Lost Liverpool #22: thrills, pills and Toblerone – the carnage and chaos behind Voodoo clubnight

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Voodoo

Lost Liverpool journeys back to the 90s and looks at just what happened when regulars of techno club Voodoo took their party the road.

As we have mentioned in these august pages before, the Liverpool techno club Voodoo became a way of life for a lot of people in those heady, heavy times of the 90s, a place where friendships were formed and lives changed.

This is something that was, to be truthful, a lot to do with those two powerful bonding forces; drugs and music. So Lost Liverpool has decided to have a look into those hazy days, and nights.

The aim of this article is to provide an honest, candid and hopefully amusing look back at those times, and not to come across as idle drug boasting. What happened back then was not a celebration of drugs, but a celebration of life.

This article also concerns itself specifically with what happened when the good and happy folk of Voodoo decided to take their revelry away from the confines of Liverpool and headed elsewhere, by car coach or plane. We set out only to enjoy ourselves, as was the way in those hedonistic times. What happened was some of the best and funniest times of our lives.

I’m sure it won’t stretch our imagination to wonder if having a coach or club full of up for it scousers led to stories so ridiculous that their veracity would be doubted were we not all there to bear testament to their truth.   So let us look into the legends that were the Voodoo road trips.

This habit of journeying out beyond our comfort zone started with a coach trip to the first Tribal Gathering festival, in 1995. One public spirited and enterprising Voodoo regular booked a coach and advertised for people to join in the fun, and luckily I managed to snatch up the very last seat.

Things got off to a promising start when one of our number boarded with 24 cans of lager and a cheese pasty.  Apparently he had been out all night on the Friday, only returning home in time to change and head out again.  “Me ma wouldn’t let me out of the house unless I had something to eat.” he said by way of explanation. “She told me to get some Cornies down me, but I just grabbed a pasty to shut her up”. The cheese pasty was still there, uneaten, when we got back to Liverpool the next day.

The coach set off early enough, but a short time out of Liverpool it broke down and we were forced to abandon it on the hard shoulder and sit on the grass while we waited for repair. The sun was shining and it was around 11 in the morning. I was sitting with a girl I’d never met until we were seated together on the coach, just chatting, getting along. I noticed she had gone quiet and asked if she was ok. “I’m fine” she said, “I’m just coming up on my acid.” Mindful of this , I resisted the urge to shout “Why!? Why are coming up on a trip at 11.00 in the morning, on the hard shoulder of a motorway! We’re on our way to Tribal Gathering, why didn’t you take it there!? Acid is brilliant at a festival, but perhaps not so much on a motorway hard shoulder in the daytime, pace yourself!”, however tempted I may have been.

When packing for this journey, one wise individual had the foresight to bring a three-foot bong along with him, which helped pass the time on the time nicely on the four hour journey. So enamoured were we all of this handy device that it was decided we should sneak it past security into the site. Quite how we did this I unfortunately can’t recall, but we managed it and the owner was then lumbered with it for the 18 hours of the festival. Happily, he didn’t seem to mind and made many new friends that day.

Steve Shiels plays Voodoo

Steve Shiels plays Voodoo (Photo courtesy of Mark McNulty)

On a similar trip to The Orbit in Leeds, we pulled into a service station for what is nowadays euphemistically referred to as a ‘comfort break’. The coach emptied as 42 over excited scousers piled into the shops. We must have made an unstoppable force as we all spilled into the first shop we came to and as soon as we were there, shoplifting broke out on a mass scale. Tins of travel sweets, fluffy toys and overpriced bottles of pop all disappeared into pockets and under coats. Subtlety was not something that was high on people’s mind, maybe we were all invincible in such numbers.

One of the coach’s organisers, mindful of his home town’s reputation, started telling his charges to put things back, to be ambassadors for their city. Then he looked around and saw a large amount of people totally unconnected with the coach trip were joining in on with gusto. The whole place had erupted into a riot of tea-leafery that was verging on looting. “Ah fuck it” he thought, shoved a massive Toblerone underneath his arm and walked out smiling.

The shop’s staff faced a dilemma. They were aware that their store was being pilfered on a grand scale, but were ill equipped to deal with such numbers. The manager unlucky enough to be on duty at the time stood behind the counter, face reddening, and shouted “You’re all being filmed, CCTV is capturing all of this.” Instead of the mass guilt and capitulation he may have expected would be the result of this announcement, one of the revellers walked towards him, pointed and said “Hey mate, your cheeks are dead red! Hahaha, hey everyone – get on them rosy cheeks!” At which point the whole shop burst out laughing, pointed at his still reddening face and casually walked out with their ill-gotten gains.

Back on the coach, the coach driver was presented with a Toblerone. “Aw, have you bought that for me?” he said. “That’s really nice”. On the return journey, he was given his first go on a spliff, so it wasn’t a bad day’s work for him all told.

Voodoo

Voodoo (Photo courtesy of Mark McNulty)

Getting drugs into new places was always something of a challenge.  In our own club, we knew how the bouncers were, what the searches were like and just what we could get away with, but in strange clubs and festivals this was unknown territory.  In response to this, one of our number, a girl from an impeccable background, came up with some very elaborate underwear, incorporating hidden compartments, strange fastenings and cunning camouflage, in order to sneak supplies past security. I never saw these garments myself, but heard tales of the devilish complexity of their arrangements, and I can vouch for the fact that they worked.

In the absence of such items, others, more traditional methods were employed. On one trip to Leeds to see Joey Beltram and Voodoo resident Andy Nic on the decks, one of our party convinced a girl to hide 50 Es in her bra.  Our Voodoo experiences had taught us that girls didn’t get searched due to the fact that the bouncers there were uniformly male. This she did, on the proviso that she would be sorted out once we were all in. Unfortunately, The Orbit had female bouncers for just such an occasion, and the girl was taken to one side for a pat down. Our collective hearts temporarily stopped as she was frisked, before passing the search and being allowed into the club.

How this happened were couldn’t really understand, as the bag was visible to the naked eye, never mind the probing hand. Chance was smiling on us that night, and over the next few hours the bag of pills was emptied. The brave lass who took them through was rewarded by the owner of these pills by him crushing one on a table and inviting her to snort it. I have quite literally never seen somebody come up quite so quickly in my life; one moment she was complaining about how she nearly got caught with somebody else’s drugs, the next she was perhaps the happiest person on the planet, and all was well for another night.

We soon worked out that the correct ratio on the coaches was one dealer for every 8 – 10 people. That way there was a good variety on offer, as well as a good amount. In fact, one of the crowd had a habit of swapping acid tabs with other people, collecting lots of different types of trips. At Glastonbury one year, he took 10 trips, each one of them different. I later asked him what it was like and he told me he could just about make out his hand in front of his face.

Paying to get into festivals seemed to go against some people’s principles in the 90s, and one such a principled person was on the Tribal Gathering coach, but was determined to somehow bunk in. After casing the perimeter of the festival’s walls, he determined that the best way in was to climb up a tree at the fence’s edge and drop down on the other side, free and easy. Putting his best foot forward, he shinned up the tree, managed to pull himself along a branch and safely landed inside the festival’s grounds. Unfortunately for him, he landed directly in the security compound behind the main stage.

Looking around, he saw security running towards him from left and right and sprinted away. Seeing a set of steps and a doorway, he bolted for these hoping they would lead somewhere safe. What he probably wasn’t expecting was the fact that the steps led to the main stage. Undeterred,  he ran onto the stage, past the DJ, still being chased by security guards, and garnered a huge cheer from the massive audience. Luckily, he got to the edge of the stage, vaulted over a fence and was soon lost in the anonymity of the crowd.

However, at some point in the proceedings, he had caught his hand and his jeans on something sharp. The cut to his hand wasn’t big, but it must have been deep and a small amount of a nerve could be seen protruding from it, so a visit to the medical tent was in order. The doctor on duty repaired the damage and added a stitch or two before bandaging the affected area. So impressed was the recipient of this care that he offered the doctor a pill, which he took after a few furtive glances left and right. Everyone, it seemed, was taking E at the time.

The follow up to this is that the injured party worked as a joiner and was unable to return to work until his hand had healed, a process which took a few weeks. This meant over £800 in lost wages, plus the £60 cost of the jeans that were ripped. No doubt this was a sickener, and I imagine the fact that tickets for the festival were just £35 can’t have made him feel much better. Still, at least he got in for free.

 

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Another festival we attended as a group event was the much missed Phoenix in 1996, although this time we actually went in a succession of cars rather than a coach. This was the year that saw David Bowie, The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers played, along with Megadog running the dance tent. On the Thursday, we all dove into our stashes for the first night. There were some Es going around at the time called California Sunrise, which were quite big and had an orange tint to them. I thought the size and colour had given the tablets their name, but I was wrong – they were so called because they came up quickly!

One of our number who had experienced this sunrise for himself was soon missing from our group, but we assumed he had got talking to someone or gone on his merry way somewhere. By the time we had got back to our tents he still hadn‘t shown up. On Friday we reported this to security, who were massively unconcerned and told us he was probably enjoying himself somewhere. Phone calls back home revealed he hadn’t turned up there and we were more than a little concerned.

Eventually, we managed to contact him at his home in Liverpool, over 70 miles from where we were camped. When we asked what had happened, his only response was “I went west la”. No further details were forthcoming. But how did you get home? “I just went west.” What actually happened to you?  “I went west.”  To this day I have no idea just what had happened and he refused to discuss it over the years, other than to say he just “went west.”

A happier event at the same festival was when one lad skinned up inside the pocket of his hoody in front of security! Some furtive movement, including a spot of sterling work with a lighter went on under cover, a perfect spliff emerging just minutes later. Hats off to the fella!

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Sometimes, we liked to travel further afield, so a group of us Voodoo heads packed our bags and headed off to Ibiza. When asked why would people who spend every weekend clubbing go to Ibiza for a holiday our answer was another question: do you love the life you live? Naturally, we wanted to make sure we had some good quality pills with to see us through our holiday, so we usually decided to take our own with us. This probably sounds riskier than it was, as the searches out of the country were negligible and the Ibizan tourist trade was pretty dependent on clubbers, so the searches in were non existent. Nevertheless, one of our number volunteered to be our ‘mule’ and smuggle our supplies deep inside her.

To be safe, our bag of goodies was double wrapped in condoms before insertion and once through customs all seemed to be well. The first thing we hadn’t accounted for was just how much packages can expand when flying through higher altitudes. One look at the fully inflated crisp bag on the table in front of me gave me an idea of what must be going on in the poor girl’s nether regions. Well, that and the shocked expression on her face shortly after take off.

The poor girl sat there with expanded contraband inside her for over two hours. When we eventually got through the Ibizan customs, she went to retrieve our stash, which is when she experienced the second thing we hadn’t accounted for. After over two hours with what was basically a balloon inside her, she must have, how can I put this delicately… expanded a little herself. As she prepared to recover our contraband in the airport’s loos, the now deflated package pretty much flew out of her as she sat down and she had to employ lightning fast reflexes and excellent coordination to catch the package before it simply plopped into the airport’s public toilets. They don’t mention that one in the TV dramas!

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Jeff Mills was always a great Voodoo favourite. So much so that when he flew into the country, we would again pile into a succession of cars and go to as many of his gigs as we could manage. One particular weekend saw a double header, where he played Manchester’s Sankey’s Soap on the Friday and the Voodoo on the Saturday, leading to what became known as ‘the great Jeff Mills lost weekend’.

Three or four cars headed to Manchester, so crammed there was even one person in the boot. All discomfort was worth it to see the undeniably brilliant Jeff Mills turn in a stormer of a set. Sankey’s was hot and heaving and we danced like things possessed. When the gig had finished, we squashed ourselves back into our cars and headed off to a party back in Liverpool. The afterparties were often the highlight of the weekend, and we found ourselves in a freezing cold cellar in some unidentified part of town. Still buzzing from the night we danced further until we fell back on cushions exhausted and grinning.

When we thought we might have come down enough to sleep, we headed off home, showered and tried for a few hours fitful sleep. Whether sleep was forthcoming or not, come the evening we were off out to do the whole thing again with another Jeff Mills gig followed by another afterparty lasting until the early hours of Sunday afternoon. By this time, an excess of dancing in a succession of sweaty t-shirts had led to a condition that we shall call Dancer’s Nipple. That takes some explaining in polite company I don’t mind telling you.

Thankfully, at the time I had a fairly mindless job in a factory where focus and general awareness were not major concerns. Even so I can clearly remember some Monday mornings after a heavy weekend thinking “If I can’t sit down right now, I might actually faint!” Once when I was sat on the floor of the Mountford Hall at two in the morning after seeing Primal Scream on their Screamadelica tour, listening to Andy Weatherall and laughing at my hands, I suddenly realised I had to be at work in just under five hours.  How I did it I really don’t know, but I did, we all did.  People held down jobs, got their degrees and were, most of the time, normal people.

So we made it to work, or to Uni, in body if not in mind, and I never fainted. I pushed both my luck and my body to extremes, but I am so glad that I did, because it was the perfect time to do so, and I had the best time of my life.

If, as William Blake suggests, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, then we are all wise indeed. So here’s to my fellow travellers down that road, those who banded with me and came out of the other side with tales to tell. We had the best of times together and I tip my hat to all of you. We were road warriors, we were adventurers, we were Voodoo.

 

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