Well. All the indications are that Brixton venue Mass has closed its doors for good. The details in brief form: Torture Garden used a Brixton venue for many years but now it’s closed, so they can’t use it any more. But they will find another one, so it’s probably OK. Brixton. Recession. The Church own it. Disposable income. Lots of stairs.
The longer version: It’s kinda difficult to explain or substantiate why a particular club or venue mattered. It’s a bit like showing people your holiday photos and expecting them to share the memories that each image provokes.
How do you articulate, for those who weren’t there, a great club night, a classic gig, a perfect, dreamy, dance floor moment when the crowd moved as one at 5am on a Sunday morning?
That said, Mass — aka St Matthews Church, Brixton Hill, London SW2 — has, over 15 or so years, probably played host to more fetish events and a larger number of pervy clubbers than any venue on the planet.
Memory is an amazing trickster and the passing of time seems to enhance, diminish or even totally alter people, places and events. With that thought in mind I’m going to claim for Mass, on its behalf, and give it now, its rightful eulogy, and its place in club folklore, now, while it’s still fresh in my mind.
Mass first surfaced as a Torture Garden venue in about 1997 (which was, somehow, I realise, 15 years ago). At the time it seemed quite a large venue for a fetish event, an ambitious capacity space to try and fill.
Brixton was then, and to an extent still is, a rather edgy area. Initially more than a few people wondered how they’d be received on Brixton streets in varying levels of fetish and alternative clothing, but, for whatever reason, it never seemed to be a problem.
Car drivers, though, didn’t always fare so well, and I can remember several occasions when whole streets of parked cars had their side windows put in.
From the very start I appreciated the irony of attending a fetish event in a church. That the dungeon was located in the crypt-like cellar only increased the aura of bizarre surrealism. If you grew up a Catholic as I did, it made all the naughty goings on even more wonderful, forbidden and tingly (tingly like when you used to hang from the ropes in the school gym class).
Initial misgivings about Mass and its Brixton location did, to an extent, work in its favour. The middle class, middle minded BDSM type clubbers hung back and, in the way of all developing club culture, let the more maverick and adventurous establish the stronghold.
As a venue space Mass was both good and bad. It had an OK stage area, so fashion shows, performances, and even bands could actually be seen, with mostly good sightlines. The changing rooms on the other hand were tiny and generally, well, pretty awful.
The main dance room with its sunken dance floor was probably too small, but this never bothered anyone — they just danced at its edges, surroundings, by the bars, or on any other surface they fancied.
The TG dungeon was, for most of the years, in the crypt-type basement. This worked well as it was a distinctly separate space with its own music, toilets and cloakrooms. If you didn’t fancy dancing but were there mostly for the sex, then you could easily spend most of your night downstairs in the dungeon.
If you didn’t fancy dancing but were there mostly for the sex, then you could easily spend most of your night downstairs in the dungeon
In the later period the dungeon relocated to the ground floor Babalou space, again a separate area with its own music, toilets, blah, blah. That dungeon location never seemed quite as good
The cloakroom. Not really something to boast about. Long queues winding up the endless stairs… still, probably a great way to make new friends. I expect it was the same in World War Two when Londoners slept in tube stations.
Stairs. There were a lot of stairs to negotiate to get to the main upper floor.
No person who ever attended Mass in any kind of footwear with heels is ever likely to forget the stairs. I suppose more than a few took a tumble on those stairs.
There was a lift. I never saw it work and I gave up pressing the call button after about six years of being unsuccessful.
OK, now the important stuff. A venue for a seminal London club night — Torture Garden — during a period in which it grew from a relatively successful monthly party to the biggest regular fetish event in the World.
Torture Garden now holds its bigger events — Birthday Ball, Halloween, Valentines — at much larger venues, but the formats were tried and tested over the years at Mass; the contacts were made, the performers recruited.
When it first used Mass, TG was a mere five- or six-year-old toddler. Mass was its Alma Mater, its learning curve. Most of the models, DJs, performers, photographers, riggers, dungeon staff, and personalities who make up the TG family probably learned it and honed it at Mass.
The human interest angle! People make friends in night clubs. They meet people who they go home with at the end of the night. Most times those people leave the next morning, making the walk of shame sometime on a Sunday. Sometimes though those people stay forever.
I’ve always been both excited, bemused and in awe of that sense of randomness. That idea that if you hadn’t attended a certain event, or missed a certain train, you would have missed meeting that certain person with whom you might spend the rest of your life.
That kind of chance meeting, romantic encounter, happens all day every day, particularly in nightclubs where people drink and lose their inhibitions.
But for many of the last 15 years, if you were part of this scene, Mass was probably your best chance of finding a partner, a lover, a soul mate; or some dirty bastard who shared your bizarre kinks and fantasies.
There is probably no greater proof of the power of the place to bring people together than this recollection from Kaori of Kaori’s Latex Dreams:
“The first time I heard about Mass was when I was in London for a few months as a language student and one of my friends at school said she went to this 'church' club, but was turned away because it was a night for 'people spanking each other'.
“Obviously it was a TG night but it was a few months before I started fetish clubbing and I had absolutely no idea what the party was about. I really didn’t know then that I'd end up making rubber clothes for a living and having a kid with one of the organisers!”
We’ll have a lot more of memories of Mass in Part Two of this retrospective, and we’ll also be reminding ourselves of the amazing variety of performers that entertained TG audiences there over the years.
‘I really didn’t know that I'd end up making rubber clothes for a living and having a kid with one of the organisers!’ – Kaori (Kaori’s Latex Dreams)