Saturday October 17, 11 p.m.
Oliver Bourke is ready to go. He has a toothbrush, hair gel and sunglasses in his jute bag.
“Unusual nights demand unusual measures,” he says. The 25-year-old graphic designer is here to party. For 30 hours. Because London’s biggest and best underground house and techno club, Fabric, is marking its 15th anniversary with a huge party stretching over three days.
Bourke has been standing in a line way longer than a football field for an hour. “I’ve been coming here since I was 18. The DJs at Fabric have taught me everything I know about music,” he says. “And today 20 of the best DJs in the world are playing: Ricardo Villalobos, Seth Troxler, Craig Richards …”
On the facade of a three-story Victorian brick building are heavy, metal double doors with the Fabric logo above and a barrier in front. The people with tickets are on the right. Those on the guest list huddle over to the left, as do those who think they are on it. “Here!” Four people holler at a dainty young woman with glittery makeup. She is Jo Neill, 25, an architect from Monday to Friday, but on Saturday she guards the door to party heaven.
“Sorry, you’re not on the list.”
“But … Seth Troxler promised me …”
“Sorry, darling, please join the other queue.”
On a normal night there are 300 people on Neill’s list. Today it’s 842. Once you get past Neill, you have to go through a metal detector, then be frisked by the huge bouncer and have your bag checked: “OK, in you go.”
Sunday, October 18, 12:14 a.m.
The club is nicknamed the labyrinth and for good reason. Three underground dance floors are linked via two broad brick stairwells. They are the club’s main arteries. Elsewhere, there are gallerias, bars, toilets and enough staircases and narrow passages to get lost in. There are no signs anywhere. “Room 3? Go left here, then right, then up the stairs. OK?”
Keith Reilly is propping up the bar in Room 3. The man who runs Fabric has short hair and is wearing a black T-shirt. He smiles when asked about October 19, 1999. “That first night was chaos. We still had no electricity just three hours before we were due to open with 3,000 people outside,” says the 55-year-old. “At the end of the night we realized that nobody knew how to lock up the club. We had to leave people here overnight, sitting with the money, because we didn’t know how to set the alarm.”
Reilly’s idea back then was to organize a club run by music lovers for music lovers. “A place where clubgoers wouldn’t be judged because of what they were wearing,” he explains. “In the early 1990s, there were practically only posh clubs in London playing cheesy handbag house. If you wanted to do something more interesting musically back then, you’d be promoting your party in a room above a fish-and-chip shop in Hounslow.”
Since then, more than 4,000 artists have appeared at some 2,600 events and about 5.5 million people have danced at the former meat cold-storage unit. They are expecting 8,500 on this birthday night alone.
DJ Magazine voted Fabric the best club in the world in 2007 and 2008. The secret of its success is authenticity. “The Guettas and Aviciis of this world don’t perform at our place. We’ve turned down about $25 million worth of offers over the years. We only book DJs who have vision and passion,” says Reilly.
Room 1 is the center of this party temple. Its bare brick walls reach 30 feet into the air. Fat metal pipes run along the ceiling. Green laser beams cut through the screen of fog. The decks are barely raised off the floor and are surrounded by a metal fence about 6 feet high. You can hardly see the DJ, and that’s deliberate, because the music takes the spotlight here, and it comes belting from every angle down onto hundreds of people from four huge speakers hanging on the walls. The floor has 400 sensors that turn sound waves into vibrations. The bass throbs so hard that your knees shudder while you dance.
A beefy security guy watches over the metal door by the cash machine. Only those wearing a gold-colored plastic bangle with “rock star” written on it can get past. This is the green room, where the important people hang out. Or the people who think they’re important. There must be 40 A-listers in a small red room about 160 square feet. It’s hot and sticky. The little fan in the corner is hopelessly out of its depth.
Normski is one true rock star among those wearing rock-star bangles. He has a gray beard, gravelly voice and glittering eyes. There is always someone tapping him on the shoulder or hugging him. Normski taught many of the people here about house music. In the late 1980s, he hosted British TV’s first ever dance-music TV program, Dance Energy. The veteran partygoer’s self-assured motto is, “I don’t need nightlife. Nightlife needs me.” He has been a regular at Fabric for 15 years.
“The place has hardly changed on the outside,” he says, “but that’s fine. People come for the music, to see the Champions League of the DJ world perform. I have met DJs throughout the whole world, humongous DJs, megastars. And if you say to them, where would you most like to play, every one of them will tell you: Fabric.”
Super Mario’s hipster younger brother comes backstage: Seth Troxler has curly hair, a mustache, love handles. “Seth! Seth!” Two women fling themselves around his neck to say hello. The American DJ looks exhausted, even though his set is due to start in an hour. How do you plan for a gig at 10:30 in the morning? Do you go to bed the night before or stay up all night? “The latter. I’ve come straight from the airport. A couple of hours ago I was still performing at ADE festival in Amsterdam.”
According to the schedule, Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock should have wound down about two hours ago. The two regular DJs from Berlin’s legendary club Berghain have been sweating away at the decks in Room 2 for 11 hours now. They finally play “Idioteque” by Radiohead to bring their set to an end. Dettmann looks remarkably fresh as he steps away from the console. “The first three hours dragged a bit, but then time flew by,” he says. Was that the longest set of his career? “No. I once did 16 hours in a row at Berghain.” Nor is this the end of his working week. In three hours’ time he flies to Amsterdam for his next gig.
Half-time. That’s 15 hours of partying done. Time to take a breather. Three young women do yoga on the leather futons next to Room 2. In Room 1, a group of young men are curled up by the wall like embryos, their legs scrunched up and their heads between their knees. One of them is Oliver Bourke. Above his stubble, his eyes are red and shrunken. He doesn’t need to tell anyone he forgot to pack deodorant. He is determined to soldier on. “Two hundred thousand bass drum beats,” he mumbles. “I worked it out. Thirty hours of techno and house. That’s about 200,000 bass drum beats. I don’t want to miss a single one.”
How do you keep your energy up at a marathon party without leaving? There is a pizza van in the smoking area. A chef with a twirly mustache has made about 100 pies in the last four hours. The bestseller so far is the Smoky Seth, which comes with pulled BBQ pork and a hot chipotle salsa, based on a recipe from DJ Seth Troxler. “Good, solid food,” says the vendor when he sees Bourke. “Perhaps you’d better have a slice of Margherita. It’s easier on the stomach.”
A pharaoh with dreadlocks and sunglasses drags some cardboard boxes out of the green room. The contents: wigs in every tasteless color imaginable, construction worker’s helmets, horse-head masks, dwarf hats, clerical robes, huge babies’ dummies. This is a Fabric birthday tradition: the only night of the year costumes are welcome. The stunt gets quite a reaction. Within minutes, clubgoers are crowding around the boxes like children and rummaging through them. The fatigue of the afternoon seems to have gone. Normski is there in a tight red cocktail dress, his torso dripping in sweat. He screams in a husky voice: “I still need a wig. Give me a wig!”
A bunny comes onto the stage and positions himself at a fortress made up of analog synthesizers. This is Mathew Jonson, a Canadian techno expert. The beat kicks off. He plays with the controls like a man possessed. One of the ears falls off his bunny costume as he rocks his head back and forth.
All hell breaks loose. A 6-foot-tall Mr. Blobby slowly clambers onto the stage and asks the one-eared bunny to dance with him. Breakdancers dressed in authentic Bavarian lederhosen go head-to-head against bare-chested construction workers. Seth Troxler jumps in and dances with the crowd while wearing a baby’s bonnet and a stripper’s negligee. “Brilliant,” Bourke yells. He’s sporting a Batman costume. “This is what it must’ve been like at Studio 54 back in the day.”
Monday October 19, 1:32 a.m.
Twenty-six hours of partying are making their presence felt: The floor is sticky, the place smells of sweat, and the young men’s mating rituals are losing all inhibition. They cock their heads up like roosters and try to make eye contact with any woman dancing past them.
The end draws near and Chilean minimal techno hero Ricardo Villalobos plays his big hit, “Easy Lee.” People raise smartphones to record the dying moment. Three … two … one … a-a-a-nd? Nothing. The beat just keeps on going.
Bourke, still dressed as Batman, says, “You switch to marathon-runner mode as you come toward the end of a long night out. You don’t think. You just keep going.”
The DJ shuts down the decks. The beat gets slower and ends with a muffled rumble. The lights go on. The revelers blink and twitch—vampires dazzled by the rising sun. Bourke whips out his sunglasses and says goodbye, sweaty and ecstatic. The party is over, 32 hours after it began.
Room 1 is empty and the cleaners have long since gone to work. Everything is quiet, but for a ringing in the ears. The backstage door opens. A small group of die-hard gold-bangle-wearers appear and head to Room 3. There are cardboard boxes with drinks in them on the dance floor.
The bar staff are already on the way home. Seth Troxler gets the afterparty going with a sexy space disco number.