People’s memories of The Wag are broadly split in two. On the one hand are those decadent, fashion-minded ’80s clubbers who found a home from home in its cosy shabbiness, who treated it as their own sweaty house party, full of friends and familiar faces, who would give a nod to Winston the friendly bouncer and Ollie on the door, and slip past into a youth-cultural melange of assertive haircuts and trendy continental lagers, a musical wonderland where genres collided like a dancefloor scrapbook and new ones seemed to arrive monthly.
Pop stars, pop-stars in waiting, fashionistas, style journalists, club promoters and music biz layabouts were thick on the ground – this is back before these job descriptions were ten-a-penny – and the club, running seven days a week, was where London’s creative captains met and did their business. It was open for 19 years and for almost a decade, until acid house came along and changed the rules of engagement, the Wag was undeniably London’s hippest club, a place where Jean-Paul Gaultier might drop by or where David Bowie might conceive a video.
And on the other hand? On the other hand are all the people who couldn’t get in.
The Wag was the culmination of London’s wildly creative post-punk nightlife. The novel one-nighter formula, where independent promoters took over a venue on a quiet night, had fostered innumerable micro-scenes. The New Romantics of the Blitz, the neo-rockabillies of Dirt Box, the proto-goths of The Batcave, the Westwood pirates of The Mud Club: the early ’80s saw scores of music and fashion cults thriving under this new arrangement. At the centre of this clothes-obsessed world were two ex-punk Welshmen: shop assistant turned Visage popstar and Blitz founder Steve Strange, and St Martins graduate tailor and bombastic bon viveur Chris Sullivan. In 1982 Strange took the formula mainstream at the massive Camden Palace, while Sullivan kept things on the exclusive tip and opened the Wag.
After making a name for himself as one of the stars in the firmament that blinked and glittered at the Blitz, Sullivan had launched several wild club experiments: Hell, St Moritz, Le Kilt and Le Beat Route, this last the home of all things zooted and suited, where with fellow face Christos Tolera he’d indulged his love of Latin jazz and formed Blue Rondo a la Turk. Now he had a 400-capacity venue on a Saturday night. Together with hip hairdresser partner Ollie O’Donnell, Sullivan covered the walls with paint explosions and the Wag opened on October 7, 1982. It was an exciting time. As new styles like hip hop and house came to town, the Wag would be their showcase. As warehouse parties multiplied, The Wag became their honorary clubhouse. And with the last roll of the dice before straight clubbers took notice of Aids, it was a sexual rollercoaster.
“The Wag was one of the most debauched places I’ve ever seen,” laughs Dylan Jones, then editor of i-D. “There were drugs, over-indulgence of all sorts, and people having sex in the loos, on the dancefloor, even in the lobby. It was one of the last truly elitist West End clubs before things started opening up.”
‘It quickly became the centre of a very small world,” recalls writer and broadcaster Robert Elms, another of that inner circle of scene-makers. “It contrived to make you feel special for being in there, and it was always nicely grotty. The Wag was an unofficial members’ club.”
As a conscious reaction against the futurist synthesisers of clubs like The Blitz and Club For Heroes, at Le Beat Route Sullivan had foregrounded the funk, bringing black styles out from the soulboy trainspotter underground. The Wag followed suit, with funk and soul as the core of an avid eclecticism. His aim was to create a club that mixed the fiery dancefloor energy of soul club Crackers with the anything-goes clientele of New York’s avant garde Mudd club. “We wanted a mixed crowd of outcasts,” he said. “Ex-punks, trannies, funky rockabillys, hep-cat bikers, fetishists, gay, straight, black, white.”
The meeting point for this menagerie was 33 Wardour Street, an address soaked in history. Even in 1982 the bricks were still hot from its earlier incarnations as jazz club Whiskey A Go-Go and smoking rhythm and blues cellar The Flamingo, famous in the ’60s for its weekend all-nighters, as the birthplace of mod, and one of the very first UK clubs where black and white clubbers partied on equal terms.
It seems too much of a coincidence but Chris swears blind the name Wag wasn’t an acronymic tribute to the Whisky A Go-Go, rather a name he’d been brewing for a while. “I had previously planned a night called The Wag in Stallions in Falconberg Court, which didn’t come off. I was fond of Edwardian garb and thought Wag a good old-fashioned name for the life and soul, and a club is a place where people wag their tongues. When someone pointed out the supposed acronym, W-A-G. I felt a right twit.”
In an era where musical forms were fruiting like an over-fertilised rainforest The Wag gave a home to them all. The original DJs were soul boys Hector Heathcote and Paul Guntrip, with Steve Lewis and Jay Strongman close behind. The playlist embraced everything, ranging, as Sullivan describes it, through, “quality Larry Levan-style disco, cracking Latin and salsa, Brazilian and ’60s jazz, new US rap, Ze Records and a bit of rockabilly, reggae, lounge music and western swing.” The foundation, though, was solid ’70s funk, soon to be rechristened, rediscovered and remarketed as “rare groove”
“Loads of tunes got played first at The Wag,” beams Heathcote. “As I DJed the whole night I could pace the music; the early stuff would range from juju to Bird via the Russell Brothers. Round midight it was ‘We rap more mellow...’ then down to business with a blend of the latest twelves: killer boogie, hot New York tunes, with funk, African and jazz dancers. I even had the dread Seymour bubblin’ over the Coxsone classics.”
Sullivan expanded the Wag’s roster until there was a differently attired bash every night of the week. Tuesdays hosted designer Stephen Linard’s screamingly camp Total Fashion Victim, with DJs Jeffrey Hinton and Princess Julia mixing disco, glam rock and Judy Garland. Wednesday was hip hop night and Thursday hosted live performances, with the JB’s, The Last Poets, Was (Not Was), Lee Perry and Sade gracing the stage. Mondays became The Jazz Room with DJ Paul Murphy, regular live shows and incendiary jazz dancers doing spins, splits and somersaults. In 1985 they expanded into a Chinese gambling den and doubled the capacity, adding new nights including Norman Jay’s Shake and Fingerpop and Rene Gelston’s Black Market.
Gary Crowley, then the UK’s youngest radio DJ, with a sideline managing his girlfriend’s band Bananarama, remembers The Wag’s music in raptures. “The vibe was just so special, but the music and DJs were unbelievable. Turntable overlords like Steve ‘200mph’ Lewis, Hector, Jay Strongman and Paul Murphy. The Wag turned me on to so many classic tunes.”
If forced to pin it to one particular style, the Wag was the UK home of hip hop. It opened as the first rap records were arriving, and brought over all the big names as they hit club playlists. Right after its opening it hosted the first ever hip hop event away from New York. The Roxy Tour brought together Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and Grand Wizard Theodore, rappers The Fantastic Four, Fab 5 Freddy, Infinity Rappers and Rammellzee; as well as skipping stars The Macdonald’s Double Dutch Girls, breakdancers the Rock Steady Crew; and graffiti maestro Futura 2000.
“It was a madhouse,” remembered Sullivan. “With skipping, rapping, breaking, scratching from some 20-odd excited heads from the Bronx, all of them fighting to strut their stuff, while Futura did his live graffiti on stage asphyxiating all and sundry.” The reaction to the night showed the Wag’s strength as a cultural force – by the next week half the club had traded their ripped Levis and ’50s suits for trainers and tracksuits
Early house was part of the mix too. In 1986, when Chicago sounds were still vying with DC go-go, The Wag hosted Maurice and Noel Watson’s Transatlantic, and in ’88 there was Dave Dorrell and Rod Marsh’s pure house Friday night Love. Inevitably though, as the summer of love brought the killer combination of acid house and ecstasy to bear, the Wag lost its nightlife crown to dark caves of smoke and lasers and fields around the M25. After the ’90s dawned, apart from a brief resurgence with classic Britpop night Blow Up, The Wag would rarely trouble historians.
Though the Wag in many ways epitomised the elitism that acid house killed off, it was simultaneously the summation of a decade of fantastic style-centred creativity, which acid house, with its constant beat and shapeless sweat-wear, threw out with the bathwater. Chris has no qualms about The Wag being elitist. “The club was intended purely for our group and not for those who walked up off the street,” he insists. These were days when dressing to excess still carried a risk of being beaten up, so a tight door was the only way to guarantee sanctuary inside. “If you looked the part, no matter if you had tuppence in your pocket or two million in the bank, you’d get in,” he maintains.
Others beg to differ. “No way do you get in without knowing a cousin of a pop-star,” satirised The Face in 1983. Rapper KRS1 and his crew were famously refused entrance the night before they were due onstage there, and even had trouble getting in the night they performed. Seeing it as a symbol of ’80s consumerism, rock writer Charles Shaar Murray took extreme exception to the place. “I always associated it with that very Thatcherite London club culture and despised it.” And when old ravers reminisce about “elitist, overpriced West End clubs with dodgy door policies,” they may well name The Wag in the same sentence. Suburban clubbers like Terry Farley, who would form the vanguard of acid house, recall being called on to fill the Wag’s dancefloor when needed, but left outside on other nights. “And we couldn’t go straight from the football, we had to go home and get changed,” he moans. “I didn’t mind the clothes they were wearing in these places, but it was the inconvenience of being told what to do in your city, by people who were… Welsh.’
But none of this should detract from the club’s legacy. Though we might now see it as symbolising the end of an era, in its time The Wag was as exciting and forward-thinking as was possible, soaking up all the musical innovations on offer and squeezing them under one thundering roof. Indeed, even Farley has argued that having great clubs like The Wag was the main reason house took longer to get started in London than up north. In the same building 20 years earlier The Flamingo had started London’s love affair with black music; throughout the eighties the Wag tied the knot and brought the romance to a climax.
You can read more about the Wag and the clubs that led up to it in We Can Be Heroes: London Clubland 1976-1984 by Graham Smith and Chris Sullivan, out now from Unbound.