Dave Swindells snapped it up

His photos are famous – the defining record of the early acid house years. There’s Danny Rampling Christlike against a yellow sun at Shoom, the can’t-go-home crowd spilling out into the YMCA car park after The Trip at the Astoria, Paul Oakenfold DJing behind an impressive mullet at Future, sunrise by a lake in East Grinstead. There are baby faces, blissed-out smiles, straw hats, smileys, bubbles, and a lot more paisley than you thought possible. And those iconic images of the second Summer of Love are far from the whole story. Dave Swindells has an immense photographic archive of London clubbing from the mid-’80s right up to the present. As Nightlife Editor of London listings magazine Time Out, he had an access-all-areas pass to the whole after-dark city. You saw his work blown up to wall size in the 2019 Saatchi Gallery show Sweet Harmony: ­Rave Today, and now you can buy it for yourself in two books he’s produced, Ibiza ’89 and Acid House As It Happened. Looking back over his long career, Dave muses on the ups and downs of UK clubbing and the importance of documenting it all.

Interviewed by Frank in Hackney, 2.5.23

Frank Broughton: When it comes to clubbing in London I can’t think of a photographer who’s got a greater body of work spanning so many years and so many different scenes.
Dave Swindells: Being able to go to all those things is such a privilege. At times I’ve amazed myself, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got pictures of that.’ Suddenly, last week, I found these pictures of Jah Shaka that I really didn’t think I had.

I was super lucky to be in a position where I could go to almost anything, you know. I could rock up and either blag my way in or do it by arrangement. To be able to go to Brazilian things, or a Bhangra night, a rock and roll thing, and feel I’ve got a right to be there, because somebody has either commissioned you or given you a job, which allows you access.

I would have liked to have lived more in the clubs that I was photographing. I would go along and take pictures and get into the vibe really quickly. But I often think, why didn’t I go to the afterparties? Why didn’t I go down to Clapham Common and see people on the Sunday?

Don’t be so hard on yourself. You didn’t go to the afterparties because you had to file a story.
It was also about getting back to real life. I didn’t want to go on and on for 24 hours.

There’s so much creativity that goes into nightlife – the fashion, the decor, the music, the graphics, but it’s so ephemeral. It’s not even chip paper the next day. It’s just trashed. So it’s so important you’ve documented all of this.
Yeah, because for so long, we felt like we were the bad boys of culture. You only ever heard bad news about club culture. Oh, it’s drugs, it’s people throwing up in the street. It took so long to get any respect. I think the first time I went on anything that felt as if there was some, what you might call ‘establishment recognition’, was going on a British Council event in the late ’90s, going to Israel with VJs and DJs. Because museums and galleries, they were like, ‘It’s just people having a party, isn’t it?’

Outside the Astoria after The Trip, 1988
Shoom, 1988 at the Fitness Centre with Jaqui (or is it Louise?) Chantrell lost in the smoke
Shoom, 1988 – Simon Wilkinson, Steve Margrave, Sue, Mark ‘Spit’ Fenton and friend

So where would you bequeath your collection if you were to give it to the nation?
I know of other photographers who gave their archive to universities. I suppose that’s a possibility. I did go and meet the V&A once, at the instigation of [Notting Hill Arts Club founder] David McHugh, because he had just done an event there. They were interested. But I think they felt, ‘What would we do with this?’

The Saatchi Gallery did that show on rave, which was quite brave of them at the time, and they did some very lively, sweaty events during it. There was that Leigh Bowery exhibition in the chapel in Fitzrovia. The V&A does collect some photographer’s work, and and they do recognise the cultural value of it. They did that Club To Catwalk show. And back in 1994 they did the Streetstyle show. But it’s only now you feel there’s a kind of recognition.

I guess because people started to understand what club culture has brought to the world.
The New Romantics – even though everyone always disputes that name – that generation made a lot of music that went around the world. But for the most part, it didn’t feel like it was designed to dance to. It didn’t feel like it was part of the same equation as the music coming from New York and Chicago and Philadelphia.

But then London came of age. In the late ’80s a lot of DJs and producers started making music. And then we went on to create actual new musical forms. When jungle and drum and bass came through, UK garage, dubstep, all these things came out of London and the wider UK. That gave a different validity to what was happening in club culture.

And the fact that rave was such a mass culture thing. It was such a cultural movement. It wasn’t just a little bunch of trendies and bohemians in London, or Manchester. It really shifted things, and so many people were involved.

Tell me about Time Out. When did they realise that clubs were something to write about?
I think it was about ’81 or ’82. It was the whole one-nighter thing that got them into it. I remember looking back through the Time Out archive for the 20 years’ anniversary [in 1989], looking for what had been written about in the late ’70s. They had done the occasional nightlife story, about different discos and rock clubs where people danced, but there wasn’t much there. Even though, obviously, really good things and underground things were happening. And definitely there was a massive reggae scene in London. That was hardly ever documented.

I joined in ’86. Nightlife Editor. And at that time, they weren’t doing a brilliant job of it because [Time Out rival] City Limits was definitely better. That was Sheryl Garrett and John Godfrey. They were definitely more tuned in. Lindsey Shapiro, who I took over from, did a good article on Dougie’s and some of the other reggae clubs around Hackney in about ’87. We listed those things, but I don’t think we went out looking for them. When I went for the job the question they asked was, ‘Would you get to a new club quicker than Leigh Bowery?’

I’d been about a year and a half doing pictures for i-D – ‘straight ups’ [the magazine’s pioneering street fashion portraits]. I was so lucky, the guy who had been doing it before kind of got tired of it. He went off to Ibiza and did a whole lot of clubbing for the next 15 years. So I was really lucky to walk in at the right moment. Dylan Jones was editor then. Alix Sharkey was there. And Caryn Franklin. So that’s what got me the job at Time Out.

Time Out played an important role because it had almost an academic view of London. It didn’t want to miss things. That was definitely part of the ethos.
I feel now that it’s quite hard to find out about what’s going on because there isn’t an overview. Obviously Time Out wasn’t perfect and couldn’t be comprehensive. But it was really useful. You were trying to write for the general reader. But to a degree you can also tell people about things that were a little bit edgier, a little bit underground. And you could support things, like Dingwalls or Plastic People, you know, obviously, Fabric when it opened. There were so many good things. There really was an embarrassment of riches. We had a constant supply of potential news stories every week. There was never a shortage of things to write about.

Taking pictures in clubs was quite unusual, wasn’t it?
When I started there were a few people who were regularly taking pictures, but not very many. There was Normski, there was Derek Ridgers. I always give due credit to Derek, he’s phenomenal. I love his pictures. There was Oliver Maxwell and one or two others. It wasn’t like later. I remember going to The End one night in 2006 and there was a bloody queue of people waiting to take a picture of the DJ. And, of course, now it’s totally a different vibe because of smartphones. There are probably some secret archives out there. Because people on different scenes definitely took pictures. Even if they took them with some throwaway 35 millimetre camera.

Where did you grow up? How do you get into all of this?
I grew up near Bath and went to uni in Sheffield, but when I came to London, my brother Steve was already running clubs. He’d started in ’82. He did the Lift, and partnered with Kevin Millins who was doing the Pyramid to do Jungle and Bad and various other nights. It was great having somebody who’s already in the scene. He’d say, ‘Come down to Heaven and see what that’s like. Don’t be shy!’

The Lift was at Stallions, which was a brilliant little venue at the back of the Astoria. With a massive fish tank. I went there in ’83 and to a little warehouse thing that he did. I took a few pictures, and got lucky and they worked. It took quite a long time to get the feeling that I could do this.

I went to one of Steve’s parties at the Titanic, just off Berkeley Square. I think it closed in about ’85. One of those great lost venues. Anyhow, he did a party there in ’83, and it was great. I went into the loos, and the conversation was so fun and camp, and the people were so visual: wild outfits. I’d seen Derek Ridgers’ show The Kiss at the Photographers’ Gallery and I thought, wow, how brilliant to photograph situations like this. I love to capture people when they’re really having a good time. When it’s just the banter and they’re being themselves. But at that stage I wasn’t confident enough to approach people and start snapping.

I remember a lot of the gay clubs in New York wouldn’t allow cameras, because people might not want their image out there, they might be in the closet.
I mean, to be honest, I’m amazed looking back because I took pictures in The Lift in ’84 and most people were really relaxed with it.

Did you ever did you ever get in trouble for taking pictures?
Yeah, definitely. You always had to avoid snapping gangsters and wide-boys. If you walked into a central London house club in the late ’80s and early ’90s the first people you’d meet were usually dealers, and sometimes a whole line of them – no pun intended.

Or Twice As Nice, when it was at The End. There were so many characters there. So many Premiership footballers – though I wasn’t there the night the Beckhams went and did a bit of DJing – and no shortage of gangsters. I knew I’d have to ask people before I took their picture. I don’t want the grief. But it does dilute it somewhat if you go around saying, ‘Do you mind if I take a picture?’

Because you miss the moment.
You can always go back. Or you can do what I sometimes used to do, which was to take one more picture than people really wanted you to. You can see them starting to glare at you.

Twice As Nice at The Colosseum, 1999 with percussion passion from Travis
Twice As Nice at The End, 2000
Twice As Nice at The End, 2000

Tell me more about acid house. That was the scene you dived most deeply into.
I really felt a part of it. Even though I was about two months later than everyone else, that spring – I was a little bit late to the party. But nonetheless, I knew everyone involved. Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold… Danny Rampling had done The Dos at the Zoo, The Dinosaur Do and all these things. So yeah, I did feel very much part of it. And I had felt very much a part of what was going on in ’85 and ’86, the warehouse thing. Because that was a really exciting time to discover London, and have a camera and be able to record it.

What was the first thing you went to that was part of what would become acid house
Well I had had been to the Dinosaur Doo, and Johnnie Walker and Danny Rampling were saying ‘We’ve got some ideas, we’re going to do something, you’ll have to come down.’ And that was late ’87. At the same time there was this whole ‘flare groove’ thing going on, which brought fun and silliness and dressing up to the rare groove scene, in clubs like Discotheque at Busby’s.

The really interesting thing about ’88 was it started fast and got faster, all through the year. You know, it wasn’t only acid house and Balearic beats. At the start of ’88 there was so much energy suddenly, so much positive vibes. ‘We can do this!’ ‘Let’s make this better!’ And of course ’87 had been amazing for the scale and ambition of things – like the Westworld parties. They were the only thing that compared with the scale of what was going on in Ibiza. London was mostly small clubs, you know, except for Heaven. Not many other places were remotely organised and well-run and had decent sound systems. So those Westworld parties were incredible. Four and a half thousand people, and they did four or five parties. Then they did Wet World parties in swimming pools.

Westworld, 1987, setting the scale for rave
Westworld, 1987

It’s funny looking at pictures from 1987 because a lot of people were really ambitious. There was a ghost train operating on the Astoria stage, there was Delirium with all sorts of adventures, a skate ramp, BMX bikes, a helter-skelter – they were doing all that in the Astoria.

So there were a lot of promoters who were really seizing the moment and trying to put on something that was a lot more of an event than just a little nightclub. The ambition that led to the raves was born in in warehouse parties. They just thought, ‘Let’s, scale this up. Let’s really try and do something.’

People knew how to find one-off venues, where to borrow a sound system. You could publicise it on pirate radio. It’s like you say, acid house was definitely not year zero. It was just that suddenly there’s this new thing that takes advantage of all this know-how.
And of course, it was it was the availability of ecstasy. Which some of the club promoters were very much involved in.

Were you aware that that was the thing that kicked it off?
You knew that it needed a prompt. And of course, a drug like that – that made people feel that liberated, was what kicked it off, yeah. What was gonna happen next was anybody’s guess. But of course, for someone like little old innocent me, who’d been to Taboo and seen half the dancefloor on ecstasy, because somebody had brought back a case from New York. I remember seeing it immediately: ‘OK, this is ecstasy. Right. Okay. Great.’

Leigh Bowery and friend on the floor at an ABC party, 1985

So Taboo was the first place you saw ecstasy in action?
Yeah. Half the club was on it, including the DJs. And they were all jumping into a pile with Leigh Bowery at the bottom, because he’d fallen over spinning around with [dancer and BodyMap founder] David Holah on his shoulders, and then everyone jumped on, including the DJs. And the record’s going around. We’re like, wow, this is really the trendiest club in London. Look at it!

And so, having seen that and experienced that, when I walked into The Future… Paul Oakenfold had told me, ‘Look, Dave, come down, have a look because it really is happening. Ibiza was fucking amazing and it’s about time we didn’t have just one style of music being played.’

And the Balearic thing had already been happening at warehouse parties in so many ways. You didn’t go to a warehouse party that played only funk music. Those parties were all about mixing it up. Apart from anything else, you could get 3,000 people into some of those places

The warehouse parties were generally more more than one room.
Yeah, generally two or three floors, if you were lucky, if the space allowed it. So it certainly wasn’t year zero. This whole ecosystem was already in place. And this new music, which had really been around for two or three years. And consequently there were so many brilliant tunes, you know, some of them were a couple of years old already. But that didn’t matter.

Back then I did feel very much a part of it, and that gave me licence to go into the clubs and photograph there because I was trusted. I was familiar. You’ve been invited. And then I went to Rockley Sands, I arranged my book Acid House As It Happened in the order that I went to places.

You wrote one of the very first pieces about the scene, in Time Out in March ‘88. Which was quite coded about what was happening: talking about ‘ecstatic dancing’.
Yeah, very rapidly we avoided mentioning ecstasy, but of course, as long as you took out the pictures of people gurning, most people didn’t know, they just thought wow, those people are having a really great time.

Ibiza 89 Amnesia pyramid

Tell me about Ibiza. Your Ibiza book is based on a single trip, isn’t it?
Yeah, one week. With Alix Sharkey who wrote the article for 20/20 Magazine. The editor Don Atyeo gave us an open brief. We said we think we ought to go and do something on Ibiza, because it was so important to London last year. And he said, ‘Just go there and see what you find’. Which is a dream assignment. And this was partly because he’d been in Zaire. Don Atyeo was the only reporter who stayed in Zaire for the Rumble in the Jungle after George Foreman got injured in training. He didn’t have the money to go back to the UK. And so he stayed in Zaire for six weeks and got in with Ali.

Did you know where to go?
Oh, we knew really. Our story was that that the clubs were going to have to have roofs put on them. This would be their last year open-air. It was a dream to go and take pictures of people having these crazy times with palm trees all around. We just thought, well, we’re gonna go to Amnesia with Boy George hosting the night because it was his birthday party. And we’ll see if we can go to Ku and then we’ll see what else is happening.

We’d been told  there were these really good bars paying music along Las Salinas. In the end, the story is quite long. And I was so happy Alix allowed me to include it in the book. It’s a good counterpoint to the myth that everything was perfect. Because even back then I’m moaning about all these bloody Brits puking up and jumping into hotel swimming pools from the balconies. That started right in the beginning.

And the other thing was it was multi-generational. We went to Pacha and the whole family’s there, even grandma, just like they would be if you went to a reggae dance or a bhangra night. And that was really, really good.

And you’ve updated the book for this new edition.
Yeah. It’s fun to put out the book again, there are some pictures that weren’t in the first one, and I also improved a few of the other shots.

Any other books in the pipeline?
Yes. I’ve got two books I’m working on. But both of them are secret in terms of what we can mention.

Your pictures have had a busy life because there are so few others of the whole acid house time.
At the time, the fact that I had pictures, and Oliver Maxwell had a few pictures, of Shoom meant it got all the attention. That’s a real factor, isn’t it? Of course, once things got written about, then the other clubs, like RIP, down at Clink Street, did get the props and the recognition. I mean, Shoom was a brilliant club. It had an incredible atmosphere. This crowd who were being incredibly nurturing of each other and, you know, a lot of them were only 16, 17. They were kids. They were bringing along teddy bears and all that. The whole vibe of Shoom was really amazing.

There was a newsletter, wasn’t there? with Jenni Rampling advising people on relationships and whether you should give up your job.
I remember when I was offered ecstasy at the first night of Spectrum, you know, I was like, No, I want to take some pictures. And I knew how many people had already chucked in their jobs. And I also knew it’s 25 quid. I felt a bit of a wuss, but on the other hand, I took the pictures. I just did some cheeky halves that summer and that was about it. Because there’s no way I could have taken pictures otherwise. I met people later on who were really high while still taking pictures, but by then you had autofocus.

What did you miss that you wish you could go back and photograph?
As far as the whole ’88 thing, there’s obviously ones I didn’t get to. I should have gone to Hedonism. I would definitely go back to that. Especially because so many of the black promoters in London were there. That’s where they got the revelation. The people who had heard this music on pirate radio. And thought, ‘What the fuck is that?’ Then when they heard it in a club, it suddenly made sense, on a proper sound system.

What are some of your greatest memories from that time?
Dancing along to the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in a club was amazing. Dancing to ‘Promised Land’ – hearing gospel house was incredible. And also ‘Yeke yeke’ another tune from that summer that often gets forgotten. That was all amazing. And obviously ‘Can You Feel It’.

I remember the first night of The Trip. They were really nervous: ‘Is it gonna be full?’ ‘Have we gone too big too early?’ You could lower the ceiling in The Astoria because it was such a huge venue. To start with they had it lowered. Then after only about two or three weeks they lifted up the ceiling and you can suddenly see from the bottom of the stage right up to the top of the room. It’s full of people going wild. ‘Wow, look at this energy rush!’ It really was phenomenal. And then there was too much energy in the room so it spilled out onto the street.

Those famous pictures of people partying outside. Was that happening every week?
Every week I heard about it happening. And I wrote about it in Time Out because I wanted it to definitely happen again so I could photograph it for The Observer. And I was so happy because of course it’s a different deal altogether when it’s outside. And years later to see people like Fabio and Grooverider in the pictures. I didn’t know who they were at the time.

‘Can you feel it?’ Ecstatic energy spilling into the street after the Trip, 1988
Fabio & Grooverider getting a taste for acid house at The Trip, 1988

Going down into the YMCA car park and people bashing on the top of cars. These poor people were just trying to drive home and suddenly 200 people are all jumping around, shouting ‘Can You Feel It!’ and ‘Acieeeeed,’ and all that stuff. One car drove up playing Public Enemy ‘Fight The Power’, and there was this feeling of rebellion, rebellion in the streets, people having an amazing time.

And the police were visible maybe about 100 yards away. We were outside the Dominion Theatre and there were only about two or three policemen, and I thought, what are they going to make of this? They’re gonna see a lot of people jumping around and think, Well, they’re having a good time. But they’re not actually causing any trouble.

And of course, later on, that all changed. This was the honeymoon period. For about four or five months. A few months down the line there were the first shock-horror stories. And it was basically the music press, the NME. Because they they were not holding back, they said there’s loads of drugs in there.

You must have been back to Ibiza plenty of times?
I didn’t go back for 11 years. I eventually got back there in 2000. Everyone started telling me about these DC10 parties next to the airport, how people were saying, this reminds me of the old days when we didn’t have any roofs.

I guess we should touch on your little team at Time Out over the years. Sam Pow and Reetu Rupal I know well.
Yeah, and Ben Bellman, who was with me for ten. Yeah. I was really lucky to have a lot of other people contributing, because there’s always more than one person can reasonably know about or find out about, or experience. So it was brilliant having having a bit of a crew.

Do you think there’s been a shape to club culture? A kind of historic curve or something?
It became a popular culture surge. It happened first with acid house, then with ’90s rave culture, and then that spilled out into festival culture. So many festivals got established, which started basically as dance festivals. Who were finding legal ways of doing it after you had such a repressive situation.

Obviously, if acid house hadn’t happened, there was no way they were going to shift the licensing hours. That wasn’t even a thought. The only change in the licensing hours before that was to let wine bars open in the afternoon.

And so many people went out in the rave years, and so many of those people are still going out. It might only be once a month or once every six weeks or whatever, but they’re still up for it. And they’ll definitely go to festivals and one thing and another.

But the variety and sheer volume of nightlife changed. In the ’80s and ’90s you could go to little one-nighters every night of the week. People definitely still want to go out. But there’s nothing like the range of opportunity to experience club culture, seven days a week. There’s really great bars, and they’ve got brilliant music, but people are not paying five quid to go to a club on a Tuesday night.

And so many clubs have closed. Clubs like Plastic People, The Cross, Bagleys. When venues close it breaks your heart a little bit. Because of what happened in those places. And what could still have happened if they’d stayed open… Because every social space matters. But there’s a brutal economic reality – if you have property values and rent rates like London, there’s a limit to how much you can do before it just becomes uneconomic to run a club. To be honest, I’m amazed that somebody has put a reported £70million into Koko. And they seem to be making a go of it.

Even back in the day, for many of the clubs it wasn’t economic either. It was just passion. Like Ultimate B.A.S.E. at the Velvet Rooms, It was only a small venue and they had all their running costs, but they’d subsidise it to have big guest DJs. Felix Da Housecat would come along. They were so good. But of course, the reality of running a mid-week club night was it was always going to be a struggle to break even. I think a lot of people now would say, ‘God, what a slog to try and do that’. How many weekly club nights are there now? I don’t know. Not many.

What makes a great night?
It’s a combination of so many little factors. You want brilliant music. But in the end it’s got to be the people who go. No party is happening without dancers who want to go there. And that’s why I always wanted to photograph the people who went to the party, not just the promoters and the DJs, and a couple of ace faces. It’s the people who make it happen. You can call it call-and-response, the relationship between the dancers and the DJ, or the music maker, or the live band, or whatever it is.

One of the things I really loved about doing the club section was, it was never just one type of thing. There’ve been so many different types of clubs we cover. Clubs can be a cabaret performance, they can be techno, or exclusively West African music… There’s so many different vibes and things that you can respond to and get into. So what makes a great club? In the end, the most important thing for me was always the vibe, the vibe that people created together.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton. All pics © Dave Swindells.