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Chapter 1 - Acid House
"Art is a medium for change. Music is a remedy when change doesn't happen too quickly." - Artist in Nyanga Township, Capetown.(1)
1.1 - Sun, Sea, Sand and Ecstasy
In 1987 a group of DJs went over to Ibiza Town to experience the dancefloor trends that were beginning over there. These young men would be taken away by the heat and haze of their holiday in which they could lose all their inhibitions because they were abroad and existed in a "hyperreal" state where every day constraints of work and social order did not exist. To avoid their humdrum London doldrums these people were not just escaping the country, they were escaping their whole lives by becoming lost in a hedonistic atmosphere of sun, sea, sand and Ecstasy. It is this hedonistic escape from life into a virtual "non-existence" that would form the basis of a whole section of society wanting to go out clubbing every weekend - losing themselves in the new youth culture movement of Acid House.
When these holiday sick DJs returned from Ibiza they wanted to relive some of the spirit that they had left behind, to recreate "the spell of the dancefloor to effect the disappearing act that had previously been aided by the hyper reality of tourism and Ibiza Town".(2) They imported this hedonistic lifestyle and a style of eclectic dance music into London and their club nights became known as Acid House.
1.2 - Hedonism in Hard Times
So, under what social and political conditions did Acid House come about? What was it in British society that made so many young people want to escape?
"Acid House culture came out of a period of great social instability and transformation, the results of which are only in their infancy".(3) The eighties were a time of great upheaval in Britain. Thatcher was trying to encourage free enterprise in Britain; her vision of a capitalist society was meant so that the individual could thrive - indeed had to thrive or would otherwise fall by the way side.
"The whole raison d'etre of Thatcherism and the political and economic culture was to do it yourself, get off your arse, make some money, get rich quick".(4) It was this political ideal that not only led youngsters to want to escape the system, but also led young entrepreneurs to want to "get rich quick", by whatever means they could, be it through organising raves, making records or selling drugs. So an important aspect of Acid House was that it was not just a youth culture reacting against the social and political background, it was also a product of it.
For the majority of Britain's youth, times were hard. Whether this can be blamed on Thatcher or not, youth were increasingly seen as a source of fear for unemployed, respectable society and a law and order problem for the police.(5) But, whereas previous youth culture movements such as Punk or the hippy movement sought to break down or fight the established order, Acid House culture provided another way of dealing with an oppressive society - an option of temporary escapism.
"Acid House pleasures came not from resistance but from surrender".(6)
"In this case there was a surrender to a complete void of meaning rather than some form of resistance".(7)
A good way to describe this escape from the harsh realities of drab, everyday life into environments of pleasure, dance and drugs is a "hedonism in hard times".(8)
"The spaces which club culture occupied and transformed through Ecstasy and disappearance represent a fantasy of liberation, an escape from identity. A place where nobody is, but everybody belongs".(9)
Acid House music was perfect to enable this escapism as it had no ideals of political opposition: "When one is in opposition, the thing that is opposed is acknowledged. When one escapes instead of opposes, no alternative moral values are proposed at all".(10)
1.3 - Dance Trance
In fact, Acid House provided an opposite of being a political statement because one of the main characteristics of its music is that it is based on the absence of an originary subject.(11) This new generation of clubbers did not want to hear vocals proclaiming the harshness of reality, they wanted to be moved, to become lost, to be absorbed into the realm of pure music which Acid House provided.
The Psychology department at Leeds University performed studies on a group of fifty ravers at an all-night event to find out what their emotional responses to the experience were. "Emotional responses are consequences," says Mitch Waterman, Leeds University's Music Psychologist, "that 'I feel happy when something good happens' - but usually I can say what the good thing is. For these people at the club, the response seems to be without content - it's just good. It's just a massive buzz. They don't want things with a lot of content in; in the sense that they have to think about things and understand in any sort of aware manner. If the music had lyrics the responses would be nothing like those that we found".(12)
This new kind of music "engages the entire sensorium, appealing to the intelligence with no interference from the intellect".(13) This was where Acid House music provided a stark contrast to the music that has been part of Britain's previous youth cultures.
"Acid House consciously wanted to break down the traditional idol worshipping in music which originally came out of the sixties super groups in an attempt to underline the music".(14) And it was the music which absorbed the club goer with its surrounding of the listener into an altered state - an environment where rhythm is the key to abandonment: "The pleasures of loss and abandonment would now be purely signalled by the 'trance dance' as the body would plug into a qualitively different space from that of dance in pop history".(15)
Dance was now the new form of music appreciation, it was the whole reason behind Acid House music, fashion, culture and lifestyle. Dance was the vehicle of escapism from everyday life. Clubbers could lose themselves in a hypnotic state where rhythm is all encompassing; they could lose themselves to the singular movement of the dance floor, "a place where nobody is, but
The appreciation of music purely through dance was new to British youth culture and in turn affected the whole of pop music, not just club culture, as Britain had a new appetite for "danceability" in music, hence the arrival of the "Madchester" scene and groups like The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays, members of which fully admit that their style of music was influenced by Acid House.(17)
1.4 - Psychedelia
Not since the days of psychedelia in sixties California had a youth culture grown up around an appetite for danceability in music when "sexual liberation and the liberating effects of drugs made dancing an increasingly popular form of 'digging' the music".(18)
In fact, these two youth culture movements have many parallels that are worth considering as they show how these cultures came about and why they developed their specific characteristics.
Firstly, it seems that Acid House and Psychedelia came about under similar political atmospheres. In the sixties, the youth were disillusioned with an oppressive government and society that revolved around money. "The political and industrial reformations of the eighties generally echo the socio-political developments that occurred during the psychedelic period of 1965 - 68".(19)
However, the young people of the sixties reacted against the politics of the day in a much more active, oppositional, confrontational way which came out in their music and culture. Although Acid House culture reacted differently to the political order of the day, it can still be seen that these youth cultures were a product of their times. They were both formed by young people reacting to the world that was personal to them.
In fact, this reaction to social background is endemic to the actual perception of what a subculture is: "A subculture is noticed by the public eye because it breaks with established codes".(20)
The main similarity between the two periods is the general repopularisation of psychedelic drugs such as LSD (in the sixties) and Ecstasy (in the eighties).(21) In both eras, drugs played a role in the reaction to social order. LSD was used by young people in the sixties to "expand their minds" - to think and contemplate the self further than the materialistic society did. In the eighties, Ecstasy aided young people in the escape from the everyday realities of Thatcherism. "Both eras were phases of drug induced historical re-assessment".(22)
As drugs were taking an increasingly important role in the lives of young people in Acid House culture, the scene started to "borrow" from psychedelia - or, more specifically, from an idealised, false, stereotypical image of what the sixties were like:
"With the sixties being generally portrayed in a positive light, it is not surprising that the drugs that predominated and helped characterise that decade would be romanticised by those who had not experienced the reality of that lifestyle".(23)
This borrowing from the sixties affected all aspects of Acid House culture. Late sixties fashion made a reappearance with items like bandanas and tie-dye t-shirts becoming popular in Acid House clubs. In Shoom, the club that had most focus on it for being at the birth of Acid House in 1988, "all they could talk about was love, togetherness, sharing, the sheer joy of life".(24)
For the young people involved in this new scene, the nearest comparison they could find to it was the mythology of the hippie era. They adopted a simulacrum of what they believed the sixties were like, minus the radical politics of the era - all viewed through a prism of suburban working class aspirations".(25) This nostalgia for the lifestyle of an era, that probably never existed, viewed through rose tinted spectacles, was another part of the escapism that was endemic to Acid House culture.
As far as the music is concerned, many parallels can be drawn between Acid House and Psychedelia. The main aim of both styles of music is to surround the listener into an altered state. The music was not just meant to be merely heard, it was meant to be experienced, loud, in a club or dance hall environment, with other people. Both kinds of music used technology to create atmospheric, ambient, aural landscapes for the listener to become part of.
The sound that characterised Acid House music was the use of the Roland TB303 Bass-line Generator to produce a "wobbly", electronic sounding bass-line effect. This unique sound was first experimented with by DJ Pierre in Chicago on the pioneering record "Acid Trax" by Phuture.(26) "Acid Houses effect on the senses is quite overbearing. It is an extreme barrage of the senses".(27) This was the same effect that the reverbing and waves of electronic sound that psychedelia had.
"Both eras use state of the art technology to innovate new effects and pioneering new forms of music through exploration and improvisation".(28)
1.5 - Technology
However, with Acid House, the music is self consciously based on technology. Acid House music "was dominated by what machines were good at - repeating rhythmic patterns that could go on and on."(29) It shows no shame in the reliance, indeed the inseparable, out and out dependence on technology.
"Music was facing up to the very latest equipment and basing itself solely on those terms".(30) This can be seen in the context of Acid House's general acceptance rather than opposition of all things new. Similar to its acceptance and attempt to live with the prevailing social order, this youth culture was accepting and exploiting technology, making it a basis for the culture rather than dismissing it.
This use of technology had further implications because it meant that the users of these new electronic music devices did not have to have a deep knowledge of music before they could produce a record. The production of music was taken away from the advantaged few and given to the working class youth who could cope with this new technology, thus opening up music to a different class of people. It was taking any prejudice away from the music scene; now, all races, sexes and social classes were able to put their influences into the musical arena. This was real equality in music and the whole culture would grow as a result of this cross-race hybridisation of styles, an eclecticism brought about by Britain's multifarious youth, providing a true portrayal and expression of society without the use of an originary subject.
The eclecticism within Acid House music was further aided by the integration of the sampler into dance music. Now, these musicians could sample excerpts from any musical era and incorporate them into their records. With such varying race, culture and background to the young people who were becoming involved with dance music in Britain, the spectrum of music that was borrowed from was wide. The input into dance music came from greatly varied sources.
So, technology was being used to its full extent. Musicians were innovating with technology and pushing their music to new extremes. Acid House "is the first totally technological form of popular music; as frightening as this concept may seem to some, it is positively inspirational to others in that it has a greater and greater possibility to develop and express the spirit of individualism and individual freedom: access to tools and information creates new and wider possibilities for individual expression".(31)
1.6 - Ecstasy
"Musical development was prompted by a realisation of the benefits of modern technology and also by the use of drugs".(32) As in the sixties, drugs were an integral part of the culture. But what made Ecstasy the particular drug of a culture's choice in the late eighties?
Ecstasy, developed as a popular drug in the US, made it over to Britain in 1985.(33) It had a distribution ring in Ibiza and was part of the culture that those first DJs, who were on holiday in 1987, sampled and brought back to Britain.
"Ecstasy works on the neuro transmitters - chemicals in the brain like serotonin that affect pleasure".(34)
"It has been called an 'empathogen'. Empathy is the sensation of experiencing someone else's feelings as your own".(35)
"It kind of melts defences; there is a lot of empathy, an ability to see something negative and understand it in a more compassionate way, basically to become more loving".(36)
This new drug became popular because people saw it as a "soft drug"; no one really knew the dangers of it (and still don't). It was simply seen as a new "wonder drug" that it wouldn't hurt experimenting with. The effects of Ecstasy were perfectly aligned to what young people wanted in the light of their social situation and it also matched the aims of Acid House music and culture: "Ecstasy was obviously a suitable social drug as it broke down inhibition and conscious defences".(37)
Ecstasy enhanced the overall feeling of the Acid House club by aiding dancing, amplifying the visuals, the lights and backdrops, clarifying the effect of the music and producing a feeling of empathy with the other people at the rave - all aiding in the disappearance, the absorption of the individual into the crowd. Ecstasy was the perfect drug to enable "hedonism in hard times" and it is inseparable with Acid House culture; they came about together, the one is at once a fuel and a product of the other.
1.7 - Grins
This breaking down of inhibitions that Ecstacy brought led to a newly found appetite for sociability in the club atmosphere: "That whole culture of leaning against the bar, trying to look cool; suddenly those people looked like they were ninety years old. Suddenly people were wearing bright colours, huge grins and hugging each other."(38)
British club culture had never experienced anything like this before. "Ecstacy had opened some kind of psychic trap-door, and all manner of bizarre phenomena were streaming out; Many treated Shoom like a kiddies party, giving each other presents, little trinkets like Smiley badges or clip-on hearts, anything cute; and everyone seemed to be carrying some crazy accessory, a crystal ball that they'd hold under the lights, or a fan to waft cool air - all freaking on a communal groove, locked together in harmonic convergence - together as one, like nothing else mattered in the world."(39) This sociability and silliness, partly prompted by Ecstasy, was another hedonistic expression of escapism. People were throwing off their everyday suits and reverting to more simplistic, carefree, playful pleasures.
1.8 - Sex in Hard Times
Another reason why young people were choosing Ecstasy in the club environment was another expression of "hedonism in hard times". The eighties saw the beginnings of the health scare and mass paranoia about the sexually transmitted disease, AIDS. As a result, days of sexual promiscuity were abruptly brought to an end and now, young people needed an alternative. The answer was found in Acid House culture: "By recognising the dangers of irresponsible sexual promiscuity (in an AIDS context), Acid House presented dancing as a deterrent from the AIDS threat (with the help of Ecstasy as a dance inducing drug) and a way of rejecting the dated notions of the disco as a 'meat market'."(40)
This aspect of Acid House culture can be seen as breaking down even more barriers - this time that of Sex. In the Acid House club, thanks to the dance inducing environment, everyone was truly equal. This affected all aspects of Acid House culture: fashion was no longer strictly divided between the sexes. Women no longer had to wear high heels and skirts - comfort and durability were the order of the day so as not to restrict the body in its dancing. Sex was just another everyday constriction that could be escaped from, that could be merged into the dancefloor crowd.
Leeds University's psychology study on ravers reinforces this idea. In their study at an all-night event, "reports of feeling sexual were low throughout the night. They stayed at a quarter of the level of positive feelings."(41)
1.9 - Cultural Crossroads
All this breaking down of barriers that came from Acid House and Ecstasy culture served in uniting Britain's disparate youth groups who had fragmented in the aftermath of seventies punk.(42)
Britain's youth's wide and varied cultural background could find no unifying feature between themselves, until Acid House provided an alternative. Youth "was now beginning to reunite in the light of some severe socio-political developments. It was the spectre of wide spread youth unemployment, unsuccessful youth training schemes, outdated licensing laws, dilapidated health services and the North and South wealth divide, that resulted in uniform political opinion within youth culture".(43)
It was all of Britain's youth that felt oppressed by Thatcherism and the social order. The escapism from prejudice and relaxed attitudes within Acid House culture were the perfect release for all these youth minorities and subcultures: "Raves became a crossroads where unlikely subcultures (football, Indie and traveller amongst others) would meet. Ecstasy was undoubtedly the catalyst of this coming together".(44)
Another valid theory that connects the uniting of ethnic minority youth groups with Ecstasy and music in an expression of "hedonism in hard times" is outlined in this quote concerning jazz music:
"In the black experience art and heroin are ways of escaping white society. But the road which leads young whites towards jazz and towards heroin, is always one of the desire to join a black society seen as a negation of the principles of white society".(45) This can be updated to Acid House culture, translating as black and white youth escaping the principles of a predominately white political and social order through the use of drugs (Ecstasy) and the black music of Acid House.
This uniting of races and cultures brought a very wide array of influences into Acid House culture; raves became true "cultural melting pots" and this brought a high level of eclecticism into all aspects of Acid House music, culture and style.
1.10 - Everything begins with an E
Towards the end of 1988 the tabloid media had got hold of a sensationalist angle on Acid House culture and headlines like "BAN THIS KILLER MUSIC" and "ACID FIENDS SPIKE PAGE THREE GIRL'S DRINK" appeared across newspaper front pages.(46)
"Like Flower Power the original scene had been discovered and undermined by outside interests and with that scale of interference from the media hype - and the police crack down that followed - it was inevitable that Acid House would peter out".(47) The Acid House scene had lost its exclusivity to those "in the know" about its delights and so lost its original magic.
However, the above interpretation of Acid House is taken from one year of a youth culture, from its very beginnings to the end of its first wave - for some. "The tabloid hysteria against Acid House in late 1988 dispersed the Acid House style but not the spirit".(48) Acid House was just the start of this ever increasing, mutating youth culture that based itself on the pleasures of dance, music and Ecstasy. The first off-shoot from this era was the "rave" and it was a direct continuation of the Acid House vibe.
"The recurring story within Ecstasy culture was of people coming into the scene, being inspired by the revelatory flash of the primal Ecstasy experience, then becoming involved and altering the direction of the scene itself by applying their own personal frame of reference to their experience".(49)
As new generations of young people found their escapism from hard times in the release and broken down social order of dance culture and brought their multicultural influences with them, the scene would grow and change, splinter and evolve into the many manifestations that are prevalent today. These separate scenes within dance music culture would take on new names and would continually, rapidly grow and innovate through the visionary freedom and inspiration of the young people who became involved. All of these new forms of music and culture would have the same young attitude, counter cultural air and anti-establishment ideals that had been paved by Acid House. "It had set the scene up, it had set the youth culture up as it is now".(50)
"Although many people would argue that the passion and the fashion for Acid House no longer exists, dance music and club life still plays an increasingly prominent part in the lifestyles and tastes of today's youth in Britain".(51)
May 1999, one week before the dissertation deadline, and The Face magazine reports on The Basement Jaxx, a dance music production duo who are set to be the next big thing. A duo who have called their album "Remedy" - "because that's what they feel it can be: a remedy for the poisons of the world.(52) Their London club had an atmosphere of "delirium" and their DJ style prescribed to a manic eclecticism. All elements that seem to be a direct comparison of Acid House.
1. Quote from personal archive of Miss H. Dargan, 1999
2. Antonio Melechi, "The Ecstasy of Disappearance", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.33
3. Kristian Russell, "Lysergia Suburbia", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.102
4. Nathan McGough (manager of the Stone Roses), quoted in Kristian Russell, "Lysergia Suburbia", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.130
5. Steve Redhead, "The End of the End-of-the-century Party", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.4
6. Antonio Melechi, "The Ecstasy of Disappearance", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.37
7. Hillegonda Rietveld, "Living the Dream", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.65
8. Steve Redhead, "The End of the End-of-the-century Party", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.4
9. Antonio Melechi, "The Ecstasy of Disappearance", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.37
10. Hillegonda Rietveld, "Living the Dream", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.66
11. Antonio Melechi, 'The Ecstasy of Disappearance', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.34.
12. "Rave New World", Equinox, Channel 4, 1994.
13. Kristian Russell, "Lysergia Suburbia", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.97.
14. Kristian Russell, "Lysergia Suburbia", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.128.
15. Antonio Melechi, "The Ecstasy of Disappearance", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.33.
16. Antonio Melechi, "The Ecstasy of Disappearance", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.37.
17. Kristian Russell, "Lysergia Suburbia", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.133.
18. Kristian Russell, "Lysergia Suburbia", Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.97
19. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.99
20. Hillegonda Rietveld, 'Living the Dream', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.52
21. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.95
22. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.102
23. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.95
24. Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, p.60
25. Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, p.60
26. Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, pp.21-22
27. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.124
28. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.91
29. 'Rave New World', Equinox, Channel 4, 1994
30. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.124
31. Peter Rubin, Localizer 1.0, Chromapark EV, 1995, p.FEA/1.17
32. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.124
33. Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, p.43
34. Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, p.28
35. Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, p.28
36. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.120
37. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.120
38. Sherryl Garrat, Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, pp.75-76
39. Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, pp.61-62
40. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.97
41. 'Rave New World', Equinox, Channel 4, 1994
42. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.126
43. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.127
44. Antonio Melechi, 'The Ecstasy of Disappearance', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.36
45. Patrick Mignon, 'Drugs and Popular Music: The Democratisation of Bohemia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, pp.182-183
46. Hillegonda Rietveld, 'Living the Dream', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.46
47. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.130
48. Kristian Russell, 'Lysergia Suburbia', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.127
49. Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, p.4
50. Matthew Colin, Altered State, Serpents Tail, 1998, p.77
51. Steve Redhead, 'The Politics of Ecstacy', Rave Off, Avebury, 1993, p.9
52. Sylvia Patterson, The Face, May 1999, p95
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revised 24 September 2008