The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Why I came back to Ibiza’s clubs in my 50s
As iconic club Pacha celebrates its half-century, Stephen Armstrong returns to see what’s changed
‘The world needs Ibiza more than ever,” Pablo Guebhard Llosent yelled into my ear as we watched the dancefloor heave at Pacha, the renowned Ibiza club. It certainly seemed like the United Nations High Commission on Badass Funk was in town, with representatives from every nation shaking that ass. I leant in to hear Llosent – the club’s VIP manager – expand on his point. “When people come here, they come with their best energy. Many other places have big problems, angry people, but not here. Ibiza is something we all need.”
At first glance, it was hard to disagree. Admittedly, half the crowd were more than half my age, but there were older people too, most wearing little more than a thin strip of velvet around their body. Behind DJ Solomun – a regular on the Pacha decks – I could see the serried ranks of the VIP section rising like a Greek amphitheatre. The ceiling was covered in panels that rippled with electric firestorms. Everywhere I looked, people were dancing, jostling each other to get nearer to Solomun.
Returning to the White Isle for Pacha’s 50th birthday, I was pretty much the same age as the walls around me. But there’s something about a hard drumbeat at full volume over a finely tuned sound system, a bassline alive with promise and menace and sex, and that terrible, sinful snaredrum build coming crackling in with suppressed tension, ripping through roll after roll after roll after roll, getting higher and louder and faster until it fills your ears with its inhuman crescendo and boom! Dear Lord, I was dancing.
What on earth was I doing? Trying to relive my youth on the dancefloor at the epicentre of Ibiza’s bohemian party culture? Was I overexcited? Was it time to go home? But then, as the crowd surged around me, it dawned on me that Ibiza’s dancefloors are still truly democratic. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what your age is, whether you’re gay, straight, black, white – even a squid-headed alien – as long as you want to throw a few shapes and not a whole lot of attitude.
Pacha is as good a place as any to try to understand the mystery of Ibiza, the third largest of the Balearics. Having previously run clubs on the Spanish mainland, Pacha’s founder, Ricardo Urgell, moved to Ibiza in 1972, bought a deserted patch of land across the harbour from Ibiza Town and built the club in the style of an old finca. “There wasn’t even a road,” Francisco Ferrer Arabi, Pacha’s brand ambassador, laughs. Arabi was nine at the time and first went to Pacha for one of the kids’ discos put on for the locals during the winter. “Everybody thought he was crazy.”
Ibiza was undergoing a remarkable social experiment. The island had spent the previous century being ignored by the Spanish government. What had once been a crucial trading hub for the Phoenicians – who named it after Bes, their god of dance – had slipped in importance once Spain set its sights on the Americas. By 1960, just 37,000 people lived on Ibiza and its sister island Formentera. Then the hippies came.
The first were US draft dodgers, ironically protected by Franco’s lack of extradition treaties, then came the peaceniks and the Europeans, and soon the island was overrun by long-haired hedonists walking around naked, squatting in derelict houses, running all-night open-air parties, getting drunk, taking drugs and having sex.
The Ibizans took one look at them and said – sure, why not?
“If you come with happiness and an open heart, you’re always welcomed,” Arabi agreed the day after the party. “In the 1960s, even the rural people in traditional peasant clothes joined in with the hippies. There were open-air gay bars in Ibiza Town in the 1950s, when most of the world still kept them secret. This is where people can be themselves.”
Llosent, 41, is a child of hippies. His French father came to Ibiza from London in 1969 to open a clothing store, met his Austrian wife and moved into a derelict finca, which they did up over the years. Llosent grew up fetching water and lighting fires. He started at Pacha as a bartender’s assistant – bringing new glasses, keeping things stocked – then moved to the guest list, where his key skill was keeping calm as outraged not-yet pop stars asked if he didn’t know who they were? “Talking solves everything,” he explained.
Two days later – hangovers are heavier when you hit my age – I hired a car and set out to check Arabi’s claim. I’d spent a large part of the late 1990s on the island at the pleasure dome of Manumission, blinking as dawn rose over Amnesia or resting at Salinas beach – near Ibiza’s ancient salt pans – ready to start again.
That Ibiza mixed the spirit of Glastonbury with Mediterranean sunshine, along with thudding superclubs, a boozy San Antonio and an almost unspoilt forest to the north. There were villages where the locals farmed and the hippies still hid, playing drums on Benirras beach and running organic cafés or agritourism B&Bs. I could eat. I could sleep. I could rave. And then repeat. Could that island still exist?
As I drove north along winding roads through tall pines, I saw the same old hippie market in the village of San Jose (also known as Sant Josep de sa Talaia). I wandered through stalls selling, well, the sort of things you might buy in Camden Market. I doubted the “Peak Hippie” years – when Mike Oldfield, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Robert Plant and Terence Stamp all had houses on the island – felt much like this.
Moving on to the northern coast, I came to Benirras to see if the real hippies were in town. The beach had pizza shacks serving up a slice or two, a gentle drift of marijuana smoke and families on bucket-and-spade holidays. A curious combination.
Just as night fell, the drummers started. Over by a wooden hut, the first few began a complex clattering rhythm that rattled away as other drummers materialised with bongos, African drums and even an alto sax. The thundering beats produced dancers and fire-eaters, and by the time I left, they’d created a scene that made Withnail and I look like a Richard Curtis film. I breathed a sigh of relief. The Ibizan anarchy was alive.
Driving back, I found what had really changed since I was last there: restaurants, cocktail bars and boutique hotels had crept into the villages and towns along my way. Pikes hotel – beloved of Freddie Mercury and George Michael – had been rebooted and now hosted DJ nights and quality chefs in equal measure. It seemed that Ibiza Town, the increasingly cosmopolitan capital, had been extending its influence across the island, upgrading grubby bars in San Antonio and raising prices. That suited me, for sure, but I wondered if my daughters would ever get to run as wild as I had without the shots and free entry to foam parties.
Back at Pacha on Sunday evening, I ate sushi in the club’s restaurant and chatted to a few of the waiters and bar staff. “What’s really changed Ibiza is the iPhone,” said one. “When I first came here, you would enjoy the music, meet new people and everyone was just themselves. Now, it’s all selfies. You used to come here to experiment, now you come to pose.”
When I put this to Llosent, he nodded carefully. “I remember extravagant people running around Pacha, creating a wonderland, and we try to keep those principles,” he explained. “It is difficult now with celebrities – social media and phones mean we have different VIP areas, so they aren’t filmed. But in the end,” he pointed over my shoulder to the club where the dancers were starting their night, “they want to be on the dancefloor. The key to the success of all nightlife is the dancefloor. And somehow people let people be. If you respect the culture, you can be yourself and do whatever you want. It’s easy to say, but hard to explain. It’s just Ibiza.”
‘People let people be. If you respect the culture, you can be yourself and do whatever you want’