Before Annie Macmanus – aka veteran DJ Annie Mac – started her four-hour set for her new night, Before Midnight, she wandered around the early arrivals saying hello. They all said the same thing: thank you. “It’s like I’m doing some kind of a public service,” she says.
At Islington Assembly Hall in north London on Friday night, the gratitude was real – with the mixed crowd delighted to be raving hard by 9pm, before many clubs have even opened, and knowing they’d be on their merry way home just after midnight, when “normal” clubbers are just getting started. Macmanus started the night, billed as “clubbing for people who need sleep”, because, at 43 and with children to care for, she no longer wanted to play sets all night. The DJ – who during her 17 years as one of the biggest DJs at BBC Radio 1 always declared that “raving is a state of mind” – also wanted to put on nights “for anyone who just wants to go out and loves nightclubbing but hasn’t really felt like nightclubbing is a place for them any more.”
But if it was meant to be clubbing for oldies, hundreds of ravers in their 20s and 30s on Friday hadn’t got the memo, and danced alongside middle-aged mums barely believing they’d made it out, and older couples who had danced their way through several decades.
The Before Midnight set in full swing. Photograph: Liam Oz
New Zealanders Sarah Kelly, 33 and her sister Frances, 31, came because they are longtime Macmanus fans. “Her nights are so inclusive and feel really safe,” said Sarah. “Tonight it just feels like there’s all these different types of people, of all different ages, but they are our type of people – everyone just wants to have fun. And we can be in bed by 1am – amazing!”
A little before midnight, Jo Marsh, 52, was beaming, throwing herself around the dancefloor with her friend Mel Sargaison, 54, and Mel’s daughter Hannah Story, 24. The friends have been clubbing together since the 90s– often in the area behind King’s Cross, the seedy throbbing heart of London’s clubland before being sanitised with luxury flats and expensive clothes outlets.
“This is special,” she said. “We’ve been living with so much restraint during the pandemic, and we all need to let go and connect again. It’s been so inclusive and we’ve loved it – can’t wait for the next one.”
Before launching the night, Macmanus planned ferociously. The capacity of the venue was set at 800, small for a night with the DJ as headliner, and the DJ booth was placed in front of the stage among the dancers to create a “real connection”, and avoid a situation where “everyone’s filming the DJ with their phone in the air”.
And during some ecstatic moments it worked, as Don’t Leave Me This Way by the Communards soared to a crescendo towards the back end of the set, or as silver ticker-tape exploded above and the joy of mass dancing filled the room. At other points the venue – a grade-II listed music hall with soaring ceilings – absorbed too much of the sound and the throb of the bass. “The roof was so high that the sound kind of travelled around the room a little bit,” says Macnamus. “I think we made it work, but the next one we’ll do in a proper nightclub.”
Since leaving Radio 1 in April last year, Macmanus says she’s decompressed and fallen back in love with music. She’s launched her own podcast – Changes with Annie Macmanus – and is writing, which she describes as “like coming home”. It turns out that doing exactly what you want, on your own terms, is good for the soul. Does she miss Radio 1 at all? “I don’t actually. Not at all,” she says. “I really don’t want that to come across as in any way negative, I really loved it when I was there, but I feel like I’m really happy and at peace with having left when I did.”
She adds that she does not take her position in an industry still dominated by men for granted, aware that, at her age, many women in music are ignored, sidelined, or just “invisible”.
Warning to the theme, she says: “But there’s just something about the spirits of women in their middle age that is quite incredible.”
The morning after the show, the DJ – who is delighted to say she got to bed at 1am – reflects on the night: “I’m delighted with how it went. “From the off, there was this feeling of people being so happy to be there – the crowd were brilliant.”
Confirming that the night will live on, Macmanus adds that tickets for the next event will be released the week after next. “We’re definitely doing more,” she says. “It’s just made me really excited for my future as a DJ.”