Design & Living / Culture Talks

Flyers Charting Over Three Decades of Nightclub Hedonism

From early New York disco to British acid house, Steve Terry’s collection of nightlife ephemera provides a visual history of the golden eras of clubbing

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1985.1.31-Leigh-Bowery's-Taboo,-14-Leicester-Squar
Leigh Bowery’s Taboo, 1985Courtesy of Wild Life Archive

Party invitations, advertising history’s most mythical clubs and raves, are the unsung heroes of dance music culture. Before the internet, the nightclub flyer was the main tool used to spread the word about an upcoming night, providing a siren call for faithful clubbers across the world. Though never made to last, these physical artefacts have since become historical records of dance music scenes, their subcultures and visual identities. Now, thanks to our hunger for nostalgia, rave and club culture of previous decades has become increasingly deified, helping the spirit of nightlife past live on. 

Since attending his first rave in his early teens at an east London warehouse, Steve Terry has been collecting mementos from all the nights he’s attended. The result is Wild Life Archive, which includes flyers and other ephemera spanning more than three decades, containing everything from early New York disco and Detroit techno to British acid house. Now, as the archive is open to the public as part of Vitra Design Museum’s exhibition Night Fever, which posits nightclubs as epicenters of avant-garde creativity, we talk to Terry about his extraordinary collection. 

On collecting flyers and other club ephemera… 
“It started as a way of knowing what was happening next weekend or as a memory from a night out. It’s how you heard about nights. I really kept everything – it was like a history of where you had been. Then I started picking up flyers for other raves and club nights that I was not attending, and soon enough it was the beginning of a collection. Nearly 30 years later there are over 4,500 pieces – some have memories attached, like the very first raves we attended, and others are really special because they are from a legendary club like the Paradise Garage. Some of the most creative invites I’ve come across are the ones made by AREA nightclub in New York. They were always pretty special. Boxes of popcorn, egg shells, mousetraps. One of them was a capsule that floated the invite to the surface when dissolved in water.”

On bandanas as party invites… 
“Though a relatively unusual type of invite, the bandana is a specialist fetish in the world of clubs. It has a rich history as an emblem of rebellion and allegiance. During its early life it was associated with pirates, bandits and cowboys in the wild west. Later on it was adopted by gangs and the gay community, who used it as a way to signify sexual preference by hanging them out the back pocket. Bandanas are deeply rooted in gay semiotics and that’s the main reason why the club scene picked up on it. The most obvious bandana to reference is the first Keith Haring ‘Party of Life’ invite from 1984 at the Paradise Garage club with DJ Larry Levan. It’s a lovely combination – a Haring artwork for a party at one of the most legendary clubs of all time. He was really creative with party invites; he had even printed on a pair of shorts at some point.” 

On nostalgia for iconic club eras past... 
“At the inception of each new movement in the evolution of dance music culture you had a defining set of clubs, DJs, producers and record labels. Looking back in time these will always be seen as the originals and therefore attract cult status, but there are also socio-political reasons for the current nostalgia, as clubs get further regulated and restricted in the regenerated cities that these subcultures helped build. Having said that, I recently read that illegal raves are growing in the UK, which is a great sign!

“I am obviously romantic about eras past, but I’m also an active participant in the now and believe that history is there to be written. Clubs reflect a certain moment and are part of the zeitgeist; they’re not meant to last, and that’s part of their mythical appeal. They remain relevant for a period of time, until the next wave comes through.”

On a personal moment of dancefloor ecstasy… 
“Francois K spinning Strings of Life at Body & Soul in New York. People were literally on their knees, some in total trance doing ballet moves while others just lost their shit as the track was peaking. That was a real moment for me!”

Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960 – Today is on at Vitra Design Museum, Germany until September 9, 2018.

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