Partying and getting on in life seldom go hand in hand. But for a select group of Eighties and Nineties club kids, nightlife has proved a passport to success in the real world.
Most of us suspect that, as nightlife is about having a good time, that must also be time wasted. Or time spent wasted. Time which might better be spent studying, working, doing up the house, generally doing something more constructive than carousing in our gladrags. Getting on in life. But partying can also be an inspiration, a route to success, even. For the nightlife scene has always attracted some of our brightest, liveliest minds, whether they’re glibly cabbing from venue to venue, trailing glitter and feather boas behind them, or engaged in the sometimes glamorous but often grinding work that goes into promoting and running a big club night.
As in every industry, of course, there are winners and losers, and for every Ian Schrager – the founder of New York’s Studio 54 who went on to launch a string of glitzy hotels – there’s a Steve Rubell, his business partner who partied his way to an early death. And nightlife is an industry – one this country has often excelled at, from “Madchester” and Nineties rave culture through to edgy Hoxton or the much vaunted, hedonistically spent Pink Pound, all of which came to the fore in the Nineties – a moment in British culture that, for all its apparent rebelliousness, shared much of the entrepreneurial spirit unleashed by Margaret Thatcher.
To flourish, people who throw parties for a living need a nose for a business opportunity as much as an ear for the best DJ or a new sound, and an instinct for the Zeitgeist as well as an eye for the possibilities in some long-neglected piece of real estate. Like Ian Schrager, the five people interviewed here have all parlayed both their business nous and their coolhunting skills, honed in the ephemeral business of filling gigs, bars and dancefloors, into something much more substantial and long-lasting than any great disco moment or drink and drug induced buzz.
Having started out as a nightlife journalist, writing club reviews for Time Out and The Guardian, I’ve witnessed two of these transformations close-up. I first got to know Richard Welch ten years ago when he organised a party for the gay magazine Attitude which I worked on at the time; I recall a more or less unheard-of duo called Basement Jaxx manning the decks for the occasion. We lost touch and the next time I heard of Richard he was being described as a “power punk” and “Brit ad genius of the moment” in the pink, media-savvy pages of The New York Observer. Similarly, I first met Carol Ainscow at Manto’s, the gay bar she co-founded in Manchester’s Canal Street at the heart of what would become the city’s gay village, perhaps at the chill-out session after Flesh, the monthly gay night at the now legendary Hacienda. Today she is on the Sunday Times Rich List and one of the biggest – and arguably the most interesting – developers in the North West. Their stories and those of the others overleaf prove how, counter-intuitive as this may seem, good things can come out of a good time. We raise a drink to their success.
Pablo Flack and David Waddington
Flack, 33, and Waddington, 35, first met in the car park of a motorway service station back in the heady, E-fuelled days of the house music scene, when clubbers thought nothing of driving 50 miles for a good night. “There was a Volvo with a sound system and someone dancing on the roof, or something like that,” Flack recalls, laughing. Today they run Bistrotheque, the restaurant, bar and cabaret space in the East End of London – a place where Jay Jopling and Fay Maschler rub shoulders with fashion designer Giles Deacon and icons of the Shoreditch scene like Jonny Woo. Flack’s transition from a partaker of the nightlife scene to active participant began when he got a vacation job at the Bricklayers Arms in Hoxton while studying at the LSE.
What began as a stint in the kitchen evolved into something altogether more glam, when he put on a series of parties, still remembered as milestones in the pub’s emergence as the local of choice for the fashionistas and artists moving into the neighbourhood. “It was the start of spring so we laid turf in the bar,” Flack, a Huddersfield native, recalls. Waddington’s entrée into nightlife was even more fortuitous. He’d popped into the office of the London Apprentice, a popular Hoxton gay club just taken over by the Bricklayers’ team, to type up his CV, “when they offered me the job of running the pub – and I said yes”.
As a gay man, Flack would take a load of flak (pun intended) from the gay community when he and his then business partner turned the Apprentice into 333, a trendier club aimed at the crowds of young party goers flooding into Hoxton every weekend. But the club thrived, nonetheless. Flack also branched out into fashion, as half of the House of Jazz label, before opening Bistrotheque with Waddington in 2004. Flack and Waddington certainly don’t regret the move from clubbing to catering. “Working in a club is so depressing,” Flack recalls. “It’s fun at the start of the night, when all your friends are there, but then it’s 4am and you want to go home and there’s one freak going mad on the dancefloor… well, it’s miserable. What’s great now is that lots of the crowd at Bistrotheque used to go to the Bricklayers.
They’ve grown up with us, and today, if they want to go out, they want some comfort and a glass of bubbly. And these days, if we want to party we can join them, after the restaurant is shut.” Next up for the Bistrotheque boys? A giant, Chrimbo-themed “pop-up” or guerilla restaurant called the Reindeer in the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. Complete with cabaret, Giles Deacon dinner plates, decorations by Katie Hillier and Pop Magazine crackers, festive has never been so fashionable. And after 23 days, everything goes. As the website, www.thereindeer.co.uk, puts it, “The Reindeer is not for life, just for Christmas.”
Having started out throwing acid-house parties in pubs while at Liverpool University, Richard Welch went on to DJ everywhere from Moscow to Milan as half of Dick’n’Cy, the duo he formed with Simon Warrington – with whom he went on to form Reverb, a PR company specialising in dance music and clubs, including Fabric in London. Together the two promoted what had been, until then, deeply unhip French electronica, as well as launching a club night in Brixton around the emerging Basement Jaxx. Handsome, but more than just a pretty face, Welch then joined Headlight Vision, a branding consultancy, where he lent his eye for a trend to companies such as Guinness and Nokia, before being swept off to New York by Ogilvy & Mather to head up a new division of the advertising giant geared to tracking “leading edge” trends.
Still based in New York, today Welsh, 33, plays a similar role at Lowe Counsel, jetting off to Buenos Aires or São Paolo or Mexico City, to consult with a select band of “freelance individuals living freelance lives” who alert Welsh to what’s emerging just around the corner. Welsh’s role “is to straddle the divide” between these individuals and the big companies which turn to Lowe for a glimpse of the near future – companies like Amex, Kodak and Yahoo. While there’s an obvious gulf between mixing tunes and analysing trends, there is, Welch agrees, “a clear progression, albeit an unusual one, between where I started and what I do now. I still have to empathise with the target audience”.
With its chic, glass-fronted façade looking on to Canal Street, arriving at a time when gay venues had generally been hidden in basements or behind blacked-out windows, Manto’s would become a template for a new generation of gay bars around the country – as well as a launchpad for the city’s “gay village”, which would gain international recognition following the success of Queer As Folk. “We wanted something better,” she recalls, “than that frightened gay culture of the past.” It was a bold move, given that the area was still very much on the seedy side, while Manchester’s gangster culture of the time plagued venues from the Hacienda on down. But imagining the unimaginable had long been Ainscow’s forte. While at college, she made money buying and selling cars and bought her first property at the age of 22: a rundown house for £35,000 in her native Bolton which she converted into a care home. A year later, she had added a zero to the value of the property.
But Ainscow seems genuinely to be motivated not so much by making money as by “doing things”. And what things: a raft of prestigious projects in Manchester, including the regeneration of landmarks such as the Daily Express building and Co-op factory; the Kings Dock scheme in Liverpool; a major project on the old Odeon site in Bradford; a collaboration with Rotterdam’s Mecanoo architectural group to build affordable housing in Sheffield; and an ambitious makeover of the West Gorton estate, where Shameless was filmed. Having initially set out to be a teacher, on the quiet Ainscow retains a social conscience as a developer, often using the profits from selling swanky apartments to fund equally high-spec homes for the less advantaged. “Just because someone hasn’t got 250 grand to spend on an apartment, there’s no reason why they should live somewhere awful,” she says.
Marketing supremo for Manchester
“It wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t lived it,” Colin Sinclair says of the time when he was putting on gigs – and turning a derelict school into the Boardwalk, a performance and rehearsal space graced by such performers as Terry Hall, Oasis, the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. His Madchester period behind him, Sinclair, 44, is now director of marketing for Manchester Enterprise and MIDAS, Greater Manchester’s inward investment agency. As such, he travels the world from San Francisco to Shanghai, luring the likes of Google and the Bank of New York to that once stalled, now bustling city. Sinclair opted to study in Manchester because of its live music scene: “It was the era of Joy Division and the Buzzcocks,” he points out. Sinclair chose to stay after graduation, and quickly segued from being the students’ union official charged with booking bands to managing them; he went on to organise a series of high-profile events, from the Commonwealth Games handover ceremony to getting Tom Jones to sing for the Queen at the Welsh National Assembly.
“Selling Manchester isn’t difficult,” he insists. He praises what Mancunians still call the City Fathers – local politicians like Sir Howard Bernstein, “who recognised the link between the creative industries in regeneration”, long before the private sector did. From the outside, from Stone Roses gigs to meetings in boardrooms seems quite a leap, but from where Sinclair stands, suited and booted outside the Bank of New York’s HQ in the landmark Piccadilly One building, “I’m still using the same set of instincts.”