Crackers 1976: daytime soul sessions in London
‘1976, that legendary summer just heating up, we were on our way to small, hardcore clubs in Soho and Covent Garden. Two or three times a week heading into town, unknowingly beginning the process of trendification which would alter the fortunes of inner London. Dedicated groups of young, overdressed soul-searchers headed through the often deserted streets of an unloved and unlovely city as the daytime temperatures kept climbing and the air became dense with heat and expectation. The Lyceum on a Monday night, Sombreros in Kensington on Thursdays: the Global Village, where Heaven now is, on Fridays, the 100 Club on Oxford Street on Saturdays. Most notable and most potent of them all was Crackers on Dean Street, on the edge of Soho itself and at the very centre of a world.
Crackers, little more than another dodgy disco to look at, was one of the most influential venues of any year, and by late 1975, into the fabled summer of ’76, it was at the core of this still largely secretive inner London scene. We, for me, meant two or three of the boys from Burnt Oak, who had really got into it and wanted to push on. And as soon as you got to places like Crackers, where the best dancers were, the most righteous young black kiddies from Tottenham and Brixton, the best-looking girls, the most knowledgeable music buffs, the most daring dressers, you just knew you were in the inner sanctum.
The licensing laws at the time were so puritanical and arcane that this small gay club had to provide food. So all punters were handed a slice of Mother’s Pride and spam as they entered and you could see these sandwiches littered round the dance floor at the end of the night.
Amazingly the hottest session at Crackers was on Friday afternoon, twelve until two-thirty. This was a direct revival of an old sixties tradition, when Friday lunch-hour had been a prime-time slot at Tiles, a late mod club. The idea was that nobody does too much work on Friday afternoons anyway, so who’s going to notice if somebody is not at their desk or behind the counter for a couple of hours, and they’re dancing or preening instead. Indeed half the crowd at Crackers on Friday were in their work-wear, office suits with the ties tucked in the pocket, hairdressers’ smocks or even schoolboy blazers abandoned at the door. Others who somehow had avoided the pressure to work or study, and could make a performance of it, were attired to the nines. A young crowd, predominantly aged from sixteen to twenty-one, gathered from all corners of London to duck into this doorway amid the tacky shops and kiosks of the wrong end of Oxford Street, down the stairs and into a packed, darkened room, pounding with tough, black American tunes and throbbing with that almost tangible confidence which says this is the place to be.
The dance floor itself, a small sprung wooden square, was strictly for dancers, and by that I mean dancers. Anyone who ventured on to the square at Crackers had to have steps, and the bottle to produce them under the gaze of the unforgiving throng. Some of the top guys at Crackers are legendary still: Horace, Tommy Mac, Jaba, and the daddy of them all, Clive Clark, a charming black guy who went on to become a professional choreographer, but started out scorching the opposition on Friday afternoons in Dean Street. When these boys were on the floor, a circle would form to give them an amphitheatre in which to perform. They would then pull out moves and steps with a wickedly competitive edge, legs flying like lasers, some new twist or turn eliciting spontaneous applause from the closely watching circle. Unlike northern soul, with its dervish spins and flailing kicks, its wild amphetamine abandon, the southern style was tight and precise: feet made rapid tap movements, knees were bent, hips sashayed, shoulders rolled, heads bobbed. The whole effect was somewhere between boxing and bopping. And if you couldn’t cut it, you didn’t go anywhere near the floor. Around the square stood contenders and pretenders, who rated their chances but hadn’t yet stepped into the ring. Some enrolled themselves at Pineapple, the dance studio which had recently opened up round the corner in Covent Garden. They pulled on sweat-tops and legwarmers to learn moves from ballet, jazz and tap, provoking the craze for dancewear which would result in dodgy thick socks around ankles a few years later. Others simply spent hours on council estate carpets, honing their footwork, their dips and turns while avoiding the furniture.
Behind the dancers, at the bar, at the back, the rest of the club grooved and swayed, perpetual motion. My place, as a young suburban boy, was way at the back, bobbing and watching and noting and loving every super-saturated, hyped-up little minute of it. And then, come half two, the last strains of Dexter Wansel or Charles Earland still swirling around your brain, it was out. Blinking against the light, the sweat freezing on your face as you hit cool air, into the rushing maelstrom of Oxford Street.
Leg it over the road to Hanway Street, a charismatic, piss-smelling dogleg alley, where up the stairs of an unmarked doorway was Contempo. Contempo Records was the epicentre of the London black music world in 1976, entirely contained in a room about eight feet square above a Spanish bar with an Irish name, in a forgotten street. On Friday afternoons it was the only place to buy the records the DJs had been spinning over the road at Crackers. So punters literally queued up the stairs, shouting out names of songs and artists, or listening intently to the sides which had arrived in crates from the States that day, deciding whether that was the one to invest in’.