The incredible story of Tony Pike, the man who built the Club Tropicana party hotel - and his own legend
Meeting the man who made his dreams a reality with nothing but force of will and his bare hands
It’s one o’clock in the morning in Ibiza, and Tony Pike is happy. The night is warm, the bar is busy and he is surrounded by friends. He is trying to tell them about the time he bought a copper mine in Papua New Guinea, but it’s a difficult story to fit between the music. He’s drinking beer, but not too much.
It was always more about the stories for Tony. He hadn’t taken drugs for a year, when a stray line of ketamine saw him take a tumble. His doctor was unimpressed. They’d talked about the ketamine. And the fact that he’s 84 years old.
Four decades ago, Tony arrived in Ibiza as a nomad.
He escaped from an abusive, poverty-ridden childhood in England by joining the Navy at the age of 12. As a teenager he sailed under Sydney Harbour Bridge and decided to jump ship. Australia meant hard years of labouring until a chance meeting with a man in a pub led to Tony inventing a revolutionary form of plastic display, making a fortune, electing to become an international playboy (to the dismay of his first wife), suffering an existential crisis, getting on a Spanish ferry and, by mistake, disembarking in Ibiza in 1978.
He found a quiet, provincial island of dusty roads and black-robed women toiling in the fields. “It was the strangest thing,” he says.
“I’d never even heard of the place, let alone been here, but it felt like I’d come home.”
His breathing slowed. His sleep was safe from nightmares. One day he saw an advert for a 500-year-old farmhouse, known as a finca, in the hills. The advert said it was ‘inhabitable’. Tony didn’t know that ‘inhabitable’ is Spanish for uninhabitable. He drove up a long, rutted road to find it. It had no water, electricity or sanitation. The owner had used it to shelter sheep. It was a wreck. But so was Tony.
“I looked at that broken down old thing,” says Tony, “and I thought, ‘This could be the greatest place in the world.’”
This is the story of a man who built his dream. Of how he carved out the most infamous rock’n’roll hotel in the world with his bare hands and unleashed decades of unparalleled hedonism. But it’s about more than that. It’s about blind faith and hard work. About over-playing the hand life deals you. And what happens when a man runs out of fantasies.
“I hope that I am an inspiration to mankind.” He means it and, when he says it, he doesn’t even sound like a dick.
Buying the farmhouse left Tony skint but charged with a dedication he didn’t know he possessed. He worked seven days a week. Dawn to dusk. It was, he says, “Hard, filthy, dangerous work. Caked in shit, no water to wash with, living by oil lamps at night.”
He concentrated on the task in hand. The hole to dig, the pipe to lay, the wall to build.
He knew that if he stepped back and saw the whole challenge it would engulf him.
At night he lay and watched the stars through a hole in the ceiling. He thought about his previous lives. He thought about the brother who had abused him. Then he got up in the morning and worked even harder.
He would build a future so great that it would obliterate the past.
The farmhouse sat on granite. Tony borrowed a jackhammer, took a deep breath and started his swimming pool. That was two months of clinging onto the jackhammer as it battled with the rock. The nerves in his arms jangled through the night. The finca’s stone floor needed lowering, but the jackhammer would shake the foundations. So Tony used a pickaxe. Each swing chipped away a pebble-sized nugget. That took three months. As he swung, Tony wept with frustration. “I was a slave,” he says. “A slave to a dream.”
After two years, he had five rooms and a hand-painted sign saying Pikes Hotel. A few guests arrived, but it wasn’t easy. Tony couldn’t afford a phone. In the evenings he sat exhausted on the terrace, drinking beer and praying for a taxi to drive up the hill. He fought a terrible, rising fear. That maybe he’d made a mistake. That maybe he’d gambled everything and come up short.
And then, from the terrace one evening, he saw a man approaching through the fields. The man walked uphill. But, for Tony, he “descended from heaven”.
The man was from a record label and needed an exotic location for a music video.
A week later, Wham! arrived. If you watch the Club Tropicana video, Tony is the straw-hatted barman. The night before the shoot Tony and George Michael had a few drinks and then, as Tony recalls in his memoirs, George made “tender and passionate” love to him. “I was surprised,” says Tony, “because I’m not gay.”
Pikes was born. Club Tropicana was an early MTV hit, and others sought out the decadent location it portrayed. Pikes became known as a place for ricos, extranjeros y famosos (the rich, foreign and famous). Tony was the draw. He would top up drinks around the pool, take guests out on his yacht then escort them to the island’s vast, open-air Ku Club where he had one of 50 keys for the VIP room.
Freddie Mercury would summon Tony to his room to debate the meaning of life while he spooned cocaine onto one of Pikes’ laminated menus. The hotel hosted Mercury’s legendary 41st birthday party. Tony invited 500 people – 700 showed up for a party that lasted three days. The front of the hotel caught fire, a wall collapsed, and Tony found himself playing tennis with “Freddie, Kenny Everett and the chairman of Colchester United”.
When Grace Jones arrived, she and Tony started a year-long affair. Tony’s disappointed girlfriend chased Jones around the pool with a carving knife while Tony served breakfast to the guests. In Jones’s memoirs she wrote of Tony: “He did have an enormous penis and I was happy to take care of it.”
Tony remains touched by his time with her. “One night at Ku, Roman Polanski asked me if I could fix him up with Grace. I said I was her lover. He said, ‘But I’m famous!’ But she chose me. She was wonderful, she had an aura like a rainbow.”
The British tabloids faked outrage for readers in rainy Blighty about this Spanish den of iniquity, claiming a day at Pikes began with cocaine “sprinkled on cornflakes”. The memory confuses Tony. “I never understood it,” he says. “Why the fuck would you put it on cornflakes?”
Tony didn’t deal drugs but guests could do what they liked. Many hid any remaining stash in cracks in the walls of Pikes, ready to retrieve it the next summer. When the local police chief applied pressure, Tony took him for dinner with Julio Iglesias. After that, well, “he was at Freddie’s party,” laughs Tony.
Often Tony found himself behind the pool bar, considering in disbelief the throngs of moneyed, famous guests. “I thought about those months on the jackhammer, of where I’d come from and where I was. It was magical.”
He was never rich. The season was only four months long, then it was back to the grind. “In the summer, it was the most glamorous place in the world. In the winter, I was covered in sweat and shit, building and repairing. But the work made sense now, I knew what was at the other side.” He had a white Rolls-Royce but by May he’d be skint and back on the terrace praying for taxis. Not that anyone knew. He was the happy host, topping up drinks and saying, “Smile! You’re at Pikes.”
They just kept coming. Spandau Ballet, Led Zeppelin, Jon Bon Jovi, Boy George. George Michael based himself at Pikes for his European tours. Tony dipped in and out of the benders then rose early, threw himself in the pool and served breakfast. “There were times when I was on another planet,” he concedes. “But you can hide anything behind sunglasses.”
Amongst the hedonism, cracks appeared. There were the wives that came and went in esoteric fashion. There was the beautiful American MTV presenter who fell in love with Pikes, Tony and drugs. Eventually, Tony sent her to rehab. The next he heard she was dead.
Mercury was also dying. He arrived for a final summer, requesting the best cocaine money could buy. Tony visited the police chief to politely announce that, for the first and only time, he would source drugs for a guest.
“I wasn’t arrested, put it that way,” he says.
As the Nineties became the 2000s, Ibiza commercialised. Ku Club added a roof, renamed itself Privilege and hosted colossal Manumission club nights. The DJs loved Pikes and Tony loved them. Carl Cox, Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold, Erick Morillo, Roger Sanchez, David Morales. He drank with them by the pool and joined them in their DJ booths.
Tony was in his sixties, not that you’d know from his memories of the time. He’s on a boat with Kylie Minogue; fighting over a girl with Mike Oldfield; having lunch with Tony Curtis; sharing a shower with Brigitte Nielsen. “And working,” he says. “Always working. I built a bloody room for Tony Curtis.”
He wasn’t slowing down, he was speeding up. Then came the crash.
In 1995, a girlfriend told Tony she had Aids. Tony was tested. He had it too. He was to join the friends he’d started losing, fallen comrades in a war of debauchery. Doctors gave him five years maximum, and he decided to sell up to pay for his care and provide for his children accumulated over four marriages.
Through a mysterious German guest, Tony was introduced to an Italian in Florida who agreed to buy Pikes for $5m. Tony would fly over to seal the deal. His son Dale wanted to come. “He saw it as a chance to prove himself,” says Tony.
Dale flew two days before Tony. When Tony arrived, police met him on the plane, explained his life was in danger, dressed him in an airport worker’s uniform, drove him to a hotel and told him that Dale was dead. He had been shot and found naked on a beach. Tony didn’t believe them. They took him to identify the body. It was Dale, but he wasn’t naked. On his wrist was a Pikes bracelet.
It’s murky and confusing. To this day, Tony is unsure if he knows the full story. What is clearer is the grief and guilt he has battled ever since. He “cried for months”, then scattered Dale’s ashes around the olive tree at Pikes and decided the show had to go on.
His medication was improving, the virus controlled (and eventually dormant). He met and married his fifth wife. He threw himself into Pikes, which battled the island’s new five-star hotels. He built a final room by hand and the effort left him struggling to get out of bed.
An Icelandic TV crew requested his party trick – a backflip from the terrace into the pool. It ruined his back. He tried ketamine to relax it but he took too much and was carried out of a club “like a fucking tailor’s dummy”. “I wasn’t young any more,” he reflects. He was 76.
Pikes’ grandeur was fading. Salvation arrived in the form of Dawn Hindle and Andy McKay, one half of Manumission. They bought Pikes, renovated it around Tony’s design and built a music and cultural programme that celebrates its heritage. They say they feel like the National Trust, preserving Pikes for the world. They gave Tony a room for life, and a bar stool.
That’s where Tony sits now, on a stool worn through the decades to fit him. He likes to sit here and lose himself in the past. Sometimes it’s tough. Dale. His childhood. The friends lost along the way. But mostly it’s the good times. George, Freddie, Grace and all the others. Lounging by the pool with the drinks flowing.
I ask Tony for the lesson of his life.
“Right now, all over the world, there will be people doing their nine to five then going home and watching TV, seeing a more exciting world and thinking, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ Well, they can! They can! If I can do this,” he gestures to the hotel, to the dream he carved from the hillside, to the memories and the ghosts, “then anyone can do anything.”
Mr Pikes: The Story Behind The Ibiza Legend by Tony Pike with Matt Trollope is out now £13.99 (MT Ink); pikesibiza.com