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Ibiza's wildest years: capturing the hedonism of '90s party Manumission

In the '90s, there was nowhere to party like Ibiza , and there was nowhere wilder in Ibiza than Manumission. The hedonistic, sex-fueled party took place in some of The White Isle's most famous clubs, as well as its own Motel venue, with punters and DJs alike frequently spending days on end revelling in its debauched atmosphere. A new book written by its co-founder Claire Davies captures Manumission's ecstatic spirit. Here, Simon Doherty speaks to her about some of her favourite images from that time

In the 1990s, Manumission was the wildest party in Ibiza. First held at Coco Loco Bar, the gay epicentre of KU club — which later became Privilege — in 1994 it eventually moved to Amnesia. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of clubbers ended up losing days partying there. The word “Manumission” itself is said to mean "release from slavery". At the party, guests were "free to do whatever they wanted”. Live sex shows, taking place at dawn in the middle of the action, added to the sense of liberty that Manumission, and by extension the whole island, became synonymous with. 

In 1998, Claire and Mike, co-founders of the party, took it up a notch: they acquired a grungy, 15-room former brothel on the outskirts of Ibiza Town, dubbed it the Manumission Motel, and transformed it into a wild 24/7 party, a revolving door of pure chaos. The building was soon filled with the cast of characters that naturally gravitated towards their parties: DJs, club kids, drag queens, artists, rock stars, strippers, writers, famous sex performers, and the like.

To the press, who were banned from the Motel, the place became an enigma: famous DJs had a habit of entering the former brothel and disappearing for days on end — the place would simply chew them up and spit them out. So, what actually went on in this place? The height of its decadence is about to be celebrated in a book, The Motel: High Times in '90s Ibiza, written by Claire herself (you can pledge for the book here). We asked her to take us through some of her favourite images from that time. 

"We thought we were superhuman and could do anything. With Manumission, we designed it to wipe people out; it was a 24-hour to 36-hour experience."

The Manumission Motel, 1998

“Mike and I used to spend our winters in New York and our summers in Ibiza. We loved Americana and the only slice of Americana we could find on the island was this motel. ​​It was a pink, triangular building with these neon signs that said, ‘BAR, BED, BREAKFAST’. Mike had this thing, he’d say that clubs had a very short lifespan at the top. The good nights didn't last much longer than six months. So one of our obsessions was to constantly reinvent Manumission to keep it fresh. 

“In 1998, we saw this motel and fell in love with it but didn't realise that it was totally out of our price range. It had also already been promised to a pimp. Even though the owner turned us down we pressed on. It wasn’t Manumission who paid to rent and renovate the Motel, or the wages of anyone who worked there, in the end. Mike and I paid for everything personally, which was a huge risk, and a dangerous one considering we ended up borrowing £54k from a German coke dealer who carried a Colt 38 [handgun]. 

“We called it the Manumission Motel and filled it with our team; our friends from New York who were strippers, Otter who was this world famous sex performer, ‘Johnny The Dwarf’ was on the door, DJs like Jon Carter, the Skint and Wall of Sound lot — they were all wild party maniacs. But we didn’t actually consider the reality of what it would be like with us all living in this pink motel. The book is set in real time, me waking up on my [24th] birthday slap bang in the middle of all the chaos that we’d created. And it takes a very good look at the reality of that situation.”

“We thought we were superhuman and could do anything. With Manumission, we designed it to wipe people out; it was a 24-hour to 36-hour experience. The idea was you’d come to Manumission and you’d be done. Everything was taken into consideration to keep people going for that huge amount of time. The Manumission Motel was a step further; the DJs would come and hang out not just for one night, but three or four.

“It was a 24-hour, seven days a week place for the island, it was us giving something back. The people that we call the island were not the tourists; but the people who lived there, who’d left society, the counterculture. So it was a place for the island to hang out and a place for the DJs to be housed under one roof, and an after-hours spot. On one level, it was a sensible idea, we decided that we could accommodate everybody. It was supposed to make some kind of financial sense — of course, it didn’t. But it was the nucleus of Manumission.

“Nobody was in charge, our business partners pulled out. Normally there’s somebody that has some kind of control on the business side, but this ended up being purely creative. Eric, the owner, just handed us the keys, and said, ‘Look, guys, make your dream come true.’ He left, then it was mayhem.”

“We were the first people to bring Norman [Cook] to the island. Mike cold called him and asked him to come. He said, ‘Yes, absolutely. I’d love to, can I bring my friend?’ So he came out with Jon Carter. He’s actually given us a fantastic story for the book about when he first brought Zoe [Ball] to the Motel. I remember Zoe being this tall, blonde, vivacious ball of energy and fun. She loved a stripper pole.

“Dave Beer introduced us to Howard Marks [the international cannabis smuggler with 43 aliases, MI6 agent and best-selling author], and we just struck up this amazing friendship. He came to stay with us and we were friends ever since. He spoke at our wedding. [Howard passed away in 2016.] There was Kris Needs, the rock 'n' roll journalist. He spent a lot of time with us at the Motel, he’s lived through many scenes; people like that can go from one scene to another and fit in perfectly. Irvine Welsh came to stay and he said, ‘Look, something this strong can’t live.’ He was right: It couldn't possibly go on at that kind of pace. It literally was one summer, the pinnacle of the Manumission insanity.”

“Well, ‘Johnny The Dwarf’ was the doorman. He’s Irish, he’d grown up in the East End [of London] and he’s really tough. He’d taken a lot of shit and as a result he wouldn’t take any. He knew the Motel was for the island and he knew all the characters. The press was banned, so anyone who came saying, ‘I’m with this magazine’ he’d just say ‘sorry, you can’t come in.’ We wanted a safe, free, fun environment — nobody wanted to be photographed or reported on. 

“One of my favourite stories about Johnny was that he turned the Hells Angels away, literally hardcore, mean Hells Angels. Johnny just wasn’t letting them in. The funny thing is that there was a rumour on the island that Johnny had a sawn-off shotgun behind the door, was a kung-fu expert and some kind of porn star. Nothing of this [was true], but it was the legend that grew because nobody could understand how he could control the door so well."

Manumission, 1995: Photography by Josean Oyaga

“That’s the dressing room downstairs in KU, probably about six in the morning. The girl that I’m standing with is Renata, she’s the six foot blonde girl from Amsterdam. We’d just come off stage from doing the first ever [live sex show] performance. So, in the background, you can see Mike’s face is in shock [laughs]. He’s talking to Tony, who was Renata’s boyfriend at the time. And yeah, I mean, the first show, I won’t go into detail, but it was directed by Renata and it was very strong.

“It was just... um... yeah, it was a very impactful moment for me. It was a big change for me after that moment, the gay scene really embraced me, but some of our own team didn’t like it. It brought this kind of crack in our organisation a bit. I’m acting as if everything's fine and fun, but it really was a very impactful moment for me."

“Manumission was for everybody. It was very open, but there was never any trouble. I think this picture is great because it shows the guy with a black eye (I do kind of remember him) and just the cross section of characters who would find themselves at that party. That was one of the really special things about it, you’d have all these people who came from all different backgrounds, an amazing cross section. 

“I lived in San Antonio the first year I went to Ibiza. I left the UK with about £50 in my pocket and slept on park benches. There was a real kind of community there back then. Mike was very much on the other side of the island, at [Las] Salinas [beach] with the international set. Manumission was the coming together of the two worlds.”

“This looks to me like it was on the staircase near the DJ booth [in KU], which was one level up. He’s like the classic Manumission raver, totally enjoying himself. Yeah, I love it. I don’t know who he is, but I love the picture. And it’s got the Miss Tanga poster in the back. 

“We had a really strong connection with the island, we loved it and really felt like we were part of it. We really appreciated all the different scenes, the different types of people who had given up on society. I learned very early on that you didn’t ask people what they did for a job. Because a lot of people had left things they didn’t want to talk about behind them. I learned that people are who they are, they’d left behind that nine-to-five life. They were what made Ibiza what it was.”

“This is the Coco Loco Bar, where Manumission first started. It was the gay heart of the club. Everyday Mike and I used to go around the town to all the bars. We would end every night at Dome, most of the drag queens worked there and then they worked in the club afterwards. You can just see the different characters, there’s our friend Annamaria — she’s got a white face and a cone on her head. Everything is very homemade and the characters were really out there. It was the best place in the club for us. 

“At this time, there was only one soundsystem playing in the main room. Later on, the club owner closed off the side room and the back room. Then there were three different soundsystems and we put a system in the toilets as well. At this time, it would have been either DJ Alfredo or Jerome, the music was great back then and we had a lot more freedom — it was before the time of DJ worship.”

“That’s me and Mike in the fountain. Eventually there were a few problems with Renata and her boyfriend Tony, he got a bit jealous of the show. So she went back to Amsterdam and Mike stepped in to take over. That year it was generally us fooling around in the swimming pool, in the shower, just prancing around naked most of the time. We all used to hang out naked at Salinas, it was very much part of life back then, so it was kind of just an extension of that. The following year, the girls from New York came over and they took it up a notch.”

“That was on a Monday at Salinas with a picnic. That’s Lenny, Karen, Mike, and one of the drag queens in daytime civvies. It was very much about giving. Everybody was welcome. Food, actually, was an important commodity. A lot of people didn’t have it. Nobody on that scene had any money, it was about being able to exist on the island for those months. So it was appreciated.”

The Motel: High Times in 90s Ibiza is 94 percent funded, you can pledge for it here

Simon Doherty is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here