The end of clubbing in King's Cross

New Year‘s Day marked a raucous last hurrah for an enclave of legendary King‘s Cross clubs. Time Out traces the turbulent history of The Cross, Canvas and The Key, looks at the future for this patch of north London, and argues that the capital‘s nightlife may never be the same again

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    Serious sixth Birthday at the Cross, 2002 © Davide Bozzetti

    It is just a workaday yard in the badlands north of King’s Cross, home to run-down Victorian warehouses, rusting gasometers, redundant railway arches and the odd pusher or prostitute, but for more than 15 years the goods yard off York Way has also been the location of some of the best nightlife in London.

    All that came to an end on January 1 when nightclubs The Cross, Canvas and The Key closed their doors for ever. This brought to an end two months of four-hanky farewells: in a business notorious for transience, it’s pretty rare to find monthly events like Renaissance, Serious, Vertigo and Space that have been in situ for a decade or more. Their passing is noteworthy.

    The world’s best DJs frequently played in these clubs and in the past few years the site has also hosted five festivals, most notably the TDK Cross Central festivals on August bank holiday weekends. Madonna made a video at Rollerdisco in Canvas, the Rolling Stones filmed there in 1996 (when it was still called Bagleys Studios) and Prince performed at a legendary after-party, but the real heroes of the King’s Cross venues weren’t rock stars but ordinary Londoners, the party-seeking punters who flocked to the brick arches of the Cross or the ‘Saturday Night Fever’-style dancefloor of The Key regardless of who was playing, because they loved the atmosphere and location.

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    Raving at Freedom, Bagleys Studios 1996 © David Swindells

    The scene had an inauspicious start. When Billy Reilly called up his old friend Johnny Pannell in 1993 and asked him to help run The Cross, he admits he ‘didn’t know Judge Jules from Judge Dredd’. Reilly had worked in King’s Cross since the early ’80s, running a road-haulage company. Bagleys had played host to its first warehouse party in 1991 when the Pussy Posse Party took over two rooms, adding huge swings, big-name DJs and mud-wrestling girls on the terrace. Reilly was intrigued.

    ‘I saw all these club kids queueing up and I thought: Yeah, I’ll have some of that, that looks like fun,’ Reilly says. He planned to open a wine bar for clubbers to drink at before going to Bagleys, but Camden Council granted a full music-and-dance licence and so The Cross became a club.

    ‘In the early days in particular we had the most beautiful people coming to the Cross,’ he says, recalling nights like Glitterati and Cheeky People, L’Amour and Milk ’n’ 2 Sugars. ‘I’d be surrounded by gorgeous girls who’d laugh at my bad jokes and tell me how wonderful I was and I’d look at them and think I’d died and gone to heaven. You’ve got to remember, one Saturday I had a garage and no one wanted to talk to me, the following week I had a club and everybody wanted to be my friend. You could make a film about it: from oily fingers and overalls, suddenly it was Patrick Cox and furry trousers.’

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    That fluffy baby-doll look at Clockwork Orange, The Cross, 1995 © David Swindells

    He admits he got ‘caught up in the whole buzz’ and nearly went off the rails himself, but recovered to double the size of The Cross to a six-arch club and in 1994 he created the garden which – with its palm trees and seats made from fairground waltzers – became one of the iconic features. ‘Billy and Johnny decorated the Cross really tastefully,’ recalls Danny Rampling in the lavish book produced to mark the first decade of The Cross. ‘It’s a warm, inviting, flower-filled space and the terrace really attracts people – it’s a bit of Ibiza in London.’

    This Balearic style and the beautiful people are two of the book’s recurring themes, along with the brilliant music, the never-ending after-parties and the sex – in the toilets, of course. Toni Tambourine, who worked the door at Glitterati and Georgie and now works for Defected Records, sums up its appeal: ‘The Hanover Grand was glam, Turnmills was innovative, The End was cutting edge, Ministry was entertaining but The Cross was all of these things with added style.’ Another Cross regular, Janine Joseph, nails it more succinctly: ‘The Cross is the only place I know where people who are seriously into their music mix seamlessly with people who are really into themselves.’

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    Mud-wrestlers at the Pussy Posse Party, Bagleys Studios, 1991 © David Swindells

    Meanwhile, for most of the ’90s, Saturdays at Bagleys was the biggest party in town, from Philip Sallon’s flamboyant Mud Club in the early part of the decade to Freedom, which took over from 1996 and for five years united house, UK garage, trance, hard house and big beats (remember them?). Raves dominated the programming on other nights, but Bagleys wasn’t always run with the same effectiveness as The Cross, and there was trouble on the door and inside the club, including a dancefloor shooting incident. Eventually, the landlords lost their patience and asked Reilly to take over. In the summer of 2003 he renamed the club Canvas (‘because it was a blank canvas for people’s ideas’) and launched The Key as a cutting-edge dance club. All three venues thrived.

    Despite its success, though, the threat of closure has always hung over the site, because ‘even 25 years ago we always knew there would be a development,’ says Reilly. The largest urban regeneration in Europe is underway on the three clubs’ doorsteps, but the buildings they occupied will not be bulldozed to make way for offices or flats. ‘The whole area, the arches, Bagleys, and the former granary above is going to be taken over by University of the Arts London, which is really appropriate as that will bring young creative people into King’s Cross again,’ says Reilly. ‘I’d like to think it’s going to be a hybrid of Shoreditch and Covent Garden rather than end up being Tobacco Dock.’

    Reilly loves the area so much that he’s already planning to open a new club in 2010. ‘It’s actually in my will that when I die I’ll be cremated and the ashes will be scattered around King’s Cross. There’s nowhere else like it in London, and there never will be. I don’t want to be anywhere else.’

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