Tallulah paved the way
Born Martyn Allum in 1948, Tallulah was an icon of the London gay scene, watching it evolve from the ’60s to the ’00s, and enjoying a DJ career spanning 1972 till his death in 2008. This wonderful interview takes you from Wapping speakeasies run by characters straight out of Dickens, with names like Selina The Horse, via raucous seaside salons where pirate radio DJs caroused with Carry On actors and pantomime dames, and into an era of coded and covert pubs and clubs, when he knew characters like Joe Orton, Victor Spinetti and Kenneth Williams (‘an absolute nightmare’). As well as detailing the evolution of DJing in the capital, Tallulah brilliantly conjures this lost world, when London was the colour of cigarette tar, information and connections spread via a network of ‘cottages’, and where you could get a handy daytime wank in a fleapit cinema while tourists watched Daffy Duck cartoons. His first gig entailed playing Motown tracks from inside the coat-check while also taking in coats, keeping the toilets clean and collecting glasses. ‘I think every DJ should start by cleaning the toilets,’ he told QX magazine. Tallulah found fame at the game-changing purpose-built nightspots that sprang up in the ’70s – playing at Bang, The Embassy and Heaven. As Princess Julia recalls it, Bang on a Monday night with its light-up dancefloor and Tallulah behind the decks was ‘Total Disco.’ During a brief sojourn in New York he worked the lights at Studio 54, and even snuck one night as DJ, covering for a no-show (most likely Nicky Siano). He went on to become a mainstay through the ’80s and ’90s at venues including Crash, Barcode and Substation, inspiring several generations of DJs and partygoers.
Interviewed by Bill in London , 29.7.04
Gay life in the ’60s must have been very coded and secretive. What were the lines of communication? How did people find out about things?
My parents never told me anything about sex. And even though I knew… I even tried with a couple of girls, but it never got anywhere near full sex, I just knew it wasn’t right. I was very effeminate. I’d always get beaten up. Buying blue suede shoes from Ravel and wearing them in Maidstone – where they hadn’t got anything like that at all – didn’t help. Every town had that division between mods and rockers, and if I was on the mod side, then I was a very camp mod. Almost a girly mod. In those days, you could never get hair products and I had curly ginger hair.
The first time I met somebody… My parents sent me to ballroom dancing classes – not the best thing to do with a son who’s slightly fey – at the old Palace in Maidstone. And opposite the Palace was the old coach station where these toilets were, and I was absolutely mesmerised by them. There was a huge hole in the wall, basically the size of someone’s head, and people were obviously cruising. Not that I ever did anything, but that was my learning process. I learnt more about sex from reading toilet walls. I’d never even seen a minge, but I found out about it all on those walls. Jokes etc. I’d live in there. People exposing themselves… When people talk about paedophiles and the like – I used to go round those toilets at 14 begging to be picked up and no one ever did!
Once I’d found out about the toilet in Maidstone, I just thought: if there are toilets like this in Maidstone, then the one in Victoria Station must be absolutely amazing. Which it was. It was cavernous, it was downstairs and it probably had 300 urinals. That’s where I heard about the cinemas. There were these cartoon cinemas and people used to say, ‘Oh you should go to the Jacey cinema in Piccadilly, and Trafalgar Square’… I was still not sexually active. People passed numbers to me, but it… well it was against the law.
Where were you born?
I was born in Hamburg in 1948. My parents were over in Hamburg with the Reclamation after the war. My father was in hotels, so he was helping getting them back on track. I came back to live with my grandmother in Bexley, just outside London when I was three. I was brought up in the Woolwich, Erith, Bexley area until primary school. Those towns were very mod-influenced. You know what it’s like being brought up in the suburbs, you make a statement in the way you dress, you put yourself up for criticism, especially during the ’60s. I had two younger brothers. We weren’t a musical family.
I was living in the suburbs till I was ten, and then I moved to Maidstone. These were my searching years. I already knew by ten that London was the main attraction. From ten to 15 were my formative years listening to music. We had no pop radio stations, so I’d listen to Luxembourg 208.
Who were the DJs?
Jimmy Savile, Keith Fordyce, Pete Murray. I used to go to the Star Ballroom in Maidstone. And they used to have a DJ on there called David Wigg, who worked at the Kent Messenger and he was the entertainment correspondent there [later the showbiz reporter on the Daily Express]. In a provincial town it was either mods or rockers and it was a very Teddy boy area. They used to have lots of live bands on a Saturday like Shane Fenton [later Alvin Stardust] & the Fentones, Peter Jay & The Jaywalkers, Wee Willie Harris, Screamin’ Lord Sutch… The best thing was the Odeon, which was big, and practically every month they’d have live bands. You’d get Rolling Stones, Supremes, Mary Wells, Lulu, Billy J Kramer, Dionne Warwick, Gene Pitney. At Olympia they’d do a radio exhibition and I collected autographs then… Even when I was 14, I’d hang outside the Palladium… There were no record shops in Maidstone, so I’d have to come up to London to buy records.
When did you start buying music
I used to have three paper rounds. I was greedy, I suppose. I had quite a bit of money. So I’d go from Maidstone to London, and my parents never hassled me, gave me complete freedom, probably because I was the eldest – I’ve got a younger brother.
Where would you go buy records?
The first record I ever bought was in Maidstone; there was something about those little booths that you used to go hear records in. It was 6s 8d. First record I bought was the Crystals ‘And Then He Kissed Me’. Then I started looking around and came up to London, and the first album I bought was Nina Simone, ‘I Put A Spell On You’.
Where did you buy it?
HMV in Oxford Street near Bond St. To wear the trendy clothes I used to buy Simplicity sewing patterns and buy the material down the market and I’d make them, but tighter. I used to have silk shirts. I was very effeminate and very skinny. It tied in – the music and the clothes. Of course, when you’re 16 you start carousing around and that’s really when my gay bit came out, through the toilets and cinemas. Carousing around Soho. You’d fall into record shops. You’ve got your Saturday night shirt from Lord John in Carnaby Street, so you go to get some records. With my brother I used to do little radio shows with my brother on his Grundig. We used to do little jingles. We’d play anything we could get our hands on.
One of the first cinemas I went to was called the Biograph, opposite Victoria Station. They used to play things like Jason & The Argonauts, Edgar Lustgarten films… There was this old girl called Jane who sat in the kiosk and she looked like Marie Antoinette. Very, very well dressed. Full of make-up. In actual fact, she looked like Lily Savage! People used to take her orchids in glass boxes and chocolates, quite glamorous. Once you paid to go in you could stay there all day, nobody used to throw you out. The seats up the left had side were gay, the other side tramps drinking cider. There used to be a little fat queen called Myrtle, with dirty old Lyons Maid white coat with a tray full of ices. He used to walk up and down the aisle with a torch and literally put a torch on people wanking each other off and he’d try and throw people out, which never worked. The manager there was Henry Cooper’s twin brother. It was a freak show. Plus you used to get wanked off. That’s how I found out about other cinemas. The other main one was a cartoon cinema in Piccadilly Circus where Ratner’s the Jewellers is now. You’d go in the boiler room there where everyone would be having it off, while the tourists were in there watching Donald Duck and Roadrunner. It was there that I used to found out about what clubs to go there, like Le Deuce.
And you lived in Broadstairs for a while?
I went to catering college in Broadstairs when I was 15. I love Broadstairs, it’s really cute. I did two years in Broadstairs. This would be ’66. I was well into music by then.
Where were you going out?
The first gay pub I ever went in was the Ship in Chatham. I’d go there from the age of 15. I’d met these two queens in the toilet in Maidstone. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying because they were talking Polari. And they said, ‘Oh we must take you out’. We went to this pub; I think it’s still a gay pub! It was really rough. There were dykes in there who were prostitutes, ships coming in; it was a busy merchant port. But it closed at half past ten, so you’d have to get there at 7 o’clock. You can imagine walking through Chatham in blue satin flares with yellow and blue shoes and blue eye shadow.
I was in this gay pub, called the Queen’s Head in Canterbury. I’d just got a fur coat which I’d cut the bottom off and put it at the top like a massive high collar. I thought I looked the bees knees. I walked into this pub and nobody took a blind bit of notice because they were all surrounding this one guy at the end of the bar. I kept saying ‘who is that guy?’. It was Tom Edwards, who was a DJ at Radio City. This was at the start of the pirates, and Radio City had opened up on those old turrets near Whitstable [Shivering Sands Army Fort]. And Tom Edwards kept sending drinks to me at the bar and I’d ignore them and send them back.
Probably within about three weeks I buckled and became friends with him. Needless to say we hit it off immediately. He used to do two weeks on and two weeks off. He lived in Whitstable. Once we linked up, he’d send me these camp messages on the show. I met him one Sunday in a pub in Herne Bay and he called me Tallulah, and it stuck.
When he used to come off the boat, he’d have six sacks of fan mail waiting for him and he was only 22. He sounded very good on the radio. We were very friendly and I’m still in contact with him. He had a very hard time, did Radio 1, was a Thames TV continuity announcer, and was an alcoholic and got arrested over 20 times because of it. I met him about five weeks ago at a Radio Caroline get-together.
My college went a bit down the pan, because I got interested in socialising. My principal saw me on my vacation, cruising on Piccadilly Circus, so he warned me about these pirate radio types I was hanging about with. So I knuckled down a bit, but still went to gay pubs.
Broadstairs used to have lots of retired actors and I used to get passed around – socially, not sexually – as a young 16-year-old queen. There was a guy called Ted Gatty, who was the guy who named Danny LaRue LaRue, which was originally the name of a club. He was 60 even then, he used to put on these shows; had this house Castle House, Serene Place, Broadstairs High Street. I thought that address was so chic. It was a smugglers’ cottage, and it was where he used to have these parties. And gay séances! It was very Joe Orton, very queeny, theatrical. [Ted Gatty used to put on summer season shows in Margate’s Dreamland and Winter Gardens and Dame in panto at Christmas.]
Was there a gay pub in Broadstairs back then?
No, we used to go in the Tartare Frigate where Ted Heath used to drink.
That’s where I go when I’m there.
I used to love it there in the winter.
They’ve got a pic of Ted Heath on the walls.
I bet they haven’t got one of Ted Gatty! She used to say ‘oh I bumped into Ted’s mother and her two dogs’
I always assumed he was gay…
We all used to say that, but I think he was just asexual. Also, all along that coast Birchington, Margate, Herne Bay, Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Deal, Dover, any queens living there were immediately invited [to Ted Gatty’s]. Basil Spence, the architect, also the camp one in the Carry On films.
That’s it. He used to do Deal, because the marines were there and they had a marine band. He used to walk along the sea front in red leather. He was really outrageous, he’d just go for marines, and they’d go for him, because he was a film star, or he was to them.
You knew Kenneth Williams too.
I remember being really embarrassed in front of my mum when [innuendo-laden BBC radio comedy] Round The Horne was on. I knew what Julian and Sandy were talking about when they said [in Polari] ‘Nishta lallies and vardah the carts on the bonah hommie’, but my parents had no idea what they were saying. Tasty Tim’s just recorded me a load of those shows. When I was at the hotel I got friendly with Hugh Paddick, he was Julian. Kenneth Williams used to live opposite the hotel, down the back of the church in Euston. Someone I met through a cinema pick-up introduced me to him and took me to dinner. We were all sitting around this really little glum table in his little kitchen eating spaghetti hoops on toast. Very strange.
When he found out I lived opposite, I said you must come to dinner. He was an absolute nightmare. I’d only been there a couple of years, I think, and I had a really small room. He got up to the room and a record was just finishing and I said, ‘What kind of music do you like?’ He said, ’I HATE MUSIC. If we’re going to talk, we’ll talk.’ Took him downstairs to the hotel restaurant, I didn’t realise at the time, but he wanted to be on show all the time, so his voice was loud. 126 people in the restaurant and you could hear him above all of them. When he finished the meal I said we’d have coffee upstairs, just to get him out of the restaurant. ‘No, let’s go in the lounge and have coffee. Oh, and I have had you checked out, you know.’ He’d asked Hugh about me.
When I used to go and visit him, he used to leave the door ajar. You’d go into the flats, it was a bit like a Peabody building, really dark, and I’d knock and there’d be no answer with the door half open. You’d do that for ages. Is he in there or not? Knock again a bit louder. Finally: “COME IN!” He’d make me tea and let me read scripts.
What was he like, because his diaries are very depressing, he seems quite tortured about his sexuality, which is why I think he envied Joe Orton so much.
I knew Joe as well.
Yeah. He was alright. Absolutely fine. Really ahead of his time. He was very upfront about his homosexuality. Loved cruising. You’d sit with him and he’d talk about it all the time: dirty dirty dirty. It was through his boyfriend that I met him.
Kenneth Halliwell. What was he like? I have Alfred Molina indelibly marked in my mind from that movie.
He was really good, actually. That portrayal was quite wrong, I think. I can honestly say with Kenneth Williams, High Paddick, Joe Orton and Victor Spinetti, I used to knock round with all of them, there was no glamour involved in it at all. You’d sit around the kitchen table…
What would have been the gay pubs in London then?
The Coleherne and the Boltons, directly opposite the Coleherne. That was it.
Did you go to the Sombrero?
Ooh, that was much later. The clubs that were going around that time, which would be ’67 or ’68, were the Spartan, which was the place Kenneth Williams went to in Victoria, and the Kabal.
Was there dancing?
No, no dancing in any of these. There wasn’t music. There were pubs that had some dancing. There was a pub in Bermondsey, which Larry Grayson was the compere at for years. There were pubs in Woolwich… If we did a pub crawl from Kent, you would go from The Ship in Chatham, the Old Kent in Woolwich, another one in Woolwich, but I can’t remember the name, but they weren’t really gay, they just had sailors, and drag queens were also accepted in them. Then you’d work your way up to Coleherne, then you’d head for Chelsea and there were two clubs there, The Hustler and the Gigolo. They were members’ clubs and they were basically coffee bars, they were just grope holes. No jukebox. Clubwise, the main one was Le Deuce, which was in D’Arblay St, the building next to the alleyway near Black Market. Opposite that, the lesbian club was better, it was in a basement, with a jukebox – it was a coffee shop upstairs.
What music would be played?
Mainly soul and Tamla. Miracles, Marvelettes, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Mary Wells. You’d get people down Le Deuce like Roger Daltrey, in their satins and kaftans and chiffon scarves. It was mixed so you could get away with it. And you could buy black bombers. There was another place down that alley, but I can’t remember the name. Le Deuce had a coffee shop upstairs. Also a club called the Stud in Poland Street, which later became Louise’s. How I found these places was through a Greek boy I’d met in a cartoon cinema. It was word of mouth. God forbid you should get a flyer! London was dark. Nothing had been cleaned. There was smoking on the tubes. Wood panelling on the tubes. They were yellow with smoke. It was like the war. I used to ask the old queens what it was like during the war. Was it horrible? No dear, during the blackouts you could wear as much make up as you liked and you didn’t know who you were having!
I used to stay, too. You could stay in the sauna in Jermyn Street for 15s, overnight.
Did they have rooms?
No, cubicles. It was quite gay. I used to act as lookout. Going back to Le Deuce, I think it was open till 2 o’clock. I used to aim to get back on the milk train which went at 5 o’clock, so in between that I used to go to Tiles.
Did you go to the lunchtime sessions?
Later on, but it went for a while.
Wasn’t Tiles a facsimile of a shopping mall, though?
Yes it was.
Describe the layout to me.
If it was there today, it probably wouldn’t have been any different to what Substation in Dean Street was like. Mirrors and black. Flashing lights. It was almost tunnel-like. Never many people there, but it was open all night. It wasn’t licensed. They played mainly soul.
Metallic, black, it had lights. No one had lights then.
Most places sound very dark and hidden…
There was a pub I used to go to in Woolwich, which was run by this queen called Selena The Horse. And she would be in charge of the pub and she owned the house next door. And the house next door had a kitchen and a front room and you’d pay 1s 6d to go in after the pub had closed and she’d pull an ironing board down in front of the kitchen entrance. In the lounge there’d be nothing other than a red light and a jukebox and you’d buy the drink from her, from behind the ironing board, and it would be outrageous, because it was mixed up with sailors, lesbians, drag queens. Really rough. That was ‘66. Tiles, however, at least looked like a club. I don’t know who owned it, but they decided to put some money into it.
It was the Marshall brothers, who owned the PA company.
Ah! Because the sound system was the first time I actually heard something that was different from a jukebox. And they had a DJ. There were loads of other bars around: A&Bs, Jeremy’s, Toucan, all these little rent boy bars in Soho, they had a record player and they’d just put Shirley Bassey albums on. The barman would put an album on!
Anyhow, after I finished college I got a job at the Cora Hotel in Woburn Place, up by Euston station. I was there for ten years. There was a gap around 19 or 20 when I was trying to be good at my job, but then I got bored and started exploring again.
How did you get into DJing?
In the ’70s I used to go this club called the Escort Club in Pimlico. They used to do drag cabaret; they had people like Lee Sutton and Hinge & Bracket. It was a cabaret-restaurant, they had a little tiny dancefloor, as you went in. The bar, another level with tables and chairs and a piano. Before and after the cabaret they played music. It was there that the owner asked me if I wanted to play music. There was a guy there who played, very young, cute, bisexual, I think, called Jimmy Flipside! He was called Flipside because he used to flip the records over!
I didn’t need to do it, I was managing a hotel. When I got in there [to DJ], I asked them what they wanted me to do and they said, ‘Can you do the toilets? And you’d be on the coats.’ So they walked in, paid you, you put the coats behind you and then here were the decks! That’s why they used to play albums, because you were doing coats as well. It was when Cloud 9 came out. I did that whenever Jimmy couldn’t do it.
The first proper place I got to play at was Shane’s, which was behind John Barnes in Finchley Road and there used to be a club called Le Cage D’Or, a straight club. There was a room up an extra pair of stairs and this guy decided to take it over and make it into a little gay club. Unusual for then, obviously. He opened it up on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
For gay people, there weren’t dance clubs. There might have been areas where you could dance in pubs and the like, but there really weren’t any dance clubs. There were no dance licenses. Even in the well respected clubs, like the lesbian one that’s in Killing Of Sister George, in Chelsea, there wasn’t really dancing, it was socialising.
But straight people had dance clubs. So when Shane did this club, I’m not saying there were no dance clubs at all, but there certainly weren’t any major ones. It was supposed to be a social club, but it just so happened that there was a DJ unit in there and it had got space for about 30 or 40 dancers. A bar at each end, and it was then that I started to really buy records. I didn’t have two decks and to this day I can’t work out how I used to cue, because I know I didn’t have headphones… Actually, it had two decks and I used to mix visually by looking at the needle waver as the stylus picked up the sound denoting that the record had started! I used to buy the import records in Quicksilver in Hanway Street. Or was it Contempo?
I think Contempo came later.
Whatever it was before that. It used to close at 1, so there wasn’t much time. The last ten minutes I used to try and pack as many tunes into as possible, Caterina Valente, Kathy Kirby. I’ve just spent the last four months transferring the 7-inches I used to buy from Contempo on to CD. It was really exciting on Friday nights in Contempo/Quicksilver. You used to go upstairs into this little bit. Everyone was black, apart from me, a weird geeky person among these black dudes. On Friday afternoon, the imports used to arrive from the airport. These were the records that disco was about to burst out from. Stuff on Gordy, Parliament, Chocolate City, lots of soul.
Can you remember the kind of things you played?
I’ve got them all on my computer, year by year!
How long did you play at the club for?
Started from about 1972. Things had started to get better by this time. Catacombs was open by then.
Cartacombs in Wolverhampton?
No Earl’s Court. That actually had a very good dancefloor. The guy who DJed there was Gordon Fruin and he was called Pamela Motown, because he was the A&R guy for Tamla in the UK. He had really good taste and, again, no drinks; it was coffee and orange juice.
Describe it to me.
It’s opposite the hospital on Brompton Road, Earl’s Court end. Opposite where Brompton’s is now. It was downstairs, underneath a faux Tudor cottage front on the ground floor. You go down the stairs, pay the entrance money and it had a bar… It actually was catacombs. The bar was on one side, there was a resemblance of a dancefloor at the front of the bar which circled round the back. There was a wall that went round the front and behind that wall was another wall and little caves set in, about four of them. Then there was a passageway around the caves. That’s where all the sex used to go on. But they played music, really good music, and there was dancing. It held about 150.
By this time, I knew people in the business, through Tom and the pirate radio thing, I knew Richard Swainson from RCA, I knew Dave Most, Mickie’s brother, I used to hang out with his wife. I knew Fluff [radio DJ Alan Freeman]. They used to come to the hotel. I was always on the periphery of it. There were other clubs going on around that time, too. Chaguarama’s, which was before the Roxy [on Neal St], and Sombrero.
What was Chaguarama’s like?
It was fantastic. It was trendy, if you could possibly have had trendy then. It was mixed and again music was good. When did the Roxy open?
About March 1977.
Ok, so this would’ve been in 1974. It was always very trendy. It was the first gay club that Neil Tennant went to. As much as the environs of punk were bubbling then, art college wise, it was still very glam. Lots of girls and the girls’ toilets was where you picked up pills. It had two levels, a restauranty/bar level, then you went downstairs, quite large, and there was a dancefloor. Very good.
Do you know who DJed?
No I don’t I’m afraid. It’s an alcoholic haze. That was popular, but the main one to go to was the Sombrero. Sombrero on the Sunday night. Always the Sunday. The girl I used to knock around with Barbara, who went out with Dave Most, she would book a booth, because there were three booths that surrounded the lit-up dancefloor. It had everything you needed in a club, but it was not big. The dancefloor was very small. The DJ unit was flat against the wall. It was raised, the dancefloor, and then a bar that went round, marble steps down to the banquettes and seats. You were supposed to eat, too. It was very trendy and you often couldn’t get in.
Wasn’t it on Kings Road?
No Kensington High Street. Opposite the tube station about a block up to the left. There was a guy called Amadeo, very good looking, blond, Swiss, tanned, we never had those sort of people. I used to think he was very exotic. He was the door picker. There were two things about this place, one, you couldn’t order a drink and, two, you had to eat. To get around that they used to give you a ticket for the salad. They didn’t want to give you food anyway, but it was a licensing thing. So they used to give you a plate, a serviette and a fork. You got one slice of Spam and I mean one slice of Spam, a lettuce leaf and half a tomato
And they had these waiters who were all midget Spanish queens. Vile Spanish queens. If you upset them you couldn’t get a drink. I always think there has to be someone in clubs who can say no… The way into the Sombrero was down a staircase… The old queens used to tell me that they all hung out in Lyons Corner House in Leicester Square; it was in the basement and had a huge staircase and the queens used to use the staircase to make an entrance. And that’s what happened at the Sombrero. It was a really big dress up do; Bowie was there. Coming down that staircase, great for making an entrance and you had your coats taken off you as you were standing at the bottom! The Music was really good, Timmy Thomas ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’ was a sort of Sombrero anthem there and this Ginger Baker drum solo which I’ve never found. The DJ was Latin. It was great. The club was actually called Yours And Mine, but because it had a big sombrero outside for the restaurant upstairs, it got called the Sombrero. The sad note at the end of it, Amadeo, I think dealt in coke. He was actually burnt and killed by having petrol poured over him.
Horrible! How long were you at Shane’s?
I’d say from ’72 to ’74, because that’s when Bang opened.
Tell me about Bang
It was started [in 1976] by Jack Barrie from the Marquee. There was Gerry Collins – real name: Gary London – and Jack, who I think was the accountant at the Marquee. Gerry also DJed at places like Lacey Lady, Goldmine, because there were no gay dance clubs. Norman Scott was playing at Global Village at the (black) Friday night. Gerry went to America for a holiday, to Los Angeles, to Studio 21 and it was gay and he came back absolutely fired up. I think he might already have been doing Busby’s as a straight DJ.
He was gay?
Yes, but he wasn’t out. He was a jobbing DJ, that’s what he did. He was a career DJ. Anyway, the first two weeks he comped it. Gay people didn’t have the opportunity to go to a club. So the minute it came on the scene, it was a huge success. The queues! It went right round past the 100 Club. It was the most packed it had ever been. There were something like 1,500 there on the first night. He couldn’t have picked a better venue to bring that sort of thing to Britain. Mainly because of the way the club was designed, the bars on each end, the hamburger joint, you could look down on the dancefloor. Later on he put a shop selling Bang T-Shirts and stuff.
He had three DJs on. It had lighting FX. It had fog machines. It had balloon drops. The DJ was central, up in front of the crowd. It was mixed, although you’d use the mic for announcements or birthdays stuff like that. In the booth, there was a light switch that you could hit and the lighting engineer would get a flashing light on a phone so you could talk to him. So you could arrange stuff with him, it was brilliant. It was the old Astoria Ballroom, so he’d got a huge stage and at the back a cinema screen, the whole length of the club. And he used to bring the cinema screen down and play the whole tap routine from Silk Stockings or something. There’s one Fred Astaire one, which I can’t remember the name of, where they’re all wearing top hat and tails and they all come up out of the floor, about 40 of them, then 100. The crowd used to go absolutely berserk watching this. They’d never seen stuff like this before. They’d never had production. And the sound system… you couldn’t say it was better than such-and-such because there was nothing before to compare it to. You used to get people coming early and standing in the middle of the floor just to hear the bass and the stereo… because they’d never heard it before.
He would theme it. Bang did everything in those four years… Then it became a trendy nightspot, even though it was gay it didn’t stop people in the closet or cool straight people coming, so you’d get Rudolf Nureyev coming down. I’ve still never seen production like that. At Christmas, he would make it snow, the whole time, for the whole four hours! Shorts nights. Red parties, white parties.
The DJs were him, he’d go on first, then Norman Scott and then I’d go on. Gerry always did the warm-up. He’d learnt to mix. He’d also do reel-to-reel stuff. Music-wise, these were all import records. By then, you’d know what was going on in America, even though you couldn’t get there, so we knew what the records were. The trendy ones who were in demand at Bang were the air stewards, because they’d be travelling all over the world, but particularly to New York and LA. They’d have four- or five-day stopovers, so they’d be going to the clubs, and they’d know which records to bring back, whatever the hit record was.
As Bang settled down it had certain areas to it. Left hand side at the back was the clone area. There was a magazine called Colt, which was all lumberjacks, so that little group would stick together at the club.
Gerry saw Bang all the way through the 80s. They had the Saturday Night Fever premier party there. In about ’81 or ’82 they did a big circus night one night and this person had a gun, shooting things. He ducked behind the DJ booth but he got shot and he was never very well after that. In the end, he sold the name, and got rid of his records. There were other parties going on early on – Sols Arms, which was a lesbian bar, the Green Man in Portland Street, Union Tavern in Camberwell had suede head nights on a Tuesday – but nobody had done it big like Bang.
Were people getting pissed or doing drugs in Bang?
If they were doing drugs, it wasn’t noticed by anyone. No one was doing coke, there were no queues to the toilets. It was alcohol, there were deals on the beer prices, always made sure they were cheap. It was open till 3 or sometimes 2, so that’s a decent amount of time for drinking on a Monday.
Once we got established we got a name among the record companies and then we started putting on PAs, like Grace Jones. I got whipped by her once. I did an interview with her and she just shouted at me all the time. Everytime I asked a question, she just went, “YEEAH!” Off her face, obviously. I didn’t understand that then. I thought she was a monster. Which she is, of course!
The other thing we had was theme tunes. I think Norman Scott had a theme tune, but mine was the overture from Gypsy! I was really nervous, even after a year or two years, but Norman Scott… she was such an old cow, honestly. I’d go down. She’d say ‘I’ll line up your theme tune, what’s your first record?’ so we could do the handover. So I’d be at the toilet and I’d hear my theme tune and there’d be a spotlight which they’d train on you. Then she’d announce you, and put the record you told her to cue on the wrong side – so you didn’t have time to change it.
Musically, it was disco… It was very good of Gerry to take me on, and I think the only reason he took me on board was because I was so interested in music, and maybe because I used to dress up as well. I always used to be wearing sequinned tops and I think that helped. He would never go to Contempo, so he would warm up. I don’t really remember playing 7-inch records there, so maybe it was 12-inches by then.
Then they did a Thursday night and I got half of it, with Gerry Collins. He’d do half and I’d do half. This was pre-Heaven, but there were other clubs by this time. There was Adam’s in Leicester Square [where Comedy Store used to be]. It was a restaurant-club, quite trendy, quite posh. Catacombs was still going, and by then the Copacabana had just opened in Earls Court, probably opened just after Bang. It was based on Copa in Ft. Lauderdale. They had a really good DJ down there who was called Chris Lucas, who was really good mates with Ian Levine. Levine had finished his northern soul bit and had started moving into disco. He used to turn up with his bits. Around the same time Munkberry’s had opened on Jermyn Street. Full of pop stars, really trendy, Freddie Mercury etc. It was the sort of crowd who’d gone to Tramp. The music was very black: funk, funky soul.
Did Freddie Mercury come to Bang?
Oh yeah. There was also the Blitz going on later, too. [Boy] George said that he didn’t want to go a club full of queens with moustaches so they created their own club. By then the Roxy was going on. There was a crossover with all of this.
What about the Embassy?
That was much later. I left Bang in 1978. I had problems with the flat I moved into in Marble Arch and basically ended up having nowhere to live, so I decided to go over to New York. At that time, a lot of professional people were moving there. It was completely the place to be from about ’74. Over here we had three day weeks, electric cuts, strikes… all the people I knew – market researchers, doctors, dentists – all moved to New York within a year.
I’m sure Gerry’s got a different angle on what happened but for me it was getting too commercial and I was getting more into the funk side and the soully stuff and there’s only so long you can keep up with the snowstorms and stuff. And all the music was coming out of New York.
I lived there for about 18 months. Which is completely another story. I got a job at Studio 54. I don’t even know what I did there. I certainly wasn’t pretty enough to be a busboy. How I got the job, I’d only been there about a month… I was really, really pissed and probably on something else as well, so when I got to the guide rope and I thought they were beckoning me forward – they weren’t – I tripped over the rope and fell over flat on my face. Bouncers picked me up and took me inside the door. This guy asked me if I was alright and when I looked up it was Steve Rubell. He said, I’ve seen many ways of trying to get into a club but this beats them all. Did you do it on purpose?’ So I said, ‘No’, he said, ‘where do you come from?’ I said, ‘London. You haven’t got any jobs going?’ I spent most of my time in the lighting rig. It was fantastic. The atmosphere was unbelievable. I always liked it on the midweek nights the best, there were less people but they danced more.
What made you come back?
I’d just got into the stage where I was doing so much drugs. I lived on Washington Square and it was just far too easy. One day I ended up in the Anvil. I wore this all-in-one ladies black swimsuit and covered it in diamante, fishnets, stilettos and a pillbox hat. One of the rooms there was a big sex room. They used to have a bath there with piss in it. It was horrible. Anyway, I thought oh I’d go in the back room. And I thought oh this is brilliant, I can actually take all my clothes off and go in there naked. I could roll the swimsuit down and roll the fishnets down and then just wrap them round the stilettos. I must have been in there for 20 minutes and everyone was steering clear of me like death. As I came out, and I caught a reflection of myself in the window and I still had the pillbox hat on with the diamante earrings and necklace…!
In the end my mother said I should come home and I was so drug-fucked that I needed to anyway. I came back and DJed at Scandals in Wardour Street, just down from where the Wag was. Really good. Sunday nighter. A boy called Gareth was leaving and he put a word in for me. That was a six-night residency. Then there was another club called Napoleon’s which was down in Lancaster Court off New Bond Street. Scandal’s was a bit rough, a bit renty. In actual fact, the same people opened up Stallions which later became Substation. There was a black club that used to be down there on a Friday night that Steve Swindells used to do…
Yeah, that’s it. They used to have an enclosed DJ booth at Scandals so you could see out but they couldn’t see in. And the record allowance for both of those – this was around 1979 – was about £70 a week and £90 at Napoleon’s. It was good!
Then I went back into restaurants… Sour Grapes in south Kensington. It was the same time as the Embassy opened. I threw a party and used these porno pics and sheets as invites. We didn’t even have decks. The next night London Weekend Television did a report and said two clubs opened up last night, Sour Grapes and The Embassy: ‘We must admit we went away from the Embassy to Sour Grapes and that was the better of the two’. But the Embassy was a fantastic place. They brought a DJ over…
I tracked him down.
Really? Give him my love if you speak to him! Embassy was where David Inches started [later at Heaven]. StevenHayter was the manager, then they went over to Heaven.
What did Embassy look like?
The Embassy was a breath of fresh air, because it was immediately – the underground knew it had gay connections with Steven Hayter, Greg being gay. It was London’s answer to Studio 54. We knew that the boys were all going to be in shorts. At the same time was Ritz magazine, with Lichfield, so they needed somebody who was, not royalty exactly, but someone to get the Hooray Henrys with money in. They got Lady Edith Foxwell. She would’ve been about 55 then, with scraped back hair and very thin, birdy elegant person and broke – which is how she got the job.
The gay night, Sunday night, it was the nearest to a chic club that London ever got. Lots of stars – big stars – rooms off to the side, everyone knew the boiler room was the coke room. Lemmy from Motorhead would be continually, permanently, on the one-arm bandits. I used to go down there in my mother’s cocktail dresses, with big boots on. I always used to stand next to Lemmy and he used to say, ‘I hope you’re not taking hard drugs.’ ‘No, I’m just drinking vodka.’ ‘Steer clear of the hard stuff!’ It was London’s little Studio 54. Paris had Le Palace. We had the Embassy. It never quite reached 100%, it was always about 20% of being absolutely fantastic. But the music was great. Greg was a great DJ. He mixed. Don’t forget, around this time, 1978 and maybe a bit before, you’ve got some of the best records ever coming out.
Tell me about Taboo?
I never Djed there. Boy George always quotes Taboo, and in fact made a musical about it, but we always thought he only ever went on the opening night. He always makes out he was there every night, but he wasn’t. That’s where that slogan ‘would you let you in?’ comes from. It was at Maximus, it was basically Leigh Bowery doing his thing. I was with John Maybury and Baillie Walsh. Baillie did all the videos for Massive Attack. John did the crying one for Sinead O’Connor and he did all the Jesus & Mary Chain and that sort of stuff. Baillie’s just done Kylie’s new one. Baillie had a flat in Leicester Square, so we’d always be round at the flat. Then it was very drug-fuelled. There was Rifat Ozbek, Anthony Price, Bryan Ferry, it was all that sort of stuff and they were all on Rohypnol. The whole thing with Taboo was… [Princess] Julia used to do the coats… Mark [Vaultier] was on the door with the slogan and the mirror: ‘Would you let you in?’ Really, those club kids were just Leigh Bowery copyists. Totally. I don’t even know how long Taboo lasted, all I can remember is Jeffrey [Hinton] playing everything he could get his hands on, including the slipmat. And rolling around the floor having beer poured over you. Getting drunk. And Nicola Bowery, boring us shitless, trying to read poetry. Trying to get enough to get home. To tell the truth, I don’t think it was that fantastic, there were really much better things going on. Kinky Gerlinky was much better. It started at Legends, then to Shaftesburys and them the Empire in Leicester Square.
What do you think were the best gay clubs in the 80s?
The beginning of the ’80s, it has to be Heaven because of what it encapsulated. And it never got to the beauty of the Saint in New York, but I’m sure it reached the degradation. There were back rooms there. When I talk to old clones they told me there was a leather area in the Soundshaft and they gave them gold keys at one stage. You’d get these old clones standing on a wall with their gold keys; they looked like a load of old walruses. And they’d use their keys to get in and there’d all be doing poppers… Embassy Sunday nights, too. On the Kings Road there was a place called Rod’s where Fat Larry’s is. After that, Christopher Hunter had Country Cousins and he put on cabaret every night. Before that it was Rod’s, quite chi-chi, but it never really worked.
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton