From 2012 to 2015, I went to a lot of clubs. These dark rooms came to define my existence; they became my office, my living room, the theaters in which the dramas of my early 20s played out.
In the course of those three years I was stabbed with an epi-pen, dumped while dancing in a cage at a fetish club, and punched in the head by a trainee marine. I played in a ball pond with a goth, did a shot with Arg from The Only Way Is Essex, was shut down by Sophie Ellis Bextor, trod in emo vomit, drank a dirty pint with a university rugby team, and had T-shirts made about me by a UK hip-hop crew from Bristol, emblazoned with the slogan "Fuck Clive."
I saw things that nobody would ever see, had it not been their job to stay sober enough to see them. I saw a man masturbate into his own flip-flops, I saw The Pigeon Detectives play live, I saw the Bantersaurus Rex himself having a disco nap in a McDonald's in Cambridge. I breathed the foul air of a turbo-folk tent three days into a summer festival. I saw all of party life, and that was just the shit I was getting paid for.
VICE's Big Night Out series—in both its written and video form—was the reason for all this. I'd been charged with documenting the nightlife that revolves around Britain's many subcultural groups, and so spent roughly a weekend a month doing so. It was, and remains, a ridiculous way to have made a living—one that battered my liver and wallet, and left me with a weird Peter Pan complex as I headed towards my late 20s. Ever wonder why DJs and bouncers are all so weird and aggy? It's because they spend too much time in clubs. They aren't good for you in large doses.
I fell into doing the series by accident. It already existed before I started working on it, having previously been more about cities and situations—like Romford or Bradford or the West End—rather than the subcultures and extreme branches of the mainstream that later became its focus.
Within a few excursions I realized that what I really wanted to get at was a kind of Kinsey survey of the British nightlife experience in the early part of the 21st century. To try to understand the differences, the appeals, the niches, and the inherent similarities between these seemingly distant worlds. I wanted to touch on just about every facet of going out in the UK, from fashion parties to reality TV star personal appearances; Cambridge student piss-ups to basement metal nights; fetish clubs to central London indie discos. I wanted to drink through the spectrum of it all, hoping to come to some conclusions at the end of it.
Three years later and I'm still convinced that you can learn much more about society from the way it parties than just about any other method, including the way it votes. There's a simple honesty to people when they're out and having fun. They aren't partying because they feel they should be, or because they're buying into something they're being sold or scared into. They're getting off their faces and wearing these clothes because they have to. They wouldn't feel right if they didn't. Partying is a form of expression that comes from a much more primitive, visceral place than appearing on the Question Time panel, or writing an op-ed. It comes from somewhere they can't quite explain.
Clubbing is tribal, it's sexual, it's political—it's the human species in fight or fuck mode, and is thus a very effective way of distilling what we're really about. It's humanity in the wild. It's probably why Freud did so much blow.
Despite these lofty ideas, the real fun of it all lies in the niches. I always considered Big Night Out as a fashion feature first and foremost, a warped street style column where everybody is getting it slightly wrong but telling us so much more about our relationship with style than a slight Japanese man in a chunky knit scarf ever could. Something akin to a wreckhead's version of The Sartorialist, or a Jägerbomb Tommy Ton.
It was edifying and sometimes inspiring, seeing how stuff like Hood By Air, or My Chemical Romance, or Hedi Slimane, or fetish culture trickles down to the high street and is recreated by people in their own way. It was weird seeing creatine made tangible in the swollen triceps of the university lads, illuminating to see that the Alain Mikli shutter shades designed for Kanye's "Stronger" video took six years to make it to freshmen parties at The University of the West Country. As somebody who's always been obsessed with dressing and the way people do it, watching these ideas manifest themselves on this massive, very real scale told me more about how culture influences its wider environment than a thousand fashion weeks ever could.
The series was essentially a testament to superficiality, snapping people while they were peacocking and posturing and preening. It coincided with a time in which people were becoming increasingly more obsessed with their own image, with the rise of Instagram, male gym bunny culture, the duck-face, the E-cig pout, and the concept of a "club photographer," which was beginning to become commonplace across the country. We wanted to take the style of these typically banal images and use them to tell a story of sorts, instead of just whacking them up on the club's official Facebook page. In fact, the rise of the "official club photographer" (usually a guy with a DSLR on a drink token and $60 a night) also allowed us to get away with taking the pictures in the first place. We were essentially hiding in plain sight and using the punters' obsession with portraying themselves as fun-loving party people to say something about nightlife as a whole.
That said, shooting it wasn't always easy. Jake Lewis, the photographer for the written excursions, found himself on the receiving end of a fair bit of agro, but luckily he's very tall and charming and looks like a young Dave Grohl. Arg's manager, for instance, accused us of trying to blind him with a flash, and I was told never to go back to Milton Keynes again. We weren't exactly Marie Colvin and Tim Hetherington, but there were a few hairy moments here and there. Luckily, there was never any serious retribution—although I still watch my back every time I cross the border into Milton Keynes—because any violence happened in the moment. Only one installment never made it out: a shuffler-heavy deep house night we filmed in Vauxhall that was held back because the club owners couldn't see the funny side.
Looking back, a lot of the stuff that was said about the people in the pictures was probably unwarranted, probably played into quite a few stereotypes and was probably—largely—a bit mean. But "taking the piss," as we call it, is a grand tradition in this country, and part of the series' concept was about playing on our collective understanding of these different subcultures and scenes. Luckily, most people are pretty good at seeing the funny side of the worlds they inhabit (the UK hip-hop fans we met in Bristol being a notable exception), and if anyone came out of it looking like a prick, it was probably me.
Related: Watch 'The People Vs. Big Night Out', in which Clive responds to criticism and comments from YouTube viewers
Bringing the series into the video format presented a new set of problems. We got probably even more grief, walking through clubs with massive top-lights, getting in everyone's faces, treading on their Huaraches, trying to get the right shots in the middle of a melee. People might mistake you for a club photographer if you're just doing stills, but everyone knows what a film crew is.
I'm sure a few people got wound up in the moment, and I probably just barely avoided a few bottles being smashed over my head, but I'd like to think we've left the world with something at least. That maybe we captured something that might not have been otherwise. Because when you look through YouTube, or any online collation of images from clubs of old, you'll notice how often people bemoan just how little footage or photos there are from some of our most important nightlife events. Some of the world's most famous club nights were barely recorded at all, and while I think a lot of that stuff is probably better left to the imagination, I'm also quite proud of having documented British club life as it was in a certain time and place. We will at least be able to remember that strange era of bodycon dresses and scoop tees, beer funnels, Flyknits, lad tats, mephedrone, and casual cross-dressing.
Every club or festival or party had its own merits. The goth night was probably the most fun, the gabber night probably the most intense, the student night probably the most debauched and the Milton Keynes shopping center/club The Only Way Is Essex extravaganza probably the most depressing. The Fashion Week party one probably came closest to my extra-curricular social life, and thus remains a personal favorite because I got the chance to take the piss out of myself and my horrifically shallow friends a bit.
On a personal level, it gave me something to really sink my teeth into, even if it probably damaged a few of aspects of my day-to-day life. It was like being in a weird, protracted version of Almost Famous, where everyone's singing "Au Seve" by Julio Bashmore rather than "Tiny Dancer," and nobody really wants you to be there. I doubt I'll have many more projects in my working life that'll have the same kind of intensity or longevity, and it'll probably always be a major part of what I've done with my life.
What the whole experience offered was a massive reaffirmation—a heartening, human reminder of how much going out means to people. Of course, all of this was happening in the midst of Britain's clubs closing down at an unprecedented rate, their role in society being evermore overlooked by the in-bed-by-11 nu-capitalists.
More than anything, though, it was beautiful being consistently surrounded by people having some of the best nights of their lives, confirming all my beliefs about how integral parties are to our collective modern experience.
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