Test Tube invite
Westworld invite for Altered States club night.
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Mark Armstrong lived and worked in London’s clubbing heyday, running the Wag Club, Fred’s, The Flamingo & Cafe de Paris, as well as organising parties for the biggest music stars of the ‘80s and ’90s. Here he talks to MAG about his club nights, and shares a few pieces from his 5000-strong collection of invitations, passes and club ephemera he kept along the way.
“I got into promoting as a student at LSE, where I was putting on bands like U2 on before they were well known. The rock’n’roll started there – getting to know agents, managers, the band, their entourage – you got to know the industry pretty quickly. I started with my first club night in 1985 at Crazy Larry’s. It was called Vanity Fair.”
“No-one to this day can put together a club night like we did in the ‘80s. Steve Strange had everyone in his club, from royalty to pop stars, to A-lists like Bowie and Jagger. Everyone. No PR company could do that. Club promoters did because they are in the business of the party, not the promotion industry.
The invites were madly inventive. The Westworld one nighters put out test tubes with the invites inside. These were hip club promoters who invented the “warehouse party”, and their invites were fantastic. Weird cubes, blow up beach balls, Frisbees, a real leaf bathed in gold – there were even fortune cookies!
The Blitz was definitely the first club of its kind. It was so cult and exclusive that people didn’t really have memberships, they didn’t know what a membership meant! The beginning of ‘memberships’ came in 1985 with Groucho’s – that was the first members bar to transgress into showbiz. It attracted everyone from the cool media sets. You could sit down and talk in there as opposed to screaming standing next to a speaker!”
Westworld invite for Altered States club night.
This is the membership keyring for the Groucho’s club. David Bowie signed an album deal there, a really shitty one for Tin Machine as I remember it! Tracey Bennett from London Records shut Groucho’s for David Bowie to come in, and he was there for a total of four minutes.
It’s crazy stuff. This is printed on a sponge, “maybe for wiping the sweat off in the club!’ adds Armstrong.
The design depicts cultural icon Leigh Bowery, founder of Taboo, the iconic club night founded in January 1985 which served as a meeting point for all types of people inspired by freedom of expression and absolute disregard for the traditional.
Printed in gold on a real leaf, the invite was created in 1991 for a Halloween event.
Another key club was The Ministry of Sound, which opened exactly ten years after the Blitz. The owners were James Palumbo (money), Humphrey Waterhouse (marketing), and Justin Berkmann, who was one of those first generation super DJs.
Every single top DJ in the world has played at the Ministry of Sound. They had about three levels of VIP cards, and this one was really difficult to get. It allowed you to come in with as many people as you wanted, plus drinks were free all night…within reason! I think to this day only about 280 were given out.
The DNA bar was one of the few clubs run by women. The club business back then was really male dominated. The girls were running the door & guest list, or maybe behind the scenes doing the accounts. There was rarely a female DJ or promoter. That was the way it was – and unfortunately, I don’t think a lot has changed.
For the re-opening of the Roof Gardens the invite was a carnivorous plant. We did loofas and bananas too. I’m serious! March 1995
“Every summer we would organise a quintessential cocktail party for about 500 people at the Roof Gardens which was and still is owned by Richard Branson. It had a huge garden with flamingos, and ponds with fish and ducks right bang in South Kensington. A truly great location and we never got a bad weather day…incredible …..
Our illustrious VIP committee sent out this letter to our VIP guests inviting them along.
“I fronted Freds in Soho between 1991 and 1994. This must be one of the most complicated cards ever made as each one was hand checked. They had bespoke brass etching and each one cost me about £70 in today’s money which was why I never repeated the run!
But they were special – small individual works of art.
Clubs and the music business go hand in hand. The clubs got used for video shoots, and record companies booked them out all the time for private showcases and new artists. We put on the Rolling Stones in a tiny venue in Kings Cross in 1995, David Bowie hired the Wag Club to shoot the ‘Blue Jean’ video – there was a lot of club action going on in ‘90s music videos too.
DJs began setting the trends in the mid 80s, and record companies were using the clubs to test out new material to a groovy audience. DJs began to take control, but that’s another story…!
For me it was always about the people rather than the music. The music back then was more of a backdrop for clubs. People weren’t going out to listen to music per se, it was all about who was there, socialising. But within that nightlife crowd, many were musicians and fashion people.
Many of these clubs played old music, like seventies soul or pop. I remember I was in a club called Taboo, which happened every Thursday in a basement in Leicester Square and ‘Everything She Wants’ by George Michael was playing loudly, and George Michael was there singing along to it. It was naff, but brilliant.”
“We had lots of people come through on our nights, particularly at events like the Madonna party which I put on at London’s ICA. Her team didn’t want any pictures of her partying, so they hired eleven lookalikes who left the party through different exits during the evening.”
“But of course, someone found out that Madonna was still inside dancing, and when she finally exited through a passageway leading under the street to Carlton House Terrace the press were all there. The next day she was on the cover of all the papers!”
Madonna exiting the ICA – eventually!
“At the beginning of the 90s, I decided to organise some parties outside of clubs for variety. I threw a series of crazy nights in art galleries and called the collective ‘The Gallery Season’. George Michael loved this and came to every one; he even DJ’d for the whole night at my Italia 90 Party in The Princes Street Gallery. After the Summer of 90, he approached me to organise a big event to celebrate the end of his world tour, Cover to Cover.”
“I chose Smiths Gallery in Seven Dials as the venue. The codename for the party was ‘Function-at-the-Junction’ as the list of celebrities and royalty for the event was ridiculous. Elton John homed in on the guest list and invited over 150 ‘friends’ too; we had to block Earlham & Monmouth streets to speed up entry and exit for the 800 odd guests. We decorated the venue inside to represent cities George had toured – a rainforest for Rio and plenty of smoke for Birmingham!”
For every guest in the party, there were three onlookers outside, and the flashes from the paparazzi made it look like we were having a street disco! The press described it as a ‘Di-namite’ party as it was graced by the Princess of Wales. It was a uniquely wild and special shindig which marked the beginning of what became known as ‘The Celebrity Obsessed Nineties’!”
We finally got in! The entrance to the regular Thursday night ‘Starclub’ at the WAG. 1990
The Grand Opening of Cafe De Paris, London, October 1996
I was always an archivist, or hoarder, that was my passion. A lot of people from the clubs didn’t save anything. They didn’t care, which is where I come in. I’ve kept everything; invitations, flyers, passes, membership cards, matches. I wanted to do something with my collection, but I didn’t realise people were that interested, or at least fascinated in it.
With all these events, these brilliant nights, clubs, parties, I made a lot of people happy. A lot of relationships started in the clubs I ran, alongside a lot of key deals which were signed too. It was David Bowie one day, opening the club for Richard Branson’s Roof Gardens the next, then a fashion show for John Richmond. It was so varied. I just loved bringing people together.
The whole period of the eighties, up until the late 90s – that just cannot be repeated. It was a magical time. You got to know everyone as we were moving around, going to the same places. It was very glam and great fun. But what happens is you grow up and we pass it on to a new generation. I’m sure the kids have an equally as good time as we did, but music changes, and people want different things today than they did yesterday. Times change, we get older, but we still remember the parties!
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