The Rise and Fall of Gatecrasher, the UK's Spiritual Home of Trance
The life and of Sheffield's most legendary institution, as told by those who lived and loved it.
You would've had to come through the 90's with your eyes shut and a pair of ear defenders on not to have been aware of the iconic Gatecrasher. What started off as an ad-hoc club night became a brand so big it spawned 26 albums, played sold out venues around the world and hosted a millennium party that saw 25,000 ravers descend on its 'spiritual home' of Sheffield to welcome in the noughties.
Gatecrasher's rearing golden lion was once the emblem of the trance generation, so how did this king of the clubs become extinct? In the wake of fabric's demise, with club-goers mourning the loss of not only another beloved venue but the decline of UK club culture in general, we look back at the story of how a previous behemoth of British clubbing rose to greatness before burning to a pile of ashes. Literally.
Before he met Scott Bond, Simon Raine was just a guy who tendered cleaning contracts for a few nightclubs across the country. In 1993, the duo decided to run a night—Gatecrasher—in Birmingham. They then decided to up sticks and relocate the night to a city that was crying out for a proper clubbing experience: Sheffield. Trance fans from around the country had a new home.
In 1997, Gatecrasher, having moved from the Leadmill to the Arches to an old cinema, found a permanent home: Republic on Matilda Street. The disused factory was in a state of disrepair, which meant Scott and Simon got a good deal on the place, and it soon built a reputation for being the Saturday night event in the city. Big name guest DJs passed through playing the best of house, techno, and trance to an ever-growing legion of faithful followers—a squad willing to travel the length and breadth of the country to worship at the altar of S1 1DJ.
So what made Gatecrasher so special? Why were thousands of people clamouring to spend their weekends in a mucky warehouse in Sheffield? I hooked up with some Crasher disciples to reminisce about the good old days, when you'd queue around the block in nowt but your bikini and some fluffy boots to try your luck at getting into Yorkshire's answer to the Ministry of Sound.
Gatecrasher made clubbers the VIPs. With a ceiling full of glittering stars, lasers and a sound system the size of a small bungalow, it felt like it had made as much effort for you as you had for it. As Pete Tong said at the time, "Gatecrasher is probably the most fun to play as a DJ. Despite all the distractions that go with club culture they haven't forgotten the simple principle of having a good time."
GJ made the weekly pilgrimage all the way from Glasgow. For her the music was the initial draw. "It felt euphoric," she told me. "I can imagine it's something similar to the euphoria experienced in a number of religious ceremonies where the smell and the commonality with your peers and the all-encompassing wall of sound sweeps you away. You're left with a residual longing to experience it again and a closeness to those who were there with you."
Despite the £15 price tag and an ever present possibility that you wouldn't even get in—legend has it that one night over 2,000 people were turned away as the club had reached its 1350 capacity by midnight—people took their chances and coach loads of hopefuls from every corner of the UK were spat out each week, ready to join the back of the snaking queue.
The revellers were dressed—or, in some cases not—for the occasion. There was a dress-code of sorts, but as we've seen with clubs like Shoom, it was all about how you wore clothes, not what you wore. That freedom resulted in Crasher Kids, a group who were hellbent on dragging rave fashion into the new century: neon trousers, dog collars, hair twisted with DayGlo paint, fluorescent bracelets, goggles, fluffy back packs and foam letters from the Woolworths kids' department glued to your chest.
For GJ, the fashion became fundamental. She bought a sewing machine for her 21st birthday just to make outfits for Saturday nights, even going as far as paying his way through university by making boot covers for clubbers all over the UK. "My mum once helped me get additional reflective fabric by waiting until 1am, driving me to a street where we knew there were traffic cones, stealing three by dumping them in her boot and driving home," she remembers. "I dutifully peeled the reflectors off and carved teensy tiny Crasher lions out of them to adorn an outfit with. The Crasher Kids' fashion was so well articulated and painstakingly made that I couldn't help but admire them. It was a crucible of self-expression without all of the try hard self-obsession of magazine culture which was driving the high street club scene."
By '98 they were laying on huge outdoor events, the first of which, in association with Ministry of Sound, was broadcast live on Radio 1, drawing much more attention to the brand as a mainstream commodity. Commercialism was creeping in and the year after they took the show on a global tour. On a visit to Australia, the third member of the GC triad, Simon Oates noted just how far the trademark had travelled, "It was mental. All these kids were dressed up exactly like ours. Except they were calling themselves the Sydney Kids".
The look is one that lingers on in the memory, rather than on Google Images. Charlie, a certified Crasher Kid, told me that self-documentation wasn't an integral part of the phenomenon because, as it should be, they were having too much fun to bother. As you'd imagine, some of that fun was down to drug use. Ecstasy, speed, and poppers were the order of the day: party drugs that reflected the uplifting rush of trance. "The DJ would tease you with a sample then drop it and the roof would come off," Charlie told me. "I feel like it kind of claimed us. It was like worship."
Not everyone was there to combine drugs and progressive trance. GJ, like many other regulars, did the whole thing straight. "I never touched drugs. But I recall my friend being taken to one side by the bouncer and asked to take me out for some fresh air because he didn't want to get me in trouble. He'd apparently clocked that I was dancing for three hours straight, full whack. It took some convincing to make him believe I wasn't high, but had the constitution of an ox when it came to dancing for long durations."
Whether they chose to add drugs into the mix or not, everyone acknowledges the potency of the basic Gatecrasher infusion. A specific alchemy of music, fashion and people that equated to something uniquely gorgeous. Even the building was part of the love affair. The crumbling warehouse had a unique charm, blending the city's industrial past with an imagined future. There was a double height main room up to the corrugated iron ceiling with a raised booth and stage at the front which put the DJs right in the middle of the action. Around the top of the space were balcony walkways and a bridge that gave a view right across the packed dancefloor. In fact the whole place was a maze of steps, doors, corridors and corners leaving punters bewildered—but that was half the fun for many: losing friends meant making new ones. Most of us want the nightclub we love most to be more than 'just' a nightclub. For the people I spoke to about Gatecrasher, it was—this was family.
It was a place that coupled familiarity with individuality to magnificent effect. It felt happy and safe. It was raking in the cash and big names were queuing up to play there. So what changed?
In the spring of 1999 it was reported that Gatecrasher had seen its first substance related fatality. A month later there were claims that Judge Jules had requested a rave toys 'amnesty box' with trademark dummies and glow sticks to be left at the door. An uncomfortable feeling began to spread. The powers that be were trying to spoil the cyber fun, to quash the individuality and creativity that Gatecrasher had built itself around. Attitudes shifted towards the previously worshipped Crasher Kids, a rift that continued to widen through the early 2000s.
The arrival of a more mainstream crowd saw bouncers creating separate queues for the Crashers. "There was elitism on both sides," remembers Fi, "The new contingent looked down on all the neon, it was deemed outdated, and the Crasher Kids looked down on people who weren't proper Crasher Kids. Towards the end it was cliquey."
As the crowd changed, so did the drugs. Pills became harder to get hold of, and less reliable, and ketamine took hold. South Yorkshire Police ended up raiding the club and making 13 arrests. Then Local Command Superintendent Steve Hicks said that "all the substances will be analysed, but all the evidence suggests the premises was awash with drugs."
The force also acknowledged there had been full co-operation from Gatecrasher and no issues with public order but eyes were now firmly on the club and its seemingly hedonistic clientele, and by 2003 Gatecrasher had devolved from weekly, to monthly, and then to special occasions. Themed nights and bank holiday specials were the order of the day. In a bid to maintain kudos, the club was completely refurbed and re-named as Gatecrasher One.
The shine was starting to be lost. The Kids were growing up, and the club was changing. "It was time to get out before the party stopped. Before the comedown outweighed the good time," Charlie says.
On Monday 16th June 2007 emergency crews were called to the site of the old Republic night club after reports of a fire. Rumoured to have started in the DJ box the blaze quickly took hold of the already dilapidated structure and though the few staff inside got out unharmed, one end of the building completely collapsed, narrowly missing the 25 firefighters battling to subdue the blaze.
Roads around the site were closed by police and hordes of onlookers came to gawp at the hundred year old building descending into rubble. Local internet forums were filled with claims that you could taste the smoke in just about every Sheffield postcode. It was a building full of stuff that wanted to burn and the incident left a lot of people speculating whether Gatecrasher had decided to jump before it was pushed.
For a long time afterwards the words 'Gatecrasher will never die' could be seen spray-painted on the wood-chip panels that fenced off the pile of disintegrated stone and metal where Crasher used to be. People even laid flowers, and a bus full of mourners arrived to hold a two minute silence for the loss of their beloved club. It was the end of an era.
Three years after the blaze, Simon Raine heralded the return of Gatecrasher to Sheffield with a £5 million re-opening of the club at a new site in the city centre backed by Judge Jules, Trevor Nelson and over 14,000 members of the public, who wrote letters and joined a Facebook site to approve the plans. But the excitement was short lived when the City Council rejected the proposal on the basis that it would put wider city regeneration at risk.
The decade's seen further issues for the Gatecrasher brand as the Leeds venue's licence was revoked but then successfully challenged surrounding violence issues. Gatecrasher Birmingham (their final flagship venue) was shut down after a stabbing, and the management company entered administration with reported debts of over £3.5 million.
In September 2016, as a final nail in the Republic coffin, the 'Gatecrasher Apartments' opened on the plot of S1 1DJ. Flats, on the site of a club? Whatever next?
The permanency might have been swapped for property, but the brand lives on. The most recent event in Sheffield was the Gatecrasher Reunion in July, with old favourites like Scott Bond, Tall Paul and Paul Oakenfold making a return to the Steel City. Did Charlie, Jill, GJ or Fi fancy going? The answer is a unanimous no.
"Leave it well alone I'd say," GJ says. "The euphoria of being lost in music with like-minded people. There was money and hope and giddiness and great music and optimism. Here was a place with creativity at its heart. Gatecrasher was a crucible which picked and chose a combination of things which existed already and put them together. That's what made it special."
Hopefully fabric, like Gatecrasher, will continue to have a life outside of its building. A presence that defies the need for bricks and mortar and feeds the longevity it deserves. But we can't fight evolution. Fashion, social habits, music, drugs, all ebb and flow. Rave culture started off in fields and warehouses before the wave crashed into mainstream consciousness and back out again. For those who were there in the eye of that storm it was something magical, unforgettable, life changing but they don't want to keep revisiting it. It's time for something new.