The Trip, 1988
Acid house was Britain’s biggest youth revolution since the 60s, and its legacy has changed the country’s cultural landscape forever. A quarter of a century on, its impact can be felt in everything from fashion to film, to interior design. It redefined our notion of a night out. It even changed the law of the land. Talking to the protagonists for a new book on those halcyon days, many talked about how revolutionary acid house felt when it first exploded in the UK – but many also talked about how quickly something that felt so ground-breaking became commercialised.
The roots of the revolution had been laid since the early 80s, but when it really began to talk hold in late 1987, it took little more than six months for the scene to go from a few pockets of clued-up clubbers, to a nationwide explosion. Warehouse parties were holding 20,000 ravers by the summer of 1988. For a while, the weak became heroes, and everybody felt love. Every generation is desperate for something to call their own – something their parents don’t understand – but was is inevitable that the early euphoric scene would get dragged into the mainstream?
It’s hard to recall just how desperate nightclubs often were in Britain before acid house. With the odd dutiful exception, they were places where people went to get drunk, and nights ended in either fighting or fucking. The music wasn’t even secondary. But the combination of acid house and ecstasy turned many of the country’s nightclubs back into what they were suppose to be – places to dance.
Paul Oakenfold, Lisa Lashes, Ian St. John and friends, at Shoom, 1988.
Ecstasy also changed what people looked like. “It’s quite endearing looking back,” explains Haçienda DJ and author Dave Haslam, “but no one knew how to dress. People were thinking, ‘Do we wear shoes or trainers with this music? Do I wear a T-shirt?’ In early 1988, there were still people coming to the Haçienda in suits with shoulder pads, then all of a sudden they were in dungarees.”
Initially, acid house was the perfect storm of a new drug, a new music and new technology: the collision of which created a scene which was far more egalitarian than most other youth and musical movements. Strangers and soul mates, black and white, straights and gays, north and south, football hooligans and doctors, students and scallies – whatever your background an acid house party was a huge leveller, and that has just as much lasting effect on some as the new music, or drugs.
Not only was it a completely different experience for those on the dance floor, it was for the DJs too. “When you DJ you’re mostly faced with a crowd waiting to be entertained, and it’s your challenge to whip them up into a frenzy,” explains Haslam, “but that early acid house era was different. You were faced with 2,000 baying people on the verge of such euphoria their heads were almost exploding. You almost felt like you had to hold them back a bit, like trying to guide wild horses.”
The DJs became stars over night. Fiona Allen, who went on to be the writer and star of the comedy sketch show Smack The Pony, worked on the door at the Haçienda and saw this transformation happen almost overnight. “It was funny how the DJs became gods to people so quickly,” she remember. “Literally, people started treating them like absolute gods for playing records. I suppose part of it was because there were only a few of them back then that were any good.”
The Trip, 1988
In London, pioneering DJs like Maurice and Noel Watson at Delirium, Colin Faver and Eddie Evil Richards at Camden Palace, Jay Strongman and Mark Moore at Heaven and Dave Dorrell at RAW were the first to start playing house music, but it was only with the arrival of ecstasy in late 87/early 88 that things began to explode. A new generation of clubs like Danny Rampling’s Shoom, Nicky Holloway’s The Trip and Paul Oakenfold’s Spectrum formed the nucleus of the scene in the capital, along with Manchester’s Hacienda and Sheffield’s Jive Turkey up north, but for a short while it still felt like the best kept secret. “It was so new, and so different to anything you had experienced,” explains Paul Roberts from K-Klass. “You wanted to tell a couple of close friends about it and let them into this secret world, but apart from that you wanted to keep it secret and special.”
With hindsight, most of those early devotees recognise the idealistic naivety of thinking they could keep a lid on what was happening. In May 1988, both i-D and The Face ran features on the emerging scene and as that summer hit, broadsheets and tabloids alike picked up on the parties. “You’re talking about a trajectory of about 12–16 weeks from being something only a handful of people knew about, to being on the front page of The Sun,” explains Cymon Eckel of Boys Own.
“I think we felt the honeymoon period was over. We weren’t trying to protect the emotion or the idea of acid house. We were just trying to protect the great parties for great people. To go, in those short weeks, from an obscure club to a place where Boy George, Patrick Cox and everyone were all clamouring to get in. How the fuck did that happen? Even if you had all the money in the world, you couldn’t build a brand like that today.”
The speed of which acid house exploded over the summer of 1988 took everyone by surprise. At first, it was fuelled by word of mouth. The early devotees in London, Manchester and Sheffield were so evangelical about the scene that they were desperate to share, and so week by week the numbers grew. You started to recognise devotees outside the clubs, on the bus, on the street. You could tell by the way they dressed, their haircuts, the glint in the eye. Groups of friends would be split between those who had experienced their own epiphany, and those who had not yet be converted – but increasingly, the former outweighed the latter.
The tabloid interest just poured fuel on acid house’s bonfire. The established industry had no idea what to make of acid house, and those who couldn’t keep pace with the changing times sounded like dinosaurs. “It’s the closest thing to mass organised zombie-dom,” frowned BBC Radio 1 DJ Peter Powell, the ‘nation’s favourite station’s’ dance-trend arbiter and road show veteran. “I really don’t think it should go any further.”
Powell couldn’t have been more mistaken. In August 1988, an ambitious young promoter called Tony Colston-Hayter hosted a new kind of rave at Wembley Studios, called Apocalypse Now. For some of the more idealistic, early devotees, the name of the event could not have been more apt. With his unabashedly commercial approach, Colston-Hayter was polluting something pure. The fact that national TV news crews were being allowed in to film what had until recently been a closely guarded secret only further served to polarise opinion. Others were more pragmatic, and saw it as an inevitable development.
“When acid house first started it was completely unthinkable it would appear on the front pages of the tabloids or national TV news,” says Richard Norris of The Grid, the first acid house star to make the cover of the NME. “because for a few months it was only about 200 people. But as it began to explode, it was inevitable. The media’s reaction was almost textbook.”
Queuing for The Trip, 1988
From mid-October to mid-November, the national mood regarding acid house irrevocably changed. Stories appearing in the national press that month included: ‘Evil Of Ecstasy’ (19 October, The Sun)
‘Ban This Killer Music’ (24 October, The Post)
‘Acid House Horror’ (25 October, The Sun)
‘Drug Crazed Acid House Fans’ (28 October, The Sun)
‘Girl Drops Dead At Acid Disco (31 October, The Sun)
‘56 People Held In Acid House Raids’ (7 November, The Times). To the authorities, media and general public, acid house ravers were now a classic case of a “deviant group”.
As the authorities and public began to feel threatened, its appeal to the young and disenfranchised intensified. A generation that had been told by their Prime Minister that there “is no such thing as society” were attracted by a movement that felt genuinely counter-cultural. At the same time, the rave organisers were becoming increasingly ingenious in their ways to evade the authorities. Locations were kept secret until the last possible moment, and information then given out via recorded messages on answer phones. There was no internet at the time and only a handful of people had access to mobile phones, but organisers still managed to assemble 10,000 people or more in fields and warehouses, all under the radar of the police. For many, the counter-cultural feel of those early raves began to feel more exciting than the drugs, or even the music.
After the police set up the Pay Party Unit, dedicated to clamping down on the parties, a movement that had been pro-hedonism rather than anti-authority had became political by default. As the ravers fought back, putting on or even just attending a rave became a game of cat and mouse with the police.
“I think most youth cults are like that,” argues Andrew Weatherall, “a bit symbiotic and mutually parasitic, because the people involved in the youth cult earn kudos and money by doing something dangerous and attractive to teenagers, and on the other side, the MPs or the councillors gain political kudos by getting on their moral soapbox. They feed off each other, and that’s been happening since the Teddy Boys in the Fifties, it happened with punk rock – any youth movement you come to mention. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both sides profit from it.”
Colston-Hayter was unrepentent. Now dubbed “Acid’s Mr Big” by the press, and a hugely divisive figure on the scene, he and his entourage would sometimes head straight to The Ritz hotel after one of his all-night events, splashing thousands of the takings on champagne breakfasts. In contrast to the idealistic “one love” sentiments of the early acid house converts, Colston-Hayter bullishly declared: “Maggie should be proud of us: we’re a product of enterprise culture”.
Following the commercial success of Apocalypse Now, a new wave of huge, often outdoor raves – including Sunrise, Biology, Genesis – appeared, including those around the new M25 London orbital motorway, from which the band Orbital took their name. Yet for some, it was beginning to feel less revolutionary. More sanitised. This dilution was partly down to numbers. With the huge influx of new ravers, the euphoric revolutionary feel of the early evangelists was dissipating. Jarvis Cocker went to his first large scale rave around this time, and later summed up his interpretation of the mood in ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’: “Oh, is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel? Or just 20,000 people standing in a field.”
By late 1989, the government decided to bring in the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, pushed through by Graham Bright MP and purely targeting acid house parties. Colston-Hayter and Staines attempted to pull together a group of promoters to fight the bill and organised a Freedom To Party rally in Trafalgar Square but to many, the protest felt futile. The original spirit had already been lost.
The mood in clubs also changed. As drug use moved from ecstasy to cocaine, violence replaced the free spirit and stabbings replaced hugs. Whilst the gangs smelled money the industry smelled big business, and began to build a new generation of “super clubs”, like Cream and Ministry of Sound. Acid house had become part of the nation’s psyche. While Thatcher’s government had done everything to clamp down on acid house, by the mid 90s, Tony Blair’s New Labour party used the D:Rream rave anthem as their victory song. Even the Royal Mail used the drug parlance “get sorted” in an ad campaign to encourage people to post more letters. By the end of the 90s, Mixmag declared that “Raving is as English as fish ’n’ chips”.
When any youth culture is commercialised and adopted by the mainstream, its loss is mourned by the early adoptees. The tunnel-eyed, ageing drug dealer in Withnail and I moans, “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over…” Just as many acid house innovators lamented when property developers turned their beloved Haçienda into luxury flats, and advertised them with the slogan “Now the party’s over, you can come home”.
Paul Oakenfold, one of the earliest acid house converts in the UK, started in a small, scruffy venue on Streatham High Street before graduating to touring with U2 and Madonna. He now has a residency in Las Vegas, which in previous times would have gone to Elton John or Dolly Parton. Says it all.
All images courtesy of David Swindells/PYMCA