For many, Manchester's Haçienda is a symbol of a time when nightclubs still had their edge, a memorial relic of the halcyon era before they were supposedly sanitised by the dull hipsters you'll bump into inside them today. Given that, it might come as a surprise to some that back then, many of the city's clubbers regarded Tony Wilson's storied venue as a middle class alternative to the genuine underground Manchester experience. That experience hasn't had films made about it, or been the subject of countless TV documentaries. Instead, it's quietly sunk into the annals of hedonistic history.
Konspiracy was the brainchild of DJ Chris Jam, who was half of legendary acid house duo the Jam MC's, and one of the few acts from down south to gain the Madchester seal of approval. Moving up from London in 1986, Jam was soon a regular at an early acid house venue called the Kitchen, in Hulme's notoriously lawless Bullring flats. Comprised of two flats that had been converted into a single room via knocking down a wall, it was unconventional, ramshackle, and capable of attracting some of the biggest names of the day—everyone from the Happy Mondays to the Stone Roses visited. It was also a place for the city's criminals to let their hair down, drop an E or two, and have a dance. Which is how Chris ended up meeting the unofficial co-runner of Konspiracy.
"I met a lad there who wasn't a gangster, but had some good connections," says Chris. "He wanted to be a gangster, though— that was his dream. And mine was to control the music at a club." They quickly realised that they could both achieve their goals by starting their own night, as acid house events were inextricably interlinked with drugs and gangs. Chris had no criminal record, and wasn't known to the police, making him the ideal candidate to act as licensee. The plan was for him to have his name on the papers while his newfound business partner ducked and dived behind the scenes. It was that shadiness that lent the club it's name.
Konspiracy soon attracted punters from all over Manchester. Many of them headed there after being turned away from the Haçienda because their face didn't fit. "A lot of kids from places like Miles Platting and Ancoats, who weren't seen the as the right type, wouldn't get into the Haçienda," Chris told me. "Your more middle class kids would go there, though not exclusively, as the main gangsters were all in there too, but the Haçienda definitely didn't let a lot of people in."
Chris' club was more inclusive, providing a space for those who were a bit more on the rough-and-ready side to be themselves. Clubbers also preferred it because both the music and the decor were darker than the city's nightlife giant. The trippy, otherworldly vibe was accentuated by UV lights and alcoves, flashing dancefloors and Dali-style artwork. "It was like Aladdin's cave," says Darren Partington of acid house group 808 State, who DJd at the club. "It had all these little places where you could get lost. It was a weird and wonderful place."
Eclecticism was one of the club's guiding principles, and that could be both seen—in graffiti, surrealist art, and even an ice sculpture on one night—and heard—the music ranged from soul to techno, funk to jangly indie
Predictably, given the background of the ravers, the club attracted its fair share of criminals, and was also a popular haunt for the city's football hooligans. There was rarely any trouble from the punters, though, as they were all on acid or ecstasy and generally bought into the communal, artistic vibe. "There were a lot of grafters [career criminals] there, but there was no trouble with them. They were just there to have a good time," says Stuart Campbell, a well-known criminal who attended the venue. "The bouncers were another matter. A lot of them wore body armour or bulletproof vests, and there were quite a few shootings."
Unfortunately, while Chris had been busy fostering an atmosphere of love and togetherness, his business partner had been forging the opposite path. He had put notorious gangster Paul Massey's "Salford Lads" firm in charge of the doors and they'd allegedly started pocketing the takings. A rival gang known as the Cheetham Hillbillies also had designs on Konspiracy, and adopted one of the rooms as its unofficial HQ. This led to stabbings, shootings, and the eventual demise of Chris's dream.
"In most clubs, you'd be shocked if the coat room got robbed, but in Konspiracy it was no shock at all if you found out the gangs had nicked your coat," says Caroline, a regular attendee at the club. "It was quite a dark and dirty place, and things like that didn't just happen once; if they didn't happen, you'd be surprised. The darkness was just part of Konspiracy. It went with the music, which was a lot nastier, darker, and edgier than the Haçienda."
Although a lot of the club-goers initially took the occasional robbery or scuffle in their stride, it soon reached the stage where there were regular, serious incidents. "There were shootings every other week," says Big Unit member and Konspiracy DJ Roufy. "Gangsters were robbing the place blind and sharing out all the door money. The police eventually thought 'fuck this' and shut the place down."
Konspiracy was only open for nine months, but burned brightly during its brief lifespan. It has had a profound influence on British club culture, with many believing it to occupy the status that the Haçienda has since been elevated to. Shaun "English Shaun" Attwood, a former Ecstasy kingpin who exported British rave culture to Arizona, credits it with inspiring him to throw his own raves. "We thought the Haçienda was for tourists," he told me. "We considered Konspiracy to be more underground. Before then, you had to line up with a suit and a tie and a snooty bouncer would come and look everyone up and down. Clubs like Konspiracy were a reaction to that. I wanted to recreate that atmosphere in the U.S."
Shaun went on to become the biggest rave promoter in Arizona. He was eventually jailed in 2002 for collaborating with the Mexican mafia to flood the state with Es, suggesting that he might have been influenced by the shadiness of Konspiracy as well as the music. However, contrary to the popular narrative that edginess was what made acid house raves special, those who were around at the time saw the dodgy goings on at clubs like Konspiracy as a necessary evil rather than something positive. Stolen coats and police questioning were part of the experience. The true appeal of the club was its inclusiveness, eclectic music, and surreal, acid-oriented ambience. As Chris puts it, "the whole spirit at the time was about openness and exploration. We just tried putting different things together and seeing what worked, and people seemed to love it."
So why is Konspiracy so frequently overlooked when it comes to the million and one different books and documentaries that have been churned out about Madchester? Chris puts it down to the disorganised nature of the club. While other venues crafted clear identities and public facing images for themselves, Konspiracy was a collection of random thoughts and ideas that somehow produced a fantastic end product. "We were a bit chaotic," Chris admits. "The Haçienda had a lot more money, and a lot more people involved who knew their jobs better."
The disorder and disarray at Konspiracy might have meant it fell below the radar as far as the music press were concerned, but it cemented it in the minds of ravers. It was a club that embodied the "Mad" of "Madchester" and will forever remain on the tongues of those who craved something a wilder than the Haçienda. A club you left with the sense you part of something monumental, even if you didn't leave with your coat.