The Four Aces was situated on Dalston Lane, E8, London underneath what is now the CLR James Library and the 'stunning' Barratt Homes
horrorplex complex. It started life as a vaudeville theatre and picture palace, before being turned into a music venue in 1966. Celebrating the best of Afro Caribbean music it was famous for its Reggae, Roots, Soul and R&B. Its reputation soon spread, and attracted the likes Jimmy Ruffin, Jimmy Cliff, The Ronettes, Desmond Dekker and Ben E. King who all played this intimate space to crowds of adoring fans. It was a destination for the whole Dalston community...
In the 70s the club remained a favourite of musicians and locals alike, with Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and Chrissie Hynde attending, as it began showcasing sound systems and DJs from the Reggae scene and the new sound of Lovers Rock. Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten hung out at the club as the influence of Reggae on the Punk scene was becoming evident. This music scene continued into the early 80s, until the Thatcher government and their ‘divisionist’ politics arrived. Racial tensions were building in the area, and the harmony the club had previously experienced was dissipating, as it became a target for police raids, who arrested and harassed both clientele and owner Newton Dunbar.
This changed in the late 80s, when a new club night called Labrynth – with a predominantly white audience – took over the Four Aces club and attached theatre auditorium. Labrynth already had a reputation for throwing raves around London in ad-hoc locations; and it found a permanent home on Dalston Lane. In the expanded space, it could entertain 5000 clubbers a night. Those that graced its wheels of what were then still steel included Kenny Ken, Billy Bunter, and The Prodigy. Labrynth’s reign lasted well into the 90s, but problems continued to dog the club and it finally closed its doors in 1997 and was demolished in 2007, despite a lengthy campaign to save the venue.
Ahead of an exhibition as part of Land of Kings festival this weekend we caught up with the director of the film LEGACY IN THE DUST: The Four Aces Story Winstan Whitter about his memories of the club.
What's your first memory of the Four Aces?
My first memory is in the early 80s, helping my dad in preparing the food and drink. We used to go to West Green Road to buy all the food and drinks i.e Redstripe, Rum, Britvic Orange etc. Then pulling up onto the cirb in Dads old Mercades 280 directly outside the main entrace of the club during the day. The carrying it all into the club down stairs into the Hideaway which was where my dad ran that part of the club. He would set up all the food drinks and music. I would be there until 12 midnight on a Saturday night helping out behind the bar. I just remember it being darkly lit, and there being lots of big people towering over me dancing to some pounding Reggae. It was like how Dennis Brown sings the song ‘Silloutte’ just everywhere in the club couple doing the big people dance!
From what I’ve read and heard from you, the Four Aces was as much about a unique place people congregated to see each other, as much as about the music. Do you think things like social media and technology have eroded that sense of local community?
I don’t think technology have completely eroded it but there is definitely less community congregation happening for a few reasons. There were many venues like the Four Aces like Phebes, All Nations, The Cubies and The Q-Club, the differences comparing to today’s venues is that the old venues were inclusive of the Whole family. So in the Four Aces you could have both parents and young children there on a club evening/night or a wedding reception, funeral reception, community discussions, band rehearsal studio for the local resident groups.
Now all those venues are gone and have not been replaced so there are many displaced peoples from that time and now the children and their children have no idea that places like this existed. If your not a person who drinks then there is only coffee shops which in most cases people are using the wi-fi and computing so its lets social.
Do any of the gigs stand out in your memory?
I never saw any live gigs at the Four Aces, I was about 10 when I started helping my Dad at the club and the live aspect of the club at that time had ended and was purely sound-systems.
You’ve lived in or around Hackney for most of your life. What do you feel distinguishes it from other boroughs in London, what makes it special?
Growing up in Hackney was amazing it was such a lively place especially Dalston, because everywhere between Stoke Newington Police Station to Dalston Junction was lots of loud music outside coming from cars, shops houses and flats, sound-systems on the street namely Frontline Sound who where based on Sandringham road where the frontline was! A very busy area everyone seemed to know each other, my Dad would be driving and stop in the middle of the road to chat to a friend in another car passing by.
Hackney has always had a very tight community and feels vibrant and has always had lots of different cultures of people from all over the world that live together in harmony all in the same boat less of a class divide!
Starting out as a reggae club, the club ended as a temple of the booming dance music scene. I know a lot of people still in the industry today who cut their teeth as young clubbers there. It obviously had and has a huge effect on music. What do you remember from the Labrynth parties?
Labrynth was intense, it was really happing at the Four Aces, Ive never seen such a busy vibrant fun all nighter rave like that since then. Because the club had some many rooms, basment ground floor, first floor, the garden each with a different sound system and DJ. That was the place for real for dancing, you never felt the presence of bouncer/doormen but always felt safe. I do Remember a police raid there it was bizarre. It was around 5am on a Sunday morning and we were upstairs on the first floor chilling out, a friend was rolling a joint people were dancing and then all of sudden the police barge in with massive dogs. Music stops lights go on and then two officers ran and jumped onto the back of a Dreadlock rasta man, he crashed to the ground with more officers jumping on top of him like a rugby match, so unnecessary! They weren’t interested in anyone else the party continued weird! I went up to Newton’s office to hide after that.
The film is definitely one for fans of reggae, roots and more generally the beginnings of club culture but also has political undertones. What was the most important factor inspiring the film?
The most important factor is the connections the club had with all people, its like a nucleus all roads lead to the Four Aces Club. Its really the about the music that commented on life throughout 4 decades which literally was introduced for the first time to people through The Four Aces Club for the first time to everyone who visited the club.
You've spoken about using film as a medium to address issues and expose truths – what film/director do you admire for doing this?
I am inspired by Menelik Shabazz a director who was a part of the production company called Black Audio Collective back in the 80s.
He made a documentary called ‘Time And Judgement’ which is very inspiring and powerful political film.
Although the demographic may have changed, Dalston still remains a hub for music and nightlife – what do you feel draws people to this area, and keeps this soul of creativity alive after so many decades? Anything that worries you about the recent influx?
The laid back attitude of the people which don’t complain as much as Northwest, West London boroughs when it comes to music and night life. Its location, its close to Liverpool St, Old St, Shoreditch, Islington, Clapton, London Fields etc.
The fact that it was falling apart in terms of buildings the dilapidation of that area the council neglected for so many years the buildings still have an interesting character. Hardly any commercial shops etc, it was like an open book to the recent influx of people to come build, influence and create. There has always been warehouse parties/house parties that would go on all night without police or noise abatement people shutting them down. Cheap rent also years ago.
The rich diverse friendly cultures that are here, which are very established, Ridley Road Market.
The thing that worries me is that now it’s become so expensive to live there, lots of people that have been there most of their lives have to move out.
I think that the recent influx should be more inclusive of what was already here and not shut out ostracize local people. Help maintain the place that attracted them in the first place rather than existing there without putting back into the community, which I feel is happening more these days through organizations like Open Dalston.
Land of Kings Festival has a mini-prgramme of events planned on Saturday May 5th to celebrate the many faces of the Four Aces Club. Full info at Land of Kings Festival which happens this weekend in and around E8.