There is no simple recipe for success when it comes to gay club events. These days, to be notching up over a decade in the game deserves some sort of medal.
This weekend, Horse Meat Disco (HMD) will celebrate its 13th birthday at Eagle London. During that time the Sunday night stalwart has conquered the world.
Besides its weekly residency in the UK capital, the team enjoyed a long-running monthly Berlin residency and currently have monthly dates in New York City.
They’ve been as far afield as Japan, Chile, San Francisco, Ibiza and Sydney as well as numerous dates within the UK, including Glastonbury. They’ve overseen the release of four compilation albums and have a weekly radio show on Rinse FM.
At the same time, the night’s managed to retain an intimate and underground feel.
The duo behind it admit that it’s been far more successful than they ever imagined.
Jim Stanton met James Hillard in 2001 through mutual friend and fellow HMD resident DJ, Severino Panzetta.
‘I met Severino when I was working in Italy at a record label and he would come in to pick up promos to bring back to London,’ says Hillard. ‘When I came back to live in London I hung out with him, and one night we were at Basement Jaxx’s Rooty party in Brixton Hill and that’s where I met Jim.’
At the time, Stanton was selling online advertising for Sleaze Nation and Jockey Slut magazines, as well as working the door at the odd club event. Hillard was working at the record label Nu-Phonic.
Both were based in Shoreditch and would meet for lunch. In the evenings, they’d venture out on to the scene, although both found themselves largely frustrated.
‘We didn’t hold much truck with the gay scene, really, musically,’ says Stanton. ‘I mean, I was working at Crash, and I was quite drawn to tribal music, which was quite specialized…’
‘And you’d drag me along to it and I’d get bored,’ chuckles Hillard.
‘Some of the music was great but it just felt like every club you went to on the gay scene, everyone had the same record box,’ agrees Stanton. ‘Not to be disparaging, but there didn’t seem much variation and we thought we could do something different.’
Neither Stanton or Hillard were DJs, but both shared a love of classic and obscure disco and pined for somewhere that they could hear it.
‘I was involved with the booking agency side of Nu-Phonic, and that included a guy from New york called Adam Goldstone, who sadly died ten years ago. I was being very despondent about things one day and he said, “Go and do something about it! Put a party on.”
Hillard and Stanton launched a Thursday night at Substation South called Never Mind The Neighbours, which they soon transferred to a small basement venue called Flip in Chinatown, run by Wendy Leston of Retro Bar.
‘It was then that we changed the name to Horse Meat Disco,’ says Hillard. ‘That came from the first horse meat scandal. I saw a headline, ‘Horse Meat Discovered in Salami’, but the second half of it was covered up, so it just said ‘Horse Meat Disco’. It was the eureka moment. I thought it was a really good name for a party and called Jim.’
Horse Meat Disco met with immediate success: disco tracks mixed with modern tunes and off-the-wall classics for a hetero-friendly but predominantly gay crowd.
‘It’s always been the queer party for everyone,’ says Stanton. ‘That was the idea. We all liked disco, so it was going to be very rooted in disco. And we had some trouble at first. We’d have people asking us, “When are you going to play the proper music?” We had that quite a lot!’
Then, after a few weeks, Flip changed hands. The new management loved the bar and door takings, but not the club’s imagery – which famously features a stallion with a prominent erection.
Stanton: ‘They were straight, and they didn’t like the name, didn’t like the flyers, didn’t like the images. So basically they sat us down and asked us to change the club.’
Hillard: ‘”Sod off,” was our response!’
They took a few months off to look for a new home, but soon settled on Eagle London. That was in 2003, and HMD has consistently filled the venue to capacity every Sunday evening – prompting legendary queues on public holiday weekends.
The night’s uniqueness is very much a team effort. Hillard and Stanton are joined behind the decks by two other resident DJs: Severino and Luke Howard. All four love disco but each brings their own unique taste to the booth.
With so many contacts in the club and DJ world between them, they were also keen to host special guests, including straight names not so often featured in gay clubs.
‘We were one of the first people to really do that in a gay club,’ says Hillard. ‘I think that those DJs had such a good time, and there weren’t that many gay clubs with straight DJs playing disco, and they would go and talk and tell their friends, and word spread, and then we’d book them too.’
The club also labored over its marketing imagery. In the early days, most of it was produced by Adrian Fillary (now Mr Jade Jagger).
‘The artwork was very different from anything else. You’d flick through QX magazine and it was the same sort of picture of a muscle guy, with a word like ‘Salvation’, or … ‘Dyptheria’ or something like that.
‘[Fillary] took more of a graphic approach,’ agrees Stanton.
Much of the artwork is now handled by Eagle London’s Lee Benjamin, who Stanton and Hillard both rate for his graphic designer skills.
Asked to pin-point exactly why they think the night continues to be so successful, both have no clear answer.
‘I think we were in the right place at the right time,’ says Hillard. ‘And having a different type of approach: respecting people’s intelligence, musically. We weren’t prepared to play the same cookie-cutter records.’
‘We moved to Vauxhall not long after the Market Tavern had closed,’ reflects Stanton, ‘and there were older people who missed disco. Some of them told me that they stopped going out when Trade opened [the legendary London techno and hard house night] – so there were some people wanting to hear this music again.
‘Although it cuts across the board. When I play gigs around the country – Nottingham, Stoke-on-Trent – it’s usually to kids. To them, the music’s new.’
Both say they like the fact that although successful, HMD has remained a relatively compact gathering and resisted the lure of the megaclubs.
‘I have actually played to 9,000 people in an air hangar in France,’ laughs Hillard. ‘It was terrifying but I survived. And we do the festivals and stuff, but it does feel like our club is more suited to the more intimate spaces. Proper clubs.’
‘We’re not big room, Calvin Harris-type DJs, so there’s always going to be opportunities for us to play little parties somewhere,’ says Stanton.
This has included the US. How was it taking disco back to its birthplace?
‘It’s quite circuit party-ish in New York, actually, lots of tops off,’ says Hillard. ‘They’ve definitely got the canon of songs, but they seem to like that we play stuff that isn’t just the New York classics – they get bored of the same records, so what people say about us is that we’re coming at it from a different viewpoint or different musical angle.’
Luke Howard, one of the other residents, loves playing the New York dates, and messages me from the Big Apple when I ask him why he thinks HMD has been so successful.
‘Playing disco in New York is like taking proverbial coals to Newcastle – it’s such an honor for me to DJ in NYC. It’s my Mecca as far as disco is concerned, it’s the birthplace of disco culture and it’s where I learnt about music at clubs like Shelter and Sound Factory.’
He puts the night’s success down to the fact that all four DJs are enthusiastic about the music they play.
‘And we love what we do.’
Severino agrees: ‘We still love to play uplifting disco and we’ve always been open to everyone – we just like to make people smile and be happy – it’s a break from being lonely and looking at your phone!’
The Italian also enthuses about the guest DJs, with Joey Negro, Andrew Weatherall, Maurice Fulton and Kenny Dope among his personal favorites.
Now entering its 14th year, Horse Meat Disco shows no signs of slowing down. Hillard and Stanton love the fact that Eagle London recently underwent an extensive refit to make it more disco-friendly, and the support given to the night by the venue’s owner, Mark Oakley (‘he’s like the fifth member of the team,’ says Stanton.)
As for the future… ‘As long as people still want to come, we’ll continue do it. People really care about it and love it, and as long as that continues… the knacker’s yard is a long way off,’ says Hillard. ‘And I still really enjoy doing it.’
‘Yeah, it’s like any place of work. If you stop enjoying it, then that’s it. Especially if you’re a DJ,’ agrees Stanton. ‘If you start to feel the drag, then get out!’
Horse Meat Disco’s 13th birthday party, with guest Maurice Fulton, is this Sunday at Eagle London.