Long live pub raves: How big-name DJs are helping to save British pubs

Disclosure, Fred Again and Nia Archives walk into a bar…

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Disclosure performing at The People’s Park Tavern in 2021

Disclosure performing at The People’s Park Tavern in 2021. Image: @jamesmsbarber

Pint-flinging pub raves are on the rise: Nia Archives recently brought her jungle beats to a packed Sebright Arms in Hackney, Disclosure DJ’d in the garden of the People’s Park Tavern last summer, and London’s DIY party crew The Cause take over Peckham’s iconic The Greyhound this week. Oh, and who can forget that viral clip of Fred Again.. behind the decks while serving Guinness during his secret after-party at Dublin pub Doyle’s?

The best news for fans is that many of these events are free entry, meaning no cash barrier for ravers, plus more pennies for pints to support local venues. Last year was the worst on record for venue closures, with 16 per cent closing for reasons including vast rent increases, rocketing operating costs and crazy energy bill raises.

There is a stark difference, however: 2023 was the best year on record for the commercial end of the sector, says George Fleming, founder of campaign group Save Our Scene (SOS), which has been standing up for UK music culture since May 2020.

“We want to highlight that the issues our sector is facing aren’t just about music venues. It’s also affecting our community spaces, such as pubs,” he says. “We wanted to shine a light on that fact,” he adds, citing that the UK is currently seeing two pubs close every day. “In reaction to the current demise of our pubs and venues”, SOS launched their Culture Calling campaign last winter with the aim of getting the UK Government to reduce VAT to 12.5 per cent (down from 20 per cent) for the hospitality and cultural sectors.

Pub fireworks

At the start of that campaign, BRIT-Award-nominee Charlotte Plank got in touch with SOS to show her support. This resulted in them teaming up to host a bonfire night d’n’b rave — complete with fireworks — on the doorstep of Hackney pub Anchor & Hope in November 2023. “The Anchor had no idea what was coming,” Fleming recalls, but the pop-up — which also saw sets from Danny Byrd, Lens and Issey Cross — resulted in “their busiest ever night”.

Rudimental-collaborator Plank has similarly fond memories. “It was mad! We docked a barge outside The Anchor & Hope in Hackney,” she recalls. “It was rammed and so good of the pub to let us use their space, allowing hundreds of ravers to come drink ’em dry of booze and gatecrash their firework night. It was such an amazing, surreal experience.”

Considering the “huge success” of that d’n’b rave — 900 people attended at short notice, which generated hundreds of supportive emails to MPs, as well as providing the pub with a record taking on the bar — Fleming thinks “it’s time for the top end to step up”. Like Plank, who “genuinely cares and loves her scene”, he feels that artists with influence — many of whom have come through the grassroots circuit, playing in small pubs and venues — “could definitely do more to support the spaces and people who helped nurture and develop them”.

But how could this be achieved? Fleming thinks the answers are pretty simple: “whether it’s implementing a ticket levy on their big shows, ensuring funds are filtering down, or even playing events in small pubs and clubs to help drive needed awareness and funds to those spaces, we all have a responsibility to stand up for our grassroots, rather than just focusing on the commercial end of the sector.”

Laurence Guy at the White Hart
Laurence Guy at the White Hart

One artist who has been making all this seem effortless is Laurence Guy. The British electronic producer hosted his album launch party at his local, The White Hart, in Stoke Newington last summer, and even left some exclusive dubplates behind the bar. “It was one of the best nights of the year,” he says. In fact, Guy loved it so much that he returned to the pub at Christmas to throw another free party which resulted in, as he puts it, “rowdy vibes”.

The idea of doing the pub parties in general was inspired from the first DJ gigs that Guy and his friends used to put on in their hometown. “We just needed a room and some speakers and had the time of our lives,” he says, adding that it was usually a pub or village hall. “Everyone would show up and it would boot off.”

The Christmas party idea, Guy adds, was a nod to his mates who used to run a festive get together called ‘Unwanted Wooly Garments’ every year back home. “The atmosphere at both parties was rowdy, which is exactly what I was after — something chaotic and messy and not glossy or overproduced; something free and for the fans and friends.”

These goals largely sum up the ethos of throwing a pub rave in the first place. “For me, it boils down to wanting to run a party for the party’s sake, rather than for money or tactics,” he says. Instead, Guy sees it as “a way of connecting with my fans and building a community without asking for anything in return”. He feels this is even more important considering the ongoing cost-of-living crisis: “times are tight for everyone right now, so why not offer something easy and free to the people that support my music so much?”

Pub selfie with Laurence Guy and friends

What Guy enjoys most about the pub parties is the intimacy that they enable. “I invite my friends to DJ, I can chat to fans, everyone mingles. We don’t hire the pub out, we just set up our speakers on their usual Saturday night, right in the thick of it,” he says. Guy also likes the possibility of doing different things in the future: “maybe on the next one I can invite fans to come DJ or bring their demos to play, or it could be an early listening party for a release,” he adds. The crucial point is, he reaffirms, “to keep it small and keep it free”.

From a DJing perspective, Guy adds that there are many benefits to such pub parties. “You can be a bit more fast ‘n’ loose with the music selection. Maybe play a few more classics and fun stuff. Also, and probably most importantly, you can genuinely get to know the crowd and create a really lovely atmosphere.” The only “downside”, as he puts it, “is that you can’t install a state-of-the-art soundsystem”. He’s not so worried about that, however: “this is balanced out by the vibes in my opinion. I love both the full club experience and these small parties in equal measure for different reasons”.

Disclosure's POV at the The People’s Park Tavern in 2021.
Disclosure’s POV at the The People’s Park Tavern in 2021. Image: @jamesmsbarber

With all this in mind, Guy says he could see more high-profile pub parties popping up across the country. “There’s plenty of places to do it!” He enthuses, before outlining his one concern. “If it becomes more of a ‘thing’ and we end up in a situation where the events are ticketed or too ‘produced’, then the essence would be lost for me.”

Guy’s comments are extremely timely, especially as iconic South London boozer The Greyhound gears up to reopen six days a week and with a DI Audio soundsystem. Under the helm of the capital’s DIY party crew The Cause, the 240-capacity two-floored Peckham pub has been reinvented with help from South London music heads Warren Mansfield (Zsa Zsa Sapien), Nathan Saoudi (Fat White Family / Dash The Henge), Oliver Mosley (Meat Raffle dancer) and Matt Pryer (former general manager of Rye Wax).

Laurence Guy behind the bar

To kick things off, there will be two weekends (Thursdays to Sundays) of move-in parties with Ambient Babestation Meltdown, FYI Chris, Meg Paine, Richard Sen, Tom Unlikely and Al White’s ‘Avant Practiced’ jam among the artists booked. The Cause’s former and current residents will also play alongside the odd special guest, and there will be regular pub quizzes with a musical twist.

“Nearly nine months in the making, we are really proud to present our latest venture,” says Eugene Wild, co-founder of The Cause… “our first tiptoe into the pub game, with a twist we all hope you will love!”

The Greyhound, Peckham
The Greyhound, Peckham

So, with The Greyhound reopening this week and 300-capacity Shoreditch boozer Horse & Groom having hosted dance favourites since 2007 (including Dimitri From Paris, Greg Wilson, Move D, Jamie Jones and MK), things are moving in the right direction. Add to that the rise of “anywhere but a club” party-throwers Lab54 — who teamed up with rising Irish duo NewEra to transform Dublin pub The Wellflington into a nightclub complete with strobe striplights — and it’s clear that, alongside Save Our Scene, such initiatives are making a positive impact by thinking outside of the box.

“These aren’t just boozers, they are essential spaces which are vital for communities to have access to,” affirms SOS’s George Fleming. “I sometimes think, if I was a lonely elderly man and my local pub shut down, what else would I have? The cold park bench? These pubs provide human connection, which is the most important thing we need for a happy existence.” He draws a stark conclusion, however: “We’ve got fewer licensed spaces now than since venue records began – it needs attention.”

A pub rave at its peak

We’ll leave the last word to someone who knows this better than most. “Historically, pubs were at the heart of communities,” recalls Charlie Short, general manager of The White Hart. “But, after the last few years, and with the current issues, we need connection more than ever. Dancing together is more than just a Saturday night out,” he attests. “It’s a chance to connect and release; these events are medicine for the modern world.”


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