London, being the most wonderful city that it is, can cater for pretty much any taste. It has nightclubs galore, and almost any that you might happen to stumble into in Soho on a Friday or Saturday night will be playing a crowd-pleasing mix of stuff that’s in the charts, either now or from yesteryear. But what if you want something a little bit different? Something… alternative? Well then, you should probably look at nights out in East London…
Well, firstly, I’ve realised that everyone’s idea of alternative really depends on what their starting point is. For some, it just means non-mainstream-pop. A night at Feeling Gloomy playing indie music would hit the spot. Others might sneer at this weak definition and insist that anything other than heavy rock and goth music isn’t alternative. For others still, this is their mainstay and if you want it to be alternative you need to serve it up with a healthy (or unhealthy) dose of kink. For some, it means getting involved in the burgeoning cabaret and burlesque scene, or diving into the plethora of vintage and retro nights that necessitate dressing up in “period” outfits.
Now, there’s plenty of alternative things to do in East London and and when it comes to the nightlife it couldn’t be quirkier, but if you’re really looking for something completely different, then check out some of these nights.
An example of a retro night is the Coney Island Party and Freakshow night. This night is supposed to transport you back to 50s New York, by the sea in the fairground that is Coney Island. They recreate this by having some silly fairground games to play (and prizes to be won) such as a coconut shy, a “putting green” and a couple of silly contests such as the hotdog eating contest. There’s also free ice cream for most of the night, as nothing says seaside quite like ice cream. The music is what gives it the 50s vibe and they play all sorts from that era. There’s also a little bit of burlesque thrown in, just because!
Oh my God I Miss You
Another retro night is Oh My God I Miss You Presents… which puts on themed 60s nights with all sorts of interesting acts. This is another monthly event and the name of the actual night changes. They’ve had a Jailhouse Jam and Grind-A-Go-Go. They transform the club into almost a theatre set for you to frolick in, and as well as the 60s girl group, and voodoo rock ‘n’ roll tunes being spun, there might be a few live bands playing this sort of music as well. All sorts of performers are welcome – cabaret, magic, puppertry or striptease!
The Double R Club
Hosted by the wonderful Benjamin Louche (a slick compere if ever there was one, who also pops up at Lucha Brittania) a night of burlesque with a difference is the Double R club. This is a burlesque night paying homage to the works of David Lynch and it helps if you’re au fait with his “oeuvres”. There’s a lot of stripping down to tassles in various ways (and not necessarily by women) and the acts will more than likely be dressed up as characters from David Lynch movies or Twin Peaks. One in particular started off as Dennis Hopper’s character Frank from Blue Velvet but got progressively healthier and energetic until he was casting aside his ventilator and beginning to dance and… shed his clothes until he was high-kicking away scantily dressed and in heels. There’s a bit of comedy as well – one act played David Lynch’s long-suffering mother – and acts such as fire eating and um… “vomiting” and endless length of tissue paper. Sounds weirder than it was. This is definitely worth a look.
But it’s not all fire and stripping, there are slightly more intellectual nights to be found as well. Homework, which puts nights on for a few months over the summer, is based here. This is a collective of spoken word artists known as Aisle 16, who push the boundaries of spoken word. Each night has a theme, for example, “poets in residence” where they had to take residence in a place of their choice and come up with poetry inspired by such places. One chose a library, another chose Beachy Head, notorious for suicides. You will probably have heard of some of the members of Homework if you are into the spoken word scene at all – Joe Dunthorne who wrote Submarine is one, and Luke Wright who also often comperes Book Slam. Their nights are always entertaining, often funny, sometimes moving, and they have guest poets at some of their nights as well. Andrew Motion was there one night I attended.
Sink the Pink
The now legendary Sink the Pink is a night of fun known for being friendly to the LGBT scene, or perhaps that should be it’s a gay night friendly to the straight scene. Either way, they welcome anyone as long as you’re there to let your hair down and get your glitter and makeup on. They say they have a “love of all things silly, outrageous and camp” and you can expect nights of dancing to “guilty pleasure” tunes with silly monthly themes and some rather well known guest appearances from Jake Shears, Beth Ditto and Nick Grimshaw to name just a few.
As it happens, all of these places take place in the same venue, and a slightly unlikely venue at that. A “working men’s” club in Bethnal Green might not be where you’d first think of heading. And actually, I do a disservice to the place by putting “working men’s” in quotes. For this is exactly what it is.
Up a side street off Bethnal Green Road you come to the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club and are greeted by the doorman (bouncer is too strong a word) who will ask you if you’ve ever been before. If you have, you will most likely be waved through with a friendly greeting. If not, then you will solemnly receive “the speech”. This is where you get told that the local residents aren’t on great terms with the ol’ BGWMC and therefore if you have any interest in letting the club continue doing its thing, you will be respectful when leaving, and not loiter – meet your friends up the road if you must so you don’t cause any disturbances and give the locals cause for grief. After you agree to these terms, you’ll get the same friendly wave in.
You’ll also be directed into where the night is taking place. The club is split over two floors and the main room upstairs is normally where the events take place. Don’t be surprised if, as you walk in, you pass some old boy on his way downstairs. Because, the venue is also a functioning working men’s club. The “freaks” and “weirdos” (you) do their thing upstairs. The regulars do theirs downstairs and everyone is fine with that.
Going into whichever party night you’re there for, the set up will differ to reflect this, but what will never change is the small bar in the corner, the faded carpet on the floor, the thick curtains and the generally slightly musty smell that signifies all such social clubs. Sometimes, if you’re there for the spoken word night for example, the plush red chairs that have seen better days will be set out. Or it might be a tables and chairs arrangements, with standing room only for latecomers.
Nights generally go on until 2 or 3 am, entry is around 5 pounds, and last admission is normally midnight.