Meet the Doorpickers: London's Original Club Custodians
"Would you let yourself in?"
Contemporary clubbing can be a dispiritingly anodyne experience at times. The same DJs play to the same crowds in the same clubs month after months. The queue for the door is just a tonne of people who look and sound just like you do. Clubbers are more likely to be tweeting than tweaking.
It wasn't always like this. As hard to believe as it is, there was a period when going out in London was the most exciting thing in the world. This was back when a night out was a theatrical performance, a time when the city was alive with the hum of hedonism, an era of unparalleled possibility. On a sunny afternoon in March, I stood outside the Ministry of Sound with four people who could lay claim to having created and curated the clubland of their day. Mark Herman, Denzil Roberts, Sheriden Jones and Jenni Rampling ran the doors everywhere from Ministry to Shoom to Legends, to 48,000 strong aircraft-hanger raves and beyond. They were the original doorpickers.
Employed to craft the perfect night from the prospective hordes of potential clubbers, they weren't bouncers, weren't hands hired for the purposes of security, weren't there to check pockets and rummage around bags. The doorpickers acted as on-the-spot profilers, tasked with assessing, accepting, and rejecting individuals from a cast of thousands. They literally picked who was and wasn't getting in that night. What they said went: if you weren't right for them, and more importantly, for their club, you weren't getting in. It was as simple as that.
The period in which this unlikely foursome ruled the rave was one of M25 parties and acid house, of E'd up communality and unencumbered ecstasy, literal and metaphorical. As we decamped to a local pub, sipping flat pints and lukewarm coffees, memories unspooled and entwined and a narrative history of the London nightlife that once was emerged. This is how things were from the mouths of those who were there. This is the largely untold story of club culture's unheralded heroes, in their own words.
ON PICKING THE DOOR
Denzil Roberts: People think it was about ego but it wasn't. When you got past me you knew it was worth getting inside. We created the atmosphere in the club and it was amazing. I'd turn away people who'd driven two hundred miles to get there and they'd be queuing up again the week after. You don't want a club full of one kind of person. You wanted a bit of straight, a bit of gay, tranny, glam, monied, skint. Mix it all up. It creates an electric energy and the place goes through the roof.
Jenni Rampling: You can have 200 people in ponchos off their head on E dancing to acid house but that doesn't make a greatclub. You need that mix. I wanted Shoomers [Shoom was a legendary club night, often credited as kickstarting the acid house revolution, where Jenni's ex-husband Danny manned the decks] who'd dance to Danny, I wanted a lot of gays, black people, white people, old hip hop people, Danny's friends, my friends. How do you do that? You've got to be strong. You've got to be prepared to be insulted. Some people sucked up to you, others insulted you. It was a hard job.
Denzil: You'd look at the queue and think, "what are you bringing? You've got a fat wallet?" So? You weren't bringing excitement or atmosphere.
ON HANDLING ABUSE
Mark Herman: Didn't you get a milkshake thrown at you, Sheriden?
Sheriden Jones: A McDonalds one. Chocolate. My favourite flavour.
Denzil Roberts: Two guys attacked me on the stairs once.
Mark: I left work one night and someone had scratched CUNT on my car door. Three weeks later they did it again.
Denzil: I dropped one line that I can barely repeat, the worst line you can ever, ever use. Some little girl, some trashy little girl, was trying to get in. She was saying, 'you're gay, you're this, you're that,' blah blah blah. And I just stood and looked at her and said, "I will rip your fucking cunt out."
ON DEALING WITH CELEBRITIES
Jenni Rampling: I remember when Leigh Bowery came down to Shoom. The club was full and the doors were shut. When they shut we couldn't reopen them. When that door was closed it was time for me to have a bit of fun. This security man says, "Jen, there's a fella upstairs, or at least I think he's a fella, and he's got lightbulbs in his ears and I don't know if you'd let him in or not but he says he's made a special effort and he knows you and could I go down and get you." I said, "Leigh, its full and when its full its full. If I let you in know I'm gonna get it in the neck....pssst, get round the back!"
Denzil Roberts: People like him were key though. It was like having artwork in your club. I remember one night I had someone dressed as a nun and someone as the Pope at the door trying to get in. We let them in the back and it ROARED.
Sheriden Jones: God, the weirdest thing I ever saw was at Browns. Janet Jackson came in and we had to rope off an area for her in the middle of the dancefloor. Just for her.
Denzil: I remember having Mick Hucknall tap me on the shoulder once. I was like, "err, excuse me, can't you see I'm talking? Who are you anyway?" He said, "I'm Mick." "I don't know that name. Anyway..."
ON WHO THE HARDEST TO GET PAST WAS
Sheriden Jones: I was the easiest.
Denzil Roberts: Fifty fifty me and Jenni. Mark was scary but subtle. You were brutal with people but had to have a bit of charm. You know, If someone turns you away from somewhere it can leave a mark on you as a person. You never did any visual insults because that can be life-changing. You'd say "you aren't right for us."
Jenni Rampling: Who are you kidding! You were never that diplomatic! I remember getting ready every Saturday night before Shoom and that adrenaline rushing through you was crazy. Even on the way there. I knew I was going to have to face thousands of people. When you're on the door you're acting on adrenaline. You are buzzing. Its like being a boxer before going into the ring. When you were on the door for a fantastic club you were psyched up.
Denzil: When you saw that queue of three thousand people...you had to lose 2500 people!
Jenni: Its really hard.
Mark Herman: Thats why security had to be good. They had to back you up.
Denzil: You had to lose people but in a really nice way. Sometimes though I used to hold a mirror up and say "would you let yourself in?" Come to my club wearing gardening clothes and what do you expect!
ON THE GLORY DAYS OF THE RAVE SCENE
Mark Herman: I remember one Pushca party were the pills they were selling made you shit. The whole party was shitting. Laxatives! There were fights to get into the portaloos. The most amazing parties back then were Sunrise. The airhanger one...
Denzil Roberts: God, that one! The front cover of the Sun the day after had the headline "Aye Aye Sir, They're Flying off Home Now" with photos of us streaming out.
Mark: There was a massive pyramid at one.
Denzil: I remember going to one with a massive carpet bag to collect the money from people on the way in. Halfway through someone was like "the bag's gone!" Halfway through the party I turned the music off and told 10,000 people that unless someone gave the money back the party wasn't happening. This guy called Gavin Dunne, with his metal arm, came up to me with the empty bag. I hung it over the booth for the rest of the party.
Jenni Rampling: There was one party that we did that everyone remembers called Shoom on the Farm and it was brilliant. I had a lot of money on me and I'd done all the DJs wages and put them in envelopes. I went to the loo. I forgot we were having a foam party. We used fire engines to fill it. I was so organized. I had all these fire engines and this bumbag stuffed with thousands of pounds. By the time I got off the loo the foam was in full flow. I'm up to here in foam and all the money has disintegrated. I'm off my head! Money...I can see the wages vanishing....I had to tell every DJ I'd pay them tomorrow.
ON CONTEMPORARY CLUBBING
Jenni Rampling: If clubs employed someone with the eyes we have, it would make clubland so much more interesting. We don't have to go in and dance like grannies inside, but just employ people with the expertise, the eyes, the knowledge...we could just do an hour. Clubs would benefit hugely.
Denzil Roberts: Mark can tell you this for real. When you go into a current environment and give them your advice, because you do know best, they ignore you. They think they know better. You aren't trying to take away from their party, you want to add to it.
Jenni: When you do a big party now, everyone buys tickets online. When you're buying tickets online you don't know who you're selling to. The promoters don't care who's buying them. They don't give a fuck. They just want numbers.
Denzil: People wait for the party to start now, forgetting that they are the party.
Jenni: How do we do that? They get us in. You sell 500 tickets online, 500 on the door. Get us down to assess those 500 and get the right mix in.
Denzil: People now have no attention span. This affects clubs. You go to a club and its just little groups. There's no big parties. No one is together. No one wants to mix and mingle. It becomes about showing off rather than having a great party.
Let's hope that some enterprising promoter reads this and gives it a go. Let's make clubbing exciting again.