Friday night, Oxford Circus, the late 1980s. Usual crowd of tourists and late-night shoppers. Terrible fashions, terrible music. Push through the crowds, slightly drunk already, and head round the corner to an unremarkable corner pub in a 1960s office block. Upstairs, usual Friday night drinkers from local offices, but turn sharp left down the stairs and already you can hear the pounding music from the basement. Check jacket into the tiny cloakroom; warm jacket – you’ll probably sleep wrapped up in that somewhere tonight; underneath, loose shirt, greasy Levi 501s, sneakers – got to be light to dance. Round the corner into the main room and the fug of cigarette smoke, beer, perfume and sweat hits you. Dance floor’s already in use, but not the faces – the faces don’t dance ‘til later. Fight through to the bar to top up; don’t drink much, can’t dance when you’re drunk, just enough to get loose. Check out the crowd and find the gang – easy enough, they’re in the usual corner. Say hi to the DJ – when he knows the dancers are in, he’ll start to play the good stuff, the new tracks and the classics, the ones that’ll keep you dancing until the sweat’s running off you. That’s the one – hit the dance floor; quiff collapses and swings across your face like a greasy curtain – all part of the moves: flick it, sweep in back with the hand. Like Elvis on stage in ’56 – surly, loose, mocking and deliberate.
I remember the night the Phoenix opened in August 1984, and I didn’t like it. There, I’ve said it, and strange it looks when it’s a venue that epitomises the rock’n’roll scene at the back end of the 80s but, for someone faithful to Fifties Flash’s clubs in north London, usually with a decent-sized dancefloor, this packed basement just off Oxford Street (and about 100 yards from my workplace), with a south London DJ, didn’t seem to be up to much, no matter how much everyone had been talking about it. I’m not sure how long it took me to make a return visit – not long, I think, as it had rapidly become the Friday night fixture for the gang and I wasn’t going to miss out. I don’t know what changed my mind – maybe it was just that little bit less crowded, so the dance floor worked, or maybe I just started listening to what Tom Ingram was playing, but for a couple of years it was rare that I’d miss a night there unless I was away from the city.
Memories that have stuck in the mind: the little pay booth and cloakroom at the bottom of the stairs – handy if you didn’t want to get to the end of the evening and find your jacket had either disappeared or was lying in a pool of beer; the bar that was always packed; the DJ booth raised above the floor half way across the room; and the long mirrored wall on one side of the dance floor. We all had our particular spots where we’d congregate – ours was the tables just to the right of the entrance, right alongside the dance floor. That was important, both for watching the dancing, and for checking out any new female faces who might be visiting from out of town – and as vanity stopped me from wearing my glasses when I went out, it didn’t pay to be too far away from anything. Only years later, I learned that my thousand-yard stare out over the floor gave me an completely undeserved air of ‘hardness’ – thank God no-one decided to test it out! The dancing was always what drew me there, though. By that time, I knew enough to be totally confident either bopping or jiving (and remember when blokes used to stroll, too?), and we loved picking up on new records and pestering Tom to play them until they became club standards across London and beyond.
So, standard Friday night: a few pints of cider to get in the mood, dance a lot, try to find a girl to dance with at the mid-evening smoochers, dance more while attempting to chat her up some more, then, when the lights came up at 3 am, head outside to neck (yes, honestly, I was that naive and, besides, didn’t have anywhere to go of my own for anything less innocent) with one eye on my watch until the time came to leg it across central London to get the mail train back out to the suburbs or spend the night wrapped up in the carpet in the hallway of my mate’s girlfriend’s flat. Of course, the routine varied – not least given that the hit rate of my appalling seduction technique was quite deservedly pretty low and I did occasionally drive home. Bad bits: the violence, not so much that it happened – tribalism in the 1980s, whether between different types of music, or different gangs within the same scene, was very much a part of youth culture and tended to the physical – but that too often it involved those who had no reason to get sucked into it. Christmas Eves were especially memorable – the absence of public transport at 3 am on Christmas Day meant that only the London crowd could make it, so the club was full of all your mates. The bar was so crowded that getting loaded before you arrived was pretty much compulsory – our night usually started and ended in Southgate and London Transport were a lot more tolerant about drinking on the tube in those days, but we were a fairly merry crowd and no one seemed to mind.
The Phoenix is still there, and still a function area for the pub upstairs. The dance floor’s gone now, and the mirrored wall, and the seats and the DJ booth., but the bar’s still in the same place, and the toilets where any newcomer took their life in their hands just going for a pee. And that little cloakroom cubicle’s still at the bottom of the stairs. Twenty five years on from its heyday, the memories during a chance visit were sharp – too many faces lost, thankfully many friendships rekindled thanks to social media, and now a treasure trove of photos coming to light, taken by art student Adrian Sensicle, which most of us never knew existed. I wonder how many other photos there are out there capturing our youth and waiting to be discovered. If only we could go back one more time, knowing how much it would all mean to us a quarter of a century later and, for me, knowing that the girl I’d marry after all those years was sitting in the uncharted territory on the other side of the dance floor…
Adrian’s fantastic photos can be found on the Rockin’ London in the 1980s Facebook Page. Sadly, a Kickstarter bid to raise funding for a hardback print of the book fell just short of the total needed, but look out for a re-attack next year.