Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Slam @ The Arches, Glasgow

In the dark and the damp, under Central Station in Glasgow, lurks The Arches.

For several years, this hidden space of concrete floors, clocks that ran backwards and epic stone arches was stormed weekly on Fridays by local DJ/producer duo “Slam”. Occupying two of the rectangular cavernous stone arches (one dancefloor, one bar) Slam at The Arches was an institution. Anchoring one long side of the dancefloor arch was a fortress-like DJ box – on the other three sides, an array of bizarre projections cascaded down white-sheet-clad stone walls. A huge stack of speakers sat in each of the four corners of the dancefloor, and propelled the angular noises and grinding grooves through the huge stone arches, out through the door and in to Midland Street. From the bar arch, the sound came through as a thunderous booming.

I wandered in to Slam at the Arches some time in 1994, and stayed there for a couple of years. Over a decade later, it’s goosebump-raising to recall the things that made those nights so special. Slam at the Arches would have been stunning as a one-off – but it wasn’t a one-off, and the way in which it maintained its quality week after week for months on end still defies belief.

A night at Slam would start off with an extended queue under the bridge over Midland Street, dodging the attention of pigeons nestling above, the regular chancer walking the queue looking for spare change (in between bottles of lager in the bar next door), and more often than not a steady stream of rain from the rail tracks overhead.

Once inside the music would start with floating ambient electronics as the first bodies walked in, with people gathering drinks, walking through the cold space of the empty club, gathering and soaking it up. As the tunes mutating to stripped down-tempo broken grooves, you would find the first people swirling around in the dark space of the dance floor. The spacey early sound of the night would then slowly resolve into a solid, grinding house groove, as more people were drawn through from the bar arch into the wide open dance floor spaces. The pace was always slow at this time of night – surprisingly slow, but deep, and tough, and from early on you could hear one of the magic elements that separated Slam from almost all their guests: a slow, implacable progression. The whole night, the pacing, the refusal to give too much too early, the constant building of atmosphere, the slow creep of tempo, of intensity, was a tangible promise of a future conclusion. Every tune, every noise, every mix, was part of a plan, part of the whole. It grabbed you, it was planned, it was seductive, it was going somewhere.

The crowd was a mix of students and locals, and the mix was important. Too many students, and not enough locals, and the atmosphere became too much influenced by alcohol - it wasn’t the same. On the other hand, not enough students, and it could become occasionally too sparse, and things could become slightly more edgy. Somewhere in the middle, there was a magical balancing point. As the crowd would oscillate between locals and students with seasons, you would feel the atmosphere falling away, and you would feel it when it was on the up. There would be runs where you would go every week, feeling the vibe getting better and better every time, telling others to come down, riding the rising wave of intensity.

The lineups of guest DJs would put many supposedly great clubs to shame: Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Andrew Weatherall, Josh Wink, Daft Punk, Funk D’Void, David Holmes, Derrick Carter, Richie Hawtin, on and on they came. But for me, it was the residents nights that always held a mysterious magic. There were less hangers-on, less name-DJ tourists, a better atmosphere, and (more than anything), the music choices and timing of Meikle and McMillan were on a different planet to even the most admired of their guests. Simply put, very few of the visiting DJs could hold a candle next to the Slam guys when it came to the overall shape and execution of the night.

The Arches may not always have been the best club venue in the world. The crowd may not have been the best crowd in the world. The DJs may not have been the greatest DJs in the world. But a club is the sum of its parts, and for a run of months that never seemed like it was going to end, all the stars were in line underneath those damp rail tracks. Those of us that were there should consider our luck.

While the residents played in different orders, more often than not Meikle would play the first two hours, and McMillan would play the last - it proved to be a devastating combination. A contrast in styles, Meikle would stand inscrutably in the DJ box as huge jacking beats cranked out of the speakers, a fag occasionally lazily dripping from his mouth, smoke slowly twirling up into his face, seemingly gazing down at the decks most of the time. Every so often, he would glance up at the dancefloor, although he was so impassive the gesture came across like he was just checking someone was still there. From behind this veneer of disinterest, emerging from the ambient genesis of the night, came a slowly rising tempo and progressively tougher beats, morphing into the most utterly seamless, jaw-droppingly powerful, building groove.

There was also, often, the track.

If you had come in and gone for a drink first, you might be standing in the bar arch, listening to the groove slowly winding up in intensity. Bodies slowly disappear in to the dancefloor, gliding through the spaces as the atmosphere started to build. Sipping your drink, a tune would come on – and on this tune, the night would turn.

Sometimes this turning point announced itself with the biggest bassline you’d ever heard in your life. Sometimes it was just a repeating chord sequence, every repetition hitting harder than the last. Everyone could feel it. Every time, you knew. As the track ripped from the towering stacks of speakers and erupted through the club, and the roar of the dancefloor went up, people turn to each other; “What, is that?”. Few people survived the transition still prepared to remain only onlookers. As everyone sought out the dancefloor, sucked in by the promise of every new tune and every new mix, the night set sail properly, with jacking house and techy grooves, smiling faces in the pitch black, rotation, repetition, riffs, thunderous kick drums, Meikle's huge extended seamless mixing, and always building, building, building.

With the night teed up perfectly by Meikle, McMillan would come on at the halfway point. His style diametrically opposed to his co-resident, McMillan would practically hover over the decks. Staring straight across the dancefloor at the back wall where the double-tiered plinths ran, by now crammed with enthusiastic dancers, he looked like he was trying to make contact with the underworld. Eyes straight forward glaring like a man possessed, leaning forwards over the decks like he was about to leap out of the DJ box, bobbing and grimacing with concentration as the music tore from the speakers. Tough Detroit and European techno, angular and metallic grooves, double-copies, records that built and built like they would take your head off, records that looped you endlessly into a trance, and an ongoing McMillan trademark: the heaviest of bass drops. The bass would evaporate for seconds at a time whilst the intensity in the crowd built, and built, and built. When the moment had been drawn out and time had nearly come to a halt in this ocean of intensity, he would unload all the bass energy on the crowd in one titanic downbeat, sending the speakers, the club, the crowd, and anything not nailed down several miles into orbit. And with this, still the building, still the building that had been set in motion a lifetime away, somewhere back in the earliest stages of Meikle’s set.

Nearly four hours of this relentless building, twisting, shouting, jumping and cheering later, as Slam approached its end, as you could nearly taste and touch the conclusion it was so close, the perfect musical timing of the night would undergo its final twist. With 15 or 20 minutes to go, the musical brakes, which had so carefully controlled and shaped the night, so expertly applied by both DJs, would finally fly completely off. With the music, the volume, the atmosphere and the intensity at fever pitch following over three and a half hours of calculated construction, McMillan would unleash on the crowd a night-finishing series of devastating tunes – three, or four, or five in a row, each hitting harder, bigger, and wilder than the last. And it was always building, or by this point, more exploding, right up until the last second – no cooling down, no chilling out. It always delivered the most definitive of ends. It always delivered.

Then, as the final epic tune would come to an end, and for the first time in four hours it was not replaced with another, volleys of cheering and clapping would go up, filling the odd silence. The lights would flick on, people would turn around grinning at each other, cheering and hugging, drinking water, and slowly, reluctantly, the dancefloor would clear.

The dancefloor cleared for me some time in 1996.

Over ten years later, the smile is still here.


John Braine said...

Excellent stuff Dave! I never made it over but it sounds right up my street. Saw the guys a few times over here. Once did the set building thing from obscure electronica right up to hard detroit stuff and it was amazing. Another time was bang bang alnight thoguh and was dull as dust.

Anyway; great capture of the magic of such places.

Lom said...

Quality writing Mr. Anderson. I've seen Slam on numerous occasion, but never managed to see them for a whole night.

Your words evoked what it truly must've been like to be in the Arches (although I've never been (only outside on a couple of occasions)) I can guess from your prose what the feeling and the visceral rush of *THAT* tune must have, and always is, like

URjaguar said...

Divot my man, you described a Slam night pre pressure wonderfully,I still get goosebumps recalling a certain time & a certain tune in that one wee arch.since 93 when i discovered "real" techno in that dank,sweaty,dirty foosty amazing place im still rockin with the best of them(unfortunately,not tonight)but I`ll be back boxing night. goin back to the old days in there,can you remember the nick yer trainers got into after a friday night?

keep the faith bud


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Dark. Scary, with a dash of envy because I was never there.
Brilliant nights well-captured buy your words.


divot said...

Thanks John, Lom, Max. UR Jaguar - I do indeed remember the trainer death - that black *stuff* - what was that?!

StevenScanlan said...

I came across your blog while searching for something completely different and I was instantly transported back to some of the best nights of my life! Drinks in Ten followed by the queue in teh cold and the frisk search before being given access to the club. And what a club it was! Stuart McMillan and Orde Meikle are the best I've ever heard. That, couple with the crowd's willingness to participate made for many, many mind blowing nights. I can still remember when the Slam boys unleashed 'Positive Education' on us...I'm goosebumping just thinking about it! And there were other monumental tracks that, taken on their own and out of that particular context might not have seemed so great, like Disco Evangelists 'DeNiro' or Jaydee's 'Plastic Dreams'. But these tracks found the perfect stage, the perfect audience and the perfect delivery at The Arches on a Friday night! Thank you for writing something that exactly matched my memories of those days, for capturing precisely what made it so great and for wiping 15 years off my age if only for a short while. Slam at The Arches was never a prissy club like the Tunnel, nor was it quite so sinister as the SubClub (I love the SubClub, by the way), it was the perfect balance of people and place and I miss it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a really great article, it took me way back... to this day, after years of living in Manchester, London, Paris and Barcelona, those Slam nights are still among the best club nights I have ever been to.

Re "that tune", the one that stands out in my mind is the "Chris & Derrick Reversed and Reiterated" remix of Positive Education - you could literally feel the walls shake as that simple piano chord prowled out the speakers... incredible.

brybhoy said...

''it'' was the very same for my brother kenny davidson working in his club called RAIN i dont seem off putting but back in the day we had dj's from all over the world and it rocked and if the rave took yir fancy you would go , like a did a lot of .Darmellington being the best show on earth was just so amazing total ''love - fest'' but glasgows RAIN was one of the gems in glasgow as the dub nights on a wednesday and heavy techno on the next night and friday nights were packed every weekend but ''sunday'' is the no nugget night in glasgows clubs as you dont get fighting boy in yir mush, anyways i would stand behind the dj - box and press the smoke machine for ages then flick on the strobe as he played on with slams - rejuvination and mobys - go but thats just a wee snip later peeps.

Anonymous said...

Great read, took me back.... what amazing memories from those days, I hope never to forget them. Going to the Arches this Friday for Pressure...:)

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Anonymous said...

Slam night was the undoubtably the most happening thing going on,especially Atlantis and Thursday night at Rain. If anybody remembers Lucifers it stated bouncing there, before going on to be Sub Club. , Stuart, Orde, Harry and Dave started a revolution. Viva la revolution

Unknown said...

If anyone ever asks me to describe slam at the arches I will send them here. Amazing article! Green Velvets Flash was mind blowing on that system