The Four Aces Club Was The Jewel in Dalston's Crown
Desmond Dekker and The Prodigy got their starts here. No wonder it's legendary.
Sitting in Starbucks cafe in Dalston Square, it is hard to believe that this was once the site of the legendary The Four Aces club. Commonly referred to as "The Jewel in Dalston's crown", The Four Aces was home to some of the most influential black music to date. Newton Dunbar, the man who ran the club for 33 years, pours 5 sweeteners into his nude espresso and reels off the names of the artists who performed at the club: The Prodigy, Madness, Bob Marley, Kenny Ken, DJ Hype, Desmond Dekker, The Upsetters, Billy Ocean.
Arriving in Dalston from Jamaica in 1956, Newton first established The Four Aces in a run-down basement in Highbury Grove in 1966. Named after a popular Jamaican cigarette brand, the club began to attract growing crowds and Newton was forced to relocate to larger premises. When an old Victorian Theatre on Dalston Lane became available, Newton could not believe his luck. "We were thrilled when 12 Dalston Lane came up in 1967. With bigger crowds and the ambition of wanting to put on live shows, it was an ideal space."
The first club to open in Hackney, The Four Aces also became one of the first venues to play black music in Britain, and quickly became a meeting point for newly arrived Afro-Caribbean immigrants experiencing cultural exile. The arrival of Desmond Dekker marked a breakthrough moment in the life-span of the club. "When we booked Dekker for a nominal sum, we had no idea that three weeks later he would go into the charts at No. 1, and become the first black superstar. This was a stroke of luck and providence, because it put Four Aces on the map as a credible, affordable and interesting venue."
By this time, The Four Aces was a well-known hangout and was attracting the likes of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Joe Strummer, who were all known to pop in for a dance when they were in town. Newton chuckles as he recalls the occasion Bob Dylan popped in with two ladies and a couple of bodyguards, and didn't make himself known.
By the late 1980s, The Four Aces was coming under increasing pressure from the police. It was being raided most weeks and Newton was struggling to withstand persistent police harassment. "The police's heavy-handed raids were creating an adverse atmosphere. It was a struggle to keep the doors open and hold onto the licence." Beyond The Four Aces, the rave scene was experiencing similar problems. Joe Wieczorek, who ran warehouse parties under the name of Labyrinth, was under constant pressure from the powers that be.
"We were raided time after time and things were starting to get ridiculous," says Joe, "some mornings I'd have the old bill rave squad standing outside my house following me to the newsagents to watch me buy a packet of fags. I got the feeling that if I carried on doing parties, I'd get locked up." At this point Joe decided it was time he looked for an indoor venue, and approached The Four Aces. Newton was also tiring of the harassment, and decided this would be the right moment for a change of image. In turn, the two joined forces and the legendary rave venue, Labyrinth, was borne. It was the first legal indoor rave venture of its kind.
As acid house exploded in the summer of 1988, Labyrinth started to attract bigger crowds. The scene went from a few clusters of au fait ravers, to a nationwide eruption of perspiring masses. Newton explains that, "As acid house became more mainstream, its pulling power became phenomenal. The club's capacity increased massively and there would be crowds of 1000 people packed in." At the time, Labyrinth was one of the only clubs in London which stayed open to 6AM. Clubbers flocked from all over the country to Labyrinth, coming from as far afield as Sheffield, Birmingham and even Paris.
The appropriately named nightclub was a rabbit warren of adjoining rooms and winding corridors. Fluorescent decorations swung from the ceilings while ultraviolet canvasses covered its decaying walls. As Joe says, "Labyrinth's fantasy atmosphere was unparalleled." The same familiar loved-up faces made the weekly pilgrimage to 12 Dalston Lane, week in and week out; this gave Labyrinth a friendly family atmosphere which can only be created through a weekly event.
"Labyrinth was first and foremost a place to dance. From the moment you walked into the club, you would dance the whole night through," says Newton. Drugs naturally added to the atmosphere. "Acid and ecstasy were an important part of the experience. They created the atmosphere for the music which was played." The mish-mash of acid house and intoxicants helped create an all-inclusive dance scene, with locals and newcomers, students and scallies, gays and straights, dancing side by side.
Clubbers were able to leave their inhibitions and prejudices at the front door, as ecstasy dissolved divisions of class, sexuality and football allegiance. Hoards of 90's kids in Champion sportswear and sliders were able to freely embrace each other and dance until they dropped. Joe says he doesn't remember a serious fight in the entire lifespan of the club. Labyrinth helped transform nightclubs into what they are now – places to dance. "It might sound weird nowadays," Newton says, "but before places like Labyrinth, English people really struggled to let go and dance freely."
Labyrinth's success could be measured by its queues, which extended all the way up Dalston Lane and onto Kingsland Road. As the club became more successful, the police were forced to back off. The crowd had radically changed since the days of The Four Aces. "It was now 85% white," says Newton, "and the police could do no longer do the things they did when it was looked upon as a black club." In the entire duration of Club Labyrinth, there were only two police raids. Joe says, "The first raid at the end of 1990 was hysterical. The police came in with their big spotlights and video cameras, but they couldn't work out how to turn the music off so the kids just carried on dancing and dancing."
The Labyrinth scene started making waves when they booked The Prodigy. The newly formed Essex band contacted the club to find a venue to try out their music. "Even though they'd never performed live before, we agreed to give them a chance and, boy, we didn't regret it," says Newton, "the show went down something phenomenal." The following week, Prodigy came back and a crowd of thousands awaited them. "Later on, they'd come back to visit us in Dalston in their Rolls Royce and say this is where we started. We were proud to say The Prodigy was born at Labyrinth."
As the rave scene evolved and the crowd's music taste changed, so did Labyrinth. When it first opened in the late 80s, you could hear the melodic, hypnotic chimes of early acid house in the main room, with DJs playing songs like 'Seduce Me Baby' and 'Love Will Find A Way'. However, "as acid house became more commercial, DJ's started to mix it up, they got rid of the pianos, added in the odd twang or two and we quickly moved from house to hardcore and then breakbeat", says Joe.
However, breakbeat didn't last long before D'n'B and jungle took over in the early 90s. "After D'n'B exploded overnight, nothing was ever the same again in Labyrinth." Resident DJs Billy Bunter, Kenny Ken, Adrian H and Matt Vinyl were all mates who gained their nicknames from Joe. Adrian H, known best for his hit 'Liquid Is Liquid', was a local kid who worked in the record shop down in Whitechapel, and all the others lived close by in the east end.
"At first, I wasn't sure about D'n'B," says Joe. "It was alien to me. It sounded like someone blowing raspberries. But everyone said, "No Joe listen, this shit is gonna explode, and then it did – overnight." Some of the best early D'n'B was produced in Labyrinth, and their homegrown DJs quickly went on to become global stars. After D'n'B blew up, it was hard to get away with playing anything else in the main room. "I remember trying to sling a hardcore DJ on after Kenny Ken, but the crowd just weren't having it". D'n'B became infectious and before long, everyone was playing it.
Nevertheless, the never-ending maze of rooms meant it was possible to keep a wide array of music. "The main room would be D'n'B or hardcore, upstairs in the loft we'd have techno and trance, and downstairs in the basement would be house and hard house." Some nights, they'd have 5 different sets of DJs, each with their own individual soundsystems.
Labyrinth continued to be successful for the rest of the 90s, but by 1998 the fun was drawing to a close. The club was forced into a compulsory purchase order because it had been earmarked for a new cinema development – which never actually transpired – and they were swiftly evicted. Despite campaigning long and hard to prevent the demolition of the venue, and garnering 25,000 signatures, Hackney Council finally got their way.
"After the deal was signed and sealed, there was nothing more I could do to stay in the building I had occupied for 33 years." Newton says. "I did not have the power or the resources to resist it, so I had to accept it." In 1998, the building was boarded up and its historic interiors were left to decay. The buildings remained derelict and unused for nine years and it wasn't until 2007 that the authorities actually demolished the nightclub, one of the oldest listed buildings in the Dalston neighbourhood. In knocking down The Four Aces, Hackney council destroyed a cultural landmark which had provided entertainment since the original 1886 Dalston Circus and Theatre.
On the site of The Four Aces now stands a property complex of 550 luxury apartments. One of these towers has been christened Labyrinth Tower, alongside its neighbours Dunbar Tower, Marley House and Wonder House. When asked how Newton Dunbar feels about having a luxury tower named after him, he responds unperturbed: "They called it Dunbar Tower without consulting me. I do not know if they were taking the mickey, or if they had some other more sinister intention. It's certainly no compensation for the building which was taken from me." According to Newton, "the demolition of The Four Aces laid down the roots for the subsequent gentrification of Dalston."
In spite of the demise of The Four Aces, both Newton and Joe have kept themselves busy. Newton has his weekly DJ sets and radio shows, including hosting a Boiler Room special on Dalston Lane. Like Newton, Joe continues to run regular Labyrinth club nights - now in their 26th year, it's the longest running rave in UK history.
All images courtesy of Newton Dunbar.
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To learn more about the life, death and legacy of The Four Aces, check out 'Legacy in the Dust': a documentary made by Dalston filmmaker Winstan Whitter.