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Horse Meat Disco: 20 years of queer joy on the dancefloor

Horse Meat Disco held their first party at what would become known as The Eagle pub in Vauxhall, London on New Year’s Day 2004. As their weekly Sunday night queer party grew, so did their international reputation, and they haven't stopped since. Here, Andy Thomas charts the soaraway success of the disco house collective over the last two decades

“It’s Princess Julia stretching across the stage in smoky mascara and emerald green stockings. It’s classic Amanda Lear videos playing on the wall as three boys who are watching mimic every pose. It’s the naked man, of course...And it’s walking up the street towards Vauxhall, seeing the other gay clubs and remembering — uh parallel universe.” Writing in the liner notes to the first Horse Meat Disco compilation of 2009, regular guest DJ Danny Wang wonderfully captured a night at The Eagle, where this “queer party for everyone” started life on New Year’s Day back in 2004. Horse Meat Disco is now a global club and festival sensation, with tours as far afield as Australia and Brazil alongside long-running residencies in New York and Berlin. But no matter where any of the four residents James Hillard, Luke Howard, Jim Stanton and Severino Panzetta are jetting off to, every Sunday you’re invited to “Come and Kiki” at The Eagle, a small pub in Vauxhall, South London.

Sunday nights at The Eagle are a firm London clubbing tradition where the tribes unite under the mirrorball through a fog of dry ice and poppers, bathed in the warm glow from their famous neon sign. Their maxim of “A queer party for everyone, Homos and Heteros, club kids, bears, fashionistas, naturists, guerrilla drag queens, and ladies who munch” is as relevant today as was when the seeds were sown more than two decades ago.

On his arrival in London from rural Somerset in the late ’90s, James Hillard found London’s gay clubbing landscape to be far from the liberating place he had expected. “The whole thing was very fragmented with all these tribes in their own scenes, and I never liked that,” he says. “It was like if you were a Muscle Mary you went here, if you were a Bear you went here. And I wanted to party in a place that was much more inclusive and diverse.”

Photo of dancers at a Horse Meat Disco show on an orange background
Jake Davis

“You’d go to New York and walk along Christopher Street... and they’d be playing loads of disco. But you’d go to most gay clubs and bars in London and it was all hard house or basic funky house.” – James Hillard

One day Hillard was deep in conversation with his friend Adam Goldstone, the much missed New York DJ/producer, writer and all-round nightlife legend. At the time Adam was releasing records on London’s seminal nu disco and house label Nuphonic, where the fresh-faced James Hillard worked on DJ bookings. “We were in Soho and I was talking to Adam about how I felt about the London scene at the time, and he said, ‘Why don’t you start a night then?’” recalls Hillard. While James didn’t know enough people to get a party started, he knew someone who did. He had been introduced to Jim Stanton at one of Basement Jaxx’s Rooty parties in Brixton by another friend, Horse Meat Disco resident Severino Panzetta.

A fully-fledged raver through the ’90s, Jim Stanton moved into club promotion when working at Jockey Slut and Sleazenation magazines. With renowned club promoter Wayne Shires, and resident DJs Princess Julia and Tasty Tim, he had set up The Cock at the Ghetto club in London’s Soho. Something of a naughty sister to the Ghetto’s electroclash night Nag Nag Nag, with a crowd who knew how to party, The Cock gave Stanton all the right clubland contacts. All clubs need an identity, and a great name always helps. One day James Hillard’s eyes were drawn to a headline in a pile of newspapers about to be thrown out that read “Horse Meat Discovered in Salami”. Through a twist of fate, the headline had been partially hidden to reveal the perfect name that worked on so many levels. 

The first Horse Meat Disco parties were held in a basement spot in Chinatown called Flip, but they soon found themselves homeless when the venue changed hands. Enter a small, faded gay pub with a sticky carpet, flock wallpaper, pool table and blacked-out windows on the wrong side of Vauxhall. “It was called Dukes then and me and Jim used to go all the time to a Friday night party called Chunkies that had a free buffet,” recalls Hillard. “But apart from the free food, we really liked the feel of the place — it was very friendly and had the kind of knackered old pub vibe we were looking for. It also had this massive dub reggae sound system. So it was perfect.”

Photo of flyers from Horse Meat Disco shows on an orange background

They held their first party at Dukes (soon to be renamed The Eagle) on a cold and grey New Year’s Day in 2004. “When I got there I was really surprised at how busy it was,” says Luke Howard, who was booked to play on the first night. “There weren’t many other gay parties on New Year’s Day back then, and it felt like all the right people came out.” For James Hillard, the first night turned into the kind of party he had always wanted to attend and had dreamt of putting on. “Right from the start it felt like we had something — I’d never seen so many happy faces and everyone coming up saying how amazing it was,” he says. “It just felt really special.”

Another twist of fate played its part in Horse Meat Disco’s eclectic musical identity. “The other DJ we had booked didn’t turn up, so we had to play longer sets than planned. And I guess that meant us taking more risks,” says Howard, who DJ’d on that first night with Severino. “I remember having Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ in a CD wallet, and so played that. And it just went off. That was such a moment, it was just brilliant and kind of set the tone.”

Although a night with Horse Meat Disco can mean anything from Kate Bush and Carly Simon to ’90s New York house and ’80s Hi-NRG, disco takes centre stage — be it a Philly classic, an obscure Larry Levan dub, a cosmic Italo rarity, a sleaze anthem or their totemic LGBTQ+ icon Sylvester. It was music that for too long had been largely forgotten or misrepresented. But by the mid-’90s disco was having a resurgence in the UK with DJs, producers and labels taking inspiration from the originators of the 1970s to create music for a post-acid house club scene.

Horse Meat Disco was among those at the forefront of this movement, while also re-establishing the gay lineage of disco in London. “I had been working at Nuphonic and there was a really healthy disco scene with people like Idjut Boys and Maurice Fulton, and I loved it. But in the queer context there was nowhere really playing this music, and I wanted to change that,” says Hillard. “You’d go to New York and walk along Christopher Street in The Village or to parties like The Loft and they’d be playing loads of disco. But you’d go to most gay clubs and bars here and it was all hard house or basic funky house.”

Photo of dancers at a Horse Meat Disco show on an orange background
Jake Davis

Luke Howard had his first residency at Queer Nation in the early ’90s playing disco alongside house, inspired by the seamless mixes of Timmy Regisford at The Shelter in New York. But by the early 2000s he was feeling restricted by what the crowd expected to hear. “Queer Nation had gone very house and what I loved about Horse Meat Disco was I could really mix it up, so it gave me a lot of freedom,” he says.

Every great club has its anthems and possibly Horse Meat Disco’s biggest is a record that just happened to be in Luke Howard’s bag on that first night. “I had Sheryl Lee Ralph’s ‘In The Evening’ with me, and playing that was also a big moment,” he recalls. “It was a record you would always hear in the gay clubs back in the day and it had been played to death. But when our straight disco friends started to come, none of them knew it. And they would always come up and say, ‘What is that record?’”

The other DJ at that New Year’s Day party was Severino Panzetta. He moved to London in 1997 after travelling back and forth to his home in Italy while working for the country’s leading dance/ DJ store, Disco Inn. Growing up in Verona in the North of Italy, he was raised on the genre-jumping mixes of DJ Daniele Baldelli, whose sets at Baia Degli Angeli and Cosmic he’d tape off a pirate station called Radio Azzura.

Bringing his eclectic tastes to London, he got his break as a DJ thanks to his friend Jim Stanton, who booked him to play at Crash, the Vauxhall club he ran with Wayne Shires before The Cock. Severino’s penchant for underground house and disco, combined with his deep knowledge of Italian cosmic, would make him the perfect fit for Horse Meat Disco. With its four residents in place, Horse Meat Disco quickly established a fiercely loyal and disco-savvy crowd. Thanks to James Hillard’s impressive address book from working on DJ bookings for Nuphonic, they were soon being treated to big name spinners from America and Europe.

Over the years it’s seen the likes of Derrick Carter, Kenny Dope, John Morales, Daniele Baldelli, Maurice Fulton, James Murphy and the late Andrew Weatherall scattering their disco dust over The Eagle. Horse Meat Disco’s sets (and oh-so-fabulous outfits) at the soon-to-be-legendary NYC Downlow at Glastonbury helped build the momentum, as did playing alongside Grace Jones at Lovebox in a party that has gone down in London club folklore. Soon the invites were coming in from clubs and festivals across the world, as Horse Meat Disco became a name promoters could trust to bring a healthy dose of bacchanalia.

Photo of Horse Meat Disco performing on an orange background
Jake Davis

“It’s so important when you find your place and people through nightlife. It’s especially important for queer people to find a sanctuary where they can take a breath of relief and let go of everything.” – Luke Howard

Word also spread about their fabulous little party in Vauxhall, which has attracted many famous faces over its 20 years. “We had Mick Jagger dancing when he came down, which was pretty amazing,” says Hillard nonchalantly of their most famous guest, who visited with his daughter Jade Jagger, a Horse Meat regular. A few days after we speak both Tilda Swinton and US actor Billy Porter — most recently seen in NYC ballroom drama Pose — would be witnessed deep in the dance at their 20th Anniversary party, adding to Horse Meat Disco’s legendary status.

On the first Horse Meat Disco compilation on Strut in 2009, you could almost smell the poppers and feel the sweat dripping down the back of your neck. The selection captured a night at The Eagle perfectly, veering from Karen Young’s avant-garde disco classic ‘Deetour’ to the Italo sounds of K.I.D.’s ‘Hupendi Muziki Wangu’ and their ultimate anthem Sheryl Lee Ralph’s ‘In The Evening’. The compilation opened with an answer machine message from one of their regulars, Craig, talking about massive glass unicorn crashing on the dancefloor and dragging him off to an afters where the ghost of Ron Hardy was spinning. Just another night at The Eagle.

Away from The Eagle, Horse Meat Disco’s New York and Berlin residencies have gone from strength to strength. “They are both very different and to have these amazing parties in such great clubbing meccas past and present is great,” says Hillard. “The current New York party at The Knockdown Centre (in Queens) is like a huge gay circuit party with brilliant sound and lights by the New York legend Ariel,” adds Howard. “The Berlin party is smaller but very mixed, with more drag and dressing up. But they are both the best crowds we could have.”

Photo of members of Horse Meat Disco show on an orange background
Jake Davis

With such a wealth of experience in knowing what works on the dancefloor, it was only natural that HMD would move from compilations (they released four between 2009 and 2014, as well as a 10-year residency on Rinse FM) to their own productions. It began when Tim Goldsworthy, then head of New York label DFA, hooked them up with studio engineer and keyboard player Darren Morris. “When we first started with Darren we were trying to experiment with all the different types of disco we loved — so soulful Philly stuff, Italo, sleaze or the more proto-house stuff,” says Howard.

A host of tracks followed, but save for a version of T.S. Monk’s 1980 disco classic ‘Candidate For Love’ for Dave Lee’s Z Records from 2014, they languished on a hard- drive. Then in 2017 producer and Classic Records co-founder Luke Solomon, now winning Grammy awards for his co-productions and writing credits for Beyoncé, heard the demos. “He was like, ‘You know, we’ve really got something here’,” says Howard. “Luke would become really fundamental both as a brilliant and hard-working producer, but also getting everything together because he knows so many musicians and singers. And similarly Darren, because he is a musician as well as an amazing producer and engineer.”

The first track to be released was ‘Waiting For You To Call’, featuring the soulful vocals of London clubland legend and Horse Meat Disco family member Roy Brown (AKA Roy Inc, who also stars in the wonderful video shot at The Eagle). The way the record went down in their sets inspired them to return to the other demos. Guided by the production nouse of Luke Solomon, they began to shape what would become their debut album — ‘Love And Dancing’. Calling on a host of guest vocalists, from New York diva Amy Douglas and East London’s Fi McCluskey to Fiorious of ‘I’m Not Defeated’ fame and Sister Sledge’s Kathy Sledge, plus a full line-up of musicians (no cookie-cutter disco samples here), they co-wrote and produced one of the albums of 2023.

Every corner of Horse Meat Disco’s musical world is covered, from Philly disco and Red Zone-style ’90s house to Hi-NRG screamers and emotion-drenched morning music. “Our vision for the album was for it to be like a night out,” says Howard. “So you have a warm-up, then the peak-time, then you end up slowing down again at the end of the evening. We also wanted it to be a reflection of all our influences, but without us copying that. And we did that in our own way with new songs, rather than covers. But yeah, the whole thing was amazing and like a dream come true.”

Photo of Horse Meat Disco performing on an orange background
Jake Davis

Going right back to the early days of The Loft in the early 1970s, messages of love and unity have echoed through the history of disco, and are sadly needed more than ever today. For the four residents celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2024, Horse Meat Disco has always been about much more than hedonism. “We have a song on our album called ‘Sanctuary', written by The Phenomenal Handicap Band,who summed up beautifully why it’s so important when you find your place and people through nightlife,” says Howard. “It’s especially important for queer people to find a sanctuary where they can take a breath of relief and let go of everything. But it’s a universal experience, and it doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight; we all need this release of dancing in our life and to have these spaces to come together to do that.”

For Horse Meat Disco that space is The Eagle and despite their global rise, it still holds the same importance as when they started out. “We have been really lucky to have this permanent home at The Eagle,” says Howard. “No matter how successful we’ve become, we have never lost our roots and always have this small pub in Vauxhall as a base to come back to. To have that after all these years is really special.”

Want more? Read our feature on Tony De Vit, Trade, and the infinite energy of hard house here

Andy Thomas is a freelance music journalist. Follow him on X @andythomasx

Pics: Jake Davis