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Epiphanies – Plato’s Ballroom

Mr Pickwick’s was a Liverpool legend, even long before the handful of wet Wednesdays when it would transform into Plato’s Ballroom. A city centre chicken-in-a-basket dive beside a deserted car park no man’s land, it once aspired to supper club classiness: the kind of place that inspired Tony Hatch to write Downtown. By 1981, however, its pseudo-Dickensian interior was reduced to hosting midweek grab-a-granny nights. In the most densely populated clubland in Europe, there were a million nitespots like this – provided that insurance job fires hadn’t claimed them first.
The one thing Mr Pickwick’s had going for it was its semi-circular dancefloor, the biggest in town. A raised platform around its rim allowed diners – squeezed into kiddie-size tables with fringe shaded lamps casting an unhealthy yellow hue – enough distance to focus on the stage without their mastications being disturbed. Top light entertainment for all. Even so, nobody danced.
Plato’s Ballroom announced itself via a series of classicist, self-consciously highbrow silkscreen posters plastered around the hip end of town. Beneath the list of group names, it also announced that there would be 'Films/Performance', and something called a 'Videoteque'. Intriguing.
Of course, I really went for New Order. It was the former Joy Division’s first proper Liverpool date since Ian Curtis’s suicide the previous summer. That’s what pulled the punters in early to watch a performance art piece in which the protagonist methodically broke out of a coffin-sized box on that big old dancefloor while a tape loop relayed that he was “in a box… and I’m angry”.There was a poet too, and as the groups played, arty films like Un Chien Andalou and Eraserhead flickered monochrome shapes across them.

With our Belsen haircuts and utility garb, we devotees were suitably reverent to a pre-luv’d up New Order, but there was something else going on too, a sensory overload suggesting possibilities beyond mere music. It was exhilarating, mind-expanding and like nothing I’d experienced before.I wanted more.When A Cer tain Ratio, then at their most exploratory, post-New York percussive peak, played a fortnight later, the accompaniment consisted of a Wild West show, complete with lassos, knife-throwing and glamorous assistants. More performance art, involving teabags, paint and a bucket of water followed. Kenneth Anger films thrust devils and angels in our faces; jailed sailors straight out of Jean Genet extravagantly tossed themselves off.
Over the next month, The Durutti Column followed; then Cabaret Voltaire, still a trio in the thick of their classic Rough Trade period, played against a backdrop of Nosferatu. Astonishingly, the ticket was a xeroxed A6 booklet containing photographs of naked men astride motorbikes. This typified Plato’s Ballroom’s provocative libertine spirit, where, beyond the night’s main event, audiences could be confounded by acts eccentric, experimental and often ad hoc. Ludus, Eric Random, Jell, Think Of The Winter, Windows, Alvin The Aardvark And The Fuzzy Ants, Rat Tat Tat Tat; all of them kicked against the pricks of the encroaching musical orthodoxy springing up on their own doorstep. Plato’s arty, Manchester bias cocked a snook at the rockist cartoon psychedelia spawned in Eric’s, Liverpool’s already famous punk club. Local heroes, who needed them?
There were only three records I remember ever being played in Plato’s: the striving white funk of Manicured Noise’s Faith, The Pop Group’s terrifying She Is Beyond Good And Evil, and, crucially, The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel. The latter, with its quickfire slicing and dicing of Blondie, Chic and, fuck, Queen, sounded like nothing on ear th. No wonder no one danced.
Yet, for underage thrillseekers like me, with ideas above their station and a sense of austerity chic solitude gleaned from Penguin Modern Classics, it was an underground wonderland reeking of Weimar decadence and higher knowledge that only the most illicit exchanges make real. Now here I was, on the periphery, but undoubtedly in.
Plato’s Ballroom was run by a bunch of chancers calling themselves the Situationalist Youth Collective. This was primarily Nathan McGough and Arthur McDonald, who played in The Royal Family And The Poor, and released a single, Art on 45, on Factory Records. The idea was to take art out of the galleries and into a club environment, while of fering more interesting groups a platform beyond the pub toilet circuit. Détournement by any other name. Like ACR, McGough had just returned from New York, and, judging by the quotations on the Plato’s tickets that became works of ar t in themselves, he was clued into Guy Debord and Joseph Beuys, whose picture turned up on Plato’s posters.
Four shows were planned. As it was, there ended up being ten nights spaced out over a year. Only Throbbing Gristle, the ultimate Plato’s Ballroom bill-toppers, never happened. They fell apart before they could make it. Jah Wobble’s then nameless post-PiL band with drummer Jim Walker – later KeRang, then The Human Condition – debuted instead. Thirst-era Clock DVA played shor tly before splitting in two. Finally, Royal Family And the Poor themselves headlined to a near empty room. The group played on, but the films stopped. So did the art. The Videoteque? Never happened.
By summertime, the spectacle moved onto the streets for real, and what became known as the Toxteth riots changed ever ything. Over at Plato’s, Orange Juice’s fizzy pop moved in to provide the only fun in town. ACR played again in September. They brought a dance troupe called The Jazz Defektors. Somehow, it was nice to see the dancefloor used at last in the way it was intended.
A year later, just up the motor way, the Hacienda opened in Manchester. McGough decamped with it. For a while, nobody danced there either. Then McGough ended up looking after a ramshackle bunch of indie tearaways called Happy Mondays, who put smiles back on everybody’s faces. 23 years on, punk-funk is all the rage. Records by ACR and The Pop Group are the soundtrack in Glasgow’s Optimo club, as well as at the Dffnt Drm night at an Edinburgh club called, of all things, Cabaret Voltaire. Both acts that are on are so 1981 it hurts. 

Meanwhile, this year I was at Dundee Contemporar y Arts, watching Liverpool based sound ar tist Philip Jeck manipulate an array of antique turntables in the cacophony of sound and vision that is the Kill Your Timid Notion festival. The next day, hunched over laptops, Christian Fennesz’s Phonographics improvised a score to Gustav Deutsch’s Film Ist, an archival cut-up of 20th century manners projected in separate streams on all four walls. A couple of weeks later I’m in an upstairs studio for Flourish, a Sunday night Glasgow happening organised by artist Lucy McKenzie. Onstage, Linder Sterling, formerly of Ludus, is warbling scat snatches of 'Misty' in a collage of rap, transistor radio dial tones and random noises off. We’ve just watched a film and a retro-styled slideshow of stiff-backed modern romance. It’s art. An event. Top entertainment for all. Nobody dances, and it may not be Mr Pickwick’s, but it’s a perfect spectacle anyway.

The Wire, issue 245, July 2004

ends

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