Writing Out of Space

Out Of Space: How UK Cities Shaped Rave Culture by Jim Ottewill is a book that journeys through the different UK towns and cities club culture has found a home. From Glasgow to Margate via Manchester, Sheffield and unlikely dance music meccas such as Coalville and Todmorden, it maps where electronic music has thrived, and where it might be headed next. In this blog post, the author reveals the book’s origins and what to expect when we publish it in July.

In the mid-2000s, London and Sheffield felt like two different dimensions. I came to South Yorkshire to study in 2003. Back then, rent was low, you knew your neighbours and there was a tight yet welcoming electronic music scene where it seemed as if anyone could make stuff happen.

For the four of us who bonded over ‘Northern Electronic’, Tiefschwarz and The Neptunes, there wasn’t a club night playing what we wanted to hear. So we started one (called Rough Disko). We invited Canadian electroclash act Crystal Castles to come to Sheffield via MySpace and they stayed on a mattress in our front room, watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo and chain-smoked Marlboro Reds.

We DJed with Gabe from The Rapture at Bungalows and Bears on a random New Year and booked a fledgling Arctic Monkeys for one of their early gigs in front of 50 people at the Grapes pub. We lost money, got pissed and stayed up until morning – it was great shits and giggles.

By contrast, on moving to London in 2007, I came face-to-face with a sprawling, belching metropolis, bursting at the seams with people and completely alien to ‘the village’ feel of Sheffield. It meant unaffordable property, crap wages and myriad different music scenes which were challenging to feel a part of or even get a handle on.

Some of the frictions I experienced as a twentysomething in terms of living, music and space ran throughout the time I spent in east and north London and have ended up as a focal point for Out of Space. During those first few years in the capital, our social circle would be out all the time around Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. You’d be in a different basement every weekend without giving too much of a shit where you were as long as you could get in and the music was mind-blowing.

Then, around 2015, the narrative changed, in part due to the release of a shocking set of statistics from Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. The stark realisation that these spaces weren’t getting replenished was localised through threats to the nearby Joiners Arms in Hackney.

When this boozer and notorious queer space on Hackney Road came at risk from property developers, our mates started rallying around. With the crisis experienced by Fabric also making huge headlines, debates around the future of the nightclub started in earnest and their plight felt very real.

Ever since, development driving the gentrification of our towns and cities has been front and centre of dialogue around clubs, with their existence tied to urban hubs like never before. At the time, I was writing for PRS for Music and dance music publications such as Mixmag, Resident Advisor and FACT. It was this cocktail of experiences that sparked the first ideas surrounding this book.

I then left London in 2019, flitted between various places from Scotland, Merseyside and the US, witnessing how, although there was more room for them to exist, nightclubs were struggling to retain their presence in other towns and cities. And it’s an ongoing challenge. Just this week, Liverpool has seen the loss of two brilliant venues – Williamson Tunnels and Grand Central Hall.

Out of Space is a mixture of personal stories and interviews with those who have helped breathe life into life after dark across the UK. It’s an attempt to unpick the relationship between space and club sound, how that has evolved and why it’s important. The experiences I’ve had in clubs – from Optimo in Glasgow to the Electric Chair in Manchester, DJ Harvey in Tulum or The Bug in Sheffield – have helped me find myself and in some ways, this is almost a love letter to them.

As I started speaking to promoters and DJs, Covid-19 hit in effect shutting down nightlife – which has made many of the questions I’ve looked to answer in Out of Space even more pertinent. Namely, what does the future of our nightclubs look like? And where will they be? Will club culture still exist for future generations?

At the time of writing, the nightlife is still fighting to return post-Covid and assert itself in a very different entertainment landscape to the one we previously knew. And our towns and cities are still trying to work out what their future looks like too in the wake of the pandemic.

Although these two narratives are still unravelling, I hope Out of Space brings them both together, to offer a moment to pause and reflect on where club culture has been, where it’s at and where it might be heading next…