Capital Crisis: Save The Bongo!

The proposed closure of The Bongo Club could be the nail in the coffin for Edinburgh's alternative club culture

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 28 Feb 2012

Storm clouds are gathering over the Edinburgh club scene. The threatened closure of the Bongo Club, hot on the heels of the loss of Cabaret Voltaire (at least in its beloved, current form) presents a direct challenge to an already marginalised scene. Unlike Glasgow, which has a wealth of venues for clubs and gigs, varying in capacity from the smaller, one-hundred-plus capacity venues, right up to gigantic, well-equipped spaces such as the Arches, Edinburgh's mid-sized venues have been slowly disappearing over the last ten to fifteen years. The result is a diminished cultural landscape in the nation's capital, with the scales tipping in favour of mainstream drinking venues, rather than the greater wealth of curated, multi-purpose art spaces it previously enjoyed. More and more, the city is in danger of becoming a cultural wasteland for the eleven months of the year when it is not infested with touring comedians and theatre companies. So what went wrong?

The systematic closing down of Edinburgh's nightclubs began in 2001 with the denial of a license renewal application from Wilkie House. Following a high-profile police raid, where arrests were made for drug offences, the council turned down the venue's application to renew their license.  The club, now known as Sin, has since been licensed to more than one major chain of breweries, operating as a 'mainstream' club venue.

Tall Paul Robinson, an acclaimed local DJ, makes the following distinction between mainstream and non-mainstream venues: “There are the flashy looking chain-owned ones that play the most obvious lowest-common-denominator music as a safe bet in order to get as many people in as possible. These places are mainly frequented by people who just want to go out and get drunk with their mates, and don't really care what they dance to as long as they've heard it plenty of times before. And then, there are the independently-run venues that recognise the need to put music first – and these places are the lifeblood of the city's club scene.” It is precisely these venues which Edinburgh is allowing to quietly slip away.

In 2002, a fire in the Cowgate took out several more vibrant night spots, including the much-loved La Belle Angele, home of Scotland's trailblazing drum and bass night, Manga. Then The Venue was sold and converted into offices and a gallery space just a few short years later. There have been other losses, too. Studio 24 on Calton Road is perpetually under threat of closure due to noise complaints from local residents, whose flats were built well after the establishment became known as a thriving night spot. Soon there will be barely any venues left to house non-mainstream club nights, save for tiny basement bars and student unions.

Of course, Edinburgh used to have a healthy and diverse club scene: nights like Pure, Taste, Pillbox, Dogma, Obscene and too many others to mention had packed dancefloors and great atmospheres for local DJs and visiting guests, all in venues with medium-sized capacities, being able to host between 150 and 1000 guests, depending on the venue. Promoters had their pick of mid-sized venues: Studio 24 was known for hard techno, The Venue catered to the funk, hip-hop, house and techno crowds,  La Belle Angele was the home of DnB, The Bongo for dub, world music and experimental electronica, while Wilkie House and the Vaults were known for excellent gay-friendly nights. On any given weekend, punters could see a whole host of local DJs and regular international guests at a variety of places. Since that fateful Cowgate fire, the number of these venues has dwindled almost to nothing.

Three vital mid-size and smaller club spaces were lost when Edinburgh University Settlement went bankrupt, doing away with The Roxy, The GRV and The Forest café at one stroke. These last three losses were keenly felt because they were not solely club and gig spaces – they provided gallery space, rehearsal rooms, workshop venues and community-based, versatile arts environments. The same is true of the Bongo Club, which has a long-standing relationship with arts organisation Out Of The Blue. With the news that the Bongo Club is to lose its home, we face a desolate landscape for club promoters and punters. “This potential closure of The Bongo is nothing to do with a lack of demand,” argues Robinson. “It’s an immensely popular venue that’s busy every Friday and Saturday night. It really would be a tragedy to lose it.”

The Bongo Club's own official statement echoes these sentiments: “At the heart of this scene since 1996, The Bongo Club is a nightclub, gig venue and all-round artistic hub with a street-level-headed attitude and an international reputation. It is truly independent, as the performance venue of local arts charity Out Of The Blue, which has an established track record as a catalyst for creativity in Edinburgh. This has allowed The Bongo Club to put the sounds of the underground and imaginative aspirations before the mighty dollar, encouraging the community to get involved and The Bongo Club to do their own thing. A long standing stalwart of the Edinburgh Fringe with a list of guests that reads like a ‘who’s who’ of cultural alternatives, the loss of this venue would be of real detriment to the city.”

Well-known comedian and activist Mark Thomas, a regular performer at the club, summed it up beautifully, saying that the Bongo: “ part of the artistic DNA of Edinburgh, and to lose it would be an act of cultural self-harming.”

There are excellent small venues – Sneaky Pete's, Henry's Cellar Bar, and a few others – who support local and emerging club and gig culture. But once promoters gain success in these venues, and need a bigger space to go to, they will very soon be out of options. There is no room for growth, development or competition. Edinburgh has its club culture in a stranglehold.

Andrew Hobbes, promoter of successful and innovative club nights such as Trouble and Wonky, believes many of the closures, license denials and sales of these venues are: “... due to spurious and suspect re-development reasons.” He laments the passing of the thriving club culture we once prized so highly: “At the turn of the millennium, the Scottish capital was acclaimed as one of the top ten places in the world to see in the New Year.  But the last ten years have witnessed this cultural diversity being progressively eroded until there's virtually nothing of any real substance and soul left.” He asks: “Do you want to live in a city that doesn't care enough to recognise the value of its cultural institutions?”

In Glasgow, we see a culture where club culture is embraced, celebrated and even funded. In Edinburgh it is marginalised, misunderstood, and is in the process of being excised from the Old Town. Why is this being done? Is it to keep club culture away from the precious tourist money being spent in that quadrant of the city? Is it because the wealthy property-owners of the town centre – the largest and wealthiest of whom is Edinburgh University – see no value in having a thriving alternative culture?

There are other places in Edinburgh, such as Leith, which could embrace the capital's club culture. But for anyone who remembers the glory days, the closure of the Bongo will be the nail in the coffin. Club culture and live music is effectively being evicted from the heart of the city, save for a handful of small-capacity venues.

This process has already begun – opposing the closure of the Bongo Club is one small way to fight back, and support Edinburgh's arts scene. Paul Robinson has the final word: “I do not like this term 'the closure of the Bongo Club' that is being bandied about – I think the 'potential closure of the Bongo Club' is how we should all see it. There are simply far too many people who love, need and frequent the place to allow it to close. It may have to move elsewhere – and it may need an extension on its current lease, but anyone who cares about clubbing, live music, performance arts, comedy or simply the community needs to make their voice heard and come out and support this cause.”

Get involved: sign the petition to oppose the closure of the Bongo Club, or join the Facebook group to help organise resistance: