Swing when you’re winning
Vegas! has topped The List’s poll of the best clubs in Scotland more than any other night, revellers embracing its big band stylings, Rat Pack cool and unheard classics. As the club reaches its tenth birthday Henry Northmore talks to the people who started it, the guests who’ve performed at it, and the punters who frequent it to find out what makes Vegas! such a damn good night out.
So, how did Vegas! get started?
Ewan McNaught (aka Frankie Sumatra, DJ/founder) We’d done a few clubs before, like Pure and Disco Inferno. I was thinking about a new project and it was my wife Lee-Anne who mentioned doing something using Las Vegas as the concept for a club.
Lenny Love (aka DJ Dino Martini) We all mentioned we liked the Rat Pack style of swing, as well as movie soundtracks, a bit of Latin, a bit of country and Lee-Anne said: ‘You should just call it Vegas!’ and it just stopped the conversation. That was the epiphany and we soon realised everything else that would fit in there with the concept. It just grew from there.
Nick Sutherland (aka DJ Bugsy Seagull) We just started a club for some pals, you know? We thought 50 people or so would turn up and we’d have a good time. We just wanted to hear things like Glen Campbell and swing played loudly, but it went from strength to strength really.
Though there were a few teething problems . . .
EM It was quite a chaotic start at the Shooting Gallery on Broughton Street. We’d regularly have to endure some weird disaster. Once we ended up with a BYOB night: we only had about 12 hours to let people know we didn’t have a license and send them in the direction of the offy. It was even more ridiculous the following month. The license hadn’t come through again so we had to charge a certain amount to get in, and then there was a free bar, because we couldn’t sell drink. It was just carnage. In a way it contributed to Vegas! and gave us a shambolic edge so people never knew what to expect.
Did you ever envisage Vegas! running for ten years?
EM When you start something off you do it for yourself and your friends and if it becomes popular after that it’s almost a happy accident. It was never intended to be a long lasting thing but people were coming down and having fun and we all enjoyed doing it and it seemed to gather its own momentum quite quickly. It’s been a great experience and a really enjoyable time, but we had no preconceptions that it would last this long.
The club now has homes in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the odd one-off in Aberdeen and as far afield as New York. But what sets Vegas! apart from its counterparts?
LL There is a genuine social atmosphere. Seven people have met their partners and got married via Vegas! In fact at the last one we did at Princes Street Gardens a couple actually got engaged. The young man asked the lady over the microphone if she’d marry him and she agreed. I think it does show there’s a genuine club atmosphere, and I’ve always thought of a club as a place like-minded people go to socialise and share common experiences.
NS The fact that you can relax is crucial. You can’t really be cool dancing to Neil Diamond. Also, there’s the dressing up factor; people can put on a different persona. As soon as the guys put on a gangster suit and a hat and a fake moustache or whatever, you just get that wee bit more confidence. When you’ve got a lot of people dressed up together, the confidence goes right through the club. The people in the audience are the stars of the show.
EM The crowd are the central focus of the event – they make the club what it is after all. I’d give them as much if not more credit than us in having made Vegas! what it is over the years so we’re obviously very grateful for their input.
Miss Kittie Klaw (burlesque superstar and frequent Vegas! guest performer) Vegas! is actually the largest and oldest vintage club in the UK. The guys behind it are pioneers and deserve the credit for it. I love the attitude of the organisers. I work with many clubs and promoters across the world and the Vegas! guys stand out as being as passionate about having fun as they are organised and appreciative of their performers and clientele.
Craig McMurdo (big band maestro and Vegas! guest performer) Vegas! struck a chord, and everybody loved it and everyone still loves it. It’s that simple. It’s in the lap of the gods; there’s a secret something and I don’t think you can quantify it.
So what defines a Vegas! fan?
LL There’s no typical Vegas! fan. They come in all shapes and sizes and ages. In fact one of the couples who got engaged after meeting at Vegas! came along after their engagement party and brought both sets of parents with them. They were having a great time.
EM I think the beauty of Vegas! is that it’s a pretty broad church. We embrace all sorts of people and for one night they take on a persona and become someone else. It’s nice to be able to offer an experience that’s attractive across the demographics and across the age range. There’s really no stereotypical Vegas! customer.
NS There are thousands and thousands of typical Vegas! fans. It’s in everybody to be a Vegas! fan.
What have been the highlights over the years?
EM Taking Vegas! to New York was just an amazing weekend, it was quite an off the wall idea to take a Scottish club to a New York setting. But it worked wonderfully well: we had a sold out crowd.
LL Financially, if I hadn’t gone and spent a fortune buying records while I was there it would have been much more sensible, but when you’re in New York it’s got to be done.
Nicola Cairns (aka head showgirl Nikki Nevada) Going to Rome was incredible. We walked along from the place we were staying to the venue in our full outfits, because there were no changing facilities there. It felt like we were famous, it was incredible.
NS The first time we played the Barrowland with Big Dad Voodoo Daddy: the fact that you’re standing on the same stage, where all these other people have stood.
LL Virtually every night has something good. The best bit for me is when someone comes up and asks, “What was that tune you were just playing?” I really do love that.
NS The first time somebody offered Vegas! tickets on ebay as well. Some kind of minor arrival there.
Has Vegas! influenced Scottish clubland?
KK It can’t be doubted. Vegas! have been around for ten years and continues to go from strength to strength. There have been various attempts by other promoters to copy their events, gimmicks or even undermine the club’s reputation but each time, these people have fallen on their arse while the Vegas! boys carry on jiving. They have not only impacted on choice, style and music collecting but have stood the test of time and endurance. The thing with Vegas! is that it is the attitude of the promoters that make it what it is, a holistic club experience based on personal passion and pride in the concept. You instantly feel welcome into their colourful world of frivolities, cocktails and retro glamour.
LL I’ve no doubt that sales of retro and vintage clothing in Scotland have benefited enormously from Vegas!
So what can we expect on this special tenth birthday night?
NS Shenanigans, high jinks, fun. Some Elvis, some Kittie Klaw, and one of the best bands I’ve ever seen live: HB Radke & the Jet City Swingers.
KK It’s a surprise. I’m a burlesque artist rather than a striptease artist (the two are very different) so it is best described as ‘suggestive performance art’ and will no doubt be something saucy with a satirical edge. Because it’s Vegas!’ birthday, I’ll be performing a new piece inspired by Las Vegas itself.
CM Some great music I’d imagine it’ll be a swinging jump jive set. We’ll just do lots of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Louis Prima and all these things that are just super fun to do. It should be a great night.
What does the future hold for Vegas!?
EM Vegas! will always continue but I think we might cherry pick specific events rather than a monthly residency. We might eventually scale that down and just be on from time to time. We don’t want to outstay our welcome and after ten years seems like a good time to move in a different direction and we’re opening a new venue, the Voodoo Rooms, in Edinburgh, upstairs from the Café Royal soon.
LL I think the club will keep on going until we’re too old or we get bored of it which could be another ten or 15 years. It’s quite possible we might even hand it on to the next generation. It could be our legacy.
The Vegas! Tenth Birthday Party will be at Ocean Terminal, Edinburgh, Sat 27 Oct.
We ask the punters at Vegas! just why it floats their boats
Its my mate’s birthday – he wanted to come. He did it a while ago and said it was a good night. The gambling idea is good fun and it’s a great atmosphere.
Missy Missouri and Amber Alabama
This is the best job you can imagine. We’ve been working here about two years, and every Vegas night is different – everyone’s dressed up and up for a good time.
I’ve known about Vegas! for a while, and everyone makes more of an effort and it’s more exciting than regular nights out. You can have a good time and meet loads of people that aren’t weirdos basically!
Tony and Tony
It’s my birthday! We were here the first time it was in Glasgow years ago. We got dressed up and I thought, ‘this is going to be embarrassing’ But I ended up having the best time. I haven’t been on the blackjack yet as I want to let other people win for once. I don’t like to boast.
Alison and Sareeya
It’s a good night – my friend told me about it and it was voted the best night in The List so that’s why we’re here. We wish we’d dressed up more. Everyone looks great and we love swing music so we’re just really happy to be here.
My friends brought me here and I’m having a great laugh – it’s something different from the usual night out. It’s not often you get to put on a stupid hat and dance to Neil Diamond.
We’ve not been in ages so we thought we might as well give it another go and it’s a wicked night. I’m having an excellent time – you can really make an effort, and it’s great that everyone else makes an effort as well. My favourite thing? Just get dressed up to the nines and go mad.
Clare and Carol
We love 40s swing. I’ve been before and really liked it. A couple of friends from work phoned and said they were interested in going, so here we are. The setting on the river makes it a bit unusual as well. I would definitely come again – it’s different. It doesn’t appeal to any one age group, you’ve got a bit of a mix. Good excuse to get dressed up. Marks out of ten? Eight or nine.
William, Ben and Polly
First impressions are great! The location, music and venue are fantastic. Lots of different ages – I could even bring my mum here. The atmosphere is buzzing, especially at the card table. I know it’s not real money but you can still have fun playing!
Paul and Dennis
I’ve actually run a few burlesque nights myself and I’ve never checked this out and wanted to see what it was like. I’m really impressed, it works really well.
Frankie Sumatra & Dino Martini pick their top ten Vegas! tunes
‘Go Daddy-O!’ Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Coolsville) BBVD are the cats who kickstarted the neo-swing scene Stateside and Vegas! is proud to have brought them over to perform in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
‘Beyond the Sea’ Royal Crown Revue (Warners) Another great band to have graced the stage at Vegas! Bobby’s version is hard to beat, but LA’s ‘kings of gangster bop’ take Darin the distance.
‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’ Frank Sinatra (Reprise) An offer you can’t refuse from the Chairman of the Board.
‘Ces bottes sont faites pour marcher’ Eileen (Wagram) Incendiary French version of ‘These Boots’ that always ignites the Vegas! dancefloor.
‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ HB Radke & The Jet City Swingers (Pony Boy) Killer end of night Vegas! anthem from Seattle’s Jet City Swingers, special guests at Vegas!’ tenth Birthday Party.
‘Sunshine of Your Love’ Spanky Wilson (Mother Records) The funkiest, floor-filling, people-pleasing and pulse-pumpin’ version of ‘Sunshine’ you’ll ever hear. Awesome.
‘I Walk the Line’ Glen Campbell (EMI) This country-meets-swing version of Johnny Cash’s song is a wee gem that’s here courtesy of Nick Sutherland (Bugsy Seagull) who found it on a compilation CD. Thank him profusely.
‘Mack the Knife’ Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington (Verve Records) With its truly relentless rhythm, this cuts the mustard like no other. I believe it’s clinically impossible for anyone hearing this to remain perfectly still. A blinder.
‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ Shirley Bassey (EMI/UA) and Keely Smith (Concord) Shirley sings a surprisingly funky version, while Keely vocalises a swingin’ big band vibe. So very different, but both so very brilliant.
‘Hit the Road Jack’ (Pé Na Éstrada)’ Mo’ Horizons (Putumayo) This truly cookin’ cover (in Portuguese!) goes like a rocket and doesn’t stop. It’s got the lot, including a killer Hammond riff. Be amazed! You will come back for more!
‘Dancing in the Dark’ Dynamo’s Rhythm Aces (DRA) DRA take the spirit and drive of 40s/50s’ swing, R&B and hillbilly music, and apply it to contemporary songs. I’m sure that ‘The Boss’ would love this crowd-pleaser too!