Film Review





Winter Spice at Hackney Empire

Beaquarr Productions Ltd. presents

Legacy in the Dust



The Story of the Four Aces Club

Devised, Filmed and Edited by Winstan Whitter

With Live Dub Poetry from El Crisis, Ska and Rocksteady from Freetown

Marie Lloyd Bar – Hackney Empire

December 14, 2008




A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


This absorbing, independent film by Winstan Whitter bridges a long neglected historical gap in London’s musical legacy, namely the thirty-three year history and wide spread influence of the legendary Four Aces Club in Dalston.  In addition to offering a much needed, unpretentious dance hall, the club featured some of the world’s greatest Sound Systems as well as Blue Beat, Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae, Dub, and occasionally, Soul performers, and, in its more recent incarnation as The Labrynth, the burgeoning to burnt out rave scene.

In addition to focusing on the roots and flowering of many of the scenes the Four Aces inspired and/or encouraged, most notable among them, Reggae, Dub and Rave, this must see film features countless vintage clips of stars like Desmond Decker, Jimmy Cliff, Percy Sledge and Ben E. King to name a few of the endless number of performers of varying genres who appeared there over the years. That it is a labour of love is obvious from the outset, as one interview clip and performance snippet flows seamlessly into another, with intermittent, insightful comment from one of the club’s originators, Newton Dunbar, among many other pivotal figures related its scenes.

Whitter’s fascinating documentary begins its musical timeline by touching briefly on ballroom dancing in London circa 1940’s before moving on to the West Indians who first arrived in England on June 22, 1948, an event which was to be the start of a continual wave of immigration from the commonwealth, and skimming through the beginnings of rock and roll via Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Cliff Richards.

The film also details the ever changing history of the building itself, which had initially staged Sir Robert Fossett’s first season of Circus in 1886, before portions of it were used, in various eras as a poorhouse of sorts, a Cinema and an underground used car showroom before housing the Four Aces Club which was to take over where, ‘pay parties’ which had moved from house to house left off. In the beginning, the club mixed soul and reggae aspects and as time went on, the record ‘Roast Fish and Cornbread’ by Lee Perry became one of its anthems.

The Four Aces Club, which started in 1966, was the first club in Britain to feature West Indian sound systems or ‘mobile discotheques’ as they were referred to. These powerful sound systems in what was revealed, was a very small space, would have surely made those dancing to the music there feel as though they were one with it. Such humble beginnings would spawn what would become the West Indian subculture of London which was to become hugely influential in the capitol, throughout Britain and far beyond, as evidenced in my own life by memories of dancing in various underground clubs on the upper east coast of America which, circa 1979-81 favoured a distinctive blend of Post Punk, Ska, Reggae and Dub.

Punk/Post Punk historian and first generation British black, born of Jamaican immigrants, Don Letts, another of the many commentators on this film, was one of the first D.J.s in London in the late 1970’s and early 80’s to introduce and continually incorporate Reggae and Dub into his playlist initially, at the short-lived punk venue the Roxy Club.  Letts inadvertently played a role in encouraging D.J.’s and music enthusiasts who visited the Roxy or Acme Attractions on the King’s Road then where he sold clothing and also spun his knowing mix, to mimic and popularise his spinning style in underground clubs in the U.K. as well as in America and beyond.  Given Lett’s reoccurring presence at various concerts staged in London to commemorate Punk’s Anniversary year, it was obvious that he still actively promotes the appreciation of Dub and Reggae along with his enthusiasm of independent music in general to this day. Letts reiterated something in this film that he has said many times before, which can’t be emphasized enough in order to put what club owner Dunbar was going in terms of harassment through during Thatcher’s regime into perspective, namely that ‘British society was much more political in the mid to late 70’s,’ especially given the fact that ‘Rastafarian culture was then in evidence, with people claiming their African roots.’

D.J. Ricky Rankin as well as Arianne from The Slits reiterated that police harassment against Rastafarians was then in evidence as well. The music being played in The Four Aces Club and at events such as the Notting Hill Carnival would have reflected these changes and others both good and bad. For, during the seventies, gangs from different eras and cultures were clashing in Britain: Teddyboys, Mods, Rockers, Punks, Skinheads and other factions, which the film illustrates as well, justifying Letts cultural commentary, for as a music historian, he feels that the Punk era is the one time when white men created a soundtrack to accompany the political and cultural events of their time, something black musicians had already been doing for many, many years.

Reggae, which had a lengthily heyday lasting from the 1960’s into the ‘80’s, and its subgenre, Dub, which was created and flourished in the 1970’s, have both had a huge impact on popular music world wide. In terms of Whitter’s film, all these and more aspects of Jamaican music’s influence on world culture are explored, much of it through footage shot in the humble space of the Four Aces Club. The film also features, in instances when footage or photos were unavailable, expressive illustrations depicting the interior of the club and what took place there when one of its all too frequent police raid occurred. These raids were, according to club’s owner, Newton Dunbar, designed to ‘break the spine of the club,’ and Margaret Thatcher’s notorious ‘suss laws’ certainly didn’t help that situation, as they offered justification for racist policemen to stop, search and often, criminally harass black people.  However, the club itself was not to be pulled down without making one last stand, through the Rave scene which would not only revitalise its reputation, but also, expand the club into the spaces surrounding it and change it’s name to the Labyrinthine, a huge venue taking in many of the other rooms and levels of the building where the Four Aces Club had originally been housed.

Although some of the footage from The Four Aces Club itself looks a bit grainy at times, it is nonetheless intriguing, given its heritage and place in world music history. The fact that a tiny club in Dalston, a part of London that is not exactly high priority on the tourist map could become a regular performance stop for top reggae and dub stars such as the first Reggae superstar Desmond Decker, Prince Buster, Toots and the Maytals, U Roy, Duke Reid, The Upsetters, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Roy Shirley and Selecta and on one occasion, Bob Marley, and another Chrissie Hynde of Post Punk band The Pretenders, as well as British Reggae performers Steele Pulse and Aswad as well and stars of the era such as Jimmy Ruffin, Eddie Floyd and Arthur Conley and also be visited by rock luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Marc Boland, and later, Ari Up of The Slits, Joe Strummer and John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten (as guests of Don Letts), demonstrates that the appeal of the scene there had spread far beyond mere walls. But as one younger commenter in the film confessed, ‘I learned about Black culture through Jamaican music and culture. I didn’t get it from textbooks or school,’ further illustrating the importance of this film.

There is lots of humour to be found in Legacy in the Dust as well, as in the case of reminiscences about the club’s ‘Wednesday Free Nights for Ladies’ when the place became understandably packed. It was during that era that 14 year old Louisa Marks, who had won a talent competition in the club, had her popular record, ‘Caught You in a Lie,’ a song which could only be categorised under the heading of ‘lover’s rock’ a type of Reggae specifically dedicated to romancing, originally popularised by singers like Ken Boothe, Johnny Nash and John Holt.

The club’s Rave days, which arrived at the Four Aces Club under its own name,  Labrynth in 1989, began with their own set of built in problems, namely that laws had been passed, rather quickly, stating that 10 or more people, gathered together listening to the music associated with that movement, constituted a ‘rave.’ The film wisely confirms that ‘minor incidents’ which took place during this era were blown up by the media, as they had been during the days of the Four Aces Club, in relation to Rastafarian culture both in conjunction with Reggae music as well as all things associated to it. And, as it stated on their website, into the Labyrinth emerged, ‘a production wizard, two dancers and a sound system MC. Obsessed with the East London warehouse party scene they debut with a fistful of ruffneck breaks and a party hard attitude at Labrynth in Dalston, London’s Four Acres Club. It’s 1990 and the Prodigy experience is born.’ Yet another surprising fact unearthed by this informative film.
Apparently, during the first Acid House night at the Labyrinth, with its ‘Warehouse Party’ feeling, police arrived but left as the huge number of club-goers on the scene at the time prevented them from taking any action. However, the Council now has plans of its own for this historic building, the oldest in Daltston, as well as more portions of the borough, and I quote from the Open Dalston Website :

The Council is finally to achieve its objective. In 1995 the Council declared the Dalston Theatre a site for redevelopment. In 1997, despite a petition of 25,000 signatures and 12 deputations, the Council still decided to evict the Four Aces, Labrynth and community organisations from the buildings so that it could sell the site to a developer. The development didn't materialise. Then in 2003, after the buildings had remained boarded up and on death row for 5 years, the Secretary of State gave outline approval on appeal for their demolition and redevelopment. Since December 2005 OPEN has obtained court injunctions to stay the Council's hand and urged the authorities to consider reusing at least some of the buildings. But the decision to fund New Dalston's Olympic bus station, by demolishing historic Dalston and selling the land for towerblock developments, had already been taken before the recent public consultation started. The Council, the Greater London Authority and the Secretary of State have refused to change the plans. Next they will implement the demolition plans for Dalston Lane north. All these decisions have contributed to the planned destruction of old Dalston. *

Legacy in the Dust not only offers its viewers rare glimpses into worlds which may have all but vanished at least in terms of its active club spaces, but in doing so, it also demonstrates that what took place in those particular spaces in relation to its cultures and the music being played there still resonates not only in society and popular culture today, but in countless memories as well.

Q & A



Newton Dunbar, Former four Aces Security Man and Winstan Whitter

A Q & A following the film featured its creator, Winstan Whitter, whom, it emerged, had been a child of ‘about eight’ when his father was the caterer of The Four Aces Club, along with one of the club’s originators, Newton Dunbar, and one of his associates from the club whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch. The latter, who had been involved with the club’s security, disagreed with Dunbar when the former club owner stated that one of the reasons why a club such as The Four Aces couldn’t exist in London today is because ‘people were friendlier then and there weren’t as many fights,’ though the security man didn’t dispute the fact that, as security for The Four Aces he had been like a ‘one man army.’

Whitter has been working on Legacy in the Dust in conjunction with Newton Dunbar since 1997 and this screening of it was the seventh, the final one of seven being held at Chelsea College of Art, though it has already been screened at both the I.C.A. on the Mall and the B.F.I. on the Southbank. The filmmaker’s older brother had worked as a bouncer on the door of the Four Aces Club and Whitter had himself attended the club itself during its rave period as the Labrynth.

Newton Dunbar that ‘after 35 years, he was just glad that he could walk out the door’ of the Four Aces Club, though he also commented that he hadn’t walked through the doors of the club for over eleven years, though, he concluded with, ‘I hope you approve of what you’ve seen,’ which met with enthusiastic applause. ‘Something will happen, Dubar then stated confidently in relation to the film, ‘to make what is necessary for this to continue.’ In answer to that, Whitter stated that he has plans to bring the film to schools and colleges next year,’ though he’d told us that he’s ‘given up on commercial distribution’, though he is currently working towards gaining independent distribution for the film. During the course of compiling the political angles relating to the maintaining and potential salvaging of the heritage related to the Four Aces Club and Labrynth Whitter has, apparently garnered so much excess footage, that he’s actually in the process of turning some of it into another film with the working title, ‘Save Our Heritage.’

This memorable evening was rounded off by the performance of Dub poet El Crises, who, apart from a lone musician on African drum, who generated an infectious beat for him at times, made his own sounds to accompany his stirring words, which were spoken with a rare rhythmic delivery, demonstrating his philosophy that the power of the spoken word should not be underestimated. Ska/Rocksteady band Freetown closed the evening with a lively set of both self composed and favourite songs of their favoured genres, which, rather sadly, only the most lubricated among us seemed secure enough to dance to. But, as El Crises commented from the stage, ‘This is not the Four Aces Club,’ nor is anywhere else, for that matter. This very special evening was the first in a series of Winter Spice events to be housed in Marie Lloyd Bar at the Hackney Empire though I’m sure it will be the most singularly important one, thanks to Winstan Whitter’s enlightening film Legacy in the Dust.

Winter Spice at Hackney Empire
Price(s): £10. Concs: £2 off. Friends: £3 off. CAN: £2.50 off.

Marie Lloyd Bar – Hackney Empire
291 Mare Street, London E8 1EJ
Box Office: +44 (0)20 8985 2424




*About OPEN Dalston

OPEN is the trading name for Organisation for Promotion of Environmental Needs Limited, a not for profit membership company limited by guarantee. OPEN's objects are to promote excellence in the quality of the built environment, the provision of transportation and the provision of amenities, and to ensure that changes to these have proper regard to the needs of residents and businesses and the maintenance of a sustainable residential and business community. For more information please email





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