The Black Banana Reunion

Memories of the Vagabond years. By Nick London

All photos courtesy of Nick London

In 1986, Nick London left his job as a DJ and promoter at Philly nightclub the Black Banana to study makeup in the U.K. When he returned to Philadelphia a year later, he introduced Psychedelic Sundays, celebrating Acid House music and the new hippies of the 80s, and influenced the popular Vagabond party created by Nicholas Meoli at the Banana, a European-style nightclub that made its mark on the Philly nightlife scene throughout the 80s and early 90s.

As he gets ready for the official Black Banana reunion on Sunday, January 16 (8 p.m. – 12 a.m.), at Voyeur, he shared some of his fondest memory with G Philly about the now defunct, but influential destination that inspired trends in music, fashion and nightlife throughout two decades. Here’s his take:

The owners of the Black Banana – Garrick and his partner Xavier – were very creative. Xavier was born in France and Garrick was American – both were eccentric, decadent, well-educated and loved French music and a good mix of people. They essentially created a European nightlife experience in Philly. And they did things that no other club was doing at the time. Sometimes they would even change the entrance to the club. Once they turned it into a sex shop with magazines and sex toys on all the walls. The next time you were there, it was transformed into a garden of Eden with pebbles all over the floor. And in the bathrooms, they even had two-way mirror walls. The owners especially loved cabaret-style shows. They would have everything from the Chippendales to wild fashion shows throughout the week. Nothing was off limits.

When I started going to the clubs in the early 80s, the discos were going more alternative. Electronic music with romantic and punk fashion were becoming popular with the night people. The Black Banana had a night like this with a popular DJ at the time – Elizablitz. Later, she was replaced with my friend Nicholas and his brother Gigi. Both brothers were French-American and knew all about really good music. That’s when I started working at the club.

Because it was a private club, only members could invite outsiders to join. That’s also the time we decided to do special parties by inviting guests with special invitations. We did theme parties around the music that inspired us. Garrick and Xavier supported us and encouraged us in many ways, bringing the best technical team to revamp our sound system and install a $30,000 video studio. The club became our life.

I loved having the studio on the top floor to do whatever I wanted. I would edit video for hours to be shown on the clubs nine-foot-tall video screens. And I loved my club family – we spent many nights together dancing, entertaining and working. Garrick and Xavier were like our parents, keeping us in check. And Kirk and Evon, the managers, always kept us safe if any of the members got out of control. I felt at home.

Over the years, I knew so many bartenders, promoters, customers, you name it. I remember all the different artists, models and crazy, eccentric people that passed through the doors of the Black Banana. Lots of those people from the club went on to do great things with their lives, while others unfortunately passed away from drugs or AIDS. I keep them all with me remembering what they brought to my life and the scene, especially Garrick who was fearless and loved to freak people out in his entertaining way. He died in 1991.

Plenty of celebrities also came to the club over the years. But the one story I love the most is the night Prince came to the Black Banana. His people called ahead and had an area of the club roped off for when he arrived. I was the DJ that night and was running a video of all black jive dancing from the 20s. His security man came over to the DJ booth and asked if I would play the video again. I did and asked if Prince would sign something for me. Minutes later the guy came back with a signed album that said “Love God, Prince.” I was thrilled!

Weekends were always packed at the Banana. By two in the morning, the club was full. We got most of the people from the clubs that closed at last call. You had South Philly tough guys – and next to them – some wildly dressed club kids from the 80s. The Banana attracted all kinds of people from gangsters to gays. People didn’t hate on you because you were different. You just hungout with your tribe and everyone danced on the same dance floor.

Because the club had a gay and straight membership, we did parties for Ladies of the 80’s, a large lesbian group who held their events at the Banana. We also had our regular trannies, drag queens and gays – both young and old – who were regulars. In the early 80s, the boys all wore eyeliner and dressed in black and you saw lots of leather and black lace. Every one of my friends mixed together. That’s just the way it was. There was no bottle service or VIP status like today. The music really brought people together and alcohol certainly lowered peoples’ inhibitions.

At the Banana, we started trends in fashion and music and we attracted artists that influenced the city. When I went to New York or London nightclubs, I brought back music and inspiration to the Banana. It was the same with my club family, Nicholas and Gigi, Kim Kelly, Natasha, Coco, and all the DJs and friends. Everyone brought something to the table. No club had a Euro disco vibe in Philly like the Banana.

The first room you entered was Cafe Zaza. It was usually totally different music from upstairs with mostly a performer or show going on – cabaret-style. Every top shelf champagne and cognac was available at the icey blue bar. Then you entered the downstairs dance floor bar, which was chilled out, quiet and definitely the more social part of the club. Upstairs was where most people danced and partied. There were small cabaret tables and chairs, video screens and a fire place – and TV sets with mannequin legs playing videos with Pop Art on the walls. The music was loud and there were mirrors on the dance floor. The room was filled with color and neon. It was very sexy and welcoming.

Garrick wanted the environment to be like Paris or the Casbah with its Art Deco and tropical look. You would hear French dance music every night. Models, actors, artists and just regular people dressed up just to dance.

I miss the Black Banana. I miss my friends, the music, being able to have a glass of champagne in a real glass and not a dixie cup. That’s why I started the reunions – to bring people back to that experience of the Banana and introduce a new group of people to it. Today, there is a young generation embracing the 80s and 90s again – and the electro gaga scene is thriving in New York and Europe.

I’m hoping most of the DJs from the Banana will come spin some of the music they love. With so many musical artists sampling beats from the 80s and 90s, I can see the Banana still being ripe. We have all the old videos from the club and Voyeur nightclub has a great sound system and visuals. Music for the reunion is by Nicholas and Gigi, as well as me, Lee Jones, Robbie Tronco and with special guest Robert Drake. Old Banana video and photo montages will also be played in the Mezzanine along with digitally remastered mixes from the late Michael Sweeney.

In the end, it’s all just a memory. You just remember the good times and try to make some new ones.

The Black Banana Reunion, Sunday, January 16 (8:00 p.m. – 12:00 a.m.), Voyeur Nightclub.