One of the real lynchpins of London’s dance scene throughout the turbulent 80s, Chris Sullivan headed up The Wag when it was one of the most progressive clubs in Europe.
Continually moving forward, The Wag in its heyday was the place to soak up new music. With Chris Sullivan at the helm, the club kept one step ahead while maintaining a reputation for a wild night out.
Speaking to ClashMusic ahead of The Vintage Festival, the DJ, promoter, musician and all round scene-maker is in a charged up mood. Reflecting on his childhood in Merthyr Tidfil – “It’s one big sprawling council estate. You don’t want to go” – what follows is an inspiring insight into an era when London was a melting pot of styles and The Wag was the hottest night in town.
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To cut a long story short I was a Northern Soul kid and we used to go to the alldayers. We went down to Bournemouth to an alldayer there, and we came across all these kids dressed – this is 1975 – in 1950s clothes. Wedge haircuts, plastic sandals. So all of a sudden we fell in with these Londoners and I came up on the September of 1975, going to Crackers and places like that and I couldn’t believe it. I went down the Kings Road to the Sex shop and found this world where I could actually dress in the garb that I wanted to without getting into a fight. Which certainly wasn’t true in Merthyr Tydfil. Over there you can get into fight if you’re wearing a hat or if your hair is parted the wrong way.
Anyway then I moved to London full time and went to Art College. I realised that there was a big gap because no one would let us into any clubs because we were too outrageously dressed (as far as they were concerned). So I started doing these warehouse parties in ‘78 which basically catered to all of these punk / art college / hairdresser types, lots of birds who were all pretty out there. Afterwards I was going to the Blitz all the time where I was one of the main people, I would guess – if there was an inner circle I was certainly one of them. Somebody offered me a nightclub one night and I thought ‘well why not?’
I went completely against the grain because everyone was doing electro music. I didn’t mind Kraftwerk and a bit of that but all that New Romantic, shoulder pads, men in make up really left me cold. Not that I’ve ever tried it but I’m sure I would look absolutely crap in it because I’m built like a Welsh rugby player – I’m six foot two, sixteen stone, I’ve always been big and that does not a good transvestite make. I started this thing because we were all fascinated at the time by the Bauhaus movement and Berlin in the 30s, pre-Hitler, and 20s Paris. So we – Robert Elms and a few others – started this club where we’d play stuff like that: Marlene Deitrich, Frank Sinatra and a bit of funk. After that I remember walking down the street one day after heading back to Wales to get all my old seven inches – which were all funk – so I just decided that the next club I do should play funk music, and that was Hell which I DJ’d in. I did that with Steve Strange and it just so happened that was when the so called new-funk started exploding so a few months later you had A Certain Ratio doing ‘Shack Up’ and James White & The Blacks released their album in New York. Ze Records. It all started rolling together.
Then when I got The Wag on board I decided that I would turn the clock back because all that New Romantic, electro, spinny, make up bollocks was really not me at all. So I just thought right, I’d had the band Blue Rondo A La Turk which was jazz mixed with funk and latin – I tried to make it big – we wore big Zoot suits and grew moustaches because it was exaggerated. Rather than effete little space age numbers I thought we’re blokes let’s look like blokes. We looked like Dizzy Gillespie circa 1949 and we tried to do this music and mixed it all up.
When I did The Wag I tried to turn the clock back to the first clubs I went to in the 70s which was Crackers. You would see a bloke in a 40s jacket, someone in a mohair jumper, someone who was a bit punky, you’d have a cowboy… I tried to turn it into that. More importantly what I tried to do was that up until that point apart from clubs like Crackers and that in London you had black clubs that played funk and you had white clubs that played jazz-funk and there was very little interaction. So I just wanted to make a really hip club which played black music. It didn’t matter if you were black, white, Asian, gay, lesbian – whatever, it was a club where people could go and not get into a fight, dress how they wanted, have a good time and listen to really good quality music. Of the type which I wanted. I was a DJ at the time so I was into Northern Soul, obscure funk, Kraftwerk and it certainly wasn’t music for people who liked pop, in fact it was the complete antithesis. The records we were playing were completely unavailable to most people.
Maurice and Noah Watson were probably the first Djs most responsible for bringing Acid House to Britain. They had a night called TransLantic – I always remember because they spelt it wrong, it should have been Trans-Atlantic. Maurice, who unfortunately died since, used to live in Chicago and he brought over thre acts including Marshall Jefferson. They did their bit at The Wag on a Tuesday night at The Wag in 1987 and I paid them the almighty figure of £350 for the three of them. Hector my DJ at The Wag on Saturday he was coming back with cassettes of Jamie Principle and people like that so it went from there, really.
Then we did Love at The Wag which was the most popular and biggest house night at the club. We had Before The Sun rises. I did the allnight club which was called Afters on Kling Street and it was me playing cassettes that Hector gave us of music on the Madison Street label which was completely unavailable in Britain and that went on after The Wag. So I would start at five in the morning and would go on until two in the afternoon. In this shitty ex-prison, upstairs and not in the basement where Kling Street actually emptied, selling cheap out of date beer for very little money playing cassettes of Chicago gay music.
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Pausing for breath, Chris Sullivan is leafing through a mental notebook that includes countless nights and thousands of faces all centred on one club. Arranging a special one off line up for The Vintage Festival, curating a bill to reflect The Wag is no mean task. “Probably every DJ in London played there because it was a step up” Sullivan jokes. However he has a few words of warning for the current London club scene. “A club like The Wag wouldn’t exist now with an individual operator who didn’t do market research, who didn’t have focus groups, that didn’t play chart music. They’re very few and far between now because everyone who comes into the club game comes into it thinking that they’re going to become a millionaire. I didn’t do it because of that I did it because I just wanted a place for me and mates to go where we would dress up in the clothes we wanted to without getting into a fight, pull nice girls, have a good crack and listen to some nice music. And get free drinks!”
“I think it has a certain legacy,” he explains. “The Wag is important because it opened funk and black music to a huge, new crowd of people which still prevails. The thing is we were one of the first to do it and it’s still going on. I think it was important and people overlook it for some strange reason but it was important and it had an enormous effect on people. Also, the whole idea of ‘dance music’ didn’t exist until we started and also the idea of clubbing – which is now an actual word – that was something you did to a seal, or to someone you hated in Merthyr Tidfil. It wasn’t an activity, put it that way. We’re complicit in creating this ideology. As far as I’m concerned there’s enough people who come up to me constantly saying ‘oh The Wag was the first club I ever went to! It was amazing, it changed my life!’ That’s enough for me. I don’t need to be plastered across the front pages of magazines and newspapers. The people who know, know.”
The Vintage Festival runs between July 29th – 31st.