The Warehouse: Leeds nightclub memories

Tomorrow sees the re-opening of The Warehouse which launched in 1979 as a home for disco lovers, new romantics and the rave generation.

Rod McPhee looks at the origins of a club which always attracted the city's weird and wonderful – not to mention countless stars.

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Nirvana, Oasis, Wham!, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Smiths, Boy George, The Stone Roses, Whitesnake, Duran Duran, even the Village People – the roll call of famous faces who've walked through the doors of The Warehouse goes on and on.

So how did a 184-year-old back street building (which, at various times, has been a morgue and a tyre garage) become the epicentre of cool clubbing and music, not just for Leeds, but for the north of England?

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Credit for that goes to an American, Mike Wiand. At the age of 25 he left the states in 1969 to work for the US Government at Menwith Hill monitoring station near Harrogate and naturally he started exploring the nightlife of the closest big city.

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It wasn't long before he married a Leeds girl, Denise, and eventually left his old job to set up the local chain of Damn Yankee burger restaurants. And it was when he was considering converting the Somers Street building into a restaurant that the thought came to him – he would create a club the likes of which Leeds, if not most cities in the UK, had never seen.

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"What you have to remember is that most clubs back then just weren't what they are today," he laughs. "Most of them had sound systems that were terrible – most people have better sound systems in their own homes now. The lighting sucked and the music they played was so behind the times.

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"In the 70s we started going to Marbella where they had fabulous sound systems and lighting and they did something which had never been seen before in the UK – they actually MIXED records.

"At the time most DJs literally used to play seven inch records then interrupted the end to introduce the next one and it just totally sapped all the energy out of it. Whereas in Marbella they used to play 12 inch records and blend them in and it was just amazing to us then.

"And what we noticed was that this attracted a really cool, alternative, mixed crowd and I was pretty sure from the ten years I'd spent in Leeds that there was this same cool, alternative crowd out there. I didn't know for sure, of course, I just had a feeling."

Wiand caught the new wave at just the right time. The 70s was the heyday of The Rocky Horror Show, of punk, Bowie and Studio 54 – all of which aligned to create a permissive, anyone-can-do-anything statement of intent for the new generation.

So he wanted to create a club which would attract anyone who wasn't mainstream. It started with disco but then fashion turned against disco (and fear of the Yorkshire Ripper initially saw more and more people stay at home) so Wiand diversified into new, pioneering areas – first with electronica, then house music in the late 80s.

As a result it became a haven for everyone from cross-dressers to gay people to more conventional music lovers who wanted an experience different to the opposing culture of soft-rock mush and commercial pop.

The more outlandish the costume, the more makeup, the better. One night two guys appeared in the queue as a pantomime horse and were immediately ushered inside. Many of the more outrageous attendees are probably still in Leeds, now more respectable parents and grandparents.

"It was all down to the people of Leeds," said Wiand. "I didn't orchestrate things entirely they just evolved like that organically. All these weird and wonderful people just came out of the city's woodwork. We were quite strict on the door about who we let in. No one too mainstream-looking or anyone who didn't understand that the ethos of the club was tolerant.

"We would have to throw anyone out who caused trouble and picked on people for the way they were dressed or their sexuality or anything like that.We went through a pretty bad patch in the early 1980s with football hooligans and the National Front who would try and sneak in to cause trouble."

Helping to nudge things even further in the right direction was Greg James, a highly influential DJ who cut his teeth on the decks of the aforementioned Studio 54. He was a master in the brand new art of mixing records and had just launched the uber-cool Embassy club in London which pulled in the likes of Elton John, Bianca Jagger and Tatum O'Neal.

Greg said: "Mike and Denise found me at the Embassy and told me they were building a place in the north, an old warehouse. They invited me up and we opened in March 1979. It was just like the Embassy all over again – the same enthusiasm, people queueing down the street. You could do anything and they would've loved it. They had a ball up there."

They really did attract an off-the-wall crowd. First it was Saturday Night Fever and Farrah Fawcett lookalikes complete with flicked hair and rollerboots and later new romantics and gender-bending fashionistas, many of whom became famous regulars – and, amazingly, all of them came from Leeds or the surrounding area.

"Roxy was one guy I remember – he had a plastic clear dress on with a hat and a cape," recalls Greg. "He had nothing on underneath so you could see straight through to his body. Honestly, he used to look like a fairy godmother and turned up every Saturday doing some really strange things.

"And of course Marc Almond was our cloakroom girl – I used to help him put on his make-up! We brought out all the eccentrics of West Yorkshire."

The Warehouse is renowned for being the venue that hosted the first live performance of Soft Cell's huge hit Tainted Love, but they were just one of a string of bands who came to The Warehouse as its reputation as a cool club grew and grew.

Wiand said: "We were known as a place with a discerning crowd, they were fashionable and critical so a lot of record companies started to feel that if an artist could make it at The Warehouse they stood a good chance of making it anywhere.

"I remember we had Frankie Goes to Hollywood play here before they'd even got a record deal and The Sugarhill Gang came too, giving what must have been one of the first live performances of a rap ever seen in the UK. I don't think you'd have got those kind of artists coming to Leeds in such a concentration were it not for The Warehouse.

"And if we ever got anyone famous coming to the city we were the only place to go afterwards. And I mean everyone. I remember The Village People, bizarrely, premiered their movie in Leeds and so, of course, they came here afterwards to party.

"I remember George Michael called me up one night and asked that I put an area aside for him so he wouldn't be bothered by fans – he was huge by this time. So I cleared out the whole first floor area, which was a restaurant then.

"Anyway an hour later he ended up asking me to open up the first floor again because he was bored and a little lonesome and even when we did open it up he was mingling with all these regular clubbers – but no one bothered him, they were all a bit cooler than that at The Warehouse."

Steve Luigi was a legendary DJ in the 1980s, particularly when house music exploded in the city post-1985 and he pioneered the new sound at The Gallery in Leeds. He was a friend of Wiand and a regular at the club.

"There were famous people there all the time," he recalls. "I remember shaking hands with George Michael before Wham! became famous and I met them through Ian Dewhirst who was a massive Warehouse DJ at the time and went onto bigger things afterwards.

"He just introduced me to these two guys, one called Andrew Ridgley, the other George, and I didn't have a clue who they were. They were just these two spotty kids with big afro hair. But they were lovely guys and I sat there chatting, drinking cocktails with them."

Luigi recalls a golden age for house music in the late 80s, before it became mainstream. He has always been a stalwart of the uplifting sounds of Chicago and New York and still runs his own monthly house nights, Old's Cool, at Rio's in Leeds.

"In the late 80s and early 90s there was a holy trinity of venues in the city," he said. "There was The Warehouse and The Gallery and Arc and between us we really pioneered house music in Leeds."

Big name DJs like Sasha regular came to perform at The Warehouse with nights like Soak and Kaos. And in 1993 The Warehouse sparked 24 hour party culture in Leeds when it was granted a 6am licence by exploiting a loophole in the licensing laws.

And forget The Hacienda in Manchester. They didn't open until 1982 and closed in 1997 just as The Warehouse was reaching a new zenith. Vague had just had a hugely successful three year run and Speed Queen was about to launch – and last for another decade.

By 1990 Wiand had sold the club on to pursue other business interests and the new management looked for ways to keep the club fresh and underground.

Vague and Speed Queen both crystallised the ethos of acceptance that had kicked the party off in 1979, but they took the idea of diversity even further. Both nights were led, partly, by Leeds clubber and fashionista Suzy Mason.

She said: "What we set out to achieve with the club was a safe place where it didn't matter if you were 18 or 50, gay or straight. We didn't want an environment where you might get punched in the face for your sexuality or have the mickey taken out of you for being a bit older."

It was also blended a kitsch theme with an artistic underbelly which saw clubbers return to some of the outlandish costumes which characterised the late 70s. And that continued well into the Noughties when Storm patrolled the club's queues – a former cross-dressing dancer who, on any given night, appeared as a basque-wearing showgirl/pirate/cowboy/anything which took his fancy.

It was during the latter stages of the Vague and Speed Queen years that young clubbers Tony Walker, Anton Bailey and Jamie Murray became visitors to The Warehouse. They're the trio fronting up the new incarnation of The Warehouse which is unveiled tomorrow, three years after it closed, apparently for good.

Tony Walker came to Leeds to attend university and came to love the club first through partying at student nights then becoming a DJ.

"It really was at the forefront of the whole house music scene at the

time," he says. "Musically it's an absolute institution in Leeds and we couldn't bear to see it neglected the way it was. And it would have been an absolute tragedy had it not been turned back into a club.

"We all have a lot of really happy memories of The Warehouse especially from the days of Vague and Speed Queen. There was always something unique about the place in terms of the broadminded vibe and layout and some of that is what we've tried to enhance in what we've done with the venue now.

"But everything that's happened here over the last 20 years probably wouldn't have happened the way it did were it not for Mike Wiand and those early pioneers. He really is a legend in Leeds – it's hard to describe just how much we owe to him."

Mike is now 66 and lives a more serene life alongside his family and nature back in Texas, but he says the legendary nightspot on the other side of the Atlantic was his greatest achievement in life, and is always in his thoughts.

"I am incredibly proud of opening The Warehouse," he said. "And even though I live a very different life now there isn't a day goes by when the club and the city doesn't cross my mind. But I have to say that despite everything we did as management,

its success was 98 per cent down to the wonderful, amazing people of Leeds."