The Small Town Nightclub That Quietly Changed British Clubbing Forever
Legends provided the North with much more than a no-frills alternative to the hipster clubbing of the Haçienda.
This article was originally published on THUMP UK.
If you were trying to direct the most clichéd film imaginable about nightlife in Britain, you'd probably set it in a Northern town, and that town would, against all odds, be home to one of the best-kept secrets in the history of UK club culture. Except, occasionally, cliché is a perfect way of telling the truth.
Warrington, equidistant between Manchester and Liverpool, and known best as the birthplace of Britain's Got Talent winner George Sampson, was home to Legends. A venue that was only open for three years, Legends, much like Konspiracy over in Manchester, has been largely written out of the annals of British clubbing, ditched for the likes of the Haçienda. "Unlike Shelly's Laserdrome in Stoke-on-Trent or Quadrant Park in Liverpool it never got mentioned in Mixmag or by the media in general," recalls Darren Noguerol, one of the residents of what became the Legends infamous Saturday night. "I remember Sean who ran the club turning away Northwest News one time just to keep its anonymity!"
Alongside his friend Kev McCue, Sean Mellor was the promoter and licensee of the club. Built in the 70s, the building was a sin against architectural common sense with gutter downspouts that went into the building rather than out. Inside, it was a back to basics kind of set up with "the DJ box central to the crowd, a low ceiling and walls sprayed in 80's breakdance graffiti" says Noguerol, or as writer Helen Walsh remembers it, "an unprepossessing, box-shaped snooker hall behind Warrington Rugby League Club."
Sean and Kev's first night took place on a Monday night and was headlined by a band that no one in Warrington had heard of. Despite those setbacks, securing a few local bands for support meant they managed to sell 300 tickets and the owner soon gave them free reign of the venue with a Thursday Alternative night soon moving to a Friday.
It was there that Sean and Kev found their feet as promoters. Booking the likes of the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, The Charlatans. and Blur, the night was soon making them a handsome profit. However, "musically and culturally there was an increasing crossover between the indie scene and the club scene, and Kev said they wanted to launch a night that tapped into this," Richard Garvin told me of the duo's decision to take a gamble with an additional night. Friends with Kev and Sean and already DJing in Leeds where he studied, Richard was asked to return to his hometown to play Saturdays, sought out because of his interest in emerging genres. But the role came with a caveat. "What they didn't want was a full-on house night—that was definitely not the plan."
Paired up with existing resident Andy McKim, Garvin soon had his own ideas for the future of the club. "On the second Saturday we decided to ignore Kev's instructions and play more house music—I think we felt like it was worth a punt. There weren't a huge amount of people in the club—or on the dance floor—but the music started to work. At this point in Warrington, like many towns, there were no clubs playing serious house music—people were still slightly wary. But word got out that we were trying to start something, and that there was an opportunity. At this point local DJ Mike Woods heard about the night.
"I walked into the club, went up to Sean and said 'I will get this place filled.'" Woods recalls. "I had a couple of hundred people that were chomping at the bit to get out and party and I was the man with the records in Warrington at that time, so he said okay come along and join Richard and the rest was history—the place was rocking within what seemed like a couple of weeks." A regular at the Haçienda, Woods got his education from acquaintances Steve Williams, Mike Pickering and Graeme Park, but at Legends he set himself a challenge in what became the club's unique music policy and this is perhaps where the venue's legacy lies.
Legends' doors were open back when residents ruled the roost, and like all good residents, Woods and Garvin mastered the ability to ride out those all important—and importantly usually quite quiet—first few hours of the night. "We weren't interested in showing off or trying to prove anything," Garvin remembers. "We wanted to create our own brand of Legends 'classics,' tracks that the Legends crowd had a personal connection with and felt ownership of. And I think unlike any other club in the North, we genuinely built the night. At the time this was a huge gamble, but Mike and I decided to try kicking the night off with slower, more Balearic records—around 88 BPM. We then gradually picked up the pace, but I'd say we didn't hit 120 BPM until around 11:30PM, which was unheard of in a house club in the North. This allowed us to play all sorts of records that would hardly ever get played otherwise—early Ibiza classics such as Code 61's "Drop The Deal". This was not the kind of record that people went mad to in a place like Warrington—yet they did."
"Richard would go down to London every now and then and told me about Shoom," Woods remembers. "So we both started to just look out for downtempo tracks and before we knew it that sound blossomed into what became known as the tape one's. I would record the night's music on three 90 minute tapes, and tape one covered that first part of the night and I think those tracks are some of the most sought after records that people still ask me about."
"Within four or five weeks we were full to capacity," Garvin continues, "the place was starting to seriously bounce, and the line to get in was stretching right down the road and round the corner. I don't think either of us could believe how big it got, and how quickly—I remember us both looking out before the doors opened and laughing at how ridiculous it looked." Indeed, by this point getting into the club was getting ever more complicated, "with people queuing up on a Thursday to get a raffle ticket which allowed them to buy a ticket on Saturday," according to Webster, who went onto become a Sankeys resident after his Legends indoctrination. With punters starting to arrive from 3PM and from places as far afield as Carlisle, "the initial 'no house music' policy was forgotten by everyone forever," according to Garvin.
Then an academic shaped spanner was thrown in the works. Richard Garvin was off to Canada. "It was a massive hole to fill in at the club because musically Richard was on the money and the majority loved him," remembers Noguerol, who at eighteen years old, stepped up to the challenge of replacing Garvin. Telling me that while there were "far more well known and experienced DJs at the time eager for the job," Darren believes he was chosen because "Mike felt to be resident of such a well worked format needed somebody who knew what Legends was fully about and understood the tape one format which was paramount to the club's success."
New Year's Eve 1992 seemed to be the club's peak. Clubs like Cream had emerged and punters were abandoning Warrington. "At this point there was no re-investment to the club's look or shoddy sound system plus for the first time out of town mobs were moving in to try and make money and all this was against the grain of what Legends was about," Darren told me.
Mellor recalls how after one weekend when he refused to let a group of drug dealers in, he found his van blown up the following Monday. Another notable incident was when the authorities alerted him to a criminal on the run who they expected to turn up at the club after breaking out of a police van. "We built a temporary wall for the armed officers to hide behind but he never turned up," Sean told me, almost still exasperated by the effort that went into that operation. Indeed, the police were continuously "all eyes and ears" with Mellor frequently getting reports of drug taking and lewd sexual activity from undercover coppers, which threatened to pull the plug on the whole thing.
According to Helen Walsh, who started going to Legends at the age of 13, experiencing the chemical romance of ecstasy before she even snogged anyone, by '93 the club "had changed, more than we were prepared to acknowledge. It wasn't just that the scene had died of natural causes. We'd come crashing down from a lifetime peak."
Legends provided the North with much more than a no-frills alternative to the hipster clubbing of the Haçienda. "There was a sense of community, which is always something that comes under pressure when the economy's not working for people," Garvin says. In a similar vein to what Northern Soul did for places such as Wigan and Blackpool back in the 60s, "this energetic new sound from Chicago seemed to unite people from the working class towns and cities of the surrounding areas," remembers Woods.
At a time when we are living through perhaps the most divided era in recent political history, it seems pertinent to stress the importance of spaces such as nightclubs in Northern towns abandoned by austerity-driven governments. Meanwhile, with mainstream clubbers so committed to an ever-repeated of set that the absence of a drop confounds them to the point of bewilderment, anger and perhaps even insanity, remembering forgotten trends such as the "ten past nine records" reminds us that DJing can be daring and subversive.
Of Legends' role within the socioeconomic challenges which faced Warrington at the time, Garvin asserts, "maybe critics would say people weren't angry enough, that they were turning their back on their problems rather than addressing them. But an incredible number had the best times of their life there—me included—and although it's sometimes sad to reminisce, I don't think any of us would swap it for the world." It seems then that while some club nights come and then are swiftly forgotten, others not only live on in the memories of those who experienced them but actually live up to their names.
Before I get off the phone to Sean, he tells me that he wants to tell me one final story. "At the Stone Roses gig I was acting as front stage security because half of Manchester turned up." Given a bottle of water by Reni, who told Mellor that he looked like he needed it more than him, the end of the performance was met with an uproar from a crowd shouting for more. "People usually go off for ten seconds and come back, but with these lot I had to go to their dressing room and say 'come on lads, you coming back?' But Ian Brown shook his head and said, 'we don't do encores, leave them wanting more.' And that's pretty much how we left it with Legends too."