BILLY’S CLUB by CHRIS SULLIVAN

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Steve Strange and Chris Sullivan – Pic Graham Smith

Billy’s

Initially, a rather seedy gay club frequented by
rough lesbians and even rougher trannies, the club
came to the attention of a rather more stylish
clientele after David Bowie played Earls Court in
June May 1978. Much like the Sapphic Soho club
Louise’s that famously became a home for
disenfranchised punks, after the gig no other place
would let this crowd of Bowie-loving former punks
in. Subsequently, Billy’s became a habit, a
watchword for the uber-hep night birds who knew
of this smelly dive down a hooker-infested back
street in Soho.

It was owned by a 300-pound six-foot-four black
convicted pimp named Vince who sported a huge
black fedora, a long leather coat, and fingers the
size of sausages with enough diamond rings to
give Imelda Marcos cause for concern. And lest we
forget, in those days Soho was not full of posh
restaurants and membership clubs; it was a vice-
infested square mile that housed a red light above
every door and on every floor. To be sure, every
single street fielded a bevy of saucy
establishments (including some 164 licensed
premises) which worked the sex industries hard –
sex shops, dominatrix studios, brothels, strip clubs
– all sandwiched between family run Italian delis,
neighbourhood cafés and shops, as well as
nightspots and shady after-hours drinking dens full
of gangsters, transvestites and miscreants.  Soho
was definitely mad, could be bad and at times was
certainly dangerous, and Billy’s was slap bang  in
the middle – a ganglion of  nocturnal naughtiness.
Yet,   without a doubt no-one of merit was banging
down the club’s door asking to do a night there.

‘Steve Strange used to take me to all these odd
clubs, like Billy’s, that were empty in the week,’
recalls DJ/producer Rusty Egan, ‘So I suggested to
Steve that we do a night and invite all the Bromley
contingent and all the punks that don’t go out on the
weekend for fear of getting beaten up, and all the
others we knew, and get them all together on one
night.’

Strange and Egan had seen one nighters like the
Monday night Vortex Club in Crackers work a treat
so, seeing a huge gap in the market, approached
Vince. He was all ears

‘We now had the venue,’ reflects Egan. ‘And, as I
had a great record collection I decided to DJ and
play Lou Reed and Bowie and what I considered to
be great music. We called it Bowie night and I
asked David Claridge, the puppeteer who had his
hand up Roland Rat [he’s also the man behind
S&M organisation Skin 2] to DJ, because we
wanted to play stuff you couldn’t hear anywhere
else. He collected obscure Bowie bootlegs such
as Bowie with Bing Crosby singing ‘Little Drummer
Boy’. At the time all the clubs and the radio played
disco and pop and so we were almost immediately
successful.’

A tiny club that you accessed via a staircase with
the till at the bottom, it opened out into a dance
floor in front of you, a few booths to the right and a
long bar to the left. There was no real décor; it was
purely a mish-mash of shit. Mismatched tables and
chairs . A tiny broken toilet with a door that didn’t
shut. No toilet paper, no soap and the carpets did
such a good job of sticking to your shoes that slip-
on loafers were a no-no. Indeed watching novices
walk on with just one shoe the other stuck to the
floor provided most with considerable
entertainment . You wouldn’t get away with it today.
Not a chance. But it wasn’t about decor or hygiene;
Billy’s was about the people and the music. And
there was nowhere else like it on earth.

Consequently, the Tuesday nights were soon
chocka with Bowie fans and Roxy fans and
Kraftwerk fans and fashion students and artists and
chancers – all grooving to Rusty and Claridge’s
inimitable DJ sets, which might feature Giorgio
Moroder’s ‘The Chase’, Donna Summer’s, ‘I Feel
Love’, Grace Jones’ ‘La Vie En Rose’ and The
Captain Scarlet theme. Most were doing the
signature dance that, reminiscent of the ’70s hustle
– but far edgier, robotic and angular – actually
entailed human contact like a pointed jive.  As for
the prevailing style of dress it was all rather
random. Some went for an almost toy soldier look,
with sashes, gold braid and diamante, while many
of the girls certainly wouldn’t have looked out of
place as backing singers with Roxy Music circa ’
76: opting for pill box hats, veils gloves and pencil
skirts. Others such as Andy Polaris went for a
double-breasted Demob suit, some such as yours
truly, gave their old Let It Rock pink peg trousers an
airing teamed with a Breton fisherman’s t-shirt.
Daniel James regularly turned up dressed as
Captain Scarlet, while Viv Westwood’s bondage
suits and sloganeering t-shirts made a comeback
minus the safety pins and punk accoutrements.
Indeed, it was such a small crowd that one might
recall most of them individually, and curiously, also
what they wore.

‘At the beginning in 1978 there was only 150
people from the whole of London who had the
sense to find the club and get what we were doing,’
relates Egan. ‘And I bet you could almost name all
of that original 150.’

Pop stars, actors and celeb hairdressers
subsequently popped in, begged, borrowed and
battered down the doors to see what the fuss was
all about, and soon, even though Strange rigorously
vetted the crowd, the club was overwhelmed – the
sweat dripping off both foreheads and walls.

After just three months the club shut down and
Strange and Egan moved the night, and its patrons
to The Blitz, and the rest as folk are inclined to say,
is history.

‘We moved because there were people getting in
– pimps and prostitutes, friends of Vince, the
owner – who were just there to gawp at us,’ chides
Strange. ‘After a while we felt like we were in a
goldfish bowl.’

‘I thought we moved because once we were a
success Vince wanted to double the price of drinks
and admission,’ adds Egan. ‘But it really was not
about money so we went to Brendan at the Blitz
and we kept entry at a pound. But I knew a girl
called Mitzu [who later overdosed and died at the
Warren St squat] who was dating Vince and she
warned me that he had asked a couple of heavy
black thugs to “Give me a message,” and I should
watch my back. So I got my dole cheque and
disappeared to Düsseldorf and Berlin. Where I
discovered Nina Hagen, Neu and all that.’

Billy’s itself, under the guidance of Vince and
manager Mick Collins, continued to thrive even
though, until the club’s demise in the early
noughties, they never changed either carpet or
refurbished the foul toilets, although they did
change the name to Gossips. It was always a pit,
but for many that really didn’t matter.

In 1979 Gaz Mayall opened his landmark one-
nighter Gaz’s Rocking’ Blues there. Emanating
from his stall in Kensington Market its soundtrack
included class reggae, ska, jump and blues. Perry
Haines with his i-D night was next off the grid,
bringing the world ‘100mph dance music’. Joe
Hagan and Christian Cotteril put on an evening
devoted to Ghanaian music, while fetish and S&M
nights came and went as fast as their punters. And
then there was upstairs, the legendary Gargoyle
Club, which in the ’80s played host to Goth
epicentre The Batcave, London’s first hip hop club
The Language Lab, and the birthplace of
alternative comedy, The Comedy Store.

Of course the aptly numbered site on 69 Dean
Street and Meard Street was always an address of
repute. King Charles II kept his mistress Nell
Gwynne in a house on this space while The
Gargoyle was created in 1925 by society big-wig
David Tennant (the brother of Stephen the
notoriously fey inspiration for Sebastian Flyte in
Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited) and could boast
painters Matisse, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud
as a members. It is where Tallulah Bankhead
snorted charlie with Noel Coward and where spies
Tim Burgess and Donald Maclean met in secret.
And it is in its smelly, sweaty, dank, grimy
basement where our story really begins.

CHRIS SULLIVAN from THE BOOK ‘WE CAN BE HEROES’

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