At any given moment in time, the world is full of scorned music genres. Today, there’s dubstep, which people now hate because it “used to be good”; ten years ago, there was nu-metal, which people hated because it was “never any good”. And then there’s all that other peripheral stuff, like pornogrind and butt-rock Goa. You don’t want to know about butt-rock Goa.
However, even next to these unloved subcultural jamboys, there is one genre that stands alone as the most mocked, most misunderstood music scene out there: happy hardcore. The scene seems like a moment in dance history that most would rather forget, something that has been abandoned to cultural dead time and is now destined to forever be associated with all those other sources of moral panic from the 1990s, like joyriding, solvent abuse and Sunny D.
Musically, it’s a punishing mix. Take 170 distorted bass drum thuds a minute, parping synth stabs, breakbeats that rattle around like broken washing machines and sling in vocals that sound sung by kids on pills. It’s perhaps not tough to see why it’s widely regarded as rave’s Pompeii – the sound of the dance music that set the agenda for British youth culture in the late 80s and early 90s collapsing after battering itself with one too many handfuls of eccies.
There’s a snobbishness that surrounds the genre. The common perception is that happy hardcore is rave’s slightly backwards, Subaru-driving cousin. While people who listened to acid house are generally painted as being young, attractive and urbane by the glossy fashion mags that retroactively steer the zeitgeist, happy hardcore seems more synonymous with ketamine colostomy bags and GBH convictions. Where broadsheet journalists laud rave as a generation-defining moment, happy hardcore resists academic warmth. It just goes OOSH-AH OOSH-AH OOSH-AH really fast and has stupid lyrics about flying about in the sky.
Not that I buy into this negativity myself. I’ve been developing a crush on happy hardcore from afar for a while now, and when photographer and filmmaker Ewen Spencer sent me a few images he’d taken at a happy hardcore night in Tottenham at some point in the late 90s, I wondered if it might be time for a reappraisal of HH.
And where better to start than the music? The sweet, thoughtless, ridiculous music.
Just listen to that track. It’s undeniably massive. You don’t have to like it, and it’s arguably not of any musical worth, but you can’t deny that it’s massive. Those twinkling, undulating piano key hits, combined with the right combination of drugs and scenario, make people want to reach out and touch them, as if every note was a hand reaching down from heaven.
The broken jungle loops, the slave-ship kickdrumming, the ecstatic pan-European vocals, the childish lyrics, a foghorn sound that seems to have been sampled from a traffic jam backing up from the Tannhäuser Gate. It’s just superb, ludicrous, maximalist music. It’s music that doesn’t give a fuck what you think about it, music that takes its shirt off at parties, kisses the bridesmaids and tries to fight the bouncers.
If Juan Atkins is electronic music’s Fritz Lang, then DJ Hixxy is its Michael Bay, if Theo Parrish is its Picasso, then Darren Styles is its John Martin. It’s naive and immense at the same time, and it’s not going to help you concentrate better on your coursework.
More than anything, it’s romantic, perfectly encapsulating those moments that we later come to cherish for being completely reckless and foolhardy. All the cliche-ridden, nursery rhyme-esque lyrics speak of infatuation and euphoria. It’s the sound of first kisses, first pills, first fucks in the rain: naive music for naughty people.
Fair enough, we’ve always had moody electronic music, and that’s great – the world is mostly quite a moody place. But maybe in a day and age in which even our rappers can’t get to the end of a verse without having an existential crisis, we should find a place for happy hardcore. Maybe we should have a bit less tolerance for music that hates itself and more time for music that loves life.
The truth is, we’re not all as emotionally intelligent as Four Tet or The Weeknd would have you believe, nor are we as expertly sexual as Zebra Katz or The-Dream imply. Sometimes we’re just morons who get really happy about being in the same room as each other. Sometimes we just want to speed through Dewsbury in a stolen Punto, even if Dewsbury is just a state of mind and the Punto is just a bunch of drugs.
The age we live in is dominated by studied obscurity and cultured subtlety, but these are foreign concepts to the happy hardcore community. Its producers and DJs don’t really see the point in “building a vibe”. I’ve never been to a happy hardcore night – I know, I should and I will, just as soon as I’ve scoped out the right pub backroom in Portsmouth – but I’d imagine it’s a bit like gargling a load of Mitsis and sitting front row for WWE Smackdown on Ice.
Ewen’s photos brilliantly reveal a world that we were taught to mock at the turn of the century. Even in this post-Chavs universe, I still think people feel a bit uneasy about the visual aesthetic of happy hardcore. The Kappa, the England shirts, the Reebok Classics and the Wella Shockwaves teasing fringes into limp, dehydrated tarantulas clinging to sweaty foreheads. It’s a look that the likes of Chavscum.com and Devvo taught us to credit for making our country stupid and violent. Whereas, in actual fact, these people look like they’re having the most fun it is possible for people to have.
And they look pretty cool while they’re doing it, which is why the look is regaining some amount of cultural currency. The people in these photos look like they’ve stepped out of a spread from some Peckham-based biannual fashion mag, full of now-defunct British sportswear brands, bulbous sovereign rings, popper tracksuit bottoms and gargantuan hoop earrings. The happy hardcore scene had maybe one of the realest representations of a look that everyone from Rihanna to King Krule to Palace has since appropriated, and for that, maybe the steez should be reconsidered alongside the music.
I’m aware that there are many people out there now who would consider themselves to be happy hardcore die-hards, and if that’s you, then I salute you. And yet there is no happy hardcore revival on the cards, no big screen adaptation, no coffee table book, no namecheck on a Kanye album. I can’t see Fact running a retrospective of Scott Brown’s career any time soon, but why shouldn’t they? I can see why it would put people off, what with its naffness, its cheapness and its general lack of quality, it’s essentially musical Tizer. But remember that a lot of people like Tizer.
With our current obsession with rave culture in full flow, happy hardcore deserves a second chance – after all, every other genre (apart from butt-rock Goa) has. It’s unfair that it’s dismissed as rigor mortis rave, dance music for simpletons or people who have gradually dug themselves into their own pill-shaped hole. We live in a time that could use a little escapism. When it feels like the grim, grey realities of life are closing in all around us, why shouldn’t we get together in a room and sweat out our problems to the musical equivalent of an endlessly exploding neon rainbow?
It’s time we found some love for this care home child that was never given a chance by the intelligentsia. It’s time to give happy hardcore a second chance.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive