Alas, all good things come to an end. The time has come to bid a fond farewell to a grim, unassuming building on Summerland Street known as Arena Nightclub (or rather say goodbye to the venue as we know it; the club will reopen its doors in September under a new guise following a summer facelift).
It’s easy to dismiss Arena as a poor man’s Oceana, typical of the dour clubs that tend to deface university towns. It certainly ticks many of the boxes: brash chart music, gaudy décor, claustrophobic dance pits, aggressive bouncers, and DJs with aliases like “Jonezy.” Indeed, many will remember the building as little more than a terribly uncool club symptomatic of Exeter’s wider musical malaise.
Yet to do so overlooks the enduring pulling power of the place. For the club’s shortcomings were all part of its charm. It was gaudy and tasteless, but it didn’t care. In fact, it shouted about its own tawdriness: a venue hosting nights such as “Cheesy Tuesdays” and “Dirty Sexy People” clearly leaves its airs and pretenses at the door. And it encouraged you to do the same. For here was a space where the substandard was not just accepted but flaunted.
There was no room for Vodka Red Bull – just its runt cousin, Vodka Kick. Jungbombs outgunned Jaegerbombs. And forget about your hip, sophisticated tech-house. Only chart toppers and EDM mash-ups soundtracked the stawpeado-ing on this sick-soaked dance floor.
This uncompromising nature is what made the club so divisive, and rendered it a sure-fire way to gauge someone’s taste and character. Whereas music snobs frequented Cavern and actual snobs went to Mosaic, Arena served as a welcome antidote to all the peacocking and posturing. It was genuine, and that meant a lot.
You knew exactly what you were going to get at Arena, and it delivered every time: plans to avoid the queues (to head early but lose out on pre-ing time or arrive late but risk non-entry will go down as one of Exeter’s great polemics); extortionate admission and cloakroom fees; that Blue Stilton aroma; a rainbow of VKs; DJ Will B; the short guy with a bowler hat and penchant for dance offs; the Arena Song*; more VKs; the singer/rapper/fragrance connoisseur toilet assistant; the lovely, croaky woman with the chip van and a voice like tar…
Tiresome as this could be, the predictability was all part of the appeal. Amid the chaos and confusion of everyday university life, the venue served as a secure, smoky oasis where you could push pretenses to one side, forget about deadlines and sing along to Katy Perry’s “Starships” without judgment. You could bump into mates at every turn, before throwing up all over a magical carpet on which countless bonds were fostered and one night stands flourished. For many, eau de Arena – that distinctive, sickly sweet stench – meant friends, fun and freedom.
Of course it was all a bit shit. But that was the point. The very things that could be held up as examples of inadequacy – the cheap garishness; the lurid interior; the mainstream predictability – somehow turned out to be its core strength.
And this is why news of Arena’s refurbishment is so sad. It signals a change of intent by the owners to replace all the naff furniture and arcane ornaments with something more modern, more agreeable, more upmarket. It’s an attempt to remedy the flaws and floors that made the club so appealing in the first place.
In this sense the closure of Arena’s doors heralds the end of an era. It’s happened all too fast, but at least we have all those smoke-screened memories. And when the lights are turned off for one final time next month, I for one will be solemnly raising a Vodka Kick in the air to toast all those hazy recollections, and the brilliantly bad club we couldn’t help but love.
* “Tsunami (Jump)” – DVBBS ft. Borgeous. This song is synonymous with Arena and bears all the hallmarks of a “club smash”: foot-stomping EDM beats, multiple drops, and lyrics as incongruous as they are superfluous.