Chris Sullivan: “The Wag wasn't a new romantic haven; it catered to a gang of non-conformists”

The Soho club’s founder remembers his nightspot before it returns for one night only

Thirty years ago, the Wag Club moved from being a weekly London club night to a fully fledged seven-nights-a-week venue. For us, who used to run parties in disused warehouses on zero budgets, this was a mighty step. We had come of age, and all those who would make London such a creative hub converged under its roof and made it more than the sum of its parts. A club is only as good as those who attend.

In 1979, most places wouldn’t let me and my friends in. If they did, we’d always get in a fight. Being a club promoter and manager was never a career move and I never set out to make money out of it. I was happy to see my friends enjoy themselves trouble-free while I could sip free drinks and choose the music. We’d found a niche, first Billy’s and then the Blitz, but soon felt the wind of change. With Robert Elms, Steve Mahoney and Graham Smith, I started a Monday club night at the St Moritz, a basement under a Swiss restaurant in Soho. In May 1980, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan, of Blitz fame, offered me a partnership in their twice- weekly spot, Hell. I DJ’d a mixed bag of funk, Latin and rockabilly until it closed after an outbreak of LSD. Then came my band, Blue Rondo a la Turk.

By 1982 I realised the time was nigh for something new. The Wag came about after I’d been doing the door at Le Beat Route on Ollie O’Donnell and Steve Mahoney’s landmark Friday night. We heard that Whisky a’GoGo was looking to fill a Saturday night. We met the new proprietors Tom McCabe and Andre Abbey and sat amongst the club’s four customers on plastic pub garden chairs. The carpets were so sticky they’d whip your Weejuns off, the toilets were positively Elizabethan and the bouncers were mostly thugs. Still, we were all over it like a rash.

The idea behind the club was simple enough. Although influenced by New York’s Mudd Club and Les Bains Douches in Paris, and my favourite 1970s soul clubs – Crackers in Wardour Street and the Lacy Lady in Ilford – the Wag was unique. We wanted ex-punks, trannies, funky rockabillies, hepcat bikers, fetishists, gay and straight, black and white. I got in touch with my old northern soul DJ cohorts Paul Guntrip, who did the funk room at the Yate all-dayers, and Hector Heathcote, who span the tunes after Blue Rondo’s gigs. The result was the finest selection of music I’ve ever heard – Latin and Afro alongside the rarest 1970s funk.

We kicked off in October 1982. The queue was 200 yards long and people turned up an hour before opening. The club had a capacity of 400 and the faithful regulars, dressed up to the nines, were my main priority. If you looked the part, no matter if you had 2p or £2 million, you were allowed in. The venue’s owners offered us a partnership and a profit share, and we insisted on a refurb. Most clubs back then were black holes with disco lights, so we covered the walls in cubist and fauvist murals and created our own 1960s-style furniture. We re-opened in April 1983 and, with the paint still wet, had to stump up an extra few grand to replace the customers’ ruined clothes.

The weekly line-up went like this: Monday was the Jazz Room with DJ Paul Murphy playing heavy bebop and Latin; Tuesday was Total Fashion Victim, the forerunner to Taboo; Wednesday was Paul Guntrip’s Heavy Duty with hip hop acts from New York; on Thursday I would book bands drawn from our crowd, such as Sade and The Pogues as well as the likes of Desmond Dekker, The Last Poets, Slim Gaillard, Les McCann, Mark Murphy and the JBs – because no one else was booking them; for Friday, promoter Rene Gelston followed a rare groove theme; on Saturday Hector pushed a more disco/Paradise Garage vibe that was later honed by Fat Tony, who pulled in Tim Simenon from Bomb the Bass to DJ and attracted a camper crowd.

By April 1985, when we opened the second floor, we had truly made our mark. Spandau Ballet, Madness, Culture Club, The Specials and Ultravox were all part of our scene. Yet still we played underground tunes with not the slightest nod to commerciality.

Keeping it busy for 18 years was hard work. Luckily, Tom McCabe had every faith in me even when I was hanging by a thread. We were the first club in the UK to do hip hop, rare groove, house, mod jazz, jump’n’jive and bhangra. We had tea dances, live graffiti nights featuring Goldie, meat raffles, film screenings, tranny soirees and northern soul all-nighters. We didn’t consult marketing twats and we definitely did not have a VIP area. We did not ring up paps when the famous bowled up and no cameras were allowed in the club. If you weren’t a regular, no matter how rich or famous you were, there was no guarantee of entrance.

Finally, to put the record straight, the Wag was not a New Romantic haven. It was a club that catered to an ever-growing gang of non-conformists primarily obsessed by underground black music. It was all about being yourself and not following fashion. There simply wasn’t any other option.