Gay clubs in many major cities are facing a tough time at the moment.
Escalating real estate prices and gentrification in gay hotspots such as New York, San Francisco and London have led to a spate of closures.
Last week’s decision by Islington Council in London to revoke the license of super club Fabric highlighted a sobering statistic: around 50% of clubbing venues – gay or straight – in the UK capital have closed in the last eight years.
‘Adapt to survive’ is a motto many venues are now having to embrace; as demonstrated by one of south London’s best known venues, Eagle London.
Its co-owner, Mark Oakley, is upfront about the fact that he and his team have had to make some big decisions to secure the venue’s future. This includes moving away from what some people might perceive as the Eagle brand.
Oakley took over what was formerly known as Dukes almost 13 years ago with partner Ian Cullen and relaunched it as Eagle London. There are gay Eagle-branded bars in several cities around the world, most notably San Francisco, New York and Amsterdam.
The brand is not franchised and any bar can operate under the name. In fact, there are at least five bars called The Eagle in London, but the Vauxhall institution is the only LGBTI-oriented one.
Re-inventing the Eagle image
‘Eagle’ tends to conjure up a certain image: a testosterone-fuelled, men-only cruise space with black walls and sticky floor. For much of the past decade, that’s what Eagle Vauxhall offered – with Oakley and his team working closely with Lambeth Council to secure the proper sex entertainment license and to provide as safe space for gay guys.
However, besides that, it also earned itself a reputation with a wider clientele – thanks to its Sunday night staple, Horse Meat Disco (HMD).
HMD, launched by DJs Jim Stanton and James Hillard in 2003, quickly moved into Eagle London’s Sunday night slot and became the jewel in its crown. It has consistently packed in a capacity crowd of male and female disco lovers. It’s widely recognized as one of London’s best club nights.
However, although HMD attracts a slavishly loyal following, other Eagle nights have failed to hit the mark.
‘I’d come downstairs and there would be ten people here – and they’d all be on Grindr!’
‘Fridays have always been stable, with Chunk, then Tonker and more recently our own Men Inc,’ says Oakley, talking to me in his apartment above the bar.
‘We’ve had some successful Saturdays, like R18, but the other Saturdays have struggled. But then we saw a really big shift coming from around 2007-08: the sex side started to change a little.
‘At first we thought it was just a change in habits, but then we came to the realization around 2011-12, that the phone apps were really starting to make an impact.
‘Apps meant that people don’t need to come to clubs like this to hook up. During the week we were getting fairly minimal support. I’d come downstairs and there would be ten people here – and they’d all be on Grindr!’
Oakley operates Eagle London under a long-lease agreement with Punch Taverns. The company has suffered its own spate of closures in recent years across the UK, but Oakley says it has always had faith in the Vauxhall venue, and wanted to work with it again when the lease came up for renewal this year.
The renewal prompted Oakley and his team to think hard about the direction they wanted to take the bar.
‘Sex clubs are dying,’ he says emphatically.
‘It’s not only sex clubs, but gay venues generally. Sometimes it’s down to rent increases and gentrification but it’s also down to badly run businesses that haven’t moved with the times.’
‘Chemsex and licensed premises do not mix’
Oakley says that there was another growing problem with running a sex-oriented venue.
‘One of the biggest reasons for me wasn’t just the customer numbers dropping: it was the irresponsible few who were so drug induced that our staff were spending more of their time playing nursemaid to those who had collapsed or overdosed on the floor.
‘We had a particular party at Christmas, and by midnight, we had one guy having to be resuscitated and three others in a bad way. We’ve never had that here.’
‘It’s a huge worry, and it creates big problems with the police, the licensing and the neighbors, and frankly, I you don’t want to be having to ask your staff to wipe up some man’s bottom who’s made a mess of themselves.
‘Chemsex and licensed premises do not mix.’
‘We still have the sex license and it runs until the end of the year but I’m not planning on renewing it’
Eagle London closed down for three weeks in May for a major refurbishment. Out went the black interior and instead were introduced stripped-back brick walls, new seating booths and other fixtures and fittings, along with a Funktion-One sound system.
They’ve spent around £250,000. In the next few weeks, the exterior will be totally re-painted too.
Early indications are that it’s been money well spent. Oakley says Eagle London enjoyed its most profitable August ever. It’s reassured Oakley and his team that they made the right decision – even if they have had a handful of complaints.
‘It’s not been an easy transition for some people,’ he concedes. ‘Saying to a lot of customers, “We’ve changed now and you can’t have sex here” … That’s quite a big change to make.
‘They say “I came to eagle and the darkroom’s gone – I used to enjoy it!”; “You can’t call yourself an Eagle now!’, “There was women in the venue – how can you do this!?”
‘The misogyny is quite shocking. Well, if you came before, maybe we wouldn’t have changed, but you weren’t coming in great numbers often enough to sustain it!
‘And that’s before all the other caveats of running a sex entertainment venue, which is such a risky business nowadays.
‘The Eagle in San Francisco is the oldest Eagle bar and has been running 50 years – and it’s never been sex club.
‘We still have the sex license and it runs until the end of the year but I’m not planning on renewing it.’
To complement its new-look, Eagle London is hosting new nights. It’s now open from 6pm midweek to attract a post-work crowd. DJ Wes Baggley is hosting Synthia on Thursdays and there’s a cult film night, Eagle VHS, on Wednesdays. Singer and DJ Ronnie King presides over Phat Tuesdays, while there’s a west coast soul and country music vibe going down on Mondays.
Saturdays will continue to offer a rotating line-up of promotions. Expect this Saturday’s (17 September) annual Mr Eagle contest to be an particularly busy affair.
Besides Men Inc on Fridays, the once-a-month DILF is a reminder of Eagle’s cruisier past. Oakley also highlights recent collaborations with Bar Wotever, popular with a lesbian, trans, ‘wotever’ crowd.
‘If we were still doing the same things you were doing three years ago, we wouldn’t be here now’
‘The refit has opened up the venue to a lot of new people,’ says Alan Stuart, the venue’s bar manager. ‘For some of them there was still a stigma about the venue being for men-only or a sex club, but when they see it, they’re really surprised.’
‘If we were still doing the same things you were doing three years ago, we wouldn’t be here now,’ concludes Oakley. ‘We’ve had to change, and in doing so, I believe we’ve helped to save it for the next generation, at least for the next 15 years. If we hadn’t evolved or moved with the times, we’d be finished.’
Gay Star News is a media partner for this weekend’s Mr Eagle contest