"It was just this tiny venue in the middle of nowhere, but it looked like something straight out of the Mediterranean." Russell Marland is telling me about a nightclub in a small town half an hour away on the train from Manchester. The club was the Bluenote and the town is Todmorden.
For the uninitiated, Todmorden is a market town famous for alien abductions, being home to two Nobel Prize winners and it's proximity to the hippy dippy Northern enclave that is Hebden Bridge. Oh, and there's Monty's, too, but we'll get back to that. It's an utterly charming place. Overflowing with more good pubs than is necessary, there's a market that sells everything from baby grows to burritos, and possibly the best Indian restaurant in the UK. And a massive fuck off monument that gives whole place a distinctly acid-y, fallen rural idyll vibe. There's a reason why The League of Gentlemen was partially filmed there.
Like most small towns, Todmorden is teeming with bored youngsters desperate for some form of release, a means of numbing the dull sensation of life as lived in the shadow of nearby big city, life with the colour turned down a bit. This is why Monty's, a club we've talked about previously on THUMP, thrives on Friday and Saturday nights — when the pubs shut, it's the only fun in town. Before there was Monty's, with it's 70p for a bottle of beer deals and onesie parties, there was a night that was dedicated to the deep house coming out of America, a night that ran for the best part of a decade, a night that changed people's lives. That night was called Out in the Sticks.
The August Bank Holiday weekend of 1994 was a historic moment for the town. Having been lured down from Manchester by pair of persuasive pals, Russell Marland found himself DJing the opening party of a night that ended up taking place every Saturday for nine years. "I had a record shop in Manchester and these guys come in and buy tunes," Marland told me over the phone. "They wanted a DJ to play a night in Tod and I used to play at the Hacienda."
He wasn't initially keen on checking the place out but after, "mithering and mithering," his arm was twisted and he found himself driving down from his home in Oldham. It wasn't a speedy journey and the road to Todmorden takes you deep into heavily wooded valleys. "I thought, Christ, this place is out in the sticks, isn't it?" With that, Marland had a name. And when you've got a venue, a name, and a DJ, you've got yourself a club night. "The first time I visited the Bluenote, there was a techno night on. It was dead." Things were soon to change, for Marland—and his co-resident/co-founder Craig Edwards, for the Bluenote, and for Todmorden itself.
Things didn't change immediately, though. As Marland remembers, "We had [Hacienda resident] Mike Pickering on as a guest and it was still dead. It was a bit rubbish for about six months." The club owners stuck with it though, and Marland and Smith were given the kind of creative free reign that most DJs in 2015 would absolutely kill for. " The best thing about it was that the owners just let me do what I wanted." From bookings to the flyers, Out in the Sticks was their child.
Word spreads fast in towns like Todmorden, and soon Marland and Smith found themselves playing to packed crowds every Saturday night. Marland thinks that their music policy was central to the night's success, which might seem like a very basic point to make, but you've got to remember that the clubs most of us go to in the towns we grew up in aren't places where tunes are central to the experience. You go to your local club because it's often the only option you've got. Your friends are there and the drinks are cheap and if the music's even halfway palatable, then that's a bonus.
"At the time, Cream was big, Gatecrasher in Sheffield, all those kind of superclubs. They all played trance. We bucked the trend by playing American vocal house," Marland told me. "And, luckily for us, there was an audience for people who didn't want trance. We used to make tapes and give them out at our parties and people loved it." Marland believes that the stability offered by ensuring the resident DJs are equally as important as the headliners. "It was primarily a resident's night and as such we generated massive anthems in the club. Records on labels like Soulphuric, Basement Boys, Strictly Rhythm, the MAW stuff, Knee Deep, Mood II Swing, acts like that." For a town more attuned to Emily Barker than Kerri Chandler, this was no mean feat.
After that shaky start, and with a solid music policy in place, Out in the Sticks started getting a reputation for itself as a perfect alternative to the glossy superclub experience. "I had a bit of a name, because of the Hacienda," Marland said to me. "I had my own shop. I had a lot of influence in that way," and that influence meant that the crowd was—unusually for a small capacity venue tucked away down a cobbled alley in a market town— comprised largely of outsiders. "We saw a mass influx of people from Manchester, and Bradford, from satellite towns like Burnley, Blackburn and Halifax." A feature in Mixmag followed. An institution was born. "People came from Brighton and Carlisle every week. we had two doormen, and downstairs in the club was 350 people going bonkers, every weekend!"
In his recent exploration of nightlife in Britain from the 1800s onwards, the author and DJ Dave Haslam states that, "the best club in the world is the one that changes your life," and that's a statement that Marland agrees with, making comparisons between Out in the Sticks and the parties thrown at legendary clubs like the Paradise Garage. "For the teenagers and young adults who went week after week, it was huge. We had a massive influence on them. This was their first experience of going out properly," says Marland. "They felt how I felt when I went to the Hacienda. It had the same effect on them as it did for the people who went to the Garage. It was an epiphany." My girlfriend's father's best friend was one of those people. In fact, he moved up north from Wiltshire just to go to Out in the Sticks. He still lives in Todmorden to this day. That's the power of a good night in a nutshell.
Sadly, in this life, all good things must come to an end. On the night of their 9th birthday party, in 2003, Russell Marland declared Out in the Sticks dead. "Around 2002, it was starting to get a bit ropey. Basically, what we'd been doing had become the norm everywhere and as such, the lads who used to come down started doing their own thing in their own town. You'd lose 30 regulars every time that happened, and it also meant that clubs popped up that were closer to home for people than Tod was," Marland says. "I found out, too, that the club was going to be sold. That was the nail in the coffin. At that point I said that's that."
"The 9th birthday was our last night open. I hadn't told anyone about the decision — not even the owner! It didn't go down well, no." Marland is insistent that the reaction was one of disappointment rather than annoyance and that "nothing acrimonious" occurred as a direct result of the closure. Since then he's continued DJing, and still plays out in Todmorden and it's eccentric cousin Hebden Bridge, but nothing's taken off the way Out in the Sticks did. "I tried doing a Friday thing in Tod and it didn't really kick off," he tells me. "They weren't ready for a balearic night" He's also aware of the fact that running a club night takes an immense amount of dedication and resources — both mental and fiscal. "I don't think I could do it again. It was the most important thing in my life at the time. You're thinking about it all the time. You couldn't get it out of your head," he told me.
Since then, the Bluenote has played host to a variety of clubs. Currently occupying the building on Bramsche Square is Monty's. I've been to Monty's several times and it does what it needs to do—serve drinks to people who've left pubs but can't quite make the mental step towards going home just yet— with minimal fuss. It's fine. It's another small club in a small town. I ended our conversation by asking Marland if he believed that the space would see another night like Out in the Sticks in the near future. "Anything's possible. Monty's might have to do a refurb to get that atmosphere back, though. It needs someone like I was at the time, someone who's prepared to give it their all. They'd need someone to back it and let things happen. Clubs'll try something a few times and if it's not making money they'll stop it. We got through a very quiet six months," he says, "and look what happened."
He believes that promoters need time to establish and audience, space to work out exactly who they want in the club night after night, who'll come back time and time again. "At the end of the day the club doesn't work without punters. Without them you've got nothing. They believed in me. And that was why it worked."