Night Fever: V&A Dundee's Scottish clubbing exhibition

Clubs may still remain closed across the UK, but a new exhibition exploring the history of Scotland's club culture reopens the V&A Dundee this month. We meet some of the people behind the clubs and club nights that have shaped Scotland's club scene

Feature by Nadia Younes | 03 May 2021
  • Night Fever

Scotland’s club scene has a rich and vibrant history, and it’s one that’s revered around the world. After over a year of closed doors and empty dancefloors, it’s one that’s also sorely missed, but a new exploration of Scotland’s clubbing history is set to highlight its cultural significance.

Following several delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Night Fever: Designing Club Culture reopens the V&A Dundee this month. The exhibition, which was developed by the Vitra Design Museum and ADAM – Brussels Design Museum, has been expanded to include a brand new Scottish section exclusive to the V&A Dundee.

Three clubs – Glasgow’s Sub Club, Paisley’s Club 69 and Aberdeen’s Fever – and one club night – Optimo (Espacio) – will be explored in the exhibition’s club archive section, while travelling club night The Rhumba Club have also contributed objects from their archive. “The clubs featured are a snapshot of club culture in Scotland over a particular period of time... focusing on a mix of the very well-known – Sub Club and Optimo (Espacio) – with a club that perhaps won’t be as recognisable to visitors – Fever,” says Kirsty Hassard, Curator at V&A Dundee.

Party in the Basement

Sub Club is a long-standing Scottish clubbing institution. Beginning life as a club night in the early 80s, it moved around various venues before finding its home on Jamaica Street in the venue then known as Lucifers. The venue was officially renamed the Sub Club in 1987 – just in time for the acid house boom of the late 80s, often referred to as the Second Summer of Love – and was operated by one of its original founders, Graham Wilson, and Greg McLeod.

Since then it has hosted an array of big name DJs and given life to some of Scotland’s most infamous club nights, such as Subculture – its longest standing night and the longest weekly house music residency in the world. With residents Harri & Domenic still at the helm, Subculture remains the club’s weekly Saturday night residency to this day, 27 years after launching in 1994.

But Sub Club faced its biggest challenge in November 1999, when a neighbouring fire caused the club to close temporarily – during which time, all of its events were moved to the space then known as Planet Peach on Queen Street. The closure lasted much longer than initially anticipated, though, and the club remained empty for three years, before reopening in November 2002 under new ownership. “[It] was undoubtedly the biggest difficulty the club has faced thus far, and sheer bloody-mindedness allowed us to overcome the many challenges that situation presented,” says Mike Grieve, Sub Club’s Managing Director.

“The current situation is similar in so far as there is huge uncertainty about a schedule for reopening, and it’s been extremely challenging to keep the business afloat and to keep the staff employed,” he continues. “I think this whole pandemic has affected people in very profound ways, many of which are yet to be realised, and I think people will learn to value the importance of cultural life, of music and dancing, and of socialising in larger groups more than they have perhaps done in the past.”

Rumblings from the Rhumba

After trialling various events under different guises, The Rhumba Club officially became a weekly club night in 1991. Originally set up at Roxanne’s in Perth, it then moved to Fat Sam’s in Dundee, The Citrus Club in Edinburgh and Club Metro in Arbroath, before returning to Perth. Over the years the night moved from weekly to monthly, and more recently it has moved to a semi-regular club night at The Ice Factory in Perth.

“We have a totally committed crowd; some have been coming since we started and now their kids are coming along, so we have managed to engage a whole new generation,” says Stine Hope, promoter at The Rhumba Club. “We have also remained current and ever-evolving, bringing together the best DJs from past and present and adding the upcoming into the mix.”

However, a steep rise in DJ fees in recent years has brought about difficulties for the independently-run club night. “It was making some nights pretty much not worth doing,” says Hope. “Through negotiation and common sense, though, we have found ways to overcome this without major hikes to ticket prices – delivering a great night at a low ticket price is what we stand for.”

But Hope credits Scotland’s tight-knit creative community and the willingness of those within that community to lend a helping hand as one of the key elements to the success of its clubbing scene. “Scotland has always had a really strong collaborative culture across the clubs and nights and we’ve only seen that strengthen over the years,” says Hope. “It’s so refreshing to be in an industry where we are all out to support each other. We are definitely doing a lot more of hosting other nights and sharing DJs, which is a great step forward.”

Clubbing Connections

The sense of community brought about through clubbing will also be explored in another new addition to the exhibition exclusive to the V&A Dundee, Everyone in the Club. For it, Scottish clubbers of all ages will be asked to share their memories of Scotland’s nightlife, by contributing stories, photos, memorabilia and more. All of which will be compiled together into a digital archive, made available to view on the V&A Dundee website.

“The Scottish clubbing scene is so diverse, and has encompassed so many styles and eras,” says Hassard. “We knew there were a lot of incredible stories out there that we wouldn’t be able to cover in one exhibition. It’s the people – their passion for music, their communities – who really make clubbing, so we wanted to create a crowd-sourced history for and by the people who lived it.”

When it comes to their own personal favourite clubbing memories, however, the general consensus is that there are too many memorable nights to count. “So many great nights over the years; it’s impossible to single one out,” says Grieve. And Hope agrees: “I really could not even begin to pick one. Every night has its own dynamic: the anticipation, the crowd, the DJ, the music, the reaction, the afterparty, and the hangover of course! This gives every night its own unique feel.”

For Hassard, though, there is one particular iconic piece of Scottish club decor that stands out. “I grew up and went to university in Glasgow, and then moved to London in my mid-20s,” she says. “Coming back to Glasgow was always a reason to look forward to a reunion with my friends, normally under the much-missed ABC mirrorball!”

All Under One Roof Raving

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have prevented us from being able to dance together in a club environment IRL, at home and live streamed events have offered us some sort of alternative clubbing experience. To celebrate the launch of the exhibition, on 7 May the V&A Dundee are throwing an online party as part of their Tay Late series, entitled Tay Late: And the Beat Goes On.

The virtual event will simulate a worldwide clubbing experience, beginning in Dundee with an opening set from local DJ collective Le Freak Records before travelling to Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, and ending in New York with a headline set from ex-Scissor Sisters frontwoman and host of BBC Radio 2’s Dance Devotion, Ana Matronic.

Throughout the course of the evening, Scotland’s diverse and eclectic club scene will be showcased, with contributions from Glasgow-based DJ and producer TAAHLIAH, Glasgow-via-Cairo visual and performance artist HUSS, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design student Farah Hussain, and Kayus Bankole of Edinburgh group Young Fathers.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how much we, as humans, require physical contact and shared experiences to feel truly alive. There is no place that makes us feel quite as connected to one another as a club and Night Fever: Designing Club Culture will demonstrate exactly what makes clubs so special. And with UK nightlife set to resume at the end of June we are all eagerly anticipating their return and the beginning of the Third Summer of Love.

Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, V&A Dundee, until 9 Jan 2022

Tay Late: And the Beat Goes On, 7 May, 7.30pm, online