What we're gonna do right here is go back – and this time around, you can wear what you like! Just don't expect a nostalgia-fest...
Anyone who's been involved in the dance music industry (or club culture generally) for more than five minutes will remember what a horrible time the mid-00s were for house music. The "MP3 revolution" saw vinyl distributors filing for bankruptcy left, right and centre, taking countless independent labels down with them; the superclubs that had dominated the scene for a decade were shuttering their doors one-by-one, and a decision by Radio 1 to no longer playlist dance music during the daytime proved the final nail in the coffin for many much-loved brands – although a new breed of DJs, producers, club nights and record labels soon emerged to take their place.
What's all this got to do with Love To Be…? Not a lot, except that right now many of those mid-00s newbies are gearing up to celebrate their 10th or 15th anniversaries – and that's great to see. But spare a thought, too, for a house music brand who are about to mark their 25th birthday. Now that's what you call staying power!
Birthed in Sheffield in 1994, Love To Be… was a huge force in mid-90s clubbing. In the club's glory days, some 1,800 people rammed the Music Factory every Saturday, and while the club may have been notorious for its fashionista door police (Berghain didn't invent snooty door-pickers, kids!), once you got inside the vibe couldn't have been friendlier and the music policy was quality house music all the way.
Since then, Love To Be… has never quite regained its mid-90s strength, but it's never quite gone away, either. Various residencies in Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield followed the club's departure from the Music Factory, while in the current decade the focus has been on touring – although a sold-out reunion at the 4,000-capacity Magna in Sheffield in 2016 proved there's still plenty of Love To Be… love in the Steel City, too.
Currently, Love To Be… have just embarked on a 25th anniversary tour, and tickets have been selling out fast. So we contacted residents (and these days brand owners) Tony Walker and Marc Dennis to find out more…
Tony, you've been with Love To Be… from the beginning, so tell us a bit about how the club got started…
"I used to work at Eastern Bloc in Leeds, and I had a night at the Music Factory called Happy – it was the busiest student house night in the UK! We'd bring in people like Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk and we were getting 1,200 people in a week, so the owner asked me if I'd go help his son set up a similar thing at the Music Factory in Sheffield.
"At the start it was me, Mark Black whose Dad owned the club, and his mate Tony Gedge, who'd just finished a degree in marketing. I was all about the music, Tony G was more on the branding and PR side, and he was also the public face of the club. And then, with it being Mark's dad's club, he took on a lot more of the practical side, like maintaining the door, paying the bar staff, that sort of thing.
"Back To Basics and Up Yer Ronson were bringing all the big London DJs up north back then, so I decided we should concentrate on the US jocks, bring over people like Kenny Carpenter and DJ Disciple, because it was really only Hard Times and us that were doing that. That was the vibe at first."
"Yeah, it changed a bit when handbag came long. We got a bit swept up in that, because if you've got a venue that big, you do have to get bums on seats to some extent! The US house sound was still big, but handbag – which was only ever kind of the UK take on that sound anyway – was even bigger. So we had people like Allister Whitehead, Jeremy Healey and LuvDup coming down and I'll be honest, they were good times! The best of times, really.
"We got labelled a 'superclub' by other people, but we were never commercial: it was about good music, nice people and no trouble. That was the reason behind the door policy, too: there'd been trouble at the venue under previous owners, so there was a lot of pressure to keep the hooligan element out. But to be honest, it all got a bit silly on the door and I wasn't a big fan of that, because for me it was about the music, not fashion. We weren't the only ones, though, to be fair – Vague or Speed Queen were even harder to get into!"
"Anyway, we were at the Music Factory for about three years, but then the scene started to change. Trance and speed garage came along, and Gatecrasher and Niche took the Sheffield scene in two different directions, whereas we still wanted to focus on house. So we moved to a venue called All Points North, and that was good for a couple of years. But by then, I had a show on Galaxy and I was managing Eastern Bloc by then as well, so the club wasn't my main focus.
"The business got sold to a couple of guys called Steve Mason and Lee Freeman, and they took it to Mint Club in Leeds, and then back to The Plug in Sheffield. And it ran like that for another 10 years, until the brand back under the original ownership in 2009 and we started touring. We did do a monthly at Space in Leeds for a couple of years, but basically we've been nomadic for the past decade.
"So now, with the 25th anniversary tour, we're trying to get to as many northern towns and cities as possible, and hopefully take it down south, too. Because although Love To Be… started in Sheffield, we did actually get to quite a lot of different places back in the day. Our first Ibiza season was in '96, we toured the US and I remember Grolsch sponsored a full 50-date UK tour at one point. So it's interesting to get out there and do it all again now, and the 25th anniversary seems like the ideal time to do it."
Would you like the club to go back to having a more permanent home, though?
"I'd love to be doing this every week! It's finding a home for it... but the good thing is that the music's kind of gone full circle, and right now a lot of the younger clubbers are into house again. I don't think we could fill an 1,800-capacity club on a weekly basis again, I think those days are gone. We can do tents or stages at festivals, though, and we can do monthlies or one-offs, I reckon. But let's see how this tour goes first!
"We're also working with an agency called Adept Live, who are looking after Love To Be… Live. That's a package we do, where you get a DJ set with some live vocalists – Kym Sims, Angie Brown, Kathy Brown, people like that. It's really geared at getting Love To Be… into venues that maybe didn't want to take on a full tour date, and we can also take it to festivals, because it's got that live element. We're taking that to Birmingham Soul Weekender next year, for instance, which is a big hotel party.
"What I definitely don't want to do is become a retro brand. With this tour, it's about 25 years of house, but that means house records released at any time in those 25 years, right up to this week – not just records from 25 years ago! I don't want to do a retro thing, I just want to play decent house music."
So after 25 years, what have been some of the high and low points, looking back?
"Obviously the Music Factory era was a high point. Getting out to Ibiza was another one, and our US tour – that was definitely a highlight, as was getting our album out. So there've been a lot of high points!
"The low point for me, really, was in the mid-late 90s, when trance and speed garage kind of split the scene in three. That was always going to happen, to be honest – the club scene in London was much more diverse at that time, and that was always going to find its way up north – but for a house lover like me, that did kind of kill it a bit. But I kept plugging away at it with the Galaxy show and stuff, and hopefully now we'll rise phoenix-like from the flames!"
Moving over to you, Marc, I gather when it comes to plans going forward, you're Love To Be…'s Mr Future?
"Kind of, but it's not like I'm the new kid on the block – I've been involved with the Love To Be… brand since the late 90s! I started out as a resident DJ, and then over the years I got more involved on the events management side, and we're looking to relaunch the record label properly as well, but obviously right now we're busy with the 25th anniversary tour.
"The big one's on 5 May, when we're back in Sheffield at Code for our official 25th birthday party. For that we're teaming up with the guys from Muzik, so we're hosting our 25th anniversary room and then they're doing a room with Hot Since 82 and L&F Project, so that should be huge! There's the Festival Of Rave in Hull on 27 July where we're hosting the main stage, and then we've got some summer terrace parties in Leeds plus a night there in October, and a Christmas date in Sheffield. Tony and I will be flying the Love To Be… flag in Ibiza, too, at Pukka Up, WNDRLND at Eden and O Beach.
"There's lots of smaller dates as well, so the rest of this year is pretty much taken up with touring, and then into next year, we just want to keep the brand going. To give people who remember Love To Be… originally a bit of nostalgia, but also to bring in some new blood and break some new ground musically. Like Tony said, we don't want to be a retro brand: we'll always cater for our loyal original fanbase, but we want to keep things fresh as well.
"Part of that is keeping up with what clubbers actually want from a night out, and these days that seems to be big events rather than a weekly club night. For instance, for our 2016 reunion at Magna in Sheffield, which we did in association with History Of House, we had people like Graeme Park and Todd Terry and we had about 4,000 people in, which was brilliant. There were a lot of older heads there, sure, but there were a lot of younger clubbers as well, wanting to see what it was all about. So it's about finding a balance between the two, catering for both crowds and mixing up the best of today's music with the classics."
And I'm not gonna have to spend £500 on new clothes just to get in?
(Laughs) "No, definitely not! That mid/late 90s era, when people would spend £100 on a shirt and it all got a bit Studio 54 for a while... that's largely died out. No one's got the money any more! Plus, festivals are the big thing now and that's kind of made its way in clubland, and everyone's just going out in jeans and trainers. Which is fine, so no, definitely no fashion police on the doors for this tour!"
Words: Russell Deeks
Love To Be…'s 25th Birthday is at Code in Sheffield on 5 May. For tickets, and the rest of their upcoming tour dates, see their website – and check out their limited edition 25th Anniversary t-shirts while you're there!
Tags: Love To Be, Tony Walker, Marc Dennis, Music Factory, Code, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, The Plug, Holy City Zoo, Graeme Park, Todd Terry, Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk, Magma, Birmingham Soul Weekender, Festival Of Rave, Kym Sims, Angie Brown, Kathy Brown, Allister Whitehead, Jeremy Healey, LuvDup, handbag, speed garage, trance, Tony Gedge, Eastern Bloc