The Guardian’s Review of the 21st Birthday

Silks and incense still uplift clubbers’ senses as Whirl-y-gig celebrates its 21st anniversary

As giant balloons fill the air, a parachute falls gently over the heads of several hundred hot, happy dancers, who sink to the ground beneath its huge canopy. And so ends another successful Whirl-Y-Gig.

One of the longest-running club nights in the UK, Whirl-Y-Gig celebrated its 21st anniversary last Saturday. The event promotes itself as a community-based dance experience for children and adults alike. It is, according to the website, “an event difficult to describe, a moment difficult to miss“. It was founded by the Association of Humanistic Psychology, a charity for those interested in developing and nurturing human potential within a more conscious and humane global society. At the first event held in August 1981, contemporary pop and 1960s disco were played, interrupted once in a while for a ‘caller’ to take the microphone and lead the audience in dances from around the world: Irish, African, Latin American.

Richard Sutcliffe discovered Whirl-Y-Gig as a young clubber looking for an event which suited his hippy leanings. He was later to inherit his happy discovery and take it to a higher plane of success by introducing international music under the moniker DJ Monkey Pilot.

“In the early days, we used to try to make every gig a little better than the last, always adding, elaborating and shaping,” he says. “It has now become a well-harmonised event and everything works together: people, environment, lights, decor, music and stewarding style. It all points to a shared common vision that embraces and connects all people.”

DJ Monkey Pilot has always shied away from playing a night of Whirl-y classics, but the 21st birthday party provides a perfect opportunity. His style has not changed radically since the club’s inception and tonight’s journey takes in a range of ambient and trance-influenced beats from around the earth.

“The world is getting smaller and music should reflect a global culture, positioned in the multicultural London of here and now. We’ve always been interested in new sounds, what people might call fusion. Not traditional forms but new music that has been influenced by global traditions.”

In the notoriously fickle, fashion-led business of clubbing, Whirl-y-gig’s simple formula inspires an enviable loyalty among both staff and customers. With a lorry-load of equipment the stewards totally transform the building. Lights are rigged, walls are draped with parachute silk and saris, and fresh flowers placed on the tables. The result is superbly sensual.

No alcohol is sold on the premises. Punters are welcome to bring their own but drunkenness is discouraged. The bar instead offers a comprehensive range of tasty organic juices and a cafe sells fruity teas, coffee and wholesome treats, with nothing priced over a pound.

The Camden Centre, which holds 1000 people and has hosted the event for the last four years, was full to capacity for the anniversary event. Alan Gee, the centre manager, looks forward to the monthly invasion of Whirl-Y-Gig. “The operation is now extremely professional, very smooth and very sophisticated. It’s one of my favourite events because the atmosphere is so nice and everyone seems to go away incredibly happy,” he says. “We originally employed about 10 security staff but now have that down to three, because Whirl-y stewards are pretty exceptional. The way they approach their clients is really good and friendly. They are very, very welcome here.”

John Lundy, who lives in Germany but is back in London for the Whirl-y birthday, is a stewarding veteran: “I used to go to a club where Richard played 20 years ago. I came to a gig, was asked to work and I’m still here eight years later,” he says. “It’s special because you work with a crew who all support each other. When you’ve worked 20 hours, you really need someone to pat you on the back. And when you see everyone’s gone away happy, it’s always magical.”

Sue Patterson is attending the event with two of her four children, Oona, 16, and Issac, five. Three generations would have attended together but a rash and temperature have kept her other children at home with grandma.

Sue remembers Whirl-Y-Gig 17 years ago when she attended regularly. She then hired it for her daughter’s first birthday. “It was the only place that was drug-free and fun for all the family,” she says. “Being left at home as a child is both boring and scary. The old Victorian ideal of shutting the children away made for lonely kids and therapy. Allowing your children to be with you, to dance with you, creates a more harmonious relationship.”

Oona believes that in another 21 years time she will still be Whirl-y-gigging, along with her grandmother, mother and probably her own children. “After all, they are the people of the future,” she says, “so you might as well teach them to dance.”

As the hall empties at four in the morning, everyone is happy, and no one more so than DJ Monkey Pilot’s wife and collaborator, Mary. “It was fantastic,” she says, “probably the busiest we’ve ever had here. Old friends popped by, all the kids were out and all the fairies were dancing.”

After 21 years, Mary has no doubt that the Whirl-y-thing is as relevant and honest as ever, with a bright, sustainable future: “People are voting with their hearts and feet, staying true to the same shared values. Being together in peace and love – it’s what we all want: to be happy, to be joyous and to be free.”

From The Guardian Unlimited 

Deborah Schofield

Tuesday August 6, 2002