UFO was the first psychedelic night club in England. We had the new talent to die for & then scored a truly great location. For a few months in 1967 it was the main social meeting place of the ‘underground’ counter culture, a basement Irish dance hall with a sprung floor in London’s Tottenham Court Road otherwise known as the Blarney Club. For us it performed the function of both a “gentlemens club” & a cubbers dance club. UFO was a Friday allnighter from 10pm till the first tubes ran around 6 in the morning, conveniently about the length of an acid trip.
Halfway down the wide entrance stairs we put a snow machine, a theatre light producing the effect of continuously falling snow. Stand in it for a minute or 2 and you begin to be disoriented – the same as driving a car into a snowstorm – definitely hypnotic. At the bottom of the steps was the pay desk – see below. As the steps were really wide people would sit safely on them when cooling down or chilling out.
Add to that a whiff of incense and by the time you reached the bottom the atmosphere was set, with music drifting out as the people drifted in. In those days to run a club the people had to be members, so there was a table and a card index and a couple of staff taking the money and issuing cards, and no security to speak of – certainly an absence of government licensed thugs posing as weightlifters while also running a handy & profitable substance recycling operation.
Once inside, apart from a small office and a cloak room, you were basically in one large basement space, a hall big enough to hold a few hundred people, with a low stage and a ceiling fan or two. Larger & Of course, we imported our own extra decor and dimmed the lights, the idea being to create a warm and friendly atmosphere.
Usually a couple of bands were featured, each doing 1 or 2 sets. Sometimes a band member would read a poem or other stuff depending on the vibe in the club and the politics of the street that week. Often curious musicians from other bands playing in the West End would drop by around 3am to listen & occasionally jam in UFO.
Hoppy dancing at UFO © Adam Ritchie Photography
That doesn’t take up 8 hours, so in between there were records – LPs – but no DJs with massive ego’s — they were not on stage — and no bone shaking PA system so earplugs were not required. There were 4 upright WEM speakers on stands in the 4 corners of the space, giving exaggerated separation of the stereo image. Whoever was putting on the records would often play a whole side complete with the gaps between tracks. This enabled conversations to happen without having to shout at each other.
Towards morning a peripatetic musician or two, sax player & drummer, would wander around the dance floor, stepping over the reclining bodies. This interaction helped soften the distinction between the musicians / performance and the audience. Or again, someone might distribute flyers for a gig or a demo in the coming days.
Artists had their place too. One time Yoko Ono was making her film “Bottoms” which required lots of people one by one removing their trousers, knickers, etc and walking on a revolving table while Yoko filmed their arse in closeup. This was done in a nearby hotel room while volunteers from UFO were ferried back and forth in the middle of the night. This unlikely epic was subsequently shown in the West End.
When I T got busted on obscenity charges, UFO was the starting point of a free speech demo that consisted of poet Harry Fainlight in a coffiin being carried by a motley crowd of tripping UFO goers, down Whitehall past the Cenotaph (outraged Sunday Mirror), then down Westminster tube to emerge hours later, after several circuits of the Circle line, in Notting Hill to be resurrected in Portobello Rd.
When the Stones got busted that summer, UFO was rallying point for people from different west end clubs who then demonstrated in Fleet St & held up the distribution of the News of the Screws for some hours.
Lightshows & Projections. As well as the regular lightshow providers, among whom Mark Boyle & Joan Hills (now the Boyle Family), Jack Bracelin (he ran a nudist camp out Watford way), Jo Gannon (a very bright teenager who subsequently produced the Mary Tyler Moore US TVshow) and Dermot Harvey (an errant biochemist, discoverer of many immiscible liquids) there were other projections.
One almost forgotten favorite was Chinese animation movies hired on 16mm film from Contemporary Films – shown silent & projected on the walls rather than the white curtain across the stage that we also used between sets. The audio could be something quite different. The detail was ravishing to the tripping eye. The scaffolding projection tower was strategically placed so that projectors could be occasionally swung round causing the watchers to move round to continue watching – a subtle way to keep people moving.
Density of people. This is one parameter that has always fascinated me. A promoter’s natural wish is to have as many punters as possible in their club, its good business. But the more there are the more it gets crowded until you reach a point where the popularity destroys the very thing you had in the first place, a good social & dancing space. This is a constant dilemma and our only solution was to go to a bigger venue, but the change of scale had other consequences and the scene got too heavy with ripoffs that eventually closed the club down. It lasted just 9 months.
In the analogue age there were many variations on the club theme and UFO was just one of them. We tried to keep alive the spirit of the Happening which purposely injects uncertainty into the event, which seemed to fit with the experimental zeitgeist. Mixing different sensory inputs was certainly fun and it didnt always work out. But one essential was always kept in mind, to keep an overview of whatever was going on and to be sensitive to the vibe going down. That way there were never any fights and hardly any bad scenes even when someone freaked out and had to be led away and talked down.
In the digital age there has been a convergence of technology, meaning that computers + projectors are almost universally used for image delivery. Paradoxically this often reduces the variety of visual input. Lights are computer controlled by already finished programs, which can completely remove the interactivity that was possible with systems with more elements of manual control.
The opportunity to knit together different music tracks seamlessly & beat-matched can’t be resisted, and this in turn produces really long sets of continuous sound, mostly at a high volume. The upside is that, at best, dance alone induces trance, and a room full of tranced out people is something only possible in the digital age – the technology drives the experience.
I look forward to finding out what today’s experimenters are producing at Futuresonic, mercilessly plundering the past and the present to produce the future.