Returning with a party called "F**K 2020" the queer car park rave famous for its no-rules policy makes a legislative U-turn.
MOT/Unit 18 sits on an industrial estate in South Bermondsey. Possessing all the hallmarks of an old skool rave, it was fast becoming one of the city's key clubbing locations before the pandemic. Big Dyke Energy, which launched in May 2019, attracts a loyal, youthful crowd and has helped solidify the venue's place in London's queer nightlife. While Saturday's BDE instalment was a decidedly low-key affair, previous nights have involved a great deal of "sweat" and a strict "no rules" policy. Not this time 'round. "Things are different…" read the sixth edition's promotional material, "but we can't wait to party safely with you all."
I cycled past the industrial gates just before 6 PM into what felt like an abandoned storage site and was swiftly greeted by a warm wash of electro and a slew of friendly faces. Long garden tables ran the length of the cordoned outdoor area where early ravers were already seated. As a first foray into clubbing during Coronavirus, the contrast was apparent. There would be no mingling or dancing and punters were to remain in the groups they came with. To meet social distancing measures, the night, titled "F**K 2020," was operating at 50 percent capacity. This, alongside the decision to keep entry prices low, meant the event—while sold out—would run at a loss.
I sat close to the entrance and watched partygoers in various levels of dress gradually trickle in. A member of staff attended to drink orders and a barber styled hair next to the DJ booth, which sat in a wooden make-shift cabin on the right side of the lot. The party's co-founder Bouji Boi, AKA Melody, layered dreamy electro compositions from their perch above a green neon sign reading "BIG DYKE ENERGY." It felt like the school playground at the start of the year. As the crowd grew, groups recognised, embraced and anxiously caught up before heading back to their respective tables. There was a deep sense of gratitude.
Daytime DJs kept the space warm and mid-tempo. Playing club classics was a smart move: French house, nu-disco and '90s Eurodance co-mingled with golden-era house and old skool garage, setting a playful, nostalgic tone. Groups hummed and bobbed to Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You" and Was (Not Was)'s "Shake Your Head" while the works of Loods, Earth Trax & Newborn Jr and Seb Wildblood added a credible contemporary feel. "Toca's Miracle" by Fragma proved, fittingly, to be the standout track. When the chorus dropped, the "room" began singing in unison, and it felt like the crowd was ready to elevate out of their seats. But then all seemed to collectively remember the new normal and stuck to their tables. The restraint at this point was palpable.
As the music got a little less UK top ten and the light drew dark, things started to loosen up, and faced with less space to play, clubbers got creative. Like nervous teenagers at a school disco or freshers week club night, tables began to form tentative dance circles, which became increasingly amorphous, allowing strangers to join, albeit at a distance. BDE promoters gently reminded everyone of the new licensing rules and asked them to return to their tables. This "new dance" played out numerous times throughout the evening.
IMOGEN's pulsing techno pulled a crowd into the DJ booth towards midnight, at which point promoters began moving people indoors. The 50 person cap inside meant most would have to leave. As a privileged few moved inside and others planned to gather on a nearby common, I couldn't help wondering whether it was a little premature to start partying indoors. London's COVID-19 reproduction number hovers around one, with the LGBTQI+ community seeming especially vulnerable. Without temperature checks or track and trace options on the door, this all felt a bit unwise.
Clubbing during a pandemic is tricky but BDE’s outdoor day rave, with all the social distancing measures, felt reasonably safe. And what remains clear is the restorative power of community events. Revellers who came sockless/braless/jacketless braved cold weather into the late hours. Many said how much they'd missed the innate playfulness of the club space, the flirty "what if's," random chats in the toilet queue. That said, the risks remain high. Clubbing, once carefree and hedonistic, will have to give way to something a little more cautious and tempered. BDE managed expectations well. Things were indeed different but if only for a few hours, it was worth the while.