|Full text from the Telegraph article below!|
White Lines, the new Netflix mystery-drama set in the clubs and coves of Ibiza, captures the 24-hour hedonism of The White Isle’s party scene. Half the story is told in flashback to the mid-1990s, when an aspiring DJ called Axel relocates from Manchester to Ibiza with the goal of opening the island’s most mind-blowing club night so far.
In part a Balearic Breaking Bad, and in part a rave-infused Shameless, White Lines is a rollercoaster ride of azure seas, larger-than-life characters and banging dance music. It also features some memorable running jokes involving dogs, and an on-screen cocaine gag to rival Woody Allen’s unfortunate sneeze in Annie Hall.
But Axel’s fictional journey from the rainy city to Ibiza mirrors a real one made by two brothers in the mid-1990s. Mike and Andy McKay left Manchester and set up what became Ibiza’s largest and most infamous club night: Manumission. With lockdown likely to continue in some form, White Lines could well provide the only sun-soaked escapism that Ibiza-heads are going to get this year.
Anticipating White Lines fever, we asked Mike and his wife Claire (who became involved later on) to tell us the Manumission story. One thing is clear: when it comes to clubbing, the truth is stranger – and a whole lot more debauched – than fiction.
The Manumission story is one of hedonism on an almost unimaginable scale: of up to 12,000 ravers packing into the club’s myriad rooms to dance until dawn; of DJs behaving badly, of live sex on stage and of dancing dwarves; of a nonstop six-month party in a disused brothel, of police raids, and of supermodels and celebrities galore. Manumission was even responsible for one of the biggest showbiz stories of the late-1990s back home: the very public sacking of one of the BBC’s high-profile names.
Online forums today are stuffed with misty-eyed old ravers reminiscing about Manumission nights. “Cirque du Soleil on acid,” says one old-timer. “An untouchable, unrepeatable experience,” writes another. “In nearly 30 years of clubbing, Manumission between 1995 and 1997 were the best clubbing experiences I ever had,” says a third.
“We were trying to make one of the best parties of all time,” explains Mike, now 51, from his home north of Barcelona (he now goes by the surname McKay Davies). But, as in White Lines, things started somewhere far colder. Mike and Andy put on the first Manumission night – it means “freedom from slavery” – in a venue called Club Equinox in Manchester’s Gay Village in January 1994.
The idea was to put on a limited run of 12 weekly club nights to a “mixed gay crowd”, meaning that anyone was welcome so long as they were open-minded. Mike says lots of “big scary guys” would turn up, flinch at the idea of dancing with openly gay people, and walk away. “We kept the violent element out with their own homophobia,” he explains.
The club took off and within 12 weeks was named Britain’s top club by DJ Magazine. Its final night was on Good Friday, which also happened to be April Fool’s Day, in 1994. Deploying the type of theatrical gesture for which they would become renowned, the brothers left the club that night, mock-crucified a drag queen outside, leapt in a limousine and said they were off to New York. But they only went as far as the local service station.
It was a piece of Biblical marketing: three days later, the drag queen symbolically rose again and Manumission announced its return. It only lasted four weeks this time. Success had convinced Manchester’s rougher elements to swallow their homophobia and attend. Combined with new gang-affiliated doormen, this toxic mix came to a head one night.
“Someone was thrown out of the club because he’d been a bit aggressive. He came back with petrol, kicked the door in and doused petrol down the stairs and over my brother. He then beat the bouncers with chairs,” says Mike. “We said there’d never be any violence in Manumission. So we packed up.” It was the last one in Manchester.
The brothers went on holiday to recover. “I wanted to go to Morocco, but Ibiza was cheaper. So we went, but with a vow to go to no clubs at all,” says Mike. The vow didn’t last, and the brothers were struck by how cosmopolitan Ibiza was, away from its capital San Antonio. They decided to restart Manumission, and secured a residency in a side-room of a vast club called KU. It was so popular that within weeks they took over the whole club. At around this point, Mike met Claire, who had a job flyering for Manumission. They got together and, in the winter of 1994, decided to carry on the next summer, but bigger, bolder and brasher than before.
Nothing was now off-limits. They employed a squad of dwarves to accompany them everywhere they went, and Manumission’s Monday club nights became famous for their risqué “shows” involving performance artists. The insurgent Manumission squad became known around the island. They held parades and picnics to advertise the club. There was Lenny, the Indian Elvis-impersonator dwarf, who couldn’t swim but would leap into the club’s swimming pool so that Mike would jump in to save him. There was Otter, a performer from New Orleans who looked like Bette Davis and was known to clubbers as “Flame Girl” for her ability to shoot fire from her flame-tattooed nether regions.
Manumission became so popular that more established clubs banned dwarves and anyone wearing a Manumission T-shirt. In White Lines, Axel says that his club will be so successful that “everyone on Ibiza will know who I am”. He could have been talking about the Manumission team.
The club nights drew big international crowds. The parties were “wild and out of control,” says Claire, “but nothing bad ever happened.” Sex was a huge part of it. Mike explains: “I read an article in the New York Times in 1994 about the most legendary parties of all time, from The Rolling Stones to the Romans. And the one thing they all had in common was that they all had live sex going on. So I said to Claire, ‘This is what we need.’”
When Claire tells me a story about having sex with a performer called Renata on stage one night, I remark – a touch bashfully – that she certainly gave her all for the club. “Yeah,” she replies. “It’s very difficult to express how much we loved Manumission and how much it was our lives.” Mike says the club existed as “an alternative world where all the values are different”.
The Ibiza police weren’t entirely appreciative of these values: they threatened to close the club unless the sex stopped. One night, during an Italian-themed Manumission, Claire was in the bowels of the club talking to fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier about the police’s threat. Gaultier suggested that rather than toning down that night’s show, they should “do it twice as strong” in case the authorities turned up. (Meanwhile, in a scene straight out of White Lines, the club’s owner was upstairs having his fingers broken by some irate Italians. But that’s another story.)
Sure enough, the police raided that night. Claire recalls being on stage “slathered in pasta” when the music was cut. The lights went up and 20 policemen were standing on the dancefloor. But rather than stop, a troupe of drummers simply started playing and the dancing continued. Unsure of what to do, the police left and Manumission continued. (In another White Lines-esque scene, Mike and Claire went to a police station soon afterwards to report that their dog had been kidnapped. The policeman looked up and said quietly, “Nice show.”)
But it was what happened away from the club that was most eye-popping. In the summer of 1998, the Manumission team took over a disused brothel by a roundabout near Ibiza Town, and opened the Manumission Motel. “That’s when it all went much more extreme,” says Mike. They kept the brothel’s waterbeds, stationed a dwarf on the door and had a team of New York strippers as residents. The motel acted as a never-ending aftershow venue and a place for DJs (“complete rascals, all of them,” says Claire) to crash.
The press were banned and it became a magnet for celebrities. Howard Marks, Jade Jagger and Shaun Ryder were regulars, Irvine Welsh stayed for weeks and Kate Moss spent Hallowe’en there. Zoe Ball and Norman Cook, aka DJ Fatboy Slim, got together in Ibiza and partied at the house. But it was Radio 1 DJ Lisa l’Anson who fell victim to Manumission’s charms. The BBC station had relocated to Ibiza for a week in August 1998 and I’lAnson missed her Tuesday morning breakfast show having partied at Manumission. She was given a severe reprimand by bosses and lost her job soon afterwards. “She was in the motel,” Claire says. The place closed after six high-octane months, its inhabitants burnt out.
For all the legend, not everyone was enamoured with Manumission. In the 2018 book The Secret DJ, an anonymous DJ who played there writes that Manumission was too big, and its shows were “utterly pretentious” and full of “meaningless spectacle”. Either way, by the time the club finished for good in 2008 (having moved venues), its time had passed. Ibiza had by then firmly been taken over by wristband culture, VIP areas and nightclub concierge services. Although they made plenty of money from Manumission (they won’t say how much), Mike and Claire say that flaunting wealth in Ibiza was never cool. It is now.
The one thing the couple say they didn’t see on Ibiza is the level of crime portrayed in White Lines. Of course crime existed, but they say it wasn’t a world of which they were part. Indeed, they reckon the island’s blissed-out vibes had a calming effect on everyone. “Even the most violent criminals came to Ibiza and they’d be holding hands with their girlfriends,” says Mike.
Axel’s club in White Lines – its decadence, its size, its Colosseum-like vibe – simply wouldn’t exist without Manumission. In fact, it could be that the Netflix series itself wouldn’t exist without Manumission. Mike and Claire drop a tantalising nugget into our conversation. White Lines’s executive producer is a man called Andy Harries, whose Left Bank Pictures also produced The Crown. Harries has a place on Ibiza, and the couple met him through their plumber on the island some years ago.
When they did, they gave the producer a script that had nothing do to with their club, but yielded a number of follow-up meetings, both in Ibiza and London. “I wonder if we planted a seed,” Mike says. I have little doubt that they did.