ABBG meets co-promoters of Whirl-Y-Gig Mary and Richard who live in a quiet rural-looking corner of Harrow in a small house, which, despite the occasional tripped-out wall painting, has decoration reminiscent of a country farmhouse. Outside is a small church window embedded in their garden wall, which overlooks a large field. This is the base from which they run Whirl-Y-Gig, one of London’s longest-running regular parties, and a pioneering club for showcasing world dance music in London. They also run a record label called Whirl-Y-Music.
Some people believe in having tight security and strict rules but despite being one of the capitals most relaxing nights out, its also widely acclaimed to be London s safest club and is in fact the only legal party in London where children are allowed. Mary summed it up as It s about respecting all people including children. We’ve frequently been pressurised to have a bar but you can’t legally sell alcohol at night and have kids around This is also one reason why, curiously, they always choose town halls as venues, where, unlike normal nightclubs, children are allowed. Another reason is having more autonomy, as Richard explains:
They allow us to run all aspects of events ourselves, we don’t have to have conventional security, and, as we are into humanistic ideals, we feel town halls are much more in the spirit of the community.
Whirl-Y-Gig began 20 years ago as a party run by a voluntary organisation called the Association of Humanistic Psychology.
Richard attended the very first Whirl-Y-Gig, and was so impressed by it that he decided to get involved, and, after a year he was running the whole show. It was just a place to dance that was a million miles away from clubland . Mary, who he met later, also got into it, and being the more extrovert partner, is the Whirly hostess, while Richard – aka DJ Monkey Pilot – supplies the sounds.
His DJ career began soon after taking over the running of Whirly. For the past 15 years, he has been the only DJ playing there, and spins what’s best described as world music with a trance flavour, but Richard is dismissive of genre labels, and would rather not be pigeonholed. I’ve never really understood clubs who segregate different genres of music, I’ve always played as wide a range of music as possible: we’re into raising energy, and every track should be like another step on a journey.
Like most DJs, Monkey Pilot used to select whatever tunes he felt fitted any given moment in the party, but now, he actually plans his whole set in advance I found I could get better results that way, and I could guard against falling into habits he said.
Although Whirly is his only residency , he sometimes plays at other parties, such as RTTS, Pendragon, and even at Ministry of Sound.
When M.O.S. heard that my musical style and general approach was different to the club norm they were a bit worried, but to everyone’s surprise it turned out to be a very successful night ! He has also played in the dance tent and in the tipi field at Glastonbury, at the Guildford festival, and in places as far flung as Las Palmas and New Zealand.
Although Whirl-Y-Gig itself has never taken its party beyond British shores, it has been a feature of quite a few UK festivals, such as regular appearances at WOMAD, and at the first Phoenix Festival where they were the only haven of peace in this otherwise troubled event: They gave us a big top and the cost of hiring a truck, but nothing else and said get on with it. That was our first festival and it was a huge success says Richard.
At the end of every Whirly, a huge silk parachute descends over the crowd: some people sit underneath, while others wave the thing around, bouncing countless balloons off it. The light show is pretty impressive too, with TimeOut magazine commenting: God knows what it would be like if you’re tripping.
At one time ambient music producers were invited along to do special parachute sets . They still occasionally put on such musicians, normally in conjunction with other live bands, on special occasions such as New Years Eve. I asked them why they don’t put on bands more often: The main focus of Whirl-Y-Gig is the people, the music and the environment. When a band comes on, everyone stops talking to each other and looks toward the stage, and you start to lose the very thing people tell us they like so much about Whirl-Y-Gig says Richard. Mary adds: It feels good to put on bands as a special treat for everyone.
Another thing that distinguished Whirly was its unusual opening hours: the club began at 8pm and ended at midnight.
Although this was popular with many at the time, especially families with children, it seemed in the spirit of the party to push for later licensing. The closing time was extended at first to 2am, and now to 4am (opening at 10pm) in response to repeated requests from Whirly regulars. As Richard puts it, “we got fed up with being seen as a pre-club club“.
Whirl-Y-Gig have so far released two world dance music compilation albums on their label, Whirl-Y-Music. I asked them how they chose the artists for their albums.
They are all people we know or feel connected with and who are in touch with the whirly sound said Mary. Richard adds: It doesn’t seem appropriate to be approaching the big record labels, or for that matter to pursue rare European vinyl cuts: We use artists that from our point of view are effectively emerging.
These emerging artists featured on the Whirly compilations are often the same people playing in the bands they occasionally put on, or the producers of the records in Monkey Pilots bag.
There are many things they enjoy about running Whirl-Y-Gig, especially seeing regulars becoming inspired by the music and eventually producing their own tunes. Mary comments: There’s a crowd who’ve spent the best part of their teenage years at Whirly and now they’re making music and sending Richard tracks; they are good tracks and that is inspiring.
Yeah, and it’s growing and it is out of our control, thank God! laughs Richard.
Whirl-y-Gig has long had the reputation for being London’s safest club. I asked Mary, who is an ex-nurse and a registered First aider, whether they had any safety tips for promoters to consider.
Don’t take any chances! You’ve got to do risk assessments on every single activity from the moment people enter the building: from unloading the truck to hanging backdrops.
A lot of what we do might seem invisible but the gangways don’t get blocked like in a lot of clubs. You can’t just do lip-service to safety; you cant just have stewards going around asking people if they are alright when they are clearly looking unwell; they really need to be qualified First aiders.
Incidentally, Mary now works for the mental health charity Mind during office hours, as well as doing her bit for Whirl-Y-Gig, but Richard works full time for Whirly, doing everything from the accounts to the emails to organising the crew, as well as DJ-ing.
I wondered, apart from safety, what other advice she had for would-be promoters: If you really want to do it, go for it!
But you need money: we’ve kept Whirly going for 20 years on massive debts through hell. I had to go back to my job because we simply couldn’t afford to live otherwise. It’s all a big financial struggle, but were still lucky to be doing it, and if we can do it, anybody can.
Did Mary ever work as a DJ? I used to play records in the crew room, and I actually do requests. I did manage to convert a few people to Doris Day – but I am more interested in making live music That live music is playing the fiddle, which she enjoys in her spare time. Final question: what would make the world a better place? Mary answers on behalf of both of them In light of all the stuff that’s been going on recently, the sooner we wake up to the fact that we are one planet and we stop discrimination, prejudice and fear of each other, and start living more as a community, the better.