Geriatric club kid Helia Phoenix reminisces about the Emporium, a Cardiff night life institution from the 90s-00s. She has a little chat with the club’s old manager, Tim Corrigan, plus a cast of thousands (well, tens) who remember the club in all its glory. Also, you might wanna bookmark this page to come back to if you get reading fatigue – it is officially the longest thing we have ever published. Possibly. #Fakenews.
I don’t feel like me and the Emporium ever spent enough time together before it was time to say goodbye. I spent hours and hours and hours – weekend after weekend – cocooned in her hot, sweaty darkness: having philosophical breakthroughs in the toilets with strangers; cementing friendships with my gang – we became pals for LIFE, yeah; experiencing spiritual awakenings on the dancefloor; and whirling around and around and around to the music. Every night in the Emporium was an endless explosion of possibilities. You know like in Human Traffic, when Jip says ‘this could be the best night of my life?’. That was how it felt. ALL the time.
I do realise how cliche that sounds. Human Traffic was one of the DVDs on heavy rotation during my early 20s. I know how rose-tinted my glasses are. But I miss those days. I loved dancing. And especially, more than anything, I miss the Emporium. Speaking of Human Traffic, you can see the club in some external scenes of the film …
My main memories cluster around 2000-2001 – back in a time when clubs could easily charge you £15 on the door, and you’d queue around the block, even with a ticket, desperately waiting out the Welsh rain, hoping you were just the right side of drunk that they’d let you in and you could put your stuff in the cloakroom without missing too much dancing.
You slipped through this discreet doorway next to the trendy student clothing shop – possibly it was called Westworld, but I forget – then you walked up those deadly stairs – no grip, wet with sweat from the hot gurners inside. It was like a slippery doorway into Narnia. I don’t even remember if there was a sign, but when doing my research to write this, I spend a bit of time Googling it, and there’s a story that comes up on the BBC about clubbers collapsing in there from dodgy drugs. I don’t remember that, but the photo does remind me of the very classy astroturf sign …
Back then, you could still drive up and down St Mary Street. I even remember one time the weather was so bad we drove there (from Roath … I know … we were lazy!). I loved dancing so much I would regularly go clubbing sober (who needs drink when the beats are good?), so I was always the designated driver – and I managed to get a parking space right outside the club, waited in the car until the queue was small and then we joined it at the back, holding plastic bags above our heads, trying to keep our spandex bodysuits / fluffy boots / massively flared trousers (delete as appropriate) dry. We were soaking when we got inside – but then once inside, the beat started beating, I ordered a Red Bull – and then … the music took over.
By some weird quirk of fate, David Owens of WalesOnline was in the club exploring it the week this piece was being finalised for publication, so there are a couple of brand spanking new photos of the flyer wall inside for you to enjoy …
One of my favourite things about Cardiff is how small it is. That hasn’t changed. It’s really too small to have scenes big enough to sustain their own discrete followings – where as in Bristol, you might have liked psytrance, there would be enough nights on that you’d never go to anything else. But in Cardiff, if you liked going out, chances are you’d try a techno night, you’d maybe try a drum and bass night. You might even go to the reggae parties down the bay, or a garage night (before everyone got stabbed and the parties got banned). And you’d see the same people – people who also loved going out, and were listening to all sorts of different music. The Emporium was a place where lots of these nights were held. Lots of friends made. Lots of hours danced well away. People I still see out and about to this day.
Tim Corrigan is better known these days as the boss of the Milk and Sugar chain. He used to run the Emporium and was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the club, when I told him I was writing an article about it. The office in Human Traffic was filmed on set, but was actually based on Tim’s office in the club.
“In the beginning, the club struggled. But when Lucy and the Catapult crew started a house music night there, it slowly started to pick up pace with people like LTJ Bukem doing nights there, along with huge residencies from every genre of music like Time Flies, Bulletproof, LAMERICA which started there, as well as as the infamous p’tangyangkipperbang…yeah with Jon Rostron, Neil Hinchley and Matt Jarvis.
“To this day, one of my biggest regrets is moving that from its original Saturday to Fridays to make room for more house orientated nights, I think that night could have gone on to huge things as it was the most innovative, random night we had and people loved it! The music was incredibly eclectic. Then there was Funkin Marvellous, National Anthems, Bionic and far too many others to name. There was a time where nearly every big promoter in Cardiff was under one roof. It was a great club to be in as well as giving people the chance to launch nights and try out random things, it was a club that really could cope with most things and it gained a great reputation for it.”
One of the reasons I guess I am so melancholic for the Emporium is because of the time it existed: straddling the 1990s – 2000s, pre-digital cameras, pre-mobiles (well, they were around, but definitely not as pervasive as they are now). Photos from nights went up on clubbing websites at the time – all of which have disappeared.
Because we tended to spend the nights in there fuelled on a deadly vodka-Red Bull mixture, my memories of the place are ambiguous and pixelated. I remember a deadly slippery flight of stairs, a cloakroom, the leathery sofas that some of my friends got sucked into one night when they thought a fistful of mushrooms would be a great enhancement to a house night (it wasn’t – I spent about half an hour trying to get them to stand up then just abandoned them to go and dance instead), the main room – long and thin, with raised stages on either side and the pit in the middle, a bar at the back, and a toilet where I met a girl who had spent an hour in there just staring at a film poster after taking some pills that were laced with acid.
Then there was the second flight of stairs – deadly and slippy, again – and then the upstairs room, which was hot and sweaty and always rammed. The upstairs ladies toilets had very harsh and unforgiving strip lighting and an aggressive ambience – always better to go to the loo downstairs, if you were female. I remember drum and bass and breaks upstairs, everyone crammed in, jumping up and down as one amalgamated lump of squashy humanity.
It was the Emporium that brought Tim Corrigan to Cardiff in the first place (where he’s stayed ever since). “I was running the Emporium in Kingly St in London and the owners bought a club in Cardiff and during the refurbishment of the London club, I was sent to Cardiff to help get it up and running and somehow managed to stay here!” he says. “It was a struggle at first as the Emporium was a very luxurious club when it first opened, it struggled to find its feet really until Catapult Records did a night there called 110%. Lucy and her team brought in people like Fruity Antics from Bristol (amongst others) and introduced the Emporium to house music.”
These very grainy photos give you an idea of the sort of japes that went on in those nights …
Nostalgic raver N told me about those nights:
“The Emporium in the ’90s – always a beautiful bunch! Catapult, Fruity Antics – the big-eyed, smiley people danced like their lives depended on it. Who needed Ibiza when we had our own kind of sunshine like this every weekend in Cardiff? Deep house, funky house and strictly for groovers. Moving up, getting down and letting that backbone slide! Elastic legs and hands in the air at the end of the night singing our hearts out with grins like Cheshire cats and eyes like saucers. One night a guy approached a group of us and said he’d never seen people genuinely having so much fun. He was serious! So were we – we loved it! Living for the weekend, butterflies in our tummies in anticipation of the night ahead, throwing shapes on the dance floor without a care in the world apart from the tunes of course! Absolutely Loved It!! Fond memories forever.”
It wasn’t just the punters who loved it. Henry Blunt of Time Flies moved his night there in 1997. “It was a fantastic venue to promote in,” he says. “The perfect blend of an underground party vibe with a touch of class, alongside professional management and staff plus a strong door team, Emporium soon became the central focus for Cardiff’s thriving dance music scene. Time Flies events there were some of the best we have ever done, and will live long in the memory.”
Another of Cardiff’s longest enduring house nights was actually birthed in the Emporium (does that sound gross? I don’t mean it in a gross way). Although LAMERICA has held parties in nearly every other venue in Cardiff now, Craig Bartlett still has fond memories of the Emporium. “It was the beginning – the place where we started LAMERICA. We put on some of the world’s best DJs there. It was the best and the worst club, for lots of reasons! I would love to do another party in there – Louie Vega’s first ever appearance in 2000 was one of the best nights ever. Also Dimitri from Paris and Danny Krivit playing back to back, and the Todd Terry / CJ Mackintosh Woody Records party in ’94 were big highlights.”
Not everyone loved the place so much. R used to work behind the bar there, and has less fond memories. “Always thought it was overrated as a punter,” he says. “Shit layout, shit soundsystem, not the best vibe. I worked there when it was The Loop. Was shit to work for.”
In its previous incarnations, the unit was The Loop, and before that, it was Tom Toms (the legendary rave club they actually reminisce about in Human Traffic). David tells me “Tom Toms was the heart of the Cardiff rave scene for a couple of years. I think it closed in December 1991, and reopened as The Loop, which was more a normal drinking club. It was that for a few years, then became the Emporium. I loved that club – the last tune every Friday after a night of hardcore was Zoe “Sunshine on a rainy day” – and then the lights would come on! Good times!”
Although David has fond memories of the Emporium, for him, nothing will beat Tom Toms. “There was a real lack of venues mid/late 90s in Cardiff. I had some good nights in the Emporium, but nowhere near as good as when it was Tom Toms! There was something missing I can’t put my finger on it, think it was the vibe as it wasn’t as underground as the Hippo, and not as cool as the City Hall but had some decent nights in there!”
Back to reality. The here and now. You might be wondering – why now? What’s the point of writing about a Cardiff club that’s been and gone, for so long? There have been so many others. The Hippo has Facebook group dedicated to it, while the Emporium has nothing like that.
I walk past the club’s boarded up front and wonder about it sometimes. Recently a note has been painted on the entrance, saying planning has been granted for flats.
It’s difficult to do that with other clubs. They’ve been taken over or knocked down, and new layers of memories have plastered on over the old ones. I can barely remember exactly where the Hippo was anymore, and I’ve forgotten the layout of Vision 2k. I remember that the Toucan was on Womanby Street – where the Bootlegger is now – but it’s really hard for me to visualise it. The city has appropriated all those spaces, absorbed them, and turned them into other things.
Not the Emporium. It’s stuck in this weird, in-between state. I actually started writing this piece back in 2011 (!), which was the first time I saw an image like this posted by someone who had been inside the building on Facebook …
That is an empty shell of a club. A shock when compared to the technicolour, fuzzy blur of memories I have of the place. It’s not quite an abandoned building in the traditional sense: the roof is still on, and it’s has neither humans nor pigeons squatting in it. But it’s also not a club anymore, that’s for sure.
There’s a psychological term that’s used in literature sometimes to describe characters (or situations) that are at an in-between point in a story. It’s usually the space in between key things happening right in the middle of a narrative journey (it’s the bit between when Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed and then when he decides to be Batman). You get the idea. It’s called liminality.
But a liminal space can also exist in the physical sense. It’s a place that has no fixed purpose. If the club was abandoned, it would have transformed into something else. But it’s not. So it’s waiting, empty, with no stamping feet to keep the floor down, and no heat from the wriggling, joyful bodies to give it life.
Without the people, what is this place now?
One of the most shocking things about seeing the photos for me – once I got over the emptiness of the place – was that the main dance floor had a glass ceiling?! Yep – there was a period of a year where I was probably in that club every other weekend at least. Who knows how many hours spent in there. And yet I had no idea about the glass roof until I saw these photos. I consulted with friends I used to go to the club with – they were all just as shocked as me.
Some of Tim’s favourite memories of the club revolve around that glass ceiling (even though I can’t remember it at all). “One of my most memorable nights was watching Louie Vega play a huge set. What a lot of people didn’t know was that the ceiling above the dance floor was glass, so when the sun came up it would suddenly be daylight. We had Louie Vega playing the most amazing deep house set and it was sunrise and he turned to me and said: ‘I fucking love this club’ … I mean, it was 6am, the club was rammed, everyone was really appreciating everything he was playing for them. That was pretty memorable!”
I asked Tim about whether he felt like clubbing had changed much since the days that the Emporium was open. “I don’t think there are any clubs that could ever conjure the same affection that the Emporium did for its clientele,” says Tim. “I don’t see the same response to nights out that people put on now as there used to be in the past. People just don’t seem that bothered about big nights out anymore, it always feels a little too edgy as well, the change in the licensing laws in Wales pretty much killed off the special nights in clubs as people were happy to stay in the bars later and later. Bars can now compete with clubs on a whole new level with regards to sound, design, and music.”
We chat about Cardiff’s current club scene. For me, Clwb is still a place that I feel guaranteed of a good night, and Tim agrees.
“I think the Welsh Club has stuck to its roots – it seems to have survived anything that being thrown at it. It’s such an institution. Hopefully that will never face the day when it needs to close its doors as I imagine that will be a loss to a lot of people. The world’s too clean a place with its health and safety and all its laws to ever let a club like the Emporium through the net again! The Hippo is another one I don’t think either would survive very long these days in the environment that the law makers have created for us. Ha, is that subtle enough!?!”
I wonder if Cardiff is missing an Emporium, or another Hippo. I guess the Full Moon is somewhere in the anything-goes vibe of the club, though obviously world’s apart in execution.
“I don’t think Cardiff is missing a place like the Emporium. I just don’t think it would happen again,” says Tim. “The original Sodabar that I owned was an upmarket version of it, and the new one was when it opened. But it’s a standard, run-of-the-mill place now. I wasn’t there when the Emporium closed, as I had opened Sodabar by then but I just think perhaps it had just had its day. The management had changed and perhaps they didn’t enjoy the music as much as I did. I also think it was just too run down at that point. Newer, cleaner clubs were popping up. Maybe people were starting to expect more for their money!? It was a shame that it closed but the capacity would have always been an issue for that venue, as we could never get it extended to let more people in.”
Even to this day, capacity or not, no one seems to have found a use for the venue, which is still an empty unit, albeit with planning permission for flats now.
I found this interview with Human Traffic’s Justin Kerrigan the other day and it reminded me of this quote.
“This could be the best night of my life. I’ve got 73 quid in my back burner – I’m gonna wax the lot, man! The Milky Bars are on me! Yeh!”
That’s how we all felt about going out clubbing in the 1990s, right?
(I always thought that quote was hilarious. I was lucky if I had £20 in my pocket when I went out clubbing then.)
Some things never change.
Tim Corrigan came to Cardiff just for a bit and never left. He now runs the Milk and Sugar chain.
Helia Phoenix is a geriatric raver who has long since exchanged her glo sticks for knitting needles. Just kidding. She’s still well up for a dance, if anyone wants to put on a rave that would finish a little earlier …? She lives in Butetown and her current most favourite place to go in the evenings these days is the Blue Honey Night Cafe. She also started writing this article in 2011 … in the future, she wants to be better at wrapping things up a little quicker.
Big thanks to all the geriatric ravers who contributed to this article. In no order, because we like to mix things up: Tim Corrigan, Neil Cocker, Matt Jarvis who provided the flyers, Henry Blunt, James Drop for many fun nights dancing downstairs in Las Iguanas, Rick Latham for all those hours listening to funky house in Catapult, Tyrone Rose, Lucy Thomas, Simon Thomas, Doug Nicholls, Carl Morris, Twm Owen, Lubi J, Dean Thomas, Matthew Miles, Gareth Coates, Craig Bartlett, Tony Davidson, David Tumulty, Jon Rostron, Rhys Thompson, Tony Davidson, Nadia, Lawrence, Stig, Luke, Nat, Gav, Eleri, Pam, Kaptin, plus all those I met on the way, whose names I can’t remember, but who shared warm embraces, warm beers, and a warm dancefloor with me over all those late nights, all that time ago. Also anyone else who talked to me about the Emporium, who I’ve forgotten to mention.
It’s hard to find photos of the place (maybe mercifully so), although some questions to a nostalgic Facebook group surfaced a lot more pictures than I was anticipating – and it’s their photos you can see throughout this piece. Big thanks to all of them for helping bring my ramblings to life.
Also RIP Ian Dundgey, who played many sets in the Emporium, and passed away 10 years ago.
Need more nostalgia?
- See Matt Jarvis’ collection of ptangyang flyers
- Gwen Love’s story of Cool Cymru – Cardiff in 1996
- Bethan Elfyn talks about visiting Cardiff in the ’90s
- RIP Catapult 100% Vinyl