The more I write, the more I learn. For me writing is about honesty. That is why life experience is very important to this creative process. I write about landscapes I have roamed, crazy moments I have faced, exotic and bizarre foods I have eaten, peoples’ stories that bring me to tears, and the fragile history of my local area Hackney. Below is the first piece I ever had published in Dalstonist. I love this story as it was close to my heart. I met some amazing people, experienced the rave culture first hand (all in the name of research!), and I hope helped a little in keeping the memories alive. It was this story that gave me the confidence to keep writing. I will always be grateful for that. Writing inspires me to look around, question what I see, and to explore forgotten stories. And below is one I believe shall never be forgotten.
Walking through Dalston Square today, look closely and you will find a plaque bearing the name Labyrinth Tower – one of several huge residential blocks that now rise above Kingsland High Street.
Few reading it will realize that the name pays tribute to the legendary sound systems and hordes of loved-up ravers who inhabited a nightclub that stood at 12 Dalston Lane for more than 30 years.
Today, Dalston is renowned for its small and intimate venues. If you’re looking for a messy night, you can always find it on the strip. But among Dalston’s current generation, little is known about the area’s musical heritage, one that had a profound impact on music and clubbing today. The Four Aces club, which went on to be known as Labrynth, welcomed the likes of Bob Marley and Debbie Harry and launched the careers of artists such as the Prodigy and Desmond Dekker. It all started with Four Aces owner Newton Dunbar.
“Well, I have been told I am a pioneer” says Dunbar with a twinkle in his eye. Dunbar came to London from Jamaica and opened the Four Aces in 1966 to provide a live music venue for people from the West Indies. The Four Aces, originally built in 1886 to house a Georgian circus and theatre, became one of the UK’s first clubs dedicated to black music and took its name from a popular brand of Jamaican cigarettes. In 1988 it transformed into Labrynth, which defined London’s rave scene for a decade until Hackney Council served the club notice of eviction.
Starting out as the centre point of London’s golden days of reggae, the club evolved and in later years catered for crowds desperate to hear the sounds of acid house, drum and bass and jungle. Packed with dark tunnels, gangsters, pills, and a generation that just wanted to dance, Labrynth maintained the legendary status achieved by the Four Aces.
The Four Aces was born when black music had not yet been accepted into the mainstream. It provided a home for black artists at a time when there were no black radio stations and few black stars in the UK. Dunbar showcased up-and-coming reggae artists and later hosted legendary sound clashes and sound systems.
The Four Aces
“We had Ben E. King and Jimmy Cliff, who were big stars in America,” he recalls. “As luck would have it, Desmond Dekker was the first reggae star that went into the charts. We booked him four weeks before he was number one. It was incredible”.
Dunbar stayed at the helm of the club for 22 years, during which time it provided a home for a range of pioneering sounds from soul to reggae and ska. Leading lights would come to the Four Aces to hear music at the cutting edge. Bob Dylan visited the club with his entourage. “Bob Marley used to hang out there,” says Dunbar, casually. “He was a man’s man. A regular guy.”
As time went on the club moved on to hosting sound systems such as Sir Coxsone and Fat Man. The high ceiling and thick walls “provided a very good venue for competitive roots of amplified music,” Dunbar explains. All the top DJs vied to play at the Four Aces, which had become the UK’s main venue for black music.
“At that time I didn’t realise I was doing anything special,” says Dunbar, “but as most pioneers will tell you, they are traveling into unknown territory”. The club was regularly raided by the police, who were unnerved by the clubs growing popularity. “It toughened me as a person,” says Dunbar. He took the decision to expand the space and changed the music policy, in what was to be a turning point in the club’s history.
Dunbar kept his office upstairs but handed control of the club itself to Joe Wieczorek, a London promoter who’d been holding illegal warehouse parties in locations such as Shacklewell Lane and Essex Road. The club became Labrynth. Prompted for his earliest memories of Dalston, Wieczorek recalls in broad Cockney: “My first ever trip to Dalston was actually to the Four Aces. I remember going to Dalston Lane, putting my head in and thinking: ‘Oh my God, do you know where I am?’ This skinny white kid!”
Switching from reggae and soul to acid house, Labrynth hosted legendary raves where DJs such as Kenny Ken, Slipmatt and the Rat Pack stood at the decks before a sweaty crowd mashed out of reality. “We paid £900 for a massive sound system and we painted the backdrops ourselves” remembers Wieczorek.
The sounds in the tunnels and main room were loud and impressive. Smileys and quality pills created the atmosphere. No one was there to be seen. People came to Labrynth to dance. “There was no pretentiousness,” says Wieczorek. “It was the most mixed crowd of people ever. Bank managers, pop stars – we had a French geezer who came all the way from Paris to Dalston. Even one or two people from Eastenders. Rollie, our MC, was from Grange Hill.” The hypnotic beats also attracted cultural innovators like Vivienne Westwood and others who would go on to produce beats for a later generation, such as DMZ’s Mala, who had their first taste of dance music within Labrynth’s walls.
Although Labrynth existed to bring music and people together, it soon became a hugely successful business. That brought its own problems to a club already operating in shady legal territory. “From having about 15 people in there, we went to about 700 in one hour and then it was crazy. Carrier bags full of money. Where do you put it? You can’t go the bank!” laughs Wieczorek. “Anyone at all in the world you think you can leave it with, I am telling you, you are wrong. We walked out with 30 grand in one night. In fivers and tenners. Where do you put it?” The money attracted the attention of the local gangs. Luckily, Wieczorek knew many of them from his early days at illegal raves and persuaded them to leave the club alone. “I see them coming,” he chuckles. “They have gone there for the pound note, not the music, peace, love and harmony.”
Wieczorek recalls that, threats from gangs aside, there was seldom any violence. Crowds emerged from the club steaming from the heat and drugs, embracing each other rather than fighting. “Only the happiest of people need apply, if you screw up, you don’t come back. That was the rule” he says. “It was about freedom. You could do a line of charlie off the bar.”
In later years the club’s hardcore heritage would give way to jungle with the emergence of iconic artists such as Shut up and Dance. Wieczorek has conflicting memories about the arrival of jungle, which he associates with a shift in the drugs the crowd were taking. The unity of people coming together on ecstasy started to be lost as more punters turned to drugs like crack. “In the early days it was Es and trips. But then drum and bass introduced charlie in a big way … which very quickly became the pipe,” says Wieczorek. “The only time I ever had a dilemma was over jungle music. I see the crack coming,” he remembers.
As it turned out, it wasn’t a shift in the drugs scene that brought about the club’s demise. In 1998, despite protests and 25,000 signatures on a petition, the club was evicted by Hackney Council as it prepared to redevelop the area. Dunbar left his office and the roof was removed from the building. Soon enough, the British weather poured in and destroyed the beautiful listed building.
“It was like trying to fight Goliath” says Dunbar about his struggle with the council. Dunbar remains stoic about an event that many felt involved the demolition of not just a building, but a large part of Dalston’s cultural heritage. “I am in the music business. The council are in the business business. History has recorded it. No need for me to even comment on that,” he says.
These days, Dunbar is a DJ. “I decided to reinvent myself, so to speak”, he says proudly. His spiritual connection to the club is reflected in his moniker: Newton Ace. “I take the Four Aces sign with me. Wherever I DJ, the Four Aces is”.
Wieczorek is also maintaining the club’s legacy, promoting Labrynth nights at various venues around London. “I’m 56 but I am always looking forward to the next party,” he grins.
The Four Aces and Labrynth are long gone, but their legacy lives on in the memories of those who partied there and the music they went on to produce. As for Dalston, the club scene has seen Debbie Harry replaced with Harry Styles. The site where the Four Aces and Labrynth used to stand is now home to Dalston Junction station and Labyrinth Tower.
“I struggle not to cry if I go past the place,” says Wieczorek. “I stay away from Dalston because bringing the place to an end, without at least finding a relevant substitute, I think it was wrong.”
He has some advice for today’s ravers: “Stay true to it. Please stay true to it,” he says. “No matter what music you like. It is still as good as the first time. The rules have changed and we live in a world of CCTV now, no smoking in clubs. We all have to adhere to things slightly differently. But things are alright at the moment. Yeah… they are alright.”