Gina Davidson: Lights out on city nightlife

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As Cab Vol closes for the final time, Gina Davidson examines an ongoing struggle

CONDENSATION was streaming down the walls as if the stone was mimicking the sweating of the dancers while they performed ever more frenetic moves to music which seemed to get louder and louder. A description of last Saturday night at Cabaret Voltaire in Blair Street, one of Edinburgh’s best-known and much-loved “underground” music venues, or a Saturday night at The Place in the 1960s, when the Victoria Street haunt was more about Beat music and local bands rather than bowls of cocktails and vodka shots?

It could have been either given the interior design relies a lot on granite but, apart from the stonework, the two clubs, although more than half a century apart, have another thing in common – despite their popularity they closed down.

The Place has had any number of names over the decades, but these days it’s been subsumed into mega-club Espionage. Meanwhile, Cabaret Voltaire closed its doors on Saturday after the final Karnival club night. Despite a decade of success in offering live music and dance sounds from somewhere to the left of mainstream, Glasgow entertainments group G1 will turn it into a different type of venue altogether.

The same is true at the Bongo Club in Holyrood Road. Owned by Edinburgh University, the club – the longest running in the city and which also hosted DJs with a taste for the experimental rather than the commercial – will soon disappear.

They will both join a sad roll call from the last few years including The Venue, Wilkie House and La Belle Angele.

As a result, the number of available venues offering something a little different seem to be fast running out. Edinburgh’s nightlife – aside from George Street – would appear to be dying a slow death.

Certainly, that’s how soul DJ Yogi Haughton sees it. He’s been at the decks for decades, and is currently running Funktion at the Junction in Leith Street’s Newsroom on Fridays, and admits that while some venues have gone, there have always been others to take their place – until now.

“It feels that everyone is so down on the club scene in Edinburgh,” he says. “The council doesn’t support the scene in any way, from flyposting to licensing. It feels that there are constant obstacles put in the way, even though Edinburgh is supposed to be a cosmopolitan city.

“You feel that those in charge of running the city believe people who go to clubs are drunken slobs who just want to fight. While that might be the case at some places in the centre of town, it’s not so for the more underground scene where people go for the music and to dance.”

He adds: “George Street is appalling, but there never seems to be an issue with getting a licence to open yet another bland venue for the tourists and stag and hen parties. But ask for one anywhere else, to cater for the resident population, and there’s little to no chance, which is why venues are disappearing for people who want to hear anything other than pop music.

“Yet Glasgow is on fire at the moment – that’s where Edinburgh folk will eventually have to go.”

Club promoter Kevin Hendry, who ran Karnival at Cabaret Voltaire for six years, agrees. “It’s absolutely farcical that the city which boasts about having the biggest arts and cultural festival in the world one month of the year cannot support people who live here and who are creative musically the rest of the year,” he says.

The fretting is not new. Edinburgh was full of small independent clubs in the 1960s and 1970s – even on Princes Street – but they fell out of fashion as people wanted to go to bigger, glitzier places. The arguments are similar to those aired when independent pubs began to close down.

Of course, there are venues which are thriving, such as The Lane, in Queensferry Street Lane. The Liquid Room, in Victoria Street, has also just opened a third floor, The Annexe.

Owner John McWilliams agrees that the club scene is in dire straits, but refutes the idea that the council doesn’t back independent venues.

He says: “Venues are dropping like flies. The reasons are multiple, from the smoking ban to the cheap drink sold at supermarkets, and pubs are being affected in the same way.

“We’re investing and expanding, and I have to say the council have helped us 100 per cent since the fire in getting back on our feet, particularly with planning. Things are in a bad way, but if you invest in your venue, sell quality drinks and put on the best entertainment, people will come.”