Legacy in the Dust: Club Culture and Communal Need in Hackney

By Sukhdev Sandhu

four-aces-club.jpgFour Aces Club

History Is Made At Night. That’s the name of Neil Gordon-Orr’s excellent blog [http://history-is-made-at-night.blogspot.com] about the politics of dancing, “a celebration of dance as an affirmation of life in different times and places, sometimes dangerous times and places”. Legacy In the Dust is an important new documentary by Winstan Whitter that chronicles the history of a club called the 4 Aces that, from its opening in 1966 to its forced closure in 1999, represented exactly that spirit of celebration and affirmation.

The 4 Aces, located in Dalston in East London, occupied a building with a rich history of its own. Starting out as North London Colosseum and Ampitheatre in the mid-1880s, it became a poor house in 1914, before being converted into Dalston Picture House in 1920. By the end of the 1950s however, it was being used as a car showroom. It took a Caribbean immigrant, Newton Dunbar, to see the opportunities this Victorian theatre offered for giving local people, many of them also newly-settled, a place to have fun.

The mid-1960s was a period in which few London clubs played black music. West Indians commonly hold blues parties and shebeens in their own homes; this inevitably led to white neighbours, and opportunistic politicians, couching their xenophobia in the rhetoric of sonic as much as racial pollution. The 4 Aces was an emergency space, a safe haven, a pleasuredome that attracted soul and reggae artists such as Ann Peebles, Percy Sledge, Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, Jimmy Cliff and the Detroit Emeralds. Local people didn’t see it as a wholly commercial club, but as an informal community centre where they could hold birthday parties and wedding receptions. A memorial dance for Whitter’s father, who ran its restaurant, was staged there too.

London has become a post-industrial leisurepolis in which bars and clubs are prized for the contributions they make to the nocturnal economy. What makes Legacy In The Dust so valuable though is that it highlights the cultural and intellectual difference that clubs can make.

In the mid-1970s young black Londoners, struggling to find jobs, subject to aggressive stop-and-search policing, their lives seemingly of no interest to mainstream broadcasters, were increasingly drawn to more ‘conscious’ forms of roots reggae. Songs, played at intense volume through the sound system of the 4 Aces, were filled with references to Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, decolonisation. The club became not only a pressure chamber, a place in which to vent – and contain – collective disaffection, but an alternative campus.

As such, the documentary conjures the possibility of another film altogether, one that would explore the history of alternative educational sites in the East End, set up activists, radicals and community groups, and that blurred any clear distinction between the social and the pedagogic realm: squats, drop-in centres, free universities, madrasas and bookshops, such as Centerprise, that produced memoirs and verse collections by local working-class people.

The rebel turn taken by the 4 Aces in the ’70s made it a lure for punk and New Wave royalty – Bob Marley, Don Letts, Chrissie Hynde paid it countercultural homage – but for its regular clientele it led to more hassle. Police kept busting the place, nominally on the hunt for weed and hash, but in reality to impress upon locals that there was nowhere they could go in the area where they would not be marked men and women. Inevitably the club fell on hard times, saved from extinction only by its relaunch as the acid party Labyrinth at the end of the 1980s.

The film pays tribute to the resurgent energy of that era, to the entrepreneurial sass and creativity of its key figures, as well as charting the mutations in London’s bass subcultures that took place as soundsystem reggae gave way to house, then to hardcore and to jungle. In the end capital won. The 4 Aces was forced to close down. The building was razed; one-bedroom flats built on the site now start at ₤270,000. A part of Dalston Lane that Iain Sinclair has described as possessing ‘crookbacked singularity’ and that, back in the early 1990s, the historian Patrick Wright characterized as ‘the undemolished world’, was terminated. Whitter is adamant. “The council wants to uproot history and shove it into a corner. Bury it.”

Clubs come and go. Why mourn a rather shabby venue when there are newer, more centrally located, sonically-superior clubs sprouting up all the time? For Whitter, echoing the melancholia found in the contemporary literature of ‘moribundia London’ exemplified by Adrian Maddox’s Classic Cafes (2003), the answer is clear. “The 4 Aces started at a time when then wasn’t anything else for Afro-Caribbeans. It was an organic place. Its owner wanted to help other people. The new arts venues in east London are state-of-the-art but soul-less, corporate. The people there aren’t in touch with the local communities. They don’t welcome young people; they’re scared of them. With the 4 Aces young people could reach out and touch it. It was tangible.

Visit www.thefouracesclub.com

Sukhdev Sandhu is one of our finest writers, critics and cultural commentators. His books include London Calling, I’ll Get My Coat and Night Haunts.