The year is 2003 and I'm still wearing train-tracks. I've donned my favourite "Barbie is a slut" crop-top over my one and only padded bra, put on my platform Skechers for extra height and covered them with my widest-hemmed mosher jeans. With a fake NUS card in my sweaty palm, I'm walking down Manchester's busiest bus route, Oxford Road. As I approach the imposing glass double doors, I bottle it and turn around. But as I'm on my own, and because I've told my mum I'm staying at a friend's house, I have no choice but to try to get in.
We all have a first kiss, a first shag and a first nightclub experience, some of which change our lives forever. Of the latter, mine was Jilly's Rockworld, a cavernous maze of rooms each playing a different genre of music. From metal in the main room to punk, emo and indie in the smaller rooms, Rockworld had every genre of "alternative" covered. But it also switched things up as the night wore on, playing hip-hop, techno, dance and pop as it hurtled towards its 7AM closing time.
The club's pan-genre music policy fostered an inclusive atmosphere that attracted all manner of people, from private school-educated teenagers to blue collar workers coming in for an after-work pint. Like Manchester's Pips before it, where Perry Boys would party alongside New Romantics, Rockworld's three decade-long stretch was welcoming of a wide array of subcultural expression. On any given weekend you'd find yourself queuing to get in behind seasoned punks, or buying Newcastle Brown alongside spotty metal-heads.
Later, you'd spew your guts after an impatient double-drop while a cyber goth you'd never met before held your hair out the way. It was the kind of place where a tenner would be enough to get smashed, with enough change for some McDonald's pancakes the next morning and a child fare train ticket home. Sometimes you could even get in for free, thanks to Rockworld's generous birthday rule, which gifted anyone celebrating free entry for them and up to ten guests.
Given the decline in clubbing over the last decade, it's no surprise that Rockworld has been replaced by a Tesco Express. Closure at the hands of cold-blooded property development has been the fate of many iconic venues in recent years, from clandestine mini-clubs like London's 60-capacity Public Life to big franchises such as Manchester's Sankeys. But if you've ever been to similar nights at Liverpool's temporarily closed Krazyhouse or Birmingham's Snobs, you'll know the kind of high street club I'm talking about. These "mega-clubs" – as opposed to the profit-driven "superclub" – create no hierarchies. There are no superstar lineups, no VIP tickets and no one-way systems which make going for a piss feel like you're at a cattle market. Instead, the DJs are every-men, the entry fee is never more than a fiver and the toilets are a hub of IRL double-tap appreciation.
Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of these kinds of places in city centres, and perhaps soon they'll all be gone. Streaming apps have sharpened most people's taste in music, meaning going clubbing usually involves buying tickets to see specific DJs, while Britain's coke-fuelled bar culture has replaced nights dedicated specifically to chatting shit in club toilets while gurning on E. For those on tight budgets, it's house parties that make more financial sense these days, and quite often they boast louder sound systems than the noise-restricted city centre clubs anyway.
But what is encouraging is the way in which the best facets of the no-thrills, multi-room, multi-genre city centre club have been transported to alternative and countercultural nights and venues, driven by a desire to make clubbing affordable, open-to-all and a little less restrictive about music again.
In Manchester, these qualities are at the forefront of the cooperatively run Partisan Collective's approach, whose membership and entry fees are scaled according to earnings. Its All Hands On Deck night gives novices a chance to try DJing, while its volunteer-staffed bar dissolves rigid boundaries between workers and punters, creating a feeling of communality I haven't experienced since my Rockworld days. A similar narrative is unfolding in south London, where repurposing spaces and putting on free or cheap parties is the ethos behind The Rising Sun pub and Caribbean-bakery-by-day-and-clubbing-space-by-night Tasties, while in Glasgow a thriving illegal after-hours club scene is fighting against the city's restrictive licensing laws.
Over at Salford's The White Hotel, gender fluidity and sexual expressiveness are the ethos of club nights like Body Horror. The sticky-floor aesthetic and sweat-soaked walls are reminiscent of the classic multi-genre club's onetime cigarette smoke-filled rooms, where dark corners and never-ending toilet cubicles created the perfect environment for hedonistic abandon and sexual experimentation, perhaps last seen full throttle at the Haçienda's monthly night Flesh.
Meanwhile, a more open-minded approach to music policy can be found at independently-run club nights such as London's Bala Club, Liverpool's Meine Nacht or Glasgow's FUSE. And so, while the British city centre has been lost to pseudo Japanese jazz bars and mock Prohibition-era speakeasies, perhaps the dimly-lit backstreets are where these nights are actually best placed, not least because with their two finger salute to gentrification they embody something of those rough-edged but accessible and free-spirited clubs of the early 2000s.
What we're unlikely to see again are multi-room clubs that match the sheer size of those we once knew. Quite simply, those kinds of venues are no longer affordable for most people starting a new club in any major city. And so, with the most hedonistic, inclusive and musically experimental nights now taking place on the outskirts, most revellers going out in the city centre seem to dress a little more conservatively than during my Vicks VapoRub-sponsored Rockworld heyday. Perhaps what I'll miss most about doing all-nighters in cheap multi-genre clubs, then, is being able to turn up in town wearing PVC fancy dress and basically no one battering an eyelid.
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