It’s never too late to… pole dance
The ceiling was sweating. The music’s bassline was so low that it made his bowels quake. And the lasers lit up the clubbers dancing on every available flat surface, turning a humdrum Valencian nightclub into a Dionysian temple of pleasure.
This was 1990 and Robert Johnson, a 41-year-old mature student, had just undergone a Damascene conversion. He’d joined the rave generation – and there was no looking back.
At home, back in his native Liverpool, the city – like the rest of the UK – was in thrall to this underground sound. The ‘second summer of love’ of 1988 – with its warehouse-party acid-house sound – had developed into a more hardcore rave scene, with thousands of clubbers filling now legendary all-night dance spots such as Liverpool’s Quadrant Park and Cream every weekend.
But while Robert was a regular fixture at the city’s clubs back in the 1970s – even DJing at its Cabin Club nightspot – his dancefloor days were over. Or so he thought.
“The rave and techno music in this Spanish club just blew my mind,” he says. “I was convinced to go there by some younger friends. The driving power of the music, the energy and the atmosphere were like nothing I’d ever experienced. I was hooked.”
Once back in England, Robert began following the big DJs of the day, such as Danny Rampling and Judge Jules, hunting down cassettes of their mixes and buying compilation CDs from brands such as Hed Kandi. He even started venturing out to UK clubs, despite some misgivings.
“I was terrified at first,” he says. “I thought I’d get laughed at by the door staff and told I was too old. But they were wonderful, magical places.”
By 2007, Robert, then 58, had made his first trip to the nightlife mecca that is Ibiza. An island that, until the cost-of-living crisis hit him hard, he visited every year. At that time, he worked as a software developer and his annual trip became a must-do in his holiday calendar.
“I’d see Carl Cox DJ at Space every time. Fatboy Slim at the same club was a memorable night too,” he says. “And it’s hard to beat the atmosphere of the main room at Pacha. It feels like the crowd are pouring out sheer energy, which I absorb and use to keep dancing.”
It’s worth noting at this point that Robert was 69 the last time he spent several hours on an Ibiza dancefloor, in 2018. So, how does he stay up all night and what kind of reaction does he typically get from twentysomething clubbers?
“People are very nice to me,” he says. “I’ve become a bit of an expert when it comes to the music – I own thousands of electronic dance tracks – so I can have an informed conversation about what’s being played. Obviously people are really interested in how old I am and almost everyone says they hope they’re still hitting the dancefloor when they’re my age.”
The secret to his stamina is simple – siestas. Robert can happily push on through until 4am if he’s enjoying the music, but only if he’s had a “disco nap” – “a little sleep in the afternoon before the party and a late check out at the hotel the next day,” he explains.
Some of Robert’s favourite parties, both in the UK and Ibiza, are run by Hed Kandi, and Mark Doyle, Hed Kandi’s founder, has described Robert’s Ibiza schedule as “something that would, quite frankly, terrify a 21-year-old”.
Mark was also instrumental in turning Robert into something of a social media sensation recently, as he set up a Gofundme page so the septuagenarian could enjoy a big Ibiza weekend on the “white isle”. At the time of writing, contributions to the fund mean that Robert is on track to attend Hed Kandi’s party at Ibiza’s Es Paradis club on August 26.
“I’m very grateful to everyone who’s helped out,” says Robert. “Money has been really tight recently because of energy bills and so on – I couldn’t afford any sort of holiday. I’m so happy that I’ll get to dance at this brilliant party in what is the capital of dance music.”
Mark Doyle says this sort of support is emblematic of the original rave spirit – one of unity and love.
“We’re all equal on the dancefloor,” he says. “The best clubs and best crowds accept everyone. That’s always been the thing that makes me love what I do.”
In truth, Robert is an ambassador for a far bigger trend: that of the ageing raver. Full disclosure, I count myself as part of this tribe. For several years, I edited Ministry of Sound’s magazines in London and Ibiza, I was a clubbing columnist for the London Evening Standard and, even now, I co-host Pipe and Slipmats, a podcast for those who still have one foot in the rave.
What’s intriguing is that a music genre and scene that arguably felt as ephemeral as punk when it emerged in 1988 still has its early adopters in a tight hold. Or perhaps more aptly, given the amount of hugging that happens in clubland, a warm embrace.
After all, in St Paul’s address to the Corinthians, he suggested that, “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” What he definitely didn’t advise was to continue listening to repetitive beats in dark, sweaty warehouses, or in Ibiza megaclubs, while surrounded by people young enough to be his children.
For many middle-aged Brits, though, the second summer of love never ended and, as long as late-night babysitters still exist, they’ll keep up their clubbing adventures. And they’re in good company. Those headline DJs of yesteryear – Carl Cox, Sasha, Pete Tong, Paulette, Farley & Heller – are still filling the coolest clubs today. And it’s not just those of a certain vintage who are going to see them – 18-year-old Carl Cox acolytes still line the stage wherever he plays in the world and study his set lists like Talmudic scholars.
James Kirkham, former chief business officer at Defected, one of the UK’s biggest dance music record labels, points out that clubbing’s longevity is not solely down to my generation’s love of the music and wild partying.
“It’s the most accepting musical scene around. There is zero judgement and anything goes. Nightlife is LGBTQ+ friendly, age-agnostic and ready to embrace anyone who wants to join the party. And if anything, the DJs get better with age as they hone their craft and evolve their sound. I’m not sure you could say that about the Rolling Stones,” he says.
“Sure, some of the DJs, like Todd Terry, like to play the old classics, but there are plenty of veteran DJs from back in the day who pretty much only play new music. In other words, tunes made by 20-year-olds, played by 60-something DJs at parties, attended by clubbers aged 18-65. Show me another music-based subculture that offers that sort of breadth.”
There are deeper psychological and physiological factors at play here too, says Dr Nicola Eccles, head of mental health for soon-to-launch wellbeing app On Wellbeing. She points out that enjoying an active nightlife can help lift your mood while helping boost physical fitness levels.
“As humans, we thrive on connection and community. We are not meant to be isolated and living virtually,” she says. “Nightclubs foster a sense of community through shared experience and mood-lifting music, and the endorphins released through dancing with others can help to both prevent and reverse depression.”
She explains that many of us, particularly in later life, also find it hard to stick to exercise routines. But jigging around in a club is an excellent way to do a form of workout that requires no willpower.
“Dancing to music with friends in a nightclub is a fantastic example of getting the benefits of proper physical activity, which has benefits for your body and your mind,” she says. “Also, intergenerational clubbing is terrific, because global research shows that communities of varied generations interacting and engaging is beneficial to our mental health.”
For proof, look no further than Ibiza-bound 74-year-old Robert Johnson, a man for whom a passion for clubbing and zest for life still burn bright. And for those thinking about taking that tentative first step back to the dancefloor, he has these words of advice: “There’s a saying in our community, which is ‘House Music All Life Long.’ You’re never too old to do what you love.”
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Written by Scott Manson
Scott’s been in the editor’s hot seat at publications as diverse as British Airways High Life magazine, iconic men’s mag Loaded and Ministry of Sound’s editorial operations in London and Ibiza. Over the years, he’s travelled the world with rock stars and Hollywood icons. Sometimes he didn’t even have to carry their bags.
He’s also a marketing expert, heading up the social and content division at global advertising agency Ogilvy for seven years and now consulting on a variety of branding projects.