May 26, 2011
Better than: This '80s night.
The enduring popularity of the 1980s has been one of the strangest phenomena of the past 30 years. Looking back it seems as though that decade is an ever-present spectre, continually manifesting itself to inform all aspects of popular culture from the underground to the commercial. San Francisco's many '80s revival nights bear this out, with scores of clubbers in garish pastel (or, conversely, hairspray and pvc) revisiting the novel pleasures of the Reagan years.
Dig beyond this surface-level rehashing of the decade and you'll find an entirely different and more vibrant scene. Preferring rare, industrial-leaning sounds from late-'70s and early-'80s continental Europe (the party's namesake track is the Normal's "Warm Leatherette"), there's now an entire global network of parties that trade in an obscure genre loosely referred to as "minimal wave." Go to one of these events and many of us would be hard pressed to identify any of the music on offer -- the entire experience is built on an extremely enjoyable obscurity.
At a local level, one of the first parties affiliated with this movement was Warm Leatherette. Long a staple on the scene, its entire run has so far been partly defined by its quest to find the right venue for its vibe. 2011 saw it relocate to its best spot yet at the under-the-radar location of Sub-mission, a gritty punk club in the heart of the Mission.
Turning off Guerrero, 16th street was congested by a fleet of dropship-like minivans unleashing a wave of awkwardly dressed 20-somethings towards Delirium. The bacon-wrapped hot dog vendors were getting out their gear as my friend and I passed the open-air heroin market/Bart station on Mission street. A couple block-wide steps later, and we were mingling outside the club with a mix of young smokers waiting to get inside.
Standing in front I thought about how little Sub-mission feels like a club. It seems closed, the only sign of activity being two bouncers directing people towards the venue's recessed entrance. Handing over our IDs, the bouncer opened the door and let out a near comical amount of synthetic fog. Clearly unamused he yelled, "GOD DAMNIT! I TOLD THEM TO TURN THAT FUCKING FOG MACHINE OFF!" We stepped through, and he closed the door and went back to looking at IDs.
The room was bathed in the lipstick-red neon glow of a sign bearing the mark of the beast, "666." The militarized clacking of '80s percussion bounced off the walls, creating pockets of activity in a room partially obscured by low hanging clouds of atomized glycerine. Through the haze, a kinetic frenzy of dancers appeared, everyone dressed in a near-uniform ensemble of black leather. Strategically placed video screens ran a bizarre montage of ducklings and other animals in assorted nature scenes. A full-sized van (yes, like the motor vehicle) hung precariously above the bar, its side blasted open to provide space for a live PA mixing board.
The evening's soundtrack was controlled from a stage at the back of the club. Warm Leatherette's four resident DJs took turns playing extremely rare cuts of bleak synthesizer music on vinyl. Cold blue lights shot from behind the booth reduced the normally central figure of the DJ to a barely visible shadow. This mimicked the overall sonic aesthetic of the club, which placed the music first over any sort of manipulation. Fades and cuts were used to segue between songs, a style that had the side effect of allowing for a nice fluctuation in tempo -- slow atmospheric tracks rubbed right up against more spastic and nervy workouts. These variations went over well with the crowd, who seemed to switch with the tempo between full-bore dancing and the kind of mingling usually reserved for art gallery openings. It was a discontinuous experience, but one that enabled a social atmosphere that's altogether lacking in a lot of similar clubs.
By 1 a.m. things had begun to die down; the shift between dancing and socializing had given way to a room in a state of deflation. The die-hards hung around, while the rest coordinated their afterparty plans. We stayed for a while more, the music was worth it alone. If you're the kind of person that likes hearing new sounds, give this one a shot the next time you have a chance.