THE ZAP A BRIGHTON MOMENT IN HISTORY BY ADAM POWLEY
ASK an old clubber what their favourite night at Brighton’s legendary The Zap was and there will be plenty of answers but also confusion. Take the famous midweek acid house sessions. They were on a Wednesday night. Or was it Thursdays? Some insist Frankie Knuckles was there at the start. Not until years later, claim others. No one seems to be quite certain. The recall of factual detail, several decades on, is understandably hazy. But the emotional memory is different. The experiences, the collective euphoria, are not forgotten. And now they have been exhilaratingly re-lived.
Thirty-four years after The Zap opened its seafront doors to dance music, the venue again welcomed elated club-goers for a special reunion event. Arriving at the same site, now under its modern name of The Arch, hundreds gathered to revisit the hedonistic thrills of the music, DJs, and punters that made The Zap one of the best, and most influential, clubs of the era.
“It was absolutely rocking, a trip down memory lane,” says Danny Rampling who joyously headlined the reunion this June. As one of the greatest and most significant DJs in dance music history, he is well placed to judge, and ranks The Zap then and now in very high regard. “The atmosphere was really uplifting, on a par with anything in the 1990s. It reunited a lot of people, I reconnected with lots of friends. It always will be one of my favourite spots to play.
I knew it would be a good night, but it exceeded my expectations. I finished at 3.30 in the morning and I wasn’t sure if it would still be going but the dancefloor was still packed and people wanted more.
Chris Coco, the first ever dance-music DJ at The Zap, was one of those feeling the nostalgic pull of times past. “It sounds naïve but we truly believed back then it was going to make the whole world a better place,” he says, expressing an idealism many of his generation shared. “And I think in its own small way it did. People took that experience away with them into their daily lives.”
Coco, who played through the glory years and has since DJed far and wide, was also one of the headliners for the reunion gig. Casting his mind back to those very early days and the spirit of the times, with a nod to what the club means now, he says: “It’s about a moment – hard to describe really, you had to be there, in that specific space. Those nights were incredible. People going mad dancing, the feeling was extraordinary – totally addictive. It’s up there with the best.”
Neil Roden and David Godding share that sentiment. The pair were principal DJs at the club, and prime movers now in making the reunion happen. They still DJ and have put their minds and bodies into The Zap – literally in some respects. Roden is now a restaurant owner but also a qualified electrician who has done work at the venue. Godding is also a property developer who has provided hands-on graft.
Their stories are the stories of the club. Roden had arrived as a shy youngster in 1989 from Birmingham, and went on to become resident DJ for seven years. Brighton-raised Godding was a teenage customer initially, inspired by Eric Powell and idolising Roden’s performances at the Pussycat Club that played a large part in putting The Zap on the map. Godding won a DJ competition run by local radio station Juice FM, judged by John Digweed and Norman Cook, which in time led to Godding joining Roden in the main room: “I just loved the place,” Godding says. “The Zap was a love affair, and I lost my heart to it.”
It’s a romance shared by many and for Arch Director Damien Fell one that deserved to be rekindled: “I’ve had the place for 10 years, and we’ve been very successful in our own right. But The Zap is culturally relevant and important to the city’s history. People have asked us to do Zap-themed events but they were never hitting the spot in terms of how authentic it should be and who should be involved. Neil and Dave were vital. If we were ever going to do something like this, we didn’t want it to be half baked. It was important to get the occasion right. We own the bricks and mortar, but we don’t own the memories.”
Those memories are five decades in the making. The Zap started in 1982 as an arts venue hosting comedy and cabaret. It had a peripatetic initial existence, switching from pubs to hotels before settling into a more permanent home in two rudimentary arches under the seafront road, just to the east of the Brighton Centre.
The mood was slightly hippy with floor cushions and incense, but that belied external reality. The beachside area then was not the vibrant quarter it is now. Back in the 1980s, especially out of holiday season and at night when the amusement arcades had closed, it was a neglected, rundown, slightly foreboding place.
The town – not yet officially a city – was living up to writer Keith Waterhouse’s descriptive of a place ‘that always looks as if it is helping police with their enquiries.’ The phrase ‘decent Brighton nightclubs’ was an oxymoron. Exemplified by the Pink Coconut on West Street, the entertainment on offer was bland, with ego-tripping DJs playing commercial chart music to a clientele steered towards going on the pull, the piss, or for a punch-up. Often all three.
In truth the early club nights at The Zap were not much rosier, reflecting the downcast mood of Thatcherite times, with a tendency for shoe-gazing indie. Save for trailblazers like Mick Fuller at other venues, dance music was an anathema. “I remember The Zap being fairly Goth for the first couple of years,” says Tony Stevenson. He had arrived as a student in 1985, part of a growing influx from London and elsewhere heading to Brighton as university education expanded, bringing their diverse tastes with them including rare groove, and house.
It was this youthful constituency that played a key part in the nightlife revival, centred on The Zap to which like-minded souls looking for decent tunes gravitated. And it was Coco who lured them, playing a varied mixture of what he describes as ‘dance music, hip hop and Talking Heads’, almost as an afterthought when the arts performances had finished. This morphed into the acid house nights that in turn transformed the venue into the pre-eminent club on the south coast.
The Zap crowd, at least in terms of Brighton in the 1980s, was diverse, representing a range in social class, gender, ethnicity, age and sexuality. Students, builders, football fans, and gays (who would forge pioneering Zap gay night Club Shame) would congregate to fuel the hedonism, inevitably stoked by the arrival of Ecstasy. Sweat wouldn’t so much run as cascade down the walls, dancers bumping into each other in the low-ceilinged darkness, but in a communal spirit of easy-going bonhomie.
“It was grimy,” says Coco, “but it worked. It was different from the more ‘townie’ nightclubs where you had to wear smart clothes to get in. The Zap was a turning point. Suddenly you could go out and have a good time dancing. You wouldn’t get punched in the face. I don’t think people now realise how casually violent the UK could be at that time. The Zap changed that in Brighton; it was a shift in culture.”
The midweek acid sessions proved a dance-music venue could prosper and there was no turning back. Coco himself gave his name to the eponymous Saturday club that pioneered emerging variations of house with a focus on uplifting, soulful piano-based tunes, and which ran until 1994. The Zap soon outgrew the limitations of the original two arches and a refit saw it expand into a much larger space next door, reconfigured into a purpose-built arena and with a sound system to match, designed to DJs’ specification. Coco says: “The physical structure was key. It was a u-shape, so people would dance opposite, looking at each other. As a DJ you were set off on another balcony over-seeing this mayhem.
“It was just one DJ to start – there wasn’t a parade of two-hour sets, so there was a connection between the DJ, the people, and the music, running for only four hours back then and finishing at 2am. The last half an hour was all the club hits one after the other in a euphoric crescendo. It was intense. A blast.”
This potent atmosphere welcomed the cream of DJ culture. Rampling cites the beachside location as a major attraction for the big names. He hosted a hugely popular ‘South’ residency in the 1990s, having first played at The Zap in 1989 two years after his era-defining Shoom was launched in London. “It was a very mixed club ,” he says, “a lot of colourful characters, a pretty diverse crowd. It was in a fine position, right in the middle of Brighton beach and people would have chillout sessions there after the club closed. We did a night in 1989 with Coco and Laney taking some Shoomers down to Brighton. It was a wild crowd.”
Norman Jay, Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox, Andrew Weatherall, Tall Paul, Damian Harris, of Brighton-based label ‘Skint’ fame, DJ Paulette, Dave Clarke, John Digweed, David Morales, Sasha, Laurent Garnier and Jocelyn Brown were just some of the others who played memorable sets and residencies at The Zap over the years.
And so indeed did Knuckles, for magical turns that have achieved near mythical status. “He was the nicest guy,” says Roden. “I’ve met big name DJs who are complete arses. But he was lovely. He was so humble, but you could feel the electricity when he walked in. And he loved playing here. But then any DJ said the same thing.”
These DJs drew an equally eye-catching crowd, including Bobby Gillespie and his Primal Scream bandmates when they were resident in Brighton. Prince Albert of Monaco bestowed his regal presence. Kylie Minogue took a whirl on the dancefloor with Roden. Even June Brown, who played Dot Cotton in Eastenders, dropped by. The Zap really did attract all sorts.
It was this spirit that the reunion organisers wanted to recapture. Roden’s inspiration had in part stemmed from the clamour of former Zap-goers on a Facebook group he has lovingly curated for 17 years, with repeat demands for a trip down clubbing memory lane. “A week didn’t go past without someone pleading with us to do a night,” he says. “We put on a couple of low-key events at other places, and they were good, but it just didn’t feel right. We had to return home.
“I’ve been to all the big clubs, from the Hacienda, to Ministry. But the Zap was just different. And everywhere I’ve been, everyone’s heard of it. I just couldn’t get enough of it, and it was basically my second home for 15 years.”
As it was for many. The Zap was the epicentre for a nightlife renaissance in Brighton with
other clubs and bars contributing to a thriving wider scene, fed further by a rivalry with Brighton’s other main venue, The Royal Escape (now Patterns). The Frock & Jacket bar in The Lanes nearby was the pre-Zap bar of choice; special Zap dogtags produced for New Year’s Eve parties became collectable; home-made videos were shot of seminal Zap nights, notably DJ Harvey’s early ventures with Tonka.
Tonka was a favourite of Nigel Huddleston, another Midlander who moved to Brighton in the early 1990s and straight away felt at home in The Zap. “The away day versions of London clubs such as Love Ranch and Full Circle were other top nights – actually an afternoon in the latter’s case. I went to hear music I couldn’t elsewhere: the first time I heard the full nine minutes of ‘Smokebelch II’ by Sabres of Paradise and Flowered Up’s ‘Weekender’ in its 13-minute entirety were both in the Zap, played by Weatherall. They were special moments.”
The club catered not just for dance but a range of genres and tastes. Reflecting its origins there were live indie gigs – ‘PJ Harvey to Pavement’ recalls another Zap vet, Steve Hook. Godding became a promoter himself, bringing in Defected Records and Hed Kandi for epic nights that extended to 5am when licensing hours were relaxed.
It wasn’t all non-stop good times. Disputes with management led to some DJs moving on. Some customers felt the door policy became a little too rigorous, arbitrary, and out of step with the club’s communal ethos. The quality of music varied, reflecting genres overall. But after a couple of temporary name changes and right up until its end in 2008, The Zap continued to set the clubbing and music agenda in Brighton, passing the baton on to The Arch, which it proudly carries to this day.
10:30pm, Saturday June 10, 2023, and The Zap is rocking once more. The host venue is already full – none of the lucky ticket holders want to miss out on any of the fun. Robert Owens is behind the decks, a rammed podium to his front. Despite The Arch’s modern air-con, on a hot summer night the place is volcanic. The dancefloor is packed and will stay that way until lights up. The sound has never been better, all four-to-the-floor house tunes and club classics, as Roden and Godding, who each deliver storming sets, had promised they and the other DJs would play. Dancers once again face off from each other; the raised stage and podiums have switched 90 degrees from the old days, but the positive vibes and intensity are just the same. It’s a happy, bouncing, emotional place.
A crescendo is reached with Rampling’s full-throttle closer. The atmosphere ramps up, feeling like a communal rite of passage as much as a celebration of dance music. Gat Decor’s ‘Passion’ is a particularly expressive, hands-in-the-air moment. “I put a playlist together and went with the uplifting mood,” says Rampling, with understatement for the effect it had on those treated to his performance. “I enjoyed it as much as anyone. I was dancing around in the booth having a great time.”
It was, as everyone hoped it would be, a special night. The DJs were of the utmost importance, vindication of a Roden, Godding, and Fell’s carefully selected line-up. When tickets went on sale, all 620 were snapped up in less than half an hour, a record for The Arch and leaving many more disappointed. Fell had made sure the setting was accurate: “Getting it right was really important. We tipped our hat in the correct manner, and I’d like to think that’s been acknowledged.”
Judging by the response of Zap old hands, they succeeded. “There was a track that reminds me so much of the club back in the day,” said Stevenson, down from London for the weekend for a night he couldn’t miss. “Frankie Knuckles Presents: Satoshi Tomiie, ‘Tears’, featuring Robert Owens. It was great to hear it again in that place, and played by Owens himself.” In the side room Coco did an acid set after his first stint in the main room. He kicked off with Phuture’s ‘Acid Trax’, and bang, it was 1989 all over again. “How did we manage six hours of that back in the day?” smiled Hook.
It was also, understandably, an emotional night. Both Roden and Godding admit to crying when planning the event and blubbed further when it was in full flow. They weren’t alone. There were plenty of smiles, rictus grins of yore on many faces, and a revivalist, gleefully loved-up atmosphere. But there was also some sense of sadness – of cherished times and people lost, a melancholy for those who couldn’t be there, in the saddest of circumstances.
Once all the costs have been accounted for, a significant donation from the event will go to local charity Grassroots Suicide Prevention. Mental health and suicide has inevitably touched many Zap goers in the intervening years, Roden and Godding among them. “My best mate took his own life, on my birthday,” the former says. “It still gets me now. The charity do such a great job. We hear about how important it is to talk, but a lot of people aren’t equipped to have conversations like that. Grassroots Suicide Prevention really help in that regard.”
Godding agrees. “It’s overwhelming how many people have been affected by mental health or suicide. I’ve been through mental health issues, I’ve had friends that have passed through suicide, so that was a driving force for me.”
The pair talk more, about how dance music culture was and still is a refuge; about how coming to The Zap could enable people to park their troubles, and least for a while in a place that feels like home, with familiar people all dancing to the finest music of the past and present.
“The Zap today was the same as the original but different,” Huddleston says of the reunion. “There was no condensation dripping off the ceiling for one thing. It sometimes felt like it was raining on especially hot and full nights. The most striking thing was the sense of liberation among all those up-for-it older people reconnecting with their youth, after years of being sensible because you had to be up early to take the kids to football, or swimming, or soft play.
“It felt special. It captured the spirit of The Zap: lose yourself with a load of like-minded people and blot out the nasty big world outside.”