WHIRL-Y-GIG, a unique and historic clubbing experience. Part one of two
November 3, 2018
I first visited Whirl-y-gig in the late 1980s with my dear friend Nick. We lived in the Seven Sisters area of North London at the time and had only recently moved to the capital.
Nick and I were definitely of a similar mindset in those days and were searching for something a little different from the horrible Stock, Aitken and Waterman disco music of that period. We had always had a more eclectic taste in music, artists like the Doors, Nick Drake, Tom Waits and Fella Kuti are examples of some of the stuff we liked to listen to.
Coming from Brighton, the capital of small venue live music, we had got into a lot of music from all over the world and we were searching for a kind of nightclub that played a more grown-up, out-there kind of sound.
Yes, Thats actually me in the green check coat.
Even in those days, I was a bit of a colourful character and wanted to go somewhere where I felt comfortable and could express myself.
Me in the fur coat, I was a little crazy in those days.
Saying that, I still am today.
In those days before the internet, we found out about events and places to go through Time Out magazine. One day we came across Whirl-y-gig and our lives were about to change.
“Whirl-Y-Gig is the longest-running world music dance club in London, England. It was set up by Ros Madden as an experiment of the Association of Humanistic Psychology in 1981, who passed it on to the capable hands of DJ Monkey Pilot four years later. Ros Madden died on 20 October 2011 in Luton. Monkey Pilot plays a wide range of music in the club, primarily world music/dance music fusions, but also many other genres. Whirl-Y-Gig is hailed as one of the central venues for people from London’s alternative community.”
“Whirl-Y-Gig also appears at festivals, showing both live bands, who are mixed on the spot by DJ Monkey Pilot, or DJ sessions. They appear at such festivals as Beautiful Days, the Whitby Musicport Festival and the Sunrise Celebration. They have also appeared at the short-lived Canterbury Fayre and also at Womad Reading. They also run their own record label called Whirl-Y-Music and have organised their own festival, the Whirl-Y-Fayre, which first took place in August 2013, and has taken place every August since.
Whirl-Y-Gig’s have featured artists such as Banco De Gaia, System 7, Dreadzone, Australasia, Eat Static, Loop Guru, Baka Beyond, Transglobal Underground, Another Green World and Kamel Nitrate.”
So, you can imagine our joy at finding such a place. Our first experience was mind-blowing. The people there were all dressed like crazy new age hippies, the music was from all over the world, everything from African drummers, Indian traditional music to British folk music. We danced all night and I fell in love with the place.
We quickly made friends there and met up with them each week. We also became friends with the managers/DJ and many of the staff. We started to meet outside of the club at bars and festivals and had the odd Whirl-y-gig party at our flat. Monkey Pilot the organiser and DJ soon took me under his wing and offered me the role of balloon man. One of the main events each week was that in the middle of the night’s partying a huge painted parachute was drawn over the crowd and everyone would then sit on the floor. Then, to ambient sounds and psychedelic lighting, balloons would tumble onto the parachute creating a magical and mystical experience.
My job, for a princely sum of £10, was to blow up the balloons and distribute them to the crowd prior to the parachute descending. The parachute moment still takes place at the club today.
There used to be someone at the door to the club who did face painting and as part of my persona I had my face painted every week and became famous in the club as the balloon man.
When I arrived people at the club would say ‘hey, its the Balloon Man!” Of course, I loved it and played my role well.
I stopped going as I got older, that was over 20 years ago and a lot has changed since then in my life, as the pages of this blog have explained.
But one thing has remained:
Whirl-y-gig is still going after 30 years:
They now have their own website and this is what they are saying today:
Celebrating over 30 years of exceptional clubbing
“Whirl-Y-Gig embodies the spirit of community in a carnival atmosphere. Bathed in rainbow rippling lights and wrapped in exotic décor, it is a spectacular festival of delights for people of all ages and places.
Celebrating over 30 years of exceptional clubbing and currently based in Hackney Wick, Whirl-Y-Gig is a shining beacon in the alternative London club scene.”
“Dance to the Whirl-Y-Beat and journey on a fairy-tale voyage through Whirl-Y-Gig’s unique electronic landscape with the omnipresent DJ Monkey Pilot as your guide, where many diverse elements blend into one cohesive and unifying experience.
From deep dubstep to funky drum & bass, tropical house and tribal beats, glitch-hop and uplifting trance, Psybient to psytrance, the Whirl-Y-Mix embraces hints and flavours of Celtic or global, classical or psychedelic, rock and pop, roots and radical. Whether it be African or European, Arabic or Asian, Whirl-Y-Gig finds inspiration from around the world.”
A melting pot of creativity
“The regular crowd of Whirlygiggers are warm and welcoming and the stewarding is professional, friendly and caring. From the moment you walk through the doors through to the legendary parachute that culminates the night, Whirl-Y-Gig is a bubble of positivity and a melting pot of creativity where one can escape the burdens and prejudices of day to day life.”
A moment difficult to miss
“Whirl-Y-Gig is an event difficult to describe and a moment difficult to miss. With a strong and loving life force, the Whirl-Y-Sound is a musical heartbeat for a future global family.”
Vice.com wrote a piece on their website about Whirl-y-gig’s 30th anniversary.
Why I Felt Loved at Whirl-y-Gig, London’s Longest-Running Club Night
“Remembering the club that began in 1981 as a collaboration with the Association of Humanistic Psychology to encourage “anyone who enjoys dance as a means of self-expression”.
“Can you imagine being stone-cold sober, taking a sharp turn off a road in central London, walking into a full club, tossing your top to the ground and telling a room full of people that you’ve met a handful of times that you love them? Not in the disingenuous way you might tell your flatmate you love them when they unexpectedly bring home a two-pack of Rolo yoghurts on a Sunday night, but in a manner of genuine warmth and magnetism. If you can, you’ve probably been to Whirl-y-Gig, the longest-running club night in London.”
“If you’ve never heard of the club, that’s probably because that’s the way they want it. Their website looks as if it’s been designed on an Amiga. You can count the amount of interviews they’ve done in the past twenty years on one hand, and they’re not expecting a Time Out piece to bring the Thursday night crowd anytime soon. They prefer to shut out the noise from the outside, operating on a culture of: if you stumble upon Whirl-y-Gig, you were supposed to.”
“Whirl-y–Gig is certainly an anomaly in British clubbing. It began in 1981 as a collaboration with the Association of Humanistic Psychology to encourage “anyone who enjoys dance as a means of self-expression”. The organisers have always refused any venue security and instead opted for volunteers. As well as a bar, there’s a stall for chai drinks and organic cakes. Until very recently, it was a totally all-ages event, which meant parents often went there with their kids, and pensionable ravers would dance with teenagers who showed up because it was one of the only places they could go. It’s normally held at community spaces covered in cloths and lights so you feel like you’re in Ravi Shankar’s man cave. Unlike any other club in Britain, you really could show up on your own and have a good time. From the second you arrive, everyone welcomes you into the night.”
“Here’s a parable that best explains it. This guy Jack in his Lacoste polo shirt and uncomfortable facepaint looking like he went to Glastonbury with nothing but a condom and a bank card, thinking it would basically be like a bigger Tiger Tiger. His friend recommended Whirl-y-Gig to him, so he went along for the ride.”
“Jack suggests that that night alone inspired him to “change myself and become a better person. Whirly changed my life. I first went in 2012 at a stage in my life where I was depressed, lonely and very insecure. I was failing at uni and lived away from my family and friends. The people I have met at Whirly over the last four years have become integral parts of my life to the point where I can’t imagine life without them. It has this quality that just brings people together, there’s a mutual respect and a genuine sense of togetherness that I haven’t felt anywhere else”
“I ask a cavalcade of Whirl-y-Gig loyalists to describe their feelings about it and get much the same response. A man in his sixties describes how “Whirly changed [his] life, and continues to do so”. One of their assistant lighting engineers was brought there from the age of two by her parents, who met there. Now seventeen, she thanks it for making her a more “open-minded, accepting person”. A lady named Emma, who has been going for five years, told me she met her husband at a Whirl-y-Gig and was encouraged to start taking photos – she’s now a freelance photographer and a few months pregnant.”
“The intense atmosphere, the diverse clientele, that constant intimacy and openness – this is the way that Whirl-y-Gig has been since its inception in the 1980s.”
“Aloof co-organiser DJ Monkey Pilot (above) is a genuine progressive. He’s a man who’s probably responsible for Ali Farka Toure or Baaba Maal being heard by the white English middle classes for the first time in clubs. “The music was much more open than the house scene that was going on at the same time in the 1990s. They were bridging musical divides, but still aiming it at the dance floor,” Tim Whelan, of experimentalists Transglobal Underground, long-time associates and performers at Whirl-y-Gig, tells me.”
“Every month, Monkey Pilot will, in his own words, “disappear for five or more long and lovely days every month to prepare for his eight-hour set”. What he emerges with is as precarious and eclectic as you’d imagine: Celtic tonality, deep house movements, tribalistic fervour. The night has been through the trance movement, the rave scene, breakbeat, drum N bass, Balkan beats, an in each case their alternative brand of psychedelia has evolved in conjunction with the alternative dance world, keeping the night bizarrely relevant.”
And so, after all these years, I have bought a ticket to Whirl-y-gig for its next outing in London in December. I am really looking forward to returning to this amazing place and seeing how I feel about it all these years later.
I will bring you part two of this post about Whirl-y-gig after I have returned to the place that filled me with such joy all those years ago. I will tell you all about my experience of rekindling an old friendship with such a wonderful place.
Events List Navigation
Whirl-y-Gig Global Disco 8th December 2018
“Autumn Street Studios is a warehouse space in Hackney Wick, very close to Pudding Mill Lane tube station. Recently refurbished and provided with L-Acoustics audio systems, this space is now home of Bloc warehouse events: here’s where you can rave until the early hours, enjoying underground electronic, house, garage and disco with a top quality sound system. One of the bigger clubs in Hackney, you’ll find ravers and electronic lovers alike flocking to Autumn Street Studios.” (DesignMyNight) Now renamed simply as BLOC, this space provides the perfect blank canvas for Whirly-Gig’s unique colourful and friendly environment.”
And Nick, if you are reading this, why don’t you come along for the ride as well…