This is great.
I wrote a thing, for a journal called Loops, which was put together by the excellent Richard King at Domino Records and Lee Brackstone at Faber & Faber (who got me brain-bent at Green Man Festival shortly after its publication). My thing was published pseudonymously nearly three years ago, and as the intention was that there would be a Part II, I kept it that way.
But as Loops is currently on hiatus, I’m “coming out” as Rubbish Raver, because this is kind of relevant to some other things I’ve written and talks I’ve done recently, and more so to some things that are coming up. I still intend it to be continued (it only goes up to 1992!), and I don’t think it will make any difference whether it’s anonymous or not – I’m old enough and ugly enough not to be embarrassed by the stories in it these days. So, with Loops’s permission, here is the original Part I, unchanged. There are the odd thing I’d phrase differently now, and one or two tiny inaccuracies (I did at least have a full set of Eurythmics albums at 14, e.g.), but first thought best thought and all that… Hope you enjoy it:
I am, and have been for almost twenty years now, a rubbish raver. I’m a rubbish dancer, rubbish at drugs, rubbish at fashion, and especially rubbish at the particular brands of pack-bonding dark sarcasm and untethered gibberish that keep the scene’s social mechanisms moving through its endless long and chaotic nights. I’ve always been destructively picky and over-analytical: as a writer, I sometimes feel voyeuristic, a betrayer of secrets, a spy in the house of love. I’m not a natural joiner, I don’t like to toe a party line, and, well, frankly I’m a bit too uptight to get involved with something that by its very nature demands cutting loose, going with the flow, letting it all hang out and all the rest of it. I also – and this is crucial – need a lot of sleep. I am, as today’s younger clubbers might put it, a “wasteman”
And yet, and yet… throughout my adult life, I have loved dance music and all its multifarious splendours; it and the cultures that surround it have fascinated me even as they frustrated and frightened me, and they have inspired to one degree or another almost everything I have done professionally or creatively. I love that same acid sense of humour that I’m so bad at joining in with, I love the hyperactive and compulsive communication, and I love the marshalling of utter chaos into something splendid and ridiculous for no reason other than that it’s fun. I’m no gorblimey back-in-the-day nostalgia bore, nor starry-eyed hippie twit blinded to the grimnesses and exploitations that go on in the name of night-time pleasure, but, when the lines are drawn there’s a part of me that can’t help feeling a certain loyalty to club culture. Dammit, I can actually say “club culture” with a straight face: a statement in itself. In a time when received media and entertainment industry wisdom says that there is no such thing as alternative lifestyles, that everything is assimilable at the spin of an iPod wheel and nothing is new, the idea of something that you belong to, that you must make the active choice and commitment to be a part of, is, I think, as important as it has ever been. So while, at 35, I may be an old, inconstant, creaky and rubbish raver, I am a raver nonetheless, and proud.
If the potted musical memoir that follows seems self-indulgent to you — well, it is. This is my story, and I revel in it. But in these years of immersion, I’ve had a lot of time to absorb and observe an awful lot of the foibles and twists of subcultures and sub-subcultures as they appear, mutate, and either take on a life of their own or are re-absorbed into the larger body of nightlife – and I hope my humble tales of not-quite-fitting, of raves attended and just as importantly of raves missed, can cast some light on the changing ways in which people have tried to find a sense of belonging as they’ve groped their way through that nightlife these past few years.
I was fourteen in 1988, a middle-class country boy at a small-town comprehensive, and acid house all went over my head a bit. I’d already graduated from glam metal through Billy Idol and The Sisters Of Mercy to a vaguely indie eclecticism; I’d had my first Lambert & Butler-flavoured kiss at a school disco where they played Pump Up The Volume and Jack Your Body, and I’d just begun to dip into John Peel’s show where the stranger corners of electronic music started to pique my interest. But the coolest music I owned was probably an LL Cool J cassette album and a vinyl copy of BBC Science Fiction Sound Effects, I’d barely even got drunk let alone high, and when friends’ older brothers began to talk about acid raves it may as well have been in Lithuanian. The closest my friends and I came to dancing was still putting an Anthrax tape on a ghetto-blaster in the park and mock-moshing til we got dizzy. The market town in which I grew up was not big enough to support real subcultures: there were three punks, a couple of “scooter boys”, some moth-eaten teds and one mixed-race – but racist – skinhead, all of whom seemed to drink together. The only hints we got of a sense of human existence outside the day-to-day was the appearance every year or two of the traveller convoy on the nearby Berkshire downs, which would provoke untold excitement — I recall one child at my primary school pelting in one morning wide-eyed, panting “the ‘ippies are coming! My mum says if you go near ‘em they’ll inject you with drugs and make you into an ‘ippie and all!”
At fifteen, I discovered pot, going to gigs, awkward sex with goths, reading Burroughs, Huxley and William Gibson, and playing De La Soul, Spacemen 3 and the Shamen — and with my friend Edwin (whose brother had DJed at parties, done LSD and been to Manchester), I contrived to get to Reading Festival unaccompanied by anybody responsible. There, in between marvelling at New Order, boggling at the Butthole Surfers and nervously sipping pints of pissy lager, I wigged out moderately to someone playing an S’Express acid remix through a guitar amp in the back of a van by a campfire quite late at night and started to think I knew what “raving” was. That autumn the Berlin Wall came down, and at Christmas I was lying stoned in bed when I heard The Orb for the first time on John Peel, their session version of ‘A Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’ unwinding expansively over a half hour and leading me to think all the rules of music had dissolved along with the cold war fears and certainties we’d grown up with. I was so taken away by it, I even forgot to nerdily note that the track’s title came from my precious science fiction sound effects record. The world was changing, ‘Cubik’, ‘Killer’, ‘Good Life’ and ‘Pump Up The Jam’ were staples at village hall dances, and the Happy Mondays were on Top Of The Pops, singing “we’ll take a bit of this and that”. It was a time of excitement, newness and wide-open possibilities, but we weren’t so hip that the distractions of GCSEs and drinking cider while singing Levellers songs in graveyards couldn’t get in the way of more momentous things. A peak experience at this time was less likely to be about losing our shit on the dancefloor or marvelling at the times in which we lived than about collapsing in giggles at Andy, who’d gone AWOL from the navy and lived in a tent, lip-syncing ‘Freebird’ into the mic of his helicopter helmet as we sat around smoking bongs and eating crisps in the older lads’ house next to the gasworks.
I discovered how little of a clue I really had about what raving actually was a few months later when, with my friends Danny and Pete, I took my first blotter trip (a Purple Om, if you care about such things) played some Super Mario World on the SNES as we waited for our brains to start fizzing, then went to the fortnightly Prism club in Oxford. It was the real deal, no question: the UV artwork on every wall a crashing melange of hippie and Illuminati motifs, Keith Haring dancer figures and graffiti characters, lights strobing constantly, and gurning faces and twisted limbs lurching around on every side of us, merging into the acid visuals. I knew enough to vaguely understand certain bits of music as American house, some as techno, and some as what was becoming known as hardcore, but I didn’t recognise a thing specifically bar a “move move move any mountain” here and a reworked ‘Cubik’ riff there. Every cliché I’d read about races and classes coming together in the pursuit of hedonism proved true, there was a jaw-jutting grin and thumbs-up from seemingly anyone whose eye one caught, free ice-pops were handed out, and the audio-visual stimulation just kept coming, never giving the adrenalin and disorientation of that first trip the chance to tip over into panic.
Rather than dance, I spent most of the night barrelling about the place in my tie-dye hoody, frayed denim jacket painted with Orb and De La Soul logos and bloody stupid purple hat, literally bouncing off the walls and almost certainly irritating proper ravers as I tried to take in as much of the experience as possible; at one point I found myself outside a side door through which a few people at a time were being allowed out onto the roof to cool down, and realised that not only did each person who came out have steam rising off them, but a vast column of it was rising from the entire club up into the clear sky. It wasn’t until later that the force of this image struck me — at the time, I just fleetingly thought “cor, brilliant”, and barrelled back in to seek out more noise, heat and movement. I don’t really recall the end of the club, just a continuation of this pinballing motion through crowds until we found ourselves in the living room of some polytechnic students’ flat, the peak psychedelia wearing off and physical weariness setting in. As Pete and Danny bantered in a corner, I zoomed in and zoned out on the tape that was being played, completely captured by the tempo wind-down of Orbital’s ‘Belfast’ and the stentorian “music of our ‘eart is roots music” sample and echolocation bleeps on the Moody Boys’ remix of ‘What Time Is Love’. I realised that electronic music wasn’t just for the dancefloor but could stretch and mutate to fit any circumstance, that sampling and processing meant a good idea was no longer condemned to be repeated forever in one form but could be adapted to any culture’s needs, that this is how music was going to be from now on, that computers could express emotion, that sound itself was as efficient a conduit for information as humanity had… Oh, I had it all worked out. Then I tried to eat a Marathon bar and almost choked to death. Eventually we stumbled back to Danny’s mum’s and I fell asleep on a couple of sofa cushions, glowing rows of icons flickering rhythmically across the inside of my eyelids, a bit uncomfortable and wishing the other boys weren’t in the room so I could have a wank.
All of this should have been prime epiphany material. I should perhaps by rights have hopped on the rave bus and never looked back — thrown out my Pixies albums, got some massive Spliffy jeans and an MA1 jacket, grown a Balearic ponytail and “got on it” every weekend, as indeed did many of my friends — but for some reason I didn’t feel “changed”; I still believed that the whole raving thing was a very marvellous thing, but maybe I lacked the commitment to go the whole hog. My attachment to electronic music certainly grew — I inhaled those early WARP bleep records, Depth Charge, Boys Own, R&S, Rising High, Italian piano bangers, DiY deep house rave tapes, ‘Blue Lines’, Renegade Soundwave, ‘We Are IE’, ‘Sweet Sensation’, ‘Dominator’, ‘Radio Babylon’, got so excited by ‘Higher Than The Sun’ that I sat outside HMV waiting for it to open on the day of release, followed A Guy Called Gerald’s awe-inspiring progression from ‘Voodoo Ray’ into mutant hardcore, became, like so many fanboys, fixated on Andrew Weatherall and Creation Records’ Balearic excursions.
I did microdots and watched rainbows explode out of the top of my mates’ heads to ‘Philly’ by Fluke in the garden of Tim’s mum’s semi in Grove. I skinned up joints of squidgy black and played the Weatherall remix of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ over and over and over again. I sat in the back of Edwin’s van on bathtub speed from the traveller site, grinding my teeth to Ratpack tapes as we sat in a traffic jam — sorry, convoy — looking for a rave on some railway tracks in Eynsham which dissipated as soon as we arrived. I hitch-hiked to Leicester, ate mushrooms and fancied I’d discovered how to dissolve time itself as Weatherall played into the small hours after a Primal Scream show. I tried half a pill at the Brixton Academy with no effect. I became a de facto DJ as fourth and fifth generation copies of my lovingly-compiled tapes of Sweet Exorcist and ambient rarities became the soundtrack of choice to smoking sessions across my hometown. I joined a band and we tried to play “dance versions” of Hendrix songs at micro-festivals up on the Ridgeway. But while my friends ventured increasingly further afield to bigger and wilder raves – to Ektos in Swindon, the Eclipse in Coventry, the Brunel Rooms in Bristol, the Astoria in London, to Fantazia, Helter-Skelter, Telepathy, World Dance, yadda yadda yadda – I found myself too much of a sickly waif (suffering badly from glandular fever and self-pity), too averse to gigantic crowds and too fond of sleep to join them, and on the few occasions I did make it to big events or even back to the Prism, they almost never matched up to the pictures I conjured listening to the music at home, or to the experience of getting wasted in an intimate environment with good friends and good music that we were in control of. I missed my lift to Castlemorton*, and stayed in and sulked. Despite all my attempts to be cutting-edge and free, and despite the thrills I got from the music a big part of me was still a Depeche Mode and Cure fan with propensity for black clothing and misery. I was not, in a word, cool. As the rest of the world got on one and went mental, I felt like I was sitting on a deckchair and watching the boat sail off…
*When, in 2001, I met my future wife, one of the key bonding moments that marked us out as kindred spirits was when she told me of deciding to hitch-hike from South London to Castlemorton in a spangly moment, and getting as far as Birmingham before the drugs from the rave the night before wore off, her contact lenses dried out and she decided she wanted her bed and turned around and went home. The bulk of her journey home was with an ageing Sri Lankan man, who was snacking on dried birds-eye chillis from a box by his gearstick. In her comedown state, she began to hallucinate that they were moving, like maggots.