Dave Swindells delves into the history of King’s Cross and its iconic clubbing scene, which is still infused into the fabric of the area…
Paul Noble is sat in Spiritland, the bar, restaurant and recording studios which he opened on Stable Street in 2016. Spiritland’s custom designed sound system and brilliant DJs deliver a wonderfully diverse musical selection, but that’s not always the first thing people tend to talk about.
“Honestly, half the people who come in here seem to say, ‘I’m sure I used to go clubbing around here’,” laughs Noble. “They’ll say, ‘Wasn’t Bagley’s nearby?’ and we point them towards next door — the soon-to-open Coal Drops Yard building — or they’ll ask about The Cross and we direct them to the arches where Tom Dixon’s design showroom is now.”
Twenty-five years of naughty-but-nice-ness
It’s hardly surprising that so many people remember partying around King’s Cross, as up to ten thousand clubbers were coming here each weekend in the mid-90s for those two venues alone. Bagley’s Studios gradually expanded to be able to host five-room spectaculars like the Mud Club, Freedom, Pushca and World Dance that brought many different clubs and music styles together in the same venue. While from 1994, The Cross was attracting the world’s finest DJs and a super-stylish crowd to nights such as Glitterati, Renaissance, Serious, L’Amour and Vertigo.
Those two venues finally closed on New Year’s Eve 2008, by which time Bagley’s had played host to twenty-five years of naughty-but-nice nightlife — illegal warehouse parties, gay superclubs, full-on fetish nights, roller discos, cutting-edge fashion shows (for example Alexander McQueen’s Spring 1995 collection, ‘The Birds’), underground techno, UK Garage raves, and secret bashes for the likes of Prince, Massive Attack, Depeche Mode and the Rolling Stones, not to mention being part of the TDK Festival weekenders in the mid-noughties with Grace Jones and Goldfrapp on stage.
What is surprising, at least if you’re concerned about your own health and safety, is that people were partying in King’s Cross at all. ‘Dingy,’ ‘derelict’ and ‘dirty’ are words that keep recurring if you ask clubbers to describe the area in the 1980s, and the situation had hardly improved ten years later. “It was a bit like the Wild West around there because King’s Cross was desolate, and very dodgy in terms of street crime, prostitution and drug dealing,” recalls Debby Lee, a TV producer and clubber who began working for Bagley’s in 1988. “It was very low-rent, especially in the early years, but for a lot of people the location added to the whole adventure of the night; it was quite daring in a way.”
King’s Cross was not even on the nightlife map in the early ’80s (unless you were visiting The Bell, the best alternative gay bar in town, or the louche B-movie all-nighters at the Scala Cinema), but once renegade promoters like Dirtbox and The Lift kickstarted London’s warehouse party scene, even the dilapidated buildings behind King’s Cross station suddenly had potential. Battle Bridge Road was a street of run-down tenement blocks that existed roughly where Pancras Square (and the offices of Universal Music Group) is now. It was in a disused school hall on Battle Bridge Road that pioneering DJ duo Noel and Maurice Watson teamed up with Rip, Rig + Panic’s Sean Oliver to start a weekly Saturday nighter in 1984. “We put a bar on the stage which was run by Neneh Cherry and Andi Oliver, with Maurice, me and Sean Oliver DJing on the other side,” remembers Noel Watson. “We were playing a lot of the latest electro alongside the old JBs stuff, and Malcolm McLaren would bring us white labels, and people like Jazzie B of Soul II Soul, Nellee Hooper of The Wild Bunch and Daddy G [Massive Attack] were all down there.” The party ran for nearly a year before the police busted it in 1985, but it established the Watson brothers’ reputation — and led to them being the new remixers of Street Sounds’ hugely-influential ‘Electro’ compilations.
Post-punk, post-apocalyptic playgrounds: a new art movement on the rise
Meanwhile, the most radical performance art collective in Britain were squatting a disused coach station off the Battle Bridge Road. Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company were busy creating a trippy, post-apocalyptic “adventure playground for adults” with massive mutant metal sculptures that were inspired by punk, anti-Thatcher rebellion, Mad Max and Judge Dredd — if you’ve ever been to Glastonbury Festival you wouldn’t forget encountering Mutoid Waste in a field far away from the main stage.
“It was an exhibition,” wrote Joe Rush of their early years in King’s Cross, “an installation party, a cinema set one could inhabit.” Their parties rocked to post-punk, dub reggae and psychedelia until acid house came along and “blew everything wide open” — the kind of party I scrambled over walls to get into the summer of ’88. A year later, though, after a series of police raids, Mutoid Waste moved out of the UK to begin a decade-long Mutoid World Tour.
On a balmy night in June 1985, the Circus — a warehouse party hosted by Patrick Lilley and Jeremy Healy — was the first one-off party at Bagley’s Studios, which was mostly used as a location for music videos and fashion photography shoots. Acid house changed that too, as so many promoters were looking for venues, and the owners weren’t sure who they could trust. Debby Lee introduced Norman Jay and Judge Jules’ Shake ‘n’ Fingerpop parties, Soul II Soul and Charlie Chester, “and then people started to come to us as our reputation grew.”
An accidental nightclub, all-nighter fun, and a hotbed of innovation
Bagley’s was pretty basic but it had what party promoters dreamed about: space to expand, an openness to innovative ideas and hardly any issues with neighbours. Philip Sallon’s legendary Mud Club night became a weekly highlight there from 1992–96, creating a glam house party with amazing décor and production that could totally transform the rooms. It was the queues outside the Pussy Posse party in 1991 and the Mud Club which prompted Billy Reilly, who was running a garage in the Goods Yard, to start his own venue.
Reilly happily admits that he “didn’t know Judge Jules from Judge Dredd” when he opened The Cross, and that it became a nightclub by accident rather than design (it was originally conceived as a wine bar). Shoom DJ Danny Rampling, who played dozens of times there, called it “a little bit of Ibiza in the heart of London,” with palm trees and waltzer seats out in the garden, where some clubbers danced all night. It’s hard to overstate just how much fun was had there, but if you saw the 300-page book of photos and stories that was produced for The Cross’s tenth anniversary in 2003, you’d soon understand. That same year Reilly took on Bagley’s and renamed it Canvas.
2003 was also the year that Laurence Malice, promoter of the legendary Trade parties, opened Egg London as a club venue further up York Way. Fifteen years later it’s still presenting all-star DJs on three floors of cutting-edge music all night long, so tireless hedonists don’t have to go far to carry on partying. Just around the corner from Egg London is the remarkable music and creative media hub that is Tileyard Studios. With more than seventy state-of-the-art recording studios — Mark Ronson, Lily Allen, Tinchy Stryder, Lady Gaga and Ella Eyre are among those who record there — and dozens of offices for technology start-ups, it’s clear that Central Saint Martins and Google don’t have a monopoly on inspirational forward-thinking around King’s Cross.
Keeping the beat alive
Spiritland also has recording studios incorporated into its beautifully-purposeful audiophile design. The team behind Spiritland will soon be opening a Neapolitan pizzeria, Happy Face, with a basement bar on Handyside Street. That subterranean bar, dubbed Supermax, will be based on 1970s Italo-pop discos and “Obviously we’re putting in a slamming sound system,” says Noble, “because that’s what we do.”
Even so, it’s easy to imagine that the wild party nights are over around Granary Square. But with the Coal Drops Yard area opening next door and programmers like Paul Noble and Spiritland involved, there is still enormous scope for innovation and aural adventures — just keep your eyes and ears peeled. Okay, some may be finishing earlier but that’s fine, because if you want to dance all night, brilliant venues like Egg and Scala are just around the corner…
Dave Swindells was Nightlife Editor for Time Out Magazine, London between 1986–2009.
This article first appeared in the autumn 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.