly expensive long distance phone calls to "London agents who only ever wanted to know about the Glasgow and Edinburgh shows," as Sykes puts it, The Rooms has changed somewhat. It's now one of the first, if not the very first, venues that those same agents call when they look to get their acts booked in for Scottish dates. In recent years it's witnessed sets by Erol Alkan, Fake Blood, Jackmaster, Mia Dora and Jazzy B among a host of other distinguished names.
Yet, as great as imports are, clubs like the Reading Rooms thrive on nurturing emerging local talent. As both Barton and Sykes are keen to stress it is, at its heart, "a 100% Dundee small town business." The highly successful Book Club and Countor nights, two of this author's personal favourites, are both hosted by artists that are either Dundee based, or cut their teeth in the city. Exciting individuals like the Mia Dora-remixing Correlate are popping up with regularity to cement Dundee's reputation as incubator and testing ground for talent.
The strategy, if that's the right way of putting it, for 2016 and beyond is the same mixture of cultivating the best of what's gone before with the best of the freshest new ideas and sounds. Sykes outlines it best. "We're just going to keep going on based on that gut instinct, listening to new music and re-discovering old music before chucking it all together in the Reading Rooms pot."