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Golden - Stoke on Trent - Profile

Since its Balearic origins in Stoke, Golden has trademarked the Northern Good Night Out. They’ve just celebrated their Fifth Birthday with Allister Whitehead and Afrika Bambaataa. And they’ve even made Manchester safe for clubbing again. This is how they did it.  It’s one of those disorientating experiences; the lights off, arms and heads looming out of the smoke, loud, fast house music switching on the neurons in your brain like a Christmas tree. By the DJ box, sweated up, lost in the music, a very tall 23 year old is having the time of his life, locked in to the DJ (Sasha, arguably at his peak), watching his every move. This is Shelley’s, it’s 1990 and Sasha’s admirer is the man behind Golden, the other superclub that gets so little attention but is currently giving Cream a run for their money in the North. “Without Shelley’s,” reckons Jon Hill, “there certainly would have been no Golden.”

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It is a common enough tale in clubland, the magical moment that has gone on to inspire so much more. Plenty of DJs and promoters can tell you how, for example, Mike Pickering at The Hacienda had a similar effect on them. Hill’s experience in that mad, wonderful club does however seem to have been overwhelming in its intensity.

A Manchester University English graduate, Hill found himself back in his native Stoke-On-Trent at the beginning of the 90s working behind a record shop counter by day and in clubbing heaven by night. The up-for-it 051 in Liverpool, Balearic clubs like Most Excellent and Spacefunk in Manchester and the exotic glamour of Venus in Nottingham. Clubs that have undoubtedly influenced Golden but none as much as the intensity of those nights in Shelley’s. Even now, at 31 and with most of his peers more interested in kids and mortgages than what Tall Paul is playing, Hill can look you in the eye and tell you he’d still rather be out clubbing, Golden or no Golden.

“You’ve got to accept this is what you’re probably cut out to do. I always thought I wouldn’t be doing this when I’m 30 but now I can’t see why I won’t be when I’m 40,” he says in his serious way, giving you the impression that he’s thought long and hard about it and decided yes, finally, this is his destiny.

Tonight there’s the kind of electric excitement that only comes from great expectation. That feeling when you’ve stayed in all last week, waiting for now. Eleven o’clock, and Golden’s doors are already closed; one of those occasions when if enough people think it’s going to be special, it actually will be special. £15 for a hot sweat-drenching Fifth Birthday experience with Dave Seaman and Allister Whitehead downstairs, and a more chilled funky anything-goes session with Afrika Bambaataa and Kelvin Andrews upstairs.

In the main room, Seaman stands raised behind his decks centre stage, the focal point, hundreds of arms aloft for his smooth, silky trance thing; the passion and energy soaking the air. Further away, down the long tunnel-shaped space, an older, more dressed-up crowd hangs around the bar, chatting, dancing, hanging out in the place to be. Outside in the courtyard a handful take in the chill Manchester air. Upstairs there’s a more diverse group, like some sort of utopian Benetton advert, with young dreads hanging out with student girls in combats and suited hipsters doing the do with happy things in bikini tops. The soundtrack weaving from Underworld to groovy 70s funk.

You can see then how every bit of the club works, how each section complements the other. The upstairs acting as a chill-out room for those wanting respite from the thrashing downstairs but also as a gentle warm-up for those too cool to just dive straight into the sweat pit below. You can see how carefully it’s all been worked out. There’s an effortless professionalism here, so good that you don’t notice it at first, perhaps as measure to how well the machine is oiled, but look closely and you’ll see how everything has been considered, dealt with. Free water, friendly but no-to-be-fucked-with security, careful DJ planning, getting that musical peak timed just right, little things like enough people behind the bar, proper toilets. And all of it in that unassuming, unpretentious way of Golden’s; the Great Northern Night Out rather than marketing fanfares for some cigarette-sponsored club tour.

As Cream honcho Darren Hughes puts it, “Golden is a club walking the tightrope of educating and entertaining its crowd to the correct level.” Nor is this some backhanded compliment from the North’s premier club. Hughes is happy to acknowledge that “the parallels between Cream and Golden are stronger than between Cream and other clubs.” Cream in Liverpool, Golden in Manchester. Both have succeeded in cities where so many others have failed; offering the Big Night Out clubbing experience in a safe and exciting environment.

Cream has put Liverpool on the map and Golden, even after all The Hacienda’s problems, has put Manchester, the original home of house, back in the game. “Two years ago people were frightened to go out in Manchester,” reckons Judge Jules who DJs at least once a month at the club’s Sankey Soap home, “Golden has rescued it.” And somehow succeeded in destroying the city’s Gunchester image with a club free of the city’s previously moodiness.

Not that Golden is pretending to be anything more than it is; a right good night out. It’s a simple philosophy even hinted at in the imagery of the club’s flyers and adverts; bold Pop Art shapes and colours that simply look good, nothing more. Bright colours, round shapes, friendly, happy.

But if Jon Hill has assembled the necessary ingredients for the Great Northern House Night Out it is still nothing without people. And the Golden experience is very much about the clubbers. The right clubbers. Just look at this reader’s letter (see below), one of many, for evidence. Golden have got it right.

1995 was the year British clubbing went ballistic. All the big name clubs like Cream and Renaissance and The Ministry could do no wrong that year. People from all over the country finally got the bug and it was, in absence of any great competition, the superclubs who reeled them in. Now, however, every town in Britain can boast a half-decent night.

To stay ahead now the big clubs have to consistently deliver the goods; big name DJs aren’t always enough. Not that it’s doom and gloom, more a question of some very healthy competition. You can’t just book the DJs and open your doors anymore.

It is in this climate that Golden is currently booming. Since Summer last year, when everyone had finally got used to there once again being a safe and friendly club in Manchester, Golden has been packed. Since Christmas only two weeks haven’t been sold out and the club is now at least offering an alternative to Cream’s Northern supremacy. It’s a remarkable success being achieved by what seems, on paper at least, a rather unremarkable club. Golden long ago locked in to that commercial house sound that so many pundits are currently hurrying to write off in favour of drum n’bass, speed garage or whatever else. Even Hill is prepared to admit: “We’re not groundbreaking in what we do DJ-wise, we’ve never pushed back any barriers.”

Which is where all the criticism comes in; mainstream Northern house clubs discredited as mere “Ritzys for the 90s.” You’ve heard it. Clubs that play safe, just care about making money, don’t care about the music. Clubs tarred, just like Jeremy Healy has been as a DJ, as cheesy money-making machines. And Hill is noticeably quick to defend Healy as unfairly vilified. “He’s never missed a gig.” He claims. Yet despite all this, Golden is rammed every week. By people who are just as passionate about clubbing as anyone else, who have spend good money and travelled often hefty distances to get there. When clubs all over the country are falling over themselves to try something new – residents, big beats, anything – how come Golden is cleaning up with a house formula that’s not changed in years?

“We’ve always had a certain something.” Reckons Hill. “We’ve always had ingredient ‘X’ which has made Golden a success. A friendly up-for-it atmosphere. We seem to be everyone’s favourite venue for a birthday party of hen night.”

And what is mystery ingredient ‘X’? Probably nothing more complex than a club run by nice, up-for-it clubbers for nice, up-for-it clubbers. A safe, well-run environment where you can go and enjoy all that loud dance music and the clubbing experience had to offer. Golden is proof that giving people what they want is the shortest route to success. It ain’t rocket science but what Golden has realised is that many clubbers don’t want challenging line-ups or complicated residency programmes. They want big name commercial house DJs who know how to play music that will maximise their enjoyment of a Big Night Out, and everything that entails. Even today Golden attracts 50% of its clubbers from outside Manchester, they know what they want and they know where to find it.

Judge Jules reckons this travelling contingent is what makes the club so special. “It’s what makes a superclub.” he says, “people travelling. And Golden atmosphere-wise will match any club and better most.”

Jon Hill likens Golden and 90s commercial house music to the Northern Soul phenomenon of the 70s. “I never went to Wigan Casino or The Twisted Wheel,” he admits, “but I know a lot of people who did and a lot of them didn’t go to buy rare 7” records. They went for the experience, the all-night dancing and whatever else and I can see great parallels with commercial house music. It’s very working class; it’s all about hedonism. It’s not about connecting with the black urban underground of America, it’s about losing yourself on the weekend because you’ve got a terrible job.”

Of course, there are those who do get off on connecting with the black urban underground of America and who do care incredibly passionately about dance music. The question that Golden has answered so very successfully is; do you want those people moping around your club at one in the morning when your head has just exploded?

That’s a no.

Sitting in his home-y, stripped-floor front room in Stoke, Hill also willing to concede that this is business we’re talking about now. Dance music may have been born in a warehouse with two Technics and a bag of pills but when a club is entertaining thousands of people and pulling in a couple of million pounds a year it is time to accept that the romance of the in-it-for-the-love-of-it promoter needs to end.

“You get to the point where you have to make up your mind whether you’re going to treat it as a business or you’re not and a lot of promoters don’t,” reckons Hill. “A lot of promoters came and went but the ones who are still here who were here five years ago, will be here in five years’ time. I don’t enjoy seeing my solicitor or my accountant and doing my VAT returns but you’ve got to treat it as a business.”

The key moment in Golden’s evolution probably came right at its peak. The day it became a business. January 1993 and The Academy was rammed for its opening night with Sister Sledge due to perform the club’s very own anthem, ‘We Are Family’. DJ Kelvin Andrews had been ending the night for a year with the record and here was the band themselves to perform it. It was mayhem.

Until then, as Andrews remembers, “Golden was really an anything-goes party thing. I’d take people into the groove and then play something ridiculous and people would go crazy.” But at that very moment, right at the peak of that original Balearic lunacy was probably when Golden became a business. Hill looking out over the beast they had created and realising it could never last. And so, perhaps never consciously, gently easing the more eclectic anything-goes musical policy into the new second room while the main room became more and more focused on the commercial house sound. Balearic had peaked, not it was time to focus on giving people something more professional, more focused. The classic great Northern Night Out.

And unlike many other promoters Hill, albeit, he says out of laziness, has never got side-tracked into CDs and merchandising and all the rest that super clubbing is supposed to mean in 1997. “Instead of imagining themselves as Plc, they’ve concentrated on putting on very good club nights,” explains Jules.

Taking care of business now permeates Golden’s culture. It’s not just about VAT returns, it’s all about being a promoter.   People like Dave Beer, Charlie Chester, Darren Hughes are some of clubland’s greatest characters, their charm and hustle helping build the massive scene that we have now. It’s a kind of magical role to play; on one hand you are master of all you survey, this is your club, you’re the boss and yet modern clubbing requires that generally you spend all night making sure everyone else is having a great time, making your DJs, your guests, your clubbers feel important. Against this backdrop, Hill is widely-regarded as a notoriously good promoter. He is, even Cream’s Darren Hughes will concede, “a good bloke.” Professional, the good host.

“Jon knows what he’s doing,” says Judge Jules. “He’s totally professional but he’s also very laidback; there’s no airs and graces to him. He’s still there for the fun of it but it’s business at the same time.”

“DJs say to me,” says Hill, “I can’t believe you waited for me, nobody else waits for DJs outside.” And I say, “What else should I do? Sit in the office watching Match Of The Day?”

It’s details like this that have enabled Golden to consistently attract the big name DJs; people who now don’t have to spin anywhere they don’t want to. Not that this is just mechanical, cynical business. “Over the last five years,” insists Hill, “they’ve become friends more than DJs.” This is business as in mates from work, just that the mates from work happen to be Dave Seaman, Allister Whitehead and Jeremy Healy and they can all fill your club.

Hill, of course, has also been professional enough to pick up on the rapidly-rising crop of faster, harder house DJs. “Luke Neville, Sonique, Seb Fontaine, Tall Paul, Tony De Vit: it’s about building new relationships; finding out what they’re about, what they like and making sure that their every need is catered for in the club and that’s what we’re doing at the moment,” he explains.

Some promoters build their clubs around their own image (the incredible achievements of Dave Beer at Back To Basics spring to mind). Others probably start off for the money, the perceived glamour but fade away daunted by the demands of keeping a club full week in week out. There are some turned on by the music, their fate often frustrated by pushing clubbers too soon, too hard in directions that they won’t want to go just yet. The most successful promoters all however, seem to have the same clarity of vision and iron resolve to deliver it. They’re in it for the love of it but they care enough to want to do it better than anyone else.

And so, whatever the intensity of Hill’s experience in Shelley’s, what has really made Golden is the club’s determination to provide, every week, the Great Northern Night Out. And don’t underestimate Hill’s toughness under that charming host routine of his. “I’m a control freak,” he admits, “perhaps a bit of a megalomaniac.”

The focus of that determination remains undimmed even after five years. “I can remember when I was a punter and I know what it was like,” says Hill. “We treat our customers like we would like to be treated. When they’re going made and it comes to six o’clock and you’re getting rounds of applause and shouts for an encore, that is a massive, massive buzz for me.”

Thoughts of a fan

I first discovered a Golden glow had spread itself across Manchester in April of last year. Until then I had been clubbing in a number of places; Angels, Legends, Cream, Hacienda, Wigan Pier, as my tastes are varied.

My first experience of Golden was Pete Tong and Jon Dasilva and the Essential Mix live. It was the first time in a long history of clubbing that I had felt totally at ease, where I could forget about everything and be one with the people around me. I had found a place where people remembered the most important rule of all….be free to do as you choose.

Over the last year I have introduced many of my friends to Golden and have never heard a bad word said. I still do my clubbing elsewhere, but when I look for inspiration I look towards Golden.    Annon, Lancs

 

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