A nervous chattering can be heard in Farringdon near midnight on a Friday. Hundreds of people are queuing behind crowd-control barriers winding around the corner of Charterhouse Street to the entrance of fabric. Many of them—most of them—have done this before, but this time is different.
It's been three months since the club closed its doors after two devastating drug-related deaths in 2016. In the campaign to save the venue that followed, fabric came to symbolize every venue in the capital that had become a victim of the dark and swirling forces of gentrification. Its closure represented the social cleansing of the city, the victory of Foxtons and the bankers over youth culture and, in its own way, the death knell for club culture in the capital.
Sensing swelling outrage, high powers including Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, stepped in to support the campaign to #savefabric. While photo opportunities and protest raves took place in the public eye, lawyers were shuffling papers behind doors, drawing up a new set of rules that would, in theory, stop things ending in a costly and protracted legal battle. They avoided a court ruling that could have created a precedent that would help other clubs trying to keep the estate agents at bay. Instead it was quietly decided that fabric would be free to reopen as long as it could abide by new rules. Problem is, on opening night, no one in the queue is sure how tough those new rules are.
Before they turn the corner, Alice and Emily get messages from friends up ahead saying security guards are anally searching everyone on the door. The girls can't figure out how that can be possible, given the number of people waiting. But they work themselves up that this might actually be true because of how slowly they are moving, squirming in their hoodies as they imagine what's ahead of them. Emily is carrying a silver backpack stuffed with overnight gear like a toothbrush and razor: she knows she's going to get stopped.
At the doors, policemen watch on, hands in pockets, as dozens of security guards scan ID cards and get people to empty their pockets into colourful plastic baskets taped to poles. Wallets are examined. Coats are patted down. Emily loses her razor, but she's told she can pick it up later, which she's pleased about. "It was an expensive one," she says. Her friend laughs: "Why did you bring that, bring a Bic!"
Here's what you won't get on the door: anal searches (good one). Sniffer dogs. Drama. Fabric's door policy is just as it has always been—one of the toughest in the world and everyone who bought a ticket for the reopening night knew exactly what they were signing up for.
People scatter as they enter the club. Downstairs, the secret line-up is revealed. Logan Sama finishes up in Room One with Skepta's "Shutdown" and Dizzee Rascal and Fekky's "Still Sittin' Here". There are whoops as the underfloor transducers get to work and the bass rumbles through the dancefloor. Chase & Status are on next as de facto headliners, followed by London grime DJ Sir Spyro and Chimpo, from Manchester. In Room Two Nu:Tone, Metrik and Dillinja will play drum and bass sets that test the 26 speakers of a new Pioneer Pro Audio system so powerful it can rattle ribcages while leaving eardrums intact.
Upstairs, a man called Mark is hanging over the balcony surveying Room One as it fills up ready for Chase & Status. "See that bald man there," Mark says, pointing to the spot where people are dancing around a frozen figure, staring into the distance, "he was sure it would be techno in here tonight." He chuckles.
Next to him, a slight Hungarian man in baggy trousers called David says he's been a fabric member since 2014 and lives for drum and bass nights at the club on Fridays. "I'm so happy it's reopened. fabric is my church." A friendly security guard stands between them keeping an eye on people, smuggling the odd Starburst into his mouth.
Not everyone is having such a good night. Dean, a 20-year-old from Coventry, is trying to keep warm on a bench under a heater in the welfare tent. He slipped over in the club and banged his head and now he has to wait until his friends are ready to catch the first train home in the morning. Outside, three men huddle over cigarettes in the drizzle. Their mate just got collared by security at the water bar. The last they heard of him was a text message saying someone had taken his pulse in the welfare tent, decided it was too fast and sent him home. They seem resigned. "I understand they have to be really careful now," one says. "They don't want anyone else to die in here."
Almost everyone seems resigned to the strong security presence, knowing that's the price they pay to keep the authorities happy. But it feels like box-ticking. If police and politicians really cared about drug deaths, they would be making it easier, not harder, for fabric to take care of people. There would be drug testing services, like those pioneered at Secret Garden Party, to help people make informed decisions about whether to take whatever powders and pills they brought. The welfare tent would be a safe place for people to get advice if they were feeling weird, rather than a pit stop before they are shown the door.
But fabric's hands are tied and tonight, everyone agrees that keeping the music playing is victory enough. Gold strobes and green lasers rain down on Room One, where Chase & Status play a euphoric set. Mark downs his rosé and runs off to join his friends on the dancefloor, where even the bald man is dancing. David nods his head furiously on the balcony. People take photos and videos in front of a fabric smiley painted on the back wall above a new hashtag: #yousavedfabric.
At that moment, it seems possible that signing petitions and going to protest raves saved fabric, even though people tried just as hard to save Plastic People and Dance Tunnel and Cable and all the other nightclubs that have been shut down. It seems possible ordinary people could change things and not just stand by while politics decided it would work in favor of club culture this time, that the stakes were high enough, even though that hasn't always been the case. The bass is back rumbling the dancefloor in the best club this country has ever seen, and it could almost be true.