How Soho's Wag Club Took on the West End and Won
Soho, Studio 54, and the birth of British club culture
"I was living on Berwick Street back then, and back then Berwick Street was hell." I'm sat opposite one of Damien Hirst's spot paintings in the upper bar of the Groucho club, the notorious hangout for artists and vagabonds alike. To my left is a frail bloke who could pass for Paul Whitehouse playing a wizened and wistful old rocker. To my right, it's Freddie Flintoff. And there in front of me is a man who'll go onto claim that the venue he ran in the heart of Soho for the best part of 20 years was the birthplace of club culture in the UK as we know it. "I remember one day in the 1994 when they arrested 77 crack dealers. In one day!"
Chris Sullivan opened the Wag Club in 1982, back when that square mile of city center just on the edges of Oxford Street was still the beating artistic heart of the capitol. A members club located at 33 Wardour Street—now the site of a branch of faux-Irish chain-bar O'Neils—the Wag revolutionized nightlife across the entire country. It's eclectic blend of latin jazz, vintage funk, northern soul, hip hop, and house, was a far cry from champagne and chart music of the VIP-friendly world of West End clubbing just up the road. "What we were doing at the Wag became a clarion call to the world," Sullivan told me over a coffee on a gorgeous spring afternoon. "It opened the door for dance music! That's what it did. You weren't hearing that music before the Wag. You went into a club round here and you'd hear Bucks fucking Fizz!"
I'd met Sullivan at the Dean Street club to discuss a forthcoming four-CD collection of Wag classics which takes in everything from the sunshine-soul of Clarence Wheeler & the Enforcer's "Right On" through to the mutated punk-funk-proto-dreamhouse of Factory favourites Quando Quango's "Genius" via the likes of Mandrill, Joyce Simms, James Brown, and Arthur Russell's Dinosaur L project. It's a sprawling, dizzying affair, that roughly charts the trajectory of the club between 1982-1987. "The way I did the Wag was that every night we put on would appeal to everyone there," Sullivan says, going on to note that, "If you came on a Friday night for the rare groove night you might be into the latin jazz night, and if you liked that you might go to the Northern soul night." And that was the Wag in a nutshell: innovative, exciting, and unafraid of risk. There were some boundaries though: "We'd never put a goth night next to a dub one. Ever." You've got to know your limits.
Conversation turned to the area of old, which when you're sat with a son of Soho like Sullivan, is an inevitability. Citing the presence of artists like Francis Bacon and writers like Thomas de Quincey, he baldly and boldly labels it "the cradle of British art activity for centuries." Soho's centrality in the cultural history of the city as a whole is undeniable—it is the straggly, squiffy, bohemian heart of London— but it's also undeniable that the place has undergone a radical transformation in recent years.
Soho, that last bastion of bacchanalianism for the sake of bacchanalianism, a place where pimps and prostitutes mingled with Saturday night's squaddies and skinheads, has, in recent years, became another sanitized section of edgeless, toothless, corporate-sponsored central London. It's just another collection of Prets and multinational bakeries, just another former pleasure palace left to rot amongst the Primarks and Itsus. Sullivan, like most of us, places the blame firmly on the powers that be. "Westminster council have decided to systematically destroy the area's attractions. And that's happening because the Tory government and Tory councils are so corrupt that the people who get the licenses now aren't honest people."
When he opened the Wag, aged 22, Sullivan was determined to create a nocturnal space that, despite the membership scheme and the waves of celebrities who sashayed through the door—everyone from Martin Scorsese to Madonna made it down to Wardour Street—was inclusive. The kind of club where, "a bloke in a wedding dress and a tiara could go out without having a fight." One of the solutions was to make sure the drinks at the bar only cost 10p more than local pubs. It seems like a minor thing, but as Sullivan puts it, "it's better to have someone come in and have ten drinks at a fiver each than two at twenty." It's greed, he argues, that has put clubs across the country in danger, greed that's stopped young people—the lifeblood of any town or city—from going out as much."
"The people actually given licenses are rich magnates who don't know anything about working class people," he says. "All they know is posh kids for whom a £10 drink is nothing. And that's who they aim the clubs at. Hence the five grand tables."
What made the Wag stand out then? Just how did a 300 capacity club, where revellers were as likely to be wearing zoot suits as they were adidas shellsuits, become an emblem of the radical possibilities that clubbing can offer? Chris Sullivan thinks that's simple: the Wag was a nightclub, not a discotheque.
The distinction, is, again, a simple one. "We, the Wag, were a nightclub. Somewhere like fabric is a discotheque. Discotheques are more like cavernous, dark spaces where there's not much room to sit. And that's taken from the Studio 54 model, the Paradise Garage model." Strangely, Sullivan had a slightly more quotidian point of comparison —the Ted Danson starring barroom sitcom Cheers. Community and communication were key. The nightclub is, for Sullivan, a place where socialization was just as important as intoxication. "Your generation are losing the ability to communicate properly," he reckons, noting that the way the Wag was laid out, with defined bar and seating areas in addition to a dancefloor, led to a sensation of heightened pleasure. A sensation that he now argues is lost. "You aren't just dancing in nightclubs. You're sharpening your wit, your humour. You get thrown into a lion's den where you've suddenly got to talk to a girl. It's like fighting for a world title. You've got to make her laugh. And you can't do that on Tinder. Human interaction is being lost."
Dancing, though, was still the primary goal. The intoxicating blend of genres previously unheard in Soho and the surrounding area, combined with the sense of exclusivity engineered by the strict policy—a policy that Sullivan considers "expedient rather than elitist"—resulted in a club punters visiting with a near-religious fervour to dance and show off. "The Wag was a dancer's club. There were no mobiles back then. If I had a club now I'd ban them. We banned cameras in the Wag, and that wasn't to protect celebrities or anything. We didn't allow video," he says. "No one was gawping at the DJs. No one was staring at Paul Weller or Todd Terry. When we had bands on they had a 45 minute set limit. I'd use bands to get people in, then I wanted them to dance."
With its 200 regulars—a coterie comprised of art school graduates and fashionistas—and unabashedly glamorous vibe, the Wag had made a name for itself by the mid 80s. "Our little cottage industry was seized upon by the Face and i-D and they were asking me to write articles about James Brown and Tito Puente, because no one knew about that stuff then, unless you were 60," Sullivan says. "And that made the club nationally known. We propagated the idea of dance music as a form here."
As strange as it seems now, this club in the heart of grim and glitzy Soho, this club where people dressed like "Rita Hayworth or Little Bo Peep or Robin Hood," and danced to Art Blakey records, is central to the story of club culture in the UK. Of course, there'd been other clubs before the Wag opened its doors, and for a decade or two young people had been made aware of the pleasures of abandoning themselves to loud music and dark, sweaty rooms. There'd been experimental hippy bashes and Northern Soul all-nighters, but the Wag, Sullivan argues, was where things really took shape. "We were a truly alternative club. We were obtuse. We tried to create a little bubble of our own outside of the West End. Because the West End then was very similar to how it is now. Big clubs owned by leisure companies who charged too much and there were big bullying bouncers everywhere and they just played chart music. Exactly like they do now. So what we did was create a niche." That niche, which was in effect a space in which black music in numerous forms was utterly integral, has, largely, become the norm. This was a place for escapists.
Other venues followed suit, with house and hip hop becoming cultural staples, and we had summers of love and superstar DJs. And now we're here, in Soho, watching the colour bleed away, watching vitality transmogrify into vacancy and banality. The Wag closed in 2001. Countless other clubs have done the same since. Clubs, I'm reminded during my time with Sullivan, are nothing without clubbers. Our club is our life, our place of respite and worship. We carry the memories with us forever. For thousands of people, the Wag was that club, and those memories will remain in circulation until the last member takes their card to the grave.
Just before Chris Sullivan donned his hat and swanned off into the blazing heat of a Soho afternoon, I had time to ask him one final question. Were you ever, at any point, overawed by any of the countless celebrities who walked through the door. Sullivan smiles. "Only one," he says. "Brad Pitt came down to the Wag one night with Tom Cruise. And Brad went home with a mate of mine's sister! But no one paid attention. The only person anyone paid real attention to was Prince. He'd come down with four big minders, I let him take two in, he asked for the VIP area, and hung out at the bar. Everyone was looking at him. Because he was so short."
He laughs, pays for his coffee, and leaves.
Chris Sullivan Presents the Wag is released on June 10th by Harmless Records.