The first thing you notice when attending a power ballad-themed club night called "Ultimate Power" is how every single person in the room is clearly having the unfettered time of their life. There's no posturing, no furrowed brows, and nobody leaning against the bar with their jacket on waiting to be impressed. Instead, you will be greeted by a vast ocean of faces awash with joy, gesturing dramatically towards a group of men on stage whose job for the night is to mime along to Whitney Houston singles with inflatable double neck guitars.
"It's the most euphoric experience you'll ever have without drugs," one of the co-founders of Ultimate Power informs me when I confess to this being my first time attending the night. The lovechild of five friends, Ultimate Power began after their passion for power ballads and pretending to play them in front of a crowd metamorphosed into a full-blown nightclub experience. They started in small pubs a decade ago and have since sold out The Forum, played at Reading Festival and expanded to Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol. Last week marked Ultimate Power's 10-year anniversary, for which they returned to their usual London haunt – Camden's Electric Ballroom (of course it's housed in Camden, where else would a huge night full of inflatable guitars and mullets be?) and, as always, it sold out in advance.
By 11pm, the ballroom is full of people of all ages in wigs, glitter and spandex. Plus a healthy dose of people in normal clothes. There are couples young and old, freshers, big groups of friends, a hen do, a 40th birthday party, a lone ranger in the winter years of his life, and me. The energy in the 1100 capacity room is so exuberant that even my most grumpy friend - who I dragged along for the experience - had tears of joy in his eyes by the end of the night. At one point I find myself onstage with the "band" singing along to Avril Lavigne's "I'm With You" - a true millennial power ballad if ever there was one - and wondering whether it's time to stop being such a hipster and if I need to expand my weekend horizons beyond The Strip of Dalston's turkish restaurants and dimly lit basements. Maybe I can meet my soulmate here and become one of the power (ballad) couples a night devoted to screaming about falling in love and falling apart inevitably creates. Maybe this is my destiny.
The next morning I find a poignant journalistic note I made at some point during the full 12-minute rendition of Meatloaf's "I Would do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)". It said: "What is 'THAT'? Finger up bum?" If my revolutionary reading is correct, I may not be destined to find my life partner here after all. But I do begin to wonder if I unwittingly stumbled upon the last true transcendental club night in a place I was certain would be populated by people in their late 30's who work in middle management.
The one thing that all these people from various walks of life have in common is that they are so focused on enjoying themselves it's impossible for them to be anything but lovely. Essentially, the Venn diagram of people who enjoy emoting to Bonnie Tyler and people who would give you change if you ran short at the self-service check out is a perfect circle. Obviously they all also really, really, love power ballads - to an infectious degree. Some of the people in attendance have been coming here for the best part of a decade. But who are these benevolent fun-havers? Why, in a city where Friday nights offer up almost any musical expression on a platter, do they chose to spend theirs celebrating emotional key changes and unreasonably tight trousers at a night that would have been considered throwback a decade ago? Do they possess a secret to happiness that I do not?
The first people I meet are called Elliott and Dominic (above), two fellow Ultimate Power virgins. They had been "dragged here by some lesbians", which as we all know is how every truly great night begins. As we stand out in the smoking area, marinating ourselves in the fragments of sentimental thumping that are stretching over from inside, we discuss the royal blood line of power balladry. They both adore Tina Turner, arguably the reigning Highness of the strophic dynasty. Elliott's favourite song is "The Best". Dan plumps for "Rolling On The River". Certainly, they've got an in-depth knowledge of the power ballad and its history. But this is also their first time. I want to find someone who has been coming here for years, dispensing with pay cheque after pay cheque to the sweet, flawless roll of "Eclipse of the Heart". Luckily, it doesn't take long to find a culprit.
Nick, my new friend sporting a mullet wig and a huge electric blue lightning bolt across his bare chest, has been coming here for five years. So has Andy, who is pictured above with an unnecessarily large and defiantly impractical phone that he brought from home. Andy popped his Ultimate Power cherry on a stag do in Manchester and has kept coming back ever since. He talks of "brilliant atmosphere", paints an impressionistic painting of "fun", and has a smile that seems to be permanently stretched across his face. Despite crawling along at the ripe age of 49, he hopes to keep coming back "forever". Which, obviously, is impossible. But I'm not going to dispense the inarguable and definite facts of life to a man so clearly possessed by the pursuit of an unreachable dream. It wouldn't feel right, not in a place like this. Not in Ultimate Power, a sanctuary for the heart.
See, there's something special about this club night. Losing yourself in a dark space, to music, can sometimes be an intimate and inward looking experience. But here, it's the opposite. I'm not sure if people at Ultimate Power are on ecstasy, but even if they are it's likely to be the raptured euphoria of Whitesnake, Starship, and Boston that are pumping endorphins to their neurotransmitters, fluctuating outward in their open-arm invitation to join in on the fun, rather than a lumped together collection of MDMA and coloured binding agents.
The veteran of the night, clocking in at seven years of attendance, was Dan AKA D&B AKA Dolce & Banana. Buoyed by the knowledge he has gained over the years and his above average attendance record, Dan gave me some feedback for the Ultimate Power team: "they always play Michael Bolton too early in the night, it should be the highlight. Prince's 'Purple Rain' is always the last song but that's so depressing. Clearly, it should be Michael Bolton's 'How Can We Be Lovers'". You hear that, Ultimate Power team? Stop making Dan more depressed at the end of the night when he has to go home, he's depressed enough as it is that the night is over. That said, it is only at the end of the night, where the Power Ballads have been put to sleep for another week or so, where the sadness starts to creep in.
Apart from loving power ballads, everyone here had one thing in common: they were here to let the good times roll, without any sense of inhibition. Scientifically it is impossible to look cool with a pink inflatable guitar, so I guess once that's taken out of the equation there's no point in fronting like you're better than anyone else in the room. Maybe it's because I'm getting old and jaded, but there is something so refreshing about a night out where everyone is nice and friendly and doesn't try to fight you if you accidentally step on their shoe. In some ways, this place is my Berghain. It is my oasis.
As I was coming out of the tube station at Camden there were a group of truly gross weekend warrior lads braying guttural noises and making everyone feel really uncomfortable. Not knowing anything about the crowd at Ultimate Power, I remember praying that they weren't going to the same night as me, but in hindsight of course they weren't. The strength of the power ballad comes from an eternal and different plane. Those who know, know. And those who know, feel nice. So with that in mind, it's time to reclaim 'nice' from its fall into the world of dirty words, as a synonym for boring, because everyone in here was nice and it was fucking great. I'd end with saying I'll see you at the next one, but I'll be in Berlin with my cool DJ boyfriend.
You can find Nilu on Twitter.
All images by the author.