“From disco to disco, from town across town, everybody is trying to get down.” At least, according to Whirlpool Productions’ nineties house anthem. Their mantra was never more true than in Belgium’s clubbing heydays, when going out was a lifestyle and partygoers would often leave on Thursday not to arrive back home until Monday after cruising through the whole country. Alcohol breath tests wouldn’t unveil the completely different substance (and planet) some of them were on.
Between euphoria and hangover; between ecstacy and tragedy; a nightclub is both yin and yang at the same time. It’s beautiful and ugly, filled with adrenaline-fuelled happiness as much as life’s tragedies. Although a lot has changed throughout the years, isn’t it typically Belgian that hedonism should take place behind a facade? What hasn’t changed is that behind every of those fronts, a different tribe of like minded souls is grooving to the same drums, whether slowed down soul jams or high-octane techno loops.
The evolution of the country’s blossoming club scene has probably never been documented better than in Jozef Deville’s excellent ‘The Sound of Belgium’ documentary. From the Popcorn to Carat, from Boccacio to Café d`Anvers, the film shows how clubs have always been a huge part of Belgium’s hedonistic identity. In the early days, people would gather at funfairs to drink and dance to live orchestras. Later, these musicians would be replaced by a Decap organ. Eventually, it would be just a guy playing other people’s records: the DJ.
And sometimes, as we stubborn and quirky Belgians like to do, these tracks would deliberately be played at the wrong speed. At the Popcorn in Vrasene, local DJs would slow down (or speed up) American soul, blues and Latin tracks to emphasize the groove and make swinging to them easier. At the end of the eighties, when the house music virus first landed on the mainland, you could soon hear Belgium’s very own take on it at Boccaccio, Destelbergen’s epicenter of the new slow motion dance craze. Inspired by innovative jocks like Dikke Ronny, whose dark and intense selections of body music shook Ancienne Belgique’s walls, new beat was born. Its marching, mechanical sound would eventually travel back over the Canal, where the futuristic Belgian beats fed the new burgeoning scene and influenced young British producers like 808 State.
Unfortunately, by the end of the nineties, more and more clubs were facing difficult times. Media demonizing clubs and negatively focusing on the connection between drugs and electronic music certainly didn’t help their case among the general public. Increased breath tests by local police forces made it less and less appealing to visit discotheques located on main roads, mainly reachable by car. Many institutions from their time saw their clientele decrease dramatically. It seemed general interest in clubs had waned; was it because it was cheaper and easier to drink at home? Because the sound of house and techno had gotten stale and monotonous? Or was, perhaps, the rise of festivals to blame? In reality, it was probably a combination of all these factors that prompted the decline in interest for nightclubs.
However it is, anno 2017, club culture in Belgium seems to be on the rise again. Of course, more than ever, clubbing and dance music have become a global phenomenon. But in a world where Tomorrowland reigns, it’s still not easy for mid sized clubs to reach their audiences and fill their dancefloors. “Steenwegdiscotheken” have become a thing of the past, although institutions like La Rocca and Carré stand firm. Modern day nightclubs tend to be located in urban surroundings, bidding to stay relevant by offering a wide range of events, sounds and activities. Spots like Ampere and Labyrinth have to find new ways to speak to the younger generation. More and more pop-up clubs like Klub Goud succesfully open(ed) their doors, to permanently close them again only a few months afterwards.
Only time will tell how these spots will survive and if one day, their weekly gatherings may be looked back to as the start of new movements or even whole musical genres. One thing’s for sure though: it’s a time as good as any to find comfort on a dancefloor, where people come together to celebrate life, no matter their race, belief or profession. In The Sound of Belgium, Laurence from At The Villa sums it up well: “While certain folks like to go for a walk in the forest on Sundays, some of us like to go for a drink and a dance. And what the hell is wrong with that?”
Cheers to all the folks behind and in front of the scenes, that keep this ongoing Belgian tradition and heritage alive!