Do you remember where you were the night Michael Jackson died? I was urinating in a nightclub in Norwich.
Ten minutes before that piss I was stood with friends, clutching WKDs, beginning to feel the full effect of those three pints I'd had over two hours earlier in the evening. Swaying. Lurching. Slurring. Trying to focus on how Ross Gellar-white my plimsolls looked under the UV canopy of clubland. Making sure we arrived just before 11 to ensure an easy free entry had led to us being stuck in limbo; it wasn't busy enough to dance but not empty enough to have a pointedly, determinedly, bad time. Standing about, talking whatever rubbish it is that lads out of place in clubs talk about at that age, at that time in history – a period which has receded deep in to the banks of my memory, steadfastly refusing a thorough dredging – there was a jump cut. 'Billie Jean' was playing. A straight up peak time banger at this hour? Something's up. It has to be. That's the money shot wasted on light frotting in the Uber home.
I'm pissing. My phone vibrates. 'Michael Jackson is dead.' I ring the sender. I garble down the line, my incoherent verbal blatting reverberating around the cubicle, echoing into total nonsense. I zip up, stumble out, slide a few coins across the bar in exchange for a lime-less Corona. "Michael Jackson's dead lads." Disbelief. Head shaking. Muttering. Our DJ for the night grabs hold of the microphone, ushering in silence from the assembled rabble of the underage and the barely legal, the too old to be here and the too old to care. "Ladies and gentlemen," he begins, "boys and girls, I've got some good news for you, and some bad news. The bad news is...THE KING OF POP IS DEAD." We are stunned. It must be official. He wouldn't lie to us. "The good news is that we're gonna get hammered and party all night long!" The nightclub is called Mercy.
Slapped down in the arse end of Prince of Wales Road, a straightbacked snake of karaoke bars, kebab joints and Chicago Rock Café's, Mercy stands proud and tall, a testament to the eternal desire for provincial teenage obliteration. It is grotty, grubby, prone to delusions of grandeur. It throbs with unbridled desire, runs on alcopops and lipgloss. furtive fumbles soundtracked by Pitbull and Ultrabeat. It is dispiriting and exhilarating in equal measures. It's brash, naff, bold. It's the summation of cultural consciousness, a pleasure palace without any semblance of ideology. It's explicit in its pandering to a lower state of consciousness. It is unabashed and unashamed. It's every nightclub in every small city in the country. We've all been to a Mercy. And deep down all of us loved every second of it.
Clubbing – as I've previously documented – can be fraught with difficulties and the majority of these come when you come laden with expectation. Mercy is a club that negates expectation. You go because there is no where else to go. The only other competitor back then, back in the heady days of the late-00s, was the city's nominal 'indie' nightspot, Po Na Na. Po's was a semi-Moroccan themed bazar that I only really remember for playing the Coral to packed dancefloors on Thursday nights to rapturous response. You walked up the Mercy staircase – or maybe you didn't, maybe alcohol and memory are playing tricks on me and that staircase was reserved for the sole use of those lucky fuckers in the VIP lounge with their velvet ropes and knock-off Veuve Cliquot – with a vague sense of dread weighing down on you. That dread dissipated when you entered the main room.
Dancefloors should, in theory, be democratic spaces in which workaday worries and quotidian prejudices are cast asunder in the name of pleasure. We're there to be united in a longed for transcendence, our retail uniforms literally and metaphorically swapped for best shirts and smartish trainers. Mercy did this. It may still.
I've not stepped foot in the place for years, worried that at the grand old age of 24 I'm too old to visit sincerely, too young to embark on nostalgic waltzes through the sites of youth. I know people who still pre-drink in school friend's front rooms psyching themselves up for Flange Thursdays, Friday Hedfunk and Saturday Lavish. They get smashed for Scott Mills PA sets. They probably have more fun than those of us who trapise down to a Night Slugs party and joylessly record Vines of footwork-spinbacks. Why? Because Mercy and it's ilk – your Evoke's in Chelmsford, Warrington's Funky Box, Kuda in Tamworth – are pointedly not places to be seen in. You go because your friends do and because you know you'll all get pissed, hear 'Get Low' by Lil Jon, maybe dance behind a girl – but not with her – and sit glassy-eyed in Fariq's Kebabs stuffing a donner down your throat before getting in a £40 taxi home to a sleeping house.
These clubs thrive because they prey on base instincts. Nightlife is fuelled by alcohol: they sell it cheap. Cheap drinks means lowered inhibitions which means more chance of snogging someone in the shimmer and stutter of strobes. These aren't clubs where the DJ will play one record you know – and even that's one you heard for the first time last week – for every ten you don't. They play obvious records that are obviously designed to be played in obvious settings like this. Everything is functional, songs selected for maximum sing-along value, records picked purely because you can easily shake your arse to them. They work because they're the diametric opposite of our imagined perfect nightclub. They work because there's no façade. These are places where Dapper Laughs rocks up to fist pump to Route 94, where Max and OB from Hollyoaks do whatever the fuck it is that they do for ten minutes before sodding off. They present us with spectacle on a small scale, the illusion of celebrity. For a price you can have a brief seat with the guy from Geordie Shore with the Sky remote sized dick. You can bask in accessible glory. The divide is broken. You're both there to smash down as many VKs as a stomach can handle. Together. All of us together.
And, sometimes, the illusion of celebrity becomes a reality: a few years back, we, Mercy, had Ne-Yo swing through for a sold-out show once, a show he abandoned after two songs before promptly fleeing the venue wondering how the fuck he ended up in a nightclub with a branded chicken shop attached. It's the sniff of glamour that sucks us in, that feeling of a high street Hollywood come to life, that sucks you in. These are the places where you learn the rituals of going out, the routines you hold with you whether you're in Aldershot or Amsterdam. You learn how to behave and more importantly how not to: not since that first night in Mercy have I headbutted someone, accidentally or otherwise. I've not puked in a club toilet since 2009 either.
I look back at those nights with the fondest of memories, ruffling the hair of my former self. It was a time of innocence, an era of the self slightly before self-definition became so pivotal and central. It Thursday mornings talking about upcoming Thursday nights and feeling too awful on Friday mornings to talk about Thursday night. It was club culture as an unadulterated, un-adult sugar rush, a coming of age for those of us who never came of age at the right time. These are the clubs that genuinely change your life in far more impactful ways than the time you saw Jeff Mills or Theo Parrish or whoever it may be. Because these are the clubs that ask you to stick at it, that demand that you recant any allegiances you may have sworn before being frisked in, the clubs in which you're not a techno fan, you're not the guy who listens to Red Hot Chili Peppers or the girl into Max B. You're a faceless clubber. You can embrace this sensation and go with it, accept the weight of agency and carry it with you, or you can recoil and shrink in on yourself. The latter need not ever darken the doorways that litter our high streets ever again, freeing up smoking areas and taxi ranks across our fine and puke-splattered land. The former have understood that essential sense of release that only the most genuine of tacky clubs can offer.
Put it this way; where would you rather be? Room two at fabric watching Jamie Jones gamely trot through a pedestrian set of tech-house? Or Mercy on A Level results night, the DJ asking if the club feels sexually frustrated before dropping Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison? Thought so.
The fun, frolics and unhealthy drinks deals are literally endless at Mercy's, Norwich - find out more here.
Follow Josh on Twitter: @bain3z
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