Britain's erstwhile rave culture
by Kate Spicer, Times Online
July 6, 2008
In 1988, Thatcher’s Britain was hit by an almighty day-glo wake-up call: the birth of the acid-house party. Twenty years on, we remember the clothes, the drugs and the music — and asks how rave culture has shaped the way we live today
"I was due on stage at 8am," recalls the acid-house pioneer Trevor Fung. “It was a beautiful sunny morning. I’d never seen so many people in my life — there must have been 20,000 out there. There were three juggernauts in this huge field; two were piled with speakers. I got on the one in the middle with the decks on. I just walked on, waved, dropped the needle on the record... and it all went off.”
This was towards the end of the second summer of love, the name given to the period in 1988-89 when dance music, youth culture and a generation’s expectations of fun did, indeed, go off in a singular and spectacular way. That summer of love was, for those who were there, a fortuitous collision of several cultural phenomena. There was the little-known acid-house music coming out of Chicago. There was the importing, by a group of young London DJs, of a very Ibizan way of partying, with abandon and a total disregard for respecting the boundaries around musical genres (and the little matter of the MDMA they found there, which was a popular agent for their hedonism). With their passion for the music, they blew the existing free and illegal warehouse party scene wide open, making it accessible to people more used to the dire Hit Man and Her-style clubbing of Ritzy’s, on the high street. In the summer of love, Britain found fun — and found it on an epic scale.
Famously, those who found nirvana included everyone from football hooligans to aristocrats. Sometimes, abandoned to the euphoric, loved-up experience of being on ecstasy, they hugged each other. All types of people came in their thousands to party every night of the week. By 1989, parties were happening with numbers more normally seen at cup finals. The nation’s youth had found its antidote to Thatcher’s Britain: squelchy, uplifting electronic sounds and MDMA, the love drug. Hooligan culture went into decline. Smiley culture took over. The rave generation crossed class and race divides. For those that experienced it, it was magical. Just recently, I was reminiscing about what fun we all had with the guy who came to fit my carpets.
The most famous pioneer of the scene is the DJ, producer and now LA-dwelling film-score composer — and very rich — Paul Oakenfold. “I knew it was a hugely strong movement when I saw it on the cover of The Sun,” he says. “It gave young people a sense of belonging to something special. Britain was miserable — materialistic, grey, unfair. It gave people a lift, gave them the will to believe in themselves. Life was a struggle back then. It gave you the sense you could achieve things.”
Sarah HB, one of the few female DJs pushing the house-music sound via pirate-radio slots, says: “We were on a ride that was either going to take us somewhere great or leave us swamped by the drugs. Initially, it was these great Californian Es, then bastardised and bad drugs came in. I certainly dabbled. My mum read the papers. She understood why I was calling her from the M25, saying, ‘Sorry, but I’m not going to make Sunday lunch.’ But the music was its beating heart — what gave it that big, euphoric ride — not the drugs. Dance music is so emotional; it’s so great for women. And people danced. Even men.”
I was talking to two rather serious professional girls about raving recently. They reminisced about their silly clothes — tie-dye T-shirts, cycling shorts, ludicrous high-top trainers — and the old chestnut of not making Sunday lunch. “Ah, them were the days,” sighed one. “And still are sometimes,” muttered the other.
For a generation that was fed intense fun, euphoria and abandon at the nascence of adulthood, hedonism became a way of life. Sarah HB thinks the summer of love shaped Britain hugely: “It gave us a new entertainment industry, created jobs in fashion, radio, music, publishing, TV and clubs. It revealed a new world of talent and possibility.”
On a social level, she sees a thirst for excitement and adrenaline persisting among her peers of the time. “They’re adrenaline junkies, without a doubt, and they love bouncing off other people’s energy. I know that drugs can do terrible damage, but it’s got to be said, they can be quite fun too.”
The Sun’s front pages screamed of the “drug-crazed” world of acid house and the “evil of ecstasy”. “Yeah, we were all going to die, according to the alarmism in the tabloids,” remembers the DJ Jeremy Healy. “But we didn’t.”
Paul Staines, the libertarian political blogger whose website, order-order.com , has been compared, in mischief-making terms, to the Drudge Report, adds a meatier voice to the argument. At the time, he was working with the entrepreneur Tony Colston-Hayter (who has turned his attentions to businesses in Africa’s mineral-rich — and trouble-rich — countries) on the Sunrise parties. “Now,” Staines says, “I’m 40 and fat, but if I bump into the right people and my wife’s not looking, I’ll still take a pill. A lot of the political crowd hitting 40 now, if they were at university and middle class, would have been exposed to ecstasy and raving. A lot of politicians come from that era and, believe me, they know the score. There’s a conspiracy among them that they have to be against drugs; they have to pretend. But I don’t think they want to be hypocritical. That era taught people, by personal experience, that there were casualties, yes, but mostly it [drug-taking] just entailed a bit of short-term depression.”
The first summer of love was in 1967, a period that was about far more than dancing and getting high. The hippies who gathered in San Francisco 40 years ago were tied to a global movement protesting against the stricture of post-war society and about the war in Vietnam, and it was, primarily, a political and revolutionary period. In France particularly, the words “nineteen sixty-eight” inspire great romantic memories of popular and intellectual unrest. Fast-forward 20 years and everyone is off their heads on pills — in 1988, politics was not on anyone’s mind.
Yet it did become political. In the wake of the second summer of love came Staines’s Freedom to Party movement, his political response to the ever more fervid desire, on the part of the police and the media, to stamp out this “scourge” of the nation’s youth.
The 1994 Criminal Justice Act did much to tighten the loopholes in the law that allowed people to hold raves; it gave police the power to shut down any open-air gathering of 100 or more people listening to “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. At the same time, though, clubs and events were allowed to stay open later. We stayed up, presumably, thanks to “youthful exuberance”.
“People have a more realistic understanding of drug culture now,” Staines says. “It changed the anti-drug agenda. Now the message in drugs-awareness campaigns is not ‘You’re all going to die’, more ‘It could get messy’ — which it can. I think the biggest legacy of that era is that it made drug consumption a mass-market activity and bred a more liberal attitude.”
Wayne Anthony, now a squeaky-clean entrepreneur, was one of the big promoters of the early days of rave. “I got into the music — and the MDMA — at places such as Future, Spectrum, Shoom, Land of Oz and Trip. It was like this explosion of colour. There was this vast unplugging of emotion. MDMA expanded our emotional capabilities, with women and with men. That resonates in my life today; I can still greet male friends with a kiss and a hug. It unplugged the British male for the first time in history. London was a violent place in 1987, driven by booze and fighting. It was divided into tribes and, as a mixed-race male from Hackney, I was racially oppressed. The dance-music scene was unsegregated and genuinely multicultural, unlike other youth movements. Acid house opened our eyes to other people. MDMA did more for racial harmony than decades of politics.”
“A lot of people really freed themselves up, yes,” recalls the television presenter Davina McCall. But there was a flip side. “People were taking hideous advantage. It was like, ‘I appreciate you’re on E, but please get your hand off my breast.’ ” She talks perkily about wearing bad rave fashion such as Timberlands with a neoprene swimming costume, and about still feeling madly alive when she hears Todd Terry’s Can You Feel It. “It was a great time, very exciting, but nobody could see forward two years. A lot of us suffered consequences. My comedowns left me feeling really atrocious. I started taking heroin to try to offset my E hangovers and the achy joints they gave me. I started with an appetite and ended with a habit.” Clean for many years, McCall now looks around and sees that many of her peers have “moved on to coke: the acceptable face of middle-class drug use”.
Charlotte Horne — aka DJ Lottie — also recognises “a certain type of man who doesn’t have that responsibility gene, who is still going for it 20 years on. But it wasn’t about drugs for me, it was about music and people and pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible in our lives”.
“A lot of people from that time are like Peter Pans; in their forties, they’ll still take off to Ibiza with the kids — and a nanny or a granny in tow,” says the writer Yasmin Mills, who was then a model. Even though acid house wasn’t her favourite music, she says the shared experience of the parties was unparalleled. “It gave our generation a bit of class-free solidarity, a little escapism. Unlike all the other club scenes, acid house wasn’t about girls meeting guys. It wasn’t about being perfectly manicured in your Alaïa — in fact, it was quite cool to have your eye make-up running down your cheeks.”
Anthony admits that he did “a lot” of drugs. “Now, though, I am heavily into spirituality,” he adds. “Rehab won’t sort you out; self-discovery, yoga and meditation will. I think a lot of the rave generation got into all that stuff. They discovered something more to life and found something that could still give you a high, a natural high”. Certainly, this would explain the popularity of yoga studios and holistic retreats among a certain generation.
When the rave generation moved on, they did not leave their desire for a good time behind. British club culture is watched and emulated the world over. A love of hedonism now defines Britons around the world, and the British template for a rave is enthusiastically consumed everywhere.
DJs play in China, eastern Europe, the States and South America; aside from a few blighted spots in the Middle East and Africa, you would be hard pushed to find a place that British rave culture hasn’t penetrated. Thanks to the madness of the second summer of love, our biggest export in recent years has been the human right for many people, rich and poor, to have an absurdly good time.
Where are they now?
Then: The Mondays fused northern soul and funk beats with a rave aesthetic to huge commercial success. Their lead singer, Shaun Ryder, personified the era with a bowl haircut and a drug problem. Now: After many incarnations, labels and line-up changes, the band’s fifth album was released last summer.
Then: The father of rave, he took a trip to Ibiza and brought Balearic dance back with him. His club night, Spectrum, had thousands entranced every week. Now: After achieving longevity as a DJ and producer (remixing everyone from the Stone Roses to U2), he now resides in Hollywood, producing film scores. He recently returned to his old stomping ground, the radio station Kiss.
Then: The enfants terribles of rave, the duo were heavily influenced by esoteric literature and anarchy. By 1994, they had conceived ambient dance, burnt £1m of their earnings and deleted their entire back catalogue. Now: Fittingly, they dumped music for modern art. Bill Drummond helped set up the Foundry, an arts centre in Shoreditch, while Jimmy Cauty is an artist.
Then: A baby-faced boy from Wales, Sasha (aka Alexander Coe) favoured uplifting Italian house, a decision that helped him to forge a worldwide name for himself. Now: Eclipsing almost every other rave DJ with his successes, Sasha remixes the likes of the Chemical Brothers and Madonna. He can still be found playing to fields of ravers across the globe.