For many young people around the world, visiting a nightclub for the first time is a rite of passage and an initiation into adulthood.
However, it isn’t just fun, dancing and merriment that has made nightclubs such important social and cultural institutions in the modern world. In reality, nightclubs have a complex history that is filled with unexpected twists and turns.
Nowadays, we find ourselves in an era where nightclubs are ubiquitous and hyper-commercialised.
In fact, nightclubs have become such a common sight in the landscape of our nightlife that you see them cropping up in unexpected locations such as hotels and even casinos, where hourly jackpots and the whirring of a roulette wheel combine with the thumping bass of electronic music you would usually associate with nightclubs. Whilst casinos and nightclubs have not traditionally been paired together, combinations like this are increasingly common nowadays as nightclubs become ever prevalent and popular.as unique social spaces.
This was not always the case, however, and in previous decades nightclubs were very much an ‘underground’ affair.
History of nightclubs
The exact origins of nightclubs are somewhat difficult to pin down, however, and much of this difficulty is connected to how you define and characterize nightclubs to begin with.
If you define a nightclub simply as a night-time space you can visit that serves alcohol and provides you with a space to dance in, nightclubs have existed in some form for hundreds of years. On the other hand, if you define them more narrowly as spaces with dancing, alcohol, party drugs and DJs spinning electronic music, this history has much shallower roots.
Despite these difficulties, the origins of the modern nightclub are generally accepted to have roots in the ballrooms and dancehalls of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eventually, other music and dance venues emerged, such as jazz clubs, which gave these night-time spaces more of an underground edge. The next evolution of the night club came during the 1940s and 1950s as youth culture experienced a post-War explosion.
By the 1970s, discotheques — or discos as they are more popularly known — had spread across many parts of the world and increasingly replaced the more traditional dancehalls. Notably, this is also when the DJ started to become a more important figure in the nightclub world.
Technological innovations were also important in contributing to these developments, which allowed for the provision of music without the need to rely on a live band to provide the music. It also allowed nightclubs to become increasingly international spaces, with music from all over the world now possible to play without having to invite a live band.
Contemporary club culture as we know it today, however, began to emerge in earnest during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the nightclub became an important part of youth culture. This was also when nightclubs entered into the mainstream, which had both negative and positive aspects. On the one hand, the popularization of nightclubs helped to increase the number of these spaces. On the other hand, by becoming so popular, many nightclubs were stripped of their more radical or transgressive elements.
Perhaps most importantly, it was in and around the 1980s and 1990s that the classic ‘sound’ of the nightclub began to emerge. Inspired by the industrial sounds of the cities where nightclubs were often located, the music popularly played in nightclubs was uniquely reflective of the modern age.
Given the importance of the city itself in the development of nightclub culture, the sounds associated with particular nightclub ‘scenes’ were in many respects a reflection of the urban landscape they emerged from.
For example, hyper industrialized urban landscapes like Chicago and Detroit pioneered ‘House’ and ‘Techno’ music in the 1980s. With places like Berlin being an epicenter for electronic music in the decade before.
Eventually, these urban sounds made their way over to the European scene. In places like Berlin and London, the modern shape of the nightclub scene began to emerge. Berlin still maintains its status as a mecca for nightclubbing, with locations like Tresor and Berghain drawing in hundreds of thousands of music fans each year.
Other European locations also fostered their own nightclubbing scenes. Manchester in particular proved to be a hub for the aptly known ‘Club Cathedrals’ which produced some of the defining sounds of the mid-1990s, particularly from places like the Haçienda.
A confluence of political, social and cultural upheavals occurring towards the tail end of the 1980s gave rise to what has been described as the second ‘Summer of Love’ of 1988-1989. This was the peak of the countercultural side of nightclub culture, with raves taking the nightclub scene by storm. However, rave culture provoked a sharp response from authorities. Particularly because it often relied on taking over abandoned spaces and reimagining them as nightclubs.
Interestingly, this countercultural, highly politicized side to nightclub culture was eventually followed by hyper commercialization. From the late 1990s onwards, electronic music underwent a period of intense mainstream commercialization, particularly through the famous ‘Ministry of Sound’ nightclub and record label.
Commercialization led the nightclub scene to pivot from the industrialized environments of Berlin and Manchester towards Mediterranean landscapes like Ibiza. From then onwards, the nightclub scene underwent a period of slow decline to where it is today.
Between the early 2000s to today, the number of nightclub locations has fallen sharply, particularly in the UK. Despite this, a subversive side still lives on. The digital revolution brought about by the internet is reimagining the nightclub scene. What shape this will take remains to be seen, however, what is clear is that nightclubs will always move with the times.
For a more detailed history of night clubs, check out this awesome interactive feature An Incomplete History of Clubbing you can easily swipe through the evolution of the club.