20 years of The Bongo Club
- Henry Northmore
- 7 October 2016
Edinburgh night club celebrates two decades of clubs, music and live acts
Over two decades The Bongo Club has become an Edinburgh institution. A haven for independent club nights, live music and even theatre. Now celebrating 20 years with a whole month of birthday parties (highlights include Jah Shaka, Ben UFO and Frank Carter), it's the perfect time to look back on the venue's history.
The Bongo started as a late night offshoot from Out of the Blue in 1996. Setting up shop on New Street with a capacity of about 300. A hot and sweaty nightclub with an intimate vibe, when Mr Scruff played Headspin the queues were literally round the block.
'It was an old building with all that entails,' explains Venue Manager Ally Hill. 'Lots of leaks, lots of faults, the toilets were tiny. But it was amazing.' Unfortunately the venue was sold out from under them as part of a large scale redevelopment project and the Bongo moved home for the first time in 2003.
They took control of Moray House, part of Edinburgh University. Doubling in size, new clubs such as Xplicit, Substance and Confusion is Sex joined old favourites like Headspin and Messenger Soundsystem to take advantage of the increased capacity with big name, high-calibre guests like Jeff Mills, Skream, Benga, DJ Yoda and Mad Professor.
'The live stage was so much bigger at Moray house,' says Hill, 'the clubs transitioned easily, but the live music took a while to re-establish at that level. Stuff that was happening regularly was drowned in that room so it took a while to get acts that filled that space like The Skatalites or Candi Staton.'
Unfortunately after nine years the Bongo's luck ran out again. 'We made a mistake when we moved into Edinburgh University, we didn't nurture that relationship and build on it. So when staff changed over they suddenly looked at the Bongo and thought "what's an external operator doing in this space? Why are they there?" it became a bit of an anomaly to them. They decided to develop that space into offices and teaching space and we found out at the last minute. In fact we found out from students who leaked the info and formed a Facebook group to save the Bongo.'
Despite the campaign the Bongo was forced to relocate for a second time. 'The difficulty of putting a licensed premise anywhere in a World Heritage Centre like Edinburgh is huge. It's such a small city centre and there aren't many spaces left to develop that sort of thing. I definitely thought we were doomed, both times really.'
In 2013 they reopened on the Cowgate sharing a space with Underbelly (who take control of the venue every August for the Festival). Remarkably they've managed to retain the vibe and atmosphere across the years.
For Hill there have been too many highlights to mention but a few nights stand out in his memory: 'London Elektricity live was a belter, being on the dancefloor feeling the sub-bass coming up. Seeing Edan, a young hip hop guy, blowing away all the established names at Triptych was amazing. Some of the festival shows in New Street, Simon Amstell and Mark Thomas, were just incredible.' Here's to another 20 years.
The Bongo Club's 20th Birthday celebrations run through October.