Arts Cover Story Culture Music

South-east London’s nightlife success stories

A small group in Peckham are putting on parties that could well make them the unlikely heroes keeping London’s after-hours culture alive.

19 Aug 2016

Somewhere after the succession of hair weaves and fish being hawked on Rye Lane is a grubby red door next to a closed down chiropodist. A sign that looks like it’s been there since the 1980s at the entrance reads ‘Canavan’s Peckham Pool Club’. A chalkboard on the pavement advertises a twice weekly Karaoke night.

Open all day and night, through the door is a narrow, bleach smelling corridor that leads to a caged bar bookended with a punchbag arcade game. At the back of the bar area is a dividing wall lined with bullet proof glass (it’s cheaper than soundproofing) behind which the pool tables are lined up.

The dance floor – an empty space with a grimy wooden floor – looks like the kind of place the Inbetweeners would go to for an embarrassing disco. Yet on a Friday and Saturday night, it’s the site of some of the most talked about club nights in London, having become a fixture in the recent emergence of Peckham as a night time neighbourhood.

Canavan’s is a jarring and confusing place for many first timers; the DJ booth sits in a sunken converted pool table, from which a soundtrack of underground house is played by some of the most exciting new DJs in London. All the while Kieran Canavan, a domineering 50-year-old Irishman and the proprietor of the pool hall charges round, occasionally shouting and picking up errant coats on the radiators.

Rhythm Section

One of the longest running nights the pool hall hosts is Rhythm Section, a laid back, vinyl-only house music night held two Fridays a month by Bradley Phillip (aka ‘Bradley Zero’).

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The night started when Phillip, then 23, was walking past the pool hall in late 2011, and noticed a sign reading ‘host your party here’. He recalls: ‘I thought, “yep, this is about the right size, and in the right area”,’ so he headed in to take a look. A receptive Canavan had just taken over the pool hall and was keen to tap into the local art student population.

In a youthful Yorkshire lilt Phillip adds: ‘On paper it doesn’t make sense as a club, it’s somewhere between a community centre and school disco, but that’s part of the charm, it’s a bit weird, a bit different, but it works.’

Focusing on putting on the best possible party, Phillip ignores the rock star DJ culture and a rigid presentation of genres and scenes. It’s led to Phillip, a fine art graduate from the Slade school at UCL, attracting the attention of the wider music industry by creating a buzz in a part of London that up until recently was largely ignored.

Peckham’s golden era

Rhythm Station’s reputation over the last four years has been soaring, with Phillip and the small group of other DJs around him like Skinny Macho becoming more broadly known, racking up air miles and leaving their home turf in south-east London to Australia, Montenegro, South Korea and everywhere else in between on a frantic schedule.

Following the early success of Rhythm Section, more popular regular nights such as Slow Bounce launched in the pool hall. Today the space is full each weekend with local creatives and art students, as well as those that hop on the Overground from Hackney and beyond.

‘I think Peckham is at this really nice golden era now,’ says Phillip. ‘It’s diverse and there are lots of interesting things going on, there’s no big business that’s really stepped in and exploited it yet, there’s still a feeling of freedom that you feel anything could happen.’

In the eight years since Philip first saw in Peckham a ‘village’ where nothing much was going on, the area has completely transformed. It’s now better connected thanks to the Overground, is crammed with bars and restaurants that wouldn’t look out of place in Soho, while rents have rocketed to unimaginable levels, matching traditionally affluent East Dulwich.

Bussey Building

Despite the ever expanding bars and restaurants, the biggest commotion on Rye Lane is still made by the inescapable force of Peckham at night: the Bussey Building.

Also known as CLF Arts Cafe, the Bussey Building is recognised as the force that transformed the reputation and vibe of Peckham, a building that can credibly lay claim to luring thousands of outsiders to the area each weekend for the past five years. It’s also acted as the magnet for the growing young and creative population that has made Peckham its home over the last five years, worrying and exciting in equal measures those on either side of the gentrification debate.

The entrance to the six story Victorian tower covered in paintings by street artist Phlegm is reached by a narrow alley on Rye Lane. Despite the bars and heavy bouncer presence, inside it still feels true to its roots from a decade ago when it was home to three or four illegal parties every weekend across the then largely abandoned 15,000 square metre Copeland Park complex that the Arts Cafe now sits at the front of.

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The whole complex was saved from demolition in 2007 by a massive community effort, after Southwark Council issued a compulsory purchase order to owner Jonathan Wilson, requiring he sell up to TfL which planned to level the whole plot to build a tram depot.

Saturation zone

‘A year later the council said it was the single most important thing in the regeneration of Peckham,’ says Mickey Smith, the energetic veteran dub and soul head that runs the CLF Arts Cafe. The wider estate is now covered in artist studios, shops restaurants and bars.

In an attempt to prove the potential of the space, Smith first started putting on festivals and events using temporary events notices. When TfL finally withdrew the application in 2010, Smith rented a floor at the front of the building, installed a bar and sound system and wangled a license to open a club, despite Peckham then being classified a saturation zone, a status which has since been rescinded.

The first music Smith played in his new venue was soul. ‘It would just be me playing to 40 or 50 people for six hours straight. People thought it was too dangerous to go out in Peckham at night,’ he says. Within a year he was pulling in 500, and took over another floor. He’s since taken over four floors and his South London Soul Train night remains not just the most popular night the club puts on, but south London’s biggest night, regularly reaching its 1,500 nightly capacity.

Each weekend, nights like Soul Train and Skinny Macho’s Bone Soda at Bussey bring people to Peckham who wouldn’t otherwise come. Waiting for the nights to open they fill the local bars or move down the road to discover Canavan’s or Four Quarters, the latest late night addition to Rye Lane.

It all adds up to a culture shaping in Peckham that may not be nurturing a radical new subculture, musical genre or anything political, but is offering a fresh outlet to people to go out at night. It’s been nurtured by a coterie of operators doing things their way, happy to fly below the radar while making the most of relatively affordable and available venues.

This story first appeared in Courier June/July 2016.