A Background to Plymouth

Jessica Hocking



This dissertation will be a study of a night club in Plymouth, it is therefore necessary to give a background introduction to both of these subjects.

Figure 1.1 – Map of the South West of England to show the location of Plymouth (Source: multimap.com, 2003) Scale – 1:1,000,000.


Plymouth is an old and historic naval port situated on the River Tamar, the boarder between Devon and Cornwall.  Its industry was once dominated by fishing and ship building, with Devonport Dockyard being one of the biggest in the country.  Plymouth was virtually flattened by bombing in the Second World War.  The city has since been rebuilt and its architecture is a mix of what survived the world war two bombing and new modern developments.  The decline of the traditional fishing and shipbuilding industries had a massive impact on the city’s economy and unemployment rose dramatically.  Plymouth has always had an exciting history and was home to Sir Francis Drake and the Pilgrim fathers who sailed to America.  Plymouth uses its rich history to encourage tourism to the city and that combined with its proximity to the infamous Cornish coast and the wilds of Dartmoor help to keep Plymouth a popular tourist destination.


The most recent boost to Plymouth’s economy has come from the huge growth of its university.  The university now boasts over 27,000 students (Plymouth University, 2003), that combined with the students from The College of St Mark and St John and the Plymouth Art College has made Plymouth a bustling student city.


This massive influx of students, with more yet still to come when the new medical centre on the university campus fully opens later this year, has meant that the leisure industry in Plymouth, especially the nightclub industry, is developing. 


Plymouth has always had a lively nightlife due to its status as a naval city and with its connection to the rave scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The main nightclub area in Plymouth used to be located on Union Street, which runs from the bottom of the city centre down to the docks.  This street was once full of pubs and clubs catering for the boat loads of sailors that used to arrive in the city on a regular basis,

Union Street was such an amazing place – there were always hundreds and hundreds of sailors.  Its nearest comparison in notoriety was the Gut in Malta.  It was no more of a hell spot than anywhere else, but it had a special vibrancy that was only for sailors”

(Bill Hackett, cited in Robinson, 2000:76).


However, the decline of numbers in the Royal Navy has meant that this is no longer the case, “today there are more students here than servicemen, and the University has overtaken the Navy as the biggest employer in the town” (Simpson, 2002).  Most of the bottom end of Union Street, near the docks, is now boarded up and derelict, home to drug addicts and tramps.  Large numbers of prostitutes once walked the street to cater for the constant stream of new sailors on shore leave.  A few can now be found loitering in dark doorways on Milbay Road, but business it not what it once used to be. 


“In the early nineties Union Street became very much the hub of the Westcountry rave scene, two clubs in particular led the way – the Dance Academy and the Warehouse” (Robinson, 2000).  I personally remember queuing for two hours to get into Warehouse, and speaking to people who had travelled from as far as Birmingham and Manchester for the night because they had heard how good it was,


“People were coming from as far down as Land’s End as far up as Exeter, they were running buses from Exeter, Torquay, St Austell, three or four buses from each major town every time and of course this got into the major magazines, so people from further a field, Birmingham and London would come down to sample the nightlife” (Darren Cox cited in Robinson, 2000:96).


The Dance Academy is still a relatively popular venue hosting the monthly drum ‘n’ bass night “Legends of the Dark Black”, which draws in large crowds of mainly students as the club does not have a particularly good name for itself amongst the locals, due to the unfriendly attitude of the owner and the door staff.  The Warehouse, where I first experienced the joys of clubbing, sadly closed in 1997 and was transformed into what is now Millennium, a club that offers commercial music, all you can drink for £10 and a rather dubious clientele comprised of extremely drunken young people.  It is, unfortunately, the place to go for many of the Plymouth locals and students wanting nothing more than cheap drinks and an easy night on the pull.  There are however, those who do want something more when they go out in the evening, namely quality music and a decent atmosphere, and there are a very small number of venues in Plymouth to cater for them.


There are still a small number of clubs and pubs on Union Street, but they tend to be frequented by locals, as opposed to students who are warned to avoid Union Street when arriving in the city.  The City’s clubland has moved and tends to be located in the city centre or in close proximity to the university.  The Warner Village, a purpose built leisure complex, attracts a large proportion of the youth in Plymouth, providing fast-food, a bowling alley, a cinema, a nightclub and a couple of bars, again providing cheap drinks and commercial music.


The Bus Stop (the location for this study) is neither situated in the city centre or in particularly close proximity to the university (although within walking distance of both).  I will investigate whether the club’s location has any bearing on its popularity later on.



·          Plymouth City Centre





·          The Bus Stop      








Figure 1.2 - Map to show the location of The Bus Stop in Plymouth.

(Source: multimap.com, 2003) Scale 1:5,000.



A Background to Club Culture


This section will give a background to nightclub culture as a youth subculture.  It will first be necessary to look at the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (C.C.C.S.) which first developed the concept of youth subcultures and then move on to how and why club culture developed and became what it is today, in the UK.


Hall et al (1976) wanted to examine why and how youth groups were formed.  Youth only really came into existence after the second world war when, with the advances in industrialization and technology, it was no longer necessary for people to go straight into a working life at an early age and there was much more leisure time available.  There was no longer the immediate jump from childhood to adulthood, but there was a transitory period in between when a child became an adult, they may have been continuing their studies or just enjoying life.  This period of life between childhood and adulthood became known as youth, “’Youth’ appeared as an emergent category in post-war Britain, one of the most striking and visible manifestations of social change in the period” (Hall et al 1976:9).  If there is youth then there will be youth culture, culture is defined by Hall et al as, “the peculiar and distinctive ‘way of life’ of the group or class, the meanings, values and ideas embodied in institutions, in social relations, in systems of beliefs, in mores and customs, in the uses of objects and material life.  Culture is the distinctive shapes in which this material and social organisation of life expresses itself” (1976:10).


There is never just one culture, society is always split into different groups and there is always a dominant group.  At the time when members of the C.C.C.S. were investigating youth cultures they believed that these different groups are always a result of different classes within society, “in modern societies, the most fundamental groups are the social classes” (Hall et al 1976:13) and the creation of youth subcultures was a response to the breaking down of class barriers at the time.  Phil Cohen (1972) argued that, “when working-class communities are undergoing change and displacement – when the ‘parent culture’ is no longer cohesive – youth (and the focus here is always on working-class youth) responds by becoming subcultural.  Subcultures thus become a means of expressing and, for Cohen, also ‘resolving’ the crisis of class” (Gelder 1997:84-85).  This is no longer applicable in today’s society as class is no longer such an influential factor in societal groupings, but I will examine this further later on.


Hall et al (1976) identify five specific social changes that caused the creation of youth cultures.  The first was the increasing affluence of youth, “the increased importance of the market and consumption, and the growth of ‘Youth-oriented’ leisure industries” (18), a specific market appeared purely to cater for the youth, supplying, for example, youth clothing and youth leisure opportunities as the youth were experiencing rising levels of disposable income.  Secondly, the spread of culture due to increased communications led to, “the arrival of mass communications, mass entertainment, mass art and mass culture” (18).  The most influential of all was the arrival of commercial television.  This enabled the youth greater access to youth culture and “the means of ‘imitation’ and ‘manipulation’ on a national scale” (19).  Thirdly, were the destructive effects of the war, it was felt that the breakdown in family life, caused by absent fathers, led to increased levels of youth delinquency.  Fourthly, there were changes in education.  “This interpretation pin-pointed two developments above all – ‘secondary education for all’ in age-specific schools, and the massive extension of higher education” (20).  As mentioned earlier, the fact that people no longer had to go immediately to work at an early age meant that another life stage, between childhood and adulthood, was created, “subcultural youth may also replace a lost sense of working-class ‘community’ with subcultural ‘territory’ – a shift which is symptomatic of the relocation of youthful expression to the field of leisure rather than work” (Gelder 1997:85).  Finally, there was a massive style explosion, a huge varying range of different ways to dress and different music to listen to led to the creation of a number of different cultures (or subcultures) within the main youth culture.


For so long as people have had leisure time there have been nightclubs in which to socialise and listen to music.  However, the origins of the nightclub that would be recognisable to us today, with the DJ mixing vinyl records together for the clubbers to dance to, was in the gay disco scene of the late 1960s, early 1970s New York, with a man named Francis Grasso as the first modern DJ (Brewster and Broughton 1999).  Disco was the start of the nightclub scene and soon discos were springing up all over the world,


“After the disco sound proved to be so irresistible, so universal and so effective, disco swept through the wider world like a new kind of fast food.  It enjoyed a brief but near-total dominance of the global music machine, it made billions and it brought nightclubbing resolutely into the mainstream.  In the process, it also changed much about the music business and the profession of the DJ”.

(Brewster and Broughton 1999:182-183)


Disco clubs were fun and funky, colourful and sparkly.  They were the epitome of the gay scene, flamboyant clientele danced to funked-up party tunes and developed into the house music clubs around today. 


In the mid to late 1970s hip-hop and break dancing were born in the Bronx of New York,


“The Bronx DJs … wanted to throw a better party than their rival up the block.  In fact, they were creating an entirely new and revolutionary genre of music and sowing the seeds for several more… hip-hop is now a whole culture (indeed, ‘hip-hop’ is not now strictly synonymous with ‘rap music’; instead the term refers specifically to the cultural trinity of rap music, graffiti and break dancing)”.  (Brewster and Broughton 1999:224)


The hip-hop parties started out on the streets and moved into derelict housing blocks, paving the way for the dark, dingy hip-hop clubs of today.  Hip-hop has always been a ‘street’ thing with a macho attitude, “The rise of graffiti and break dancing offered less dangerous ways to express your male competitiveness” (Brewster and Broughton 1999:239).  Break dancing ‘battles’ and graffiti ‘fights’ are still common place today within the hip-hop culture, “it’s weapons are sprayed words … this fight is between two graffiti artists and takes place on the wall (Macdonald 2001:1).


Disco died and next came house.  The style of music took its name from the club in which it originated, “the word ‘house’ came from the Warehouse [in Chicago], referring to the music played there, the DJ manipulations which Frankie [Knuckles] introduced, and the underground vibe the club engendered” (Brewster and Broughton 1999:318).  This was the start of the dance music we know today and as Brewster and Broughton state, the name of ‘house’ fitted for many reasons,


“A ‘house record’ could be one belonging to a particular club.  It could be a song which simply ‘rocked the house’.  A ‘house party’ was more intimate and friendly than a club, and of course ‘house’ conjured up the idea of family, of belonging to something special.  If you were a part of it, house was your home”.

(Brewster and Broughton 1999:318)


Club culture, as we know it, was still yet to arrive in the UK, however, in 1985 house travelled from Chicago to London, “no one in Chicago had expected their music to have an impact outside of the city, but it was in the UK that this music would rise it’s greatest heights” (Brewster and Broughton 1999:338) and ‘Acid House’ was born. 


Acid House gave rise to rave culture, which was probably the biggest subcultural explosion in Britain’s history, a massive moral panic ensued resulting in government legislation to try and stop it.  Rave culture was all about the freedom to party and party they did, huge unlicensed parties were taking place all over the UK in all sorts of venues from abandoned aircraft hangers to farmers fields, 11,000 young people turned up to one rave in 1989 (Collin 1997:97).  The media went into frenzy and two government acts were passed to try and control the situation.  In July 1990 the government passed Graham Bright’s Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Bill, which raised the maximum fines for unlicensed parties to £20,000 and six months imprisonment (Bidder, 2001).  However, this just led to massive free parties, so in 1993 the government proposed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.  Clause 63 of the act is designed specifically to stop raves,

“This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of 100 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose: 

(a) such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and

 (b) "music" includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.


A constable in uniform who reasonably suspects that a person is committing an offence under this section may arrest him without a warrant.”

(The British Government, 1994).


The act was passed in 1994 and “although other youth movements had inspired new legislation, never before, over years of post-war moral panics about the activities of Teddy Boys, Mods, Hippies and Punks, had a government considered young people’s music so subversive as to prohibit it” (Collin 1998:223).


The music was forced back into clubs and the UK’s modern club scene was born.  Clubs are now an integral part of a social night out and club culture in the UK has grown so widespread that every town in the country boasts at least one nightclub if not more to cater for the varied musical tastes of the youth of today, “’club culture’ is the colloquial expression given to youth cultures for whom dance clubs and their eighties offshoot, raves, are the symbolic axis and working social hub” (Thornton 1995:3).


Clubs are so important to youth cultures of today, which club you go to defines who you are.  A club will have its own style of music, dress, clientele and décor with certain stereo-types attached to these factors to define those who frequent the clubs.  The club space in turn is influenced by all of these factors to make it what it is.  Each club is different, they may play the same styles of music but even at the most basic, the venue will be different, clubs are now housed in all sorts of buildings from old cinemas to purpose built clubs and this in itself will differentiate one club from another.  Each club will have its own specific clientele, groups of young people will nearly always have one favourite club, especially in smaller towns or cities where there is only a few clubs to choose from, with maybe only one club playing their favourite style of music and all of this will differ depending on which town or city you are in, as Thornton notes, “although club culture is a global phenomenon, it is at the same time firmly rooted in the local.  Dance records and club clothes may be easily imported and national, but dance crowds tend to be municipal, regional and national” (1995:3).  Some clubs are seen as ‘cool’ others not so cool and some as dives, but again this will differ depending on who you are speaking to.  The same as certain clubs are given labels as to how cool they are, or not as the case may be, so will those who frequent them.


I wanted to investigate these issues further, what is it that makes a space a club space?  Does the club define those who frequent it or do the clientele define the club?  How much effect does the décor of a club have on its coolness rating?  Why do people frequent particular clubs?  What is more important, the social or the music?  I intend to answer all of these questions in this study and hopefully understand further the importance of club culture to today’s youth.