In a sticky-floored pub basement in London’s West End, the Heavenly Sunday Social club night gave birth to an entire genre. The author of a new book on the label talks us through the chaos
If you’ve ever heard about the Heavenly Sunday Social and wondered what it was like, there’s an easy way to recreate the feeling of being there. Think of it as a musical TARDIS or a sonic expressway to your skull.
Clear eight minutes from your busy schedule and get a good pair of headphones, the kind that cover your ears. Cue up the Leftfield remix of Renegade Soundwave’s self-titled 1994 single on your preferred format. Set the volume as loud as you can stand. Press play.
Close your eyes and let the music consume you. Let every shuddering acid riff and metronomic bass drum thud drill deep inside your mind. Fixate on the only words spoken in the track, two phrases that seem to say it all: “The house was shaking / The walls vibrating.” Don’t be tempted to stop the music or try to do anything else while it’s playing. Ride the track for as long as it lasts, don’t check your phone and don’t operate heavy machinery. The effect will be to knock you off your axis, to leave you disorientated, dizzy, euphoric, breathless.
That one piece of musical time travel is all it takes. It was one of The Dust Brothers’ peak-time tracks at every Heavenly Sunday Social. Whenever the club’s resident DJs played it, usually around an hour before the lights went up, it felt like the dancefloor had fallen into a washing machine and the spin cycle had started. Everybody lost control. To quote another of the club’s anthems, the ultimate paean to dislocation: “Lay down all thoughts / Surrender to the void.”
When I started working as a press officer at Heavenly in January 1994, the label was pretty much dormant after a distribution deal with Columbia had finished. Most of the records I worked were by out-of-house artists – the first two were Underworld’s epochal ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ and Primal Scream’s hugely contentious ‘Screamadelica’ follow-up, ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’. One of them was a dream gig, at least.
At 23 years old, I was lucky enough to be at that glorious point in life where the brain is like a radio antenna, a receiver for music at every waking minute, with one ever-growing playlist setting you up for the rest of your life. Nowhere else in London broadcast sounds like the Heavenly office on Wardour Street. The music never stopped and people who passed through the doors never stopped talking about it.
As well as being a label and a press office, Heavenly also managed artists. Alongside Andrew Weatherall and David Holmes were a pair of young DJs who’d just moved down to London from Manchester after finishing their medieval history degrees. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, aka The Dust Brothers, later The Chemical Brothers, had released a couple of records for JBO, a reissue of their self-funded debut ‘Song To The Siren’ and the ‘Fourteenth Century Sky’ EP, the original home of their timeless acid break, ‘Chemical Beats’.
Tom and Ed were the same age as me. We got on brilliantly. At weekends, I started going to some of the backroom clubs they played in. At that point, most clubs were a lot less interesting than they had been in the immediate aftermath of acid house. Wherever you went, you brushed up against tribes. You’d be expected to dress and act a certain way to get past the person on the door. Randomness was out. Things were often a bit boring.
That wasn’t the case when The Dust Brothers played. Their DJ sets always seemed to be in direct contrast to the main room. It was usually a crazed mix of hip hop, techno and rock ’n’ roll, music more akin to the kind of records people played for fun, rather than because they demonstrated technical proficiency. The result was a mass of bodies chucking themselves into a sweaty pit in the middle of the floor. By going home time, everyone was covered in bruises and amyl burns.
A few days after one of their Saturday night sets – possibly under an alcove in Gossips, maybe in the back of a rotten club on Kensington High Street where Boy George headlined the main room – I went into the Heavenly office and suggested to my bosses, Jeff Barrett and Martin Kelly, that we start a club and we make The Dust Brothers the resident DJs. The idea was for it to be held on a Sunday night so it didn’t impact on gigs elsewhere that might actually pay them something. And it would be fully crazy, every week.
After some initial reluctance, they agreed. Martin suggested the venue, a West End pub basement that had sticky carpets, a broken clock on the wall, and an Aussie landlord who thought we were taking the piss when we said we expected to get 50 people in on a Sunday night. Jeff suggested the name, the Sunday Social, which sounded utilitarian and sturdy, like something you might find in a British Legion in the South Wales Valleys.
The summer we opened at The Albany in Great Portland Street, a stone’s throw from Broadcasting House, it was pretty much fever pitch for 90s rock music. Oasis were still pure, untapped potential, with ‘Definitely Maybe’ just around the corner, Blur’s ‘Girls & Boys’ was ubiquitous, the long-awaited second Stone Roses album was due any day now, and the Scream were headlining Reading Festival. As far as I was concerned, dance music was Weatherall’s techno dungeon Sabresonic, the occasional Underworld show at Megadog (these were the days before live dance music was big business and the Megadog guys were the only promoters brave enough to take the risk), and Richie Hawtin banging out ‘Spastik’ for 30 minutes non-stop at Ministry.
Little did we know that our basement smash-up would somehow straddle both those worlds.
When writing an oral history of the Social for a chapter in my new book, ‘…Believe In Magic. Heavenly Recordings, The First 30 Years’, I asked Ed Simons what he remembered about the first few weeks of the club.
“The first one was pretty quiet,” he says. “There were maybe 50 people, mostly people we knew. The second week, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs from Saint Etienne played, and it was roadblocked. The third week, I remember I’d had a big night and I had to pull myself together to get down there. I ended up arriving pretty late and there was a queue right around the block. People were desperate to get in.
“We put together a set of records that we stuck to quite closely every week – the kind of hodgepodge of instrumental hip hop and rare groove bits that we picked up in Eastern Bloc in Manchester. We were playing pretty mad records like ‘Dead Homiez’ by Supersuckers, ‘Lobotomie’ by Emmanuel Top, Sly & Robbie’s ‘Boops’ and The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, as well as a load of our own stuff. We were pretty proud of the music we were playing as it was completely different to everything else out there.”
The Sunday Social was planned as a four-week stint. We had proper jobs after all, ones that required a modicum of sanity on a Monday morning. After the second week, the run was quickly extended indefinitely. It eventually ran for 13 weeks and stopped when it got unmanageably busy.
Each week, Tom and Ed picked up the reins from guest DJs such as Saint Etienne, Justin Robertson, Kris Needs, Rocky & Diesel, Tim Burgess and Ashley Beedle. The guests were encouraged to avoid Saturday-night-out bangers and bring their favourite records, especially ones they couldn’t normally play out. It resulted in Andy Weatherall spinning The Clash and a lot of early Mo’ Wax, while David Holmes dusted off the northern soul seven-inch singles he used to play in mod clubs before acid house broke.
“What was really special was that each warm-up DJ had a different take on things,” recalls Sean Rowley, the man inspired to start the ‘All Back To Mine’ series after frequenting the club. “Even if it didn’t quite work, you didn’t mind that you’d got there early because you knew you were about to be delivered the goods by Tom and Ed. The guests were like support bands. Some were fantastic, some weren’t quite right, but no one cared. You arrived early and hung in there.”
The Sunday Social even had an in-house “newspaper”, The Broadsheet, a printed A4 newsletter hastily scrabbled together on the Friday before the club. It acted as a repository of charts from DJs and recollections of what had happened the week before. It even featured an ongoing soap opera.
The same mass of bodies who had frequented those early Dust Brothers gigs turned up week after week. Their friends became our friends and a community grew. As the word spread outside of our friendship group, like-minded musicians started to show an interest.
Oasis turned up but didn’t bother coming in, Mani arrived straight after mastering ‘Second Coming’, and Norman Cook regularly made the trip from Brighton with Beats International singer Lindy Layton. Paul Weller stood at the bar drinking pints and Tricky was refused entry by our doorman for looking like “a wrong ’un”. When the coast was clear, I snuck him in the back door and he came back every week afterwards. We asked him to play warm-up for Tom and Ed on the last night. We had 300 people crammed into a room that held 150 that night, with 700 left outside.
It couldn’t go on. But actually it did.
Over the next few years, the big beat sound pioneered at the Sunday Social seemed to be everywhere. At the beginning of 1995, The Dust Brothers became The Chemical Brothers after receiving a stern letter from the US producers they’d borrowed the name from when starting out DJing in Manchester. A few months later, they signed to Virgin, took the sound they’d honed at The Albany, and hit the Top 10 with their debut album, ‘Exit Planet Dust’.
One of the many highlights of the album, the closer ‘Alive Alone’ featured a vocal from Beth Orton, a friend we’d made at The Albany. She could regularly be found teetering on the bar top at the end of the night as she danced to Tom and Ed’s set. As she recalls, “Nobody really cared though, no one was going to kick you out… for any reason”. Beth soon signed to Heavenly and forged her own distinctive path, fusing traditional folk to blissed-out electronics.
Tim Burgess, another regular on the floor at the Social, was booked to DJ about two months in, although nerves forced him to hide on the actual night. Crouched down behind the decks, he passed seven-inch singles to his then girlfriend Chloe. By that time, he’d already recorded the vocal for ‘Life Is Sweet’, the second Top 40 single from ‘Exit Planet Dust’. And although fellow Mancunians Oasis never ventured downstairs to the club, Noel Gallagher struck up a relationship with Tom and Ed. Their first collaboration, ‘Setting Sun’, was the Chem’s first Number One single in October 1996, despite sounding like “the most experimental and sonically extreme hit of the 90s” according to The Guardian. The Chemical Brothers would also support Oasis at one of their incomprehensibly vast Knebworth gigs, possibly the only time their live show has been performed in daylight.
Throughout clubland, the back room became the main dancefloor and the Social’s collision of instrumental hip hop, techno, soul, dub, heavy acid and the occasional well-timed rock record was the universal soundtrack. Our friends in the north Johnno and Paul (who were behind Jockey Slut magazine) launched their always fantastic Bugged Out nights in Manchester, bringing Tom and Ed back to the city where they’d first made their mark. Down on the south coast, Norman Cook (retiring a football team’s worth of aliases) began releasing music as Fatboy Slim and started a residency at Brighton’s Big Beat Boutique.
If the Sunday Social was the ignition, the Big Beat Boutique was a foot placed hard on the accelerator. As rowdy and rammed as our club, by accident or design, it gave a burgeoning genre a name, a badge to pin on it, a categorisation for record shops to file under. Clubs blew up from Birmingham to Bristol and way beyond, while labels like Skint and Wall Of Sound (both started by Sunday Social regulars) managed to capture the frenetic energy of those nights.
The Social returned properly in the spring of 1996, following a short stint the previous autumn in a cellar below a wine bar in Smithfield. It was here that Daft Punk played their first ever UK DJ gig and Joe Strummer turned up with a gaggle of young children. Taking place directly before Trade at Turnmills, London’s only 24-hour licensed club, this version of the Social was huge – Saturday night in a multi-roomed venue that required numerous residents to back up Tom and Ed, whose touring schedule now saw them out of the country for half of the year.
Step forward Jon Carter and Richard Fearless, two very different DJs whose music and lifestyles embodied the cyclone spirit of the club. That night ran for three years without incident, barring the time we managed to flood the entire venue, thanks to Fearless deciding that the perfect way to calm the over-enthusiastic upstairs dancefloor was to play the full 12 minutes of Flowered Up’s ‘Weekender’. The inevitable result was 20 people swinging off a mains water pipe, the contents of which cascaded through the club’s three floors. Incredibly, the place was fixed up and dried out by the time Trade started 90 minutes later.
The Social is now a bar in central London. Opened in 1999, it has been our home for gigs, club nights, literary readings and assorted mad ideas. As well as appearances from The Chemical Brothers and Norman Cook, the club has witnessed Andrew Weatherall playing ambient electronics and rock ’n’ roll singles (not on the same night), Aphex Twin doing an Italo disco set, Beck performing an acoustic show, Jarvis Cocker sharing a stage with Edna O’Brien, Four Tet spinning spiritual jazz, and Usain Bolt turning up for the regular Hip Hop Karaoke night.
Although the physical space has been temporarily shuttered since the first Covid lockdown, The Social has moved online in something of the spirit of the original club – specifically the re-emergence of the weekly newsletter.
The Social Gathering was born out of a desire to keep conversations going in a time of social distancing. Seven months later, there are still daily posts and the bar itself opens up virtually on Twitter every night at 6pm, so that people can share playlists as they crack their first drink of the day.
For some it has been invaluable, a nightly meeting place for friends stuck in isolation, just like a good bar or a good club should be. Best of all, no one on the other side of the internet can tell if you’ve plugged in, cranked the headphones up to full, and shut your eyes to surrender to the void in the comfort of your own front room.
‘…Believe In Magic. Heavenly Recordings, The First 30 Years’, by Robin Turner and designed by Paul Kelly, is published by White Rabbit