Magazine article The Spectator

Ministry of Drugs

Magazine article The Spectator

Ministry of Drugs

Article excerpt

AS trendsetters go, James Palumbo is a strange fish. The erstwhile Etonian, Oxonian and City high-flier has built his Ministry of Sound nightclub into a conglomerate which turned over 20 million in 1996-97, while retaining a taste for opera and a contempt for the 'sloppy, corrupt and drug-- involved' industry in which he works.

Some still remember him best for his court action against his estranged father Lord Palumbo of Arts Council and Mansion House repute - in a rancorous dispute over the family trust. Since 1996, the 36-year-old Palumbo has also vocally supported several causes not traditionally associated with the wild world of clubbing, from voter registration to the suppression of drug abuse.

Until the ascension of Tony Blair, Palumbo's voice sounded polyphonic: whispering advice to Conservative MPs, lauding his local Liberal Democrat MP, and then simultaneously releasing his media chief to the Tories and a chauffeur-driven silver Rover to Peter Mandelson. But in May 1997- -he grasped the hymn-sheet of New Labour tight. And if the recent Power List of the Sunday Times is to be believed, he is also causing something of a stir in the new establishment, having attained a political and cultural significance which places him among the 500 most influential people in the country.

Last week it was reported that he plans to buy a stake in a radio station; which is perhaps a convenient moment to assess a career which represents, in many ways, a triumph of hype. His formal role in government is limited to a place on a quango which dispenses Charter Marks to small enterprises: while his oft-mentioned friendship with Mandelson has yielded rather more prurient gossip than political kickbacks. The gossip is almost Certainly unfounded: he has a young son by an Iranian woman, both of whom now live abroad; and at least two girlfriends are a matter of public record, albeit only because they have testified against him in separate High Court cases. But Palumbo has somehow convinced many politicians and journalists that he represents more than a nightclub impresario on the make. To be fair, Palumbo himself might well recognise that he does not; but he has so far played a game of bluff with consummate skill, reaping both financial and social advantage from a youth culture which he often seems to despise.

A trip to his club is not everyone's idea of fun. After an indeterminate wait at the iron gates of its pill-box premises, one enters a seething tableau of floodlit flesh that might once have been choreographed by Hieronymus Bosch. Up to 1,500 bodies jerk and undulate in its various chambers, while lasers scythe, strobes flash through a miasma of dry ice, and music thunders forth at a volume loud enough to rival any archangel's trumpet.

The less streetwise among Spectator readers might think that such a spectacle must necessarily appeal to a clubbing aficionado, but they would be wrong. Although the Ministry reigned supreme over London's dance scene during the early 1990s, its advanced age (eight) has begun to tell. The scowling bouncers and arcane dress policies (currently no-blue-jeans-unless-dark-and-worn-onFriday) may still convince out-of-towners and south London stragglers that its portals shield a sanctum sanctorum of cool, but the capital's clubbing vanguard has long given it a colder shoulder in favour of superclubs and bars that are more central, more hip and, best of all, newer. 'The Ministry used to be exhilarating, in a kind of Triumph of the Will way,' reminisced a 34-year-old veteran called Rob. 'But it became more like Graceland, sponging off a bloated legend. It's a rave mausoleum.' 'The Misery?' said Lucy, 26. 'Last I heard, all they were playing was handbag. I know they reckon the cheese revival's started, but I'm not interested.'

The Ministry's musical acumen is, in fact, still highly regarded within the industry, but the miracle of brand recognition is that, either way, it matters not a jot. …

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