A chance encounter with a gangster drug dealer led to…
Crossrail may bring slicker public transport to London, but it’s decimated parts of Soho, including the legendary Denmark Street and venues such as The Astoria. That place was full of cultural memories, says Stewart Who?
My first jaunt to The Astoria was in ’86 for Delirium, a style conscious explosion of hip-hop, funk, rare groove and alien sounding Chicago House. The look was Levi 501s, MA1 flying jackets, DMs, bolero suit jackets and all sorts of polo necks.
At that time, the venue still hadn’t shaken off its theatrical past and was a palace of glamorous decay. Red and gold flock wallpaper peeled from the walls like flayed flesh, while dusty chandeliers shivered to the basslines.
Grand and dramatic
Consequent refurbs stripped the old girl of her luvvy past, but back then, at Delirium, it felt like ravers had been let loose in a theatre. At about 2am, the music stopped and the club filled with the deafening whir of helicopter propellers. Wind machines blew ciggie butts, Rizla papers and decades of dust into our slickly gelled hair dos (Brylcream/Black & White pomade were big).
A screen descended on the stage, showing that scene from Apocalypse Now where Playboy bunnies are airlifted into the US base at Hau Phat to entertain the sex-starved, drug-crazed troops.
As the scene played on the giant screen, rope ladders descended from the ceiling of The Astoria. Swinging from the ladders were real girls in hot pants gyrating above the heads of the astounded clubbers. It was the first time I’d seen full-on ‘production’ in a nightclub. It blew my mind.
A few years later (4 June, 1988), Nicky Holloway opened Trip at The Astoria, which became an acid-house Mecca. Slightly less exclusive than Shoom or Future, it was populated by what the credible ravers called Acid Teds- working class nutters in smiley t-shirts and bandanas.
It was a very, very deranged and utterly fantastic. When the messy but happy punters spilled onto Charing Cross Road at the end of the night, the commotion would often cause a traffic jam.
The party faithful weren’t averse to dancing on the rooftops of the stationary cars. If you didn’t end up raving in the fountains outside Centrepoint, then you obviously weren’t into the spirit of the night.
You’d see people soaked to the skin at the nightbus bus stop. It was hard not to grin at each other, bonded by MDMA. It was a cheering thrill to share a messy moment with a fellow dripping Tripper.
The Joseph effect
The promoter Jeremy Joseph gave the venue a new lease of life when he took over hosting G.A.Y. at The Astoria. I was regularly at the club taking snaps and interviewing acts for QX magazine.
Boyzone, Human League, Gina G, 5ive, Steps, Gabrielle, Margarita Pracatan, S Club 7, Marc Almond, Madonna and Bananarama are just a few of the acts that performed for the screaming gay audiences.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see that pivotal Nirvana concert at the Astoria, nor (despite my efforts) the Rolling Stones gig. However, I was there when Faithless sent the place crazy, just before they became a massive stadium act.
Skunk and moshing
Cypress Hill impressed me when they got the whole place moshing and bouncing in a thick fug of skunk smoke. In 1996, Paul O’Grady was at the height of his Lily Savage fame and about to do a sell-out season in Blackpool with Sonia.
We were backstage at G.A.Y. being quite badly behaved when Paul came out with the immortal line,
“If I’m gonna snort ground glass, I want to at least know which light bulb it came from.”
In 2005, Robbie Williams staged his first UK gig at the Astoria, following his scene stealing set at Live8. People queued outside for days to secure a ticket and they were soon selling for thousands on the black market.
Thanks to Charlie Condue, not only did I wing a ticket, but went for drinks beforehand with Robbie’s mother Jan, comic David Walliams, Denise Van Outen and Johnny Vaughan. That proved quite surreal, but the gig itself was outstanding.
Like a stand up comic, Robbie cracked jokes and chatted between songs. He did loads of unexpected cover versions and brought the house down with ‘Angels’. I tried not to cry during that song ‘cause it felt really lame to do it in the company of my newfound celebrity friends, but I blubbed all the same.
Jan Williams gave me a sympathetic smile, while Charlie called me a ‘weeping twat’. It was one of the best nights out….ever. So, it’s with a heavy heart that I wave goodbye to The Astoria. From gurning at Trip to sobbing with Robbie, that filthy fleapit gave me heaps of pleasure. R.I.P.